Our time at Wembury BioBlitz 2019

A local primary school braves the wind on Wembury beach!

As I walked across the Wembury beach car park something caught my eye, a small brown leaf blustered and bumped across the tarmac, battered by the fierce wind. As I focused, I realised it wasn’t a leaf, it was a butterfly! I caught up with the little insect that had temporarily come to halt, and I saw that it was a somewhat ragged looking small copper. Soon it was caught by the wind again and somersaulted unceremoniously onward across the car park.

Minutes later I found myself at the data collection point at Wembury Marine Centre.
“Have you got small copper butterfly yet?”, I asked.
“Not yet”, came the reply “Not many butterflies have been found in this weather!”
The butterfly was faithfully noted down, just like all species would be over the next 48hrs. For this was Wembury BioBlitz 2019.

You may recall that a BioBlitz is a coming together of professionals and a whole host of other interested parties, from school groups to amateur naturalists. The goal is to engage in a period of intense biological survey in order to record as many species that exist within a particular location as possible. As advertised by Emily Price and her interview with Nicholas Helm in a recent NHBS blog, the Wembury Bioblitz 2019 took place on September 27th and 28th and NHBS had been invited to attend.

This was the 10th Anniversary of the first Wembury BioBlitz and also the 25th Anniversary of the Wembury Marine Centre. An extra special occasion for the partnership of organisations that came together to organise the event especially the Devon Wildlife Trust, Marine Biological Association and the National Trust.

Wembury boasts a spectacular stretch of South Devon coastline which is renowned for supporting a rich diversity of wildlife and as such is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and a Voluntary Marine Conservation Area, so it is an great place for a Bioblitz!

On the morning of Friday 27th September the BioBlitz began and a host of organisers, volunteers and stall holders gathered to start the day’s proceedings, the BBC were there too, filming for Countryfile (the story goes out on October 13th). The weather did not look promising with driving rain and an unrepentant wind threatening to lower everyone’s spirits. However,  everyone pressed on unperturbed with great enthusiasm and as the first eager local primary school groups arrived the day was up and running!

Our beautiful stall

NHBS was there to set up a stall of useful equipment and books such as invaluable field and FSC guides which, like the other stalls, was soon inundated with excited school children. They were particularly impressed with our loan out of hand lenses which were immediately to put to good use! Others gathered around tables that gave the opportunity to peer down microscopes at a range of marine organisms or handle a whale’s rib or a dolphin’s skull!

The BioBlitz included a series of surveys across the key habitats that the Wembury locale offers including, of course; the rocky and sandy parts of the shore, but also ancient woodland, a stream, meadow, the coastal path and cliffs and parkland. Experts led parties out into the blustery conditions to scrutinise these zones and gather as much data as they could.

Hattie using a Video Endoscope to explore a rockpool

Down on the beach, my colleague Hattie had fun with a nice little gadget called a Video Endoscope to take pictures of rock pool life.

Back in the base camp Marquee, we soon discovered that we could contribute to the data collection ourselves as a host of crane flies, rove beetles, pill lice, spiders and earwigs began to explore the stall! News of rock pool discoveries reached us too, including brittle and cushion stars, snake locks anemones, gobies and five bearded rocklings!

By mid-afternoon the school groups had departed and it was time to pack up for the day, although for some there were many more hours of computer data entry and even nocturnal surveys ahead.

A snakelocks anemone and coraline algae found in a rockpool (image taken with Video Endoscope).

The following day the weather conditions initially seemed to have calmed and even the sun made an appearance! We were ready for Day 2. During the night, moth and bat surveys had taken place to boost the figures, but word came through that the overnight species count was a somewhat lowly 120 and a big push was needed if the target of 1000 species was to be achieved. With no school parties around to help this time, this was a day for families to get involved and once again the surveys commenced.
By 3.30 that afternoon, just as the weather vehemently turned for the worse again, it was time to call a halt to the BioBlitz and everyone began to gather for prize giving, species total announcements and chocolate cake in the shelter of the Marine Centre.
At the time of writing this blog, 840 species made the list for the 10th Anniversary BioBlitz a figure which is comparable to the number of species found in 2009.

Taking part in a BioBlitz is a fantastic way to engage in citizen science. They are great fun but are also a brilliant way to collect important data that can be used to gauge how our local biodiversity is coping with all kinds of environmental pressure including climate change and habitat loss. If you get the chance to get involved in one, I urge that you do so ……. and just ignore the weather!

Edit: We’ve received some highlight findings from the events organisers:

  • 2x Giant Gobies were found during the night time rockpool safari
  • Many sightings of a bird called the Cirl Bunting, a once rare species that is now on the up near Wembury!
  • Gannets were seen diving off the Mewstone.
  • The St. Pirrans Crab was found; Wembury is the only UK location outside of Cornwall where they’ve been found!
  • Conger Eel were found during the diving surveys

Author Interview: Caleb Compton

Caleb Compton, the creator of the hugely popular @StrangeAnimals on Twitter has recently released A Book of Rather Strange Animals – a collection of one hundred remarkable animal specimens from around the world. We recently asked Caleb some questions to learn more about his inspiration about this project and more. Caleb’s book has also been featured on the 2019 Summer Recess Reading List for Parliamentarians.

  1. Tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in the weird and wonderful?

My interest in the natural world started from a young age. As a child, I used to read books about unusual animals and watched a lot of nature documentaries (my favourites were those narrated by Sir David Attenborough). I started researching strange lesser-known animals after I finished school, and had the idea of creating a Twitter account to showcase these fascinating species. So I set up the @StrangeAnimaIs Twitter account in 2013, where I posted facts and pictures of these obscure creatures, pointing out any conservation issues associated with them. I started my biosciences degree the same year, at the University of Exeter, and specialised in animal biology in my final year. My modules included marine biology, ecology and animal psychology, and my dissertation title was based on the decline of pollinators and the government’s response to this ecological crisis. I was fascinated learning about these topics and it grew my passion for the subject.

  1. Your book is full of very different animals – how do you come across such an eclectic group of animals?

I originally started the research for my book back in 2013, when I first created my Twitter account. Over the years, I have discovered many animal facts and pictures, which I post on @StrangeAnimaIs. When I started planning my book, I went through all my previous tweets and picked out what I thought were the weirdest animals. I wanted a range of species in the book, including an even mix of amphibians, fish, birds, reptiles, mammals and arthropods. After making a list of all the species I wanted to write about, I set about finding as much information as I could on each animal, trawling through websites, books and scientific papers. Using the reference material, I compiled notes on these animals and then typed them up in the format of my book.

Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec by Steve Priest
  1. What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?

My biggest challenge was staying focused whilst writing. About halfway through the book, I was struggling to carry on and lost my motivation. By this point, I had been writing in my free time for almost four months and it was getting too much, and I didn’t have much time to myself. I decided to take a break, and didn’t do any writing for a few months. That was what I needed and when I went back to it later, I was a lot more motivated, and managed to finish the rest of the book over the next couple of months.

  1. Many of the oddities that depict a strange animal are useful adaptations, what is your most memorable of these adaptations?

There are quite a few animals in the book that have some really fascinating adaptations. My three favourites are probably the Suriname toad, aye-aye and the isopod Cymothoa exigua.

The Suriname Toad is a unique amphibian from South America, which has developed a rather interesting method for raising its young. After mating, the male implants the fertilised eggs into the female’s back, where they settle into pockets. Skin grows over the eggs, keeping them safe until they hatch weeks later as fully formed frogs.

The Aye-aye is an endangered primate from the island of Madagascar. They have an incredible adaptation for finding food, where they tap their elongated middle finger on branches and listen out for the vibrations. When they detect a grub, they will bite a hole in the bark with their rodent-like teeth, and insert their finger to skewer the grub. This foraging method is called percussive foraging and it’s extremely rare in mammals.

The parasitic isopod Cymothoa exigua has a horrifying lifecycle, where they enter the gills of fish as males. Here, one of them will develop into a female, and travel through the fish into its mouth. Then the isopod causes the fish’s tongue to atrophy and fall off, and then attaches itself to the newly formed stump. From now on, the isopod acts as the fish’s tongue (it’s the only known parasite to completely replace a host’s organ), grinding up food for its host and feeding on scraps of food.

Bush Dog by Steve Priest
  1. Your Twitter feed is full of great information, do you have any advice for anyone wanting to start up a successful twitter profile?

I would say the best way to grow an account on Twitter is to come up with a good theme for the account and then post regular content that fits in with that theme. Go for something that you are passionate about, because if you’re not interested in it, then others won’t be either. Interacting with followers and similar accounts is also a great way to increase engagement. Another piece of advice I would give is to stick with it, even if the audience growth is slow! My account had just 200 followers for a good part of a year, but I kept going and eventually this audience grew to over 40,000. Combined with my other accounts @NatureIsWeird and @Extinct_AnimaIs, I now have a combined reach of 200,000 people.

  1. Do you have any future projects or aspirations?

I have actually just started writing my next book, which is going to be about lesser-known extinct animals. This is going to be based on my other Twitter account, called @Extinct_AnimaIs and will feature a range of obscure animals (not just dinosaurs) that once roamed the earth. There are so many bizarre creatures, it’s actually hard to believe that some of them actually existed. After doing some research into extinct species for my Twitter account, I have become fascinated by them and I would love to share this with people. I think this is a perfect time to get another book out there, after the success of A Book of Rather Strange Animals.

I am also looking at getting into a career in conservation, and hope to secure a role in this area soon.

A Book of Rather Strange Animals: Highlighting the Wonders of Evolution and the Extraordinary Diversity of Life

With fascinating descriptions of nasty feeding habits, bizarre mating rituals and shocking defence mechanisms, you will marvel at both the splendour and gruesomeness of nature.

£12.99

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