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Nature Notes - September 2017

Nature Notes

The coast of Sussex with the calm waters of summer is a hive of animal activity.  Shoals of fish such as herring, mackerel, sea bass, whiting and cod will be streaming up the channel.  In turn these fish will be followed by numerous cormorants and gannets, also sandwich, common and little terns.  Other avian predators include herring, lesser black-backed, black-headed and other gulls.  All these birds will join the seals in hunting the fishy bonanza, many of them will be feeding nestlings and teaching fledglings how to feed themselves.  It is fascinating to watch the gannets plunging into the sea at maybe 20 mph with a splosh as they grab a fish just below the surface.  Binoculars or a telescope are needed to watch this usually, but recently I have been able to see this with my naked eye from Bexhill beach.  The seals, usually only one or two at a time, just loaf about in the calm water often with just their heads showing above the water surface in the sun-shine.

Meanwhile, on the shore, dozens of turnstones turn stones and seaweed over to find little crustaceans beneath which they catch and eat, enjoying them as much as a human with a pint of shrimps or prawns.  These little wading birds are so well camouflaged in their brown, black and white plumage that they blend into their surroundings, unseen until they move.  They are amazingly tolerant of humans passing by.  Herring gull fledglings have been making their maiden flights from nests high on the roofs of coastal buildings, screaming as they do so and their parents and other adults nearby excitedly encourage them with a further cacophony of calls.

A walk along the beach may reveal plants growing out of the flint shingle.  Those that do grow in this salty and exposed habitat are called halophytes or salt-loving plants.  In truth, these plants are simply the few that are salt-tolerant, because salt will kill most common plants.  The plants of the shingle beach include sea-kale, sea beet, yellow-horned poppy and rock samphire.  These plants often support insects and produce seeds that are attractive to birds.  Yesterday I saw a migrating wheatear perched on a sea kale plant, probably looking for insects.  The bird was getting ready to fly across the channel and on to Africa for the winter.  Linnets were also looking for whatever they can find among the plants.

Dr. Martyn Stenning