27 Mar 2015

The April Dalesman is out now.

My take on the world wide interest in Runswick's seaweed reproduction, why St Hilda beats St Patrick in the snake-slaying stakes and Runswick's stalled Marine Conservation Zone status. There is much else to enjoy too; Unearthing Yorkshire's Roman past, poet Ian McMillan, Walking with Dalesman at Malton, Diary of a Yorkshire Farmer's Wife and lots more besides.

What, are you still here? Get off down the newsagents at once. It's the best £2.90 you'll spend. Unless you're buying ham.

22 Mar 2015

High spring tide (6.1m), syzygy and a north wind. And black headed gulls.

People sitting in city newsrooms have variously called this a 'supertide' and suggested it may be the end of the world due to the sun and planets' alignment. The anglers on the sea wall beyond Coastguard Cottage are probably locals and while wet and cold are not stupid; they will have fished this coast in worse conditions.

The Bay yesterday. It was grandiose. This wide-angle pic doesn't remotely capture the heaving, wind-torn waves that roared into the Bay at high tide. I would have liked a better photographer than I around to capture this stuff.

The black headed gulls played chicken with the enormous waves, sitting quite calm while a cataract of roaring grey and white water bore down on them:

They took off for a second of two to let the wave break below them, then dropped tidily into the boiling maelstrom for another few seconds of absurd calm before the next wave dared to disturb.

I'll pop down to the beach in the morning to check the world didn't end and it's all still there. I'll let you know.

20 Mar 2015

The Bay today; solar eclipse, spring equinox, spring tide. And lugworms.

A treble of good things; spring equinox, a low spring tide and a partial solar eclipse.

9.25, what was left of the sun glittering on the receding tide.

 Despite not having the right photographic kit, I managed to get a passable shot of Sol and Selene.

For some it was a low tide and a chance to dig out lugworms (Arenicola marina) for bait. Possibly lugworms dug at the dark of the eclipse on spring equinox have special fish-bewitching powers.

19 Mar 2015

A quick beach trip on a sunny day and meeting a ribbon worm.

Finally, blue skies. I should have been doing other things, but it seemed wrong not to steal a few minutes on the beach.

A quick scurry along the rocks past Coastguard Cottage and saw a belemnite guard flanked by two pyritized, exploded...things. Early jurassic, may just be geological artefacts like my cone-in-cone mistake. If anyone has any ideas, let me know:

I turned over a rock in a rockpool. Introducing several Lineus ruber, ribbon worms here lurking in sandy seaweed. Part of the phylum Nemertea they (mostly) catch small prey by everting a poison spined proboscis, seizing, subduing and sucking in prey items. Some smaller ones filterfeed and others live symbiotically in the mantles of shellfish. These were just a few centimetres long, but one specimen belonging to the Nemertea has been estimated at 54 metres (150+ feet) long (Ruppert, E.E., Fox, R.S., and Barnes, R.D. (2004). "Nemertea". Invertebrate Zoology (7 ed.). Brooks / Cole. pp. 271–274. ISBN 0-03-025982-7. in case you're having trouble believing that. And yes, that would make it the longest creature known to have lived. With a poisonous, spiny, shooting out nose.)

The knotted wrack (Ascophyllum nodosum) swirled on the rising tide. The Bay was misty; some industrial murk as been kindly shared by our European neighbours and the easterly wind is blowing it across the North Sea.
I picked up a dozen or so ammonites and a few belemnites. There was an outdoor education class on the beach that had suffered a fossil-light day so I gave all my specimens but one away.

18 Mar 2015

Washed up Ray's bream (repost from 2010).

Thanks to Mike Sewell for the word that this is a Ray's Bream (Brama brama). Reports of other Ray's Bream strandings at here at glaucus.org.uk.

Don't forget our other exotic piscene find: the Runswick Bay Ratfish (Chimaera monstrosa).

14 Mar 2015

Jet: a lump and a seam in jetrock.

Lots of people come to Runswick looking for jet; fossilized monkey puzzle trees that have become a hard, black, easily carved and polished semi-precious stone. Here it is in two natural guises, both found by the ten year old Number One Field Assistant:
To the left, a simple lump of jet. It's probably been rolling around the beach for a while. To the right, a rarity; a piece of hard jetrock with a thin seam of jet in it.

There are lots of pieces of promising black jetlike rocks on the beach, here's how to test if it's jet or not; jet feels warmer and less clammy to the touch than shales. Next pick up a piece of sandstone and scratch your suspected piece of jet along it.

Black mark; it's coal, chuck it.

White mark; some imposter rock or other, not jet, chuck it.

Dark brown mark; low-grade jet. Keep for interest or to give away as a present.

Light brown mark: high quality jet. Keep it.

More in depth stuff about Whitby (and district) jet at the splendid Yorkshire Coast Fossils.

13 Mar 2015

Spring and neap high tides...

The recent spring high tide. Spring tides don't just happen in spring, they confusingly occur twice a month throughout summer, autumn and winter too.

And here's a neap high tide from a sunny January:

So a spring tide means high high tides and low low tides. Neap tides give you low high tides and high low tides. Got that? The comparison of Spring and Neap low tides is here.

Other factors can affect the final height of a high or low tide; if the wind is blowing onshore it can drive more water ashore and raise the tide level. Atmospheric pressure can affect the tides too; high pressure crushes the tide bump down, low atmospheric pressure allows the sea surface to rise, so pressure can increase or decrease the tidal height by as much as 30 cm.

12 Mar 2015

Kettleness in the snow (repost from 2010).

It was charming for a day and a pain in the teeth for the rest of the time. (Update 2015: no we haven't had a cold snap, this was originally from January 2010. I'm recycling old posts as I recover their images from backup CDs and scraps of vellum. It was 2010. The dark ages of digital imaging.)

7 Mar 2015

The spring Bay today.

It was the first day that felt like spring. The sky was blue, the wind (despite being a near gale) was warm. Runswick Bay looked like this:

It's spring tide-time. I'd intended to do a serious post comparing neap and spring high tides but a pretty (and actually quite sci-fi) cloud over Kettleness caught my attention:

Then a bunch of black-headed gulls started mobbing something; probably a shoal of small fish that had come inshore on the spring tide:

That attracted the big boys, the herring gulls but they stayed high, silhouetted against that amazing cloud, making the odd diving feint seawards but choosing not to mix it with the flock of noisy, smaller, black headed gulls:

The cloudyeti didn't bother the high flying Larus:

Jonathan Livingstone and friend came from on high for a look:

So the youngest field assistant (4) and I had a race along the sea wall. He won.

Spring and neap high tide comparisons in the next post.

2 Mar 2015


Next time you eat a scallop (which you really shouldn't, unless you eat hand-collected ones; scallop dredging is one of the most destructive fisheries going) remember they've been around for a long time. About 190 million years in the case of this one.

26 Feb 2015

My column in the March Dalesman is out.

This month's coast column was inspired by this photo of an ammonite cast on the beach. In almost a decade of taking natural history photos on Runswick Bay beach this is one of my favourites:
The March Dalesman is out now £2.90. My coast column is admirably sandwiched between great things like Yorkshire poet laureate Ian MacMillan (follow his minute by minute twitter poetry @IMcMillan), photographer John Potter's captivation by trees, Chronicles of Kelderdale and Wild Yorkshire where someone has been gazumped by sparrows. I know how he feels; a fulmar threw up all over me once. When that happens you don't wash your clothes, you burn them.

24 Feb 2015

Neap and spring low tides compared.

A neap low tide in January (more pics showing the neap tidal range in this post):

And a spring low tide in February:
January's neap tide exposed 58 metres of beach from high tide mark to the low tide mark. This spring tide exposed 180 metres of beach from the strand line to low water. We are currently being threatened with big, powerful tides because this year the moon is orbiting close to the earth so the lunar gravitational influence on the tides is at its greatest; cue warnings of The End Of The World from some newspapers.

8 Feb 2015

Back end of a belemnite: the experts are baffled.

This is a belemnite guard counterpart (the imprint of a fossil) with something imprinted into the surrounding shale - preserved soft tissue, I wondered? It was picked up from a cliff-fall on the beach north of Runswick Bay.

I sent a pic to the Natural History Museum in London, and their expert referred it on to the uber-expert in this fossiliferous field. His reply was a 'not sure', but it didn't look like the preserved belemnite soft tissue of his acquaintance. I was advised that someone will need to look at the thing in person. It's not the intact pliosaur skeleton (new species, naturally) I've been hoping for, but temporarily baffling expert Ph.D.s and eminent Profs will do for now.

Update: Uber expert says it's not like any fossilised mantle he's seen, and may be nothing to do with a belemnite.

Update 2: This is a repost from 2008, when Google ate a lot of my pics.

3 Feb 2015

Sea view from Staithes.

Occasionally the next door beaches issue invitations to Runswick Bay so today I popped over to Staithes at low tide. The beach between Staithes and Port Mulgrave is a real, wave-lashed high energy beach made up of hard Jurassic jet rock and Staithes sandstone. The only things that can live under these conditions are small; barnacles, limpets, flustra and encrusting red algae. Even the shellfish adapted to defying breakers seemed to favour huddling in sheltered spots. More of my blue-fingered walk between Old Nab and Penny Nab, Staithes in a post later but for now, here's the sea today looking towards Runswick. Once upon a legend, a young man called James Cook - then a shopboy in Staithes - probably looked out at this very scene, with winds every bit as face numbing and waves every bit as violent and thought, 'By Jove, that looks fun! I'd love to spend the rest of my life sailing on that.'

It was a dark and stormy night...at 3.30 in the afternoon.

A few days of northerly winds around force 5 forecast, after which there should be lots to find on the beach.

What to do if you think you've found a good ammonite.

Read this post at Andy's fossils first.

30 Jan 2015

The first Dalesman coastal column is out now.

The best-selling Yorkshire magazine, £2.90 from all newsagents worthy of the name. As well as my 850 words on the wonders of our coast, there are splendid pieces on astronomy, Whitby jet, Yorkshire's borderlands, wildlife and The Leeds Dripping Riots.

14 Jan 2015

Neap tides.

Not all tides are equal; the high and low tide heights vary throughout the lunar month depending on whether the sun and moon's gravitational pull are acting together or against one another. The moon has the greatest influence on the tides, the distant sun's is a kind of gravitational top-up.

When the moon and sun are acting in opposition, the tides are known as neap tides; the tidal range is lower. So today's high tide (1001 at Whitby) is 4.4 metres above chart datum (chart datum is a virtual line around the coast representing the lowest ever tide) and the low tide will be 2.5 metres above chart datum.

Here's what todays neap high tide looks like at Runswick looking towards Kettleness:
And neap low tide...
That was a vertical tidal range of 1.9 metres, which exposed 58 metres of beach from the high tide strand to getting my boots wet at the low water mark.

High tide, looking towards Port Mulgrave:
This isn't solely an excuse to publish another pretty picture of the thatched former coastguard cottage; it also illustrates the stress that beach-living seaweeds have evolved to cope with. The seaweed on the exposed rocks below the sea wall (mostly Ascophyllum nodosum, or knotted wrack) aren't covered even at the top of the tide. Some of these may not get a good dunking at high tide for another two or three days. It's very calm today and they weren't getting splashed by breaking waves. In the meantime they are dealing with temperatures of 2 celsius, and in summer during the three or four days of neap tides they will probably be exposed and dehydrated under a hot sun, and will survive. Living in marginal conditions is an evolutionary strategy that is fine if the marginal conditions don't change much. And neap low tide....

6 Jan 2015

Ammonite counterpart as cirri-pied-a-terre (repost from 2010).

This ammonite counterpart has made a rather splendid home for a colony of barnacles. What I love about this is the continuity; about 190 million years ago a 10 cm wide ammonite died and was fossilized in the mud of a warm, shallow Jurassic sea. What happened to the remains I don't know, I hope they are in an appreciative fossil collector's drawer, but the counterpart, the impression left by the ammonite's aragonite shell became home to a thriving community of barnacles, the creatures that Charles Darwin studied in enormous depth between 1846 and 1854.

This eight-year intellectual bodyswerve came at the height of Darwin's interest in 'the species question'; Darwin first privately wrote about natural selection in 1842*, his joint paper (written with Alfred Russel Wallace) was read to the Linnaean Society in 1858 and The Origin of Species was published in 1859. Some have suggested that Darwin's interest in this uncharismatic group of creatures was displacement activity (that he was scared to continue his evolutionary work), others that Darwin knew very well what he was doing, becoming intimately acquainted with a little-researched animal and using what he observed to support his burgeoning ideas about evolution by natural selection.

This apparently peaceful, sessile scene, with a dead ammonite's cast, a couple of hundred barnacles, seven limpets and a stray periwinkle is really one of fierce competition to survive.

2 Jan 2015

Runswick's swirly blue stones (2).

Are blast furnace slag, sometimes called sea slag glass. To the north of Runswick lies Teesside where for 150 years there was an extensive steel industry; in less enlightened times the slag (the impurities that cook out of the molten iron) was simply dumped into the sea. (There was also a derelict ironworks on Lingrow cliffs to the north of Runswick. It opened in 1857 but collapsed into the sea in 1858. Pics to come, some if it is left standing.)

These blue-ish pebbles will have been washed along the coast and rumbled into a state of smoothness among sand and shingle. They are deceptive; they look lovely when you see them on the sand, wet and glistening from an ebbing tide. Pick them up, pocket them and get them home and they dry to a rather drab matt blue or grey. Here's an illustration under the rather drab lights indoors this evening. I grabbed eight pieces of sea slag from my miscellaneous specimen boxes very much at random, soaked four and left four dry.

These don't show the colours or swirliness particularly well; weather permitting I'll go for a walk tomorrow and photograph some specimens wet on the sunlit sand.

Andy from the excellent Andy's Fossils website (which you should visit and bookmark if you are at all interested in the Jurassic fossils found hereabouts) says much the same, and emailed a pic of cobbles made from the same material used on the path to the Cook monument in Whitby:
Skinningrove beach about 7 miles up the coast (which has a steelworks at the top of the cliff) is littered with the stuff.

1 Jan 2015

Swirly blue stones on the beach.

Reader Ruth asks what the blue stones often found on the beach are. At first they confused me, too because I (pretty reasonably, I thought...) looked for them in my geology guides. They weren't there. More later as I don't (yet) have any swirly blue stone pics worth posting.

30 Dec 2014

Razor shells on a (slightly) snowy beach.

A few razor clams (also called razorshells or razor fish, in Latin Ensis sp.) met their maker over Christmas if the shells scattered on the upper beach were anything to go by:

It was a beautiful day...

...but too cold for any serious naturalizing, especially for the youngest field assistant who decided that the hunt for baby crabs was off:

Not sure what that was all about, possibly a celebration of the snowy beach in interpretative dance. A happy new year to all my readers.

14 Dec 2014

The effect of the recent explosive cyclogenesis on Runswick Bay.

Very little, really. The winds were predominantly South Westerly, Runswick Bay faces due North and the cliffs create a wind shadow so the Bay itself was pretty calm.

The effect off Sandsend (Whitby piers in the background) was more pronounced, with the wind tearing the crests off waves:

Explosive cyclogenesis happens when a low pressure area deepens by 24 millibars over a 24 hour period, making the circulating winds more powerful. Meteorologists' shorthand for such a system is a 'bomb', something gleefully seized upon by the media last week. We need some Northerly gales to send in a couple of days of large waves, tear up the seabed, strip away sand and bring down some cliff falls. That's when things get interesting around here.

8 Dec 2014

In the Yorkshire Post tomorrow...

I'm writing about dinosaurs. So here's a Tyrannosaurus rex to cheer up your Monday.

T. rex, a Cretaceous dinosaur was the poster-dino front-cover skull on the original Jurassic Park book and in the film adorned the gate to the ill-fated park. Runswick, having Jurassic geology didn't see any of these creatures but there is evidence of large, bipedal predators stalking what has become the Yorkshire coast in the late Jurassic. The sandstone rocks hereabouts are the remains of a delta (where a river spills out across the coastal plain) and fossilized trackways with the footprints of large two legged carnivores have been found between Ravenscar and Scarborough. They were probably Ceratosaurs, more of which from Brian Switek on Smithsonian.com.

3 Dec 2014

An urchin and its not-often-found-mouthparts (repost).

A sea urchin top (or 'aboral' to the initiated) view, found on Runswick Bay beach. Urchins are echinoderms, and exhibit pentamerism; five fold symmetry.

Its mouth parts.
And the mouth in which they were loosely attached when the shell was found. They fell out on handling. An urchin's mouth has the charming name 'Aristotle's lantern'.
 Ur-urchins have been with us for about 450 million years. Some people think that eating urchin reproductive organs is a good idea and call it 'Uni'. Crabs, lobsters and sea otters are natural predators of urchins. Be careful if you find a live one, some species can sting.