Isle of Wight Birds

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I only went on one trip where I was actively seeking to find new birds while on the island. A lot of my birding was done form the beach in front of my guest house, or even from bed! I kept my binoculars on my bedside table and was able to watch a Northern Gannet (in the featured image) wheeling about shortly after I woke up one day. But because I hadn’t been to seaside habitat in England before, I still got lifers out of it. And because the one place I went for birding had a lot of heath habitat (which I had also not been to), I got lifers out of it as well. I was going to go to some wetlands relatively nearby, but that ended up not happening.

First summer European Herring Gull

First summer European Herring Gull

There were Black-headed and Herring Gulls everywhere. Great Black-backed Gulls were less common, but there were a few about–more on the western side of the island than the east. Every once in a while, you’d see a Common Tern flying around and diving for fish. It was cute how they shook themselves off after diving and taking off again. Most of the gulls on Sandown’s beach were adults. There were many more juveniles and adolescents around the Needles where they nest.

Most of these are juvenile European Herring Gulls. This must be the section of cliffs where they nest.

Most of these are juvenile European Herring Gulls. This must be the section of cliffs where they nest.

Adult Rook

Adult Rook

Rooks were actually about as numerous on the beach as the Herring Gulls and you’d see on heaths and in forests as well. Rooks are odd because the adults loose the hair-like black feathers that cover the back of the beak in most crows. I assume it’s an adaptation for scavenging carcasses. The other common corvid on the island is the Jackdaw. They’re predominantly grey instead of black and like to hang out on rooftops.

Jackdaw

Jackdaw

Not pictured: twice the number of juveniles in the bush, all hanging out with this one adult.

Not pictured: twice the number of juveniles in the bush, all hanging out with this one adult.

I’m not sure what was going on, but holy crap were there a ton of juvenile European Starlings. A giant flock of them liked to spend the day in the garden by my guest house. There were dozens and dozens of them and only a few adults. They aren’t that prolific. Why was the juvenile:adult ratio so high?

Many of the feral pigeons here were white

Many of the feral pigeons here were white

Top left: a Shag; center left: a Great Cormorant; bottom right: a Great Black-backed Gull for size comparison

Top left: a Shag; center left: a Great Cormorant; bottom right: a Great Black-backed Gull for size comparison

There are two types of Cormorant on the island and I was able to find both. The Great Cormorant is bigger, has a relatively bigger head, and a more streamlined body. The Shag is smaller, has a relatively smaller head, and a bit of a potbelly.

Common Guillemot

Common Guillemot

There are a few types of pelagic birds you can potentially see on the island, but the only ones I was able to find were the Northern Gannet and the Common Guillemot. I’m still happy with that, though. It’s hard to find pelagic birds unless you’re at a rookery while they’re nesting. And I was very lucky to see the guillemots. I was looking through my binoculars at a gull and happened to pan past five black dots on the water. They were too far out to ID, so I took pictures and was able to tell after zooming way in on the image. It took a while to get a picture of them, though. I kept losing sight of them when I switched from binoculars to camera. By the time I was able to photograph them, four had flown away after a boat came too near for their liking.

Stonechat

Stonechat

Walking along the Needles Headland was quite pleasant. I was on what amounted to little more than a deer trail running anywhere from 10-20 feet from the edge of the cliff. Hardly anyone was out there. A second path further in had people on it now and again, but the only person I encountered was a guy sitting on a bench and reading a book. Other than him, it was just me and the birds, who tried to fly away from me by flying in the direction I was moving, which meant they kept having to fly again. Lots of European Goldfinches, Meadow Pipits, Common Swifts, and Barn Swallows out there. A few Stonechats as well. And I spotted a single Pied Flycatcher.

Three Meadow Pipits somehow managing to sit on a a barbed wire fence

Three Meadow Pipits somehow managing to sit on a a barbed wire fence

Juvenile European Goldfinch

Juvenile European Goldfinch

Adult European Goldfinch. Stupid reed blowing into the exact wrong place at the exact wrong moment...

Adult European Goldfinch. Stupid reed blowing into the exact wrong place at the exact wrong moment…

A couple of the birds on my list were actually on the mainland coast right before or after I boarded the ferry. My Isle of Wight & nearby coast list (35 total, 12 lifers):

  1. Common Buzzard
  2. *Montagu’s Harrier
  3. *Jackdaw
  4. *Rook
  5. Carrion Crow
  6. Eurasian Collared Dove
  7. *Stock Dove
  8. Rock Dove
  9. Wood Pigeon
  10. European Herring Gull
  11. Black-headed Gull
  12. Great Black-backed Gull
  13. *Sandwich Tern
  14. Common Tern
  15. *Northern Gannet
  16. *Common Guillemot
  17. *Great Cormorant
  18. *Shag
  19. House Sparrow
  20. European Starling
  21. European Goldfinch
  22. *Stonechat
  23. Pied Flycatcher
  24. *Meadow Pipit
  25. Common Kestrel
  26. Common Swift
  27. Barn Swallow (these might be split from the subspecies in the US someday)
  28. *House Martin
  29. passerine sp. 1
  30. passerine sp. 2 (Two times I heard little birds that were hiding deep in the bushes…Too bad I’m not good with songs)
  31. Common Blackbird
  32. Mute Swan
  33. Common Moorhen
  34. European Coot
  35. Mallard

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Geology Interlude

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The Isle of Wight has some fantastic geologic exposures. And since I’m in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, I’m going to tell you about them.

There are Cretaceous, Eocene, and Oligocene rocks on the island (there’s a disconformity where the Paleocene isn’t preserved). The rocks are all dipping towards mainland Great Britain (youngest to the north).

You can see the delineation between the beds really well on the right where the cliff is in shadow. North is to the left.

You can see the delineation between the beds really well on the right where the cliff is in shadow. North is to the left.

Sandstone and chalk are both common (some clay as well). The bay where I stayed was bordered by chalk cliffs on one side and sandstone on the other. The chalk is a slightly different age, but quite similar to the famous White Cliffs of Dover. These beds run almost the entire length of the island, so that there’s a chalk cliff a few miles from the easternmost point and the westernmost point (called the Needles) is made of the chalk itself.

The sandstone cliffs are…interesting. Sandstone weathers very easily in the presence of water. That’s why big sandstone exposures are typical of deserts, not humid areas. There aren’t any towns below the sandstone cliffs (a much wiser interaction with geology than the choices made by planners who order buildings be built on the Iowa River’s floodplain), but there are rows of less valuable beach huts where people can store things they only use during days out on the beach (and in some places with a much wider lowland, small beachside food huts or stores). Some of them are actually quite nice and even have kitchenettes where the ever present English tea can be prepared.

A sandstone cliff face. They're actually rather tall in places. There's even an elevator in one place.

A sandstone cliff face. They’re actually rather tall. There’s even an elevator in one place.

To protect the beach huts and beachgoers, people have built retaining walls along parts of the top and bottom of the cliffs and fences to keep people away from the bases. It slows down the process, but chunks still do break off from time to time.

Did you notice the missing chunk earlier (in blue)?  Or where it ended up (in purple)?

Did you notice the missing chunk earlier (in blue)? Or where it ended up (in purple)?

Up until about 6000 years ago, the island was part of the mainland. Then some big rivers changed course and scoured out valleys. And with sea level rising since the last glacial cycle, you get full separation. The rising sea level is also the reason the headlands exist–they’re basically drowned ridgelines.

To the left and center, a headland

To the left and center, a headland

The Needles used to be part of the rest of the Isle. They’re particular types of islands called ‘sea stacks’. At some point, they were all part of a headland, but wave action scoured away at the sides over time. First, they would be sea cave, then sea arches once they broke all the way through, then the arch became so big that the land above it was no longer supported and fell down, turning the part out to sea into an island.

The Needles: an excellent example of sea stacks

The Needles: an excellent example of sea stacks. Also, high-angle bedding surfaces.

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Isle of Wight Awesomeness

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The Isle of Wight was amazing. I stayed in Sandown, which is a small town on the southeast coast of the island. The guest house I stayed in was the same price as the hostels I’ve been in this trip, but I had a room to myself, free tea & fixings all day, free breakfast, more security (I needed a key both for my room and for the building), it was right next to the beach, and I could see the Channel from my bed. The owner was also quite friendly and nice.

The HMS Warrior harbored in Portsmouth, one of the ports where you can chart passage to the Isle.

The HMS Warrior harbored in Portsmouth, one of the ports where you can chart passage to the Isle.

Tiny train! The train between Ryde (the port where I got on the island) and Sandown is two old metro cars with wooden siding.

Tiny train! The train between Ryde (the port where I got onto the island) and Sandown is two old metro cars with wooden siding.

The landscape there is just gorgeous. The coasts have chalk and sandstone cliffs bounding sandy beaches. The water’s a pleasant temperature and shallow for quite a ways offshore. For being a well-known vacation area, there really aren’t many people there. On top of the cliffs you have rolling heath that gives way to even more rolling heath and forest further inland. The mouths of the rivers on the north coast have wetlands, though I never got to visit them.

The chalk cliffs you can see from Sandown

The chalk cliffs you can see from Sandown. This is the only landscape shot in this post I’ve altered the levels on (the cliffs were clouded by the blue that obscures things at a distance).

These dogs were having the time of their lives digging a hole to nowhere

These dogs were having the time of their lives digging a hole to nowhere

And there’s plenty to do there. Aside from the usual beach things, you can rent kayaks and paddleboats to take out into the Channel. I got distracted watching birds and didn’t notice the wind switch directions on me. It tried to send me to France. I checked the map when I got back and, based on my line of sight with the headlands, I was about 2000 feet out and 4000 ft downshore from where I started. A bit farther than I meant to go… But I grabbed a piece of styrofoam floating out there and saved a ball that four dogs were afraid to swim out to, so it was all good.

There are also historic sites to visit. The Brading Roman Villa, which has a fully intact Roman mosaic. If you’re interested in WWII, there’s an old post (the Needles Battery) looking out onto the Needles. There’s also a giant monument to Lord Alfred Tennyson in the middle of a cow pasture (which the public is given access to).

The Needles

The Needles

I didn't know Her Majesty was a wartime mechanic

I didn’t know Her Majesty was a wartime mechanic

The Tennyson Monument

The Tennyson Monument

If you’re more interested in ‘family fun’-type things, in addition to Dinosaur Isle, there’s a zoo, a wildlife encounter place where you can interact with penguins and owls, and a small theme park.

For outdoors activities, there are plenty of places to go walking. The Needles Headland, for example, is several miles of footpaths through the heath on top of the chalk cliff on the very southwest end of the island. And I walked along almost a mile of beach to go to work (seen in the featured image).

View on Needles Headlands back towards the Needles

View on Needles Headlands back towards the Needles

Some of the coast along the Needles Headlands

Some of the coast along the Needles Headlands

View on the Needles Headlands away from the Needles

View on the Needles Headlands away from the Needles

I didn’t do the “go to all the places!” type of sightseeing here that I’ve been doing in cities. I specifically went to the Needles to look for birds there (a few species don’t nest any farther east outside of Scandinavia). I ended up going through the Needles Battery that I didn’t know was there, then walking along the entire length of the Headlands, visiting the Tennyson monument along the way. Other than that, I just enjoyed what felt like a mini-vacation on the beach.

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Dinosaur Isle Collections and a Bit About Fossil Collecting

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Dinosaur Isle is the museum on the Isle of Wight. They have a handful of crocodyliform species. Diplocynodon hantoniensis, like what I saw in London, is the resident alligatoroid. They also have some scraps of Bernissartia, which is going to be the outgroup in my phylogenetic analysis. I’ll be seeing the holotype when I head to Brussels next. Their Diplocynodon is pretty scrappy material. They have a few good-looking jaws, but no good sections of skulls. The thing I was really excited to see is a croc that was only recently described from there, Koumpiodontosuchus. It falls out as the sister of Bernissartia, so I was interested to see what else I could learn from it.

At the front of its snout, you can see a pair of lower teeth sticking up into a notch in its snout. And at the back of its snout, it has an overbite. Gators loose the notch, crocs lose the overbite.

At the front of its snout, you can see a pair of lower teeth sticking up into a notch in its snout. And at the back of its snout, it has an overbite. Gators loose the notch; crocs lose the overbite.

In most respects, Koumpiodontosuchus is like Bernissartia. There are only a handful of characters in my current matrix that they differ in. It’s good to note which characters are more stable among various taxa in that part of the tree and which are more variable. I was also able to code some characters off of Koumpiodontosuchus that aren’t recorded from Bernissartia. I ended up spending two of my two and a half working days on it (I finished early here as well)!

The unfortunate thing about the specimen is that it’s been preserved with its jaws in tight articulation. And it’s unstable enough that the preparator decided it would be better to leave matrix on in some places to keep it from falling apart. The braincase is one of the parts I didn’t get to code. And it’s phylogenetically very informative.

But—there’s a CT scanner in a nearby town on Great Britain. I’m putting together information for the museum to see if it would be worth scanning. Because scanning is expensive when someone else owns the scanner.

They have a nice little museum here. It’s small, obviously, given its location. But they do some really good PR work. The lab where I was examining the fossils is also where prep work and public interaction are done. They have a window looking out onto the exhibit floor that can slide open so visitors can talk to staff. And a whole bunch of specimens for them to look at and pick up right there. The guy in charge of me was really good at interacting with visitors. And some of them asked good questions.

Laws in the US make it hard to collect vertebrate fossils (in order to make it hard for them to disappear into private collections owned by people who don’t want anyone studying them). Not so much in the UK. Sometimes private collectors will let researchers examine fossils for a set period of time. And sometimes people even donate the fossils they’ve found.

The Bernissartia specimen I was using as comparison to Koumpiodontosuchus was actually one of those loans. Because it’s not accessioned in an accredited museum, very few scientific journals would accept a publication including data from it. Part of the palate was really the only good view on it. Hopefully some of the accessioned Bernissartia in Belgium is as pretty as that segment.

There’s a whole big debate on whether or not private fossil collecting is a good or bad thing for science. The answer seems to be somewhere in the middle. Not getting to study a scientifically valuable specimen is always heartbreaking. As is seeing collectors who either don’t know or don’t care about good collecting or preparation techniques ruining otherwise excellent specimens. But private collecting means more eyes out there looking for things. It also means sparking interest in potential future researchers, staff, volunteers, patrons, donators, political allies, you name it. So keeping the path open for private collecting, while putting some failsafes in for specimens that can inform our understanding of the past, seems to be the best option. It creates a mutually beneficial dialogue with the public and means scientists don’t run as much risk of coming off as a bunch of Gollums hoarding their preciouses. Exactly what those failsafes are, how to implement them without creating bitterness on either side, and where you draw the line between “scientifically valuable” and “not valuable enough to worry about” is what’s so hard to figure out, though.

Dinosaur Isle runs “fossils walks”, where they take groups of people out to promising sites on the island, point out which rocks are likely to have which fossils, explain how to look for them them, and ID anything people find. People get to keep what they find unless the specimen is a foot long or bigger. The agreement is that, if it’s that big, the museum can decide if they want it or not. If something smaller looks valuable, the museum can ask to borrow it or have it donated, but the finder is under no obligation to do so. There are some frequent fossilers on the island who are notorious for keeping scientifically valuable specimens to themselves, but on the whole it seems like they’ve set up a good relationship with the public, who are mostly willing to let them borrow things if needed.

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First Impressions of the Isle of Wight

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I forgot to do this the day I arrived! Well here’s what I can remember thinking.

  • No skyscrapers! This is so nice!
  • Everything seems so laid back here.
  • The train that took me across the island to my hotel has two cars. Two. And they’re old metro cars with wooden siding. Adorable!
  • Seems the tracks were laid down some time ago. Lots of jostling. At one point, I realized I had been inadvertently doing belly dance chest moves and torso undulations as I fought to keep my head still.
  • Little town, it’s a quiet village. Every day like the one before….Okay, wrong country but hurray! I’m in a tiny, peaceful town!
  • The owner of this B&B is nice and friendly.
  • Really nice carpet? Big gilded mirrors in the hallway? This place only costs 50 dollars a night? Wow.
  • And I have a seaview room! Sweet!
  • I love the sound of the ocean. And it’s gorgeous here. The water is a beautiful, dark aqua on a sunny morning. As in big, thick chunk of aquamarine aqua.
  • I really love it here. I’m going to be so sad to leave Tahiti the Isle of Wight. It’s a magical place.

…That was a reference to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., if you’re completely confused.