Category Archives: Strandline

Another beach walk, nothing special, but so nice to get out

Walking along the beach seemed to be the safest of all the outdoor exercise options yesterday, because the beach is so huge that it is easy to avoid other people doing their similar constitutionals.  The Panorama walk is probably the next safest option.  I would love to do the walk along the estuary and back, but for a lot of that walk there would be incredible difficulty in keeping a safe distance if one met someone coming the other way.

I wanted to take a photograph on the sea front to match up with a vintage postcard, so I opted for the beach.  I was breaking in a new pair of shoes, and was fully armed with blister-treating gear, but happily they were spectacularly comfortable.  The light was particularly beautiful.  Looking over the estuary, the clouds were gathering over Ceredigion, as they so often are.  Looking north up the coast, the sky was completely clear, an endless unblemished ceiling of pure blue.  There was nothing much to see in the dunes.  The evening primroses are in flower, and are dotted all over, but there is nothing else in bloom at the moment.  The very high strandline trailed along just in front of the sand dunes, and contained an unusual number of small crab remains but nothing else of note.  There were a few jellyfish washed up, as usual for this time of year.  The tide, on its way out, had clearly been remarkably high, nearly reaching the long row of steps that run along the top of the beach along the front of the car park, with a pool of water left behind by the retreating tide also showing how high the tide was.

Common evening primrose

Sea holly

Beautiful colours on a crab claw

After the yellows and blues of the dunes and the beach, it was fun to walk back up Balkan Hill, where lush green dominated, and the gardens were full of yellow falls of laburnum and wonderful lilac-coloured rhododendrons.  Even the verges were on full alert, with a lovely display of colour.

Red Valerian

Fuchsia magellanica

Speedwell

Common Stork’s-bill

Sea Mayweed

 

 

Sand dunes and sunshine in mid-April

I set out for my usual exercise circuit today.  Walking down Gwelfor Road towards the sea front, it was lovely to see so many wild flowers providing a colourful display.

Instead of turning left at the bottom of Gwelfor Road, past the Neuadd Dyfi, through the tunnel and left along the beach to return up Copper Hill Street, I found myself turning right into the sand dunes and walking in the direction of Tywyn.  I am so glad I did, because it was a lovely walk.  In the sand dunes the story was quite different from the hedges and verges of Gwelfor Road, with only occasional dots of colour in an otherwise attractive but fairly unvarying selection of shades of green over the powdery ivory sand, dominated by marram grass.  Marram grass is super.  It casts spiky shadows, sways so elegantly in the breeze and carves out perfect circles in the sand.  The occasional dots of colour came mainly from small dandelions, daisies and, to my great surprise, huge and simply stunning colonies of violets.  Peacock and red admiral butterflies kept me company, and there were plenty of bumble and honey bees.  The dandelions were doing a particularly good job of keeping the bees and butterflies busy.  Little meadow pipits erupted out of the grass, taking to the sky with much angry peeping.

Walking back along the beach, countless dead jellyfish, a translucent myriad of opal colours, had been washed up, but there was not much else of interest on the strandline.  The sparkling sea, however, was a wonderful almost Caribbean blue, very clear.  In spite of a strong and slightly chilly wind, it looked untroubled and still.  Very peaceful.  A single white fluffy cloud interrupted the endless flat blue of the sky.  The wind had built up thousands of little sand ramps, raising shells and pebbles on customized, sloping plinths, utterly fascinating.  A pied wagtail stayed a few jumps ahead of me for maybe 15 minutes.

There was no-one in the dunes, there were very few people around on the vast sands and as I walked along the silent shop fronts and turned up Copper Hill Street there was no-one else visible.  Oh for a salted caramel ice cream 🙂

A very quiet walk on the beach

My usual exercise, not daily but a few times a week, is a simple circuit from where I live, wending my up to the top of Gwlefor Road, down onto the the main road and back up Balkan Hill.  I do like to do a longer walk at least once a week, and yesterday I decided to walk down Copper Hill Street and see if the beach was busy.  The line of diagonal parking places in front of the Snowdonia Information Centre was almost completely empty, something I have never seen before.  In spite of the sun, the beach was incredibly windy and there was absolutely no-one there.  As I went along the beach, reaching and turning back by the WWII pillbox, there were a four or five dog walkers and a couple who were clearly walking all the way to Tywyn, but it was eerie how empty it was on such a bright day.  The warm wind was so strong that all my clothes were flapping, and on the walk back I was leaning in to the wind, pushing my way back along the sand.  The dry sand was drifting in great tendrils a few inches across the beach, very beautiful.  The strandline was dominated by huge numbers of rotting leaves, mainly oak and beech, with some ivy.  At one point along the waterline the water was completely black as the leaves broke down in the water.  There were a lot of dead jellyfish, probably a barrel jellyfish (Rhizostoma pulmo).  It seems early, as they are usually a summer phenomenon, but last year I found one in mid-February.

 

Day trip: Ynyslas and Borth in February

On a lovely day, quite unprecedented for February, I decided to go a bit further afield than my usual strolls on Aberdovey beach and go to Ynyslas.  I had been meaning to go for a long time.

Ynyslas carries with it the novelty of parking on the beach.  There is a nominal fee when the visitor centre is open (from Easter to the end of September), but it is free in the winter months when the visitor centre is closed.   The drive to Ynyslas from Aberdovey takes about 40 minutes via Machynlleth, and of course you are driving in a loop around the Dyfi estuary because Ynyslas is immediately opposite Aberdovey.  There used to be a passenger ferry between the two, which had been operated for centuries, but eventually became redundant when the railway was built and the roads improved to handle the growing number of cars.

Visitor Centre, Ynyslas

Ynyslas is a nature reserve, properly entitled the Dyfi National Nature Reserve and Visitor Centre and as well as the sand dunes and the beach,  includes the Cors Fochno raised peat bog, which is of international importance.  I have only been to Ynyslas once before, and then only very briefly when it was an exploratory mission tacked on to a visit to the terrific mill at Furnace (covered on a previous post).  The visitor centre was open then, and had stacks of books on tables for visitors to consult, information boards, and a good collection of relevant books, greetings cards and small toys to buy, as well as a coffee and tea machine.  Considerate to out of season visitors there is a big board outside, by the entrance, showing the layout of the nature reserve, with the paths clearly marked.

Out of season Ynyslas is virtually empty of bodies, just a few dog walkers in the dunes and rather more on the beach.  I decided to do the circular walk that leads through the dunes, out on to a stretch of beach, and then back along the mouth of the estuary to the car. The dunes are of particular interest because they demonstrate all the stages of dune formation and growth, and there are multiple types including both fixed and mobile dunes. There was not a lot to see other than marran grass at this time of year, but come the spring there will be all sorts of flowering plants and insects to see including wild orchids, mosses, liverworts, fungi, insects and spiders.

 

Fringe of pebbles between the dunes and the beach at Ynyslas

Where the path tips you out on the beach there is a big ribbon of huge rounded grey pebbles that lies between you and the vast, eternal vistas of sand.  You need to be a bit careful as they shift constantly underfoot.  Once safely installed on the beach there is tons to see, and it is quite different from the stretch between Tywyn and Aberdovey.  For one thing, there is a sense that you can see forever down the beach along Cardigan Bay.  It is a very wide, open stretch of beach, with the waves chasing each other up the sand in long white-topped lines for as far as the eye can see.

Ynyslas beach (click to enlarge)

Before the beach reaches the estuary, the sand is largely uninterrupted by the mass of small cockle, razor clam and tellin shells that scrunch underfoot on the stretches on the north side of the estuary.  Instead, there are occasional shells of a completely different character, and even the usual species like cockles are generally much larger.  Gigantic Icelandic cyprine and common otter shells are dotted around, big common whelks are a frequent sight and the pod razor clams reach their maximum lengths along this section of beach.  Of the smaller species the limpets were a pleasant surprise, as were needle whelks and acorn barnacles.  Some of the shells contained keelworm tubes (spirobranchus).  In the sand itself there were dozen upon dozen of sandhopper burrows.  I was surprised at how many articulated bivalves I found, both halves still connected, including well preserved cockles

The Icelandic cyprine (Artica islandica, also known as the ocean quahog) is particularly fascinating.  It has a dark brown periostratacum (outer skin of a shell) and lives so long that it is amongst the longest living of any animal – up to 500 years.  Amazing to think that an Icelandic cyprine shell could have contained a creature that was alive when Shakespeare was writing.  The oldest known, its age determined by counting growth rings, was 507, and was nicknamed Hafrún (c. 1499–2006) .  This example is 10cm (4 inches) from top to bottom.

Dog whelks (Nucella lapillus), which are lovely to look at and beautifully constructed along a spiral axis, are actually somewhat stomach-churning in their feeding habits.  Like all gastropods, whelks have a toothed tongue called a radula.  They use it to drill through the shells of other gastropod, and produce a chemical to help with the process.  Once the shell has been pierced, they inject other chemicals into the shell cavity to paralyze and liquefy their prey before extracting it through the hold in the shell.  You can spot the holes in shells on the strandline.

One of the whelks had keelworm (Spirobranchus) tubes.  These calcareous tubes are made by the keel worm with an open and closed end.  The open end allows it to put out tentacles with which it feeds on organic detritus, whilst safely armoured in its shell.  Like keelworm tubes, barnacle shells are also found on shells of other organisms.  There were several examples of acorn barnacles at Ynyslas, like the dog whelk in the above photograph, all in clusters because barnacles form colonies.

Sandhopper burrows (click to enlarge)

Sandhoppers (Talitrus salafor) are interesting too.  At around 20mm in length, they look rather like fleas, with their backs arched.  They live in burrows at depths up to 30cm and emerge at night to feed on the strandlines.  Although they live on the strandline they are terrestrial and cannot survive in the water so when the tide comes in they dive into their burrows, backfilling with sand to plug the passage and protect themselves.  They are targeted by some species of wading birds.

I found two nursehound eggcases, which I dutifully reported to the Shark Trust.  One of them was partially covered with what look like tiny shells, as well as some keelworm tubes.  I thought at first that the shells might the blue-rayed limpet (Patella pellucidum) but quite apart from the fact that they are the wrong shape, I cannot see any of the radiating blue lines that ought to be present if this identification were correct.  Perhaps they are very early on in the growth cycle.

The limpets are common in some areas, but I have never seen one at Aberdovey.  There were plenty on the beach at Ynyslas.  Like dog whelks they have a toothed radula, but they infinitely more friendly to other species.  They feed on algal spores left behind when the tide recedes, and in clearing patches of seaweed they create opportunities for other species to colonize rocks, increasing biodiversity along the seashore.

 

Ducks

As I returned towards the car I thought I could hear oyster catchers, but all I could see were ducks.  If you are a refugee from an urban environment, like me, you might associate ducks with the coarse quacking of mallards, but these sounded more like oyster catchers, with a a high-pitched peeping noise as you can hear in the video.  They were feeding in the marsh grasses in the muddy zone at the edge of the estuary waters.

The views from Ynyslas towards Aberdovey, as you round the corner from the open sea into the estuary, are breathtaking, particularly on a gloriously sunny day.  Beyond the town you can see down the Dyfi, a long peaceful arc of water flanked by low hills.

Aberdovey from Ynyslas

The BBC website has a good suggested walk beginning at Ynyslas, which goes further than I did and can take up to three hours.  The Natural Resources Wales website gives more information about what to see at Ynyslas, and it offers a number of suggested walks of different durations.  I plan to return to do the Cors Fochno walk, and to do another dune walk when there will be plants in flower.

I drove past the golf course into Borth for a quick stroll along the seafront, overlooking the pebble beach and rolling waves.  Now a seaside town, it used to be the main source of sailors for the local shipping trade in the 19th Century.

Borth

 

New strandline discoveries

Monday’s walk along the beach produced some more interesting strandline finds to add to those found on my previous strandline expeditions.  The sea was nearly at high tide, so the strandline was shifting all the time, wet weed and shells changing position as the waves pushed forward and retreated.  Sunday had been an endless day of really strong gales, complete with Met Office weather warnings, and although I expected this to have stirred things up a lot, I was not expecting to find much at high tide, so it was interesting to see what there was.

Barrel Jellyfish, Aberdovey shoreline

The most anomalous find was a dead barrel jellyfish (Rhizostoma pulmo), a common enough sight in warm summer months, but the first I have ever seen in winter.  The barrel jellyfish is distinguished by a thick rubbery bell and “arms” rather than tentacles, which have a distinctive frill along their edges. This is a  small one, but they can reach up to 1m in diameter and are the largest of jellyfish to be found in UK waters.  They have a mild sting.   The Marine Conservation Society collects sightings of jellyfish (and turtles, crawfish and basking sharks) throughout the year, so if you see one it is worth going to the MCS’s sightings page and filling in their online form.  There’s a good jellyfish identification guide on the IWS website, from which the following is taken:

Barrel jellyfish details

I also found two new eggcases.  If you are new to eggcases, have a look at my post on the subject, where I go into some detail.  These were very unlike the nursehound case that I found on the beach that day, but very distinctive.  Using the Shark Trust’s identification guide, it was possible to narrow them down to a Thornback Ray (Raja clavata) and a Spotted Ray (Raja montagui).  My photos of the two cases are below, together with the Thornback Ray  relevant page from the Shark Trust’s identification guide.

A page from the Shark Trust’s identification guide, accompanied by photos of the two eggcases found today.

Common piddock (Pholas dactylus)

The bivalve shell I picked up and kept is neither unusual nor relevant to any conservation programmes, but it is simply very attractive, with a wonderful textured surface, and I had never seen one before.  It’s a common piddock (Pholas dactylus), one of four species of piddock found mainly in the south and wet of Britain, all white. They are specialist borers, using the ridges for drilling into hard substrates to create burrows.  They have feeding siphons which reach out from the burrow into the sea to collect nutrients, and in the case of the common piddock the siphons are bioluminescent and glow green in the dark.  Shells can be up to 12cm long, and this one is exactly 12cm long.

I picked up a piece of seaweed that was a deep pink when I found it, and it turned black when I left it to dry out.  It’s a new one on me so I looked it up:  clawed fork weed (Furcellaria lumbricalis).  It only has the pods at the ends, which are its reproductive structures, in winter.  It tolerates low saline conditions, so will grow even in estuary waters.

 

The minor miracle of a mermaid’s purse – and The Shark Trust

When I first moved to Aberdovey I bought myself two books about what sort of things I could expect to find on the strandline of the beach.  My previous strandline discoveries have been posted here and here.  My books almost promised me that I would find mermaid’s purse of some description on the strandline, but until yesterday I hadn’t seen one.  Yesterday, attached to a bit of bladder wrack seaweed, not far from a nice example of an Echinocardium cordatum (see the end of the post) I found a battered but fairly in tact example of a mermaid’s purse or, more mundanely but more accurately, an eggcase, which turns out to be one of nature’s minor miracles:

An eggcase is the product of fish of the elasmobranch species – shark, ray and skate, which instead of having bony frames have skeletons made of flexible cartilage, and many lay eggs in pouches or eggcases.  The eggcases are made of collagen, a resilient protein found in vertebrate animal tissues. Some have curly tendrils at one end to attach them to the seabed and seaweeds.  Within the eggcase is a yolk that provides nutrition for the embryo.  As it grows, the embryo wriggles and this pushes stale water out of the hollow horns of the eggcase and pumps in fresh oxygenated water.  When the embryo has reached full size, it swims out of the eggcase, abandoning the empty pouch, a perfectly formed miniature version of its adult parent.

Skate Lifecycle.  Source:  The Great Eggcase Hunt, The Shark Trust (https://www.sharktrust.org/shared/downloads/projects/great_eggcase_hunt_report_2017.pdf)

In the example that I found, the seaweed to which it was attached had worked its way free and washed up on the strandline, with the eggcase firmly attached.  It took me a few moments to unravel it.   When they are washed up on the shore, they lose their flexibility, shrivel and become hard, but not brittle, and they can survive for many years.

I brought the eggcase home and dried it out on a piece of kitchen roll on the radiator before looking it up. This was the wrong thing to do.  According to one of my books (the absolutely excellent The Essential Guide to Beachcombing and the Strandline by Steve Trewhella and Julie Hatcher), what I should have done is soak it in water to rehydrate it so that I could compare it with photographs on the eggcase identification page on fabulous The Shark Trust website, where you can also record your finding.  The Shark Trust has an ongoing Great Eggcase Hunt, which began in 2003, and has now logged over 100,000 eggcases on British shores.  It has identified ten species of skate and three species of shark, and is beginning to get an idea of where favoured egg laying places are located.

Eggshell morphology. Source:  The Great Eggcase Hunt, The Shark Trust (https://www.sharktrust.org/shared/downloads/projects/great_eggcase_hunt_report_2017.pdf)

So it was back to the drawing board, by which I mean a saucepan of water.   After the eggcase had soaked overnight I had another poke at, prior to any attempt at identification, and it was just as solid as it had been when it went into the saucepan.  I assume that baking it on the radiator had rendered it immutable.  Checking the solid item against various photographs in books and on The Shark Trust website it was immediately clear that eggcases are either black or a translucent pale gold, information that appeared to narrow things down significantly. Although mine is light in colour, big patches of black suggest that it was originally black all over.  The shape is clearly either Nursehound (or Bull Huss) or Smallspotted catshark, but the smallspotted catshark eggshells are translucent and golden and only reach a maximum of 7cm in length, and mine is 12cm, not counting the tendrils, and 4.5cm wide at its widest.  So even though the colour is debatable, I concluded that mine was probably a Nursehound/huss, which is a common specie in this area (and I bought quite a lot of huss from Dai’s Shed during the summer) but I’ve submitted my guess with photographs so that The Shark Trust people can make their own judgement.

Nursehound eggcase. Source: The Great Eggcase Hunt, The Shark Trust (https://www.sharktrust.org/shared/downloads/projects/great_eggcase_hunt_report_2017.pdf)

Another nice find was an Echinocardium cordatum.  They are not uncommon on the Aberdovey beach, which astounds me as they are so fragile that you are in danger of them shattering as soon as you pick one up.  Also known as sea potato and heart urchin, they are covered with spines that, unlike the more familiar sea urchins, lie flat against their shells (“tests”) and look a bit like an animal pelt.  Also unlike sea urchins, they live burrowed under the sand of the seabed.

A proper seaside walk – the beach, the sea, the waves, sun and even a sandcastle

Sunshine, sand, sea and almost no-one on the beach but me.  Idyllic.  When I woke up this morning it was cold and grey, but by noon the day had clearly decided to fall in line with the weather forecast and blossomed into a glorious autumn afternoon.  I had stuff I needed to do but I was done by 2pm and drove to the lay-by on the road to Tywyn, opposite the line of houses on the other side of the Trefeddian Hotel.   A path crosses the golf course, wends its way through the dunes and drops you by the Second World War pillbox.  From there Tywyn is clearly visible in the distance.  The tide was out, just on the turn, so it took a couple of minutes to reach the water’s edge, although the roar from the waves had been clearly audible from the road.

The beach was spectacular, the damp sand reflecting blue sky and white clouds, with deep dips holding pools of water like liquid silver and white-topped blue waves thundering as crests broke, chaotic shapes forming and reforming.   The main strandline was up by the dunes, clumps of dark weed, but there were long strands of weed shimmering in the sunshine, some floating in pools some strewn along the sand.  I took a few photos and a couple of videos as I walked towards Tywyn, got wet feet, and generally had a great time.  It really was a spectacular afternoon.  A lady on the checkout at the Co-op in Tywyn, who also moved here from London, told me that the novelty lasted six months with her, but I really don’t see it ever wearing off for me.  Mind, I haven’t survived an Aberdovey winter yet.

Crossing the sand dunes.  Close to the beach they are stablized by marram grass.

The first and last photos are burnet roses, small and delicate, that are usually found in sand dunes. The pink petals belong to a blackberry bramble and the blue berries are blackthorn, also common in sand dunes.

Lovely shapes and light on the wet sand

Ecofacts. The shells are a limpit with a beautiful yellow shell, an elegant variegated scallop, a saddle oyster and a purple-black common muscle. An articulated crab claw has become detached from its owner. This was the first cuttlefish bone that I have found on the Aberdovey beach, beautifully laminated. Within the calcium-rich shell there are chambers that that fill with gas or water allowing the cuttlefish to rise or sink.

Here are two of the videos.  I am still trying to get the hang of this whole video thing.  The autofocus on the little camera that I use for video was having trouble today, unsurprisingly, and it was having trouble with the shifting light too.  And of course, it was absolutely not all the camera’s fault that these are anything but perfect.  This was my first time trying to video the sea, and the learning curve shows rather acutely!  Huge fun though, and I’ll get there eventually.

The lay-by to park for this stroll on the beach is at The Crossing, just where the A493 goes around a slow but definitive bend. It is opposite a very fine terrace of tall houses. The footpath is a track on the left of the lay-by and takes you over two stiles across the railway. You then cross the golf course to walk along the path through the dunes and down on to the beach by the Second World War pillbox, marked on the above map with a red rectangle.