Today’s the last day of term for my kids. Their little heads are full of an endless, sun-soaked holiday, and I am madly searching for coastal campsites, desperately seeking anywhere that can squeeze us all in at short notice.
One of the joys of a family trip to the beach is the rockpooling. I’ve been fascinated by it since I was small. My mum would take my sister and I down to the south-west most summers, which was probably her only opportunity to stretch out and read, while we entertained ourselves. After some industrious sandcastling, we’d clamber onto the intertidal rocks, thwarting barnacles with our jelly shoes, to see what the falling tide had left behind. We occasionally scooped the trapped residents into our bucket for closer inspection, but were just as happy peering through a snorkel mask into this unique, temporarily captive underwater world.
Hours of holiday fun (can you spot six from my list at this rockpool?)... Illustration: Chris Shields (rspb-images.com)
Super-speedy fish and shrimps were exciting finds and so were crabs, because you had to look really hard to find them, parting fringes of bladderwrack and sea lettuce, lifting stones, looking for scuttling movements or frantic self-burying. Occasionally we’d spot a starfish, which merited dragging our poor mother over for a look. We never handled those; they looked too delicate – and a bit alien.
But my favourites were the red-brown beadlet anemones. Reliably found pretty much everywhere, they looked like giant jelly sweets out of water, but below the waterline they’d unfurl a frilly mass of pinkish-brown tentacles into the swell. I’d lean in and offer up a fingertip, which they’d latch onto and gently try to pull into their digestive tract - always giving me a slight thrill that they might succeed.
I’ll be no less enthusiastic as I take my own kids rockpooling this summer - but rock pools aren’t just for kids. They’re fascinating, temporary habitats, and such harsh environments that it seems incredible that so much aquatic life survives there.
Water trapped in rock pools heats up in the sun, becoming warmer, shallower and saltier. Wildlife has to withstand that - along with crashing waves, dwindling headroom and browsing predators, with hiding as their only means of evasion.
And yet rockpools remain a thriving microcosm of our shoreline species, conveniently packaged into a small space that any naturalist can investigate and identify. Over 100 species of crustaceans, anemones, fish, bivalves, molluscs, starfish, even sponges - not to mention the myriad seaweeds. Few rock poolers will be able to name everything they see, so it’s lots of fun to learn as you go.
To which end, here are my top 10 rockpool favourites…
1. Hermit crab (Pagurus bernhardus)
These property-ladder climbing little masters of disguise are fun and fascinating to watch - so it’s little wonder that we find hermit crabs so beguiling. I’m putting them at number one for sheer personality. Look for shells moving in a jerkier way than you’d expect from a mollusc.
2. Common limpet (Patella vulgata)
Vacant limpet shell. Photo: Kirstie Duhig
It’s the king of the clingers, the rock-pool VIP… Limpets boast the strongest muscle tissue of any animal, holding on with an incredible force of 75 lbs per square inch! I’ve only managed to successfully prise one off a rock once, after sneaking slowly up and catching it unawares. They use a sharp, rasp-like tongue, hidden somewhere under there, to graze algae off the rocks, along with seaweed seedlings. Their shell shape is affected by wave flow, how long they spend out of water and how stressed they are - a relaxed and well-fed limpet has shallower contours. See? They’re fascinating!
3. Beadlet anemone (Actinia equina)
Out of water, they’re a strange mound of reddish jelly up to 5 cm across. But those below the waterline send forth an impressive crown of 192 waving, fluttering, sticky-tipped tentacles, arranged in six circles. It can sting its tiny prey, but is harmless to humans. It can tolerate very warm water and can even survive being temporarily dried out - and its mouth is also its bottom, and ejects ready-made babies out into the water, where they land on the rocks and set up home. I adore everything about this bizarre animal.
4 Common starfish (Asterias rubens)
Starfish! Photo: Carolyn Merrett (rspb-images.com)
Our most common starfish has five arms covered with white pimples, and can reach 30 cm across. Its suckery little feet can prise a mollusc shell apart enough to slip a bit of its own stomach in and secrete enzymes to liquefy the shellfish inside... but if needs be, they can survive several months without food (though they'll shrink).
5. Shanny (common blenny) (Lipophrys pholis)
Shannies love a rockpool, being creatures of the intertidal zone. They’re great not just for their cute, frog-like faces but because they’re almost amphibious… As the tide recedes, if they can’t find a rockpool they’ll walk across the rocks in search of a rocky crevice, out of water but cocooned among damp seaweeds, where they’ll survive until the tide returns. Look out for a chunky, bumpy, mottled little fish with a long, spiny dorsal fin along its back, usually sitting at the bottom propped up on its clawed front fins.
6. Shore crab (Carcinus maenas)
No mollusc-shell hideaways for these guys - so they must resort to lurking under rocks, hiding in weeds or burying themselves in sand. These are the most common crab found in rockpools - usually as juveniles. After mating (belly to belly, if you’re interested), females release developed larvae in the open sea as plankton, which gradually morph into tiny crabs and head to shore, often settling in rockpools. A 2 cm wide crab is about a year old, and has already moulted about 10 times. Most are greenish-brown, though bright green and red/orange shells are not unknown.
7 Dog whelk (Nucella lapillus)
Pointy-shelled molluscs are predators, and dog whelks will happily feast on the mussels and barnacles that line British rockpools. They come in a variety of attractive pastel hues, rippled with ivory, making them the rockpool equivalent of the dolly mixture - irresistible to my childish hands. Their tough, thick shell and choice of mid-tidal refuge offer them some protection from both crabs and seabirds.
8 Common prawn (Palaemon serrates)
Prettier than the brown shrimp they share rockpools with, these attractive, striped translucent crustaceans seem to test the waters with their whip-like antennae. They’ll eat pretty much anything: sea-carrion, algae, any old organic gloop, and even hunt smaller crustaceans. Those in rockpools are the same species that are hauled from the Atlantic by trawlers, but are likely to be a little smaller. Stay safe, little prawns!
9. Common goby (Pomatoschistus microps)
Several goby species can turn up in rockpools. Common gobies are sand-coloured with brownish markings and two separate dorsal fins. They rely on camouflage against fine gravel, and will seek this out in rockpools and lurk a few millimetres above it, looking out for tiny prey to eat.
10. Bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus)
Bladderwrack. Photo: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Rockpools are underwater gardens, ablaze with colourful foliage in red, green and copper. Bladderwrack is not the most colourful of these, but it’s a favourite of mine for two reasons: first, it’s the first one I learned to identify and name, when I was a small child, and secondly, it still looks pretty good out of water, retaining its thick, leathery form and beguiling blister-like baubles. Interestingly, it yields more bladders (and smoother ones) in calm water than in choppy water. And it’s edible, albeit not particularly pleasant!
What will you find?
Rockpooling isn’t just a wonderful way to enjoy the beach – kids can even go rockpooling to earn points towards our Wild Challenge award… Completing three ‘help nature’ activities plus three ‘experience nature’ activities (such as rockpooling), you can upload your photos to achieve a bronze award, earning stickers and personalised certificates. How’s that for a summer challenge? Register and find out more at the RSPB Wild Challenge page.
I love Bristol. It's a beautiful city and is where the fantastic team at Immediate Media who produce the RSPB magazines with us are based, so I always love going to visit. It is also an absolute hotspot for wildlife. It even has its own endemic species – that means they are found nowhere else in the world!
We have friends who conveniently live 10 minutes from the world famous Avon Gorge, home to many rare plants and species of whitebeam tree only “discovered” in the last few years and found nowhere else. So when my wife Laura asks if I’d like to visit them, it’s a resounding "yes" – especially when it coincides with the emergence and flowering times of species that would be new to my list...
Bristol is so good for rarities that even scarcities such as the parasitic ivy broomrape grow by the pavement (Mark Ward)
I recently bought myself a bat detector from the shop here at RSPB HQ at The Lodge and a nifty, and easy to use, piece of kit it is. As it says on the RSPB shop website, it “converts bats' inaudible ultra-sonic sounds to frequencies in the range of human hearing, and allows you to identify which species of bats are present.” How good is that?!
A cave full of goblinsHaving only confidently recognised four species of UK bat before, this was a must to help me discover the secret world of these fascinating mammals. Instead of trying it out in the back garden first on the commoner species, as any sensible person would do, it was in at the deep end. I'd booked us a hotel not far from Cheddar Gorge for Friday night, enabling me to try it out on the rare greater horseshoe bats that live in one of the caves – a species I hadn't seen before. It was a fraught journey down with traffic delays making me worry we’d arrive too late, but all was fine and we found ourselves outside the cavern in the twilight, with the feral goats bleating and grazing the verges nearby having come down form the gorge. Greater horseshoe bats have a unique frequency and sound – I likened it to a laughing goblin. Ever heard a goblin laugh? No, neither have I, but I imagine that’s what they’d sound like. Once I’d set the dial to the required frequency, I began to hear the weird warble and we saw large bats flitting around the cliffs – job done.
Cheddar pink - well worth risking my neck shinning down a ravine for (Mark Ward)
Pretty in pinkI was up at 5am the next morning (sorry Laura) ready to climb to the top of The Gorge to settle a score with an ultra rare plant that I’d previously missed here (I now know it was because I’d come too late in the season). It looked like I would miss Cheddar pink again, but scanning across a crag, I spied a blob of pink in my binoculars – there it was! Scrambling down a sheer cliff face/very carefully making my way down to the site, I enjoyed it in close up glory and was pleased to find that it even smelled nice. Looking around I found more, but also lots of clumps of non-flowering pinks. That was why I hadn’t noticed it until now – it was almost finished flowering. Phew... I found a few more goodies, before it was time to head to Bristol.
In the evening, the guys were keen to go and play with the bat detector so we took it out to the local nature reserve nearby and had great fun. We saw, and detected, 5-6 species in total. I’d love to know if you’ve had any luck with a bat detector and if you have any tips for a beginner like me. There's some good background on bats on the RSPB website.I do like to be beside the seasideThe next morning it was off to Brean Down – a beautiful spot on the coast – where I was hoping to see more rare plants. White rock rose grows only in a handful of places in the UK, but is here in abundance. Fortunate on the timing again, there was lots of it, but only a few flowers.
The super rare white rock rose (Mark Ward)
Graylings were the commonest butterfly and they were so well camouflaged on the sun-baked rocks that it was only when they flew up at our feet that we knew they were there! We had a great walk round and a picnic and ice cream on the beach – who said wildlife-watching couldn’t be done in comfort?
Camouflage king - it was spot the grayling time on Brean Down's south-facing slope (Mark Ward)Before we left to head home to Cambridgeshire, I stopped at the foot of the cliffs in the Avon Gorge where I could see whitebeams growing on the cliffs. With a lot of help from the experts, I knew I’d seen three of the endemic new species. Pretty mind blowing stuff really. I wonder if the climbers making their way expertly down the cliffs had any idea just what rarities they were passing.
How's your summer of wildlife-watching going?Don’t forget to let us know what you’ve been up to and what you’ve been seeing this summer by leaving a comment below or emailing email@example.com Thanks for all your reports so far – please keep them coming. Your next issue of Nature's Home will be with you in the next few days, so make sure you check out my "Look out for" challenge, which is packed with things to look for over the coming weeks.
Plover, stint, sandpiper, stilt, godwit, snipe and shank. Great names for great birds: our wonderful waders!
When I was a child, I was absolutely fascinated by these mud-loving, long-beaked travellers. The idea that they travel halfway round the world on migration to come to the UK to stop to feed up on my favourite wild places - estuaries and marshes – was thrilling. It all started with a poster I had on my wall of “coastal marsh and estuary wading birds”. I hadn’t seen any at that point (apart from the lapwings that flocked on the fields in winter), but it all changed one autumn day on a Norfolk beach when those beautiful paintings of oystercatchers, grey plovers, bar-tailed godwits and turnstones finally came to life.
The greenshank was a "pin up" in my bedroom when I was a child (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
I’ll never forget my first August visit to RSPB Titchwell Marsh, the next autumn, where more “exotic” species in the form of little stint (our smallest wader, no bigger than a sparrow), curlew sandpiper and a whimbrel were on show. And it was also when I saw my first avocet. By then, my obsession with waders was cemented. Now, some 24 years later, I have seen more than 50 species of wader in the UK - almost all the species on the UK list, including many of the rare vagrants that turn up in autumn. Every single time I see a wader, I get excited!
Shallow, water, mud - and lots of it. RSPB Titchwell Marsh is a wader wonderland (Andy Hay rspb-images,.com)
Summer of stiltsIt’s been a particularly exciting summer for waders on RSPB reserves because a record 13 black-winged stilts have fledged in the UK from nests across Kent, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. This includes nine on two RSPB reserves after years of conservation work to create the ideal marshy habitat for them.
The precious gems that are the two young black-winged stilts raised on RSPB Ouse Washes this summer - congratulations! (Jonathan Taylor)
I was lucky enough to watch the story of one pair unfold at my old local patch of RSPB Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire. I visited when the adults had eggs and they took turns to delicately swap over duties sitting on the nest. How they managed to fold up those long, long legs beneath them and incubate eggs is a miracle!
The second time I visited I was hoping to see the young. The parents had been very attentive, chasing off any other birds, or predators that came too close meaning that the young had survived and were not far from fledging. To see the adults and their two youngsters strutting around my old local patch' having survived all sorts of trials and tribulations, was an absolute treat and a really special moment, especially as I had my own parents with me to share in the moment.
As if black-winged stilts didn't have enough going for them, their chicks are impossibly cute too. Here are chicks from RSPB Cliffe Pools this summer (Rob Budgen)
Nature’s Home magazine readers will have enjoyed a tour of one of the UK’s best places for waders: Frampton Marsh on The Wash in Lincolnshire in the July issue and I can’t recommend a visit to Frampton enough.
Visit RSPB Snettisham at high tide to see massed ranks of knots and dunlins (Andy Hay rspb-images,com)
Don't miss out on the wader action this autumn!However, there are plenty more great RSPB reserves for you to visit to watch wading birds this autumn. You can find wading birds this autumn wherever there is mud and shallow water, including lakes and gravel pits inland, but the coast will provide you with the best numbers – and variety. Have a look at some of the RSPB reserves where you can see waders this autumn and don't forget to let us know how you got on!