My University Courses Part 5: Earth Modelling and Prediction 2 (EMP2) & Soil, Water and Atmospheric Processes (SWAP)

In the second semester of my first year Undergraduate Geology degree I studied EMP2 and SWAP outside of the core course: Introduction to the Geological Record. EMP 2 was oriented towards mathematics while SWAP was oriented towards Environmental Science. Both subjects imparted useful ideas in the realm of GeoSciences ranging from mathematical modelling to the workings of microclimates around the world.

Earth Modelling and Prediction 2 (EMP2)

The aim of the course was to teach us key mathematical skills and show us how to reproduce 3D geological processes in mathematical models.

At the beginning of the course we started with the simpler things like integration and differentiation. They got us thinking about mathematically modelling everyday processes, like how fast a coffee cup would cool down. This was fed into, us calculating the difference between the thermal gradient between the mantle and Earth’s surface through the crust.

We learnt mathematical modelling in subjects such as representing underground water flow, movement of glaciers, heat diffusion by radioactive decay and the movement of air-masses above the surface of the Earth.

This course allowed me to see how important mathematics is in all aspects of life (especially in geology). It connects all sciences and allows us to make a universal sense of our universe.

Soil, Water and Atmospheric Processes (SWAP)

This course was a brilliant introduction to environmental science and its role in human society. The course was centred on agriculture and land use by human society. We looked at everything from how windfarms affect surface wind flows to how they affect water flow of catchment areas in the Scottish Highlands.

In the first few weeks we studied local microclimates and heat exchange between the surface atmosphere and the upper section of the soil. All areas on Earth have unique microclimates which greatly affect the way agriculture can be done. However in turn agriculture and land use has an effect on the microclimate. A great example is sections of Australia where large fences were built to keep farmland and woodland separate. Due to the different types of vegetation cloud formation, henceforth precipitation is very different between the two areas. Strangely enough the cloud cover changes right at the fences as if an invisible straight line was separating the two areas.

We learnt about Earth’s Heat budget and its distribution across the different spheres on Earth (Hydrosphere, Biosphere, etc.). Earth has a wonderfully complicated heat budget with the main source being the sun and the interior of the Earth. When learning about localized heat budgets we had several practicals. We calculated heat budgets, studied the equipment used to determine surface temperatures and saw how the type of soil can affect heat absorption and irradiation.


SWAP lab experiment demonstrating surface selectivity

After learning about the physics driving the natural systems we had a look at soils, chemistry of soils and biological interaction. The most interesting part consisted of us looking at discoloration of corn leaves and using the colour to predict the type of mineral deficiency the plant is struggling from. I included the example photo bellow.


Guide to Nutrient Deficiency Symptoms 

The highlight of the soils module included a field trip to country woods and fields. The aim of the trip was to sample the wide variety of soils and see their interaction with the vegetation. We brought all kinds of manual equipment with us. I had the luck to be allowed to use one of the soil samplers. Vegetation plays a key part in soil health. On the top of Blackford Hill where only grass grew, soil was poorly. The ground was broken and heavily eroded. However at areas where more vegetation was allowed to grow the soil looked much healthier and had a deeper horizon. In the February break I had the chance to visit the labs studying charcoal and Carbon Capture and Storage in the soil. It is important to note that soils store a huge amount of CO2 in them and play a key role in the carbon cycle.


Soil sampling field trip

The third and final part of the course consisted of Hydrogeology. We had a look at river formation, catchment areas, the effect of biology on river health and natural underground water storage. The key part was to understand the concepts of confined and unconfined aquifers. Unconfined aquifers are usually found close to the surface. They are between the upper water table and a lower confining area. Confined aquifers are usually below the levels of the water table. They are present between two confining layers. The classical underground reservoir site is a porous and permeable sandstone layer, capped off by impermeable shale layers.

We finished off the course by visiting a water monitoring site and an artificial flood plain at the edge of Edinburgh. As the rivers are quite controlled in the Borders, flooding used to be common. When Edinburgh’s first mega supermarket got built in the 80s, it got catastrophically flooded right after opening. After the disaster Edinburgh Council has completely changed its approach to river flow management. Now they allow the rivers and stream to meander through towns, taking into account the presence of a natural flood plain.


Burning biochar

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My University Courses Part 4: Introduction to the Geological Record

I finished this course 2 years ago. Looking back, I say it was worth it. This subject introduced me to a plethora of new things including geological maps, sedimentary logs and many new field trip skills. The cherry on the top was the field trip to the Lake District. The views were nice and Alex Thomas was a great field instructor.


Turbidity current experiment 

The Lectures:

We had two lectures per week. The lectures covered GIS, geological mapping, carbonates, the general history of geology as a science and the connection between life and geological deposits. Dr. Rachel Wood was a very memorable lecturer who shared her extensive expertise on Carbonates and Evaporates with us.

The Practicals:

We had a three hour practical every week. It was used to prepare us for the field trips and teach us how to draw geological maps. In a wider context they were standard geology practicals. We looked at maps from the field, interpreted them, looked at hand-specimens and thin-sections. For me the most interesting part was when we learned about coal. We saw all the different grades of it, got an explanation on their formation and sampled the wide range of industry using it.


Ammonite in shale from one of the practical 

The Field Trip to the Lake District:

This was the crowning achievement of the course. In April we went to the Lake District in the Coniston Area. Our accommodation was set at the beautiful foot of the Old Man of Coniston Mountain. While in the Lake District we visited 10 different outcrops in the first 3 days. On day 1 we climbed mountains, sampled the igneous richness of the area and witnessed the power of metamorphism. In the morning we visited an ex-slate mine. The metamorphism preserved amazing sedimentary structures like desiccation cracks. In the afternoon we saw evidence for massive extinct volcanoes in tall ash layers. It was great to see ex-volcanic bombs and realize that the once dull Lake District was very much the ‘hot-zone’. On days 2-4 we had a look at the sedimentary formations and the structural formations in the area. We visited plenty of limestone, mudstone and shale outcrops. The highlight of the trip was our visit to Donkey Rock. Donkey Rock is well preserved deep sea sediment with prints left by underwater landslides from the upper continental shelves.
For the reminder of the trip we sank our teeth into field mapping. Our area was a valley full of abandoned slate heaps left from mining in the 19th century. We mapped units of mudstone, limestone and slate on the top. On that field trip I learnt one valuable lesson: GPS isn’t better than the map & compass and map & compass isn’t better than the GPS. They both are valuable members of the ‘team’.
On the final day we visited the old copper mines of the valley and saw some beautiful glacial striation marks.


The Lake District

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GIS 30-Year Reunion

Earth Observation and Spatial Analysis

The weekend of the 29th July saw a reunion of the GIS class of 1987. who stood for a photography on the steps at Drummond Street, adopting the same poses of a similar photography taken thirty years previously.

DSCF2432.JPG Chris Nailer (front), Jane D’Souza, Melissa Craig, Lorraine Chu, Karen Westwood, Alex Bell (middle) and Paul Dowie, Mike Adam, Stuart Gillies and Bruce Gittings.

Bruce Gittings hosted a visit to the Institute of Geography (still known by many as “the department”) and toured the group round familiar and less familiar aspects of the building.  Three of the group had been geography undergraduates prior to taking the GIS MSc, so had spent five years in the building. The Old Library, which is now our principal seminar room, was very much an active library at that time and our newly-refurbished coffee room was the site of the librarian’s office, along with rows of shelves holding…

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Corals in the Land Down Under!

For my dissertation I traveled to Australia, the land down under! There I worked with the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) Centre of Excellence (CoE) for Coral Reef Studies at the University of Western Australia in Perth. I did my project on corals found in the Kimberley Region of Australia.


The Kimberley Region is found in Northwest Australia. It is a unique area where coral reefs can be found in naturally extreme conditions. Coral reefs in the intertidal there experience up 3 hours of aerial exposure, temperatures up to 37˚C, and highly variable daily temperatures with a 4C degree difference. The project I worked on for my dissertation was studying whether these corals held an adaptation that allowed them to thrive in this environment or had acclimatized, and whether they could improve or maintain their tolerance to high temperatures. Additionally the role of a diurnal variation in temperature of 4˚C on heat tolerance was examined.


Experimental Tanks

To address these questions, intertidal Acropora aspera were either (de-)acclimatized to cooler, seasonal temperatures characteristic of Ningaloo Reef (another reef in Western Australia), acclimatized to 1°C warmer seasonal Kimberley temperatures, or held at seasonal Kimberley temperatures for 9 months. For my project I heat stressed them after these 9 months and then collected photochemical efficiency, calcification, photosynthesis, and respiration data to answer these questions.

My favorite method I learned was using pulse-amplitude modulated fluorometry. Using a machine with a fiber optic cable that gives a steady, low frequency light, you place the end of the cable to the coral and blast it with a bright light. The result, depending on the time of day you do it (day/night) results in a reading that determines photochemical efficiency of the zooxanthellae symbiont. Its a simple, but fun and easy way to assess corals! 🙂


The findings will be presented at the European Coral Reef Symposium at Oxford University in December! Stay tuned.

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Bonus picture of a cheeky kangaroo I met a weekend I wasn’t stuck in the lab 🙂

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Dives and High-Fives: The Maldives Archives

Back in April we went to the Maldives for the last core class of the M.Sc Marine Systems and Policies programme.

I had never been so far East or far away from home. The journey to the Maldives was long as you can imagine. We first stopped in Istanbul,  however, our layover was so short we didn’t leave the airport and instead we explored the airport, which is quite huge! Then we flew to the capital of the Maldives, which is Malé.  I tried to sleep the entire flight. That was quite trippy as I woke up so far away from home in a different time zone without having felt the time pass by. The airport is on a little island, and upon exiting you are already greeted by the clear blue waters of the Maldives.


Waters just outside the airport doors

When I first saw the waters right outside the airport I remember thinking “Oh wow, it looks just like how it looks in magazines and on TV!”. The waters are seriously beautiful. We spent the day at the capital which lies on a surprisingly small island, jam-packed with buildings and motorbikes, leaving small sidewalks and roads to contend with.


Aerial view of Malé. Levente Bodo / Alamy Stock Photo

That night we ate some Maldivian food on a restaurant with some delicious sugary mock-tails (Maldives is a Muslim country, which means they serve no alcohol for the most part). The following day we set out on a long and bumpy boat ride to the island of Dhigurah, were we would be staying for the remainder of our time.


Sarah and Liam. Picture by Narma Gebruk


Amber. Picture by Narma Gebruk

Upon arrival we were greeted with smiles from the local groups we would be working with. After getting settled in our hotel we had an orientation and explore the island a bit. Throughout my time there I realized that this little island was very quiet and peaceful. While there are a reported ~600 people living on this island, I did not usually see many people walking around. I attributed this to the hot sun beating down on the island for most of the day. Despite the little amount ofmpeople I saw, the people I did meet were extremely nice, albeit a bit cautious and shy at first.


Over the next few days we went diving tons! We did a total of five dives, and I was able to see so many amazing things. In my first dive there I ended up swimming along a sea turtle. I will never ever forget that! I never thought that would be something I would be lucky to experience. The sea turtle was so calm and stared at me. It was amazing. I also saw sharks, rays, and so many different types of fish.  As part of the diving we also learned how to do fish counts, using quadrants, and underwater transects. Fish count methods during diving were probably the hardest, it is really hard to stay still underwater and trying to be still gave me anxiety. I think, however, using quadrants underwater gave me more anxiety, as the current wants to move you as you work. It is pretty hard to stay still. Transects were really fun though! Since you have to move it isn’t hard, the current helps and you can jot down your data as you glide.


My sea turtle friend


Preparing to dive!


Our amazing dive guides!

We also went on a trip with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme who taught us how they perform their on-going monitoring research of the whale sharks in the area. We luckily got to see a whale shark, which I will forever remember. When I was in second grade I found out what whale sharks were and used VHS to tape the Discovery channel documentary I was watching. I then took it to class and showed my classmates during show and tell. Little me did not expect to ever get the chance to see one only a few meters in front of me.


Whale Shark!

Following these experiences we also had a lecture on coastal geomorphology, and we got to learn about the creation of sandy beaches, determine elevations for different parts of the island, determine which parts were eroding or accreting, and also learned about micro-atolls!

The last few days we were given the chance to develop a project using methods that we had learned, and then execute it. My project was on the perception of socio-culture change by the people of Dhigurah due to the increase in ecotourism and dependance on it for their livelihoods. I worked with an anthropologist that came on the trip to help craft my questions and also worked with a local translator to help me communicate with some of the locals that didn’t know English, or were shy. I am beyond glad I chose to do this project because I was able to talk to islanders about their views and gain a greater understanding of their lifestyles. I was also even able to talk to a chief on the island council. There were islanders wary of how westerners would change their traditions and thought that  the creation of a bikini beach for tourists did not fix the problem of foreigners walking around town in less-than acceptable clothing.


Bikini beach

They also thought that this would be a bad influence for children and give them bad thoughts. Despite this view, many realized that their economic development was dependent on foreign tourism, and they had to balance their traditions with the economic needs of the community. The majority of people I talked to believed that there was a balance, and one women believed that there was even opportunity to practice their culture. An example she gave was the youth-produced Boduberu (traditional drumming) that could now be performed for visitors, and was not done as often in the past. This project has led to my  interests in examining the community socio-cultural and economic development driven by increasing coastal tourism in the newly accessible, traditionally Islamic Maldivian islands. And what how vulnerabilities these islands may be acquiring from dependence on tourism, such as through climate change impacts on reefs and coasts.

After we finished the projects we presented our final outcomes on the last day on Dhigurah, which was very nice. While I knew the topic everyone had chosen, I, for the most part, had little knowledge of what everyone had exactly done. So it was great to hear how the complex and thorough job everyone had done. Some of these projects included waste management on a local island, examining microatolls for sea level rise, biodiversity of the intertidal zone, and tourist and whale shark interactions.


Presentations! Pictures by Mario Ray

Overall I had the time of my life, learned lots, and the three buffet meals each day were a huge lovely bonus especially after running around the island all day!! 🙂 10/10 recommend.


marine “pod lunch! 🙂


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Wool Waste

After studying environmental studies for the past year, I realised that I have adopted new habits when it comes to sustainable living. I always try to incorporate environmentally-friendly practices everyday, such as minimising waste and purchasing packaging-free items (#LushCosmetics), but I was never used to be very conscious of my crochet waste.  After completing my projects, I always ended up throwing away tons of yarn scraps, watching the sad yarn strands go to waste 😦IMG_4216

This is an image of my most recent sock monkey creation (first time making a striped one), and next to it is the yarn that did not get used. In the past, I used to have what may have been another ball of yarn’s worth of wool scraps, but today I did something different. For this monkey, I decided to stuff it with the extra yarn and thread that I cut off, significantly reducing the amount of yarn waste. I understand that yarn does not have a  huge impact (like at all :p) on the environment, but it still helps knowing that I was able to reduce waste 🙂

Hope this monkey brings some people smiles during these final dissertation deadlines 😀

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Volunteering at the Botanic Garden

photo 2-2

I only came to university two years after finishing highschool and I’m happy that I did, because those two years gave me a lot more experience in the field that I’m studying and I had a really good time as well. Today I’m going to write about the six months I spent volunteering at the Botanic Garden in Kiel (Germany). I spent another year with the Ulster Wildlife Trust in Northern Ireland which I will make a separate blog post about.
My placement was called “Freiwilliges Ökologisches Jahr” (voluntary year in ecology) and is a German volunteering scheme. You don’t have to be German to take part though, in fact the person volunteering in the garden before me was American and there was a girl from Egypt in my regional group. You get a monthly allowance which is enough for food and rent, and some places even provide you with a room to stay. Most placements are for one year but there are some shorter placements as well (I got a six months placement on short notice because a volunteer quit early on). There are placements all over Germany and they are all so different, too! In my group, there were people working in nature reserves, on ecological farms, in city councils, doing outdoor education with kids, and there even was someone working on a sailing boat!

I spent my first three months (January until March) in the tropical greenhouse. It was so nice being in a tropical climate after cycling through the cold in the morning! A bit like travelling to the rainforest every day! Every morning and afternoon, I was responsible for cleaning the paths and flowerbeds, watering the plants and feeding the frogs and quails we had in the greenhouse. I also helped with the propagation of plants, with planting and cutting plants, and with events in the garden.
In April, I started working outdoors, mainly in the area with European plants. I helped with sowing, took care of the seedlings and planted them when they were big enough. Spring was a busy time with getting the garden ready after winter, and everything starting to grow. During spring, I also had the opportunity to take part in a plant identification course at Kiel university which was very useful.

Another part of my work in the garden was to help lead the children’s group. We grew our own potatoes, dyed eggs using flowers collected in the garden and just played outside. That was a lot of fun!
It is a part of the volunteering programme that volunteers can come up with their personal project if they like. I thought it would be interesting to record the garden’s wildlife with a camera trap, so that’s what I did! I only got footage of some gulls and rabbits (the latter no good news for the garden) but it was really nice that I could come up with my own ideas and organise this on my own.
My time in the garden was definitely full of new experiences and especially things like learning some plant ID proved to be very useful in my studies!
If you’d like to know more about the programme, just come talk to me! 🙂

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Field Ecology

For me, the best part of studying Ecology (or geosciences in general) is getting to go out into the field. While my first year courses took me to Siccar Point (Earth Dynamics), the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (Origin and Diversity of Life) and an estate in Perthshire (Biology, Ecology and Environment), I hadn’t been on any longer field trip yet. But after all the exams, first year Ecological and Environmental Sciences students stay in Edinburgh for another few days to take part in a residential field trip (so we stay in Edinburgh but go out to different places every day). Field Ecology is a second year course but is taught in the end of first year. It is so unlike the other courses I’ve taken throughout the year!

We spent the first two days around Howe Dean Path near King’s Buildings sampling terrestrial invertebrates. Honestly, it’s a fifteen minute walk from Ashworth Labs and you feel like you’re miles away from the city! Other days were spent in Glencourse Burn, Roslin Glen, Silverburn (see picture above) and on the beach in Yellowcraig. I can only recommend visiting those places, be it out of ecological interest or just to enjoy a nice walk. They are beautiful!

On most days, we spent the morning in the field and then went back to the lab to identify our plant samples and invertebrates that we couldn’t identify in the field. Then, we also had to write reports on the things we did in the morning. This was definitely the most stressful part of the day because there never seemed to be enough time to finish a whole report with tables and diagrams and a meaningful conclusion. But I think by the end of the course, everybody had learned to manage their time more efficiently. Apart from the limited time, I quite liked writing the reports, because it really makes you think about your results and you might discover something you haven’t seen before when you were looking at your samples.

We learned to identify the most common orders of terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates, learned how to use a plant identification key and made our own key for trees. But for me, the most important and useful aspect of the course was learning how to design our own studies, which methods to use to answer which question and how to interpret our results. The course really gives you an idea of where to start. Of course, a ten days course could not teach me how to identify each and every animal and plant, but it gives you a lot of motivation and a clearer idea of how to start learning to identify organisms.

This course really gave me a feeling for what the next years on my degree are going to be like. Apart from that, it was a good opportunity to meet some more people on the course and to find out about amazing natury places near Edinburgh that I will definitely go back to next year. It was a lot of fun, and I think everybody was a bit sad when the course was over.

There is another part to the course: I have to do my own ecological project over the summer. We are quite free in which topic to choose. I will write more about it once I have decided what I will actually do! 🙂

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Geology Field-Trips around Scotland: The Assynt Geo-Park

Through the Global Tectonics and the Rock Cycle course and the Field Skills for Geologist course I visited the wonderful parish of Assynt. Assynt is a geological wonder, with friendly people, great beaches and breath taking landscapes. I am extremely thankful for the University of Edinburgh for taking me there. In Assynt I practiced my geological field skills such as Triangulation on a map, measuring dip & dip direction of beds and taking accurate & comprehensive field notes. I visited many wonderful localities such as Knockan Crag, the outcrops at Loch Assynt and the Imbricates next to Ullapool. I geologically mapped the area north of Loch Assynt and the Imbricates section east of Ullapool. Outside of my geological work I visited the wonderful porcelain factory, Highland Stoneware, strolled down the many beaches on Assynt’s coast and sampled the taste of local pies. I spent two good weeks in the region. I hope reading about my adventure will delight you as much as being in the region delighted me.


Sandstone Layers

Week 1

On day 0 we traveled from the bonnie city of Edinburgh to the remote town of Inchnadamph. It was amazing to see the change in geology and in the landscape as we moved through Scotland. I noticed it several times that the surface vegetation can be linked to the geology below. A micro example is how short grass preferred limestone while bracken liked the fucoid beds.
While we worked in Assynt we stayed at the Inchnadamph Lodge, a wonderful hostel with great rural cottages. It was great to listen to the bird songs in the morning and spot deer herds passing through the front yard in the evenings. A gentle river cut through the property allowing me to drift to sleep to the music of flowing water. The lecturers made a great choice by basing us there.
On day 1 we got a comprehensive presentation from our lecturers of the local geology, called: “From the crags to the coast”, where we started from the area with the Moine Thrust, studied the Cambrian Sequence and moved to have a look at the gneiss metamorphic basin in the western, coastal regions. This prepared us for the marked mapping of the north of Loch Assynt. Looking back, this was the easy part of the trip as we didn’t have to deal with the effects of tectonics on the land. From day 2 to day 6 we mapped out the Torridonian Sandstone basin; the unconformable contact between the Sandstone and the Quartzite; and the Cambrian Sequence which consisted of: Quartzite-Pipe Rock-Fucoid Beds-Salterella Grit-Limestone layers. I sedimentary logged one of the Fucoid Beds. The Fucoid bed was full of evidence for cross bedding, gradual deposition and algae mats. From the sedimentary log I theorised that Delta building processes created this layer. Outside of our main mapping area we moved into the tectonic zone, mapped out a limestone syncline and had a look at the Fucoid Bed- Salterella Grit Imbricates created by thrusting. Tectonic thrusting is when tectonic forces push an older rock layer above a younger rock layer at a shallow angle. After mapping out the region we consolidated our findings into a geological surface map, a cross section and a two page report.
On the final day of week 1 we concentrated our effort on the metamorphic region, familiarizing ourselves with the Lewisian Gneiss and the Moine Schist. This was considered a reward day since we finished our work a day early.


Looking at outcrops

Highland Stoneware

On our rest day we visited the world famous pottery factory, Highland Stoneware. The place makes a wide range of china, pottery and decorative tiles sold the world over. The cool part of their work was that they use local rocks to create the glazing and the colours for the different pots. They take the rocks from the field; grind them up into dust and bake it with the pottery for several hours between 1000-2000 Celsius Degrees. While in the oven, chemical reactions take place, generating a wide range of colours and glazes. The completed products looked beautiful. The fellow who shoved us around mentioned that the pottery they make attends competitions in places such as Japan. After seeing the plant I had the luck to find a local bakery and sample the locally made pies. The Highlanders are brilliant cooks.


Highland Stoneware – The factory floor

Week 2

On week 2 we delved deeper into tectonics and the effects of thrust faulting on the landscape.
On the first day we didn’t do any mapping but with the supervision of Dr Simon Harley we went through the units present in the region and he showed us hidden outcrops. We saw blood red garnets as big as my fist, newer rock invading older rocks, pink zircon crystals and kilometers long thrust faulting. While the subject of metamorphism is hard, the structures the process produces are nothing but bonnie.
For the rest of the week we were mapping the area east of Ullapool where the Stoer and the Moine Thrust faults are located. We mapped the basic Cambrian sequence from last week. We noticed that some of the units repeated themselves or were laid in an illogical manner. We got to the imbricates zone which was lying bellow the Stoer thrust. We moved back to the normal Cambrian-sequences zone and mapped the normal fault that uplifted that section of the landscape. On the last days we mapped out the Moine Thrust and identified the gneiss and schist regions.
I loved the landscape that we were mapping through. The weather was unpredictable but it provided other worldly sites. In the morning bright sunshine filled up the valley while by the evening fog shrouded everything into mystery. Coupled with the seaside harbour the place is a truly unique place.


My geological map of the Ullapool Area

Beach Time

After all the hustle and the bustle of geology, we spent a good amount of time relaxing on the beaches of the North Sea. The highland seas are beautiful at summer, almost indistinguishable from the tropics. The backdrop of geology gave the place an inspiring drama. The sea walls were either made by orange and black stripped metamorphic gneiss or by crushed together breccias and conglomerates. I had a great time, I managed to sit down on the beach with a can of Irn-Bru and take in the sites.


North-West Assynt coast

My Thanks:

This trip wouldn’t have been possible without The University of Edinburgh, my fellow colleagues, the supervising students and most importantly my lecturers. My fellow students made the trip more than enjoyable. The lecturers provided great insight and they were more than inspiring. I would like to especially thank Florian, Simon and Andrew.

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Nature all around…

DSC_0635You love nature? You want to work in conservation?  And now you’d like to gain some experience and spend a few weeks surrounded by birds, bees and badgers?

If you’ve been looking for environmental volunteering or internships, you’ve probably come across loads of placements in tropical locations (that sound very exciting, to be fair) that want you to pay for your volunteering, and mostly those prices are much more than the typical student can afford. But there definitely are other ways to gain some experience, see if conservation is for you, and have a lot of fun, too!

I spent two weeks as a residential volunteer in the RSPB nature reserve in Mersehead (Dumfries & Galloway) this summer. Just a few things we did:

Breeding bird surveys: We got up in the early hours of the morning (yes, it’s worth it!) and walked through all the fields looking for breeding birds. Most of them were lapwings, but also other waders, and I even got taught how to tell their age! One time, we even found a nest with two chicks that must have hatched just a few hours ago. Of course, if you find a nest by mistake, as we did, it’s important to leave it alone very quickly so the parents can return to it.DSC_0346.JPG

Natterjack toad monitoring: Mersehead has a healthy (and growing!) population of natterjack toads. This is a threatened species in the UK. Unlike common toads, they have a golden stripe along their back. I helped doing regular surveys, counting the tadpoles in their different life stages. With the warm weather we had lately, we also had to check whether some little ponds were drying out, in which case we had to catch the tadpoles and bring them to another pond. Not the easiest job!

Visitor centre: I spent quite a lot of time in the visitor centre, welcoming the visitors and showing them around. It was really quite nice chatting to so many people from so many different places. It depends on the reserve you’re going to whether manning the visitor centre is a part of your volunteering.

Practical work: We also did quite a lot of practical work, for example cutting back some shrubs or clearing a path. I always got all the help I needed and could ask any questions.DSC_0601.JPG

Bird ringing: When I arrived, I got told I could take part in a session of bird ringing. So exciting!!! I have been doing some ringing when I lived in Belfast and I’ve been waiting to get the opportunity to do it again. We set up the mist nets at 5 in the morning. It feels like everything that has to do with birds always starts early. But again, it’s totally worth losing a few hours of sleep. We didn’t get too many birds that morning, a lot of wrens, some robins and a reed warbler.

But the best thing happened later that day: I had just finished work and sat reading in the garden in front of the place where I was staying, when they started ringing the barn owl chicks (YES, there were barn owls nesting in the tree in front of the house!). Of course the book I was reading wasn’t quite that interesting, suddenly. I even got to hold a barn owl chick, and they are absolutely gorgeous!photo[3251]

In my opinion, residential volunteering is a great opportunity to find out if nature conservation is for you, and to get closer to nature. It is also a very easy way for students to gain experience. You will get a place to stay during your volunteering, so the only thing you have to pay for is your food and the transport to get to the reserve.

Work was really varied and gave me a good insight into nature conservation in the UK. From surveys to welcoming visitors to rock-pooling with the kids from the local primary school, I was included in all the day to day work. I would definitely do it again!

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