At the first hint of sunshine the British population goes into super drive in an attempt to make the most of those all too elusive rays. Coastal roads become jammed with urban commuters as they rush to the nearest beach eagerly anticipating a day in the sun.
However, we are not the only species taking advantage of warm seas and hot sandy beaches. Blackbirds and pigeons also appear to enjoy a spot of sunbathing and along the shoreline you might catch a glimpse of a sparrow bedding down in the dunes for a sand bath. Scientists believe that the sand particles soak up excess preening oil and remove dry skin and mites. Afterwards, a short sojourn in the sun encourages new oil to spread through the bird’s feathers. It’s similar to having a facial exfoliation and re-moisturising. Birds that spend much of their lives by the coast are constantly exposed to the sun, but even these species will actively sun themselves. Diving birds, such as cormorants and fulmars are often seen holding their wings out to dry. It is likely that they lose body heat as their plumage becomes wet and like us, choose to use the sun as a natural drying mechanism. In truth there could be a number of reasons why birds enjoy the occasional or even frequent spot of sunbathing, perhaps they just enjoy it!
Birds are not the only animals along our coastline which relish the warmth of a summer day. The extensive intertidal flats along north Norfolk’s coast provide ideal conditions for both common and grey seals to breed, give birth and moult. During summer months it is not unusual to see these engaging animals hauled out onto sandbanks where they will bask in small groups. However, any disturbance from beach goers engaging in water activities can cause moulting seals to rush into the water. If the seals remain in the water for an extended period their body temperature will drop and like humans who spend too long in cold water, they can lose energy and become listless.
Recreational use of our beaches may also impact one of our smallest coastal inhabitants, the dune tiger beetle. Only ten centimetres long, this tiny invertebrate thrives in sandy areas along the drift line. Unable to tolerate the cold, dune beetles hibernate during winter months but on a warm day during the summer will become active and join other sunbathers on the beach. Sadly, these tiny creatures are under threat from coastal erosion and beachside developments and as our dunes disappear, so will they.
The Norfolk coast is a designated area of outstanding natural beauty teaming with wildlife. With thousands of people visiting our beaches each year it is important that we conserve and protect these important areas. By avoiding any disturbance with wildlife and only watching nesting birds, seals and other animals from a safe distance we can all help to preserve these special habitats for many years to come.