Saturday, 17 June 2017

Garden BioBlitz 2017

It was the first weekend of June, which meant it was time for the Garden Bioblitz giving me 24 hours to find as many wild species in my garden as possible. I have been doing the Bioblitz every year since 2014.
 
3rd June 2017 - 9am - let the Bioblitz commence
This year I wanted to:
  • beat last year's total of 144 wild species identified
  • successfully identify some tiny bugs that the iRecord verifier had been forced to reject because of my inadequate photographs
  • make more precise identification of plants in my garden especially grasses.
Hoverfly (Eupeodes) - a useful pollinator.
I started at about 9am on Saturday to try and find insects.  I was able to photograph some hoverflies and bees before they really warmed up and got too fast for me.  While I was exploring for insects, I could hear the birds calling in the trees. Thanks to what I have learnt on birdsong walks (guided by David of the Uckfield Local Nature Reserves Supporters Group) I found it easier to figure out where the calls come from and identify the bird. This means I got a couple of extra bird species compared to last year.

Leaf hopper - Iassus lanio
Our visiting birds are forever searching our oak and birch trees for insects to eat. I used a hook, hastily improvised from a packaging tube and a coat hanger to shake some branches. My catch included a number of tiny bugs and spiders. This time my replacement macro lens gave me a good enough photo to identify the Leaf Hopper shown above.

Corizus hyoscyami - Cinnamon Bug
I was a little disappointed not to find any Shield Bugs but I did find a colourful Cinnamon Bug amongst our flowers.

White-tailed Bumble Bee on ceanothus.
One of our star plants for bees is Mum's ceanothus. This was covered in different types of bees, such as the White Tailed Bumblebee shown, all day. After photographing the bees it was time to start checking the wildflowers. This is easier and quicker because, over the years, I have developed a list of what I expect to find. This year, because I have had some useful advice from the Sussex Botanical Recording Society I have been able add a few extras. For example, I have used the guides on the bottom left hand corner of BSBI Identification page to identify grasses more precisely.  Species new to my list included Fox Tail Grass and Perennial Rye Grass, both of which must have been in the garden for years without me noticing them.

Common Liverwort
Unexpectedly, I found a large colony of liverworts amongst the grasses on a sloping grass bank.


Frog tadpole
Doing a pond dip really brings out the big kid in me. I was delighted to find 15 fat tadpoles in one scoop.


Arion Rufus - Large Red Slug from underside
Mum called me over because she had found some slugs under her pots.  I photographed them from 3 angles as advised by Chris De Feu in February's Biological Recorders' Seminar. The bigger of the two was from one of those groups that are difficult to sort out but is probably Arion Rufus. Although they are big and very obvious in the garden, they do relatively little damage because they live on rotting vegetation. It's the little brown ones you need to look out for. After taking portraits of my slimy little sitters, I set up my beetle traps and went inside for tea.

Toad, creeping through the leaves after dark.
As night was falling I went outside with my bat detector and detected a Common Pipistrelle. I heard some rustling behind me. Because there was no wind, this was seriously creepy. I slowly turned round, fearing that I would find a rat. Instead there was a toad moving through some dried-up leaves at the side of the house.  Toads eat insects, spiders, slugs and worms. Hopefully it is helping to keep our slug population down.


Millipede (Polydesmus)
The next morning, I got up early to check my beetle traps. I didn't find any beetles but I did find a millipede.  One last round of the garden yielded a few more insects and a forgotten wildflower and then it was time to enter my results.  So how did I do?

The National Results - I found 153 species in the garden.
I had just about beaten last year's record and, due to having replaced my 20-year old macro lens, had taken much better photos of the tiny bugs, enabling successful verification.  Thanks to other people, such as members of recording societies and Uckfield's own Nature Reserves group, I have been able to increase the number of species that I have recorded and share my own knowledge with others.

The 153 species I found broke down as follows.


My results broken down by group.

Before I close, I would like to give a big shout out to all the people who diligently sift through the records pushed into the system by people like me and verify or correct as required.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Churchyard Plant Survey - End of April

This weekend, I was back in Holy Cross Churchyard. At the beginning of April, Helen of the Sussex Botanical Recording Society, got me going. This time I was back - and needed to be able to identify the plants on my own. 

Ferns and flowers by the smartly painted door.
The instructions for the Churchyard Survey recommend ...

Three visits per year in Spring, mid and late summer would be ideal for ... plant recording.

I've decided to add in another visit, four weeks after my first, to see some of the plants that Helen pointed out, before I forgot too much.  At the beginning of the month we saw bluebells just beginning to flower. Now both the English and Spanish varieties are in full bloom.

Honeybee on Spanish Bluebell (possibly hybrid) - notice the bluish pollen
English Bluebells showing creamy-coloured pollen.
There are some lovely clumps of English bluebells (‎Hyacinthoides non-scripta) alongside some touching modern-day memorials along the East Wall.

English Bluebells by touching wall memorials.
Slightly nearer the church, a gravestone from the late 1700s reminded me just how old the Holy Cross churchyard is.

E.B. 1765 and J. B. 1779.
The Caring For God's Acre website - A2 Caring for Grassland tells us:

Apart from grave digging, the grassland will have been relatively undisturbed, re-seeding naturally for hundreds if not thousands of years. ...

A benefit of this continuity of management over a very long time is a diversity of beautiful grasses and flowers and associated animals, some of which may now be uncommon or rare in Britain.

A tiny (6mm) Red-Girdled Mining Bee on Germander Speedwell.
Have you ever wondered what pollinates the tiny flowers in the grass? For this Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys), the answer is tiny bees. While I was photographing the plant, a bee landed on the sapphire-blue flowers. Thanks to Ryan Clark and Stuart Roberts of the UK Bees, Wasps and Ants Facebook group, I now know that this is a Red-Girdled Mining Bee (Andrena labiata). My Field Guide to Bees, by Steven Falk, says that  this little pollinator lives in unimproved grasslands, feeds on  Germander Speedwell and Forget-me-nots, nests in short or sparse vegetation and is "scarce".

It seems that the old turf of Holy Cross church is just the place for this little bee. It has escaped the fertilizers and weedkillers intended to "improve" grass but end up driving out wildflowers and the pollinators that depend on them.

Of course I was in the churchyard to find more plants that I could add to my list. I was able to identify about 10 more ranging from a humble Common Chickweed to Ash Trees that make up part of the hedge.

Large Red Damsel Fly - only about an inch long!
The hedge is a valuable habitat too. While looking for more plants, I found a damsel fly, who had found sanctuary from the cold wind, amongst its leaves.

Black Bryony
Black Bryony has sprung up very rapidly. On our first visit there were only old stems and one, shrivelled fruit. 4 weeks later the stems are carrying the shiny, exotic-looking, leaves up round railings and other supports. Soon, the dainty white flowers will open.

Pellitory-by-the-Wall.
A little plant growing in the wall had me stumped. Fortunately, Mum came to the rescue by telling me that it is Pellitory-by-the-Wall (Parietaria Judaica).

Pellitory-by-the-wall - tiny female flowers
Pellitory-by-the-Wall has miniature, wind-pollinated flowers. The plant that I found has female flowers. I wonder if there is a male somewhere nearby?

Blackbird - making it clear to a rival who owns this patch.
My couple of hours searching for plants had flown by. As I was completing my survey, a glossy male Blackbird was fending off another, whose presence was clearly unwelcome. The brown female, was nearby and there may well be a nest. I left and hoped that the intruding Blackbird had the good sense to do likewise.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Churchyard Plant Survey - Holy Cross, Uckfield

After the hustle and bustle of the working week, it was lovely to spend some time in "God's acre", the churchyard of Holy Cross Church, which is very much the beating heart of Uckfield.  I was recording the wild plants in the churchyard as part of the Sussex Botanical Recording Society's Churchyard survey.

Holy Cross churchyard, with established garden daffodils.
With Helen acting as a guide and mentor, we recorded 74 species of plant.  Most of these are natives but some were garden varieties that had become established in the churchyard.  We included everything from tiny Speedwells to big Yew trees.

Slender Speedwell in the grass by the East Wall.
The Slender Speedwell (Veronica filiformis) was originally from Turkey and was introduced in the early 19th Centaury as a rockery plant. However, it was prone to establish itself in the grass, much to the annoyance of Victorian gardeners.

Good Friday Grass, throughout the churchyard. 
One of the plants we found was the Field Wood Rush (Luzula campestris).  This is a tiny rush that grows in the grass. The individual plants are inconspicuous but in their hundreds they make a pretty yellow haze above the neatly-cut grass.  Pleasingly, for a plant found in a churchyard they are also called Good Friday Grass, because the flowers come out just in time for Easter.

The gravestones and hedges are habitats too.
Grassland is just one of the habitats to be found in a churchyard. The gravestones support colonies of colourful lichens and mosses, as well as perches for curious robins. There are also hedges as shown in the background of photo above.  These provide a home to hedge plants such as Hazels, Hawthorns and Yew, as well as the little plants that live in their feet.

Wall Rue fern (Asplenium ruta-muraria)
Even the walls provide a habitat for plants such as the delicate Wall Rue (Asplenium ruta-muraria), which is a tiny fern. This was my favourite find. It is such a pretty little thing, clinging to the tiny crevices in the old wall.

Primroses hiding under some roses.
There are just a few primroses (Primula vulgaris) in the churchyard, tucked away in odd corners. The photo shows one of a group nestling under a rose. Another spring favourite, the Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), is just starting to flower amongst the gravestones.

Thale Cress, which grows in disturbed ground.
One plant, which I have never noticed before, was Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana). It is a fairly widespread weed of disturbed ground and I must have walked past it many a time without really seeing it.

A solitary bee, which is a good pollinator but does not make honey.
The churchyard supports a community of plants, insects and birds just as the Church supports the community of Uckfield. Even the humble Dandelion is providing a welcome meal for a hungry bee.

Survey done and I was off to the Farmers' Market to pick up some samosas for lunch and a jar of Sussex honey. I found myself wondering if the honeybees, who had made my honey, had visited any churchyards.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Frogs spawning - better late than never!

With storms Doris and Ewan, March has certainly come in like a lion. More importantly our garden frogs have belatedly decided it is time to spawn. 

Spawn first seen 2nd March 2017
I wasn't around to see it myself but Mum let me know when I came home from work.  This year's spawning is quite late compared to the February dates for 2014-2016.
  • 2017 - 2nd March
  • 2016 - 14th Feb
  • 2015 - 22nd Feb
  • 2014 - 8th Feb
  • 2013 - 6th March
  • 2012 - 25th Feb
  • 2011 - 20th Feb
  • 2010 - 28th Feb
  • 2009 - saw frogs active in pond 18th Feb
  • 2008 - saw frogs active in pond 29th Feb
  • 2007 - saw frogs active in pond 11th Feb
  • 2005 - 19th Feb
Meanwhile, while I've been driving along country roads, I've seen the first daffodils and wild primroses appearing as we are blown headlong into spring.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Sussex Botanical Recording Society and Snatts Road Surveys

I've just attended the Sussex Botanical Recording Society (SBRS) AGM.  SBRS members record flowers, ferns, mosses and all sorts of plants throughout Sussex.  I enjoyed an informative afternoon amongst lovely, knowledgeable people.  The meeting was held in Staplefield Village Hall. It was pleasing to find some primroses blooming nearby.

Primroses at Staplefield, where the meeting was held.
Churchyards

One very interesting talk was about the new Churchyard survey for Sussex. Helen, the coordinator, explained that:
  • Churchyards provide several different habitats such as walls, grassland, paths, hedgerows and grassland
  • They had previously been surveyed in the 1980s
  • The surveys done so far (2016) have more species than 1980s but this may be down to people having better sources about information.
  • That conservation areas need to have grass removed sometimes otherwise wildflower seeds cannot germinate.
One of the surveys was for the Snatts Road Cemeteries.  The scores on the doors were:
A separate survey (by a different organisation) was undertaken for Wealden in 2015. This was summarised in the Uckfield Town Council minutes for 11 July 2016 as follows:

Following a site visit and survey in summer 2015 it is recommended that the Local Wildlife Site boundary be extended to include half of the newer area of cemetery to the North of the road.  The grassland has a more acidic characteristic and the east half of this area is species rich with plant species Heath Grass, Devil's Bit Scabious, Eyebright and Trailing St. John's Wort.

There is more information about caring for graveyards and cemeteries at http://www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk/

Other useful tidbits

 Returning to the AGM ...

There will be an Autumn get together (as well as all the spring and summer field meetings) on October 28th.

Mathew said that if we were in doubt over an ID, had something unexpected or a hybrid to check with him. The BSBI website is http://bsbi.org/

The webmaster outlined features of the SBRS website:
  • Latest sightings - needn't be confined to rare items. Anything interesting - maybe because it is the first of a type you have identified.
  • There is a map, which you can click to find species found in a particular "tetrad". Some tedrads (listed on the website) have no items so it would be nice to get some.
There are useful pieces on way the recording organisations use map references on the BSBI and BTO websites.

Brad displayed splendid photos of mosses and liverworts. There is more information at:
photos - https://www.flickr.com/photos/23980231@N07/collections/72157675601655911/
website - https://sussexbryophytes.wordpress.com/

In a conversation about a survey, one of the committee explained the meanings of letters used in surveys.

P = Planted
C = Casual
N = Natural
S = Surviving
E = Established
U = Unknown

I had a chat about the NPMS squares scheme, in which people record plants in a particular square on the map. I've just had another look but nothing available close enough.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Lime Aid - Rubies and Gold Cups

It's just past Valentine's Day, which means it's time to give Lime Tree Avenue a bit of love. I've have been doing volunteer work to help keep the wonderful old Lime Trees in this Historic Avenue for a number of years.  I missed last Saturday's session, which was reported by Uckfield FM, in which approximately 10 people worked their way up most of the avenue. This week, there was just the two of us - but we still managed to clear "epicormic growths" (suckers) from the feet of 5 of the most vigorous trees. If all goes to plan, there will be another session on March the 4th from about 9am.

A Lime Trees epicormic growths.
The first tree I tackled had an enormous number of large suckers galloping across the gap towards its neighbours. In the year since we last cleared them, some had grown to about 3 foot tall and as thick as my index finger.  Mercifully most were smaller. 

Wild Arum leaves.
While I was working my through the suckers, I noticed a carpet of delicate Cow Parsley leaves and a few clumps of Wild Arum - but no sign of any flowers yet.

Three Lime Trees - after this year's trim.
Once I had completed my first tree, it was satisfying to look back and see what we had achieved. Then onto the next tree.

Silvery lichen with tiny golden cups.
I couldn't resist collecting some treasure to take home. The suckers have ruby red buds, so a handful of the clippings went into my bag. These were followed by a twig with some Lichen. This is  a silvery, leafy structure made up from a partnership between an algae and a fungus.  If you look carefully at the photo, you can see tiny golden cups, which are the fruiting bodies of this strange cooperative organism. 

Crocuses at the North end
As I was heading home, a stray clump of crocuses were fully open as if to tell me that Spring is nearly here. I am looking forward to seeing the Lime Trees' bright green leaves burst from those ruby buds.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Biological Recorders' Seminar - Sussex Biodiversity

Biological Recording is noting, and sharing, information about the plants and creatures that we find. This knowledge enables wildlife organisations and others to map and help wildlife. Some recorders specialise in a particular group of species and others (like myself) record different types.  I started recording fairly seriously when I did the 2014 Garden Bioblitz and record most of my finds in iRecord.  On the 11th of February, I attended the 28th Biological Recorders' Seminar, which was organised by the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre.  There was a wealth of information, so I will just pick out a few items from the main talks.

Delegates gathering for the Chairman's Welcome.

Record Centre update

Claire Blencowe explained:
  • some of the challenges in the balance between the desire for open data (as now required by Natural England) and being fair to the recorders who have entrusted county centres with their records
  • the contribution of Peter Hodge who provided approximately 50,000 beetle records in 14 densely written note books
  • that they have recently been surveying Local Wildlife Sites (Uckfield examples are West Park and Snatts Road Cemetery).
Saltmarsh Recreation

Barry Yates outlined how they restored salt marshes at Sussex Wildlife Trust's Rye Harbour nature reserve. They used a 1950s RAF photo as a guide to what they wished to achieve although they had to make some adjustments to fit in with modern developments.  Systematic recording shows how successful the scheme has been.

Developing an ID resource with support from a museum

Chloe Rose explained her contribution to creating a key to a particular type of wasp using the specimens kept at the Natural History Museum. She did this work as part of the Identification Trainers for the Future project, in which trainees produce a range of materials designed to help support naturalists in their own identification work. So far they have produced keys for grasses and orchids.

Weevils

Weevils are a type of beetle. Characteristics include:
  • a rostrum (snout)
  • elbowed antenna, which are clubbed at the end
  • heart shaped feet.
Mark Guerney has provided guides at www.tinyurl/weevilguides and suggested that Twitter users follow @WeevilRS.

Look out behind you!
Forest Row Natural History Group

Tom Forward and Brad Scott said that the group:
  • grew out of a meeting in a pub
  • has monthly 'meetings', which are usually walks around the village area
  • has regular talks
  • gets involved with events such as national fungus day
  • record flora and fauna in a 1km square, which embraces the community farm
  • keep in touch through a Facebook page and their Nature's book website.
I have encountered this friendly group online through the New Year's Plant Hunt and it was great to put faces to names.

Slugs, why bother?

Before the event, Chris de Feu had asked us to bring in any slugs that we found so he could identify them. So the day had started with a trail of people dutifully dropping off plastic containers with their slimy little finds and watching with fascination while Chris examined and identified them.

Iberian Three band Slug
He said that if you wish to ID a slug from a photo, you should photograph from the following angles:
  • underneath - maybe using a Perspex sheet
  • right-hand side - so you can see the breathing pore
  • above - to see the overall shape.
... and to answer the original question - very few people record slugs so we know very little about their distribution and how it is changing. Chris also found that people were very motivated by being able to put a new dot on the map, which is easier for an unpopular group.  On the day of the seminar, Chris examined 119 slugs brought in by the public and had identified 17 of the 28 species found in Sussex.

The Sussex Butterfly Atlas

Michael Blencowe gave a highly entertaining talk about the creation of a new Sussex Butterfly Atlas. The first person to note a proper record (with an exact date) was William Markwick, who recorded a Swallowtail in Catsfield on the 22nd of May 1770. 

Small Tortiseshell - the regular resident, with black legs.
Some points from survey:
  • Meadow Browns, which have featured strongly in my own Big Butterfly Counts, were found in every single map square throughout Sussex.
  • The spectacular Purple Emperor, which eluded many experienced recorders, was found in a cat litter tray - it likes poo
  • The addition of Continental Swallowtails, Longtailed Blues and Scarce (Yellow Legged)Tortiseshells to the Sussex lists
  • The loss of the Small Pearl Bordered Fritillaries from Sussex. Numbers of these butterflies spiked a few years ago but seem to have been wiped out by mild winters and wet Junes.
Scuttle, Spring, Slither and Slide

Paul Stevens emphasised highlighted that many familiar species such as the Common Frog are very badly under recorded and asked us all to record them. This can be important because, for example, it can highlight where amphibians have to cross roads to get to their breeding pond.

Frogs are beginning to emerge and need to be recorded.
BN5 Owl Project

David Plummer gave an excellent account of the BN5 Owl Project accompanied by his own spectacular photos. There was a wealth of detail. systematically collected over years, but the thing that really got my attention was the high density of Tawny Owls near the village itself. David suggested that they might be using the gardens and the corridor provided by the disused railway line. His tip for those using recordings to elicit owl calls was to use the recording then wait at least five minutes for a response as the presence of a human is likely to delay their reaction to the invader.

Summing up

My takeaways from the day were:
  • The Sussex Biodiversity team have recently been surveying Local Wildlife Sites including those in the Uckfield area.
  • It is important to record apparently common and/or insignificant creatures such as frogs and beetles. This knowledge will help wildlife organisations track changes in population and spot a decline or invasion.
  • I can get help with identification from more places than I thought. In a future post, I will curate some online sources.
  • Much of the best work is being done by amateurs. They are only amateur in the sense that they are not being paid for the work they have put in and the expertise that they have developed.

Robin in Hempstead Meadows Nature Reserve - 28 Jan 2017
Thinking about my own recording, it has been helping me enjoy nature more deeply:
  • Because recording requires me to identify plants and creatures to a species level, I have learnt much more about identification.
  • Now that I've built up a couple of years' worth of records in iRecord, it is easy to go back to an observation rather than scrabbling through old photos and journals.
  • Using social media while taking part in recording events such as the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch has put me in contact other people who are interested in local wildlife.
  • Being caught in the act of photographing a insect or peering through binoculars has led to local people telling me about their own wildlife encounters.