Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Airport bryology

Guest post: Brad Scott (Sussex Botanical Recording Society)

How many mosses and liverworts might you expect to find at Gatwick Airport? Surely it is hardly a rich space for these small plants; at first you'd think of tarmac, concrete and some marginal areas, none of which harbour that many species. However, the Gatwick estate is blessed with some nice, varied habitats and once you start looking it is surprising what turns up.

Rich epiphytic community on Ash

But before we look at what is there, why might we want to look at mosses and liverworts at all? Collectively, they are known as bryophytes and there are just over 1000 British species, which is about 60 per cent. of the entire European bryophyte flora, so these islands we live on are extremely rich in this plant group. Maybe half of the UK list has been found in the south east, so even in these drier counties there is quite a diverse range of plants.

Many bryophytes are quite specific to a particular habitat, so they are very important in helping botanists define the vegetation group that occurs in any given place, not least since they occur in all habitats and can be completely dominant in some spots. Furthermore, bryophytes are great at colonising areas, which can result in the build-up of very thin soils around them, and then providing habitat for other plants and tiny animals. Once you start looking within the mossy world you can find an astonishing range of very small organisms, which is at least as complex a habitat as any woodland, though not nearly as well studied or understood. Finally, these plants are sensitive to changes in their environment, so are useful as indicators of habitat change.

Orthotrichum pulchellum

I'd done occasional casual recording in some of the woods and other areas around the airport during various Gatwick wildlife events over the last few years, which had showed that the area looked quite promising, but had not done any systematic recording, so it was great that Rachel asked me to visit and spend some time exploring.

Now, Gatwick is in the modern administrative county of West Sussex, but for recording purposes it is in the old botanical vice-county of Surrey, and the vice-county boundary runs along Radford Road at the south of the site. It is also a corner of the county which had very few bryophyte records. This survey focused on the part of the Gatwick estate known as the Land East of the Railway Line; it is on the Weald Clay, and includes several woods, some of which are Ancient Woodland, and large areas are somewhat wet, which is what mosses like. In the end I made three visits, the first accompanied by Luśka, who has a good eye for finding tiny plants.

Recently-disturbed banks of the Gatwick Stream have several small colonisers. The green clumps in the stream are Cladophora, an alga

Other than the woods, the site also contains the Gatwick Stream. This area has been considerably disturbed in recent years, with major earth movement and other work to provide an area to ameliorate any flood risk, and also to minimise the likelihood of attracting large numbers of wetland birds, which are a major danger to aircraft. This means that large areas have been newly-colonised by bryophytes before larger vegetation moves in. Even the gravelly soil by the gate can accommodate several species which, since mosses are desiccation-tolerant, can manage to live in places where most vascular plants can't.

The most disturbed areas, including the gravel car park and the sandy soil near the stream, commonly have Barbula unguiculata and Bryum dichotomum with Ceratodon purpureus, Pseudocrossidium hornschuchianum, Kindbergia praelonga and the relatively uncommon Didymodon tophaceus. Recently-constructed banks may host Dicranella schreberiana, D. staphylina and D. varia, and disturbed gaps among the grass contains Funaria hygrometrica. The small amounts of woodland near Gatwick Stream are relatively poor in bryophytes compared with the other wooded parts of the site, and tend to contain only small quantities of some of the common species. Even so, a small amount of the epiphytic Ulota phyllantha is present, and a tiny patch of the usually saxicolous Grimmia pulvinata on Oak was the only occurrence of this very common urban species within the Action Plan boundary.

One of Britain’s commonest mosses, Kindbergia praelonga, in Upper Picketts Wood

Unsurprisingly, Upper Picketts Wood has a somewhat different flora. Epiphytes include Frullania dilatata, Homalothecium sericeum, Hypnum andoi, Hypnum cupressiforme var. cupressiforme and  var. resupinatum, Isothecium myosuroides, Metzgeria furcata, M. violacea, Orthotrichum affine, O. pulchellum, and Radula complanata, plus the tiny liverworts Cololejeunea minutissima and Microlejeunea ulicina; none especially rare, but a typical woodland assemblage. The banks are home to Mnium hornum, Pseudotaxiphyllum elegans, Atrichum undulatum, Fissidens bryoides, Dicranella heteromalla and the liverworts Calypogeia arguta and Cephalozia bicuspidata, and rotting logs have both Lophocolea bidentata and L. heterophylla. The wetter parts of the woodland floor have mats of Thuidium tamariscinum and occasional Plagiomnium undulatum.

Cololejeunea minutissima with its five-pointed perianths

At the entry point to the wood from the parking area by Ashleys Field there is a small wooden bridge; when this was visited in 2015 after some work had been carried out there, the disturbed ground had a small population of Ephemerum minutissimum; this is no longer present as larger vegetation has taken over.

The tiny Ephemerum minutissimum in 2015

Now partly wooded, the grassy area of Goat Meadow is decidedly wet and knitted with Calliergonella cuspidata and abundant Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus. Its woodland species are fairly similar to Upper Picketts Wood, though there are some additional taxa along the wet ditch at its border, such as the liverwort Chiloscyphus polyanthos, and Lunularia cruciata occurs occasionally on the wet woodland floor. The north-west corner of Goat Meadow contains a large old Willow, which has a fine array of epiphytes, including Cryphaea heteromalla, Zygodon conoideus, Metzgeria violacea, Orthotrichum pulchellum, and Ulota bruchii.

The great old willow with luxuriant epiphytes

Moving from here towards Lower Picketts Wood we find what is arguably the nicest bit of the site, bryologically. A patch of relatively young Ash is very rich in epiphytes, with frequent Cryphaea heteromalla, several patches of Ulota phyllantha and a variety of Orthotricums: affine; pulchellum; and lyellii. One patch of Syntrichia papillosa was also found on one of these trees. A wet, muddy hollow just before Lower Picketts Wood contained a small amount of Brachythecium rivulare.

Copious brown gemmae on the relatively large moss Orthotrichum lyellii

Syntrichia papillosa, with its band of green gemmae down the middle of the leaf

At first sight there are few bryophytes in Lower Picketts Wood

On the face of it, the Ancient Woodland that is Lower Picketts Wood is much more botanically uniform than the other woods, yet has a similar number of bryophyte species compared with the others. However, on the whole they are less frequent. Epiphytes include Zygodon viridissimus and a little more Ulota phyllantha, and the wetter area is coated with abundant Thuidium tamariscinum. A small stream enters the site in the north-east corner of the wood, and is the only location so far found for the common woodland species Polytrichastrum formosum, along with Calypogeia fissa and Dicranella rufescens on the soil by the stream. A small amount of Plagiothecium nemorale was also found on the damp woodland floor with Fissidens bryoides.

Ulota phyllantha with brown gemmae on its leaf tips

Tortula truncata

Moving from the wood towards Horleyland Wood, Pond 4 had a Crassula helmsii problem several years ago, which has now been resolved. While that work was being undertaken, much of the surrounding vegetation had been suppressed and when the site was visited in 2015 the ephemeral colonisers Tortula truncata and the liverwort Fossombronia wondraczekii were frequent. Neither are now present as other plants have moved in.

The liverwort Fossombronia wondraczekii with its black sporophytes in 2015

The characteristic spores of Fossombronia wondraczekii

Just outside the Action Plan area boundary there are grassy slopes and a gravelly track. This area includes several species that are infrequent or not present elsewhere on the site, such as the concrete assemblage: Bryum dichotomum, Didymodon insulanus, Didymodon nicholsonii and Barbula unguiculata. Other man-made habitats provide additional spaces for other common taxa, such as Bryum argenteum on a thin layer of soil on a manhole cover, Orthotrichum diaphanum and Tortula muralis on a concrete post, plus Barbula convoluta, Ceratodon purpureus, Didymodon fallax and copious Marchantia polymorpha on the gravel around the power unit. Bright green patches of Pseudocrossidium hornschuchianum were also found on some soil on gravel, and a few small tufts of fruiting Bryoerythrophyllum recurvirostrum were on an old Willow near Pond 3.

Bryophytes on concrete and a manhole cover

Horleyland Wood

Horleyland Wood, the final parcel of Ancient Woodland, also has a fairly typical collection of species and includes Eurhynchium striatum on some banks, and mats of Isothecium myosuroides at the lower parts of many trees. Around Pond 2 the wet woodland floor has abundant Thuidium tamariscinum, along with Calliergonella cuspidata, Didymodon insulanus, Pellia epiphylla along the pond edge. Also by the pond, Zygodon conoideus is epiphytic on Willow, Leptodictyum riparium occurs on some roots by the water, and Pseudoscleropodium purum is common among the brambly scrub, its only known location in the survey area.

In total, 79 taxa were recorded across this part of the Gatwick estate, which is a typical number and range of species for a site of this size on the Weald Clay. Many thanks to Howard Wallis, the Surrey bryophyte recorder, for his support and providing useful background information.

Brad and Luśka, Gatwick's woodlands April 2018

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Early Breeding Bird Survey: North West Zone 24/04/18

While I often deliberate wearing gloves and scarf, the chilly early mornings don't bother the breeding birds, and in April you are almost guaranteed a lusty dawn chorus.

Tom Forward beginning our bird transect in the North West Zone

We began our survey sometime after the dawn chorus ends, as this is when birds are more active and getting on with their day. Along the first section of the River Mole, one of the first species for the list was a warbler; a male Common Whitethroat in the scrub where the river pops out from under the runway. A loud scuffle between two male Reed Buntings caught our attention, then a moment later we heard something quite different; a manic chattering and trilling call from a hedgerow...

A Sedge Warbler! Our very first for this site survey (and hopefully not the last!)

Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) RSPB

A Blackcap sang from another hedgerow, Blue Tit and Song Thrush were calling as we passed by. Rounding the bend of the river, Linnets were calling overhead and we spooked a Green Woodpecker, which shot off with a yaffling cry.

The wheel ruts along the track have become especially deep in the past year, which is good news for the frog population. We often get both Common Frog and Marsh Frog on site here, but these look like the usual Common Frog tadpoles.

While Tom is distractedly checking Reed Beds for our elusive Water Rail, I sneak a peak under one of our reptile refugia...

Grass Snake (Natrix helvetica) juvenile, less than one year old

Keep your head in the game Rachel, back to the birds! 
We were treated to the fluttering display flight of a Common Whitethroat on top of the riverside willows. Over in the scrub west of Brockley Wood, we added Chiffchaff to our list of warblers heard today, with it's easily recognisable, onomatopoeic song.

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybitaRSPB

Along the bases of these hedgerows grow the strongest smelling spring flowers; Wild Garlic or Ramsons (Allium ursinum) is an incredibly pungent plant, very much like onion or garlic in its taste. Much to Tom F's dismay, I can never resist chewing on a leaf or two.

We set off again in an oniony-fugue, with Tom determinedly keeping upwind of me. As the day was warming up, the scent of Bluebells began to hit us and they were smelling great (even if I wasn't).

Brockley Wood

At the woodland edge, we picked up another Chiffchaff and the excited song of a Goldcrest, our smallest bird species. We haven't had a single record of Firecrest at Gatwick, but as their range is seemingly expanding, I'm betting one will turn up here eventually.

Goldcrest (Regulus regulusRSPB

Firecrest (Regulus ignicapillusRSPB

Back out onto the floodplain, and the Reed Warblers were chugging their songs from deep within the reed beds. Our first Swallow of the year flew low overhead, calling relatively quietly so we were lucky to spot it. We were a couple of kilometers into the transect when a strange rattling call came into range; the call of Lesser Whitethroat is pretty unmistakable!

We don't tend to get high numbers of Lesser Whitethroat, so it's always a real treat to hear one. Our next warbler on this warbler-fest was Garden Warbler, which was singing heartily while being chased around by a territorial Blackcap.

Adjacent to the reed beds of the River Mole are dense stretches of Water Mint and nodding heads of Cowslip... even the refreshing smell of crushed mint doesn't mask the Ramsons though.

Nearing the end of the final transect, we witnessed an incredible performance by a Reed Warbler incorporating perfect Blue Tit alarm calls into its song. We then came along another Sedge Warbler near the Long-horned Bee bank; could this be a new breeding territory? Our final warbler of the day was Willow Warbler, bringing our total number of warbler species to 8: Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Common Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Garden Warbler and Willow Warbler. That's quite a high number, so we think that perhaps this day was a 'fall of warblers' and some of them may only be passing through. It will be interesting to see what turns up again later in summer.

Full bird list (39 species):

Blackbird Turdus merula
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla
Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus
Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula
Carrion Crow Corvus corone
Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita
Coot Fulica atra
Dunnock Prunella modularis
Garden Warbler Sylvia borin
Goldcrest Regulus regulus
Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopus major
Great Tit Parus major
Green Woodpecker Picus viridis
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Jackdaw Corvus monedula
Jay Garrulus glandarius
Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
L.Whitethroat Sylvia curruca
Linnet Carduelis cannabina
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus
Magpie Pica pica
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Nuthatch Sitta europaea
Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus
Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus
Ring-necked Parakeet Psittacula krameri
Robin Erithacus rubecula
Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus
Skylark Alauda arvensis
Song Thrush Turdus philomelos
Stock Dove Columba oenas
Swallow Hirundo rustica
Whitethroat Sylvia communis
Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus
Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus
Wren Troglodytes troglodytes

Friday, 27 April 2018

Winter break-through

A round up of our autumn and winter works on the biodiversity sites

Proof that the GGP biscuit supply is so good, volunteers will even brave snow storms

While I was keeping warm, dry and caffeinated over the winter, the Gatwick Greenspace Partnership team didn't stop, keeping hard at work on conservation tasks across all of the biodiversity sites.

It is an exciting time for conservation at Gatwick, as we have just renewed our Biodiversity Action Plan for another five years, which includes additional ecological surveys and brand new habitat tasks! Tom Simpson's volunteer program continues to grow year on year, with increasing help from airport staff, local businesses, local conservationists and trainees. It has been statisfying knowing that the Wildlife Trust youth groups and trainees are shadowing Tom in the field, so that his invaluable skills are being passed on to future conservation leaders.

Somehow we never run out of conservation tasks, and here are a few examples of what has been going on over the last few months:

Dormouse box installation with GGP Youth Rangers

Pond weed management on a cold February day; no problem for these guys

Pesky willow stumps in Goat Meadow don't stand in their way

Deer exclusion fence being carefdully removed from the developing coppice woodland

Corporate volunteer teams led by Tom have made a huge difference in improving the access into our woodlands. For every calorie burned in creating board walks and edged steps, a calorie is saved for the general public, our local wildlife, and myself from wading through the winter mud!

New board walks through wet woodland

The Gatwick Greenspace Partnership weekly volunteer crew

Tom Simpson's 'Digital Detox' days are an excellent reminder of how valuable it is to maintain connections with the natural world, simply by engaging in focused activities in outdoor spaces.

Nestlé UK Ltd in Upper Picketts Wood

We have even had a team of ecologists volunteering on our sites, as they know the value in taking a break from the office during the gloomy winter months.

The Ecology Consultancy managing Blackthorn along the River Mole

So once again, we would like to say a huge THANK YOU to all of the teams who have visited our sites over the winter; the project simply wouldn't be the same without you!

Both Gatwick Airport staff and businesses from the wider area have helped maintain our sites for wildlife

We aim to carry out as much habitat management with volunteers and hand tools as possible, however some heavier-duty works, such as woodland ride management and dense scrub removal, require the help of the professionals; Glendale Landscape Services and our Wildlife Trust recommended tree surgeons; Roots Upwards Ltd, are well versed in the sensitivities of working on biodiversity sites.

Woodland ride management; this area is a particularly good corridor for foraging bats

Managing woodland rides and glades rotationally creates a dynamic habitat system; while one area is gradually colonised by mature vegetation, another area is opened up, providing new space for early successional species.

Sycamore removal in a woodland glade

Each winter Roots Upwards Ltd have donated us a free day of labour for conservation works. This year they brought along their climbing harnesses and ropes, bringing down the heavy bat hibernation boxes for a much-needed winter clean out. The lads couldn't quite believe their luck when they took down the final box...

A bat hibernation box, recently occupied by Honey Bees

Nothing like a piece of fresh honey comb at the end of a hard day's work

Anyone can get involved with wildlife conservation, whether it is habitat management, learning about wildlife on guided walks, or trying out a digital detox day! Find out more here:

Thursday, 8 March 2018

An undisclosed amount of coffee

The blog has been quiet of late due to spending most of winter in isolation, constantly (plugging? Chipping? Hacking?) away at Gatwick's Five Year Biodiversity Action Plan Review, which now looks on track for being finished by early April. That means it should be fully done and out of my brain by the time this wee one hatches!

Brown Hairstreak Butterfly (Thecla betulae) egg on Blackthorn. 
Photo taken in the North West Zone, December 2017

Writing about report writing feels a bit meta...but I'll tell you a bit about it anyway. Putting this report together has been at once satisfying and infuriating, riveting and tedious. Reviewing my own work from the very start of my job in early 2012 was a weird, at times heartening and at other times a frankly excruciating experience!

Pulling together the data, compiling the species lists and finding out the totals for the different wildlife groups was the most enjoyable part; immediately it jumps out where we have done great work and covered all bases, and where knowledge gaps are still to be filled.

One of my many desks this winter: the Harris & Hoole cafe at Hookwood Tesco

The things which got me through this winter have included copious cups of coffee, late evenings spent in noisy pubs with my laptop and headphones, and many, many GIF animations of Sean Bean and Arnold Schwarzenegger (special thanks to Tom Simpson for those).

Me in November 2017

Me in December 2017

Me in January 2018

With my handy new Monzo card and the accompanying app, I have even been able to keep track of the obscene amounts I have spent on coffee while writing up this report... My total spend over the past few months (I earned over £20 in loyalty points at Costa!!), is so shameful that I cropped that bit out of the picture.

The incredible amount of help and feedback I have received from the ecologists and conservationists involved in this project has made the process infinitely more manageable, keeping my sanity in a better state than it otherwise would be! This reminds me how lucky I am to work in a sector where so many people have the same passion; no matter what our backgrounds are, or our interests on the side, our end goal to preserve nature is still the same.

I will post another update soon of all the action taking place under Tom S's guidance on the sites!