Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Working with a live specimen

On Friday I found this potter wasp (one of the small, solitary nesting wasps) running around on the landscape contractor's bright green car. I thought I'd have a crack at identifying it to species using just a hand lens, which turned out to be an arduous way to spend a Saturday...

Step 1:  Put wasp in tube into the fridge to anesthetise

Step 2: Take out the book on solitary wasps

Step 3: Turn to first key in book, take chilled wasp out the fridge, start keying...

It seems that everything pretty well matches the family Eumenidae, which takes me to the next part of the book...

Step 4: Keying from the Eumenidae, following on until we get to couplet 7, which is over to the next page.

Oh no!

Ah jeez.

Step 5: Get stool from kitchen, retrieve tiny wasp from ceiling.

She's back in the tube and she's angry.

Quickly, to the next page....

It looks like she's an Ancistrocerus! We are getting there.

Step 6: Continuing on to try to get her down to species...

Hmm, a groove or step on 2nd ventral plate.... Is this it?

To me it looks like there is a step, but then a bulge. It's very difficult to get a decent picture in the hand and at the correct angle. Even after putting her back in the fridge for a while, she simply warms up again very quickly and dashes about.

Might she be Ancistrocerus nigricornis?

I'm just not sure whether this is simply the normal join between two ventral plates on the abdomen. Looking ahead in the rest of the key, it refers to the underside of the 2nd ventral plate, but my pictures are not clear enough. This is where we get stuck without using a microscope and other preserved specimens for comparison.

For many small invertebrates, photographs can only really take you so far in terms of identification, so I'll be told by entomologists that I should have kept the specimen. But seeing as I have a backlog of other material to microscope...

See ya Ancistrocerus sp., back to caterpillar hunting you go. 

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Woodland fence trail camera - part 2

(A continuation from a previous blogpost on monitoring of the fenceline apertures and movements of wildlife.)

An old broken fenceline has proved an important passing point for a variety of mammals, including Badger, Fox, Rabbit and Grey Squirrel. We left trail cameras in two locations to see how often the gaps at the bottom of the fence were being used.

Badger (Meles meles)

 Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) with prey, perhaps a Jackdaw

A fox nibbling a slug. Later on it returned to eat the whole thing!

Pair of Red Fox

Where the new section of fence has been installed, apertures purposely created for wildlife are now being regularly used by Foxes and Badgers. Not all of the footage came out so well, but we did get a few niceties...

Pair of Badgers

A dog Fox shows his approval

Here's a final clip of a young Roe Deer. They grow up so fast!

Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus) kid and doe

A comparison between the two sites over 7 days of monitoring:

Site 1 (old fence)
Red Fox = 8 passes
Badger = 2 passes

Site 2 (new fence with man-made aperture)
Red Fox = 7 passes
Badger = 5 passes
Grey Squirrel = 2 passes

Many thanks to ecology volunteers Tasmin and Anna, for helping set up the cameras and for sorting through the footage.
Previous blogpost here:

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Gatwick's Annual Biodiversity Review 2018

A little bit later than planned, the 2018 Gatwick Annual Biodiversity Review is now available to download via Gatwick Airport's main website:

We would like to thank everyone who contributed to the content of this report; local ecologists, conservationists, volunteers, the Gatwick Greenspace Partnership and Gatwick Airport Ltd staff. 

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Woodland fence trail camera

Back in May I left a trail camera in the woodland where a new fence line had been recently installed. Part of the work included leaving apertures in the fence wide enough for foxes, badgers and other mammals to pass through. This can result in wildlife being funneled through to certain spots, making it a very useful place to put a trail camera.

Below are a selection of clips and the final result is at the end of the post.

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)

A male Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus) notices the camera for the first time

Second male Roe Deer (slightly different tines on his antlers)

Once the wildlife gets used to the presence of the camera, more natural behaviour starts to come out...

Fox carrying food

Male Roe Deer chasing each other

This particular Fox looks like he might be a new visitor, as he is nervous of the gap in the fence.

Lovely to see a family group of Roe Deer; the young (called kids) will only have been born sometime in the past couple of weeks.

It looks as if this female Roe Deer might be being courted by the male. The strange breathing sound is his communicating. A lot more creepy than attractive in my opinion.

The male Roe Deer were chasing each other up and down the fence several times per day, and this lone female on the other side was obviously interested...

An hour later, and she solved the problem.

Total number of movements through the aperture over the 6 days (likely an underestimate as not every movement may have been recorded):
  • Fox = 14
  • Rabbit = 1
  • Roe Deer = 1

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

A forest owl in Hungary

Last week I traveled for a brief trip to Nógrád County, North of Hungary in search of the Ural Owl (Strix uralensis), a larger relative of the Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) which we commonly hear in the UK.

We were in upland Beech forest, mixed with Oak, Ash and some Larch, which is managed sensitively for timber. After rain showers the previous night, there was a lot of low cloud and the vegetation was still dripping wet.

Forest groundflora; Woodruff (Galium odoratum
and Sanicle (Sanicula europaea) both in flower

Our guide brought us to an area of more open forest, with mature trees surrounded by a misty backdrop. All was quiet except for the 'rain calls' of numerous Chaffinches.

We were alerted by the gentle alarm call of a Robin; David spotted a dark silhouette which took off, gliding silently away but accompanied by the strident calls of Song Thrush and Chaffinch.

Things settled down and the forest became quiet once more. A White-backed Woodpecker drummed in the distance, with a characteristic speeding up at the end, like a dropped ball bearing.

Our slightly surly guide Adam began to loosen up, perhaps getting more comfortable speaking English (our Hungarian unfortunately being non-existent). We asked him about the carnivorous mammals in the area: European Wildcat, Eurasian Lynx, European Grey Wolf? He explained that the numbers for these species are very low in the area and DNA samples are collected by anyone who comes across the....

Guide: 'Erm, how is it called...?'
David: 'Faeces?'
Guide's deadpan response: 'Sh*t, yes.'

In an interlude between looking for owls, Adam introduced to us some of the rare plants which makes this a specially protected area of forest.

Sword-leaved Helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia), 

 Lesser butterfly-orchid (Platanthera bifolia)

Violet Bird's-nest Orchid (Limodorum abortivum)

An hour or so later, the sun had begun to burn off the low cloud. We walked back to where we started, hearing Robin's alarm call again with a Coal Tit joining in. The female Ural Owl is a dark outline, perched down low in the same tree. A smaller Ural Owl (a male) sits further back at the edge of a clearing, seemingly more nervous. Adam tells us the male and female will mostly hunt in separate territories, coming back together to tend the chicks.

The owls were a little too far off to photograph, so we decided to call it a day and returned to the vehicle. As we watched the forest pass us by out of the window, David again spotted something in a clearing through the trees...

Ural Owl (Strix uralensis) adult female © David Plummer

Preening © David Plummer

For more of David's wildlife images, follow his Instagram feed:

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Gatwick Goes Wild 2019

Every year during May half term Gatwick Goes Wild as the Greenspace Partnership hosts a week of events to help local people learn about wildlife and find new ways to enjoy their greenspaces.

This year’s activities began with a Family Holiday Club in the Gatwick woodlands near Crawley. Our guests started a fire with fire steels and produced a tasty cordial from the abundant elderflower along the woodland edge.
Collecting Elderflower

Later, we learnt all about the local trees; collecting leaves for ‘hapazome’ leaf prints and turning willow into charcoal for pencils. After lunch, we wandered across the meadow and were lucky enough to spot a Gatwick Grass Snake.

Searching for snakes

Wet weather for Wednesday’s guided walk along the River Mole meant only the hardiest nature enthusiasts made it along. The wildlife took cover but one sharp-eyed girl spotted several tiny species sheltering from the rain. Among those identified were Wandering Pond Snails, a Short-fringed Mining Bee, froghopper larvae, soldier beetles, Glow Worms and even a Buff-tailed Bumblebee.

The exclusive invites to the Butterfly Ball and Grasshoppers Feast, were gratefully accepted by both insect and beast (especially of the human kind). The moth trap was a real highlight and the ever-popular Poplar Hawk-moth stole the show by getting up-close with some of our guests.

Can you spot the Poplar Hawk-moth?

We headed across the meadow, where Slow Worms, Grass Snakes and demoiselles joined the party, before putting pond nets into the water to see if the aquatic invertebrates had received their invites. No ball is complete without a masquerade mask and an impressive array were crafted that afternoon.    


It was back to the River Mole again on Friday evening when Martyn Cooke of the Surrey Bat Group brought his expertise (and an array of exciting equipment) to help spot some elusive winged mammals after dark. Whiskered Bats were seen emerging from their roosts on an infrared camera, Noctules were picked-up on the bat detectors calling loudly over the floodplain and Common Pipistrelles swooped on their prey directly overhead.

Getting ready to track some bats

Our last day and the first day of 30 Days Wild saw our Mammal Detectives following tracks and soon sniffing out ten Longworth traps set in the Gatwick Woodlands. After freeing four innocent voles from the humane traps, the trail continued. Badgers took the bait and left their mark in their latrines and foxes posed in front of the trail cams.

Meeting a vole and getting a closer look at some foxes on the trail cam (below)

Once in the woods our detectives dissected owl pellets, made some tracks of their own and carefully crafted critter shelters for our woodland mammals.

This year’s Gatwick Goes Wild was the best yet with more people, more wildlife and even more fun. We would like to thank everyone who came along to join in and all the staff and volunteers who helped to put on a wild half term.

Why wait another year to ‘Go Wild’ when the Gatwick Greenspace Partnership have plenty of events running throughout the year?

Next up is the Gatwick Wildlife Discovery Day on the 22nd June – a bioblitz event for all the family where you can help us to identify and record as much wildlife as possible in 24hrs at the Gatwick Aviation Museum.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Mothursday Night

The days in May suddenly seem to get incredibly very long as the number of evening ecology surveys peaks, yet there never seems to be enough hours in the day! 

On Thursday 16th we had our first moth trap session of the year, but a cold start to the month has meant very poor results in moth traps for surveyors everywhere. Jacob Everitt is the Senior Countrsyide Warden for Horsham District Council, and has been surveying moths here at Gatwick since 2013. This evening he left nothing to chance, bringing along 3 different types of moth trap.

We set up at the base of the River Mole environment (or noise) bund, which extends about 1km along the River Mole. The bund is a mix of scrub and seeded wildflower grassland, and is undisturbed due to the chainlink fence along the base and around the perimeter of Pond M. We set up three traps at the end closest to Brockley Wood.

As expected, things were very quiet, and so we played the patient game of not-looking-directly-at-the mercury-vapour-bulb, while waiting for the first of our lepidopteran light-addicts to show up.

Jake and his assistant Ian

As it got darker, the insect activity picked up around the lights, which initially were small flies and non-biting midges. On one of the checks at around 10pm, we swept a torch around the surrounding grassland and were surprised to see this big beauty quietly roosting in the grass...

Lime Hawkmoth

Soon there were a few moths bouncing around the light, and this lovely Pebble Prominent was again one of the larger species to show up.

Cardboard egg boxes inside the trap allow moths to safely perch or hide away 

At around 11pm it had cooled down to 9 degrees with no sign of anything else on the wing, so we decided to call it a night and count up our meagre catch.

The final list for the evening was a grand total of 8 species! Jake said this was actually a better result than most of his recent evenings.
  • Common Swift = 2
  • Green Carpet = 5
  • Lime Hawk-moth = 1
  • Pale Tussock = 2
  • Pebble Prominent = 1
  • Purple Bar = 1
  • Monopis weaverella = 1
  • Elchista argentella = 1

A few specimens which I photographed and released the next day...

Lime Hawk-moth (Mimas tiliae)

Pebble Prominent (Notodonta ziczac), warming up for take off

Pale Tussock (Pterostoma palpina)

Moth faces are ridiculously underrated, I mean would you just look at this....

Pale Tussock, ready for its close-up

Green Carpet (Colostygia pectinataria)

A tiny Elchista argentella

This beautiful ground beetle was also spotted as it dashed past one of the traps....

Carabus nemoralis

We also recorded a large bat while standing on the top of the environment bund, hawking over Pond M; is it a Noctule, or a Serotine perhaps? (The static noise is from my Batbox Duet).