Friday, 3 November 2017

From fear to fascination

You're thinking you've finally made it through Halloween/Samhain, and all that horrifying arachnological imagery has gone for another year? Maybe you should guess again...

Woooahh there... alright, hang on a sec. Sorry. Come back, please. I know it's not funny really.

I've had some very honest feedback about my spider-related posts, and a few apologies from people admitting to blocking / unfollowing me on social media. I have met ecologists and even a few entomologists who define themselves as being fully arachnophobic, so this is not a mightier-than-thou shout of 'why?!', rather a blogpost about your friendly neighbourhood critters and how we can look at them differently.

Honestly, this is a post more about people than spiders, and does not contain (much) spider imagery.

Oh look, there's a picture of a snake though...

Black Whip Snake, Cyprus (Dolichophis jugularis cypriacus
An adept predator of rats and entirely harmless to humans. Photo by George Konstantinou

The above image relates to my embarassing first encounter with a living, breathing snake in the wild. Around 25 year ago occurred an episode of heightened hysteria, high pitched screaming, running home to wail at my parents and make some fantastical claim about how I had just rescued my little brother and our friend from certain doom. (I was totally channeling those kids in Stranger Things, having witnessed a terrifying being which had emerged from the 'Upside Down'.) It was in fact an adult Cypriot Black Whipsnake, peacefully traversing along a storm drain. This snake is truly harmless and not dissimilar to our UK Grass Snake.

So there - the truth is out, I too was not immune from wildlife hysteria! Though for balance, we did live on a Mediterranean island in coexistence with a few rather venomous critters. (Since the online age, I've been able to identify to a few of my early childhood wildlife memories to species, with wonderful resources such as George Konstantinou's blog Biodiversity of Cyprus.)

What I've always wondered is whether my hysterical reaction was a learned response, picked up from my parents, other adults, kids, television or written fiction - or was it a hard-wired, involuntary reaction to what might in primitive times have been a genuine danger?

Gustave Doré's Arachne =  rather unhelpful spider imagery

Dick King Smith's children's story Charlotte's Web - a helpful (if anthropomorphising) spidery fiction
It is probably down to both. A newly published study from Germany supports the notion that might have a hard-wired response to potentially dangerous creatures, aka 'ancestral threats' (read the full paper here). The below graph is showing the heightened response in 6-month old infants when they were presented with an image of a spider compared to a flower. This suggests then that our extreme reaction to certain groups of wildlife is a sort of vestigial hangover, programmed into our psyches from the times and places us hominids existed in long ago. 

Hoehl S, Hellmer K, Johansson M and Gredebäck G (2017) Itsy Bitsy Spider…: Infants React with Increased Arousal to Spiders and Snakes. Front. Psychol. 8:1710. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01710

The interesting thing is how UK based folk will still illicit such negative reactions, with wildlife phobias being fairly prevalent in our country. I think we are pretty aware that we coexist with some of the most passive, benign wildlife on the planet, which is in part due to an awfully depleted species set, thanks to depressingly high rates of habitat loss and extinction.   

Zoological Society London's spider exhibit advert

The saddening thing (and something I too was guilty of as a child) is how we needlessly vilify organisms which are much smaller, more vulnerable and often entirely harmless to us. To what end do should we give in to our primordial fears? Violence begets violence and children who see their parents squash spiders may unconsciously become normalised to harming other living creatures, as if it is our given right to do so. 

All invertebrates, including insects, worms, molluscs, crustaceans and arachnids such as spiders, are essential to functioning ecosystems; they actually make up the majority of animal life on our planet. In simplistic terms, without invertebrates, food chains collapse and habitats will become depleted of plants and other wildlife. We currently live in period of time where almost the majority of species in the UK are declining, as outlined in the State of Nature report (below are some extracted infographics).

If you can truly only sympathise with the vetebrate species at this stage, then spare
 a thought for hedgehogs which depend on invertebrates for food

I do understand and have witnessed first-hand the crippling effect of phobias in action, how a reaction can make a person phsyically sick and even unable stand. That is incredibly debilitating and I can only sympathise.

However, if you are finally arriving at the point of realisation that a spider phobia is negatively impacting on your life (and the lives your loved ones), causing you to actively dread the autumnal season, then know that there is a way out!

Ashleigh Whiffin is an entomologist and assistant curator at National Museums Scotland

It has been reported that the ZSL Friendly Spider Programme with the London Zoological Society has over an 80% success rate of curing people from arachnophobia. I have met people from all over the UK who have completed this half-day course and they say how it has literally turned their lives around. The programme involves an element of hypnotherapy, and Ashleigh who is pictured above, went from being full-blown arachnophobe, to appreciating them in the same way she does the insects she works with.

Through the online world I meet people doing incredibly important work to change mindsets, public ignorance and negative perceptions. If you are not feeling quite ready to take that step to enter a programme, or perhaps you don't feel quite that badly about about spiders but are unsure of them, then instead you could take a look at some of the following...

You could become a member of the BAS ! 

The British Arachnological Society is the depository for all our data on British spider populations. You can join them to help support British spider research and recording, and attend fascinating talks and courses on spiders.

The tiny egg sac of Ero aphana, a pirate spider. Photo by Tone Killick

Tone Killick is the inspiration for this blogpost title, who's social media accounts provide beautiful imagery and insights into the lives of our UK spiders. Find him on twitter here @Tone_Killick and his facebook page The Silk Road

The British Spider Identification Groupfor those interested in learning more about our common UK species, is run by incredibly patient and helpful admins such as Jennie-Louise Cox and Gemma Gates. Steven Falk's Arachnida is an incredible photographic resource of spiders and their close relatives, and this blogpost by Graeme Lyons claims to show footage of the cutest UK jumping spider - can you argue with that?

Since going on courses in meditation and mindfulness, I have even struggled in specimen collecting. This is a highly important part of entomological work, as we cannot monitor wild populations and the state of nature without taking scientific samples for microscopic identification, so it is something I have to overcome. The conscious choice I make now is not to needlessly harm other beings, whether I find them beautiful or not.

In reality though, it is still hard to stop myself from slapping mosquitoes and louse flies.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Gatwick Wildlife Recording day 2017

This post is a round up our 24 hour Wildlife Recording Event, this year held once again at Rolls Field and the Gatwick Stream flood attenuation area.
  So, why carry out a 24 hour intensive wildlife recording event (sometimes called a Bioblitz) on our sites at Gatwick?

Base camp at Rolls Field. Photo by Lucy Groves

The main goal is to boost the biological records of under-surveyed areas, by inviting groups of naturalists of varying specialisms to focus on their chosen wildlife groups, such as birds, plants, flies, bats or fungi. This way, under-recorded common species, as well as rare species, can be confirmed utilising the site. For example, we hadn't known that Marbled White Butterflies can be found along the river banks here, and that a rare type of Yellow-faced Bee is nesting in the bare clay. We then pass on the information to the local Biological Records Centres, who store and catalogue data from all resources, both historical and present.

Site map produced by the Sussex Biodiversity Records Centre. Habitats here include remnant hedgerows, wildflower-seeded low lying meadow and a re-aligned river

The second incentive is to engage and share knowledge with naturalists of all levels, including people who've never previously taken such a close look at the nature on their doorstep.

Rolls Field. Photo by Lucy Groves

And the final reason? It's blooming good fun!

July 7th: 6PM

In contrast to the previous year, it was a warm and balmy evening as we set up (which is why we were repeating the event at this site again!) and the conditions meant lots of butterflies, bees and beetles were already being collected for proper identification the following day.

Martyn Cooke's static bat detectors set up on site

Baiting mammal tunnels (Photo by Lucy Groves)

After setting the Longworth mammal traps and footprint tunnels, we set off for a bat walk led by bat surveyor Martyn Cooke. It was a fairly quiet evening, but we still did better than the previous year, and we notched up our first few records of vertebrate species...

Photo by Helen Cradduck

Bats (2 species):
Common Pipistrelle

Common Frog

Tawny Owl

With mammal traps set, static bat detectors running, trail cameras switched to record and moth light traps on, it was time to turn in for the night.

Base camp in the evening (Photo by Helen Cradduck)

Next day (July 8th):

It was an early start to the morning in order to tot up some bird records before the site got too busy with people. A few of us covered different areas, making observations with binoculars or simply listening out for calls, then met back at base camp to compile the list while enjoying some freshly brewed coffee.

The trail cameras picked up some useful records for us too...

Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis); blink and you'll miss it but the call is unmistakable. Kingfishers are on the amber list for conservation as per the Birds of Conservation Concern 4 report 

This is the completed bird list from the end of the day:

Birds (34 species):
Carrion Crow
Great Tit
Grey Wagtail
Stock Dove
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Grey Heron
Long-tailed Tit
Song Thrush
Tawny Owl
Marsh Tit
Green Woodpecker
Reed Warbler
Pied Wagtail

Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) - a red listed species of conservation concern

Once the morning guests had arrived, the next job was to liberate any overnight guests from the Longworth mammal traps. Mammal ecologist Lucy Groves led this busy session, discovering Wood Mouse, Yellow Necked Mouse, Bank Vole and Common Shrew occupants.

Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

Sightings of some larger mammals were also coming in...

Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus) - ignore the date stamp on video

Martyn's checked his static bat detectors which had picked up two species; he was able to show us the call of a Common Pipistrelle on his bat sonogram software...

Mammals (8):
Roe Deer
Wood Mouse
Bank Vole
Yellow-necked Mouse
Common Shrew
Common Pipistrelle Bat
Serotine Bat

Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre desk, run by Lois and Nick

Our recording table already had specimens from the previous day, such as hoppers, butterflies and beetles, which were identified and then released. Brad Scott identified and tweeted our tiniest new records. In fact, this is our very first springtail record for Gatwick...

We were visited by Dr Ian Beavis who was able to record some of our tiny solitary bees and wasps, including this Red Data Book species of Hylaeus bee...

Spined Hyleaus bee (Hylaeus cornutus), the female with central depression in the face
which is used for carrying pollen loads

Rosels Bush Cricket. Photo by Helen Cradduck

Moths (88):
Lepidopterists Jake Everitt and Laurie Jackson collated the list of the moths from all three of our 3 traps, which is no mean feat! Species highlights for Jake were Antler Moth (declining all across Sussex), Least Carpet (Uncommon resident) and Lunar-spotted Pinion (Uncommon), all of which are lovely catches.

Poplar Hawkmoth

Photo by Lucy Groves

Black Arches Moth (Photo by Lucy Groves)

Elephant Hawkmoth (Photo by Lucy Groves)

Thanks to local butterfly expert Harry Clarke and others for compiling our comprehensive butterfly species list. I think the abundance of Purple Hairstreaks and Marbled Whites were the clear favourites!

Butterflies (19):
Small Heath
Gatekeeper or Hedge Brown
Meadow Brown
Common Blue
Marbled White
Green-veined White
Speckled Wood
Small Copper
Purple Hairstreak
Small Skipper
Large Skipper
Painted Lady
Essex Skipper
Large White
Small White
Red Admiral

Marbled White (photo by Lucy Groves)

Purple Hairstreak (Photo by Lucy Groves)

Nick Aplin has once again shown us a window into the bizarre world of fungi, and gave our species list a boost despite it not being an ideal time of year.

Epichloë baconii (on Bent Grass)

The above is a new species record for Vice County Surrey! Nick tells me that Epichloë species of fungus are also often called 'Choke', and you can see why in the photo! But far from being parasitic, they're actually symbionts of grasses and actually produce various novel compounds which protect the grass from herbivores, including mammals and insects. The fungus also positively affects the plant's growth and protects it from drought, even though it looks like it's strangling it. 

Photo by Helen Cradduck, who first spotted this gorgeous Wasp Spider hanging out in the meadow

Riverfly surveying with Kevin Lerwill (Photo by Martyn Cooke)

Towards the end of the day, I managed to record a few spiders, carabids (ground beetles) and had some Twitter help with the identification of a staphylinid (rove beetle).

Selection box of spiders, box anyone? Clockwise from top left: Neoscona adianta, Larinioides cornutus, Argiope bruennichi (the Wasp Spider)

Black Clock Beetle (Pterostichus niger)

Staphylinus dimidiaticornis which accidentally hitched a ride home with me in my handbag

With valuable help from Nick and Lois at the record centre, this was our final total and the species breakdown:

Taxon group
New Species
Total Species
Grasshoppers and Crickets
Slime Moulds
True Bugs
True Flies
Vascular Plants
Total Records

These events just wouldn't happen without the incredible work of the Gatwick Greenspace Partnership, our local ecologists and volunteer naturalists, thank you all so much. It gets better every year!

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Gatwick's Dark Knights

After only making it back home in the wee hours of this morning, I was awoken at 7.30am to some great news; council workers had decided to try to repairing the communal recycling bin outside my bedroom window with a sledgehammer. I guess I'll really appreciate this the next time I take out the recycling.

Location: edge of Brockley Wood, adjacent to the north west aircraft stands. 

Ah well, the late finish was totally worth it as we got to see a whole selection of bats utilising the site on the River Mole side of Brockley Wood. I also finally got to see a fairly common bat species which has eluded me for 5 years!

Martyn measuring the forearm length of a bat while Laurie takes notes

Martyn Cooke (Surrey Bat Group) is a licensed bat surveyor, who has been monitoring the bats around Gatwick for several years. A harp trap is his preferred tool, one of safest ways to capture bats and minimise their stress, in order to collect scientific data and feed back to the Bat Conservation Trust.

Harp trap set up on River Mole floodplain

The northern edge of the woodland is sheltered by a massive environmental bund, blocking out light and sound from the airfield. The weather conditions were almost perfect, with low cloud, barely a breeze and a balmy 17 degrees celsius. This turned out to be the best night's trapping I've attended in terms of species diversity; we caught 5 species in the harp traps and at least 2 others on the detectors. 

An electronic lure plays out species-specific bat calls

Here's our haul of bats, in order of appearance...

Soprano Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus)

Soprano Pipistrelle wing

Whiskered Bat (Myotis mystacinus)

I was super excited when I released this one; just look at his little mouth!

Brown Long-eared (Plecotus auritus). He does have some eyes there, he's just blinking

The new one for my list is was the Daubenton's Bat! That brings my number of wild UK bat species seen up to 9.

Daubenton's (Myotis daubentonii)

These funny looking dudes have big bald patches around their eyes, and are specialists at hunting over water, scooping up small insects while in flight with their big tail membranes.

I didn't manage to get a good shot of the membrane, but we can confirm that this one is a fella

Lovely dark face of a Common Pipistrelle

Common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) female

Although we didn't trap one of the rare Bechstein's tonight (previous post about our first Bechstein's at Gatwick) or Martyn's target species the Nathusius' Pipistrelle, we did pick up this Myotis bat call on Martyn's sonobat, which he thinks could be one of the little dudes with attitude...

Bechstein's call?

Thanks to Martyn, Fiona, Laurie, Rina, Luke and Ryan for giving up your valuable time. Also to the bats for doing your bit for science; you all rock.

North West Zone. Approximate harp trap locations in yellow, mist nets in blue