Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Early winter bird surveys 2014

December 8th - Land East of the Railway Line

LERL Bird survey transects

It was a damp and dreary start to the morning over in the Land East, but Tom Forward rewarded us with a champion's breakfast of seasonal pies... Nice one fella!

Feeling a bit perkier after this sugary energy injection, we began our first transect in the western edge of Horleyland where woodland abuts the railway line. The open understory areas of the woodland were rather quiet, but we picked up the first ticks of the day in the form of Blue Tit, Blackbird and Carrion Crow.

Horleyland Wood with its open understory

A small group of Redwing were knocking about, although not in the same numbers as Jackdaw. Nuthatch and Tree Creeper made themselves known through some plaintive calling; the Nuthatch won this shouting match.

In quieter moments we picked up the 'teck' of a Great Spotted Woodpecker and the 'tick' of a Robin. Continuing on through the wooded strip linking Horleyland to Lower Picketts, we passed by the newt ponds where a pair of Grey Wagtail, a Bullfinch and three Mallards were larking about.

Our first transect ends at the boundary of Lower Picketts Wood; today this was our birding hotspot with a mixed flock of tits, several Tree Creepers, Goldcrests and Nuthatch noisily making themselves known along with 3 or so Redwing.

Still and quiet in Goat Meadow

Over to our next transect in Goat Meadow, where a lonely Marsh Tit was calling. I repeatedly promise this bird to Tom F. as it seems to avoid us on surveys; today the little sneak was found out! On the way to the beginning of the transect, we pass one of our newer reptile and amphibian hibernaculas... I wonder if they are occupied yet?

A disconcertingly grave-like reptile hibernacula. 

While passing though Upper Picketts Wood, a distinctive croaking call stops us dead in our tracks, and a dark shape wings its way towards us through the tree tops...

A Raven is definitely an unusual turn up on our Gatwick surveys! This larger member of the Crow family is more commonly found in upland areas over to the west of the UK. The rough, echoing cry of a Raven contrasts greatly with the impossibly high pitched calls of Goldcrests, which seemed to follow us around for most of the day.

Gatwick Stream floodplain, post-completion of the flood alleviation scheme

We break out of the cover of woodland and out into the Gatwick Stream grasslands, now open to access after some major landscaping works. We've been itching to get back into this area and weren't disappointed by views of a Little Egret, a beautifully white miniature heron. Also first for this area on our surveys was a flock of Meadow Pipits.

Extreme birding: the floodplain meadow lives up to its name

LERL species list:

1.       Blackbird
Turdus merula
2.       Blue Tit
Cyanistes caeruleus
3.       Bullfinch
Pyrrhula pyrrhula
4.       Carrion Crow
Corvus corone
5.       Chaffinch
Fringilla coelebs
6.       Coal Tit
Periparus ater
7.       Dunnock
Prunella modularis
8.       Goldcrest
Regulus regulus
9.       Goldfinch
Carduelis carduelis
10.   Great Spotted Woodpecker
Dendrocopus major
11.   Great Tit
Parus major
12.   Green Woodpecker
Picus viridis
13.   Greenfinch
Carduelis chloris
14.   Grey Wagtail
Motacilla cinerea
15.   Jackdaw
Corvus monedula
16.   Jay
Garrulus glandarius
17.  **    Little Egret
Egretta garzetta
18.   Long-tailed Tit
Aegithalos caudatus
19.   Magpie
Pica pica
20.   Mallard
Anas platyrhynchos
21.   Marsh Tit
Poecile palustris
22.  **   Meadow Pipit
Anthus pratensis
23.   Nuthatch
Sitta europaea
24.   Pied Wagtail
Motacilla alba
25. **    Raven
Corvus corax
26.   Redwing
Turdus iliacus
27.   Robin
Erithacus rubecula
28.   Song Thrush
Turdus philomelos
29.   Stock Dove
Columba oenas
30.   Treecreeper
Certhia familiaris
31.   Wood Pigeon
Columba palumbus
32.   Wren
Troglodytes troglodytes
** = newly recorded species

North West Zone - December 9th

NWZ bird survey transects

It was a much colder start to the day as we began our first transect just north of the airfield, where the River Mole emerges from under the runway.

One of the first species of the day is a Common Snipe, which exploded from the wet grassland with its characteristic fast erratic flight. Tom tells us the collective noun for a group of Snipe is called a 'Wisp'.
   Over in the hedgerows adjoining Brockley Wood, a Common Kestrel was perched up and blending in with the remaining leaves on the Oak trees.

We passed the grass mound where we first recorded our Long-Horned Bees in the summer. Today it is all very still except for a lonely Pied Wagtail.

On Tom's wish list for today is Water Rail, a skulking little wetland-lover related to the Crakes and Coots. We spend a little time listening by the reeds but sadly no luck here. Instead some 'tseeping' and flutterings indicate the presence of a small group of Song Thrush foraging in the reed bed litter.
   Looking back along the  River Mole from where we had come, an endearing site of two diving Little Grebe, aka 'Dabchick', which tend to crop up each winter.

We round the corner of Brockley Wood, jogging slightly to warm our feet. Here we spied a skulking Sparrow Hawk intently hunting along the line of immature trees. Poking our heads into the northern part of Brockley Wood, a Common Buzzard suddenly cries out and a small flock of Redwing take off from the woodland floor.

A daring crossing over the River Mole stepping stones

Futher down stream, we disturb a Little Egret fishing in the slow-flowing waters of the Mole. Towards the end of the 2nd transect, ten Ring-necked Parakeets flew over and 2 Mistle Thrush with their funny toy-gun calls. It must have been some sort of record for Bullfinch as we totaled 6 today; I love their unobtrusive and sad sounding little whistles. 

River Mole at Povey Cross

All in all, a very cold and quiet morning and despite us listing a good number of different species, birds were only out in small numbers and activity levels were low. There was also a distinct lack of  both Redwing and Fieldfare which I suspect will turn up in greater numbers in the late winter.

After Tom had departed, Sue and I traversed back to an area where we are cutting reeds for our insect hotel... what else then greets us but the incredible sharming cry of a Water Rail!

Our final list for NWZ...

1.       Blackbird
Turdus merula
2.       Blue Tit
Cyanistes caeruleus
3.       Bullfinch
Pyrrhula pyrrhula
4.       Carrion Crow
Corvus corone
5.       Chaffinch
Fringilla coelebs
6.       Common Buzzard
Buteo buteo
7.       Common Snipe
Gallinago gallinago
8.       Dunnock
Prunella modularis
9.       Goldcrest
Regulus regulus
10.   Goldfinch
Carduelis carduelis
11.   Great Spotted Woodpecker
Dendrocopus major
12.   Great Tit
Parus major
13.   Greenfinch
Carduelis chloris
14.   Grey Heron
Ardea cinerea
15.   Jackdaw
Corvus monedula
16.   Kestrel
Falco tinnunculus
17.   Little Egret
Egretta garzetta
18.   Little Grebe
Tachybaptus ruficollis
19.   Long-tailed Tit
Aegithalos caudatus
20.   Magpie
Pica pica
21.   Meadow Pipit
Anthus pratensis
22.   Mistle Thrush
Turdus viscivorus
23.   Moorhen
Gallinula chloropus
24.   Nuthatch
Sitta europaea
25.   Pied Wagtail
Motacilla alba
26.   Redwing
Turdus iliacus
27.   Reed Bunting
Emberiza schoeniclus
28.   Ring-necked Parakeet
Psittacula krameri
29.   Robin
Erithacus rubecula
30.   Song Thrush
Turdus philomelos
31.   Sparrow Hawk
Accipiter nisus
32.   Wood Pigeon
Columba palumbus
33.   Wren
Troglodytes troglodytes
(Water Rail would have made it 34, but instead we have noted this as a roving record.)

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Award Winning Woodlands

Last week Gatwick Airport was awarded the Wildlife Trusts Biodiversity Benchmark Award in recognition of the protection and enhancement of the airport’s landholdings for wildlife. Providing such services to Gatwick’s landholdings, some 72 acres, is no small task and a great deal of the hard graft has come from volunteers giving up their free time to come out and help. 

As the temperature has steadily dropped over the last few months, bizarrely, the numbers of volunteers have steadily increased and Gatwick’s woodlands in particular have reaped the benefits of this conservation drive.

Upper Picketts Wood, located in the land to the east of the railway line, is a typical low weald woodland. Oak and Ash form the canopy (with a few rogue conifers thrown in for good measure) above an understory made up of Hazel, Hawthorn and Holly. In spring, the woodland floor is a carpet of Bluebells, Dog’s Mercury, and Wood Anemone.

Upper Pickets spring carpet of Bluebells.

The abundance of multi-stemmed Hazel in the understory suggests coppicing has been practiced here for some time. This traditional technique of cutting Hazel and allowing it to re-grow produces a healthy crop of straight, strong and flexible poles, and diversifies the woodland structure to support a variety of wildlife - an all-round good practice.

With this in mind we recently set to work on a neglected coppice compartment within Upper Pickets. Over a three-week period from late October, various teams from GAL’s Business Development Department helped us to develop a healthy woodland habitat by coppicing Hazel stools, grading and sorting the useable poles (into hedging stakes and binders), and creating habitat piles from the left-over brash.

 In keeping with the theme of traditional techniques we set up a “riving” brake and used drawknives to remove bark from the cut stakes to prevent them rotting once in the ground. 

A pile of peeled and pointed poles ready to use.

Over in the North West Zone, Brockley Wood was the scene for more development when the Programme Management Office team cut a ride through this isolated woodland. Traditionally, rides were track-ways for extracting timber but these corridors are also used by butterflies, bats and birds, with the increased light also helping to diversify the woodland flora.

Natterer's Bats roosting in a box this year in Brockley Wood

Finally, the retail field engineers began tackling an area densely covered with Sycamore in Lower Picketts Wood. Though Sycamore is naturalised in Great Britain, it is very fast growing, highly adaptable, and produces a large volume of seed. Sycamore can quickly dominate small woods like Lower Picketts, altering the species composition and reducing biodiversity. To stop this from happening the retail team used mattocks to dig out the roots of larger trees and pulled up saplings to stop them from regenerating.

Gatwick's Retail Field Engineers

The Wildlife Trusts Biodiversity Benchmark Award is a great way to round-off the year. It shows just how important the input from GAL’s Business Development Department has been, as well as everyone else who has helped out over the last year. We’re all looking forward to building on Gatwick's conservation credentials as we head into 2015.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Gatwick Airport wins The Wildlife Trusts Biodiversity Benchmark Award

We've done it!!!

This award means that Gatwick Airport has been formally recognised for protecting and enhancing its landholdings for wildlife, including some areas of remarkable biodiversity. Many challenges have been overcome regarding habitat management around such a busy aerodrome, but we have shown that where there's a will, there's a way for humans to work with nature.
   Winning this award has been a collective effort, bringing together many different people from the airport and wider areas, combing skills, knowledge and a passion for wildlife. There are so many to thank and our list of all those involved continues to grow. The group photo below is from the wildlife recording event we hosted back in summer 2014, which includes a very small subset of those working behind the scenes. Just to say a huge THANK YOU to absolutely everyone over the years, whatever the capacity of your involvement.
   Here's to the future of Biodiversity at Gatwick!

Gatwick Wildlife Recording Day - August 2014

Monday, 1 December 2014

Spidery bits and pieces

On Saturday morning while reading in bed, a tiny woodland spider wandered over the pages of my book. The only problem with recording indoor invertebrates (particularly those normally found in trees) is that I can't reliably state their origin further than my coat, which hangs up nearby.

One of my favourite species; the unmistakable cone-butt profile of Cyclosa conica. 

Taking it as a good omen, I potted up this little Cyclosa and brought her along for the ride to the spider identification workshop at Dinton Pastures, Reading. 

Hosted by the British Entomological and Natural History Society, today's course was led by Dr Peter Smithers, an expert arachnologist from Plymouth University. Peter is a brilliantly affable guy and his fascination and enthusiasm for spids is entirely infectious. We were started off with a captivating run down of Britain's main spider families, in all their glorious forms and lifestyles...

Jumping spiders (family Salticidae)

We were shown various identifiable features of spiders, including eye arrangement, leg structures, general body shapes and their most privatest parts. We were then let loose on a collection of specimens, making use of microscopes, books and worksheets provided.

Specimens arranged by family groups and their features

Collections Room at Dinton Pastures with microscopes and lamps 

Organised chaos

The key is to first identify the family your specimen belongs to (i.e. wolf spider, jumping spider, comb-footed spider) and to then locate the reproductive parts. In the males, these are a pair of modified limbs located at the very front called the pedipalps...

Photo taken down the lens of a light microscope (300x)

By looking closely at the finer structures of the palps and comparing with images in the book, I identified the above individual as a common species of Wolf Spider called Pardosa palustris... or possibly Pardosa agrestis. Or P. monticola
   I'll be needing a little more practice at this.

Due to their fidgety nature, spiders are mostly dispatched in alcohol before being examined under a lens. However, the two I had brought along with me were a couple of obliging little posers, including this adult female Comb-footed spider...

Some kinda species of Theridion...

The identifiable feature of females is the epigyne, a small opening which is uniquely shaped and patterned to each species. With Peter's help I identified this lady as Theridion sisyphium, who until recently had been living in the JSA portacabin loo.

Close-up view of the female parts on the underside of the abdomen

Peter also showed us some affordable tech to aid us in our future spidery investigations. I've checked and you can pick up a USB microscope like this for between £15-£40 online, which means I might be getting myself an Xmas present after all!

Cyclosa under the lens: she mostly behaved and only once was found wandering across the desk

Theridion under the lens

A live feed means you can also record great footage of spider behaviour

I've only been to a small number of workshops run by the BEHNS, which have all been awesome. This was my favourite so far and if they run it again next year, I'll be back for more!

Cyclosa, back in the trees somewhere in Hove Park