Sunday, 30 March 2014

March Summary

I have massively enjoyed my job this past month, despite being ill for approximately half of it!

Tom S. and Gilly, checking on their passengers after a short ride in the Gatwick Greenspace truck

We have some new workers on board with the project, with 3 bee hives installed in Ashley's Field. Inevitably, the bee-puns are flying back and forth and the staff are buzzing with excitement. Anyway, I shan't drone on as there will be more from Tom on that subject later!

Gatwick's Honey Bees, ready and raring to go...

We have carried out some further 'hibernacularing' with the help of Scotty T. I am getting a bit obsessed with diggers and could watch them for hours... 

Despite a wet spell at the beginning of the month, we've still managed to get all of our Black Poplar planted along the River Mole in the nick of time. Thanks again to the Security Leadership Team!

This past month, our surveys have been rather mammal focused. Here, George and Laurie are checking Dormouse boxes. The only occupant we found on this day was a chunky little Yellow-necked Mouse (Apodemus flavicollis).

George and Laurie

George and Louise also helped with installing some Hedgehog tracking tunnels in Goat Meadow. I am trying a selection of different baits to see whether we can entice a range of mammals to leave their inky footprints behind.

In the lead up to our Youth Ranger mammal surveying event, my mum and I have been out most mornings and evenings setting out longworth traps so that our small mammals could acclimatise to them. We found an intense number of Wood Mice (Apodemus sylvaticus), which would happily pop back into the traps as soon as we had reset them! I will reveal our final peak count in the next post.

Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

 Tom F. demonstrating how to gently scruff a Bank Vole (Clethrionomys glareolus)

Now I feel like it really is spring when Cuckoo Flower, aka Lady's-Smock (Cardamine pratensis) comes into flower. It means the Orange Tip Butterflies will soon be out in force!

I vastly underestimated the size of the Grass Snake in Goat Meadow; we saw her again a few days ago and she was more like 2 meters long. I really have to work on my estimations! This much smaller specimen was found under a refugia near Man's Brook... 

Grass Snake, around 30cm in length (maybe)

I spotted our first Gatwick Grass Snake of 2014 on March 5th. I looked up my past reptile records on the iRecord website and found last year's was on April 15th, so they seem to be active much earlier this year.

It's Mother's Day today, and I wouldn't be here and doing this job it wasn't for the support and help of my most excellent mum, Sue. So a massive thanks to you Mum and keep up the good work!

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Roving Records - Land East of the Railway Line: 19/03/2014

Recently I've been really spoiled by warm and sunny weather, so I had to give myself a kick to get outside on this cool, blustery day.

Underside of a Mink: the colour is quite beautiful but the fur is rather oily in texture

On the way to the site, along the A23 was a grim but still an interesting find: a squashed American Mink (Neovison vison), which came off worse after meeting a car. I've seen plenty of tracks and droppings around our streams and rivers, but I've yet to see a live one. American Mink were brought in and farmed in the UK for their fur before it was banned in the '90s. Sadly this practice still goes on in European countries and the US. The descendants of the escapees here are an invasive species and voracious predators, thought to be at least partly responsible for the decline of the UK's Water Voles.
Scots Pine and Birch trees dominate the entrance of Upper Picketts Wood

Into Upper Picketts Wood and a colony of Jackdaws were making the most of the stiff breeze, leaping off the trees and being buffeted happily about. A group of Goldfinches high up in the Scots Pine were also singing lusitly, a sound which I normally associate with my housing estate.

The woodlands are really alive with bird song at the moment, in particular Wrens, Robins, Goldfinches, Great Tits and Chaffinches. Great-spotted Woodpeckers were drumming and a Green Woodpecker was 'yaffling' in the distance. I regularly hear a Marsh Tit around the entrance to Goat Meadow and have occasionally seen a pair flitting around together. I really like its shrill 'pit-choo' calls, which can feel like a greeting, though in actuality is telling me 'where to go'.

I was sneaking a look under the reptile refugia around the meadow, when something which looked like a massive rubber snake draped over a branch caught my eye...

Refugia at the Grass Snake boulevard

A rubber snake

It was in fact a very real and pretty massive Grass Snake! It's close to a meter long and I've seen this big ol' female in the same spot last year. I was hoping she wouldn't mind our rennovating her brash pile, which was breaking down and getting a bit sparse, but it seems to have gone down nicely.

Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)

On to checking the hedgehog tracking tunnels, kindly lent by one of our Ecology volunteers George. We are hoping to get some indication of Hedgehog activity on our sites...

A Hedgehog tracking tunnel - corrugated plastic with an ink pad and pieces of plain paper at either end

They were baited with spam and tinned sweetcorn, as like some humans, most mammals don't seem to be that fussy! After just one night, all the food was gone and left behind were lots of little inky mammal tracks. Sadly no hedgehog prints yet, although it was probably a bit of a long shot.

These tiny tracks are most likely from Field Voles and Common Shrews

Halfway through checking the tunnels, I spotted two bees hawking over the grass... I had a quick sweep of my net and one got away, but I snagged this cute little fella - a mining bee of the Andrena genus.

Male Andrena spp. As well as two large compound eyes, you can see the three ocelli (simple eyes) on the top of his head which assist with light detection and navigation

I was told it is probably the Small Sallow Mining-bee (Andrena praecox), one of the earlier species to be out and about. Male Andrenas can all look pretty similar so I would need to use an identification key to be sure, but as I am pretty tight for time, I let it go.

He was released on Blackthorn flowers, though it might have preferred a Willow catkin

Finally, under the reptile refugia I am also finding many of these little click beetles...

Elaterida is the Click Beetle family and consists of 73 species in the British Isles

At some point I will have a crack at using some invertebrate identification keys, but right now I am on a steep learning curve in terms of Airport and Aerodrome Ecology, so it is on the back burner!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Accumulating aculeates

I was really chuffed to have local naturalist Jeremy Early visit our sites last Thursday, staking out some possible bee and wasp 'hotspots' for surveying in the coming season. I had only recently learned the word aculeate, which is the group of invertebrates including bees, wasps and ants.

At the moment, you might be noticing a lot of pale-yellow fuzz on trees: these are the catkins of Willow or Sallow trees (Salix sp.). Before their leaves are fully open, the male trees produce catkins with copious pollen and nectar; a great food source for early invertebrates waking up from hibernation. 

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly on Willow catkins, North West Zone

The past week or so, we had been seeing plenty of large bumblebees on the wing, but this day was comparatively quiet despite the good weather. Instead, some other niceties were out and about including Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell Butterflies. Just a few days earlier, this same Willow was frequently visited by large, sleepy queen bumblebees, newly awoken from hibernation. Here is a pic of a lovely queen Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) I had managed to net...

Buff-tailed Bumblebee queen (Bombus terrestris)

I hear that bumblebees would have to be severely provoked to sting us. Also, that the sting of queen bumbles cannot penetrate human skin, although I'd rather not test this theory!
   Over in Ashley's Field we staked out some of the flowering Blackthorn shrubs to see what would come humming by...

This type of hoverfly, called a Drone-fly (Eristalis tenax), is an excellent bee mimic

 Bee Fly (Bombylius major).
Another great mimic, this is a parasite of solitary bees and lays its eggs in their nests.

So, those were some of my pics. Here are some of Jeremy's photos from the day... They're not too bad I guess.

Peacock Butterfly (Inachis io) - Jeremy Early

Male Drone-fly (Eristalis tenax) - Jeremy Early

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly (Aglais urticae) - Jeremy Early

As well as being a keen entomologist, Jeremy's hobby is wildlife photography and he is particularly skilled at snapping nature in-situ (as in its natural surroundings). I need to invest in a better camera!
   Tom S. and I recently met Jeremy at the Surrey Biological Recorders Seminar, where he was giving a talk about all the wildlife in his Surrey garden. We were already excited about our plans for Honeybees at Gatwick, so after his talk I made a beeline (ha!) over to him to ask about one of his slides: a photo depicting a massive bee house made out of natural materials.

Jeremy's insect boxes, aka the Bee and Wasp Hilton
Jeremy's garden has given us some great inspiration for a new volunteer project and one we can build on over time. He has many bee boxes and areas of standing deadwood to suit all manner of bees (he has recorded over 80 different species so far in his garden!). Boxes with drilled wood, bricks, bamboo canes, reeds and cardboard tubes have all proved popular with the local aculeates.

The wire mesh protects the homes of these hard-working insects from becoming a feeding station for birds such as Blue Tits and Great-spotted Woodpeckers.

The boxes have been well used since Jeremy installed them. As you can see, some of these tubes look like they have been plugged up. This is because they have been used by solitary nesting bee species such as the Red Mason (Osmia bicornis).

Jeremy and his splendid camera

You can check out more of Jeremy's photography and find out more about his incredibly absorbing book on natural history here: My Side of the Fence 
   Bees and wasps, like many invertebrates, are often overlooked and misunderstood by us. Did you know we have around 250 species of bee on the British mainland? They also play vitally important roles in ecosystems, such as pollinating flowering plants and providing food for other animals. If we ever lost them, and I don't just mean the Honeybees, we could be in quite a bit of trouble.

Many aculeates also lead fascinating and dangerous lifestyles, such as the sneaky behaviour of cuckoo bees, or the life-and-death struggle of spider-hunting wasps, all which can be seen in the British landscape. As the season goes on, I hope we can get records at Gatwick of as many different species of bee and wasp as possible.
   Find out more about Britain's bees at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Monday, 10 March 2014

To tree or not to tree...

...that was the question last Monday when a bout of bizarre weather rolled in. We have been up against some pretty rubbish conditions to get more Black Poplar trees planted on the River Mole floodplain. 

Braving the elements

Although intense rain and hail does add a certain edge to a task

It was the Security Leadership Team who drew the short straw, and fair play to them for persisting with this job! We had hoped to get a line of trees planted as close to the main channel as possible, which is a quite a challenge when the River Mole decides to misbehave. In addition to those we planted last year, these young Black Poplar whips were kindly provided by the Sussex Wildlife Trust and Wakehurst Place, so we are doing all we can to give them a good start.

Our line of native Black Poplar

The native Black Poplar tree Populus nigra subsps. betulifolia is under serious threat, with only around 38 mature specimens left in Sussex and 7000 in the whole of the UK. This tree naturally occurs in riverside woodland, which itself is now a rather scarce habitat due to modern land management practices. You can read more about the importance of this habitat and some of the efforts going into restoring it here:

As these tree guards could be knocked over by the high flow (the Mole has a habit of quick-rising water levels and surges), Tom S. has directed the team in creating some log deflectors to snag debris and protect the bases of trees from getting bashed. These deflectors are staked into the ground with cut willow and we can continue building them up in time with extra logs.

Around 15 years ago, the River Mole here at Gatwick was diverted and sculpted to create large, natural-looking meanders and floodplain grassland. This habitat helps reduce the rapid water flow and flooding off the surrounding urban and airport areas, undeniably of benefit during the extreme wet weather at the end of 2013.

Scrub clearance to the west of Brockley Wood

After the trees were sited in their new homes, we continued on with some willow scrub coppicing to the west of Brockley Wood.

Habitat piling


As the day went on, Nathan was gradually morphing into another Tom...

Perhaps an improvement on the old Tom? I'd watch out if I were you buddy!

I imagine people might enjoy hearing about how badly behaved this lot were, but they actually mucked in and did a really grand job, plus not a single one of them ended up in the water... Sorry about that.

Carolyn, Nathan, Chris, Andrew, Allison and Julian

Thanks again team, we hope to see you out and about again this coming summer (if you haven't been put off!)