Monday, 28 April 2014

Early Breeding Bird Surveys 2014

North West Zone: Thursday 24th

I'm not my shiniest at 5.30am, but the spring bird song along the River Mole corridor is well worth hauling out of bed for.

Tom F of Gatwick Greenspace Partnership leads the main bird surveys here, which we carry out four times a year. Last week it was the early breeding birds and we were hoping to pick up on the newly arrived summer migrants. Our first port of call was the North West Zone, closest to the runway...

The very start of our transect brought us the goods, with Swifts and Swallows overhead at Povey Cross. Over here the scrub, grassland and wetland produces warbler action in the form of Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Common Whitethroat. I got excited to hear the weird song of a Lesser Whitethroat, although its a shame it was all on its ownsome.

It seems like the wildflowers are peaking already, with Ragged Robin and Cowslip coming into their own...

A group of nodding Cowslip (Primula veris)

Ragged Robin is a pants name for such a lovely flower, but at least it has a fancy binomial 
(Lychnis flos-cuculi)

Earlier grasses are also coming into flower, as my violent hayfever can attest to. Above is Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis)

Reed Bunting and Reed Warbler have begun setting up their territories in wetland scrub and reed beds. If you look closely, you can just about make out a brown splodge perched at the top of a reed stem (possibly only the 3rd worst photo of a male Reed Bunting ever taken).


This Reed Bunting song is from the awesome bird call website Xeno Canto. This species seems to have quite a regional variation, so it took a while to find a recording similar to those individuals I am hearing here (this one happens to have been recorded in Berlin, Germany).

In the rough grassland at the very end of the transect was a new bird for our survey - a group of Common Starling. They have always been a stone's throw away on the airfield, so perhaps it is just luck we saw them today.

This is the day's list for the NWZ:

1.       Stock Dove
2.       Wood Pigeon
3.       Swift
4.       Great Spotted Woodpecker
5.       Green Woodpecker
6.       Jay
7.       Magpie
8.       Jackdaw
9.       Carrion Crow
10.   Starling
11.   Swallow
12.   Great Tit
13.   Blue Tit
14.   Blackbird
15.   Song Thrush
16.   Robin
17.   Blackcap
18.   Chiffchaff
19.   Whitethroat
20.   Lesser Whitethroat
21.   Reed Warbler
22.   Goldfinch
23.   Chaffinch
24.   Bullfinch
25.   Reed Bunting
26.   Dunnock
27.   Wren
28.   Common buzzard
29.   Pheasant
30.   Mallard
31.   Moorhen

Land East of the Railway Line: Friday 25th

This morning was a bit duller and cooler after some refreshing overnight rain. Over on this side of the airport, we have more extensive ancient woodland as well as the larger water treatment ponds.

Tom F. setting a badger trail camera before the survey

I had left my camera on charge this morning (gahh), so resorted to using my camera phone instead. It doesn't cope so well with the low light levels and the pics have come out with a weird, ethereal glow to them...

Native Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

These white Bluebells are most likely our native type, but an occasional genetic mutation can result in the complete lack of pigment.

♪ Purple haze, all around... 

The Bluebells seem to be putting on an intense show this year, almost as if they are sensing impending pressure of future woodland environmental policy...
   The woodlands are alive with birds (as well as the occasional plane engine roar), so we have to make several stop whilst standing agape, trying to pick out the individual species. Wren, Robin, Dunnock, Great Tit and Blue Tit do a good job of trying to drown out the competition. The warblers have been setting up territory here too, with Chiffchaff and Blackcap in abundance.

I am doubling up our recording effort with a survey form I have created for iRecord, hopefully to help with speedier bird data entry. I put numbered markers onto a printed aerial map, then reference them next to our species list.

Moschatel or Town Hall Clock (Adoxa moschatellina) is a cute but often overlooked woodland flower

For me, the find of the day was a Willow Warbler in Goat Meadow. This is a new record for our Gatwick bird surveys and our 6th species of Warbler. The song has a lovely, mellow descending trill which shows on this sonogram...

This slightly made up for the fact that the regular Marsh Tits I had promised Tom had stood us up. 
   Other woodland niceties showed up towards the end of our transects, including Tree Creeper, Nuthatch, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Goldcrest. Barn Swallows have arrived in the last couple of weeks and they could be seen and heard hawking over the water treatment ponds.

A young Mug Tree

We finally tracked down our singing Song Thrush at the end of the transect, ruling over a group of squabbling Dunnocks in the Upper Picketts deadhedge. The final list was shorter than our usual average of 30, possibly due to the slightly cooler day, or perhaps some species are already busy nesting and have less time to sing.

LERL final list:
  1. Stock Dove
  2. Wood Pigeon
  3. Great Spotted Woodpecker
  4. Green Woodpecker
  5. Jay
  6. Magpie
  7. Jackdaw
  8. Carrion Crow
  9. Swallow
  10. Great Tit
  11. Blue Tit
  12. Coal Tit
  13. Long-tailed Tit
  14. Blackbird
  15. Song Thrush
  16. Robin
  17. Goldcrest
  18. Blackcap
  19. Chiffchaff
  20. Willow Warbler
  21. Chaffinch
  22. Dunnock
  23. Wren
  24. Treecreeper
  25. Nuthatch

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Small mammals vs. large mammals

Working with animals and teenagers may at first seem a hairy sort of idea, but then again you might be surprised.

At the end of a manic March, a group of around 15 of the Gatwick Greenspace Partnership's Youth Rangers visited our woodlands and grasslands, over in the Land East of the Railway Line. The main aim of the day was to survey Gatwick's small mammals, targeting the different habitats to see what we could find. 

A Longworth trap in woodland undergrowth

Vacancies: a free overnight stay with full board

In the 3 days leading up to this event, I set out some humane Longworth traps which were checked and reset every 12 hours. They were stuffed with plenty of warm hay, a generous stash of porridge oats, fresh carrot and mealworms to suit all mammally tastes.
  Surveying over several days gives time for the small mammals to acclimatise to the presence of the traps, so every day our capture rate increased. On the last day we got a record number of mammal captures, so it was fortunate having the Youth Rangers to carry out the brunt of the work!

This group did an awesome job, becoming efficient at emptying each trap carefully into a bag, recording the weight and sex of the critter before releasing it out and finally resetting the trap. I was impressed by how well they communicated with each other and minimised the stress to these small furry beasts. Here's a selection of what we came across...

Bank Vole (Clethrionomys glareolus)

Bank Vole (Clethrionomys glareolus)

Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

Yellow-necked Mouse (Apodemus flavicollis) with distinctive yellow collar across the chest

Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), back out to freedom

Out of the 28 traps, almost every single one had triggered overnight (a few possibly accountable to intrepid slugs), 19 of them containing a small rodent. We found 3 different species, the commonest being Wood Mouse with 14 individuals counted.

Checking our Hedgehog tracking pads

Lots of tiny tracks which are much too small for Hedgehog, so most likely Wood Mouse or Bank Vole

But the work did not stop there, as I wanted to get my money's worth out of this keen bunch! We also checked the Hedgehog tracking tunnels and cracked on with building the new stands for future Harvest Mouse surveys (an idea we blatantly plagiarised from the Surrey Mammal Group - thanks again Jim!).

Creating Harvest Mouse trap stands

I had also set up a camera trap in a hidden part of the woods, as I am keen to finally pick up recorded evidence of Gatwick's Badgers. We trekked over to the site and found that our badgery lure of raisins and peanuts had all been hoovered up, so it was with excitement that we played back the camera footage....

Tip: when setting up a camera trap, check the batteries are working. bad. Still, it's always a good day out with the Gatwick Greenspace Partnership volunteers and I'm lucky to work with such an ecclectic bunch of people of all ages. Thanks again to everyone involved: Tom S, Tom F and the Sussex Mammal Group for lending your time and equipment, and finally to all of you teens - you're al'ight, yeah.
  If you or anyone you know is interested in local wildlife and conservation around the Gatwick area, check out the Gatwick Greenspace Partnership webpage

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Indoor aculeating

Yesterday, a last minute opportunity came up to go on an aculeate identification workshop (bees, wasps and ants). As I'm still feeling keen about bees, I jumped at the chance.

The course was run by the Bees Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) and held in the British Entomological and Natural History Society classroom at Dinton Pastures. It focused on using written keys to identify solitary and spider-hunting wasps; at first I felt pretty daunted, but the course tutors Mike Edwards and Graham Collins encouraged us to get cracking and just see how we got on.

Ectemnius wasp abdomen

Ectemnius wing - these features can vary between species, so are useful in working out which group a particular wasp belongs to

At first I made a lot of mistakes with the keys, continually coming to the wrong name and having to start the process again. Apparently that is the best way to learn, as I became increasingly familiar with the key anatomical features for identifying bees and wasps down to the genus level.The relaxed atmosphere allowed us to get on at our own pace and no question was deemed too amateurish or silly.

I even had a go at keying out and pinning some of my own specimens from last year's malaise trap. My pinning is a bit off-centre and badly angled, but practice will make perfect and hopefully this specimen will still be identifiable.

My first pinned specimen - a Ruby-Tailed Wasp (Chrysis spp.)

There was a fun moment when I met Ryan Clark, who I follow on twitter. I only realised we were in the same room on the same course after he replied to my tweet!

The bug inside me grows for getting to know solitary bees and wasps, so next I am signing up to BWARS!