Sunday, 23 November 2014

Desk-bound days

Location: JSA portacabin, base of the Old Control Tower
Crew: 1
Contract: 2.5 years to date

I might be embellishing slightly, but these past couple of weeks have been pretty flat out; entering a backlog of data, carrying out analyses and updating the networked drives ready for Gatwick's main Biodiversity Benchmark audit this week.

 In 'Moon', Sam's computer would talk back to him and made him tea

A Biodiversity Benchmark audit is a full-on 2 day assessment by The Wildlife Trust, covering everything from monitoring methodology, staff training and communication, management systems, data tracking and analysis to the action plans themselves. With help from Hannah and Karen in Gatwick's Environment Team (plus the GAL I.T Helpdesk), I've been sorting/syncing all of Gatwick's biological data and old ecological reports together onto the one network, sometimes using three different laptops at once.

Oh gahd not the fish

The Biodiversity Benchmark Award comprises of stringent rules and requirements (as it should), which are continually refined and updated making it a rather more involved process than it first sounds. It is given to encourage big business to perform better with long-term land management practices, thus proving a continued environmental commitment.

Plus some other reasons.

Thankfully on Friday, I had a brief interlude from my own data underworld to attend the National Biodiversity Network Conference (for which I'm very grateful to Penny Green at the Sussex Biodiversity Records Centre). Here we learned what happens to the UK's biological data (and places beyond) through inspirational talks given by some fascinating speakers. Charles Roper's 'speed-talk' on Open Data particularly stood out for me; the incredible power of the world wide web, how far we have already come and the future possibilities of data sharing.

The bigger picture: an intricate web of linked datasets as tracked by Charles to date

As if I needed more proscrastination fodder, I then found Charles' awesomely-written article for Adastra 2014, the Sussex Biological Recording annual reviewThe Future of Data Sharing

Anyhoo, once this audit is all over with I'm straight back outside to dig/saw/chase/record something. Will let you know of the outcome as soon as we know!

Monday, 17 November 2014

Micro-mouse mysteries

I have been fortunate enough to meet some really passionate conservationists through the Wildlife Trusts, who remind me the most essential part of any scientific study is to define the question which needs answering. 

North West Zone at Gatwick, adjacent to the River Mole grasslands

Subject mammal: orangey fur, big ol' eyes, small ears and a prehensile tail

The Harvest Mouse (Micromys minutus) is a rather iconic, yet understudied mammal in our fair isles, so folk like Jim Jones and Laurie Jackson are working to fill the gaps in our knowledge. We know that Harvest Mice are present at the airport, but how well are they doing and what are their habits once autumn rolls in and the wetland water levels rise? Earlier this month, Jim and myself oversaw a survey in the North West Zone, tying into a larger population study by the Surrey Mammal Group.

Monday Evening: Setting up on site

Jim mixes up a tasty snack for our small mammal traps
(peanut butter, apple, oats and mealworms)

The aim is to compare the effectiveness of 3 types of humane mammal traps at different heights in the vegetation. This could help inform conservationists of the best way to target sample Harvest Mouse populations.

Longworth Trap on a stand

Sherman Trap on a stand
Trip Trap (which doesn't always trigger, meaning free food and accommodation for luckier beasties)

And did we find what we were looking for? Here is a photo diary of our results...

Day 1:

6.30am. Cool and misty morning along the River Mole, north-west of the airfield

Trainees arrive on site and Jim gives us a brief on the methodology

Our first capture is a young Field Vole (Microtus agrestis), gently scruffed to determine the gender

Noon session: a less-than-amused Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) popped out of a longworth trap, none the worse for wear!

Evening session: 6.30pm

Persistently cute; same Field Vole (Microtus agrestis) gets emptied out for the 3rd time today

Peak Counts:
Field Vole (Microtus agrestis) x 2
Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) x 3
Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) x 1

Day 2:

Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

Yellow-necked Mouse (Apodemus falvicollis), a larger, longer-toothed cousin of the Wood Mouse

Peter bravely demonstrates how to scruff a Yellow-necked Mouse

Peak counts:
Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus) x 2
Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) x 8
Yellow-necked Mouse (Apodemus flavicollis) x 1

Day 3:

We don't normally trap in persistently cold conditions due to welfare issues, but last night's temperature dropped to a frostier level than expected. Luckily no casualties, plus many of the traps were frozen open with all the bait snaffled (but plenty of rodent poop left in return).

Survey form

Noon session: Joe and Megan photograph the contents of a trap...

Which turns out to be our first Common Shrew (Sorex araneus)

...Still no sign of that evasive Micro-mouse!

Peak Counts:
Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus) x 2
Field Vole (Microtus agrestis) x 1
Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) x 3
Yellow-necked Mouse (Apodemus flavicollis) x 1
Common Shrew (Sorex araneus) x 1

Day 4:

Kathryn and Sue helping to replenish bait in the traps

Evening session: Trip-trap; resolutely empty

Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus)

Peak Counts:
Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus) x 2
Field Vole (Microtus agrestis) x 2
Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) x 6
Yellow-necked Mouse (Apodemus flavicollis) x 2

Day 5: Final morning

A relatively peaceful moment at the airport, reminds me of the film 'Warm Bodies'!

Jim holds the final Field Vole

Final Field Vole is having trouble letting go... 
(perhaps after being spoiled by days of free full-board accommodation)

Peak Counts:
Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus) x 1
Field Vole (Microtus agrestis) x 2
Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) x 1
Yellow-necked Mouse (Apodemus flavicollis) x 3

Apparently, Harvest Mice will take their holidays around this time of year while the rest of us are still working hard. Who knows why we didn't find any, but judging from the number of nests we have seen on this site, 2015 will be be the year!

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Volunteer of the year

I'm sure it's bad form to have favourites with volunteers... so gotta be even worse to choose one who is related to me!

My most consistent ecological assistant (as in consistently late, consistently questioning, consistently disappearing off around the corner) is my mum, who started coming out with me to give a hand with Dormouse box checks in early 2012. 
   Perhaps through a sense of obligation (or coercion), Sue has been unafraid to get stuck in with checking reptile refugia, cleaning out nest boxes, measuring crayfish, repairing my torn malaise trap and generally acting as an endless supplier of pens which I love to drop in field. Ordinarily adorned in in sky-blue, I am incredibly lucky to have such a tireless side-kick for the days when I've seen enough Signal Crayfish to last 3 lifetimes. 

Moth trapping

Bat box checks

Small mammal surveying

She tends to take the habitat works less than seriously...

And the reason for this blatant nepotism? Well today it is Sue's birthday... and its a big one too! So how does she choose to spend it? Why, in the field with two of her favourite kids of course!!

Megan, my bro Joe, the Mother of all Bickers and myself

Without my mum (and a little involvement from my dad I guess), I would not even be here, let alone working on this project. So thanks Mum, please keep up the great work!

Monday, 3 November 2014

Not quite tree surgery

In the past few weeks, a group of arboriculturalists have injected some extra zeal and energy into our project, helping carry out some habitat enhancements in the North West Zone. The team from Roots Upwards Ltd, led by Matt and along with their own ecologist Ben, even gave up some of their precious weekend to move bat boxes in Brockley Wood.

Martyn Cooke from Surrey Bat Group and tree climber Adam scouting for boxes

Shinning up the tall oak trees in Brockley Wood is no problem for these guys, and Adam carefully checks each box for occupancy before they are cleaned out and re-hung on the tree. In the last box he was treated to an unexpected 'Close Encounter of the Fuzzy Kind'...

Adam: "Hang on a sec... there IS a bat in here..."

"Hey, lads! Ahh, you alright lads?"
Natterer's Bats (Myotis nattereri)

I love witnessing encounters like Adam's; it's so rare to see an animal like a bat close up like this and a privileged moment. Martyn identified this cosy bat cluster as a group of Natterer's Bats (though it probably consists of a few ladies as well as lads). After taking these pictures for us, Adam carefully closed the box back up and left them to their daytime snoozing.   
   Another great help has been ecologist Ben; boosting our wildlife records for this site, ensuring disturbance is minimized during the essential works, then overseeing some extra habitat enhancements:

Foundations of  a beetle bank; ready to be finished off in spring with a cap of top soil and seed 

On top of the scheduled habitat works I oversee with J S Agriculture, Tom Simpson and guys like these contribute a heck of a lot to the project, adding another string to our bow as we shoot for the Wildlife Trust's Biodiversity Benchmark Award (our main audit is happening at the end of this month!) 

Brash piles securely staked high up on the floodplain, providing extra cover for wildlife where clearance works have taken place

Who ya gonna call? Matt of Roots Upwards

At the end of a rather extended summer, we are off to a flying start with the 3rd year of autumnal conservation works. We have more habitat enhancements coming up from JSA, an intensive Harvest Mouse survey with Surrey Mammal Group and Mr Simpson's conservation schedule is quickly filling up. So you better drop us a line soon if you want to get involved!