Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Airport biodiversity conservation in action

Last week we received a visit from around 30 Biological Sciences students studying for their course module 'Conservation in action'. The group was headed by Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex.
Clay slope overlooking the airfield and the River Mole; our Long-horned Bee nesting site

Within the broad topics of conservation biology and habitat management, schools of thought change as new science and experience comes to light. Conservationists must be open to feedback, analysing and reviewing their work, questioning the impacts and controversies of what they are trying to achieve. On Gatwick's sites, we have the added challenge of striking a balance between wildlife conservation and aerodrome safety.

Westfield Stream, airside. Areas closest to the airfield are kept as sterile as possible, reducing attractiveness to flocking birds or large mammals which could come in contact with aircraft

Horleyland Wood. Further away our areas are managed to encourage species diversity, perhaps even contributing in small ways to a push-pull dynamic for wildlife

The reality is that we are working with a large-scale operational hub incorporating many buildings, transport infrastructure and the people who operate and pass through it. Since the first bird strikes reported early on in aviation history, research on wildlife hazards at aerodromes has been a broad and contentious topic. It makes fascinating reading because almost every aerodrome has its particular set of circumstances presenting a unique case. Our ultimate priority is minding the safety of both wildlife and people when managing habitats around Gatwick, which means sometimes thinking outside the parameters of an idyllic nature reserve.
Ashley's Field. Showing the students our Grass Snake habitat enhancements and bee areas

The contrast of conservation management techniques was highlighted to the students after visiting the fantastic Knepp Estate Wildland Project near Horsham, West Sussex. This large landscape project (around 1,000ha) uses free-roaming grazing animals and the natural dynamics of succession to revert ex-agricultural land back into something more naturalistic. This practice of 'rewilding' is already producing some pretty exciting results at Knepp. On a much smaller scale at Gatwick, some of our areas have also been left to 'rewild', as small pockets of grassland which historically were used for pasture or agriculture were long ago abandoned as buffer areas around the airfield. 

Scrub West of Brockley. Searching for rare Brown Hairstreak Butterfly eggs on Blackthorn - it took the students only a couple of minutes to find one of these tiny eggs

No easy task - these eggs are only around 1mm diameter

However, due to the much smaller sizes of our sites and their overall fragmented nature, we can't expect the same large-scale ecosystem dynamics to come into play. Instead we intervene through techniques such as manual scrub clearance, coppicing and re-planting to maximise the diversity of the land we have left, preventing a few species or habitats from becoming overly dominant. This means that even in a small area, we can maintain a wide variety of good habitats benefiting a wide range of species. 
   Working with a commercial entity has also taught us greatly about mediating between differing agendas; nature wants to perpetuate whereas infrastructure wants growth, and often it would be the latter taking precedence over the former. Communication and information sharing is an incredibly important process in finding sustainable ways going forward and to avoid repeating past mistakes.

North West Zone. Sussex University Biological Science Students and research staff

Tom Simpson and I would like to sincerely thank everyone who came along last Friday for this tour of our sites; it was quite gratifying sharing what we are doing with future ecologists, conservationists and researchers. Hopefully we can continue to establish links with academic and research institutions, providing training, research resources and further developing our airport biodiversity project.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Celestial photobomb

I took a bit of a gamble last week, nipping up to Aberdeen from Brighton to catch the eclipse... 

Picking up my friend Olly and with a few extra stops along the way, we drove to Balmedie Beach which is on the east coast of Scotland, just slightly north of Aberdeen. On Friday that unstable Scottish weather was on our side, with plenty of breaks in the cloud.

Budget eclipse viewing: holding a colander up to the sun helped to track the progress of the moon

We figured out that we could also track progress by watching the camera lens flare (looking at the digital screen of course, not through the viewer)...

Close up of lens flare - J.J. Abrams would be proud

When a cloud passed over, putting down the exposure as far as it would go worked well too.

9.38am: maximum coverage

This is my favorite shot, with the lens flare showing the maximum coverage

The price we paid for these great views was getting caught out in the open during a very cold, sudden rain shower...

When the sky rapidly cleared once more, I had wander around the sand dunes, seeing what I could turn up...

Quite like the landscape in the Ian Banks novel Wasp Factory, but no sign of any Scottish teenagers blowing up wasps here.

I think this is a Peltigera species of lichen, possibly Mat Felt (Peltigera malacea)

Dunnock singing lustily from the Gorse

Bird list:
Reed Bunting
Rock Pipit
Carrion Crow
Great Black-backed Gull
Herring Gull

I also had a quick sift in the sand for some invertebrates...

I think this is Ero cambridgei, will need to get it checked

Some medium-sized ants in the dunes... no idea what they are

This wolf spider is a bit of a dune specialist - Arctosa perita

...and remember folks, its important to have all the right gear when viewing an eclipse.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Roving Records - March 2015

Always at this time of the year I get severe fomo (fear of missing out) with online social networks kicking off about signs of spring. This week Mum galvanised me into action, dragging me away from the endless deskwork and in the last two days we've placed out around 100 reptile surveying mats and tins between us.

Reptile tin next to log pile

Wandering around in Ashley's Field, large queen Buff-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) were exploding up from the ground as we walked by.

A pair of Common Buzzards were calling noisily overhead in a soaring territorial display. I then finally heard my first Chiffchaff song of the year, having been duped by a Great Tit who last week was expertly mimicking the call.

Common Frog (Rana temporaria) spawn in wheel ruts, North West Zone

So now the amphibians are out and about at Gatwick, this means their reptilian predators are not far behind them! 

Sue's got some tagging skills fam...

Spray paint is used to number reptile mats cut from shed roofing felt. We place them in the most likely spots to tempt our reptilian friends; generally by low scrub or brash piles on the side where the sun hits.

Reptile charging pad

A few of the mats were left out over winter, so we had a quick check hoping for our first glimpse of a Grass Snake (Natrix natrix) this year. This was what we found...

Practising my new found carabid-wrangling skills; a colourful Poecilus aka 'Greenclock' Beetle

Wolf Spiders (Pardosa sp.) are also hiding out under mats in large numbers

Common Toad (Bufo bufo)

...Sadly no snakey. Yet.

Path through to Upper Picketts - finally drying out

Primrose (Primula vulgaris)

Nice to see that our standing deadwood habitat is being put to good use

Didn't dare to get too close without the suit!

The background static noise to this video is actually the sound of the Gatsbees (Gatwick's honeybees), which are wide awake and busily collecting Willow pollen for their new broods. At this time of year, the early flowering Willow and Blackthorn are an incredibly important nectar source for the earliest emerging species of bees and flies. Time again for the sweep-net to come out of hibernation!

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Ground Beetles (Carabids) workshop

When we were kids in the 90's, my bro and I would squabble over who got to be the first to read the new issue of 'Bugs' magazine (I think that was what it was called). It came with free 3D specs for a double-page center image of a terrifying invertebrate, plus collectible glow-in-the-dark pieces of a spider model. It was also where I first read about the obnoxious habits of carabid beetles such as the Bombardier, which can spray a nasty concoction of boiling chemicals from their rear ends into the faces of predators... Those rascals.

Beetle body-plan: the weirdly named Sausage Ground Beetle (Carabus granulatus)

Last Saturday I visited the British Entomological and Natural History Society at Dinton Pastures, Reading to take part in the Ground Beetle (Carabidae) identification workshop. This is the 4th BENHS workshop I've been along to now and each one is uniquely fascinating.

Entomologist John Walters with the BENHS collection of Carabids

Today's course was jointly run by entomologists Mark Telfer (of Pan-species listing fame) and John Walters. It began with a presentation introducing the Carabidae family of beetles and their wonderful diversity in the UK. These include your classic black Ground Beetles, stunning Peacock Beetles, monstrous Tiger Beetles and the relatively tiny Bembidions.

Mark's precisely labelled and positioned specimens

Beetles are like living tanks with awesome customized add-ons which vary depending on their lifestyles. Being almost entirely predatory, carabids are monsters of the undergrowth with huge, curved jaws, massive eyes and spiked sprinting legs... Pimp My Beetle wouldn't work as a TV show, as they are already too damn pimped. 

Carabus granulatus (Sausage Ground Beetle) under the microscope. 
My Sony Xperia phone seems to take fairly good images this way 

The classroom session involved selecting specimens from the workshop collection and trying out different identification books and keys, including handy worksheets produced by Mark and John. These guys are on a mission to make the study and identification of insects (entomology) more accessible to beginners...

A detailed identification key to the features of Carabid beetles

But these brilliant worksheets were much more user-friendly

Superficially similar: Carabus granulatus on the left, Carabus arvensis on the right.

Of course is it always a beautiful day whenever microscopes are involved! Fortunately we had the opportunity to step outside for some live beetle handling/wrangling, learning about useful identification features out in the field:

Beetle wrangling (like a boss)

A live Violet Ground Beetle (Carabus violaceus) in the hand. 

The idea is to firmly grasp the middle and hind legs, which mostly immobilizes them so you can then examine from all angles. Their nip doesn't hurt too bad (unless you have open cracks on the sides of your thumb, then it bloody hurts).

Flipping the beetle

Momentary distraction with 3 Red Kites flying over our heads

At the end of the day, Mark demonstrated mounting a dead beetle specimen onto card... not your classic hallmark type of card (although I bet Mark wouldn't mind receiving one like that).

My first mounted Gatwick beetle specimen: Black Clock Beetle (Pterostichus madidus)

I had a sort through some of the Gatwick pitfall-trap sample jars, in which we had just 2 very common carabid species: Pterostichus madidus and Abax parallelepipedus.

So I'm 2 species down with some way to go before I amass a collection like Mark's. Hmmm, I forgot to ask when exactly he started off...

Mark Telfer's Website : A great resource for beetle identification keys and literature.
John Walter's Website : Beautiful natural history illustrations as well as downloadable identification keys
British Entomological and Natural History Society : Field meetings and indoor workshops, open to anyone with an interest in the astounding diversity of UK insects and other invertebrates.