Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Mole Valley Bird Race 2015

Saturday 16th May

With binoculars cleaned, posh picnic lunches packed, heated flasks of coffee and not a hint of a hangover; the Gatwick Greenspace Goshawks had reformed and were fighting fit, ready to make up for last year's legendary loss in the Mole Valley Bird Race!

Mole Valley region in Surrey

With teams of local birders and conservationists, the aim of a bird race is to see or hear as many species as possible in just 24 hours, which is like a highly-caffeinated version of  a 'Big Year'. As well as the egoic need to spot that incredibly rare migrant, our incentive is to generate additional biological records for the area and raise awareness of species conservation.

3.45am: Our team (Tom F., Tom S., Laurie and myself), met up at Capel village in the south of Mole Valley. Our painful pre-dawn start was made worthwhile; as soon as we stepped out of the car, we were greeted by a serenade of 4 incredible Nightingales in the darkness...

4.30am. National Trust site Leith Hill

It was a drive further north into Mole Valley, catching some Tawny Owl pre-roosting chatter as we jumped out of the car at Leith Hill. Eyes adjusting to the darkness as we wandered over the heath, we were up 10 species before dawn chorus had even started, including some rather elusive ones: Nightingale, Skylark, Cuckoo, Woodcock and Nightjar...
Pausing to listen to bizarre calls of Nightjar...

Meanwhile, the Twittersphere alerted us that other teams were out of bed and on the move...

Risky business disturbing the zombie cows this early in the morning. 

The light levels were gradually increasing and the dawn chorus built into an impressive crescendo. For us lowlanders, it was awesome to just stop and listen so many heathland species in a chorus, including a Common Redstart.

Moving on through the heath, we stumbled across this rather cold Slowworm, which although was alive looked as if he'd been out all night and not quite made it to the taxi rank.

Slowest ever Slow-worm

After some initial intense listing-madness, we had hit 20 species well before 6am with a lovely Tree Creeper bursting into its descending trill.

Views from the heath

As well as the chorus of songbirds, we picked up the rattling alarm call of Mistle Thrush, the chaks of Jackdaw and cheks of Great Spotted Woodpecker. A pair of Siskin passed us directly overhead and soon after 6am we had hit the big 30, which is our average score for the Gatwick bird surveys. 

'Tripit' is Tom Forward-speak for Tree Pipit, a stunning thing to hear in full song and awesome to witness its parachuting flight down onto a perch.

There was a moment when we thought Tom F. might have lost it, but then we were greeted to clear views and the song of a Spotted Flycatcher! Apparently they must have only arrived in the area the previous day or so.

A quick coffee break at Leith Hill Tower and a moment to interact with the locals...

Elsie is apparently good mates with the Leith Hill rangers and a bit of a biscuit fiend.

Sorry Elsie, but we've ticked Chaffinch already!
   We soon bumped into the National Trust rangers 'Team Rita'. Although an alliance could not be agreed upon, there was a moment of ceasefire to enjoy the views of Mole Valley and the songs of Firecrest which drifted up as clear as a bell. 

We had hoped for a sneak peak through the enemy scope

Highly entertaining were the rangers' descriptions of Goldcrest song vs. Firecrest; apparently the former sounds like a fairy trying to start her tiny car which gives out at the end....

While the latter was described as a tiny, manic sewing machine...

Right you are, lads. 

North of the wall

Time was a wasting and our distraction techniques of rare warbler songs as ringtones had got old, so we left the 'scopers' to their passive-birding and headed back down into the valley to find more action.

 Lots of lovely Bilberry was coming into flower on the path edges...

Then soon after 8am we had ticked our 40th bird with the first raptor of the day, a hovering Kestrel.

Everyone else on the Twittersphere was being pretty covert about the scores so far... however, we were astounded to see that David's team at least wasn't miles ahead of us at this early stage!

A chancey detour from our planned route resulted in mopping up a few farmland beauties, including Yellow Hammer, Meadow Pipit and...

Red-legged Partridge

We had reached the big five-oh!!

Following the footpath through the fields, we spied our second raptor of the day in the form of a formidable-looking Red Kite.

From down on the ground we could see Leith Hill Tower again, which resurrected some (what I felt was rather tame) twitter banter...

The call of a Moorhen led to a map-interlude, as we tried to locate the invisible pond out in a featureless field...

We gave up on the pond and were on the move again, nipping to a certain site for a faithful Reed Warbler. Another check in with the rivals...

Our 3rd raptor species of the day then burst onto the scene; a speedy Sparrowhawk out on the hunt!

Over to Newdigate Lakes to boost our wetland species tally, and we were manically ticking as soon as we stepped out of the car: Great Crested GrebeCanada Goose, Mute Swan, Moorhen, Mallard and Tufted Duck...

Newdigate lakes

A lonely Ring-necked Parakeet squawked loudly from the trees and a Kingfisher let off a series of excited piping calls.

Aerial action

Raptor app

Carrion Crow and Common Buzzard were battling high above us, then a Hobby shot past low down in pursuit of unseen insect prey. We sat down to take a breather, hoping for further views of the Hobby. Instead we were rewarded with something else...

Goshawk is a pretty awesome thing to witness, prompting us all to look twice in future at any raptors wheeling the sky! It hung around for the best part of 5 minutes before sailing lazily off into the distance.

Sunny interludes

It was a warbler-fest in the scrubby areas around the lake, with Garden Warbler and Common Whitethroat in good numbers. A short distraction by a Dingy Skipper Butterfly chase and a final bird in the form of singing Reed Bunting; we had made good at the Newdigate lakes.
 It was then off to the River Mole to find the armies of Little Egrets, Grey Wagtails and Great Egret... maybe.

Not quite what we were looking for, but after the entertainment we finally saw Grey Wagtail
  It was then off to our 'wildcard site' at Fetcham Common, finally allowing ourselves a proper break for lunch. As we ticked off a seperate list for this site, we were serenaded by BlackcapCommon Whitethroat and Garden Warbler once again. Also knocking about were Stock DoveLesser Black-backed Gull and some screaming Swifts.

Passive birding; get somewhere high up and let them come to you

The raptors were practically flirting with us today, with SparrowhawkRed KiteCommon BuzzardKestrel AND a pair of Hobby overhead!!

London on the horizon... is that a Peregrine in the distance?

Now new raptors were appearing, so it was over to Buckland Sandpits to stake out for some elusive wetland species. All seemed quiet at first, but we put in the time to scan and watch, scooping up GadwallEgyptian Goose and finally, a small group of Sand Martin.

Perch point

Buckland Sandpits

Suddenly, the day was drawing to a quick close and the 8pm finishing time loomed. It was then a mad dash to try to find an end-of-day Barn or Little Owl, driving around country lanes while frantically scanning fields and mature Oaks. Meanwhile, the other teams were using a more passive approach...

Tempting in Barn Owls with strong continental lager?

At 7.55pm we finally stumbled into the pub (the opposite to how it normally goes), giving in our list to adjudicator Derrick for the final species tally. Everyone was shattered, but the sense of achievement (and perhaps relief) was high.
   So finally, the winning team was...

Sneaky moment with the unguarded trophy...

Nope, not us!
At 82 species we did come in at a close second to Mr Stubbs (84 species), plus we beat Mr Bayley of Leith Hill himself!

The winning team 'Out for a Duck', still on top

We will be back next year, this time with even more coffee!

Total number of bird species recorded on the day: 91

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Gatwick Wildlife Day 2015

Thursday 7th May - the night before

Time: 2000hrs
Where: The River Mole, north of the airfield, Sussex/Surrey border (TQ260414)
Who: Gatwick Greenspace Partnership, local residents, keen volunteers, professional conservationists, ecologists and representatives from Sussex Moth Group and Surrey Bat Group.

Gathering around the moth trap: an actinic light bulb over an open plastic bucket 
with some empty eggboxes inside

This was Gatwick's second ever wildlife day, and energy levels were high as we arrived to set up basecamp. Over in the woods, Martyn erected his bat 'harp traps', while out on the floodplain, Penny and Dave set out the generators and moth trapping equipment. As the night gradually crept in, so did the wildlife and one of our very first records was a Noctule BatNyctalus noctula giving an impressive aerial display above us.

Our first few moth records:
Green Carpet Colostygia pectinataria
(Photo by Maria Donoghue)

Brimstone Moth Opisthograptis luteolata
(Photo by Maria Donoghue)

Tom Forward setting up a trail camera

Several humane longworth traps had been borrowed from Sussex Mammal Group, baited with hay and tasty rodent treats, hidden along the floodplain and the woodland strip...

Bag o'Wood Mouse; the trap is emptied into a bag, the occupant sexed and 
weighed before being released. (Photo by Helen Cradduck)

The traps came up trumps this evening with many occupants, but all happened to be the same species...

Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) scruffing -  a safe holding technique for both rodent and human 
(Photo by Maria Donoghue)

One of Martyn's harp traps: frame with vertical strings, a collecting bag at the base and an electronic lure with attached microphone playing out high frequency bat calls. 

After last year's evening session had resulted in no bat captures, this year our luck had changed...

Common Pipistrelle Pipistrellus pipistrellus
(Photo by Maria Donoghue)

Common Pipistrelle wing 
(Photo by Maria Donoghue)

Brandt's Bat Myotis brandti
(Photo by Helen Cradduck)

Gently measuring the forearm length. All bats tend to look angry while ecolocating!

The traps gave us 3 individuals of 3 different species: Common Pipistrelle, Soprano Pipistrelle and Brandt's Bat. The biometric data collected by licensed bat workers like Martyn and bat groups is important stuff; we need to know as much as possible about our bat species if we hope to conserve them for the future.

Naturalists at night; important distinction between the words 
'naturalist' and 'naturist'; we were all fully clothed

Wildlife Day - Friday 8th May 

Time: 0900hrs
Who: Around 67 people including keen naturalists, Gatwick Airport staff, Gatwick Greenspace Partnership, representatives from Surrey Biodiversity Records Centre, Surrey Botanical Society, Sussex Fungi Group and Sussex Moth Group

A bright and sunny morning, with lots to catch up on from the evening before. After a coffee and a natter, Tom Forward gathered everyone in to give an outline of the day ahead.

First up was the moth trap reveal with Dave Green, checking out a fantastic variety of species and listing the numbers of overnight occupants...

Gatwick staff getting up close and personal with moths

Pebble Hook-tip Drepana falcataria
(Photo by Maria Donoghue)

Maiden's Blush Cyclophora punctaria
(Photo by Maria Donoghue)

Poplar Hawkmoth Laothoe populi 
(Photo by Krisztina Fekete)

Rose Parker of Surrey Biodiversity Information Centre, our records collator for the day

Our youngest biological recorder was Sid, pictured here getting to grips with a lovely Birch Mocha

Birch Mocha Cyclophora albipunctata 
(Photo by Helen Cradduck)

Mammal and reptile surveys

Tom Simpson and I led the groups on reptile and small mammal surveys. First of all we wetted appetites with a view of two beautiful male Slow-worms, borrowed from a friend's nearby garden...

Slow-worm (Anguis fragilis), a type of legless lizard

Then it was off into the field to retrieve our mammal traps...

Searching the vegetation along the River Mole

Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

We emptied the longworth traps of their overnight occupants, which once more all turned out to be Wood Mice! So not quite the diversity of small mammal species we were hoping for.
   We had our fingers crossed for the reptile refugia...

Lifting a reptile tin
(Photo by Kevin Lerwill)

The lucky afternoon group was rewarded with a glimpse of this quick-moving, gorgeous little Grass Snake...

A young Grass Snake Natrix natrix
(Photo by Ian Chalk)


Tom Forward lead teams out on a linear walk along the river footpath, identifying as many species of the feathered variety as possible. He was also testing the group's bird song identification and recall skills with recordings on his handy iPad (other brands of tablet computer are also available).

Common Buzzard wheeling right over our heads at basecamp
(Photo by Krisztina Fekete)

By making it into a game, this can help us to fixates information into our memories. A highlight for the group was seeing a male Song Thrush sitting out in the open, bellowing out its charismatic and variable tune...

 Swallow, House Martins and Common Swift also made their presence known...

And a blooming rare thing was one of my own bird photos coming out alright!!

Reed Warbler perched up in Blackthorn

Theirs is a distinctive song commonly heard from the reedbeds at Gatwick...

Tom and his groups finally tallied 42 species, easily beating our usual bird survey record!

1. Blackbird
2. Blackcap
3. Blue Tit
4. Bullfinch
5. Carrion Crow
6. Chaffinch
7. Chiffchaff
8. Coal Tit
9. Collared Dove
10. Common Buzzard
11. Dunnock
12. Garden Warbler
13. Goldfinch
14. Great Spotted Woodpecker
15. Great Tit
16. Green Woodpecker
17. Greenfinch
18. Grey Heron
19. Herring Gull
20. House Martin
21. Jackdaw
22. Jay
23. Kestrel
24. Kingfisher
25. L.Whitethroat
26. Long-tailed Tit
27. Magpie
28. Mallard
29. Mandarin
30. Moorhen
31. Pheasant
32. Reed Bunting
33. Reed Warbler
34. Robin
35. Rook
36. Song Thrush
37. Swallow
38. Swift
39. Tawny Owl
40. Whitethroat
41. Wood Pigeon
42. Wren

Lunch break

Coffee time! Hannah and Karen from Environment Health and Safety
(Photo by Ian Chalk)

Riverside lunch break just before the afternoon shift
(Photo by Kevin Lerwill)

In the afternoon the sun had retreated behind gathering clouds, but on the upside this made a great opportunity to snap flowering plants in good light, plus the 'roosting' invertebrates in the vegetation...

Plants & Invertebrates

Cuckoo Flower, aka 'Lady's Smock' Cardamine pratensis 
with a roosting female Orange Tip Butterfly on the left
(Photo by Ian Chalk)

Germander Speedwell Veronica chamaedrys
(Photo by Ian Chalk)

We were fortunate to have a good turn out of members from the Surrey Botanical Society, who collectively between them recorded around 150 species of plant. That will boost our count up!!

Banded Demoiselle (female) Calopteryx splendens
(Photo by Tom Forward)

A closer view of the Orange Tip Butterfly (female) Anthocharis cardamines 
(Photo by Tom Forward)

Four-spotted Chaser Dragonfly Libellula quadrimaculata
(Photo by Ian Chalk)

Helophilus pendulus a common hoverfly, fondly called 'The Footballer' for its stripey kit
(Photo by Linda Pryke)

Andrew checks his net after sweeping the vegetation
(Photo by Ian Chalk)

Entomologist Andrew Halstead was able to turn up some exciting species, including an extremely rare type soldierfly...

Stratiomys longicornis, also called the Long-horned General
It is a salt marsh specialist, so perhaps it hitched a ride from the coast?!
(Photo by Andrew Halstead)

And that was not the only Long-Horned beastie which Andrew managed to turn up!

Long-Horned Bee (Eucera longicornis)

I was particularly chuffed this charismatic little fella put in an appearance, as I'm going to be surveying for it through the summer. The organisation Buglife describe Long-horned Bees as only being present at a few dozen sites across the UK, mostly restricted to the coastline. This makes it yet another interesting find so far inland!
As the rain rolled in, we then shifted our focus onto the wetter species...


Nick Aplin of Sussex Fungi Group, checking out microfungi with a hand lense

Nick was able to steal time out of his busy schedule for a scout along the River Mole, searching out the things we would most certainly have missed! His specimens (and photography) are quite exquisite... 

 Orange Bonnet Mycena acicula
(Photo by Nick Aplin)

Loving the name of this one...

Scurfy Twiglet Tubaria furfuracea
(Photo by Nick Aplin) 

Dock Rust Puccinia phragmitis is pretty stunning when viewed in macro. Looks almost Christmassy!
(Photo by Nick Aplin)

And for something even more bizaare, this fungus living on tree bark...

Hysteropatella prostii fruiting bodies on the left. Its ascopores are stained and here viewed under higher magnification on the right
(Photo by Nick Aplin)

Nick wants to check this one thoroughly, but this is potentially yet another new species for the UK! The above is just a tiny selection of Nick's 51 species, which is pretty darn good work for one day.


While surveying one of our amphibian ponds, no signs of of adult newts but some evidence of the Great Crested variety could be found...

Cranbrook Nursery pond

Great Crested Newt egg, laid on a Flag Iris leaf

Great Crested Newt Triturus cristatus larva or newtpole. only a couple of millimeters long at this stage

Tom Simpson and Kevin Lerwill of GGP lead the afternoon session of river kick-sampling

You don't always need to see the adult version of a beastie to know that it is present. Different life stages can also count as biological records, such as the larvae of Damselflies..

Kick sample of freshwater invertebrates, which need closer examination to get to species level 
Photo by Helen Cradduck

Sometimes, you can even trace back evidence of a species beyond the larval life stages...
The distinctive signature of the Willow Emerald Damselfly Lestes viridis - oviposition scars on the riverside Willow (where an adult female has laid eggs)
(Photo by Linda Pryke)

This species is a recent colonist to the UK, so I'll be keeping an eye on this spot later this season to try to glimpse an adult on the wing! Finally, our total number of species? Rose has counted well over 300 records with more being sent in to all the time, which means we have beat last year by a long shot! 

As this never ending blogpost actually comes to an end, I would like to say a huge thank you to Gatwick's Environment Team, absolutely everyone else who came along on the day, anyone who read this epic chronicle of a blogpost, and a special thanks to...

Tom, Kevin and Tom of the Gatwick Greenspace Partnershipwithout who these awesome events would not happen. Rest now lads, your work is complete.

Oh, alright then... One more bee pic for good measure.

Long-Horned Bee Eucera longicornis along the River Mole