Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Early Winter Bird Survey 2015 - North West Zone

Friday December 18th

R2-D2 Dreamliner

It was an incredibly a mild December morning when Jedi Birder Tom Forward, of the order Gatwick Greenspace Partnership, swooped in for our early winter bird survey.

The North West Zone, located in the Outer Rim Territories of Gatwick

Straight away we felt a strong presence in the force, scooping up a brand new species for our surveys landside at Gatwick... A Coot

It's a little odd that we haven't picked up Coot on previous surveys, but I have checked the ancient iRecord archive scrolls, dating back a whole 3 years and true it is confirmed to be.
  In some nearby scrub, we gained privileged views of a lone Fieldfare breaking its fast on tasty rose hips...

Other thrush species picked up here were Redwing, Song Thrush, Blackbird and Mistle Thrush. An excitedly singing Dunnock also made its presence known from a nearby hedgerow. 
   At the end of the canalised section of river, where the Mole begins to meander, we saw a dark shape nip into the reed bed... could it be?

The Water Rail victory dance

The calls of Water Rail are pretty unmistakable (and bizarre), sounding more like a squealing piglet than a wetland bird. Reed Bunting, Song Thrush and Wren also sounded off, hidden from view in the reeds, while a flock of Long-tailed Tits moved through the trees.

Reeds along the River Mole

Passing around the north side of Brockley Wood, Carrion CrowJackdaw and Jay were our first corvids of the day and the lively sound of a Redwing flock came from somewhere in the gloom. Incredibly, signs of spring were cropping up everywhere...

Elder (Sambucus nigra) coming into leaf

Out of the woods and into a busy section of floodplain, with Fieldfare flying overhead and mixed flocks of Blue Tits, Great Tits and Goldcrests foraged in the tree tops. As we rounded a bend in the river, the landscape was contrastingly tranquil, with softly calling Song Thrush and a lonely-sounding Bullfinch

Then again, all Bullfinches sound lonely... Maybe if they lightened up a little they would have more friends.
   Along the next section of river, the ground up from the boggy floodplain is on a rather steep incline and whippy Alder scrub makes the going tougher.

More Redwing zipped back and forth, busily foraging in the dense scrub and a Green Woodpecker spooked us with a loud yaffle, erupting up out of the grass.

A the furthest point downstream, just outside of our allowed survey time, we were treated to the sight of a Kingfisher perching directly in front of us and a small group of Roe Deer trotting off around the corner. (Even if noted outside of the survey time, we enter all of the day's species into iRecord.)

A final word of advice: before beginning your linear transect of 3km over difficult terrain, do check you have your car keys with you and they are not locked in the car all the way t'other end.

Fieldfare departs LGW

Species total: 32
  • Blackbird
  • Blue Tit
  • Bullfinch
  • Carrion Crow
  • Chaffinch
  • Common Buzzard
  • Coot
  • Dunnock
  • Fieldfare
  • Goldcrest
  • Goldfinch
  • Great Spotted Woodpecker
  • Great Tit
  • Green Woodpecker
  • Herring Gull
  • Jackdaw
  • Jay
  • Kingfisher
  • Long-tailed Tit
  • Magpie
  • Meadow Pipit
  • Mistle Thrush
  • Moorhen
  • Pied Wagtail
  • Redwing
  • Reed Bunting
  • Robin
  • Song Thrush
  • Starling
  • Water Rail
  • Wood Pigeon
  • Wren

Monday, 21 December 2015

Gatsbees B-Log: Autumn 2015

With a mild beginning to October, we were able to make a final check of a couple of the colonies

and found a nuc (nucleus), which was queenless. It should have been strong enough to survive the winter, even though it was half the size of a full colony...

but the queen had died and in the centre of the comb the bees had constructed a queen cell, far too late for the production of a new one.

This is a butler cage, designed to introduce a new queen into a queenless colony and minimising the chance of them killing her. (The 50p is to give you an idea of the size, not how much they cost!)

She is placed into the cage and a piece of newspaper is wrapped around the open end and secured with an elastic band to give her somewhere to hide while they get used to her and feed her.

We then put it into the hive between the frames of brood, where the bees would expect to find her. At this time of year there will be no issues about them accepting her as they know they won’t survive without one!

Ilex aquifolium

The Holly and...

  Hedera helix

the Ivy. A fantastic winter plant for bees with irresistible flowers for bumbles, honeybees, wasps and hoverflies, and also juicy berries for the birds.

The next problem was in the hive on the right, also a small colony of 7 frames, where the queen was poor at egg laying and putting the colony at risk, so I took her out.

We opened up the bigger colony in the hive on the left and put a large sheet of newspaper over the frames of bees, covered by a wire queen excluder to stop it blowing away.

After dark, when all the bees were at home and clustered together, we lifted the whole hive, excluding the floor onto the main colony.

Over the next week, the bees in both hives chewed their way through the paper, gradually integrating smells and feeding each other...

Happy bees!

This visitor to the hive is a harmless Havestman (or Harvest-person?). Rachel says it is a type of arachnid, but not a spider.

(Leiobunum rotundum) female

All this mixing up of colonies causes a few battles on the landing board but the bees, which look like they are being attacked, will survive by being submissive by putting their heads between their legs and sweeping the floor with their tongues.

27th October; pollen still coming in by the leg load, but I'm not sure from which flower.

I’ve left enough honey (I hope) for the winter, but gave some back on the wax cappings from honey extraction, for the bees to clean up and store.

Ah, yes, honey. Extracting honey is my least favourite job, but I will get round to explaining its finer details one of these days…..

And so they close up any gaps which they don’t want with wax or propolis and go to bed. Although it’s now December, there are still stragglers finding traces of honey in my bee shed (where I thought it would be safe by now).

Can you spot the queen?

A really tricky ‘spot the queen’ photo last time but they do like to make it difficult; she was just disappearing round the top side of the frame with just her long abdomen showing.

If then, you think you may enjoy the ‘gentle’ art of beekeeping, you can join your local Association for theory courses, which usually begin in January. Get in touch with the British Beekeepers Association on the net for your nearest contact and they will be delighted to hear from you.

Local associations generally run practical sessions in an apiary from around April to September, so would be happy to let you hang around and practice all summer if you don’t feel confident, or if your garden isn’t suitable for you to keep bees there.

If still not for you, then perhaps you could grow plants with single flowers in your garden or in pots next year, which are easier for the bees to work. They don’t have to be native like this Green Alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens), but there’s always a corner for something insect friendly, whatever the growing conditions and whatever the time of year.

 Robin (Erithacus rubecula)  

So, that’s it for this extraordinary year; many thanks for your time and comments, it has been a pleasure sharing the girls with you all, amazing creatures that they are.

Big hug and a special thank you to Rachel and Tom too.

Gillybee X

Monday, 14 December 2015

Welcome to the (tiny) jungle

The further down the lens you go, the more life there is to identify and record. This is why with natural history, you can literally never be bored for a day in your life!

Mosses, liverworts and hornworts, aka 'bryophytes', are like exotic jungles and fantastic alien landscapes in miniature, inhabited by equally tiny invertebrates such as mites, spiders and springtails. 

Orthotrichum diaphanum with white hair points on the leaves (photo by Brad Scott)

Bryophytes use photosynthesis to produce their own food, but unlike like normal plants, they lack water and nutrient carrying vessels. Instead, they use diffusion through the surfaces of their simple leaves to absorb minerals and water. This is why they are often very small.  


This doesn't make them any less complicated and confusing as a group. They also have a bizarre 2-part life-cycle, the first stage which produces sexual gametes (the sperm and egg), then a second which produces asexual spores.

Candlesnuff Fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon) growing amongst the moss Kindbergia praelonga

The great thing about bryophyte surveying is that you can travel fairly light. Just a hand lens, a good book, and some small envelopes to collect a few specimens...

The only downside to bryophytes, because there is so much to see, it can be quite difficult to get your surveyors further than the car park...

Not everything can be identified to the species level with a hand lens, such as this commonly occurring moss of the genus Fissidens. There are a few different species which can look quite similar...

Fissidens sp.

Fortunately for us, Brad recently treated himself to a new microscope, so he took a few specimens home for further examination. He was able to identify a tiny border of pale cells along the leaf margin all the way to the tip, which makes this Fissidens bryoides.

Fissidens bryoides with fruiting head capsules (these are the spore producing organs)

Kindbergia praelonga

Starting my own herbarium!

Below are a couple of Liverwort species; slightly different to mosses, they tend to have very flattened, overlapping, very damp leaves arranged in rows. The most simple and ancient plants, they were probably the first to colonize land after evolving from aquatic algae.

Metzgeria furcata - a common type of liverwort often found on trees

Eliaz examines another species liverwort growing on an Ash

A few invertebrates could also be found roaming the mossy plains, but I was only quick enough to catch this one...

Common Striped Woodlouse (Philoscia muscorum)

Brad works in digital publishing, but in a very short time (he went on his first Sussex Wildlife Trust workshop in 2010) he has built up a wealth of knowledge of several natural history groups. I feel fortunate to have met Brad; his infectious enthusiasm, along with his great kindness and patience, has inspired many others to get on board with natural history.

Brad's brilliant bryophytes (in macro):

Bryum capillare

Ulota bruchii

A liverwort - Fossombronia species. The tiny little black balls are the fruiting bodies containing microscopic spores. Read more about this wonderful little plant in Brad's blog

Tortula truncata

Hypnum cupressiforme, with longish point on the capsule

Why not take the plunge and immerse yourself in this miniature world:
Sussex Wildlife Turst - Common Woodland Bryophytes

Brad's beautiful blog: Diversions In Natural History

Final species list:
Orthotrichum affine
Orthotrichum diaphanum
Eurhynchium striatum
Fissidens bryoides
Ephemerum minutissimum
Kindbergia praelonga
Atrichum undulatum
Calliergonella cuspidata
Hypnum cupressiforme
Mnium hornum
Hypnum cupressiforme var. resupinatum
Dicranella heteromalla
Frullania dilatata
Metzgeria furcata
Hypnum andoi
Ulota bruchii
Brachythecium rutabulum
Plagiomnium undulatum
Fossombronia wondraczekii
Tortula truncata
Bryum capillare