Saturday, 30 December 2017

Biodiversity Gatwick 2017: Highlights and lowlights

Highlight: Volunteer cleanup crews

With the increased awareness of our biodiversity areas, even more airport staff are getting involved with looking after our sites.

The Surface Transport Team helping clean up around our ponds

Lowlight: Endless fly tipping...

And the help is hugely appreciated, due to the endless flow of rubbish...

Ikea Orange Wardrobe: €5

Broken trampoline: -£2

...and the dog poo.


Highlight: Another group of fantastic ecology volunteers getting stuck in with the project 

We are achieving more every survey season , we cannot thank you all enough.

Roxanne and Kajayini from Royal Holloway University

Our regular Gatwick Greenspace volunteers Luke and Jason

Lowlight: Saying our goodbyes at the end of the survey season. 

Who's going to help us eat all the cake now?

Highlight: Bats galore!

In September we recorded 7 different species in one night, including this lovely Soprano Pipistrelle

Lowlight: Bird fleas galore!

Possibly Ceratophyllus gallinae. I can confirm they itch like hell.

Highlight: An exciting new bird species stopping off at the airport; the endangered Turtle Dove

Lowlight: But not a single Gatwick Dormouse turned up in a box this year!

It looks like everything except a Dormouse used this box

Highlight: Our site is becoming even more secure, with the arrival of our very own biodiversity container!

Lowlight: Things getting a little too secure

Locked in at work on a Friday night

Highlight: Some lovely footage on trail cameras...

Weasel (Mustela nivalis) at the Gatwick Stream

Lowlight: Forgetting where you've put your trail cameras.

Hmm, camera 1, camera 2, camera 3, camera 4...

Doh! Camera 5, somewhere out in the field

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year, hope you can get outdoors in a window of good weather!

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Early winter bird surveys - Dec 2017

A round up of our early winter bird surveys (and a photo series of Tom F looking very cold in different habitats at Gatwick).

North West Zone

Tuesday December 12th: 8am

We hopped out of the car to find the ground was pretty much frozen solid. At around -3.5 degrees, this was the coldest morning of the year so far.

All seemed very quiet, with our first record being Blue Tits feeding on seed heads along a tall herb stand. Down within the channel of the River Mole, a flurry of activity and some strange calls indicated that we had just spooked a Water Rail...

Taxiway Juliet, adjacent to the River Mole

Further along the river, we came to a wet field with stands of rushes. Along the hedge line, a group of three Roe Deer carefully squeezed their way through a broken fence. As we walked steadily through the field, we kept our eyes peeled in case we flushed some winter visiting waders. The lumbering ecologists enjoyed a partial success with one noisy Common Snipe...

Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinagoRSPB

Further along the river, Dunnock, Wren and Reed Bunting called from the reed beds and a small group of Fieldfare shot over our heads, their colour catching brilliantly in the morning light. Several more Common Snipe nipped off as we headed further down into the floodplain and upon reaching the water's edge a small group of Teal took flight. This is the first time we've seen Teal here since our bird surveys began in 2012.

River Mole floodplain grassland

In the grassland and scrub adjacent to Brockley Wood, we flushed another winter visiting wader; a Woodcock looks rather similar to a Snipe, except that it is a much bulkier bird and they prefer to feed under the cover of scrub and woodland.

Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) RSPB

Winter sun, northern edge of Brockley Wood

Rounding the north of Brockley Wood, a pair of Ring-necked Parakeets were calling loudly and then making quieter sub-vocalisations. This non-native seems to be increasing its range along the transect, and so might soon become a new breeding species in Brockley Wood.

Ring-necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameriRSPB

Fieldfare and Song Thrush put on a good show along the lines of scrub of the River Mole valley, with only a few Redwing apparent today. Mixed flocks of smaller birds such as Long-tailed Tits and Goldcrests were also enjoying the dense scrub. A Great Spotted Woodpecker torpedoed past us while a pair of Goldfinches were feeding busily on the river bank teasels.

River Mole floodplain grassland

Toward the end of the transect, things seemed to go rather quiet again. Pushing through the woody vegetation on the riverbank, we caught a view of a group of small birds pursuing a Sparrowhawk above the treeline. The group about-turned and passed back over our heads, their calls identifying to us a victorious band of Goldfinches.

Final count: 36 species (just one off our winter bird survey record):

Blue Tit
Carrion Crow
Common Buzzard
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Great Tit
Green Woodpecker
Meadow Pipit
Pied Wagtail
Reed Bunting
Ring-necked Parakeet
Snipe (Common)
Song Thrush
Sparrow Hawk
Water Rail
Wood Pigeon

Land East of the Railway Line

Thursday December 12th: 8am

Flood attenuation area, Gatwick Stream

A marginally warmer day, but with a stronger breeze meant the cold was still felt by this weather-hardened ornithological pair. 

Bring zipped right up to the top helps stop the teeth chattering

Being coffee-d up to the eyeballs certainly helps though, and it is always with a sense of excitement that we stomp our way through the relatively young grassland habitat here. Sadly, we didn't manage to flush any Snipe this morning, instead just a few Wood Pigeon and Carrion Crow were about as exciting as it got, and a flock of Goldfinches bouncing over our heads.

Flood attenuation area, Gatwick Stream

Things took a quick upward turn however, when I found us a new species to the airport! It was while standing next to a thick stand of Soft Rush that I saw something my brain refused to register... 

'Erm, Tom, is that a melanistic Long-tailed Tit, or a Dartford Warbler?!'

Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undataRSPB

This feisty little bird put on quite a show, so Tom clapped me on the back and I felt that warming smugness of being the first to spot a new species on a survey.

The dense stands of Soft Rush in the flood attenuation area

We left the low lying floodplain and trekked into the Upper Picketts Wood, the entrance of which was busy with ground-feeding Song Thrushes and Redwings. The center of the woodland was much quieter, and some sudden Blue Tit alarm calls caused us to look up high; a Red Kite was skimming low over the tree tops. This is another new species for the transect.

Red Kite (Milvus milvusRSPB

A roving tit flock moving through the canopy included a noisy group of Lesser Redpolls, which are becoming a more frequent occurrence here in recent winters. A skirmish between three Nuthatches caught our eye, with undersides flashing orange in the sunlight, causing us to give a double take...

But this was not the orange-coloured bird that we were looking for.

Bee hotel and dead hedge in Goat Meadow

Pushing through Goat Meadow, we unfortunately didn't turn up our trusty Marsh Tits, despite hearing them here regularly. In a clearing next to Lower Picketts Wood, I was distracted by a loudly alarm-calling Fieldfare which I then followed, hoping to spot a bird of prey. While I was busy looking the other way, it was then that Tom F spotted something sitting up proudly on a massive old Hawthorn bush...

Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustesRSPB

This was most definitely a new species to the airport! Hawfinches are incredibly elusive around these parts, with most being winter visitors and very few resident or breeding in the UK. They are rather shy and their calls are almost Robin-like, making this a tricky one to I.D. by sound. We knew there had been an unusually large influx of birds flying in from the continent this winter, with many sightings across Surrey and Sussex.

I have known Mr Forward a long time now, and he is a very honest chap, so let the record state that he recorded Gatwick's first Hawfinch (but I got the first Dartford Warbler).

Twisting Hornbeam, Lower Picketts Wood

Continuing through the woodland strip, we turn up our trusty Chaffinch calling from the same corner every year. The other finch species frequently present here is Bullfinch, and we glimpsed of a pair of white rumps disappearing away from us. At the end of the transect, by the railway line bordering the western edge of Horleyland Wood, we were treated to a mega-flock of Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Tree Creepers and Goldcrests.

So that makes 3 new species to the survey; Red Kite, Dartford Warber and Hawfinch, the latter 2 being new to the airport. These surveys never get dull, and I'm already excited about the next ones in February!

Final count = 36 species (again)

Black-headed Gull
Blue Tit
Carrion Crow
Coal Tit
Collared Dove
Common Buzzard
Dartford Warbler
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Great Tit
Green Woodpecker
Grey Heron
Long-tailed Tit
Meadow Pipit
Mistle Thrush
Pied Wagtail
Red Kite
Redpoll (Common/Lesser)
Song Thrush
Wood Pigeon

Friday, 3 November 2017

From fear to fascination

You're thinking you've finally made it through Halloween/Samhain, and all that horrifying arachnological imagery has gone for another year? Maybe you should guess again...

Woooahh there... alright, hang on a sec. Sorry. Come back, please. I know it's not funny really.

I've had some very honest feedback about my spider-related posts, and a few apologies from people admitting to blocking / unfollowing me on social media. I have met ecologists and even a few entomologists who define themselves as being fully arachnophobic, so this is not a mightier-than-thou shout of 'why?!', rather a blogpost about your friendly neighbourhood critters and how we can look at them differently.

Honestly, this is a post more about people than spiders, and does not contain (much) spider imagery.

Oh look, there's a picture of a snake though...

Black Whip Snake, Cyprus (Dolichophis jugularis cypriacus
An adept predator of rats and entirely harmless to humans. Photo by George Konstantinou

The above image relates to my embarassing first encounter with a living, breathing snake in the wild. Around 25 year ago occurred an episode of heightened hysteria, high pitched screaming, running home to wail at my parents and make some fantastical claim about how I had just rescued my little brother and our friend from certain doom. (I was totally channeling those kids in Stranger Things, having witnessed a terrifying being which had emerged from the 'Upside Down'.) It was in fact an adult Cypriot Black Whipsnake, peacefully traversing along a storm drain. This snake is truly harmless and not dissimilar to our UK Grass Snake.

So there - the truth is out, I too was not immune from wildlife hysteria! Though for balance, we did live on a Mediterranean island in coexistence with a few rather venomous critters. (Since the online age, I've been able to identify to a few of my early childhood wildlife memories to species, with wonderful resources such as George Konstantinou's blog Biodiversity of Cyprus.)

What I've always wondered is whether my hysterical reaction was a learned response, picked up from my parents, other adults, kids, television or written fiction - or was it a hard-wired, involuntary reaction to what might in primitive times have been a genuine danger?

Gustave Doré's Arachne =  rather unhelpful spider imagery

Dick King Smith's children's story Charlotte's Web - a helpful (if anthropomorphising) spidery fiction
It is probably down to both. A newly published study from Germany supports the notion that might have a hard-wired response to potentially dangerous creatures, aka 'ancestral threats' (read the full paper here). The below graph is showing the heightened response in 6-month old infants when they were presented with an image of a spider compared to a flower. This suggests then that our extreme reaction to certain groups of wildlife is a sort of vestigial hangover, programmed into our psyches from the times and places us hominids existed in long ago. 

Hoehl S, Hellmer K, Johansson M and Gredebäck G (2017) Itsy Bitsy Spider…: Infants React with Increased Arousal to Spiders and Snakes. Front. Psychol. 8:1710. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01710

The interesting thing is how UK based folk will still illicit such negative reactions, with wildlife phobias being fairly prevalent in our country. I think we are pretty aware that we coexist with some of the most passive, benign wildlife on the planet, which is in part due to an awfully depleted species set, thanks to depressingly high rates of habitat loss and extinction.   

Zoological Society London's spider exhibit advert

The saddening thing (and something I too was guilty of as a child) is how we needlessly vilify organisms which are much smaller, more vulnerable and often entirely harmless to us. To what end do should we give in to our primordial fears? Violence begets violence and children who see their parents squash spiders may unconsciously become normalised to harming other living creatures, as if it is our given right to do so. 

All invertebrates, including insects, worms, molluscs, crustaceans and arachnids such as spiders, are essential to functioning ecosystems; they actually make up the majority of animal life on our planet. In simplistic terms, without invertebrates, food chains collapse and habitats will become depleted of plants and other wildlife. We currently live in period of time where almost the majority of species in the UK are declining, as outlined in the State of Nature report (below are some extracted infographics).

If you can truly only sympathise with the vetebrate species at this stage, then spare
 a thought for hedgehogs which depend on invertebrates for food

I do understand and have witnessed first-hand the crippling effect of phobias in action, how a reaction can make a person phsyically sick and even unable stand. That is incredibly debilitating and I can only sympathise.

However, if you are finally arriving at the point of realisation that a spider phobia is negatively impacting on your life (and the lives your loved ones), causing you to actively dread the autumnal season, then know that there is a way out!

Ashleigh Whiffin is an entomologist and assistant curator at National Museums Scotland

It has been reported that the ZSL Friendly Spider Programme with the London Zoological Society has over an 80% success rate of curing people from arachnophobia. I have met people from all over the UK who have completed this half-day course and they say how it has literally turned their lives around. The programme involves an element of hypnotherapy, and Ashleigh who is pictured above, went from being full-blown arachnophobe, to appreciating them in the same way she does the insects she works with.

Through the online world I meet people doing incredibly important work to change mindsets, public ignorance and negative perceptions. If you are not feeling quite ready to take that step to enter a programme, or perhaps you don't feel quite that badly about about spiders but are unsure of them, then instead you could take a look at some of the following...

You could become a member of the BAS ! 

The British Arachnological Society is the depository for all our data on British spider populations. You can join them to help support British spider research and recording, and attend fascinating talks and courses on spiders.

The tiny egg sac of Ero aphana, a pirate spider. Photo by Tone Killick

Tone Killick is the inspiration for this blogpost title, who's social media accounts provide beautiful imagery and insights into the lives of our UK spiders. Find him on twitter here @Tone_Killick and his facebook page The Silk Road

The British Spider Identification Groupfor those interested in learning more about our common UK species, is run by incredibly patient and helpful admins such as Jennie-Louise Cox and Gemma Gates. Steven Falk's Arachnida is an incredible photographic resource of spiders and their close relatives, and this blogpost by Graeme Lyons claims to show footage of the cutest UK jumping spider - can you argue with that?

Since going on courses in meditation and mindfulness, I have even struggled in specimen collecting. This is a highly important part of entomological work, as we cannot monitor wild populations and the state of nature without taking scientific samples for microscopic identification, so it is something I have to overcome. The conscious choice I make now is not to needlessly harm other beings, whether I find them beautiful or not.

In reality though, it is still hard to stop myself from slapping mosquitoes and louse flies.