Wednesday, 24 June 2020

June 2020: Back for a brief time

The Covid-19 situation led to a much disrupted field season for ecologists and conservationists, but of course the wildlife has been happily cracking on with things in our absence!

North West Zone grasslands

I returned from furlough for three weeks in June, catching a snapshot of the peak field season and checking up on our most important habitats and notable species. As well as being drought-ridden, the main difference this year is an eerily quiet airport landscape, which has given it a post-apocalyptic feel. The weather has been very challenging, with random storms and rainshowers during my first and second week, then incredibly hot conditions in the third. 




My goal was to cover off as many ecology surveys and site checks as possible, as even partial data sets can be useful. I've been able to carry out some general species listing on our sites with the help of Vince Massimo, focusing on breeding birds and macroinvertebrates such as butterflies.

Vince Masimo, River Mole grasslands

Marbled White butterflies (Melanargia galathea). Photo by Vince Massimo

Blood-vein Moth (Timandra comae), a UK BAP research species

Spotted Longhorn Beetle (Rutpela maculata)


Unfortunately we missed the flight season of our male Long-horned Bees, but I joined Sussex PhD student Gigi Hennesy in checking up on the females, which were all busily collecting pollen for their burrows. The nest site habitats seem relatively stable, though would benefit from some willow coppicing this autumn.

Long-horned Bee (Eucera longicornis) female in burrow. River Mole



We had just completed setting up two new reptile transects prior to lockdown, so we've had a lot of matts to check in a short period of time. I was pleased to see the reptile mitigation area at the Westfield Stream site has become real hot spots for Grass Snakes, as I had suspected it would be. I even spotted a rare melanistic (all black one), though sadly on that occasion was not ready with the camera!

Westfield Stream reptile hibernaculum (rubble pile) with roofing felt for surveying

Barred Grass Snake (Natrix helvetica)

We have been experimenting with management of some road verges around the landside estate this year, and my main task this month was to repeat the botanical assessments. I've been able to add in some additional areas to our baseline, which was initiated by Laurie Jackson in 2019. The timing was fortunately spot on, as it was before the next scheduled cutting regime and the perfect time of year to spot (and protect) a proliferation of Bee Orchids and other notable plants.

Orchid protection

Bee Orchids, North Perimeter Road monorail verge

Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)

Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis)

Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), Gatwick's rarest species of plant

It was a huge pleasure to hear Black Redstart singing while completing the road verge asessment. This species was last confirmed as breeding here in 2012. My apologies for the lacking views of this charismatic little bird, but have the sound on for this video of his song...

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

With the help of members of public, I was excited to confirm at least two territories of Nightingale along in the North West Zone; a red-listed and declining bird which has only recently been recorded at the airport. This indicates that our scrub habitats along the River Mole are maturing very nicely. 


When the weather perked up I had some success with the clearwing moth pheromones, although we already have Red-belted Clearwing on our species list and I was only able to re-confirm their presence on site. I didn't find the time to test all of the lures again, so there may well be more species out there.

Red-belted Clearwing moth (Synanthedon myopaeformis)

Red-belted Clearwing attracted to pheromone lure

The Gatwick Honeybee Apiary, aka Gatsbees had a very hard time in autumn 2019; one of the hives was sadly vandalised, and we had to very quickly shift them all to the nearby Wick Farm during a heavy rain storm. This disruption, along with an intensively wet start to 2020, meant that unfortunately most colonies didn't make it. Our headkeeper Gill has been hard at work to build us back up to four healthy colonies, and I was able to give her a quick hand (although I missed the busiest time of year). Wick Farm is off our biodiversity sites, but still close enough to the airport to act as a sentinel site for monitoring incoming pests and diseases.

Honeybees on comb

Our colonies are all named after the laying queens, who's names are alphabetised and based on relatedness: Diana, Iris, Indigo and Jolene are the current four. When hard at work they make an incredible sound...

Diana's colony

With the help of veteran owl surveyor David Plummer, we completed another Tawny Owl breeding survey of Gatwick's estate, assessing how this under-surveyed, amber-listed bird species has been making use of our sites.

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) survey June 2020, Land East of the Railway Line

It seems as elsewhere, this has been a low-success breeding year for Gatwick's Tawny Owls, with only one calling juvenile detected. It is likely that the very wet end to winter, followed by the intensive drought period, has negatively impacted this woodland predator. 


Finally, an update on the recently restored Rolls Farm pond; the trail camera compilation below highlights the importance of these small areas of water for local wildlife, an important resource particularly in our warming climate. A very well done again to Tom Simpson and his volunteers (see this previous blogpost for Tom's report).

Rolls Farm Pond

Rolls Farm Pond trail camera (time and date stamp are set wrong)

We hope to be back again soon for further updates on Gatwick's biodiversity sites.

2 comments :

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  2. We found a tawny owl feather whilst walking through the woods (towards povey cross road) near the river this morning. We often hear it at night, but excited to find a feather nearby.

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