Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Gatwick's Dark Knights

After only making it back home in the wee hours of this morning, I was awoken at 7.30am to some great news; council workers had decided to try to repairing the communal recycling bin outside my bedroom window with a sledgehammer. I guess I'll really appreciate this the next time I take out the recycling.

Location: edge of Brockley Wood, adjacent to the north west aircraft stands. 

Ah well, the late finish was totally worth it as we got to see a whole selection of bats utilising the site on the River Mole side of Brockley Wood. I also finally got to see a fairly common bat species which has eluded me for 5 years!

Martyn measuring the forearm length of a bat while Laurie takes notes

Martyn Cooke (Surrey Bat Group) is a licensed bat surveyor, who has been monitoring the bats around Gatwick for several years. A harp trap is his preferred tool, one of safest ways to capture bats and minimise their stress, in order to collect scientific data and feed back to the Bat Conservation Trust.

Harp trap set up on River Mole floodplain

The northern edge of the woodland is sheltered by a massive environmental bund, blocking out light and sound from the airfield. The weather conditions were almost perfect, with low cloud, barely a breeze and a balmy 17 degrees celsius. This turned out to be the best night's trapping I've attended in terms of species diversity; we caught 5 species in the harp traps and at least 2 others on the detectors. 

An electronic lure plays out species-specific bat calls

Here's our haul of bats, in order of appearance...

Soprano Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus)

Soprano Pipistrelle wing

Whiskered Bat (Myotis mystacinus)

I was super excited when I released this one; just look at his little mouth!

Brown Long-eared (Plecotus auritus). He does have some eyes there, he's just blinking

The new one for my list is was the Daubenton's Bat! That brings my number of wild UK bat species seen up to 9.

Daubenton's (Myotis daubentonii)

These funny looking dudes have big bald patches around their eyes, and are specialists at hunting over water, scooping up small insects while in flight with their big tail membranes.

I didn't manage to get a good shot of the membrane, but we can confirm that this one is a fella

Lovely dark face of a Common Pipistrelle

Common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) female

Although we didn't trap one of the rare Bechstein's tonight (previous post about our first Bechstein's at Gatwick) or Martyn's target species the Nathusius' Pipistrelle, we did pick up this Myotis bat call on Martyn's sonobat, which he thinks could be one of the little dudes with attitude...

Bechstein's call?

Thanks to Martyn, Fiona, Laurie, Rina, Luke and Ryan for giving up your valuable time. Also to the bats for doing your bit for science; you all rock.

North West Zone. Approximate harp trap locations in yellow, mist nets in blue

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Base-of-the-Tree cam

With the help of our regular ecology volunteers Luke, Jason and Connor, I've been maintaining a trail camera network around the biodiversity areas. There's a favourite old English Oak near the Gatwick Stream with an old burrow at its base. Maybe not as tense as an episode of Game of Thrones, but a lot goes on at this remote spot.
(The clips work better with your speakers on.)

Wood Mouse spooked by Tawny Owl calling

Male Roe Deer

 Indecisive Rabbit and Great Spotted Woodpecker calling

Female Roe Deer eating something alarmingly crunchy

Female Roe again, sniffing camera. Distant Tawny calling and Herring Gulls

Nervous Rabbits and a car alarm sounding closer than it is

 Male Roe Deer breaking the third wall

Jay and Magpie, partners in crime

Wood Mouse acrobatics

(Camera is Ltl Acorn 5210a supplied by NatureSpy)

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Weathering June

There were soggy June days….

Handy woodland foot bridges built by Tom S and his volunteers 

And scorching June days...

River Mole grasslands, North West Zone

But most were great days on the project! Here is my round up of the June happenings:

We kick-started The Wildlife Trust's '30 Days Wild' with a series of wildlife events for Gatwick staff and local residents. Uptake was much better this year, and it is incredibly gratifying to see people engaging with a range of wildlife walks, talks and activities such as forest schools.

Riverside Garden Park pollinator walk

Azure Damselfly (using a clip-on macro lens for my camera phone)

The Long-horned Bees have received further executive visitors in the form of Sussex University Profs. Francis Ratnieks and Dave Goulson, with their PhD student Gigi. 

Part of Gigi's project will be focusing on our LHB colonies, which is really exciting as few detailed studies have been carried out for this species. Her mark-recapture work (which doesn't harm the bees), could reveal insights into how many bees there are in each colony, which plants they like best, how the overall population is faring etc.

A queen-marking cage used for Honey Bees also work very well to temporarily hold this female Long-Horned still

Into the woods; this summer I'm spending most of my time carrying out repeated baseline habitat condition surveys, which takes me back to 2012 and my first summer in ecology. Those early days were incredibly challenging, but then formative times mostly are!

Woodland habitat survey of Upper Picketts Wood, Land East

Looking back over my data, it seems I did alright with my botanical species identification... In fact, past-Rachel had indeed correctly identified Field Forget-me-not, so present-day Rachel has to amend a recent record. You win this round past-Rachel. (Took you over 4 years to find a Purple Emperor butterfly though didn't it?)
Ecologists Rina and Lucy with Royal Holloway Uni placement students Kajayini and Roxanne

While I was going a bit weird out in the woods, we had some extra help out on the sites for our annual ecological monitoring.  

Adult Grass Snake just prior to shedding (Photo by Anna-Marie Lawn)

Late summer breeding bird surveys with Tom F : Two new species to the survey were Eurasian Hobby and a daytime calling Tawny Owl

Our Dormouse surveys haven't turned up any of the critters so far this year, but we did accidentally disturb this hornet's nest, which we felt bad about, but was pretty cool to see...

On the hottest day of the year, I happened to be up in London, as Gatwick Airport Ltd received several awards from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA). My project work comes under Gatwick's central Environment, Health and Safety Team, who are an incredibly diligent and hard working bunch; my hat is off to this team and they really deserve the recognition. Despite near heat-death on the tube (next time it's hiking boots), it was good fun hanging out near the Royal Victoria Docks.

A smoggy haze is the downside to a hot day in the city

Gatwick was this year's headline sponsor for The Big Bang Fair at the South of England Showground. The festival celebrates science, technology and engineering careers, with students attending from schools all over South East England.

Kevin Lerwill from Gatwick Greenspace. 

 It was pretty intense and we engaged over 100 students with our biodiversity stand, which included water quality assessment through pond dipping for invertebrates. 

Tom Errett from Gatwick's central EHS Team

Demonstration of bat sonograms and surveying technology by bat ecologist Martyn Cooke

Back over to our sites, and our invasive species management is well underway, with teams of Gatwick staff assisting Tom S with tackling Himalayan Balsam along the River Mole. 

Goat's Rue is another invasive plant starting to spread here, so we are doing our best to dig it up cleanly from the roots. I don't know much about Goat's Rue management as their doesn't seem to be much online literature, so any further advice appreciated!

Our Gatwick Honey Bees (Apis melifera) had a challenging season with the extreme June weather, and decided they didn't feel like swarming this year. We have 6 colonies and a few of our queens have now superseded, so they should be looking stronger for mid-summer.

(Put your speakers on/ headphones in for these...)

Our trail cameras are picking up some lovely footage (thanks to volunteers Luke and Jason for maintaining these); now the next step is to comb through it all and enter details into irecord! 

The fluffy coat on this poor old fox must be seriously hindering him on the hottest day of the year...

I love Grey Wagtails, so am hoping this one has been breeding nearby...

However, our best day of June was The Day The Container Arrived (which sounds like a really dull dystopian sci-fi novel.)

This is exciting for us, as we've been planning for a field base for the past few years, and have hit a few challenges and hurdles along the way. It has been worth the wait though!

Tom S now has a new base for volunteer activities and forest schools

So I feel that I have shown admirable restraint the last few days, only very gradually sneaking the entire contents of my car inside...

Blimey, did you make it to the end of all this? That is some staying power, well done you!

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Long haul (of lifers)

There is a secret society, an underworld some might say, within ecology. These people can look just like any nature lover you've met before; in fact, you have probably even passed them on the street...

There is an easy way to find them out though, as on a warm summer evening twitter feeds will light up with the phrases such as 'good haul!', and 'lifer!' or 'moth bonanza'! These are the moth recorders, and now and then, I join in to live life vicariously as a moth trapper.

Common Bird's-foot Trefoil and Meadow Vetchling, River Mole Grasslands

First off is some sweeping of the vegetation with nets, which turns up a few species which wont come to the light trap. I couldn't believe my luck with I spied this critter in the bottom of my net - an immaculate Six-belted Clearwing Moth (again something I have only ever seen before on other people's twitter feeds!)

Six-belted Clearwing (Bembecia ichneumoniformis
Nationally Scarce B. A good mimic of a parasitic wasp

We are lucky to have Jake Everitt leading us; he is the warden at Warnham Local Nature Reserve and has been running moth traps at Gatwick for around 4 years now. It sounds like this was a pretty exceptional summer night along the River Mole, as together he and Laurie Jackson counted 448 of 98 different species.

Angle Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa) - a common but lovely moth

This excellent field guide is the ultimate companion for any mother. (Jake has another guide like this which is devoted specifically to the micromoths!)

Macromoth identification is very visual and doesn't often require a entomological key 
(unlike the micromoths)

Blood-vein (Timandra comae) my personal favourite

Jake's highlights were the 13 Elephant Hawk-moths, 2 Southern Wainscott, the Dotted Fan-foot (a lifer for him) and Nephopterix angustella, which is a rare and distinctive little micro.

Elephant Hawk-moth (Deilephila elpenor) Another common species, the caterpillar 
feeds on willowherbs, fuscias and Himalayan Balsam

Ecology student Connor with his new Elephant Hawk pal

A rather poor photo of a Dotted Fan-foot (Macrochilo cribrumalis)
(Nationally Scarce B)

I felt pretty guilty that I had to leave at midnight, as Laurie and Jake were still out emptying and packing up the traps after 1.30am! What an incredible time of year to be out though, often I don't even want to go home...

Friday, 2 June 2017

BBC and the Plight of the Long-horneds

On Wednesday, the BBC Natural History Unit were here filming a piece for The One Show about our colony of rare Long-horned Bees, and despite the variable weather, we managed to find them a stonking number of both male and female Eucera longicornis.

Long-horned Bee nesting site, North West Zone (just north of the runway)

Along this section of the River Mole are some decent patches of Meadow Vetchling, where the males can be found nectaring, and a large clay mound, which is one of our main solitary bee nesting sites. We could even see females jostling each other at burrow entrances.

Long-horned Bee (Eucera longicornis) male

Female burrow with fresh excavations

Along this section of the River Mole are some decent patches of Meadow Vetchling, where the males can be found nectaring, and a large clay mound, which is one of our main solitary bee nesting sites. We could even see females jostling each other at burrow entrances.
   The wildlife camera guy Tom had his work cut out though, as these bees are bloomin' hyperactive when the sun is out, then can disappear again in the blink of an eye as clouds roll in!

Wildlife filmmaker Tom Hartwell

This tiny fella is ready for his close-up

My part (if not so terrible that they decide to edit me out), was to carefully handle a male Eucera, holding it by two of the legs in order to avoid damaging him. I said a few things to the presenter George McGavin about them, which I really hope now wasn't a load of woolly crap.
   In any case, what a fantastic opportunity to air the plight of this species, and to show off the support they get here at Gatwick. Perhaps this sort of exposure can galvanize other landowners into looking after their pollinators, as many of these species are truly on the brink.

Entomologist and TV presenter George McGavin, the BBC natural history unit, Stephen from Gatwick Communications, and my coolbox of mysteries

In fact, I dug around online for literature on Eucera longicornis and was really taken aback to hear how rapidly this bee is declining, particularly after reading this worrying report form Cornwall by Kernow Ecology (...around 75% loss of colonies at the important Cornish sites?!! That's truly awful).    

River Mole grassland wildflowers: Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi), Grass Vetchling (Lathyrus nissolia), Meadow Vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)

Our only other species of Long-horned Bee in the UK, (Eucera nigrescens), is effectively extinct, and there are no guarantees that our longicornis friends will stick around. We already know habitat loss is a huge problem, but there are almost certainly hidden dangers too, such as potential effects of pesticides and fungicides (as being researched by University of Sussex.) 

Fortunately here at Gatwick, what we do have is the right habitat and the means to manage it well! The seeded wildflower mix along the River Mole contains an abundance of plants from the Fabaceae and Lamiaceae families, which are hugely important to Eucera, as well as raised banks of bare clay for nesting. .

I hear that the piece might air in 3 weeks or so, but the One Show schedule is very much subject to change. When I find out I'll do a 'heads up' on Twitter.

The plant species we have seen being used as forage by Long-horned Bees at Gatwick include:
Meadow Vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)
Grass Vetchling (Lathyrus nissolia)
Common Vetch (Vicia sativa
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)
Bugle (Ajuga reptans)
Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)
Common Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

Gatwick receives conservation advice for this species from organisations such as Sussex and Surrey Wildlife Trusts, Buglife and BWARS (Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society).