Sunday, 28 April 2013

Spring Breeding Bird Survey - April 2013

With Tom Forward of Gatwick Greenspace Partnership.

Day 1 - Land East of the Railway Line: 23/04/13

Spring seems to be in intense fluctuation and on some days everything decides to turn up at once...
We began our survey on Tuesday morning and the woodlands were dripping with bird song; it was easy to feel overwhelmed! Transect 1 begins at Lower Picketts Wood, travels south through the ancient woodland strip bordering the New Lagoon site, then dives into Horleyland Wood. Our usual woodland suspects were all present including Jay, Song Thrush, Blackcap, Wren, Chiffchaff, Nuthatch and Green Woodpecker.

This Chiffchaff in Horleyland Wood entertained us by wrestling with some nesting material right at our feet, almost oblivious to our presence. (I look forward to investing in a decent-proper camera one day!)

In Goat Meadow, there are sadly no goats.

Transect 2 begins at Goat Meadow and we get our first definite record of a pair of Bullfinch. Tom is pretty good at imitating bird calls; I decide to attempt it but forget that I am still eating a biscuit, which my lungs then reject; the Bullfinches don't hang about to listen to my hacking cough. Close by a Mistle Thrush was doing a good impression of a depressed Blackbird, then moving on through Upper Picketts Wood we passed many a territorial dispute between Great Tit, Blue Tit and Coal Tit.

Coal Tit and Goldcrest are regulars in the canopy of these massive pines in Upper Picketts

The final leg of Transect 2 is currently disrupted by the flood alleviation project, so we skipped a section and approached Gatwick Stream from the western side, through the archaeological dig site. At the very edge of the fields by the railway line we stumbled across a birding first for me: two female Redstart! This is a migrant species which will be just passing through on their way to a more ideal breeding site. 

A group of Common Buzzard - I have taken worse pictures than this!

At the very end of our final transect was a nice treat with Buzzards wheeling overhead and a Common Whitethroat starting up his song:
*Link to LERL Final species list*

Later on that same day I popped over to our other site in the North West Zone along the River Mole. I was replacing some reptile refugia, listening the first Reed Warbler in song and Common Toads 'getting busy' in the river.
Common Toadspawn in the River Mole - these are laid in strings rather than clusters like frogspawn

I disturbed a couple of rather striking birds which then sat boldly nearby in the young willow scrub, south-east of Brockley Wood. This was a species I didn't recognise so I tried my best to describe them on the phone to Tom while taking photos, holding my camera up to my binoculars... 

I emailed these across to him and he sent me a slightly disgruntled reply confirming them as a pair of Winchats, yet another migrant species previously unrecorded here, and this quite possibly tops the pair of Redstart he had spotted earlier! Score to me.

Day 2 - North West Zone: 25/04/13

On the Thursday we had another early start and Tom turned up in his car while still eating his breakfast of 8 rounds of toast... I was trying hard to hide my smug face, we both knew those Winchats had probably moved on!

A cold and misty start

We began Transect 1 at the point where the River Mole exits out from under the airfield, north of the runway. Grey Wagtail, Linnet, Common Whitethroat, Reed Bunting and a female Kestrel along the airside fence made for a good start. Rounding the first corner where the River Mole begins to meander we caught a glimpse of two Barn Swallow zipping along over the water, seemingly on their way to somewhere else.

Green Woodpecker droppings, full of the chitinous remains of tiny ants

The sun burning off the clouds along the floodplain grassland

Moving north into Transect 2 there was a sudden, manic piping-whistle and Tom spoted a Kingfisher passing along the woodland strip. I missed it because instead I am staring at a bright orange leaf through my binoculars! I was however pleased to hear it so clearly, a similar sounding call to the link below.

Further downstream of the River Mole and North of Brockley Wood the Reed Warblers have begun setting up territories in the sparse patches of last year's reeds. Along the scrubby edge of the grassland were several pairs of Common Whitethroat, a female Lesser Whitethroat and also a little male missing a tail, adding to its severe levels of cuteness.

A Yellow Scooter, probably stolen and abandoned in the River Mole by the human subspecies 'Chav'

Tom Forward (not the chav in question)

Where's Waldo the Kingfisher...

'Just as they were packing up, on the final day of the final hour...'
We were literally finishing up the last transect when I finally caught a break on the Kingfishers! A sudden manic piping noise and then some aerial altercations right in front of us - bright blue and orange shapes shooting upstream like a group of battling F1 Benettons...

Another terrible picture through the binoculars does this amazing creature no justice.

We saw 3 Kingfishers on the wing, possibly in a territorial dispute. We got 38 species of bird in one day along the NWZ which is our highest count yet... all in all, a top few days for us!! 

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Holy Grail (Archaeological update)

Ok so a bit of a cheap hook I've used there… But hey, what a find!!

Some seriously interesting stuff seems to have turned up at this grassland site intersected by Gatwick Stream. The picture above is actually of a burial urn from the Iron Age, containing human cremation remains (which have now been taken off-site for cleaning/further inspection.) This person might have been someone of importance and was possibly female judging by the other objects recovered nearby.

A long-range view of the dig site at Gatwick Stream during yet more extreme weather conditions (maybe someone was trying to tell them something?)

A glass bead found close to the burial urn, Iron Age

A spindle whorl, part of a tool once used for spinning fibres. Iron Age

The dig has been going on since early March and it seems to have turned up a rather decent assemblage of archaeological periods on just one site.

Evidence of an Iron Age settlement onsite was in the form of two roundhouses, associated boundary ditches, pits and some possible evidence of iron-working. Andrew Hunn of Network Archaeology told me one of the 1 metre-square test-pits produced 164 worked flint fragments of the Mesolithic era; the second most productive pit probably did not produce half as many!

Hope is another archaeologist with Netarch and she found this impressive specimen; apparently her first ever skeletal discovery... Not a bad one I'm guessing! It is a horse lying on its back, its legs akimbo. Dating has proved difficult due to the nature of the remains and its positioning in the soil, so the speculative range given so far is from the Medieval period up to a couple of hundred years before present.

The ribs and lower mandible of the horse: it also had some unusually large tusk-like teeth which were probably the result of a genetic mutation

Another of the Mesolithic worked flint fragments which have been found on this site; still sharp!

Just to prove there was some ecological purpose to my being here: a picture of two Common Buzzard wheeling over the site during a bird survey. (My birding photos are generally all terrible like this one.)

And last but not least... a five pence piece. Also, here is a tanged and barbed flint arrowhead discovered by Andrew Hunn in 2012 at the nearby site of the water treatment lagoon.

This excavation at Gatwick Stream is almost over and I will be sad to see the interesting ensemble of people leave but you never know... there may be more discoveries yet!
Here is a link to the previous blog post about Gatwick's archaeology:

Thursday, 18 April 2013


3… 2… 1… aaaaaand survey!!!

Reptile refugia in Ashley's Field, LERL. Copyright - Kevin Shaw Localworld 

Well I can’t really say that spring took me totally by surprise, but I’m still feeling slightly shell shocked! The ecological surveying has now kicked-off with reptiles, mammals, birds, amphibians, and roving records for macro-invertebrates such as butterflies; I am constantly trying to keep up with scheduling it all in!

Moschatel flowering along the banks of Gatwick Stream, LERL

Luckily I have keen volunteer ecology students and graduates assisting me who I'm enjoying showing around the place. So far we have successfully added several previously unrecorded birds on site, recorded our first Grass Snakes and butterflies of the year, started our Signal Crayfish removal from the River Mole and got our first confirmed Dormouse presence since our Biodiversity Action Plan began! Here are some pics just from this past week:

Signal Crayfish trapping with volunteer ecologist Julian

An invasive species: the American Signal Crayfish fresh out of the River Mole

One of our Mink tracking rafts repaired, re-sited and (I think) cleverly camouflaged along the River Mole

Honeysuckle bark strips are typical Dormouse nesting signs - Gatwick's ancient woodland

Rather odd-looking tracks in the mud along the River Mole, NWZ. Any ideas? Not likely to be Water Voles here but it almost looks like there is webbing between the toes.

Spring seemed to really hit here on Monday, and I got so many wildlife reports from around the airport I could barely keep up! Other sightings this week included Tadpoles, Peacock and Comma Butterflies, a speedy Merlin on the hunt for small birds and the arrival of spring migrants such as Swallow, Wheatear, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler. Just over a week ago there was a period of overlap with the first Wheatear appearing around the North West Zone and winter migrant birds such as Redwing and Fieldfare still knocking about.

I excitedly contacted Tom Forward about hearing a flock of Siskins along the River Mole (a species not yet on our list in this area), when they somehow magically transformed themselves into a flock of Redwings. But hey ho... when I listen to their recorded calls again online I still think their chattering is kinda similar!
Hear the difference between Redwing song:

...and a flock of Siskin:

The Redwings all seem to have finally moved on, but not before giving us a special preview of their full song; an unusual occurrence around Britain as they don't tend to breed here. It is a sound which really grabs the attention, like a series of short descending blasts on a sports whistle...

And finally to finish off, here are a few more invertebrates I've been seeing around:

Glow Worm larvae found underneath a reptile refugia, LERL Copyright - Kevin Shaw Localworld

I think this is a Rustic Wolf Spider Trochosa ruricola, underneath a reptile refugia

Buzzing Spider Anyphaena accentuate, in a Dormouse box

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Our first Gatwick Biodiversity Expo

Spreading the good word of Gatwick Greenspace Partnership
 and the passion of the BA Engineering Volunteers

On Wednesday Carl Traynor from the British Airways Engineers and Kevin Lerwill from Gatwick Greenspace Partnership led our first combined biodiversity and volunteering expo at the BA Crew Report Centre at Jubilee House. This was primarily to spread the word about our work around Gatwick's conservation areas and to gauge people's interest in possible volunteering. We were delighted by the number of BA staff willing to give up their time to take a look at our display boards and chat to us about what they found interesting!

Most people are rather surprised to hear about the nature of what is right on their doorstep and that Gatwick Greenspace (part of the Sussex Wildlife Trust) has been working here for so long. We want to engage the wider airport community and this day has helped us to generate some new and exciting ideas of how best to do so... Watch this space!

From the left: Kevin Lerwill of Gatwick Greenspace Partnership, Colin Sexton of BA Engineering,
Me of JS Agriculture Ltd, Carl Traynor of BA Engineering

I believe all people have an appreciation for nature on some level whether aesthetic, cultural, scientific or simply instinctive. Some people might think their day to day jobs are far removed from wildlife, but often it can be found much closer than they imagined.

Our slightly controversial mascot: Boris the roe deer

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Gatwick’s Batman

This relentless cold has actually given us an opportunity to continue with some extra conservation and habitat works. On Tuesday we did some checking of the bat roosting and hibernation boxes in the Land East of the Railway Line with Martyn Cooke of Surrey Bat Group.

Slightly precarious and higher than it looks!
We rediscovered 32 bat boxes of 5 different types in the woodlands and hedgerows. Martyn also happens to be an Air Traffic Controller and Deputy Watch Manager airside at Gatwick and has a wealth of knowledge about the history of our conservation sites here. He spends much of his free time carrying out different bat surveys around Surrey as well as further afield.

  Bat control to Major Martyn 

Armed with a big ladder, an old toothbrush (for cleaning out any debris) and cheery volunteer ecologist Katie M., we sludged our way through muddy woodlands finding the trees which had been marked on our map. After noting down the different box types and checking their condition we gave them a scrub out with the toothbrush removing built up dirt. (Actually Katie and Martyn did, I bemoaned my back problems and helpfully watched/got distracted by other species.)

Bat box type 2FN

 Timber ridges inside the hibernation box for bats to hang onto. No bats today, instead this impressive specimen which is not only to be found in human houses... a Giant House Spider Tegenaria gigantea

Although the boxes were all empty on this occasion Martyn is very hopeful that the bats will be using them in future and our activity surveys in the summer should tell us more about which species are currently occurring. The Surrey Bat Group runs one of the largest county bat box monitoring schemes with over 600 boxes at 20 sites. If anyone would like to know more about bats, surveys and events conducted by SBG then click here: Surrey Bat Group Events

A close up of our friendly neighbourhood House Spider, Tegenaria gigantea

Blue Tit or Great Tit egg, abandoned in a box from the previous year 

A cute little Bark Sac Spider, Clubiona corticalis

This funky orange fungus is a dried out specimen of Yellow Brain, Tremella mesenterica

I am trying to collate all of the current and historical biological records for Gatwick, with the help of ecological consultancies, local naturalists and the Sussex Biodiversity Records Centre. The aim is to get all species data in one place so that we can see how things have changed, and believe me there is a lot of it!