Sunday, 29 December 2013

December Summary

Veteran oak tree, Land East of the Railway Line

It feels like we have packed an incredible amount into December. Winter provides us with only a short window for cracking on with habitat management and it is a race to complete these jobs before the spring wildlife starts waking up again. With the incredible amount of wet weather resulting in Gatwick's rivers and streams flooding out, this will be no mean task
   Earlier this month, conservation work started with JS Agriculture and Gatwick Greenspace Partnership working together in the North West Zone. We coppiced the willows and scrub on a grassy slope which was becoming over shaded.

Coppicing willows on the grassy slope

Gatwick's ranger Tom S then improvised by staking the cut wood into habitat piles half-way up the slope, providing cover for wee beasties but leaving the wet grassland clear of debris at the bottom.

Scott finishing up our hibernacula in the Scrub West of Brockley Wood

More recently, Scott T did a grand job of moving some logs and tree stumps onto the new hibernacula in Scrub West of Brockley Wood. Sometimes I wish I could be trained to use a digger, but then with great power comes great responsibility and I can get a little power hungry.

Another completed hibernaculum - not pretty but perfect for invertebrates, reptiles and other wildlife

Our regular group of British Airways Engineers (BAE) definitely have a pact with the weatherman; on a revoltingly sunny day in mid-December, they were led by Gatwick Greenspace Partnership (GGP) on a woodland conservation task. They bridged the ditch on the main path into Brockley Wood, improving access for future work, also removing the old barbed wire, plastic tree guards and some litter. Because they can smash out these jobs in record time, I barely got any photo opportunities...

BAE installing a footbridge, East of Brockley Wood

Railway sleeper footbridge

BAE and Gatwick Greenspace Partnership

As part of the National Harvest Mouse Survey by the Mammal Society, volunteers Rachael, Sue and me carried out some nest searches along the River Mole. We had a successful haul with 4 nests on single transect along a path in the grasslands. This helps inform us where to carry out further mammal surveys in the coming year.

Well-hidden: a ball of woven grass hidden in a large tussock

A rather large Harvest Mouse nest constructed of Cock's Foot grass. 
It was probably used as a breeding nest earlier this year

While carrying out these searches, we were lucky enough to be serenaded by a very loud Water Rail. This wading bird turned up in our winter bird survey last year but eluded us on our most recent one. It still counts though as an individual record and will be added to Gatwick's species database. I think they sound a bit like excitable piglets.

We completed our final early winter bird survey this month in the Land East of the Railway Line. The pace has really picked up with thrushes - mixed flocks of Fieldfare, Redwing, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush and Blackbird are abound, testing our identification skills.

Recording on our Winter Bird survey

Goat Meadow's mug-holder tree. Sadly no coffee was left in them... Mean dog walkers.

Tom F in the scrub, deep in conversation with a flock of Redwing

Looking ahead to January and February, there is an incredible amount to do and we are going to need all the volunteer help we can get. My to do list will probably keep on growing, but I seem to be running out of whiteboard...


Tom S is planning some conservation taster days in the New Year, so if you want to find out whether all this 'getting-back-to-nature' stuff is overrated, drop Tom a line at or learn more here about Gatwick Greenspace Partnership and their work.

River Mole culvert, North West Zone after recent heavy rains

A massive, massive thank you to all who have been involved this past year, you have helped make this a brilliant project to work on. We hope to see you again in 2014!

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Early Winter Bird Survey - North West Zone

Gatwick Landscape Photographer of the Year

Sunrise: 07:45 December 9th 2013


Spider webs on Dock seed heads, North West Zone

Oh my... 

Rough grassland and hedgerows, North West Zone

Goodness me...

Frost in the rough grassland, North West Zone

Ok, that's enough of that. On Monday morning, we began our Winter Bird Survey transect in the rough grasslands, north of the runway. I was accompanying Tom Forward of Gatwick Greenspace and volunteer James, for whom this was a first venture into birding. 

Rambling rosehips in the hedgerows

The open areas of grassland were mostly quiet and still, with bird activity being concentrated in the hedgerows. In the mud, there were plenty of animal tracks; clues as to who else had recently passed by...

Roe Deer tracks: the rear dew-claw marks are just about visible

Moorhen tracks

The hedgerows looked pretty awe-inspiring in the winter sun. Every section seemed to contain at least one singing Song Thrush; pretty unusual as spring is the normal time for staking out territories. A flock of around 10 Meadow Pipits broke the relative peace, peeping frantically overhead before settling in the hedgerows furthest from us.

Listening for thrushes in the hedgerows

Reed Buntings were in good numbers, hiding away in the tall Reed Canary Grass and then flitting up into the scrub. A Robin and a Dunnock were actively singing; a few Redwing were 'tseeping'; and mixed flocks of Great, Blue and Long-tail Tits nosily contact-called while foraging.

Blackthorn fruits (i.e. Sloe berries) and lichen

Approaching the first bend in the River Mole, a Moorhen squawked its presence and a Pied Wagtail passed overhead in bouncing flight. Our first flock of Fieldfare, a winter-visiting thrush from northernmost Europe, were nosily chatting away in the large Oaks overlooking the floodplain. On a bare patch of earth near the grassy slope, a Green Woodpecker had left its usual calling card...

In certain light, even bird poop can look quite marvelous.

Break it open and you will find the chitinous remains of ants

We had a poke around in the reed beds but sadly no signs of Water Rail, so Tom regaled us with an ear-splitting impression (although neither James nor I were really qualified to critique it). Still scattered around in the grass were feathers from the dead Grey Heron found earlier in the week - the foxes had an early Christmas dinner! 

Scrub West of Brockley Wood

Entering the scrub west of Brockley, a bout of action could be heard in the woodland margins with brawling Song Thrushes and a jeering audience of Redwing. Rounding the corner of the woodland, where the river passes close by, a mixed flock of Fieldfare and Redwing were happily foraging in the Hawthorn scrub.

Candlesnuff Fungus on river driftwood

Beginning our second transect further downstream along the Mole, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Magpie and Reed Bunting were all in abundance. We also picked up a new first for this birding transect: a lone Rook. These birds are generally common around the airport so it is by chance they haven't cropped up earlier on our survey. 
   Continuing up the corridor of grassland along the river, we then entered a Fieldfare battle-zone! They were zipping back and forth over the river, between the lines of scrub and trees. Sounding rather like fighter plane machine-guns, one even let loose a small, tactical aerial-attack (fortunately though not directly overhead!).

Counting them was quite a challenge but we noted around 80 individuals in this one section, plus the usual handful of Redwing and Song Thrush. This is one of my favourite parts of the River Mole corridor, where the water passes over stones and gravel, creating 'riffles'. These fast-flowing areas are particularly beneficial for aquatic invertebrates, such as Stonefly and Caddisfly larvae.

Towards the end of transect 2, we paused to watch a brightly coloured Jay perched just a few meters ahead, posing proudly with acorn in beak. A moment later, there was a flash of orange and a Kingfisher appeared up on the tree. Then, it shot past us upstream, showing off its electric blue upper-side and bullet-like profile. We were also greeted by the lumbering flight of an impressive Grey Heron, moving off downstream... For James, these were two species he had never seen up-close, so well worth the early morning start!

Our two transects

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

November Summary

Judge Dredge: Our digger driver Scott re-profiling a small channel of the River Mole

November has been as wonderfully wet and variable as was predicted (and still we moan and groan). The beginning of the month saw Winter Thrushes and Fungi surveys, with some ace discoveries such as the entire skeleton of a Grass Snake and a sneaky Woodcock in the wet woodlands. Also, Redwing and Fieldfare can be heard in the hedgerows and surreptitious fungi found in almost every nook and cranny.

Yellow Brain (Tremella mesenterica), on a log pile in the North West Zone

I've had a busy time at my desk writing up this Summer's work - entering data, updating task trackers, two Biodiversity Action Plans and preparing for a Bio Benchmark internal audit. Karen from Gatwick's Environment Team visited our sites in the North West Zone, taking a close look at our protected species habitat works. This has resulted in some revised habitat targets for this winter and some exciting new surveys planned for the spring!

Bat roosting box 1: Outskirts of Brockley Wood, North West Zone

In terms of habitat conservation, JS Agriculture recently opened up a side channel on River Mole which had become obstructed with woody debris. Clearing this channel has allowed faster flow around the willow scrub, reducing the effects of over-silting.
   Gatwick Greenspace Ranger Tom Simpson has had a busy couple of weeks with various meetings and courses; when you coop-up a ranger it inevitably results in pent-up energy and zeal to get out for heavy duty works! He put me and our volunteer Josie to work, removing large and sickly Birch trees in Upper Picketts Wood and opening up an area to reinstate a traditional Hazel coppicing regime.

Josie from External Security demonstrates a 'gob cut' on a Birch tree. Or a 'face cut'. Or is it a 'bird's mouth'? Basically it's a wedge of wood.

She finishes the job with a 'felling cut'

Birch tree smack-down

Ex-Birch is now a habitat pile in Upper Picketts Wood

Just last week, I travelled many, many meters to Mickleham in Surrey for some RiverSearch training with Surrey Wildlife Trust volunteers. This brilliant initiative is being rolled out to encourage people to champion their own section of a local rivers. It enables them to record habitat features, recognise problems such as invasive plant species and identify where intervention might be needed. Surrey Wildlife Trust is working with the Environment Agency on initiatives such as RiverSearch to improve the health of the county's freshwater habitats. I'm really looking forward to getting stuck in with surveying Gatwick's main waterways.

Volunteers from Surrey Wildlife Trust being watched by a nosy young bullock.
Luckily no one was wearing red so we - oh wait...

As I am going to be spending a bit more time indoors, I'll be sharing a few of my desk-top discoveries. After trawling through some arachnid photos from over the summer, I found this prettily-patterned specimen, belonging to the jumping spider family (Salticidae). I had unknowingly snapped the notable spider Marpissa muscosa; a rather scarce species throughout Britain, although it may be fairly common to this locality.

 Marpissa muscosa - Not the best picture as I only had my camera phone on this day

Finally, here's something particularly awesome - the dried specimen of a captive-reared Death's-head Hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos). This is not something you get to see often in the wilds of Britain... although it just so happens I was lucky enough to see a live one with Tom Forward in 2012! You can read about our star find here:

Views of Acherontia atropos - This is a couple of years old so missing a few limbs

Many thanks to Paul who gave this to my mum at the Royal Oak Pub (she was pleased by the way!) I have now passed it on to my fella who teaches a class of Year 4 students; wish I could be a fly on the wall when the class sees this!
   Coming up in December: Harvest Mouse nest searches, hard-core Winter Bird surveys and more conservation works, this time focusing in the North West Zone.