A corner of County Kerry in a Kentish Cave

Saturday saw me attending another excellent field trip run by the South-East group of the British Bryological Society. This time we were headed to a private site just inside Kent called Hungershall Rocks. The sandstone at Hungershall Rocks is part of a large number of these outcrops stretching across the Weald from Tunbridge Wells to Ardingly and all along the ridge there are sites with a wealth of rare bryological flora.

Hungershall Rocks is a private site just outside Tunbridge Wells near High Rocks which we were lucky to get access to. Plenty of excellent bryologists have visited the site in the past and the records stretch back over more than 150 years. It has been interesting to see how the bryological flora of the site has developed over such a long time, with new species being discovered but equally species that were here in the past being lost from the site.

The rocks themselves are mainly under tree cover, however some are more exposed. Some patches are dripping wet due to the clay within the rocks and others bone dry. There are a plethora of nooks, crannies, ledges and some caves too. This wide range of rock features leads to a very diverse set of mosses and liverworts that can be found on these rocks.

It wasn’t only mosses and liverworts that were in abundance either. There were many different vascular plant species inhabiting the rocks, especially ferns. One of the best finds of the day was this beautiful, eye-catching and impressive-looking plant:

DSCN2127

It’s stunning, isn’t it?

It wasn’t too easy to get to. It was growing on the wall of a small cave, where very little sunlight penetrated. There was only really room for one person inside the cave and that person had to be in a crouched, uncomfortable position. So why was this rather underwhelming (to be honest) plant worth such an effort to get to?

It is Trichomanes speciosum, the Killarney Fern. Killarney is a small town in Ireland’s County Kerry, the county where half of Ireland’s known populations of this fern are found. As you can see from the map below, this species has a predominantly Western distribution in the UK and is quite unusual in the East, being recorded in only a handful of sites in the South-East:

Killarney Fern

NBN Gateway map for Trichomanes speciosum

You might be thinking that it doesn’t look like a normal fern usually does and you’d be forgiven for thinking so because this is not the most commonly seen fern life-stage. The life-cycles of ferns are very complex and unusual and this is a seldom noticed part of it.

The green felty stuff that you can see in the image are the rhizoids of the gametophyte (also known as the prothallus), the gametophyte being the life-stage before the recognisable adult sporophytes that we most commonly come across; the rhizoids being filaments attached to the gametophyte which conduct water.

On the undersides of the fronds of adult ferns there are small, usually brown, sporangia which contain spores. These spores are released and when a suitable site is found, they grow into a gametophyte like the one shown in the image. The word gametophyte comes from the word gamete – the male and female reproductive cells (the ova and the sperm cells) that they produce.

The gametophyte features an archegonium and an antheridium. The archegonium is the female reproductive organ, which contains a single ovum. The antheridium is the male reproductive organ, which releases lots of sperm. The sperm swims through a thin film of moisture and into a nearby archegonium where the ovum is waiting to be fertilised.

Once the ovum has been fertilised, it becomes a zygote and later an embryo. The embryonic fern relies on the prothallus (gametophyte) from which it grows for its water and nutrients. Soon the embryonic plant grows into a sporophyte (the large leafy plant we most regularly recognise as a fern) and the prothallus dies.

That is fern reproduction explained as simply as I could (I can only just understand some of it myself) and there is a lot more to it. This link explains fern reproduction in much more detail, however as a warning there is certainly a lot of scientific jargon used: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~joyellen/fernreproduction.html

The following diagram is a representation of the fern life cycle, from the same website:

Fern_life_cycle2copy

So, that felty green stuff on the wall of a cave might not look like much. However clearly there is a lot of interesting information and a very complex life-cycle behind it.

World Wildlife Day – Listen to the Young Voices

Yesterday was World Wildlife Day and the theme this year was ‘Listen to the Young Voices’.

dscn4099

In December 2013, World Wildlife Day was proclaimed as the third of March, which is the day of signature of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). The United Nations decided that World Wildlife Day would be celebrated this year under the theme ‘Listen to the Young Voices’ due to the fact that a quarter of the world’s population are aged between 10-24 and as the next generation they need to be encouraged to protect wildlife.

dscn4093

Thanks to the brilliance of technology corresponding with people a long distance away has become easier than ever before. And given the unfortunate low density of young teen naturalists in the British Isles, this has been instrumental in bringing the future naturalists and conservationists together.

dscn8757

Last year I decided to set up a Twitter account (@My_Wild_Life) and very soon I was talking to many of the incredible young naturalists I had previously only read about in magazines and online. A ‘group chat’ had been set up specifically for young naturalists and this became a hub of support, learning and conversation. I was over the moon to be involved with such a hopeful and inspiring group of young people who shared my interest.

dscn4044

Young people are the future. And in a world where we humans are advancing quickly in many ways, the future of nature and the environment needs to be put higher up the agenda. And without young people interested in the natural world and keen to protect it, it is unlikely that the environment will prosper.

dscn4105

Due to the increasing popularity of social media such as Twitter, there has been a huge surge in the ‘Youth Nature Movement’. The work of top naturalists and conservationists has lead to a significant increase in the number of young people getting involved with nature. It has also given aspiring young people looking for a career in wildlife louder voices, which need to be listened to.

Below is a list of excellent nature blogs by under-twenties that are really worth reading:

Dara McAnulty, Young Fermanagh Naturalist: https://youngfermanaghnaturalist.com/
James Miller, Knee Deep in Nature: http://www.kneedeepinnature.co.uk/
Mya Bambrick, My World of Wildlife: http://myathebirder.blogspot.co.uk/
Josie Hewitt, Josie Hewitt Photography: http://josiehewittphotography.co.uk/
Paddy Lewin, Paddy’s Wildlife Blog: https://paddylewinwildlife.wordpress.com/
Elliot Montieth, Elliot’s Birding Diaries: https://elliotsbirdingdiaries.wordpress.com/
Dawood Qureshi, Heart of Wild: https://heartofwild16.wordpress.com/
Thomas, Exploring Wildlife: https://exploringwildlife.blogspot.co.uk/
Charlotte, That Bird Blog: http://thatbirdblog.weebly.com/
Zach, Year of Nature: https://yearofnature.blogspot.co.uk/
Harry Witts, Harry’s Wildlife: https://harryswildlife.wordpress.com/
Michael Sinclair, Michael Sinclair Photography: https://naturephotographer.co/
Luke Nash, Luke’s Birding Blog: https://lukesbirdingblog.wordpress.com/
Louis Driver, Louis’ Wild Northumberland: https://louiswildnorthumberland.blogspot.co.uk
Jack Dawson, Jack Dawson Wildlife: https://jackdawsonwildlife.wordpress.com/
Alex Bayley, A Whiff of Fox: https://awhiffoffox.wordpress.com/
Alex White, Appleton Wildlife Diary: https://appletonwildlifediary.wordpress.com/
Noah Walker, Walker’s Wildlife Photography: http://walkerwildlifephotography.blogspot.co.uk/
Findlay Wilde, Wilde About Birds: http://www.wildeaboutbirds.blogspot.co.uk

Tricky Zygodons! Or are they?

Last Sunday I was able to attend a field trip of the South-East branch of the British Bryological Society, to Duddleswell Valley nestled in the expanse of Ashdown Forest. The key site in this valley is a wooded ghyll, which has been a very popular location for bryologists since at least when the brilliant botanist Francis Rose visited in the mid-1950s.

Once we had waded our way through no less than eight different species of Sphagnum mosses we arrived at this famous ghyll and what greeted us was a steep and slippery slope down to the stream below us. Luckily we all made it down safely and we were able to begin!

We worked our way slowly down the ghyll, finding extreme rarities such as Campylostelium saxicola; admiring huge walls of fruiting Pellia epiphylla and finding ourselves knee-deep in shallow-looking mud. I even managed to put my foot in the middle of the largest colony of Nardia compressa in South-East England!

dscn1811

A large part of the only colony of Nardia compressa in the South-East

dscn1814

Nardia compressa

dscn1820

Campylostelium saxicola

Near the end of our excellent and bryophyte-rich walk we came across a good stand of willow trees with many species that we hadn’t yet encountered that day. These species included a small, inconspicuous tuft of moss, a Zygodon species. There are four regularly occurring Zygodon species in the South-East and they are hard to separate in the field. To be certain of an identification to species level you really need to get out the microscope.

Therefore I took a small part of the moss back with me to work on. I was expecting it to be a tricky task that might take me a while to perfect. What surprised me was that it was quite the opposite!

The features to look at are the gemmae. The gemmae of Zygodons are single cells that detach from the moss in order to reproduce asexually, meaning that the fusion of male and female sex-cells (gametes) is not necessary. When mosses and other organisms reproduce asexually like this it is referred to as fragmentation.

Not knowing how to get the gemmae off the moss and onto the microscope slide to examine, I first tried taking a small stem of the moss and seeing if I could spot any gemmae around it. This was unsuccessful and so for my second attempt I simply tapped the clump of moss onto the slide, added a drop of water and a cover slip. I placed this slide under the microscope and I could immediately see several gemmae under 100x and 400x magnification. That was much easier than I had expected!

Next came the actual identification of the Zygodon. The very helpful Brad Scott had narrowed my moss down to two species, Z. conoideus and Z. viridissimus. He also supplied photos of the gemmae of both conoideus and viridissimus, so all I needed to do was compare the gemmae of my moss with Brad’s excellent photos. It was clear: my moss was definitely Zygodon conoideus!

This experience has certainly shown me that not everything that needs microscopic examination is difficult. Certainly some species require very fiddly work to separate but that is not always the case.

zygodon-conoideus-gemma

My photo of a gemma of Zygodon conoideus

Twit.

Yesterday I found myself lying down on an edge of a crater-sized hole by the side of the River Cuckmere, with my binoculars pointing down at a tiny, drab, little brown job scurrying about amongst dead grass and plant matter. Streaked brown all over, it resembled a small mouse creeping about feeding on minuscule seeds. The only bit of colour on the whole bird was its tiny yellow bill which would open occasionally to emit its single-noted ‘twit’ call from which the bird’s name ‘Twite’ derives.

Twite are usually gregarious birds in winter, feeding among plants along the coast before returning in Spring to their breeding grounds in the moorland. They are most commonly found between October-March on the east coast of England, where British breeding birds meet continental birds in saltmarshes and other coastal habitats. They are only rarely encountered South of Suffolk nowadays despite there  having been a regular wintering population on the Swale in North Kent in the past. They are therefore real rarities in south coast counties such as Sussex and they have appeared to be declining too.

Before the 1990s, double-figure counts were annual phenomena. However between 1990 and 2000 they were only rare occurrences. Now they have declined so much in Sussex that the last record on the Sussex Ornithological Society’s sightings page prior to 2017 was of a single bird with Linnets at Pagham in November 2013.

This particular Twite was first discovered in a patch of brambles along the River Cuckmere, East Sussex on the 5th of February. I was expecting it to be only a short-staying bird and that it would disappear soon. However it was seen regularly until the 15th February. For a period of 5 days after that it was looking like it had left with no news reported on the Sussex Ornithological Society’s sightings page.

Fine weather in Sussex allowed us to visit the Seven Sisters Country Park, and I took the opportunity of making a short walk to the coast through the marshlands of the Cuckmere river delta with no prior thought of seeing the Twite.

However the route we took happened to pass the site where the bird had been frequenting. Only about 30 seconds after arriving at the crater-like hole in the riverbank where the bird had been seen previously, I noticed a tiny bird fly up to perch on a large unidentified object which could have been a large piece of Styrofoam packaging. It proceeded to drink from a hole in the odd object while I managed to get good views of the bird through my binoculars. Small size; brown, streaky appearance; yellow bill… it had to be the Twite!

After allowing me to get some photos of it in the open it flew back down into the dead plant matter and continued to feed only 5-10 metres away from me. Despite its amazingly effective camouflage I was able to watch the bird well for quite a long time. It appeared to be oblivious to my presence and wasn’t wary at all, which surprised me for such a small and vulnerable finch. It felt like a great privilege to be able to get such close views of this Sussex rarity.

rscn1556

Feeding amongst the dead grass and plants

rscn1611

Drinking from the unidentified object

Here you can find a short video of the Twite:

Purple Sandpipers at Newhaven

With the year coming to an end I though that it would be a good idea to go out on one last excursion in search of wildlife. I chose Tide Mills, a long-abandoned coastal village near Newhaven in East Sussex which has a record of scarce or rare birds like Rose-coloured Starling, Red-backed Shrike, Grey Phalarope and Tawny Pipit.

dscn8665c

The Red-backed Shrike at Tide Mills, 25 September 2016

The reason why I chose to visit Tide Mills was due to a few interesting birds that had been recorded there in the last few days. Firstly, a male Serin had been spotted near the village ruins. These are usually only rare passage migrants in the UK, however as it is December and far from the main autumn or spring migrations I am not sure why it turned up here. Since the 1970s there have been a few breeding attempts in the southern and East Anglian counties however never more than a couple each year.

Also, there is a strong wintering population of a dozen or so Purple Sandpipers that visit the pier at Newhaven. Along with Brighton Marina, this pier is one of the most reliable sites to see Purple Sandpipers in Sussex and as I had not yet seen one in Britain before I was keen to take a look.

Unfortunately the Serin had either moved on or was hiding well within its bush when we visited. Despite many people searching for it we had no luck, which is a shame, however we still had the Purple Sandpipers to look forward to.

Walking along the pier we looked down at the struts below us, which is where the Purple Sandpipers usually spend their time. However we hadn’t seen anything by the time we reached the halfway point which was worrying! We continued to walk along the pier, still looking down. Fortunately I looked up for a brief moment to see how much of the pier we had left to walk and to my surprise I spotted a group of medium-sized dumpy birds sitting on the concrete beams projecting off the top of the pier!

We slowly made our way closer until we were as close as we could get. We could see that most were indeed Purple Sandpipers, 12 in total, along with a few Turnstones. They were barely wary of us at all, most of the time simply eyeing us from just a few metres away. I suspect that the high tide probably pushed the sandpipers off the concrete foundations below, which allowed us to get such good views of them. Not what I was expecting at all! We spent a little while with these very cooperative birds taking many photos, some of which I have attached below.

rscn0909rscn0910rscn0877rscn0918rscn0919dscn0886dscn0887

Preserving The Gambia’s Cultural Heritage

Over Christmas I was very lucky to be able to visit the small country of The Gambia situated in West Africa south of the Sahara Desert. This trip was primarily for birding and looking for other wildlife and we had the help of our excellent guide, Lamin Bojang.

dscn0188

Lamin is incredibly knowledgeable, being able to identify everything from flyover sunbirds to calling babblers. He is superb at replicating bird calls and often he will receive a response. His knowledge certainly paid off and we were able to find a number of my ‘must-see’ birds including Bearded Barbet; Senegal Batis and Swallow-tailed Bee-eater.

senegal-batis

A shy Senegal Batis

However, it is not only his bird knowledge he is keen to pass on. Lamin has been working on an excellent project that aims to protect Gambian history for future generations. This project is in the form of the museum for ‘cultural heritage and environmental preservation’, which will be the first one in the community and in fact The Gambia as a whole. He and his team have recently finished constructing the museum building itself and they are now beginning to manufacture strong glass cases to protect the artefacts.

As well as the galleries containing artefacts, Lamin has also constructed a coffee bar at the entrance as well as a bird hide overlooking a small waterhole which secretive and hard-to-see species such as Western Bluebill, Violet Turaco and Green Turaco are known to frequent.

I believe that this museum has incredible potential for teaching both locals and tourists about the culture of The Gambia as well as helping researchers and preserving the heritage for future generations. The bird hide should help to teach the locals what amazing bird life resides in the village or area they inhabit and with the scarcities the waterhole attracts the museum will also be a destination for ecotourists. I look forward to seeing how this ambitious and rewarding project develops.

dscn0764

Lamin in the future coffee bar

dscn0779

The bird hide still in construction. Hanging pieces of cloth will be put over the gaps which the viewers can lift to see the birds.

Here are some of the cultural artefacts that will be displayed in the museum galleries:

My article in Wingbeat

The RSPB write and compile a number of magazines about wildlife and nature aimed at a range of different age groups. For instance, teenage RSPB members receive the Wingbeat magazine. The Wingbeat magazine is ‘written by teenagers… for teenagers’ and this summer I was lucky enough to be given permission to write my very own article for the magazine. This article was recently published in the January 2017 issue.

I chose to write about one of my main passions: pan-species listing. As detailed in my last post, I recently recorded my 2000th species. In my article in Wingbeat I explained more about what a pan-species list is; what one needs to keep a pan-species list; why to keep a pan-species list as well as some of my pan-species listing highlights.