Pectoral Sandpiper

Last Sunday afternoon I sat in the West Mead hide at Pulborough Brooks, with my binoculars focused on the far right corner of the pool directly in front of me. Among the Lapwings and the Teal was the silhouette of a Pectoral Sandpiper in terrible back-lighting.

There was no mistaking that this was a bird I was very pleased to see. One challenge of mine for this year is to get to 200 bird species for BBC Wildlife Magazine’s #my200birdyear, and this was my 193rd. Furthermore, Pulborough Brooks is exactly where I saw my first and only previous Pectoral Sandpiper, over 3 years ago. On that day in 2014 the Pectoral Sandpiper was so distant I didn’t even attempt a photograph, however this time this one was unusually close.

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The lighting was really poor, but at least I attempted a photo unlike my previous sighting three years ago!

Pectoral Sandpipers breed in North America and Eastern Siberia, yet despite the great distance from their breeding grounds they are still the most common Nearctic wader to reach our shores each year, mainly during autumn. Sussex definitely seems to attract its fair share, and in my experience Pulborough Brooks seems to be the best site in Sussex for them at the moment. There may have been at least three at this wetland site this autumn, which is an amazing total for a bird that would have had to cross the Atlantic or the whole of Siberia and Europe to reach here.

I have about a month and a half to find seven more species to make 200 for the year. It is possible, although it will be difficult. There are quite a number of species I’m yet to see, but it will all rely on how lucky I am!

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Slime Moulds: Fascinating and Complicated

It is without a doubt that the vernacular name ‘slime mould’ is not the most appealing, although the slime moulds themselves are often not the most appealing organisms to look at either. However, what they may lack in aesthetics they do make up for in pure ‘bizarreness’.

Taxonomy is the science of classifying living things into groups such as phyla, families and genera. And slime moulds, scientifically known as Myxomycetes (or ‘myxos’ for short), are a taxonomist’s worst nightmare. Their taxonomy is so poorly understood that even which kingdom they should be classified under is unclear. Some still class them as fungi, however others think they’re protists.

The reason why I find them so interesting is their behaviour when food is not plentiful. When there is a decent availability of nutrients, they will live single-celled lives; yet whenever food becomes hard to come by they will congregate together. Once they are in this state they will become able to detect food sources. When they congregate, they become noticeable, as they produce fruit bodies which release spores much like fungi. This helps these fascinating moulds to colonise new areas.

Yesterday, the last day of September, I was at a Sussex Fungus Group foray at Tilgate Park in Crawley. The diversity of fungi found was incredible, and we also came across this slime mould. It was identified as Stemonitopsis typhina, and what you can see in the photo are the immature fruit bodies. Given a short while, these fruit bodies will mature and release spores.

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However, not all slime moulds produce fruit bodies like this. Slime moulds can reproduce using gametes, asexually or a mixture of both. Far too complicated for me to understand at the moment! Perhaps as complicated as the fern reproduction I explained in a previous blog post. I think that there’s a lot still to learn about slime moulds.

 

Flower of the Illyrians

Yesterday, 2nd September, was the final field meeting of the year for the Sussex Botanical Recording Society at Chailey Common. Chailey Common is a good example of where conservation grazing has been put into place, in order to keep dominant vegetation to a level that won’t swamp more precious flora. Sheep, ponies and cattle are rotated around the commons in order to control plants such as birch, gorse and bramble that will degrade the quality of the heathland habitat if they get out of control.

It was great to see how this conservation grazing was working. It allows smaller and more fragile wildflowers to grow as well as others that may have been at risk from habitat loss. We recorded a good number of scarce and interesting plants, including Heath Milkwort, Scented Agrimony and Lesser Skullcap.

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Scented Agrimony, with subtly notched petals distinctive of this species.

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A flower of Heath Milkwort, so-called as farmers thought that allowing their cattle to feed on this plant would increase milk yields.

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The minuscule flower of Lesser Skullcap.

However there was one stand-out highlight, and that was a small patch of Marsh Gentians. Gentians are often a favourite of photographers as they have a photogenic beauty. I am not a photographer, but I did try my best with the following shots.

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The Marsh Gentian is quite a locally distributed plant, growing on wet heathlands rather than marshes. It does benefit from grazing, which is perhaps why some of its main strongholds are places like the New Forest and Ashdown Forest.

It is one of a number of Gentian species in the UK, in the genus Gentiana, including Autumn Gentian and Field Gentian. On a global scale it is cosmopolitan, with around 400 species; and some species are known to have been used in herbal medicines for quite a variety of ailments. These range from cancer to malaria to parasitic worms, however studies have been conducted that don’t prove that it has any benefits beyond a placebo effect! Despite this, the genus name Gentiana is in honour of the Illyrian king Gentius, who supposedly discovered the plant’s tonic qualities. What it is definitely known to be good for however, is as a dye, especially the Marsh Gentian.

 

Marsh Gentian is my 500th British plant and although summer is now over and most flowering plants are past their peak, there are still late summer and autumn species in bloom. Some of these I hope to see over the next few weeks!

 

 

 

Amphibian lifer!

As many of you will know, I’ve been working hard on my pan-species list recently. It’s a list of all the species I’ve seen in the UK and I’ve just broken the 2200 species mark. With an ambition to get to 3000 by mid-August 2018, 13.5 months away, I need to use every opportunity I can get to boost my total! Mostly these days my lifers are invertebrates with some plants, mainly beetles and bugs. Very rarely do I get a vertebrate lifer and I certainly wasn’t expecting to get an amphibian lifer any time soon! However, last weekend I visited Warnham LNR, a fantastic little wildlife site right on the edge of the large town of Crawley.

I have visited this beautiful local reserve only once before, yet then I had no idea about the population of a rare British vertebrate that inhabits the small ponds and the main lake of the reserve. Of course the reserve always holds plenty of wildlife and therefore my first visit was excellent, yet my recent visit was made all the more special by this exciting creature.

With a distinctive call that has earned this species its alternative name of laughing frog, the Marsh Frog Pelophylax ridibundus has been a main attraction at the reserve this spring/early summer although I only found out about it not long ago. With my amphibian & reptile total relatively low on my pan-species list, a new addition in either group was greatly needed and wanted and therefore I was eager to visit and hopefully catch a glimpse of this generally shy species if I was lucky.

My expectations were that I would possibly hear the plop of a frog jumping into the water unseen, or catch a swift movement of a frog fleeing out of the corner of my eye. However, these expectations were soon proven very wrong. It is a non-native species only introduced into the UK in 1935 in Walland Marsh, Kent and has since spread to areas in East Sussex and London. The population at Warnham LNR must be one of the only places where this species is found in West Sussex. The purpose of its introduction was to occupy an ecological niche as it is more aquatic in nature than the native Common Frog and more frequently breeds in ditches and dykes. Many of the places Marsh Frogs inhabit aren’t busy, such as the East Sussex levels, which I suppose has lead to its tendency to leap into the water at the slightest human disturbance. But the Warnham Marsh Frogs behaved in a way completely opposite and, probably due to the large numbers of visitors, were not too afraid of humans at all! Throughout the visit I must have seen at least 10 of varying colours, patterns and sizes. Not a bad looking species whatsoever!

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There’s a fungus on the Town Hall Clock!

If you’ve read my latest post you would know that I am a regular participant of #wildflowerhour. During last week’s Wildflower Hour there were predictably more photos due to the increase in flowering plants as spring progresses. Among these flowering plants was the easy-to-overlook Moschatel (Adoxa moschatellina), which I had never recorded before.

So last week I set out with a picture of Moschatel in my mind so that if I did come across the species I would recognise it. Yesterday I visited Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve in West Sussex and I did both of those things: I came across a couple of large patches and I recognised it!

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The flower head. You can see that it is cube-shaped, which is what lead to the alternative vernacular name of ‘Town Hall Clock’.

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The whole plant

As you can see from the above photographs, Moschatel is not a hard plant to miss. Its flower heads are only slightly lighter than the leaves and therefore not easy to spot when they are lined up against the foliage of a woodland floor. To be honest, I was quite pleased with myself for managing to spot this indistinctive plant!

However once I had a closer look, there was more to see. One particular patch was very heavily infected with what appeared to be the fungus Puccinia albescens, which covered the leaves, stem and flowers of several plants. This species is a rust fungus, which is a type of fungus that usually parasitises wildflowers and other small plants. There is an incredible diversity of host plants within the 7000 species of rust fungi as most plants are only infected by a single species.

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The close-up photograph above shows the pustules of the rust fungus, which is just one part of the complex life-cycle of rust fungi. These pustules erupt at this time of year and produce uredospores which are carried on the wind to new plants of the same species to infect.

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Telia

Also present alongside these pustules are what I believe to be the telia of the same species. These telia – the dark, round spots – are produced in the autumn in most species and would have overwintered. The telia produce teliospores, which are another method the fungus uses to spread as they disperse to find more plants of the same species to infect, just as the uredospores do.

The life-cycle of rust fungi is very complex and here I have explained it only briefly – different species of rust fungi can have different life-cycles and some infect two completely unrelated species during their life-cycle. These multi-host fungi are known as heteroecious fungi and one host plant is infected by the uredospores and the other is infected by teliospores. As Puccinia albescens is not heteroecious (and is autoecious), its life-cycle can be completed on just a single host species – Moschatel – and the single host species is infected by both the uredospores and the teliospores. Some good websites to visit for more information on the life-cycle of rust fungi are:

http://www.biologydiscussion.com/fungi/life-cycle-and-the-spore-stage-of-rust-fungi-fungi/64083

http://website.nbm-mnb.ca/mycologywebpages/NaturalHistoryOfFungi/Pucciniales.html – this one includes a lot of information, however it also contains a lot of scientific jargon and complicated vocabulary.

Purple Toothwort

The Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI) is a fantastic organisation ‘for everyone who cares about the wild plants of Britain and Ireland’. It gives support to botanists and recorders of all levels of expertise and leads many projects to help better understand the flora of the British Isles. One of the ways in which the BSBI has been helping to bring British and Irish botany to the wider public is through social media and especially using the hashtag #wildflowerhour on Twitter.

Wildflower Hour takes place every Sunday at 8pm and is an opportunity for everyone to share their photos of wildflowers taken over the past week. Many people come together to share their plant sightings and Twitter becomes a hub of botanical activity. Wildflower Hour is not only a good way to share wildflowers with others but also a chance to revise plant identification and see what has been recorded in your local area.

A couple of  Sundays ago, Wildflower Hour took place as normal with many tweets on early spring wildflowers. One of these tweets was by @KateGold24 and included some photographs taken at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex. As I live quite close to Wakehurst I was interested, and even more so when I saw that one of the photos was of several flowers of a Purple Toothwort Lathraea clandestina.

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As I have never seen Purple Toothwort before, I was excited to visit Wakehurst Place on Friday afternoon just after we broke up for the Easter holidays. I was expecting to have to search long and hard for them due to the fact that they are not the largest of plants, however I was very wrong. They were all over the place! As well as in the main part of the gardens they were also in the deepest part of the woods and even on the bank of Westwood Lake.

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As you can see from the above photograph, the plant is currently without leaves and it will remain without leaves. Leaves are necessary for photosynthesis as they contain chlorophyll which is vital for the process. However, this plant contains no chlorophyll and is therefore unable to photosynthesise and produce energy in that way. Then how does it produce energy?

You will, most of the time, find this plant growing below mainly Poplar and Willow trees. This is because it is these trees it most usually parasitises, and it does so using its roots. These grow at a gentle downward angle until one of them finds a root of the tree they are parasitising. Each root has haustoria, suckers, on the end which attach to the root of the tree and from there the toothwort gets its energy.

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The Purple Toothwort is closely related to the Common Toothwort, Lathraea squamaria, which is also a root parasite. The Common Toothwort is more common, however it is a species I have yet to see. I am hoping I’ll be able to find some this year before they stop flowering in May. The generic name ‘Toothwort’ comes from this common species: their flowers look like a row of teeth!

 

A Lifer; at Drakes Plumbing Supplies?

This morning was looking clear and sunny so I decided to take a trip to my nearest area of open heathland, Ashdown Forest. On the hills there were still a couple inches of snow in places which changed the landscape dramatically. There wasn’t much about bird-wise in the area where we walked except for a few Dartford Warblers which gave only brief views.

It was 11:45am and we had just arrived at Old Lodge SWT at a different part of the forest when I saw news of a flock of 18 Waxwings which I had been sent by a fellow Sussex birder Alastair Gray. These weren’t far away at all, only just over ten minutes drive!

When we arrived at the site where they had been reported it was clear that it wasn’t a habitat I would usually associate with rare birds. We immediately spotted the Waxwings in a tall tree just behind Drakes Plumbing Supplies in the Independent Trading Centre in East Grinstead! Although obviously not a habitat that has been around for long, Waxwings have adapted to it very well. In Britain they are usually found in supermarket car parks and trading estates like this due to the number of ornamental berry-producing trees and shrubs.

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The Waxwings were frequenting the birch on the left and feeding on a small rosehip bush just in front of the blue building

When we looked closely we could see that there were clearly more than 18 birds present. The number had increased to 31, which makes it one of the largest flocks in Sussex in a few years.

The light was poor, however there was luckily another birder there who’s scope I could look through. The detail was amazing, you could clearly see the red waxy buds on the wings that give them their name. This photo was taken through the scope:

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I am very pleased to have caught up with these Waxwings as it is still quite early in the Waxwing season for the south of England. Waxwings arrive in the UK annually, however every so often we have what are called ‘irruptions’ which is when larger numbers than usual turn up here due to lack of food in Scandinavia.

Waxwings always arrive in the north-east first, with the first few arriving in October with numbers building into December. Then when all the berries up north have been depleted they begin to filter south in search of fresh fruit. It is normally only in irruption winters that Waxwings find themselves this far south and usually later on in the winter from mid-February through to April. However, the first records in Sussex this season were in late November. The last irruption was the winter of 2012-2013. However with birds arriving this early, it is certainly looking like it will be a big irruption year!