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!

 

 

 

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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!

 

2000 and beyond!

As many of you know, I have been keeping a pan-species list for a year and a half. A pan-species list (or PSL) is a list of all species that you have seen within either the UK or Britain and Ireland. My main target, that I set in the new year, was to get to 2000 species by year-end, which was always going to be a big challenge for me. I started the year on around 1300 species and retrospectively I am very pleased at the number of species I added during the course of the year.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was on the home straight. I needed just 29 species for me to reach the magical number however I was in the last, and generally toughest month due to the lack of many invertebrates. However, I had a field trip planned which would hopefully get me all the way.

On a cold Sunday morning I met several other bryologists (bryology is the study of bryophytes – mosses and liverworts)/naturalists in a car park in the Lewes district of Sussex. We were at Chailey Commons for a meeting of the South East group of the British Bryological Society.

Our first stop on our outing was the short acidic grassland immediately next to the car park. There were a few common grassland species here, including the very familiar Rhytidiadelphus squarrosusor Springy Turf-moss. This species is not only confined to acidic grassland like this but can also be found almost anywhere with short grass. For example it out-competes the grass in our lawn in some places! Once you have seen this species regularly it becomes quite distinctive, it is medium to large sized (for a moss!) with a red stem. It has very short, thin leaves on the stem as well as slightly larger pointed leaves on the short branches and at the apex.

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Springy Turf-moss (Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus)

Another species found in this short grassland was Kindbergia praelonga, or Common Feather-moss. This is another largish moss which, as its name suggests, resembles a feather. Unlike Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus is completely green, including the stem. It has opposite branches with leaves similar in size to those on the green stem. The branches become shorter, like the tip of a feather.

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What I believe to be a frond of Kindbergia praelonga

After examining the grassland, we moved to a small patch of woodland around a quite large but seasonal pond. This pond is one of the few sites outside of the New Forest for Fairy Shrimps, however I needed to have been visiting in summer for a chance to see one of these rare crustaceans.

In this small wood we found a number of common woodland species, including our first liverworts of the outing. The first liverwort I came across was the small but abundant Metzgeria furcata, also known as the Forked Veilwort. This liverwort is very thin and forms small patches on tree trunks with the thalli (the leaves) adpressed to the substrate. It is the most common thallose liverwort and away from the coast, the most frequently encountered Metzgeria species. It also occasionally grows on rocks, although more frequently in the west of Britain where it is generally damper.

Along with that species of Metzgeria we also came across another species of the same genus: Metzgeria fruticulosa, or Bluish Veilwort. This is much less common than M. furcata, and a new species for me. This species is separated from furcata by the gemmae, which is “a small cellular body or bud that can separate to form a new organism”. Metzgeria furcata only produces gemmae rarely in Britain however fruticulosa is almost always gemmiferous, with gemmae located at the tip of the thalli.

We also encountered several patches of the moss Fissidens taxifolius (Common Pocket-moss) on the soil on the steep bank leading down to the pond. The genus Fissidens is a tricky genus for beginners as specimens often need close examination, either in the field with a hand lens or with a microscope. Luckily I was with lots of people much more knowledgeable than myself, so the specimens we found were quickly identified as this species.

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A species of Fissidens from the Cotswolds last year

After recording everything that could be found in that small patch of woodland we headed to a habitat I have never explored before: a WW1 trench! There were a number of very interesting bryophyte species in this trench that was used for training in the Great War, including one of the least common bryophytes of the meeting: Aulacomnium androgynumThe common name of this species is Drumsticks, named after the very distinctive reproductive feature, which comprises of a long stalk with a ball of gemmae at the vertex.

A variety of different mosses and liverworts were not the only new species I found in the wartime trench. There were also a range of ferns growing on the muddy bank and luckily a member of the Sussex Botanical Recording Society, Helen Proctor, was on hand to help me identify a few. Most were common species that I had recorded before, however one was a common species that I hadn’t recorded before! This was the Broad Buckler-Fern, Dryopteris dilatata. Distinguishing this species confidently from other species is possible by looking at the brown, papery scales on the stem. If these scales have a dark centre, then they belong to the Broad Buckler-Fern.

After a thorough exploration of the trenches, we moved on to an area of damp heath. Here there were Sphagnums aplenty! Sphagnums are large mosses which love damp, boggy habitats on the edges of streams and other water bodies as well as in bogs and marshes. The genus is quite easy to identify from other mosses due to its size and elongated, upright shape with a thick capitulum, which is a compact head containing new branches. However, identifying Sphagnums to species level is much trickier! For a confident identification one will need good literature, such as the key in the British Bryological Society’s Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland: a field guide. Fortunately there was also a Sphagnum expert with us who was able to verify what we found. I was quite pleased at the number of Sphagnum species we recorded on the outing: compactum, fallax, capillifolium, papillosum, palustre and fimbriatum. However, this is only a small fraction of the species of Sphagnum in the UK!

While we were examining the Sphagnum one of the members of the field outing flushed a medium-sized, stocky bird from the leaf litter. It flew high in the direction of the road. I stared at it as it flew off with my mouth agape for a fraction of a second, before I exclaimed: Woodcock! These plump wading birds are related to the Snipes, however they are unusual in that they are nocturnal; they often feed away from water (on moist pastures for example) and they roost in woodlands. Woodcock was one of my bogey birds: species that I really should have seen but hadn’t. I have traipsed through many woods in my local area hoping to disturb one from its daytime rest, which is by far the easiest and most common way to spot a Woodcock, without any luck. Therefore I was exceedingly pleased to have finally come across one.

Soon after we flushed the Woodcock, it was time for me to head off. When I arrived back home I counted up the number of new species I had found and I was pleased that I had just made it to 2000, with Woodcock being species number 2000! Now it is time to think of a new target to keep me motivated to find more interesting wildlife. My next PSL target is to reach 3000 species by my 15th birthday in August 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Starling Weekend

On Saturday afternoon, I headed to Hedgecourt Lake to see what might have been blown in on the storm the previous week. I have encountered several normally coastal species at Hedgecourt over the last year, for instance Slavonian Grebe and Scaup. Being the largest semi-natural waterbody in South-east Surrey it appears to be a magnet for seabirds blown in from the coast. Unfortunately there was not much in the way of scarce species, however an Egyptian Goose on the roof of the floating pontoon was a welcome surprise. I believe they frequent the lake but I have never been able to catch up with one here. They aren’t native to the UK, they were brought here for ornamental collections and quite a few escaped. There is now a stable breeding population in the UK, mainly concentrated in East Anglia however they could be seen throughout the country.

While watching the goose, I heard a whoosh above my head. I looked up and I was slightly surprised to see a flock of around 100 Starlings making their way to the other end of the lake. It appeared that one of the most iconic Hedgecourt events of the winter was beginning: a Starling murmuration! Plenty of other similar-sized groups of Starlings soon joined and several thousand were swarming above the icy waters in just a few minutes. The noise was immense – every Starling was calling to their companions, creating a sound that carried all the way across the lake.

Although the main murmuration had taken place at the far end of the lake the whole flock was beginning to fly straight towards us. The tightly-knit group made several quick flybys. Every one of the many thousand birds passed over us in just a few seconds leaving nothing but the plops in the water as they lightened their load.

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Once these amazing aerial displays were finished the Starlings poured into the reedbed closest to us. An endless stream of birds flew into the reedbed for minutes on end, they never seemed to run out. Soon around ten thousand birds were flying around and settling in a reedbed that is only a fifth of a hectare in size. Again, the noise was truly spectacular! Starlings often use murmurations to exchange information about the top places to find food, one of the hot topics would have been the best feeding spots.

Reedbeds are excellent habitats for many different species, a variety of different invertebrates, plants, mammals, fungi, fish and of course birds utilise them in many different ways. I was sure that these Starlings filling up the reedbed in their droves would push something out… and I was correct! Firstly a Kingfisher shot out like a bullet and crossed to the Alders on the other side of the lake and secondly a magnificent Bittern flew on deep, pounding wingbeats to a farther reedbed. This was my first here this winter. They are winter visitors to much of Britain including Hedgecourt; however around a hundred pairs do breed, mainly in East Anglia.

Unfortunately, the Starlings soon began to quieten down. The light was fading fast and the lake was beginning to freeze over once more. On Sunday morning they would wake up again, stream out of the reedbed and visit the most popular feeding areas. Then that same evening they would do it all again …

That evening, just after the murmuration, I heard news of an immature Starling that was being seen in a garden in the busy town of Crawley. But this wasn’t just an ordinary Starling! This particular Starling had become lost on its migration and somehow arrived in rainy Sussex having come from somewhere between the steppes of Eastern Europe or Western Asia and its wintering area in the Indian subcontinent! It was in fact a Rose-coloured Starling!

Rose-coloured Starlings are closely related to ‘our’ Common Starlings. However they are easy to separate, more so in adults. Even juveniles like this one can be told apart without much scrutiny. Adult Rose-coloured Starlings in their breeding attire are very beautiful birds, their plumage an equal mix of pink and black. Their breast and back are pink, along with their bill and their legs. They have black wings, tail and vent along with a glossy black head which often shows a long crest drooping down the nape. Non-breeding adults aren’t much different, however the pink colouration is dirtied by a grey-brown, the crest is shorter and stubbier and the black colouration on the head and flanks becomes scaly and vermiculated.  Juvenile Rose-coloured Starlings are similar to juvenile Common Starlings, however significantly paler. The main distinguishing feature, however, is the pale-yellow base to the bill.

This particular individual had been seen in a suburban garden around Bradfield for the last few weeks, although the news had only just surfaced. I imagine it was a non-birder who first spotted it on their patio but wasn’t able to identify it. Anyway, it appeared to still be in the area and I was eager to glimpse this very uncommon vagrant for myself. So the next morning we parked by the side of the road and immediately I could see that there were many Starlings around. Rose-coloured Starlings are unusual among vagrants in that they usually don’t turn up at the expected coastal rarity hotspots, for instance Spurn or Flamborough Head. Instead, they prefer to visit places I would never imagine a rarity to find itself, for example business estates or generally biodiversity unfriendly areas such as this suburban Crawley district. This is because they prefer to associate with large flocks of their only British relative, the Common Starling, during their stay on our shores.

Within fifteen minutes of our arriving on the right street a group of fifteen or so Starlings were spooked from one of the gardens and flew up into a large bare Silver Birch right next to our vehicle! It was easy to see the odd one out, the pale plumage of the juvenile Rose-coloured contrasted strongly with the other Common Starlings. After making sure that it was the right bird (it did indeed have a pale yellow base to the beak), I took a few record shots (photos that are intended mainly as proof rather than a photographic masterpiece!) through my binoculars and just a minute after I first spotted it it flew off over the rooftops. It wasn’t the most amazing view, however I was pleased that I did manage to get a glimpse of this unusual wanderer.

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The Rose-coloured Starling in very poor lighting. You might just be able to make out the pale yellow bill.

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A much better photo of the starling by Mya Bambrick, a fellow young birder who managed to see the bird later that day.