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!

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

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Nardia compressa

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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.

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My photo of a gemma of Zygodon conoideus

Ouzels and Sprites

Last weekend was a great one for birding. Saturday started drizzly and it continued like that for the rest of the day, but when I saw news of a Yellow-browed Warbler just 10 minutes away I couldn’t resist going for this scarce vagrant. When we arrived at Bewbush West Playing Fields it was cloudy and miserable. We could tell that this wasn’t the most likely destination for most birders, it was simply a few football pitches, a tiny section of woodland and a hedgerow.

We followed a footpath adjacent to the playing fields, as that was where the Yellow-browed Warbler was seen. Along the whole route I played the call of this species, hoping that the lost bird would call back and reveal its presence. We had no luck for the first fifteen minutes, with only Blue Tits and Robins calling from the trees. However, as we reached a large, dense, berry-laden Hawthorn bush, my mum and I both heard the call. ‘Tseeweest, tseeweest’. That was the bird! I played back the call several times and received a couple more faint responses, but that was it. There was no sign of the bird, it was obviously well hidden inside the dark, dark hedge.

Yellow-browed Warblers are birds that breed in Siberia and winter in South-east Asia, but hundreds each year perform ‘reverse migration’, that is migrating in the wrong direction, and find themselves here in Britain. This is the perfect time of year for these Siberian ‘sprites’ to turn up on our coasts, with a maximum of 600 on one day earlier this year. All records are pretty much confined to the east coast, however, with few making their way inland. This year has so far been a bumper year for them, with 8 being seen in Surrey at the time of writing. Considering that there haven’t been any confirmed records for at least 2 years this is amazing!

The next day the weather was much more favourable and my dad and I made our way to the brilliant Ashdown Forest to see how Autumn was getting on. There had been 12 Ring Ouzels reported during the last two days and these are another species I had yet to see in Britain and indeed the world. When we arrived in the car park we could simply hear autumn calling from the trees: there were Chaffinches everywhere! Given this being a bumper year for beech mast, one of their favourite foods, I wasn’t too surprised to see lots. However, I think 69 is a pretty good total!

Continuing along the tarmac road I heard a distant Pheasant and party of Blackbirds in a dense holly bush. For a moment I thought I could hear a faint ‘chack’ of a Ring Ouzel, but I couldn’t be sure. Further along the road we came to a more open area with gorse and some isolated pines. Ahead of us on the path we could see a flock of about 20 Chaffinches; however they were very flighty and I couldn’t tell if there were any Brambling among them. It didn’t sound like it, no Brambling calls stood out as the flock flew over our heads and into some tall pines at the bottom of a short slope.

A short while later, as we were under the cover of some tall pines and beech trees again, I spotted a flock of thrush-size birds flying around a small Rowan. They weren’t close and even through my binoculars I couldn’t tell if they were Blackbirds or Ring Ouzels; however it seemed unlikely that Blackbirds would form such a large flock. Retracing our steps we managed to find a path that lead down towards the Rowan for us to get a closer look and confirm the identity of those birds. It was a steep but easy descent, in one place we had to move quickly as we came across a huge Wood Ant nest!

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Formica rufa, Southern Wood Ant, nest

The number of birds around us was incredible. A tit flock made their way through the thin birch trees, hanging from the flimsy twigs. It was mainly made up of Long-tailed Tits, however there were also Blue, Coal and Great Tits along with seven Chiffchaffs. Several Redwings passed overhead and there were even more Chaffinches and Goldfinches calling from above.

We soon got to a point where we could see the bush where we had seen the Ring Ouzels feeding. There was clearly a lot of activity on the small Rowan and I was pleased to see, through my binoculars, that they were definitely Ring Ouzels! They were very busy feeding on the ripe red berries, along with many Chaffinches. Three Bramblings were also a nice surprise feeding on the berries, they are my first this winter and always great to see. This year I am trying to attract them in to our garden, but there hasn’t been much luck yet unfortunately.

Ring Ouzels are migrants that breed here in the UK in hilly and mountainous open areas. They don’t usually breed in South-East England so this time of year when they are passing through on their way to their wintering grounds is the best to see them. They are similar in appearance to Blackbirds being primarily black, however the males are easy to tell apart due to the bright white crescent on the breast. All genders and ages have this white crescent however it is duller in the females and especially so in juvenile birds. In cases where the crescent is faint, then the next best method of identification is looking at the wings. In Ring Ouzels, the wing is paler than the rest of the body and almost appears translucent, whereas in Blackbirds they are completely black in the males or uniformly dark brown.

Ring Ouzels are sadly declining in the UK and they have been given the red status. However there isn’t a clear cause of the decline and there are several groups working on researching this species and finding out why populations have decreased so much. However, the least numbers of birds have been recorded after warm summers, suggesting that a lack of food might be the problem. With an ongoing trend of warm weather due to global warming it is likely that the decline will continue.

Underground Birds’ Nests!

This afternoon I was very lucky to be able to fit in a short trip to an undisclosed site in Ashdown Forest to see a very rare plant: the Bird’s-nest Orchid. I have been asked to keep the precise location a secret as there are only two individual plants flowering at the moment and I believe there might be some collectors keen to get their hands on them. Luckily Ashdown Forest is a huge place and these orchids are incredibly easy to miss.

I first learnt about these orchids being present at Ashdown Forest – one of the largest areas of woodland and more importantly open heathland in the South East – on the Sussex Botanical Recording Society website. There is a new ‘Latest Sightings’ feature on the website and I have been lucky enough to post a ‘Latest Sighting’ on there already, on the Krauss’s Clubmoss. You can read the orchid latest sighting here and my clubmoss latest sighting here.

The beech woodland where the plant was growing was very nice except there was very little diversity of ground flora. I think this may be due to the very large population of deer, particularly the Fallow Deer, which have over-grazed the area. However, there were some nice patches of late-flowering Bluebells as well as Ground Ivy, Germander Speedwell and not-yet-flowering Wood-Sorrel. In fact I saw a couple of female Fallow Deer while we were there, although they were very shy and were gone before I could see more than their heads with their sensitive ears standing up rigidly, on high alert. Deer were hunted in Ashdown Forest in the past so they must have learnt to be very wary of humans even now when deer-hunting has been discontinued.

There were some very large and beautiful Beech trees in the woodland that seemed to support a plethora of life. In one tiny patch of about 3 square centimetres there were no less than 5 adult Athous haemorrhoidalis, a common beetle whose larvae feed on tree roots. I also watched my first Spotted Flycatcher of the year flycatching from the mighty limbs of a particularly grand Beech tree.

We carried on down the road, checking every beech clump on the left side of the road to see if we could spot the easily-missed orchids. Surely we were supposed to be looking on the left side of the road? My dad agreed and we continued, starting to lose hope. We soon reached a point which was surely much farther than the directions had intended. Where were they? We must have missed them. We gloomily trod back up to the car, disappointed that we hadn’t seen these special plants. My eyes drifted over to the side of the road we hadn’t been looking at, where I stopped suddenly. I stood staring at two beige plants with disbelief. We had found the two Bird’s-nest Orchids! They were looking exactly as they had in the photo on the latest sightings page on the SBRS website which was taken 8 days before. Here are some photos and a very short mini-documentary:

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SOS Outing to Old Lodge

On Sunday I joined the Sussex Ornithological Society on a walk around Old Lodge, a Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve in Ashdown Forest. My aim was to hear a Cuckoo for the first time as I worry that we might not be able to hear that characteristic sound for much longer.

The first good bird of the day was a Common Whitethroat flitting about a willow. I don’t see very many and this was only my second of the year, followed by my third half way through the walk.

Suddenly, I heard a faint two note call way off in the distance. A Cuckoo already! Despite the fact that there was a pair on the reserve that were seen yesterday, I wasn’t expecting to hear one so soon! It called the whole time while we were at the top of the hill near the car park, just loud enough for me to hear it but too quiet for my dad unfortunately.

A little further along the path we had great views of a Woodlark. It was singing while performing its parachuting display. It was quite close and gave good views through my binoculars. This is the first time I’ve heard a Woodlark’s amazing song as well as seen its display.

There were a few dead trees along the fence line to our right where we first saw a Redpoll and then had good views of a beautiful Stonechat. Just behind the dead trees were a few tall pines where I saw my first Tree Pipit of the year. It was singing its heart out and giving its display flight like the Woodlark. It flew up and floated in the air before parachuting down to an Oak tree. While we were watching the Pipit a Kestrel and 2 Swallows flew behind the trees.

Not long afterwards a familiar song arose from the sky above us. It was another bird that performs display flights – the Skylark! I remember hearing them a lot when I was on holiday in Northumberland, they would display over the cottage where we were staying. This one didn’t stay for long however, and soon departed  west.

The path turned right and we were heading down the hill through some thin woodland between the reserve and what looked like private land. There were lots of bluebells on either side of the path and the fresh oak leaves were amazing! We soon came across a pond where we stopped to try and find some Redstarts. A Willow Warbler started to sing in a small tree beside the pond and it wasn’t very mobile like most of the Phylloscopus warblers that I see. A Long-tailed Tit looked like it was collecting nesting material, probably for a second brood as Long-tailed Tits are one of the first birds to start nest building in spring. There was also a young Robin nearby and two Goldfinches were chasing each other around a Birch tree.

After that things got quiet bird-wise. We continued on our walk and only when we were climbing the hill again did things get a bit more exciting. There was a lone male Siskin feeding in a pine, exposed at times. There were also many more stunning Stonechats including a female in a perfect, well lit position on some dead bracken. A great photo opportunity for someone with the right sort of camera.

The terrain started to flatten out again and we were nearing the end of the walk, yet we had not yet seen a Redstart. I have only ever seen Redstarts once before, when I spotted a family at a different location at Ashdown Forest. I also wanted a better view of the gorgeous males.

We came to an old Oak tree along a straight ride with dense pines on either side. There was a bleached stump behind the tree where I spotted a small brown Robin-sized bird flit up and perch motionless on top. I called ‘Redstart‘ and soon everyone was watching the bird. It perched on the stump for quite a while, often turning its back and showing its rump. However, it was only a female and not nearly as pretty as a male Redstart.

We had circled back to the car park by eleven-thirty without seeing much bar a singing Chiffchaff and a trio of Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Having not seen any Crossbills during the morning some of us decided to head back to a spot not far from the car park where a flock of up to 20 had been seen during the last few days. None were seen, but we did see this:

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Unfortunately the photo doesn’t do justice to this fab male Redstart…

Total number of birds I managed to see: 33