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!


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


Nardia compressa


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.


My photo of a gemma of Zygodon conoideus

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.


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.


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.


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.












































































































































Bad News for Wildlife

Yesterday  the UK narrowly voted to leave the European Union. Many naturalists, including Sir David Attenborough, were saddened by this outcome. It doesn’t look good for wildlife in the UK, especially farmland wildlife.

The Wildlife Trusts manage lots of farmland for wildlife and 6% of their income comes from the EU. This is due to funding that The Wildlife Trusts get when they create wildlife habitat on the farmland they own. When the UK is not part of the EU, The Wildlife Trusts will not receive that vital 6%. This could mean that less management can be carried out for farmland wildlife.

The Common Agricultural Policy is a policy which, among other things, provides financial support from the EU on environmental management. This is similar to the funding The Wildlife Trusts receive: environmental management that takes place on farms can be funded by the CAP. The CAP also influences farm management decisions within the EU which we would not benefit from after we officially leave the EU.

The Birds and Habitats Directives hope to contribute to saving nature within the European Union by conserving particular species which fit a number of criteria. It is proven that species listed under Annex 1 of the Birds Directive have had population increases not experienced by species not under Annex 1. Outside of the European Union, this effect has not been observed. Therefore, now that we are leaving the EU, the UK population of species listed under Annex 1 might not display the same increases as the populations within the EU due to the Birds and Habitats Directives no longer applying.

The EU is the most important legal driving force for the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, which is a critical measure for marine wildlife conservation. Without the influence of the EU directives the development of the marine protected areas would be at risk. Marine protected areas are very important in the UK due to the amazing biodiversity of species in UK seas. Without protection the biodiversity will be devalued.

International impacts might also be felt. Now that we will be without the support of the European Union, the United Kingdom might try to create agreements internationally which benefit nature conservation. However, due to the UK’s neighbours being members of the EU, they might be less willing to agree to join an additional agreement outside of EU laws.


However, just maybe, the future UK government will be highly committed to conserving nature. Like me, Boris Johnson severely dislikes Grey Squirrels and would greatly prefer Red Squirrels to replace them. Therefore if Boris Johnson does become the new Prime Minister, more work could be done to save the Red Squirrel. Hopefully the environment will be higher up on the agenda than it is at the moment. Just maybe all these European directives and the funding will be replaced. It should be a priority.

West Sussex Garden Diaries

I recently created a YouTube channel as I love filming wildlife. David Attenborough has been my idol for a very long time as I think he is an excellent presenter. I really want to be like him and travel the world one day filming nature’s wonders, but I thought I’d start in my own back garden! My new channel will be called West Sussex Garden Diaries and I hope to record as much wildlife as I can in my rural garden in West Sussex. I have already created a few videos, including 2 moth trap ones and one documenting some of the June wildflowers, but here’s my introductory video to help you to understand what the channel will be about:

The other videos can be found by searching for jimmymac2 on YouTube.

One Pure White Long Neck

I have been checking the Sussex Ornithological Society’s website morning and evening, waiting for a rare bird to turn up (which it shall, with it being the autumn passage season) and finally one turns up not too far away from us. It was a Great White Egret, a bird that I regularly see in Africa, though have never seen in the UK before. The only problem was that the sighting appeared on a Monday, a school day, so I had to persevere a whole week of worrying whether it was still going to be there.

On Saturday morning it looked good, there was no reports of it having left on Friday (though none to suggest it was still there) and we set out just past 8 am. When we had nearly arrived I looked anxiously out of the car window to try to spot it early on, but in vain. I did get a mild shock when I misjudged the distance between me and a Lesser Black-Backed Gull, however apart from that there was no sign of it so far.

To my surprise there were only two people at the car park next to the hide, they seemed to have arrived much earlier to try to snatch a glimpse of this elegant bird. Our visit started out with a bit of horrible luck, as the Great White Egret had just flew away and rounded a bend only a few minutes before we arrived. This meant we had time to look at all of the other birds that were visible from the hide: a pair of Mandarin, Cormorants, several Green Sandpipers, a possible Common Sandpiper, Snipe, Lapwing, Mallard, Little Egret, Greylag Geese, Canada Geese and Grey Herons. While we were watching a trio of Green Sandpipers on the far bank we all received a pleasant surprise, the Great White Egret had flown silently on broad wings underneath the view of the scope! It landed half-visible to the left of the hide behind an overhanging shrub and I hastily took a few pictures. It seemed these weren’t needed, as the Great White Egret regularly flew right in front of the hide and along the far shore! Once I even took a photo of it flying behind a Kingfisher perched on a post, which I only realised when I arrived back home!

Spot the Kingfisher!

Spot the Kingfisher!

Egret flyby (cropped)

Egret flyby (cropped)