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.

 

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The Wild Wolves of Sussex

Last weekend, 1-2 July, I was fortunate enough to be attending a two-day bee workshop led by pollinator expert Steven Falk at the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve near Rye in East Sussex. Throughout the weekend we were blessed by an incredible diversity of solitary and social bee species alike, with around 50 species of the Apoidea being found during the weekend.

However, one species that caught my eye wasn’t in fact a bee. Covering the sandy paths at some points were a multitude of wolves, excavating burrows and looking for their next meal. They prowled along the tracks and up the sandy slopes, concentrating their efforts on the path-side bramble bushes. This is where their prey is most often found feeding, unaware of the wolves sneaking up behind them until they latch on with a relentless bear-hug.

Of course, the wolves I’m talking about aren’t the canids that roam remote areas of Eurasia and North America. Just as fierce, however slightly smaller, are Bee Wolves, Philanthus triangulum. Bee Wolves are the largest solitary wasp in Britain and they need to be in order to tackle their favoured prey: honey bees.

Bee Wolves used to be not only the largest but also the rarest solitary wasp in Britain. However, since a couple of decades ago, their population has been on the increase and they’ve spread to a number of new sites. Their numbers are not as large now as they were a few years ago, however there are still more about than there were 25 years ago. It’s great that these fascinating insects are more widespread now as they’re incredible to watch.

They weren’t too scared of humans at all, in fact we were able to watch with such proximity that on a couple of occasions one actually landed on Chris Glanfield’s phone while he was trying to take a photo!

Being solitary wasps, they each dig their own long burrow. These burrows contain many small chambers, as many as 30, each containing several bees. In each chamber an egg is laid, and when it hatches the larva feeds upon the bees inside the chamber before emerging as an adult Bee Wolf. The bees are not dead but paralyzed as it helps them to keep fresh and juicy for the developing larva.

We were lucky to be able to watch several wasps excavating and entering their burrows as well as carrying their prey around. This was the first time I had ever seen a bee wolf and I’m hoping I get another opportunity to watch them before too long!

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An adult Bee Wolf on the path

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a Bee Wolf outside a burrow it has only just started to excavate

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A Bee Wolf proudly outside an unfinished burrow I watched her excavate in only about 10 minutes!

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Adult Bee Wolf

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Bee Wolf

 

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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Summer migrant at last!

The weather last weekend certainly suggested that spring had sprung and the many signs of the changing seasons about such as flowering Wood-Sorrel and active Bee-Flies supported that fact. However despite the beautiful sunny weather, by yesterday morning I was still yet to see a summer migrant this year!

Early yesterday morning I spent over an hour at the beautifully serene and calm Hedgecourt Lake waiting for a particular species I was hoping to see arrive. Ospreys are apparently seen here every spring and autumn when they travel through on their way to their more northerly breeding grounds. However I have never seen a single one here.

The previous evening (Saturday) not one but two Ospreys were reported nearby at Weir Wood Reservoir just as the sun was setting at 18:30. I was hoping that they would carry on their migration northwards earlier this morning and arrive at Hedgecourt, which is the nearest large waterbody to the reservoir. That is the main reason why I was up nearly at dawn getting ready to wait for one to appear.

Unfortunately I didn’t have any luck with the Ospreys at Hedgecourt although there were some other nice birds about around the lake, with many singing Chiffchaffs, a displaying Sparrowhawk and a male Mandarin which flew in.

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Upon arrival back home I heard news that a couple of nice summer migrants had been seen at Weir Wood Reservoir while I had been at Hedgecourt. These were an Osprey, possibly one of the two there yesterday, and a Little Ringed Plover. Encouraged by this news we decided to head to Weir Wood Reservoir to see if we could see either of these birds ourselves.

Weir Wood Reservoir is quite a large reservoir and the whole reservoir cannot be seen from just one viewpoint. Therefore most people visit both ends of the reservoir, the West end and the Dam end. The West end was where we visited first and where the Ospreys were seen yesterday evening and this morning.

Despite the large number of birders at the car park there were few interesting birds to be seen and certainly no Ospreys. According to one of the birders there, Alastair Gray, they can remain well-hidden during a lot of the day simply perched in the trees beside the reservoir and only become noticeable when they set out to fish most commonly in the early morning and late afternoon. They don’t like to fly a lot unnecessarily as it really upsets the local crows which harass the Ospreys until they land! However there was an immature male Goldeneye amongst a group of Great Crested Grebes which was my first of the year.

After searching for hidden Ospreys unsuccessfully we then moved on to the dam end to look for the Little Ringed Plover. The walk up to the dam wall was alive with the song of many Chiffchaffs and the blossoming Blackthorns were full of life. There were a pair of Pied Wagtails on the grassy bank of the dam and a Grey Heron flew overhead.

After walking along the dam wall for a little while to my relief the Little Ringed Plover came into view. It was small and slender, moreso than its relative the Ringed Plover, and was feeding right on the water’s edge. I was able to get quite close, up to a distance of about 10 feet, and from there I was easily able to observe its distinguishing features. To separate Little Ringed from Ringed Plover, the easiest feature to see is the colour of the bill. Little Ringed Plovers have an entirely dark bill whereas Ringed Plovers have a bill with an orange base and a dark tip. Also,  if you are close enough, you might be able to see the yellow eye ring of a Little Ringed Plover which is a feature absent in Ringed Plovers.

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The Little Ringed Plover

Although Little Ringed Plovers are regular breeders in England and Wales in the modern day, they first bred as recently as 1938. Their expansion across southern Britain is partly due to the creation of man-made habitats perfect for breeding such as water-filled gravel pits. Now over a thousand pairs of these small waders arrive here each spring to leave again in late June/July.

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I am pleased that I have now managed to find my first ‘proper’ summer migrant of 2017. Over the coming weeks, migration is set to pick up as winds become favourable and it becomes warmer. Hopefully I will soon be waking up to the song of Blackcaps and Willow Warblers!

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.

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Feeding amongst the dead grass and plants

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Drinking from the unidentified object

Here you can find a short video of the Twite:

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.

 

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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