Beluga in the Thames!

Contrary to my normal style, this blog post’s title is a little more self-explanatory than usual. This is so that when I’m scrolling through the archives in fifty years time I’ll be able to instantly recognise what this post will be about: something I’d never even considered possible.

If I was looking ahead to today from this point last week, I would probably be wondering how I’d managed to book a flight to Greenland or Svalbard at such short notice, and why it was a mild 17 degrees at such high latitudes. At the very least, I would be curious as to where I’d sourced my drugs from. I cannot believe that this morning I was enjoying a plate of chips in the warm sun at a table outside the Ship & Lobster on Mark Lane in Gravesend, Kent, while behind me a Beluga surfaced, just behind a barge with the words ‘Working for the Tidal Thames’ inscribed on its side.

The whale was first found by Dave Andrews on Tuesday, and I imagine he must have had the shock of his life when he spotted it. I certainly would have, with this record constituting one of the most southerly records of this species in the world. Belugas have a circumpolar distribution, with the nearest populations to the UK being over 2500km away. I was surprised to find out that this is the 19th sighting of Belugas in UK waters, although they have chiefly been seen in the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney, with outlying locations being off Northumberland and Northern Ireland, both in 2015.

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The stretch of the Thames where we saw the Beluga

Belugas are interesting among whales as they can easily tolerate brackish and even freshwater. They are quite at home in estuaries and during summer often travel hundreds of kilometres up rivers in search of fish. In the remote polar regions they usually inhabit, this is fairly risk-free. The Thames is something else, however. As you can see from the above photo, residing in the Thames is not without its dangers. During the short while we were watching the sub-adult Beluga, about half-a-dozen vessels passed right over where the Beluga was seen just minutes before including a couple of massive ships.

Although, ship strikes are not the only danger this whale may have to face. There is also, of course, a higher concentration of plastic in the river than it will be used to. If it ingests too much it will die a slow and painful death. No doubt the overall relatively balmy climate will have an effect, although I’m not sure exactly how. But if Belugas weren’t affected by warm temperatures, then they wouldn’t be restricted to such icy climes.

It will be interesting to see how this Beluga’s slight wander will pan out. The best case scenario is that it will be seen swimming downstream and into the North Sea, where its instincts will kick in and it will swim back north to where it ought to be. To finish this blog post, here is a video of the couple of times I managed to record ‘Benny the Beluga’ coming up for air (email subscribers may have to click through to the blog to view the video):

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Coot-like coot-foot

Scientific names, often consisting of a mix of Greek and Latin, can sometimes be a little peculiar. For example, Phalaropus translates to coot-foot, and fulicarius to coot-like, to produce the scientific name for the Grey Phalarope. It isn’t really coot-like on outward appearance at all, only the feet as suggested in the generic name Phalaropus.

Phalaropes are waders, but are unusual among the group as they have partially webbed feet (like coots). This allows them not only to feed along the muddy margins of wetlands but also to lead a pelagic lifestyle, often congregating in large numbers offshore on their way to spend the winter in tropical oceans. The nearest they breed to the UK is in Iceland and the east coast of Greenland. Phalaropes are also unusual in their breeding behaviour. Their breeding plumage is an attractive rusty-red although uncommonly among birds, the females have the more beautiful attire. This is because they perform the courtship displays as well as defend the territory. In this role-reversal, the males incubate the nest and look after the young as they are developing.

Grey Phalaropes pass through UK waters twice a year on their migration, although mostly keeping out of sight of dedicated sea-watchers on coastal headlands. This all changes, however, when events like those earlier this week occur.

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I was lucky to see this male Grey Phalarope in breeding plumage on the Svalbard Archipelago in Arctic Norway a few years ago.

On Wednesday, Storm Ali struck the UK, powering its way from the west with wind speeds in excess of 100mph. Less than two days later, Storm Bronagh also blew in from the Atlantic. The combination of these two systems had notable effects on sea-going birds, particularly Grey Phalaropes. Over the past few days they’ve been turning up all over the UK, including double-figure counts at locations in the South-West. Of this large number, around 60 were found at inland locations, one of which being Bough Beech Reservoir in Kent. This is only a half hour drive away from me, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see my first British phalarope.

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The Grey Phalarope at Bough Beech Reservoir. It has been aged as a first-winter, meaning that it hatched this year somewhere in the Arctic.

Sadly, as with any vagrant bird, it is likely that at least some of these displaced phalaropes will be unable to make it back to where they’re supposed to go. Storm-driven birds often use up a lot of energy on their wayward journeys and cannot find enough food where they end up. Furthermore, birds like these phalaropes have usually never seen humans before in their remote, high-latitude nesting grounds. Therefore, they are frequently confiding and approachable, putting themselves at huge risk. Fingers crossed that this one gets back on track!

 

The People’s Walk for Wildlife – my three hopes

It is fair to say that a better day could have been chosen weather-wise for today’s People’s Walk for Wildlife, although that didn’t stop thousands of people old and young making their voices heard in London. There were attendees from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands and even Uganda! This illustrates how much we care about the state of our environment and the unfathomable diversity of species it supports. Everyone at the walk today shared a common goal: to restore wildlife to the condition it was in before the disastrous effects of the Anthropocene. However, I have three hopes for the near future which I’d love to be fulfilled.

1. Large-scale rewilding

I’m lucky enough to be able to visit the Knepp Estate in West Sussex fairly regularly for bird ringing and general wildlife recording. It is one of several rewilding projects in the UK but the only one of its kind in the South-East, which is what makes it even more special.

The idea of rewilding involves restoring ecosystems to how they were in prehistoric times – before humans reaped such major consequences on the environment – mainly by reintroducing or replicating the megafauna which would have populated them. In less densely populated areas of the UK, there are plans and ambitions to reintroduce large carnivores such as lynx and wolves. However, in the South-East, there is simply not enough space for a thriving population of animals such as these. Yet, rewilding at Knepp has still had a noticeable effect on biodiversity without such iconic predators. On the estate, large herbivores/omnivores have been introduced to mimic those which would have been present in England many centuries ago. Free-roaming Tamworth pigs rootle in the undergrowth in the place of wild boar; longhorn cattle fill a niche which would previously have contained aurochs; Exmoor ponies replicate the benefits tarpan (Eurasian wild horses) would have had on the ecosystem.

It is evident that rewilding has already greatly benefitted Knepp’s wildlife. The pigs have produced bare ground ideal for nesting solitary bees. The tough cattle and ponies have prevented unique species-rich grassland and scrubland from reverting to woodland.

The idea came about at the start of the millennium when the lack of profit from the working farm the estate once was became a problem. Fields had to take up every scrap of available land and push wildlife to the edge in order to produce a good crop. Therefore, Charlie Burrell and his wife Isabella Tree (who has written a book on this subject entitled ‘Wilding’ – highly recommended as this blog post far from explains everything!) decided to think outside the box.

If rewilding can be so successful on a lowland farm surrounded by towns and less than forty miles from the centre of London, then it can surely also be implemented on farms nationwide. This would bring back biodiversity we have not experienced for many generations.

2. Putting nature back into childhood

The younger years are when lifelong interests are kindled. What’s experienced during childhood can spark a passion that can burn for decades. Long gone are the days when playing in the wilderness used to be the default for children, replaced by addictive screens. Without learning to love and appreciate even the wildlife on their doorstep, there is no chance that young people will be the driving force for conservation in the future. This is why it’s imperative to teach the next generation why our natural heritage is something that must be conserved.

3. Leave no species under-recorded

It is a simple truth that we cannot conserve a species if we don’t know its ecology, where it’s distributed or even if it exists. This is why recording the species we come across is so important for conservation. Even records one might consider as commonplace, such as a harlequin ladybird overwintering in the corner of your living room, can feed vital data to recording schemes. How far has this invasive ladybird spread? Which times of year is it most active? What consequences is the advent of this non-native having on our indigenous species? These are all questions that a few seconds spent uploading a record could answer.

There are many easy ways to submit records. Many recording schemes accept records from the Biological Records Centre’s iRecord website. Alternatively, you can email records directly to the relevant recording scheme or records centre. A list of recording schemes can be found here.

Daily, exciting new records are being made nationwide; a new species for a county, or even a country. Anyone can make a ground-breaking discovery just by sending in a record. There are tens of thousands of invertebrate species, thousands of fungi, thousands of plants, algae, lichens, mosses in the UK alone. Every one of them is equal, and requires conserving just as much as the iconic birds and mammals. Yet, there is no chance of preventing a planning application from destroying a site if there is no data on any scarce or declining species which might inhabit it. There is no possibility of stemming the invasion of a non-native species if we don’t know that it has arrived. There is no way of managing a habitat for a species if we don’t know which kind of habitat it prefers.

The catastrophic decline of biodiversity in this country and elsewhere in the world must be halted, and if possible reversed; our own futures depend on it. The simple tasks listed here would begin to help; but there is much much more to be done.

Skulker

As many of you will know, I am a trainee bird ringer and have been since 2014. Involved in the complicated process is putting a small, lightweight ring on the leg of a bird, on which is inscribed a unique number. This enables individual birds to be recognised if they are later recaught or found dead, allowing ornithologists to learn more about their migration and biology.

In my four years of being a ringer, I’ve had the chance to ring a wide variety of bird species, ranging from over 100 Blue Tits to some scarcities including Yellow Wagtail, Redstart, Wheatear and Wood Warbler and larger birds such as Stock Dove and Woodpigeon. However, last Sunday’s ringing experience will probably go down as one of my favourites so far.

Fellow Sussex young birder Mya Bambrick and I arrived at Knepp Estate, south-west of Horsham, at 6am. There we met my trainer Tony Davis who had already set up four mist-nets around a field consisting of mainly bramble and willow scrub. This is a fantastic habitat for migrating birds as well as several scarce breeders due to the amount of cover the scrub produces and the blackberries which ripen at exactly the right time to fuel many migratory passerines on their southward journeys. The mist-nests are ideal for catching birds as they are fine enough to be invisible to birds flying between bushes, which fly into the net and fall into a pocket from which they are extracted by licensed ringers.

It was on the first net-round when I noticed that there was something slightly different in the bottom pocket of one of the mist-nets. It didn’t take long for me to realise that it was a Grasshopper Warbler. Grasshopper Warblers, so-called due to their bizarre song which resembles that of a stridulating grasshopper, is a localised breeding species found mainly in fens and coarse grassland and is not often found in high density. However, while researching for this blog post, it was good to learn that they are showing a positive population trend with the UK population experiencing a 23% increase in numbers in the 14 years between 1995 and 2009. This is thought to be as a result of improved survival rates in the wintering grounds of west Africa. Particular preference is shown by British Grasshopper Warblers towards Senegal and The Gambia, which we have learnt from recoveries of ringed birds in those countries. However despite this recent increase, this is in comparison to a proportionally larger decrease which took place in the years prior to that period. Only a few decades ago, this species used to be found in a greater range of habitats than to which it is currently restricted.

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The Grasshopper Warbler

Grasshopper Warblers (often shortened to just Gropper) are renowned for the difficulty involved to see them. They have skulking habits, only really coming out into the open when the males sing their distinctive song. Most of the time they remain hidden in thick vegetation. In fact I’ve only seen this species twice before, and both times the birds were located by the loud song. The first time was a bird claiming its territory in May 2014 in a sand dune in Budle Bay, Northumberland and the second had probably only just arrived in the UK in April last year, when I found one singing in a garden at Selsey Bill in West Sussex from a small clump of ornamental pampas grass. In fact in the past 20 years Tony had only caught two or three, highlighting how lucky we were to catch this reclusive skulker.

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This was my only photo of a Grasshopper Warbler before Sunday, from Northumberland. This photo illustrates how hard-to-see Grasshopper Warblers are usually. And this one was, in relation to most other sightings, ‘showing well’!

Donkey of the night

African Penguins were originally called Jackass Penguins not too long ago, in fact the bird book that I use for southern Africa includes them under that latter name. I have to admit I’ve always found that name slightly amusing, although I didn’t know why it was applied to Africa’s only breeding penguin until last week at the Stony Point colony.

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The African Penguins have adapted to their higher latitude environment by possessing a pink gland above their eyes, where blood rushes to in hot weather to hasten heat loss.

There are six species of penguins which have been recorded in Africa, predominantly in South Africa. All except for the African Penguin are vagrants. Even the African Penguin is quite localised, restricted by its requirement for predator-free islands or occasionally mainland sites. These mainland sites are always situated between a major town and the sea, to provide a barrier which predators cannot cross. Examples of these mainland colonies include Boulders Beach and Stony Point, with their barriers from predators being Simon’s Town and Betty’s Bay respectively. Therefore these colonies have only established recently as the towns have developed into a sufficient size, in fact both were founded in the 1980s and now contain between 2000 and 3000 penguins.

Stony Point was the colony we visited on our trip to South Africa. I would highly recommend it for anyone wanting to see the penguins in South Africa. It costs only 20 Rand (£1) to enter, and gives access to a long boardwalk which takes you directly through the colony. The penguins come so close that there are times when you are standing immediately above one which has chosen to shelter underneath the boardwalk! There are also a number of information boards along the boardwalk, one of which informed me of the etymology of the ‘Jackass’ Penguin: the species is known for its donkey-like braying sound which it often produces at night!

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Penguins, a section of the boardwalk and the outskirts of Betty’s Bay in the background

Humans have a long relationship with penguins, which has not always been good. This is particularly regarding guano collecting, which was a big business in the 19th century. Guano was very important during that era for farming as a manure to fertilise crops. It lead to the human colonisation of many offshore bird colonies as guano collecting became a full-time job. The problem with this in relation to African Penguins is that they nest naturally in burrows dug into guano, which therefore has to be very deep. If all the guano (often from other seabirds such as Cape Gannets or Cape Cormorants) has been removed by humans, then the penguins have nowhere to nest.

Fortunately, guano is no longer collected from areas where the penguins nest. Although, the guano layers are still not deep enough in many colonies for penguins to dig a nest. At Stony Point, we saw that artificial concrete nests had been installed. These nests are similar to a very large flowerpot lying on its side, half-buried. These have allowed the expansion of the colony where the quantity of guano available would have limited it.

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An example of one of the artificial nests.

There is another threat to African Penguins posed by humans. Sadly, this one is still an ongoing risk and very unpredictable: oil spills. Ships running aground can spill massive volumes of oil, which can severely harm seabird populations. Penguins are at a particular risk as they spend a lot of time near the surface of the ocean where the oil accumulates. The main problem the oil produces is that it impairs the waterproofing capabilities of the birds’ feathers. This exposes the birds to the full force of the water’s cold temperatures leading to hypothermia. Even the lucky ones who make it back to shore face consequences when they attempt to remove the oil from their feathers: it is often ingested and causes damage to the digestive system.

These threats among others have produced a catastrophic decline of 95% since the beginning of the 19th century, when 4 million penguins inhabited South Africa and Namibia. Now, there are only around 50,000 penguins left. At this rate of decline, we could see the extinction of the African Penguin in the wild by the year 2026 – just 8 years away.

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If the trend continues, this chick could be part of the eighth-to-last generation of African Penguins.

Fortunately there are a number of organisations working towards a happy ending for the African Penguin. Among these, SANCCOB is the predominant group performing rescue operations on penguins, particularly those affected by oil spills, while the Dyer Island Conservation Trust has opened the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary in Gansbaai which will act as a centre for research and education. I am hopeful that iconic African Penguin’s downward trend can be reversed.

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Not grousing about grouse

grouse
verb: to complain; to grumble

Yesterday I returned from a 17-day trip to Namibia and South Africa and after a string of special sightings, grousing is exactly what I wasn’t doing. One particular highlight was sightings of an order of birds I have never been lucky enough to encounter before.

Sandgrouse belong to the bird order Pterocliformes. This came about after they had previously been placed in two other orders. Firstly, they were included in the Galliformes, where the true grouse reside. They were placed here due to their anatomical similarities to the true grouse, although later on there was the realisation that this was not a result of genetic similarity but of convergent evolution (where two or more unrelated taxa evolve similar features, for example echolocation in the case of dolphins and bats). The next order they were included in was the Columbiformes which also contains pigeons and doves. This was because it was thought that they employed peristalsis in the oesophagus to suck up water – a pumping action which can draw liquid into the gullet – which is unusual in birds. Although now it is thought that this is incorrect, which stimulated the choice to place them in their own order.

There are sixteen species of sandgrouse species, found mostly in Asia and Africa. There are also some species in Europe such as Pin-tailed and Black-bellied which are found around the western Mediterranean. One has even made it to the UK: while most sandgrouse species are sedentary or make seasonal altitudinal movements at most, the Pallas’s Sandgrouse, which is usually found in central Asia, can be irruptive. Large irruptions have not been experienced in Europe for decades although they did occur regularly in the late 19th century. One irruption lead to thousands flooding into the UK and even breeding in a few locations.

As an order, they are well known for their drinking habits. Many species travel for miles to visit waterholes daily, where they can drink enough water in just few seconds to last them the 24 hours until the next visit. They are also famous for how they supply water to their young before they are able to fly to waterholes. The adult’s downy breast feathers are able to soak up lots of water, from which the chicks drink.

To avoid competition, different species visit waterholes at different times. This regularity makes waterholes ideal places to see many sandgrouse species with ease. During our stay at the Okaukuejo Camp in Etosha National Park, Namibia, we noticed that there was a poster by the reception which mentioned that Double-banded Sandgrouse visit the waterhole 40 minutes before sunrise and Namaqua Sandgrouse visit between 9am and 10am. We were lucky enough to have a chalet right next to the floodlit waterhole which is the main attraction at the camp. I was not going to refuse an opportunity to see my first sandgrouse species, so the next morning at 6.10 am I sat on a bench overlooking the waterhole. It wasn’t long before the first Double-banded arrived on the edge of the waterhole; at first it was only one or two at any time but before long there were at least thirty at once. Considering it was pitch-black everywhere around the floodlit waterhole, I was impressed.

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Due to the light my camera was set to a shutterspeed of 1/4, fortunately when they first landed the sandgrouse had a habit of staying stock still for a few seconds to check for danger before proceeding to drink.

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A female Double-banded Sandgrouse.

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Some sandgrouse smudges and a couple of less-blurry males.

After breakfast we headed out on a game drive on the semi-arid plains of the park. It was the dry season so waterholes were in low supply, so much so that individual ones are marked out on the map. At 9.45 am we arrived at the first waterhole of the day, on the edge of the Etosha Pan. This pan, when it wasn’t a pan, would have been the third largest lake in the world after the Caspian Sea and Lake Superior. It is not entirely known how the lake dried up however tectonic movements changing the course of the river that fed it seems to be the most plausible explanation. Nowadays, its dry, salt-encrusted state causes a few small water-bodies to draw in animals from a very wide radius.

Among the springbok, gemsbok and other mammals that this particular waterhole had attracted, I noticed a good number of what I originally thought were Cape Turtle Doves. Although after a closer inspection I realised that they definitely were not these but Namaqua Sandgrouse, at exactly the right time in the morning!

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The light was better for our sighting of the Namaqua Sandgrouse than for the Double-banded Sandgrouse, however the distance was compromised. This image shows a male on the left and a female on the right.

After having never previously laid eyes on these fascinating birds, seeing two species in just one day was certainly more than I expected. Although a few days later, it became evident that the trip was about to become even better for sandgrouse. We were at our final destination of the Namibia leg of our travels, a lodge named Ondekaremba near to the Windhoek Airport. We had dropped our bags off at the lodge before then returning the rental car at the airport (then subsequently hailing a taxi for our return to the lodge and a hotel transfer to the airport the following morning). We were beginning to think this was not a good idea as the access road to the lodge was a four-mile dirt track weaving through the bushveld and a dry riverbed which was unforeseen. However, it certainly became worthwhile when my mum spotted some movement on the side of the road. My dad, seated on the nearest side of the car to the birds, proclaimed that they were sandgrouse which lead to my panicked scramble across the backseats. By the time the car had come to a stop they were so close that I had to lean right out of the window to get a view of them below us. There were two, presumably a male and a female. The female was hard to see in the roadside grass although the male was walking slowly unobscured along the road itself. Compared to the poor light for the Double-bandeds and the distance involved with the Namaquas, I had no excuses with these birds. Luckily, in my opinion I don’t need any! What made this encounter even more memorable was the fact that they were a third species: Burchell’s! I couldn’t help feeling that my luck was well and truly in. Three out of the four species inhabiting Southern Africa in less than a week is not bad going.

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The male Burchell’s Sandgrouse.

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This species is known for travelling around 100 miles each day to its favourite waterhole.

 

 

 

 

 

Species no. 3000!

Admittedly Stratiotes aloides, known vernacularly as Water-soldier, is not the most desired plant to have in an ecosystem. It is possible that it is native in East Anglia and Lincolnshire however in Sussex, where this species became number 3000 on my pan-species list, it is more likely to be introduced.

Yesterday I joined the Sussex Botanical Recording Society on a visit to Court Lodge Farm on the Pevensey Levels, which possesses a rich assemblage of aquatic plants in the many ditches. Some special species recorded included Potamogeton obtusifolius (Blunt-leaved Pondweed) and Petroselinum segetum (Corn Parsley), the latter growing on the banks of the ditches rather than within them as was the case with the pondweed.

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An example of one of the ditches where we were recording. The majority of the water plants you can see in the photo would  be Lemna trisulca (Ivy-leaved Duckweed), Elodea nuttallii (Nuttall’s Waterweed) and the aforementioned Potamogeton obtusifolius (Blunt-leaved Pondweed).

Although despite these Levels specialities being present, for the ditches it is hard to escape the colonisation of several non-native invasive plants. Fortunately we didn’t come across any ditches which were dominated by these unwanted waterweeds however both Azolla filiculoides (Water Fern) and Hydrocotyle ranunculoides (Floating Pennywort) were found along with the robust growth of Water-soldier.

Water-soldier can be quite problematic for native flora. Small populations can, if left undisturbed by boats or large numbers of waterfowl, develop into armies. These can completely annex stretches of canals or ditches, out-competing ‘friendlier’ water plants for resources. The following quote is from the Water-soldier’s species account in the recently published Flora of Sussex: “On Pevensey Levels it has spread considerably, and in 2010 was found to be completely covering a ditch for several hundred metres”.

Despite this, I find its biology quite interesting. In the autumn it will begin to stop photosynthesising, and gradually lose the gas in its leaves that keeps it afloat. It will sink to the bottom of the ditch or canal where the water is unlikely to freeze. In the spring the increased strength of the sun’s rays will penetrate deep enough to allow the sharp, serrated, sword-shaped leaves to photosynthesise again, producing oxygen which gives the rosettes their buoyancy.

I was not originally planning to write a blog post on the Water-soldier until I realised today while inputting yesterday’s finds into my list that it fits into the 3000th slot. I am quite relieved that I have managed to reach this milestone, as the target I set myself in a blog post I wrote when I reached 2000 was to record my 3000th species before my 15th birthday. As of today I’m 14 years, 11 months and 1 day old. So I reached my target, but only just. It is hard for me to imagine stopping pan-species listing, however with upcoming GCSEs and A Levels I imagine I might have to slow down a little. But to keep it ticking, I have decided to set myself another target: 4000 by the end of 2019. Wish me luck!

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Two plants surrounded by Frogbit (Hydrocharis morsus-ranae) resembling miniature water-lilies.

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The snow-white flower of Water-soldier. The flowers are not seen too often, with the main method of reproduction being vegetative: the lowest leaves of the plant have axillary buds which will detach when the leaves decay and can disperse long distances before resprouting. This species is what’s known as dioecious – this means that male and female flowers are found on different plants. For some reason, there are very few if any male plants in England, so all reproduction in this country is vegetative as described above.

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The four or five plants in the photo here represent about half of the largest population of them I saw, luckily it hasn’t reached the levels of dominance seen at other parts of the Levels.