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457 Species and counting!
I love Bioblitz!
Not all of my time is spent out and about on Surrey’s rivers or wetlands searching for the illusive otter and water vole, or creeping along my beloved hedgerows for dormice, stoat or orange-spotted elm-lichen. So when the moment arrives when I can spend 24 hours in the field with my colleagues, sharing my craft, trying out new skills and meeting new species, what would normally be a weekend at work becomes a learning experience.
We are joined in our Natural Geekery by specialists and amateur naturalists who add yet more opportunity to revel in the splendor and complexity of the natural world. Oh and to count stuff! Fox moths, rabbit poo, four spotted chasers, pilot whales (sadly no records yet for Wisley and Ockham), adders, goldfinches, scorpionflies, grey long-eared bats, crane flies and on and on.
Our numbers are finally swelled by throngs of wildlife lovers come for a day out on a wonderful heathland site they may not have visited before, to share with us in the translucent wonder of a newly emerged four spotted chaser’s Libellula quadrimaculata wing or the cryptic camoflage of a Buff Tip Phalera bucephala. Suddenly we are not lonely denizens of the dark corners of society. Everyone here is captivated by wildlife and the sometimes dramatic (an upland mire), sometimes mundane (a garden pond or bird table) landscape we share.
In my more playful moments I imagine these 24 hours sit somewhere between a sci-fi convention and a group therapy session. We all go home with our eyes open, our lives enriched, our sense of wonder renewed. Our Geek groved.
This is the second time out for Surrey Wildlife Trust after last years event in the sizzling sunshine at Norbury Park, near Dorking. I was in my usual role with Surrey Mammal Group https://www.facebook.com/SurreyMammalGroup conducting mammal surveys with SWT Mammal Officer Dave Williams and our SWT/ Mammal Group colleague/ Chobham Common Ranger Darren Brito. At 7pm on Saturday we put out 80 Longworth traps at locations around Pond Farm with 11 keen volunteers embracing grassland, scrub and wetland habitats. Last year at Norbury Park we had transects through grassland, woodland and along hedgerows and as predicted the hedgerows won the day with much more captures and a higher diversity of species. Hedgerows are ace, and here is a plug for Hedgelink https://www.hedgelink.org.uk
I was expecting a good haul of field voles Microtus agrestis after a recent visit to Pond Farm on a tip-off that our elusive water voles Arvicola terrestris might be present, revealed a very healthy population of their smaller cousins.
Dave had to break off early to lead badger watching, which despite the appearance of our two-tone friends on trap cameras earlier in the week, proved fruitless. I joined the bat walk led by Mike Waite and Nicky Williamson as they picked up some Common Pipistrelle Pipistrellus pipistrellus, then headed up to check out the Brown Long-Eared Bat roost Plecotus auritus in Hut Hill Cottage. The bats emerged right on cue, exiting straight out of the rood up into the trees
Walking back through the heathland landscape of Wisley Common I joined a gathering of friends around a moth trap where I stayed till nearly 2pm. The wind was gusting and it was generally not a good night for moths down near Pond Farm, but we managed to attract some wonderful beasties, my favourites being the Lime Hawk Moth Mimas tiliae, Light Emerald Campaea margaritata, Fox Moth Macrothylacia rubi, and Flame Shoulder Ochropleura plecta.
I slept very well in my tent (last used in the Peaks two weekends before) despite the constant roar of traffic on the M25. I dozed off wondering if we’ll ever get a green bridge or two built across it. Its a crime they weren’t built into the original plans. I woke at 5am and felt surprisingly ready for the day ahead.
Twenty keen volunteers turned up at 5:30 the next morning to begin checking traps, all bleary eyed and expectant. I usually love the way tiredness turns into excitement as the captures start rolling in, but as empty trap followed empty trap I realised it wasn’t going to be our year. In April I had organised some trapping at Parsonage Meadow with Alison, Nick and Tony- Guildford Borough Council Wardens who had been on my Mammal Society http://www.mammal.org.uk Mammal ID course at FSC Juniper Hall http://www.field-studies-council.org/centres/juniperhall.aspx which had turned up 1 wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus in 60 traps! Laura from The Mammal Society had also been in touch with the news that returns on their Mini Mammal Monitoring scheme were low. In total we caught 3 mammals, but the good news was that they were 3 different species: wood mouse, bank vole Myodes glareolus and yellow- necked mouse Apodemus flavicollis. The latter was a new record for the site, and not as common as the wood mouse, so that was some consolation.
I had just enough time after finishing mammal trapping to grab some food and a coffee before I was due out with Jamel Guenioui and James Herd- both SARG http://www.surrey-arg.org.uk/SARG.asp members- for a reptile survey. I was really looking forward to this because It had been a long time since I’d formally surveyed for reptiles as a consultant ecologist, and during my up-coming trip to Romania I’d be leading groups of students on surveys.
When beginning a survey I always breath in deeply and then make a long exhale. Its an attempt to really focus the mind and the eyes on the task ahead, an exercise in mindfulness http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindfulness. What is important is in front of me now, and thoughts about the past or future are distractions.
It wasn’t long before we had our first slow worm Anguis fragilis, a male, warming beneath one of the refugia James had set up. We caught another, a female this time, together with a grass snake Natrix natrix and a juvenile palmate newt Lissotriton helveticus, almost translucent in his newness. Happily our group had a few dedicated passionate young reptile experts. If it wasn’t for Jeremy (age 12?) we would have missed the adder Vipera berus, which most of us walked past. After the survey I gave him my Reptile Expert badge which he thoroughly deserved for the spot.
There was so much going on when I got back to Base Camp. Heathland plant surveys, dragonfly walks, bird ringing, but I had to lead a mammal tracks and signs walk. This was a novelty for Bioblitz really because its less about ticking off new species and more about taking the first steps in learning to interpret the signs you see. Sort of CSI Bioblitz!
Our first stop was a rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus warren- fairly mundane you might think, but they are an example of a common species that are overlooked in many surveyors’ records. Perhaps more importantly they should represent a source of records for the elusive Mustelidae meso-predators: weasels Mustela nivalis , stoats Mustela erminea and polecats Mustela putorius. I was really disappointed we found no evidence of at least the first two on our walk. I wouldn’t necessarily expect to see evidence of polecats, though they are colonizing from the west and we are keeping an eye out for them.
Happily the rabbits introduced us to a new concept, coprophagy where rabbits extract excess amount of nutrition from grass by giving their food a second pass through the gut. In short, they eat their own poo! We did find roe deer Caproelus capreolus tracks, and a badger Meles meles latrine and “push” under a fence, with the coarse guard hairs of the badger trapped in a barb on the wire.
It does worry me though, the lack of these small mustelid predators. They are elusive but from anecdotal evidence talking to colleagues. they are rarely seen. I see the problems caused by rabbits preventing coppice regrowth and damaging trees and bemoan the lack of meso-predators and foxes!
As the day drew towards its close I bumped into my nephew and neice Tarn (4) and Nova (7) with their Dad (its okay Nick I won’t tell), who had been enjoying the day while I was busy on surveys. They helped me release some of the inverts from the pond dipping. Tarn asked me “Why do you have to look after wildlife” and “I replied I don’t have to, I want to”.
There are of course so many answers to that question, not least “Somebody has to!” but a short one was best in the afternoon sun and with animminent ride on the horse drawn cart. It seemed to satisfy him for a while, hopefully he’ll come back to me with more questions soon!
Bioblitz 2013 ended in a warm glow of sunshine that fitted perfectly with my sense of satisfaction. There was also only a week to go before I departed on a 7 week Bioblitz in Transylvania with Operation Wallacea.There is an incredible amount of effort that goes into Bioblitz and we have mostly the organisational prowess of Katy Gower, SWT Events Manager, to thank for it. I’m looking forward already to Bioblitz 2014, but I suspect Katy will need time to recover first before we start planning,
Where on Earth will it be? Somewhere in wildlife -rich Surrey no doubt!