About adameasquith

Biodiversity assistant for LBS Biodiversity team.

Newt survey log #3

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Intense brightness! Blind those newts! 

After a few shadowy, eye-strainy outings with sup-par lamps (detailed in my previous newt survey logs #1 and #2) we finally received our shiny new batteries – and they really did shine! With the extra firepower we were able to more thoroughly survey the ponds, enabling us to see deeper into the murky waters, more accurately gauge the sex of the newts and pick up sightings further from the perimeter.

Last week we picked up 42 newts in the main pond, which I had thought was a huge amount. With the great power of Edison in our mitts and the crystal clear waters of the pond we scored a whopping 75 smooth newts this time – being able to discern the presence or absence of the many of the male’s showy back crests. In all, we had 33 females and 20 males, and 22 androgynous ‘couldn’t tell’s.
Often while surveying a newt will be caught in the light and just float there, seemingly basking in the rays, giving us a fantastic view allowing us to accurately inspect it.
However, there are others that don’t want to be seen, so you’ll catch a glimpse of something darting off into the shadows in a telltale newty fashion, but not quite see it well enough to make a judgement. Such is the life of a newt-spotter.

The pond next to the pond shed was less busy than previous surveys, with only 6 each of definite males and females, and one which we weren’t sure of. However, there was some interest to be seen in the form of a few case caddis larvae crawling around the pond vegetation with their armoured stone shells.
There was also an enormous dragonfly nymph, which must have been a good two inches in length, stalking through the sub aquatic undergrowth. I am in no way qualified to identify dragonflies (Maybe I need to go on Dave’s Dragonfly and Damselfly study day on 5th August) , but looking online at body shape and length, I think it was probably a type of hawker (Aeschna sp.) as the large, thick, torpedo shaped nymph seems to match that species, and we have found hawker exuviae (discarded skin) clinging to the vegetation of that pond in the past.

With our lamps still blazing bright, we moved on to the two smaller ponds, hoping to illuminate the depths and find a plethora of newts, frogs and other beasties. Even with our most dazzling and penetrating lamps, we had fairly little visibility in these ponds as the water was very churned up and cloudy, so we only picked up 7 ‘unsexed’ newts between both ponds. Disappointing! It was unfortunately the same story for the small pond by the allotment, only turning up 4 newts – unable to accurately tell if they were male or female.

Tomorrow we return to the ecology center ponds for a further survey, with an extra torch and an extra pair of hands! Hopefully our added firepower will answer some mysteries surrounding the newts.

Can we more reliably tell the sex of the newts? Have the newts been getting jiggy with it? Have they moved from the smaller ponds to the main pond? (We have yet to see a terrestrial newt on our surveys) Will one of us finally fall in?- all this and more in the next exciting installment of…. Newt Survey Log!

Newt survey log #2

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Common or Smooth newt (Triturus vulgaris) – pic taken from Froglife

Following up the first, dimly lit newt survey on the 18th April , we returned to the Ecology center ponds last week with newly bought batteries in tow that would hold their charge all night and dazzle and bamboozle any unwary amphibians!

…only we didn’t have the batteries, because they hadn’t arrived yet. Dang.

Unperturbed, we forged on with our intrepid expedition into the darkness, slightly unimpressive spotlights searching through the gloom. (If I’m honest, it was a perfectly pleasant and mild evening, but what’s the point in writing this stuff down if I can’t use a little poetic embellishment?)

We decided to start with the main pond this time, as we didn’t manage to thoroughly survey it last time due to the lamps flickering and dying. Even just as we started counting, we were aware that the newt’s crests were noticeably larger and more obvious than the previous week, growing as we get further into the breeding season. we planned to keep track of the number of males and females on our next outing.

It was good to return to the main pond with our lamps at full brightness this time, as we actually found a whopping 42 smooth newts (Triturus vulgaris) and a common toad (Bufo bufo) on our walk around the pond perimeter. With this many easily visible, there seems to be a large and healthy population in the pond, many flashing us with their orange tummies and conspicuous ridged crests as we slowly scanned over the water.

In regards to newts (and ridiculously fat leeches) per square meter, though, the smaller pool next to the pond shed took the cake. We found 20, nearly half as many again, in this small pool which can only be a tenth of the size of the main pond, if that. Perhaps this small pool is where the truly hip newts hang out. Sure, they’ll have to share their space with leeches, but they know they won’t be bothered by the lame old square newts of the main pond… or more likely, something about the botanical make up of the pond or adundance of food favours newt breeding. For instance they may use the leaves of the Brooklime (Veronica beccabunga) growing there to protect their eggs. I suppose that with further surveying and monitoring we can find out if this pool really is the hip hang out that I think it is.

Unfortunately, once again the lamps were flickering and failing us after this, and the smaller, shallower ponds seemed to have been more churned up by the small amount of rain earlier in the day. Despite that, a quick squizz at the various remaining ponds at the Ecology Center did turn up a few more newts wriggling into the cloud of silt before the torches completely died. (If the torches had tiny little torch hands I think they would have been holding a few rude fingers up at us. But torches don’t have hands, so it wasn’t really a problem in the end.)

Fortunately, we’re off out again tonight, and Alex assures me the lamps are fully charged, rearing to go with lovely fresh batteries that won’t leave a newt unseen!
Time will tell…

Newt survey log #1

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Common or Smooth newt (Triturus vulgaris) – pic taken from Froglife

Last night Alex and I braved the darkness to peer into the depths of the various pools and ponds around Sutton Ecology Center. Armed with some huge, ominous looking survey flashlights we strode into the mild evening,  hoping to find and blind (joking!) as many newts as possible. Any toads, frogs and other beasties would be a nice bonus.
After a larva was found last year, we were really looking to find Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus) – arguably the ‘point’ of undertaking these surveys.
The Great Crested Newt (referred to by those in the know as GCN)  is protected by law as it is under threat by, and has greatly declined due to, habitat destruction

We started, lamps blazing, in the small pond to the east of the allotments. Despite only being a meter or so square, and not having much by way of subaquatic vegetation, we found 9 or 10 smooth or common newts (Triturus vulgaris), apparently quite happy floating about in the otherwise seemingly barren pool.

Next up were the two small raised ponds to the south of the main pond. Strangely, in the first we found no newts at all, despite what looked like perfect conditions. A pair of common toads (Bufo bufo) were something to look at, at least, although lack of spawn or tadpoles suggested that they weren’t a breeding pair.  Hopefully our by now slightly dimmer mood lighting will have done something to encourage a bit of Bufo rumpy-pumpy.

The second small pond held a bit more life, with another common toad and 5 or so more common newts hiding in the shadows of the foliage. A damselfly larva also made an appearance, thrashing wildly through the water towards the lamp light (probably not the best idea when you’re in a pond full of potential predators). We left our damsel in distress to whatever grisly end may have befallen it…

Onto the main act of the show and our lamps were unfortunately already beginning to cough and splutter a bit. We started with the small pool by the pond shed and counted a bumper 16 common newts, some flashing their vibrant orange bellies as we scanned through the depths, the males showing off their wavy crests that they grow during the breeding season. We also spotted a couple of large freshwater leeches stretching themselves out of the water onto dry land – behaviour I was previously unaware of!

Unfortunately, by the time we got to the main pond, the torches were really suffering. We managed to spot another 10 or so smooth newts by the pond dipping platform before our lamps flickered and spluttered and died. Switching to a far less effective LED torch we managed to pick up a couple more ‘maybes’ on our way around the perimeter, but ultimately couldn’t properly survey the main pond.

Despite that disappointment, it was an interesting way to spend an evening, and something I can’t wait to repeat.  Assuming we can source some more reliable torches, stay tuned for a (hopefully more successful!) Newt Survey log #2 in the near future!

Thanks for reading,
Adam

Marvel at Mosses – a learning opportunity!

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Have you ever wondered about the carpet of spongy, wet greenery on the woodland floor, or strange, small cushions poking out of cracks in walls and pavements?

Called Bryophytes (incorporating Mosses, Liverworts and Hornworts), these tiny, insignificant looking plants can be easy to overlook and hard to identify, but their importance cannot be overstated – Bryophytes are the closest modern relatives of the pioneering ancestral plants that first escaped the sea and colonised land.

Their role in the environment remains highly important. Bryophytes are often the first plants to colonise recently disturbed land, allowing other plants to follow, and retain water, acting as mini-flood defences and also affording a supply of water to other organisms during dry spells.

If these wonderful plants sound interesting to you,  why not come along to a free beginner’s session perfect for budding bryophiles? 29th April, 10am-4pm at Stonecourt classroom in Carshalton.

An introduction to the marvellous world of mosses and liverworts.
The day will involve an indoor study session looking at the field characters and life cycles of these fascinating plants, followed by an outdoor session looking at the common species found in the local area. The tutor for the day will be bryologist, Peter Howarth.

To book, please visit: http://37.188.117.158/suttonecology/
For more information please click the google calendar button below, or visit our events page.

Risk Assessments: Keeping Volunteers Safe

bopnoglogIn every task the Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers undertake, there are varying elements of risk.
From the moment we start loading the van to when we leave a site at the end of the day (even when having a cup of tea!) there’s a chance that someone may get hurt. Fortunately, the only injuries sustained on task days have thus far been minor, and long may that situation remain the same.

It is due to these risks that the Biodiversity team have decided to reevaluate and expand on their risk assessments for each nature site, ensuring that volunteers are aware of any changes or tweaks in the assessment.
Previously, risk assessments have been conveyed through short, casual talks throughout the day depending on the task at hand and the tools being used. This technique has served us well over the years, shown by the very low accident and injury rate. While the volunteers are aware of the risks inherent in various jobs and have been briefed on how to minimise the dangers encountered in the field, as all of the assessments have been delivered orally, there is no written record of it and therefore a liability on the Biodiversity team’s part if someone was to get hurt.

In order to remedy this in future, detailed risk assessments will be available for each site and will be signed by each volunteer before heading out on a task day. Initially at least, the task leader will go through the risk assessment thoroughly with the volunteers to ensure everyone fully appreciates what the day will entail before signing it. This can cost us some time on task days but will be worth it to keep everyone safe. Once the risk assessments become more familiar it may be appropriate to change to a less in depth ‘skim’ of the assessment, with a more conversational aspect. We won’t have to sit through a lecture each morning forever!

Through these talks, everyone involved in task day activities should become more aware of the specific risks involved in different tasks and sites.
A greater understanding of the risks and risk mitigation involved in planning a task day will be another step towards empowering the Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers, allowing further autonomy and independence.
With the recent(ish) First Aid, Manual Handling and Risk Assessment training for volunteers a large body of communal knowledge is being built.
Knowledge is power, so soon enough we’ll be taking over the world and filling it with wild flowers!

Why did the mushroom go to the party?

Because he was a fungi!

Sorry, I had to get the groaner out of the way, as the temptation would probably be too much to bear later on.

Over the last few months I have been conducting mini fungi surveys, jotting down whatever fungal growth I’ve seen and can identify at our sites on SNCV task days. I’ve been mushroom hunting for years, but I’m certainly no expert – I used to only be interested in those I could eat!

The idea is to build up a bank of information on the species present on our sites to keep a track of our fungal diversity, as we have done with flora and fauna for many years. Hopefully, over time we will see the work of the SNCV and Biodiversity team positively affecting the diversity of fungi in the borough.

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Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria)

So, what constitutes a fungus? Some people reading this may be thinking of a mushroom, perhaps with a large red cap and white spots, much beloved by Mario. Chances are you’re thinking of something very much like the common woodland mushroom Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria – above).

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Yellow Brain Fungus (Tremella mesenterica) at Queen Mary’s Woodland

Alas, it isn’t that simple, fungi come in all shapes, sizes and colours. From classic ‘cap and stem’ mushrooms, to hard woody brackets, to jelly like blobs, to almost invisible wood rotting fungi, to tiny microbial fungi only visible through a microscope, there is an awful lot of variation in form. To make things even more confusing the lines are blurred between fungi, lichens (a symbiotic ‘multiple organism’ made up of fungus and algae) and slime moulds (which are often studied alongside fungi, despite actually being in a different taxonomic kingdom all together – they are Protists).

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Not a fungus, a slime mold!  Found at Roundshaw woods (Looks like Trichia decipiens – but not sure.)

However, even ignoring these confusions, a fungus is more than meets the eye. What we see as a mushroom, or a bracket on the side of a tree is merely the ‘fruit’ of the organism, basically a reproductive organ that allows spores to mature, be released and germinate elsewhere. These fruiting bodies are mostly quite short lived, and can appear at different times of year – or not appear at all depending on heat, rainfall and other environmental conditions. In order to accurately log species present on a site, year round surveillance is needed, so I’ve got my work cut out!

To use a slightly cheesy cliché, the fruiting body is just the tip of the iceberg. The main bulk of the fungus lives in the soil or wood substrate as a complex network of fibres called hyphae, known collectively as a mycelium. This is where some of the most important roles of fungi take place, as it is where nutrients are transferred.

Through the mycelium, fungi can break down matter and intake and excrete nutrients. For  decaying or ‘saprotrophic’ fungi, this enables rotting and decomposition in organic matter such as wood, dead leaves and dung, making these fungi incredibly important for any healthy ecosystem.
While there are bacteria that can also decay organic material, fungi are known as ‘the great recyclers’. An absence of fungus would cause the world to quickly fill up with dead plant and animal matter. Being buried under trees and dead bodies isn’t a particularly pleasant thought, so hooray for the mushies breaking it all down!

It isn’t all destruction though. The fungi break down and transport materials that would otherwise be unavailable to other organisms, increasing soil fertility and balancing nutrient deposits in soil.

Many fungi, particularly cap and stem mushrooms, form symbiotic relationships with plants and animals. In plants, the fungus will absorb nutrients such as sugars from the plant’s roots and in turn release nutrients like phosphorus and water, that the plant needs to survive.

Almost all terrestrial plants have been known to build these relationships with fungi, intertwining roots and mycelium. These mutually beneficial relationships are known as mycorrhizae, and are vitally important to the survival of many plants. Many orchids, for instance, cannot germinate at all without receiving nutrients from a fungal partner, and all orchids form mycorrhizal relationships at some point in their life cycle.

So fungi is both responsible for promoting plant growth, and plant decomposition – like a bizarre doting yet cannibalistic mother.

Of course, the mushrooms, toadstools and bracket-like fruiting bodies of fungi are an invaluable food source not only for us humans, but for a whole host of fungivore animals including mammals, molluscs and insects. Some insects such as fungal gnats (Mycetophilidae) use certain types of fungus as their larval host and main food source.

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Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing on birch at Queen Mary’s Woodland. – Yum!

Unfortunately, despite their many beautiful forms and myriad ecological uses, the kingdom fungi is still not regarded with the same gravitas as animals and plants. In fact, it’s only relatively recently that fungi was formally recognised as it’s own taxonomic kingdom, finally being split from plants in 1969.

Fungi have had a bad press in general, too. With people assuming all toadstools are poisonous, or eradicating fungi from their gardens for ruining their lawns (to be fair, some fungi is incredibly poisonous, and some can cause widespread problems like food shortages by infecting crops – but I’m hardly going to mention that in a pro-fungi post, am I?). And the number of times my mere mention of fungi has caused people to collapse into a fervour of nudging, winking and cracking jokes about hippies is ridiculous.

Attitudes are changing, though. Over the past few decades, as ecology and biodiversity have by necessity become more widely discussed, so too has interest in fungal diversity increased.

Organisations such as the British Mycological Society and Plantlife along with local fungi groups and larger groups worldwide have long been encouraging awareness of fungi and educating people about their vital roles in our ecosystems. Due to these efforts people are starting to appreciate the beauty and importance of these organisms, with various species being identified as priority at risk species by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and via the IUCN’s RED list. There are even protected species of fungi and lichen covered by law in the UK’s Wildlife and Countryside Act (even though they’re still bunged in with the plants – but you can’t have everything).

So far I have found many very common, almost ubiquitous species on all the sites that I have checked, plus a handful of unusual types that were new to me. One of the joys of these searches is finding something bizarre or beautiful but very common, like Jelly Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae, above) or Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) and seeing other volunteers regard them with wonder as I did when I first found them.

A sentiment that I found true when I first became interested in fungi and one that I hear echoed every time I show someone something new is that once you open your eyes to the world of fungi, there’s a heck of a lot to see.

I hope this little introduction has done something to get people interested in fungi in the London Borough of Sutton – I’ll be sure to update you all on what I find in the coming months.

Thanks for reading, now go and find some fungi!
Adam (Biodiversity Assistant)

Job Advert for Biodiversity Assistant. Why you should apply – a Biodiversity Assistant’s perspective!

Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers and London Borough of Sutton’s Biodiversity team are looking for a second Biodiversity Assistant.

I have been in the role for a good few months now and am enjoying it immensely. Here’s why you should join me…

Since October I have been helping the Biodiversity team in their duties from leading volunteer task days to admin and paperwork in the office. The second part may sound a little boring but it has opened my eyes to the ‘behind the scenes’ work that accompanies the practical conservation that Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers help to carry out.

Personally it has thus far been a valuable learning experience. I had a little insight of the work I would be undertaking from talking to the Biodiversity team and my previous volunteering with SNCV, but was not aware of the immensity of the work undertaken by them.

I came to be the Biodiversity Assistant after over a year of volunteering experience with SNCV, so I was already familiar with the types of practical work done throughout the year and it has been thoroughly rewarding to get more involved with the organisation and leading of task days with the volunteers, learning new skills along the way.

Our task days involve a variety of activities, changing with the seasons. Since October we have of course been doing more ‘wintery’ work (which you can mentally exchange with ‘hard’ work) such as reed pulling, coppicing and felling. These jobs may well be hard, but they are certainly satisfying. Looking back at a newly created laund reduced from thick foliage, or an icy pond once dense with reeds at the end of the day is a great feeling.

While I have enjoyed these jobs very much, there’s a part of me (my back, mainly) that is looking forward to the survey season of spring and early summer! Just don’t remind me about the heavy raking work when it’s time for the meadows to be cut.

Speaking of surveys, my first job in the office was to draw maps for the Phase 1 botanical surveys we had undertaken in the preceding year, or ‘a bit of colouring’ as Dave Warburton the Biodiversity Officer described it. I had assisted with the surveying in the past but was unaware of this extra step, creating an easily recognisable and standardised map to show an overview of a site’s habitat. Just one example of the ‘behind the scenes’ work I hadn’t foreseen, but a job which while being interesting is also quite relaxing – mindfulness drawing, eat your heart out!

My days in the office are often spent doing admin work, managing the website and emails,  data entry/analysis, or writing and researching blog posts. I really do enjoy all of it, particularly the latter. Could you tell from this rambling blog post?
The work I am undertaking here is paving the way towards a job in Ecology, picking up new skills all the time and being challenged in new ways.

Being a Biodiversity Assistant is a joy, I’d highly reccommend it.

If you’d like to be one too, click here to view the job specification, and apply as instructed.

Hope to see you soon!

Adam
Biodiversity Assistant