Category Archives: Birds

Life between the tides: Australia reflections part 6

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That last post about climate change and politics was a bit heavy, for which I make no apologies.  But there’s always space for something lighter on this blog.  Sometimes it’s nice to reflect on what brought me to the point of being a scientist with an interest in biodiversity.  Some of my earliest exposure to natural history involved peering into rock pools on the coast near Sunderland in the north east of England.  In an old family album there’s a photograph of me aged about four, intently gazing at the welks, crabs and anemones as they wait for the next tidal surge to bring food or predators.  If I wasn’t in Australia I’d go and hunt that photo down and share it with you.  Right into my 20s my dad would tell any and every one about my childhood obsession with “gannin’ on the yocks”.  The word “gannin'” is north eastern colloquial English for “going” while “yocks” was me not being able to pronounce “rocks”.  “I’m gannin’ on the yocks” became a family catchphrase that could be used in any number of circumstances.  It might just sum up my professional career if I think hard about it….

Later, at school and then college, I took part in several class projects that involved running transect lines down the shore and examining the zonation of the creatures: more hardy organisms, predictably, at higher points, the sensitive species lower down.  Generations of biology students must have done similar studies.  Do they still?

These rocky shore reminiscences have been inspired by a great piece of writing about tide pooling by Sarah Jean McPeek over at the Lively Discussions blog.  I can’t match Sarah’s eloquent lyricism but I can match her love of a rocky shore.  There are some great ones on the coast near Coogee, ranging from very small, deep holes, up to huge, artificial ones that were built as ocean swimming pools. Here’s some photos:

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Holes within a pool.  This is a great opportunity for a rocky shore ecologist to do a replicated manipulation experiment:

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This is a different kind of experiment to test the hypothesis that water in large pools has evaporated enough to make it significantly more saline and thus increase the buoyancy of the human body.  Hypothesis supported:

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A classic wave-cut platform:

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This very distinctive seaweed is known as Neptune’s necklace (Hormosira banksii):

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This pool is being influenced by a freshwater spring that’s coming in from the left:

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These fresh water streams and pools are important for the local coastal birds, including silver gulls (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) which belong to the same genus as black-headed gulls (C. ridibundus) in the northern hemisphere but which I think is a prettier species:

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Australian white ibis (Threskiornis molucca) also enjoy the fresh water pools:

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Humans have inhabited this coastal area for at least 20,000 years and its the traditional land of the Cadigal people.  In more recent times the locals have enjoyed the huge tidal swimming pool known as Wylie’s Baths.  I’ve snorkeled here a few times and seen some beautiful fish and invertebrates:

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Much further up the coast at Port Macquarie, which we visited over Christmas as I recalled in this post, the geology is very different.  The rocky shores are composed of hard volcanic basalt rather than the softer Sydney sandstone:

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This is an incredibly dynamic environment.  According to my relatives in Port Macquarie, the place where Karin is standing was until recently a rock pool almost two metres deep that was rapidly filled up by the shifting sands of the coast.  Winter storms will probably scour the sand out again.  Will the limpets and barnacles have survived I wonder?

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Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Birds, Geology

Just published: Interactions between birds and flowers of Rhododendron spp., and their implications for mountain communities in Nepal – download it for free

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Back in April I posted a series of reports on a student field trip that I was involved with in Nepal, supporting our University of Northampton partner college NAMI in Kathmandu; the first one is here.  During that trip, my NAMI colleagues and I made some interesting observations about the role of generalist passerine birds and specialist flower-feeding sunbirds as pollinators of rhododendrons in the Himalayas.  This was subsequently followed up with another set of observations in which I didn’t take part, and then written up as a short research note.  I’m pleased to say that it has now been published in the new, open-access journal Plants, People, Planet.  Here’s a link to the paper which you can download for free:

Ollerton J., Koju N.P., Maharjan S.R. & Bashyal B. (2019) Interactions between birds and flowers of Rhododendron spp., and their implications for mountain communities in Nepal. Plants, People, Planet 00:1–6. https ://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10091

The report really asks more questions than it answers.  It points out how important these rhododendron forests are for the people of Nepal but that we know virtually nothing about the pollination biology of the dominant trees and therefore the long-term persistence of Rhododendron species in the face of forest exploitation and climate change.  Our hope is that it stimulates both further research on the topic and increased awareness of how important it is to protect these habitats.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Climate change, Pollination, University of Northampton

Scoring (real) birdies: Australia reflections part 2

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When it comes to golf I’m largely in agreement with Mark Twain who was reported to have described the game as “a good walk spoiled”.  As with so many of these well known and iconic quotes, Twain did not originate the phrase and almost certainly did not say it.  Reminds me of what Einstein didn’t say about bees.   Regardless of how you feel about golf*, and I appreciate that many people enjoy and play the game, golf courses represent an interesting set of environmental challenges and opportunities.  On the one hand maintaining areas of perfect turf requires a big input of water, fertilisers, biocides, even grass dye, and energy – there are some interesting thoughts on this in a recent blog post at goingzerowaste.com (though it’s riddled with adverts so be patient).  One of the links I picked up from that blog was to the Audubon Society in the USA which has an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf certification scheme.  Its aim is to help course management teams to reduce the impact of their activities and, importantly, to maximise and protect the biodiversity on their golf courses.

There are similar schemes elsewhere in the world, for example the Golf Environment Awards in the UK.  Of course building new golf courses that irreparably damage important wildlife sites is unforgivable. For existing courses these are moves in the right direction because typically less than half of a course is the playing area.  The rest comprises rough grass, woodland, lakes and streams and so forth: in other words, good habitat for a broad range of wildlife.

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All of this was on my mind last Wednesday when I was invited on an early morning birding trip to the urban Eastlake Golf Course by UNSW bird researcher Dr Corey Callaghan.  We were joined by other staff members and postgrads from the department. Six of us spent a very enjoyable couple of hours from 6:15 am walking a route that took us close to the large bodies of water that give the course its name, through woodland and bush dominated by species of Banksia and Casuarina. The latter, despite being true flowering plants, look for all the world like the familiar conifers of many a British golf course.

Over a period of two hours we saw 70 species of birds.  To put this in perspective, our Waterside Campus bird surveys back in Northampton also take around two hours and start early in the morning, through a similar mosaic of grassland, woodland patches, and a water body (the River Nene).  On these surveys we typically see between 20 and 30 species; the most we’ve ever recorded in one morning is 39, and that really was exceptional.  Remember also that Sydney is not in the tropics – at around 33 degrees south we’re technically subtropical here.  Given the latitudinal gradient in bird diversity, a two hour survey on a tropical golf course should yield even more records, all else being equal.

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Of those 70 bird species, I think about 20 were new to me, i.e. lifers in birding parlance, though I still need to write up the list of birds I’ve seen so far on this trip.  Perhaps I’ll do that this afternoon as temperature in Sydney peak and its frankly too hot to do much else. As I write it’s midday and official temperature for the Coogee area is already 29 degrees C, and that’s with a cooling sea breeze.  Western Sydney is likely to top 40 degree later today.

Although whole families of birds in this region are unfamiliar to us in the Northern Hemisphere, there were others that we saw on Wednesday which would not be out of place in Northamptonshire.  For example, we saw common greenshank, which overwinters here after an epic journey from northern climes, and Australian raven which is a different species to the ravens and crows from the UK, but very similar looking.  The wading birds such as greenshank and sharp-tailed sandpiper were benefiting from the drought conditions that has exposed parts of the lake bed. Though if this continues there’s a danger of most of the water being lost completely, impacting the  large eels and other fish we saw in the shallows, as well as the semi-aquatic Eastern water dragon.

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Birds, plants, fish and lizards were not the only wildlife we saw at Eastlake however – some very delicate fungi were benefiting from the regular watering of the fairway:

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It’s not all been birding and swimming in the (not very) warm sea, however.  This week Angela, Stephen and I were joined by our CSIRO collaborator Dr Raghu Sathyamurthy for an intense week of writing.  This manuscript boot camp has gone better than we expected and we have a very good first draft of a paper that should be in a position to submit to a journal by the time my visit here ends on 2nd February.

 

*I make an exception for crazy golf at seaside resorts which I play with my old university mates with beer, gusto, and not a little rivalry.

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Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Birds, Urban biodiversity

Ash on the beach, fire in the bush: Australia reflections part 1

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Although we’ve only been in Australia for less that two weeks, it feels as if we’ve been here forever; once we got over the jetlag and the weird sleeping patterns, Karin and I have easily settled into the life of a Southern Hemisphere summer.  It’s hard to believe that back home in the UK it’s cold, wet and (politically) miserable….

We’re based at Coogee Beach in the eastern suburbs of sprawling Sydney, just a short walk from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) where I’ve spent most of my time, and an even shorter walk from sand and surf.  It sounds idyllic but one of the recurring features of the past week has been the amount of ash and charred leaves washing up on the beaches from the bush fires that surround Sydney at the moment:

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The region is in the midst of an extended drought and this has worsened the fire season.  The Australian Government seems intent on denying that it’s anything to do with climate change, though recently one of the state ministers has broken ranks.  That’s going to be little consolation this year but may mark the start of some changes in policies.  Let’s see.

During our time here Karin and I have facilitated a workshop on “Writing for a non-academic audience” which was attended by 17 UNSW postgraduate researchers.  I’ve presented a lecture on “Macroecology and macroevolution of plant-pollinator interactions: pattern and process at large geographical and temporal scales”…..

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….and spent a lot of time chatting with staff and postgrads at UNSW.  In addition, Angela Moles, Stephen Bonser and I have made initial progress with a short paper that I’m hoping will be ready to submit before we head back to the UK in early February.

Time to actually get out and see some of the habitats and biodiversity of this part of Australia has been limited.  But we’ve done a couple of hikes north and south of Coogee Beach, along cliff-top trails and boardwalks through remnant coastal heathland habitat, enjoying the novelty of watching rainbow lorikeets visiting the inflorescences of native Banksia trees:

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Yesterday we went further afield with a bird watching trip down to the Royal National Park (RNP) with Kew/NRI scientist Phil Stevenson (who is in the country for a couple of weeks on a flying visiting to speak at a conference and meet with colleagues); and Graham Pyke from Macquarie University, whose work on foraging behaviour of pollinators I’ve known for many years, but whom I’d never met.  Leading our trip was Steve Anyon-Smith, a professional bird guide who literally wrote the book on birding in the RNP.  Steve was great, highly knowledgeable, and a mine of information about the Australian environment.  As well as seeing about 67 bird species we encountered a host of other wildlife, and I collected data on wind and animal pollination for another set of species.  Here’s some images from that day:

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An orchid – Dipodium punctatum.

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The bower of a male satin bower bird.

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Not a great shot – it’s an Eastern dwarf tree frog.

2019-12-13 13.14.41 This is better – a very confiding Eastern water dragon along a well-used coastal trail.

Along that trail we also saw two forms of Banksia serrata – an upright one and a prostrate form – growing quite close together:

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I’ve seen a lot of birds visiting the inflorescences of this species but it’s suggested that mammals might be the main pollinators – the flowers have a very thick, yeasty smell.  Perhaps it’s both?

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An Australian fringe-lily.

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This is Epacris longiflora – thanks to Ryan O’Donnell for the identification.

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And of course we saw a lot of the iconic laughing kookaburras.

Steve was really concerned that much of the forest and wildlife in the NPR may be destroyed over the summer.  None of it has yet burned and, with temperatures due to rise enormously by next week, much of this habitat could be lost to fire by summer’s end.  I sincerely hope not, it’s too precious and beautiful to lose.  Vegetation in relatively light burns can reestablish itself given time, as we encountered in one of the Coogee remnants that burned a few years ago:

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But the bigger, hotter, more intense fires that are currently sweeping the state are something else entirely, and are alien to these forests.  Aboriginal Australians carefully managed their environment using regular, small burns, a practice that has been lost in most areas.

Fire in Australia is a theme that I keep coming back to.  A few weeks ago, during one of my second-year undergraduate grassland ecology lectures, I was  discussing fire as a threat and a management tool in grasslands.  I mentioned the situation in Australia with respect to Aboriginal use of fire and I asked my students what the purpose of their burning the grasslands was.  Someone suggested that it might relate to their agriculture.  My response then was “no” because Australian Aborigines were nomadic hunter-gatherers who never developed agriculture, which is what the received wisdom has been for decades.  The answer I’d give now is: “yes, quite probably”.  As so often is the case in science, the received wisdom was wrong.

My colleague at the University of New South Wales, Angela Moles, has loaned me a book called Dark Emu which draws on early European settler accounts, Aboriginal oral tradition, and recent archaeological discoveries to turn our understanding of the ecology of pre-European Australia on its head.  In particular, it seems as though the (then) very large Aboriginal population was much more settled and had developed a sophisticated form of agriculture that included the creation and exploitation of huge areas of native grasses for their grains.  This was all destroyed by colonial European agriculture within a short time period, before it was fully understood.  One of the arguments in Dark Emu is that these native grasses are much more suitable to the Australian climate than wheat and may allow more sustainable agriculture in the future.

If you want to know more, here’s a link to a recent review and interview with the author, Bruce Pascoe:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/may/24/dark-emus-infinite-potential-our-kids-have-grown-up-in-a-fog-about-the-history-of-the-land

Strange as it might sound for a professor to say, I was happy to be wrong on this (or indeed any) occasion: scientific understanding only progresses by people being wrong and incorrect ideas being superseded by new knowledge.  I made a point of sending my students an email telling them about what I’d discovered.  It may well form a question on the test they have to take next term…..

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Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Birds, Climate change, Pollination

“The time of the singing of birds is come” – a Nottinghamshire gravestone with a bird bath

 

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Yesterday Karin and I took the day off and explored an area along the Nottinghamshire/Leicestershire border with friends.  In the small village of Normanton on Soar we found a very unusual headstone in the churchyard, carved in granite and surmounted by a bird bath.  Around the bowl some lead text reads:  “The time of the singing of birds is come”

The bowl was empty when we arrived so I filled it: it’s going to be a hot weekend and the birds might appreciate it.

The headstone marks the burial place of Edward Hands and Ethel Maud Hands, presumably husband and wife; the smaller marker commemorates Derek Hands (their son?).  None had a long life; Edward was 42 when he died, Ethel 56, and Derek just 36.  The headstone was erected originally for Edward (who pre-deceased his wife by 20 years) so perhaps it was he who was keen on birds?

I’ve never seen a headstone in the form of a bird bath though I can’t believe that it’s unique: does anyone know of others?

Here’s the full grave; it was only after I took the picture that I noticed the feather.

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The text around the bird bath is from the Bible, the Song of Solomon 2:12.  The fuller version is:

“The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”

We didn’t hear any turtles, but here were plenty of flowers around the village, including a buddleia that was smothered in very fresh looking painted lady butterflies that are likely to have been born nearby rather than migrating over from the continent:

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It was also a time of bees such as this very active feral honey bee colony in a lovely 15th century  timber framed house:

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Birds, Personal biodiversity

Hornets are pollinators too!

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This morning I spent a very pleasant couple of hours walking around the farm that’s at the heart of the Warner Edwards Gin Distillery, in Harrington just north of Northampton.  We are setting up some collaborations around conservation and sustainability between the university and Warner Edwards.  The first of these involves surveys of their farm by one of our final year undergraduates, Ellie West, to assess pollinator diversity and abundance, and opportunities for habitat enhancement on the farm.

One of the highlights of this morning’s visit was seeing this gorgeous hornet (Vespa crabro) taking nectar from common ivy (Hedera helix).  I think that she’s a queen stocking up on energy prior to hibernating.  But just look at how much pollen she’s carrying!  There’s every chance that she’s a very effective pollinator of ivy, which is a key nectar resource at this time of year.  It’s such an important plant in other ways too: ivy binds the landscape physically and ecologically, in ways few other native plants do.  Pollination by insects such as hornets (and hundreds of other species) results in berries that are eaten by birds and mammals, whilst the branches and dense, evergreen canopy provides nesting sites for birds and shelter for over wintering insects.

Hornets and ivy: two of my favourite native British species.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Mammals, Pollination, University of Northampton, Wasps

Pollinators, landscape and friends: our recent trip to the Danish island of Sejerø

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This is not the first time I’ve written about the beautiful Danish island of Sejerø – see my post “Why do bumblebees follow ferries?“.  It’s home to our friends Pia and Stephen Valentine (Stephen is the very talented artist who produced the fabulous study of waxwings that Karin commissioned for my birthday last year).  Earlier this month we traveled over to stay with them and to explore some more of the island.  Here are some photos and thoughts from that trip.

Despite the hot, dry weather that northern Europe has been experiencing recently there were pollinators aplenty.  Thistles and knapweeds (both groups from the daisy family Asteraceae) are well known to be drought tolerant and attract a lot of insect interest.  This is a Pantaloon Bee (Dasypoda sp.)  If it was Britain I’d say that it was D. hirtipes, but there are other species on the continent so I can’t be sure.  These bees are well named: the “pantaloons” are found only on the females and are used to collect pollen, especially from Asteraceae.

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I believe that this is the male of this species; note the absence of the pollen-collecting hairs on the rear legs and the yellow face, typical of many male bees:

The flower heads of the knapweeds were highly sought after; on this one, two different bumblebees (Bombus spp.) were competing with two Silver Y moths (Autographa gamma):

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Sometimes the bumblebees got an inflorescence to themselves, though the photobombing Silver Ys were never far away:

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It’s been a good year for the Silver Y, large numbers have migrated northwards from southern Europe and we’ve had lots in our garden too.  On Sejerø they were everywhere, on all kinds of plants: 

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The butterfly is one of the Blues (Lycaenidae), possibly Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus), but again this being Denmark they may have other species that I’m not familiar with.  Note the Silver Y photobombing once more…:

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Wild carrot (Daucus carota) was common on the island and always attracts a wide range of flies, wasps and beetles:

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Close to home we found a huge cherry tree laden with the fruits of pollination and collected a couple of kilos for Stephen to make into jam.  Stoning them was messy but fun and a nice opportunity to sit and chat about nature and people:

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I was very impressed with Stephen’s up-cycled general purpose baskets, made from plastic containers he finds on the beach, wire, and lengths of old hosepipe:

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Along the shore another edible plant, Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) was attracting a lot of attention from white butterflies (Pieridae) whose caterpillars feed on this and other members of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae):

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I tried a piece of raw leaf; it tasted ok, salty and a little bitter.  Apparently it’s very nice if you blanch the young leaves.  It’s a distinctive and impressive component of the beach flora:

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Amidst the greens, buffs and browns of the beach landscape we encountered the occasional scarlet of a patch of poppies (Papaver sp.):

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Everywhere on the island we saw evidence of the link between life on land and in the sea, and the cycles and processes upon which that life depends.  Sand martins (Riparia riparia – an apt name – “riparian” refers to the interface between land and water) are common and their nest excavations speed up the return of sediments back to the sea:

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Favoured rocks have been used by gulls and other sea birds for generations, their guano helping to enrich these coastal waters and fueling the primary production of seaweeds and diatoms, which in turn feed other shore life:

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Evidence of human activities was never far away, though, concrete and steel blending with nature:

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Wheat fields merging with the sky:

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Thanks to Pia and Stephen, and of course Zenja, for making this such a wonderful trip and allowing us to join them in exploring their home island:

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Butterflies, Moths, Pollination

The impact of building a new university campus on urban bird diversity and abundance: a seven-year study

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Over the past few years I’ve posted several pieces about how colleagues, students and myself have been monitoring one aspect of the environmental impact of the University of Northampton’s brand new 22 ha, £330 million Waterside Campus development.  Specifically we have been looking at how the construction work has affected bird diversity and abundance in and around the site: see my posts “An interim report on the Waterside bird surveysand “Monitoring the impact of the new Waterside Campus“.

Our approach has been to repeat the baseline bird surveys (three winter and three spring) that were done in 2012/13 as part of the environmental impact assessment prior to work taking place.  The new campus opens this summer and, following our most recent set of surveys in April/May, it’s time to reveal our findings so far.  Here are the headlines:

The baseline surveys recorded a total of 52 bird species.  In the following graphs birds have been categorised according to their RSPB Red, Amber, Green status.  Four species from the original surveys remain unrecorded:  Marsh tit, Bullfinch, Collared dove, and Lesser whitethroat.  However at least two of these (Bullfinch and Collared dove) are still found within 1km of the site.

During the repeat surveys we have recorded an additional 25 species that were not found in the baseline surveys.  This is not surprising – bird assemblages are dynamic, given that most species are very mobile – but it’s still interesting to find that so many more species are finding homes in the area.  If the four “missing” species return then the potential full diversity of the site is at least 77 species:

Waterwide birds - RAG

However this overall good news story is more complex than it first appears.  In the graph below I have plotted the Simpson’s Index for each survey, with a LOESS regression showing 95% confidence limits.  Simpson’s Index combines the data on both the number of species and their abundance to provide an overall measure of the impact of the construction work.  It’s clear that during the main phase of construction the average bird diversity per survey dropped significantly.  Following the completion of the noisiest and most disruptive activities, diversity has started to return to its pre-construction levels:

Waterside Simpsons

This overall assessment hides a lot of detail; as you can see below, Green status birds have fared best, Amber status birds have done ok; Red status birds have fared worst, especially in spring, but better in winter:

Waterside red amber green

The bird diversity is not quite back to what it was, but overall our findings are very encouraging.  In the initial phases of the development we talked with the landscape architects about adding ecological value to Waterside by including more native trees, reed beds, wild flower meadows, etc.  We’ve yet to assess how these features will affect biodiversity on the site, including birds, but we might predict that the final diversity exceeds that of the original brownfield site.  With that in mind we will be doing at least one more cycle of three winter and three spring surveys during 2018/2019.

Long-term monitoring of this kind is almost never undertaken for infrastructure projects of this nature. Universities, I would argue, need to take a lead in promoting such activities and making then a common component of the planning process.  From this work I think that our main conclusion is that redevelopment of peri-urban brownfield sites such as this doesn’t have to mean a loss in biodiversity, at least not as far as the birds are concerned.  We also plan future surveys of mammals, plants and invertebrates to assess how they are doing.

My thanks to all the colleagues and students who have been involved in the work so far: Duncan McCollin, Janet Jackson, Joanne Underwood, Kirsty Richards, Suzy Dry, Charles Baker, Pablo Gorostiague, Andrew Hewitt.

To finish, here are some photographs that we took of the work being carried out so you can see the scale of what has been achieved at Waterside:

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

Hunting the Chequered Skipper: an encounter with England’s latest species reintroduction project

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If you have been following recent conservation news on social media you’ll know that this week was an important one for invertebrates.  The Chequered Skipper, a butterfly last seen in England in 1976, has been reintroduced to the country as part of the Back From the Brink initiative.  The Chequered Skipper project is led by Butterfly Conservation and a team travelled to a site in Belgium earlier in the week where about 40 skippers were captured.  These insects were transported back to the UK where they were held overnight in mesh cages at a secret location in order to acclimatise them, then released into the wild.  The release was filmed as part of next week’s BBC Springwatch series – look out for it.

The exact location of the reintroduction is secret.  However I can tell you that it’s occurred in the Rockingham Forest area of north Northamptonshire, in habitat that (over the past couple of years) has been managed specifically for this reintroduction, in order to create a network of sites across which the species could disperse in the future.  This area was the last stronghold of the species in England prior to its extirpation.  No one knows why it went extinct here, but hung on and did well in Scotland, but it may relate to climate: 1976, as many of the middle-aged will remember, was a very hot, dry summer, and this butterfly likes it warm and humid.

Yesterday I had the privilege of seeing this reintroduction first hand when I visited the site with my colleague Dr Duncan McCollin.  Duncan and I are supervising a PhD student, Jamie Wildman, along with Prof. Tom Brereton, Head of Monitoring at Butterfly Conservation (BC), and the University of Northampton’s Visiting Professor in Conservation Science.  Jamie’s project will focus on understanding the habitat requirements for Chequered Skipper, and monitoring the success of the reintroduction.  I’m also hoping that it might be possible for Jamie to assess the role of this species as a pollinator of the plants it visits.  Butterflies as pollinators is a very under-researched area.

Here’s a shot of the Four Mus-skipper-teers* just before we set off to help BC volunteers to locate the skippers and record their behaviour:

Four Mouse-skipper-teers 2018-05-26 11.10.19.jpg

 

The day started unpromisingly.  It was cool and overcast, and little was flying except some hardy Common Carder Bees.  But around lunchtime things began to warm up and gradually the sun broke through and we started to see flying Lepidoptera that we excitedly chased, only to be disappointed by yet another Mother Shipton or Silver Y.  But no skippers.

As we encountered some of the BC volunteers who were also tracking the insects we were told that we had “just missed one” or that they “saw one down that ride, we marked the spot”.  One volunteer wanted to show me a photo of a Chequered Skipper that he’d just taken “so I could get my eye in”.  I politely refused; I wanted to see the real thing and didn’t want to jinx it with a digital preview.

Finally, our efforts were rewarded and we found the first skipper of several we later encountered.  The image at the head of this post is that butterfly, a sight that has not been seen in England in more than 40 years.  An exciting and privileged encounter.  The county Butterfly Recorder, David James (on the right in this next shot), is ecstatic that the reintroduction has occurred “on his patch” but also nervous at the responsibility it represents:

Skipper crew 2018-05-26 13.15.06

Later we spent time helping Jamie follow a female skipper who was showing egg-laying behaviour, moving slowly for short distances along a shrubby edge, occasionally nectaring on Bugle, and diving deep into the vegetation to (we hope) oviposit on grass leaves:

 

Skipper watching 2018-05-26 15.10.18

Although I’ve over-cropped this next image of the skipper on Bugle, I thought I’d leave it as I like the different textures and patterns, and the slightly blurry ambience:

Skipper nectaring 2018-05-26 13.06.08

The primary aim of Butterfly Conservation’s project is to return a small part of England’s lost biological heritage.  But it’s about more than just the Chequered Skipper.  It’s also about understanding how managing a network of sites for this flagship species can benefit other organisms.  The wide woodland rides that have been created are packed with plant species, amongst them at least five grasses that could be used as caterpillar food sources for the skippers, plus more than 20 nectar sources were flowering that they (and other flower visiting insects) could use.  Those other insects were plentiful too: over the day I spotted five species of bumblebees, several different day flying moths, lots of Dark-edged Bee Flies, and a few different solitary bees and syrphids flies.  We heard calling cuckoos, and four different warblers: chiffchaffs, garden warbler, whitethroats, and blackcaps.  Red kites (another incredibly successful species reintroduction) floated overhead skimming the treetops as they their cried to one another.

Rockingham Forest is a lovely part of Northamptonshire, well worth a visit.  The Chequered Skipper will be a wonderful addition to its biodiversity.  Of course there are no guarantees that the reintroduction part of the project will be a success, but if it isn’t it won’t be because of a lack of commitment from the people involved.  If the population does become established then in the future the location will be made public and butterfly enthusiasts will be able to come and pay homage to one of the few butterflies with a pub named after it.

 

*You get the puns you deserve on this blog…..

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Butterflies, Pollination, University of Northampton

The explosion in orchids as houseplants: what does it tell us about how flowers evolve?

Orchids 20180512_112533.jpg

One of the major trends in horticulture over the last 20 years or so has been the rise in popularity of orchids as house plants.  Orchids used to have a reputation as being delicate, choosy, costly things that needed expensive glasshouses, heating, and humidity systems to grow.  Some groups of orchids are certainly like that, but many are not (Orchidaceae is one of the two largest families of plants, after all).  These days it’s impossible to walk into any supermarket or department store and not see orchids for sale at a reasonable price, orchids that are tough and can withstand the relatively dry, centrally heated houses in which most of us in Britain live. 

The majority of these orchids are varieties of Phalaenopsis, the moth orchids.  Intensive hybridisation by commercial growers has meant that there is an almost inexhaustible range of flower colours, shapes, sizes and patterning available.  Take a look at this gallery of images and you’ll see what I mean, or go into a shop that sells such orchids and observe that almost no two are alike.

This is the stuff of natural selection: genetic variation in the phenotype that can be acted upon by a selective agent.  In this case it’s the growers of orchids who choose the most attractive types to sell and discard the others.  If this variation emerged in wild populations most of it would disappear over time, but some, just occasionally, would be selected for by a different group of pollinators and go on to form a new species.  This is much more likely to happen if the individuals with this variation are isolated from the rest of the population in time or space, for example if they flower later or have been dispersed to a distant valley or mountaintop (termed allopatric speciation).  But it can also happen within populations – sympatric speciation.

Back in 1996, near the start of this orchid explosion, one of my earliest papers was a speculative commentary in Journal of Ecology called “Reconciling ecological processes with phylogenetic patterns: the apparent paradox of plant-pollinator systems”.  It generated some interest in the field at the time and has picked up >250 citations over the years, mostly other researchers using it as supporting evidence for the discrepancies we see when trying to understand how flowers evolve within a milieu of lots of different types of potential pollinators selecting for possibly diverse and contradictory aspects of floral form.  In that paper I made a passing comment that I expected the reviewers to criticise, which they did not.  Once it was published I thought that perhaps other researchers in the field would critique it or use it as a jumping off point for further study, which has not really happened either.  This is what I wrote:

         “It appears that pollination systems are labile and may evolve quite rapidly….plant breeders can obtain a fantastic range of horticultural novelties through selective breeding over just a few generations.”

This is horticulture holding up a mirror to the natural world and saying: “This is how we do it in the glasshouse, look at the variety we can produce over a short space of time by selecting for flower forms; can nature do it as quickly, and if so what are the mechanisms?”  

I still believe that pollination ecologists could learn a lot from horticulture and there’s some fruitful (flowerful?) lines of enquiry that could be pursued by creative PhD students or postdocs.  Here’s one suggestion: part of the reason why these Phalaenopsis orchids are so popular as house plants is that they have very long individual flower life times, often many weeks.  Now we suspect that floral longevity is under strong selection; see for example research by Tia-Lynn Ashman and Daniel Schoen in the 1990s.  This showed that there is a negative correlation between rate of pollinator visitation and how long flowers stay open.  Plants with flowers that are not visited very frequently stay open much longer, for example the bird-pollinated flowers of the Canary Islands that may only be visited once or twice a day, and which can remain open for more than 20 days.  Is the floral longevity shown by these orchids (or other groups of plants that have been horticulturally selected) beyond the range found in natural populations?  If so, what are the underlying physiological mechanisms that allow such extreme longevity?  If not, does this mean that there is an upper limit to the lifespan of flowers, and if so, why?  

In the mean time I’m going to enjoy the orchids above that sit on our kitchen windowsill.  They actually belong to my wife Karin who has developed something of an interest in them in recent months.  The big spotty one is a late birthday gift for her that I picked up this morning from a local flower shop, and which stimulated this post as I was walking home.  I’d bet that we never see another one like it!

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Birds, British Ecological Society, Evolution, Gardens, Personal biodiversity, Pollination