News of wildlife and other issues

Wanstead Flats Skylark survey, 2013

Wanstead Flats probably has one of the largest breeding Skylark population in the London area, possibly within the M25 motorway. Their song during the spring and summer months is a familiar accompaniment to those visitors to the Flats who give themselves time to listen; local dog walkers may well be aware of them, though the weekend football players less so!

SkylarkIn fact so familiar have the Skylarks been to me since I moved adjacent to Wanstead Flats in the 1960's that I perhaps hadn't borne in mind until more recent years just what a wonder it is for them to live here. Considering the amount of noise, light, dogs, people and other disturbances that the Flats are prone to, the Skylarks persist.

For the last few years local naturalist Tim Harris - together with a number of other naturalists and birders - has been trying to ascertain just how many Skylark territories there may be on the Flats. A few years ago we encouraged the City of London Corporation in their role as Conservators of Epping Forest to erect notice-boards advising people of the presence of Skylarks and particularly asking dog-owners to try not to let their dogs roam free over the areas that may provide nesting-sites for the birds.

skylark notice wf 130320 50362The first displaying male was singing on 2nd February this year. In early March, Tim, with the help of a few others, erected about 20 supplementary temporary notices. Dog-walkers were soon seen to be reading these, and hopefully some will take heed and try to keep their dogs away. As has been said, considering that the area is so disturbed, the larks do remarkably well, but the last two seasons have seen an apparent decline in breeding numbers so everything that we can do to try to stop this is important.

To ascertain this year's population, Tim has proposed surveys take place at least – if possible – each week. Not everyone can make such commitment, so provisions were made to hand out maps and survey sheets at a preliminary survey on 16th March so that people might be able to pop over for an hour or so when they have some time. That way we could start to build up an accurate picture of how many pairs there are. Later in the season we could look for family parties and try to estimate the breeding successes of our birds.

Skylark on Wanstead FlatsA male Skylark on Wanstead Flats. Skylarks sometimes sing from the ground.So, on Saturday 16 March, a group of six people assembled at the car park on Centre Road. The day was hardly an ideal one for such a survey. Thoughts of a spring walk across the Flats listening to the gentle sound of the lark became a reality of cold strong winds with a deal of rain. However, the larks were singing, and we managed to positively identify three displaying males, and eight or possibly nine birds in all. In addition, at least six Meadow Pipits were seen at one time and even some of these small birds were attempting display flights in the strong winds. Meadow Pipits are another important element of Wanstead Flats, their melancholy little song less obvious to many people than that of the Skylark but evocative of moors, mountains and wide open spaces.

Our introduction to the surveying process completed, and timely-so for the rain was beating down even harder, we all repaired to the more convivial surroundings, on such a day, of the Gatehouse Pantry in the City of London Cemetery, where tea, coffee, hot chocolate and a variety of warming foodstuffs were enjoyed by all.

 

A video about the Skylarks of Wanstead Flats is available here.

Tim Harris has an article available on the Wren Group's website here.

 

Paul Ferris

Wanstead Waterbird Survey

The Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group's monthly winter waterbird survey took place on Sunday 13th January. This survey, the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS), is the scheme which monitors non-breeding waterbirds in the UK. The principal aims are to identify population sizes, determine trends in numbers and distribution and to identify important sites for waterbirds. (from RSPB's website at http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/webs)

Tim Harris – who usually co-ordinates this and leads the walk around Wanstead Park's waters – was away and he's asked if I would lead it in conjunction with Jackie Morrison. So it was that on a somewhat cold day, but at least not with the threatened snow, I met with Jackie by the kiosk in Wanstead Park and together with Gill James, Linda and David we proceeded to count the birds.

Gulls and Coots on Heronry PondGull and Coot competition on Heronry Pond...We began with the lake onto which the kiosk faces – the Heronry Pond. Here, as usual, were a largish number of Coot, some Canada Geese and plentiful gulls, almost all of which were Black-headed. There were a dozen Mallard, a few Tufted Duck and Pochard, a scattering of Gadwall and a Cormorant – which was perched across the lake on the branch of a tree. Five still-brown-streaked young Mute Swans flew off, and caused a degree of uncertainty during the course of the counting as they tended to move around a bit. This isn't at all unusual, particularly as the parent birds are becoming territorial at this time of year and are chasing their young – and any new arrivals – off “their” lake. Numbers of the species mentioned, plus Moorhens, mounted as we moved down the north side of the lake towards the Shoulder of Mutton pond.

At the Shoulder of Mutton the predominant species were Gadwall, with 29 counted, plus about the same number of Black-headed Gulls. A new species for the day was a Grey Heron.

Retracing our route past Heronry Pond, we reached Perch pond where – apart from Black-headed Gulls – Gadwall were the the most plentiful species.

Mute Swans...and somewhat territorial Mute SwansFor some reason that I've never fully understood our largest body of water - the Ornamental Waters - is not included in the survey; the numbers of waterbirds that may be found there is not required. As such, and as I was cold, had other things to do and had suffered the mud-slips that would be encountered a couple of weeks ago, I elected not to walk around the lake and count the birds. Linda also chose that lesser (and less muddy!) option. We returned to the kiosk for a warming cuppa before returning to our homes.

However, the others did do a count – although not finding any different species. Whilst we were surveying the waters of Wanstead Park, Debbie was counting the birds on the Eagle Pond and Richard Oakman the Basin. Richard had the pleasure of seeing three of a less common species in our area, Wigeon, plus the only grebe – a Great Crested Grebe – seen that day. Before I met the others in the Park, I'd counted the birds on Alexandra Lake, Wanstead Flats. Here, the only species not seen elsewhere was Greylag Goose, with a count of 30. The overall results are presented in the table below.

These waterbird surveys provide valuable data about the country's wildlife, and can be a pleasant social occasion with the opportunity to learn more about our wildlife. If you would like to attend, you'd be welcome – whatever your level of expertise or knowledge. Look at the Wren Group's website at http://www.wrengroup.org.uk/ for more information.

 

Wanstead area Water-bird Count 13/01/2013

 

Species

Alex

Basin

Eagle

Shoulder

Heronry

Perch

Ornamental

Total

Little Grebe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

nil

Great Crested Grebe

 

1

 

 

 

 

 

1

Cormorant

 

 

1

 

1

3

1

6

Grey Heron

 

 

 

1

 

1

 

2

Mute Swan

7

2

6

2

10

5

2

34

Greylag Goose

30

 

 

 

 

 

 

30

Canada Goose

112

2

26

 

15

4

8

167

Wigeon

 

3

 

 

 

 

 

3

Gadwall

12

101

2

29

16

18

19

197

Teal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

nil

Mallard

37

3

14

3

27

1

31

116

Shoveler

7

2

3

 

1

 

 

13

Pochard

 

 

4

 

3

 

9

16

Tufted Duck

6

7

47

1

30

3

16

110

Water Rail

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

nil

Moorhen

18

7

7

 

4

1

5

42

Coot

88

24

56

5

35

10

18

236

Black-headed Gull

30

 

210

26

162

44

57

529

Common Gull

 

 

6

1

4

 

 

11

Lesser Black-back

 

 

 

 

2

 

 

2

Herring  Gull

 

 

1

 

 

 

 

1

Paul Ferris, January 2013

More Rubbish

The Wren Conservation Group held their monthly practical work session in Aldersbrook Exchange Lands – once the Old Sewage Works – on Sunday 6th January. The task was to do some clearance of invasive bramble and some litter-picking, starting just inside the entrance from the lane by the riding-stables.

I elected to do some litter-picking, and armed with rubbish-sacks and a long-handled gripper, began to work my way along the boundary with the Empress Avenue (Aldersbrook) Allotment site.

Rubbish in Aldersbrook Exchange LandsRubbish in Aldersbrook Exchange Lands in January, 2013...There were a few bits of rubbish adjacent to the track – typically beer-cans, and perhaps not unexpectedly many with Central European brand names – but it really wasn't too bad. However, immediately adjacent to the boundary fence it was a different matter. Here, all manner of materials had been dumped, including drinks cans, of course, but ranging through plastic bags, netting material, glass, corrugated plastic roof coverings and broken flower pots. The last is a bit of a clue, for almost all of this material had been dumped from the allotments. In some parts there were – as they say - 'literally' mounds of stuff.

Now I would have thought that in essence people that hold allotments would also be people that had some degree of ecological outlook, but that appeared not to be the case. In fact I knew this not to be the case, because it was years ago that I first complained about this lack of respect for the allotment's neighbour, Epping Forest.

The task of clearing much of this accumulated waste was really too much for the Wren Group, and I suggested to the practical work leader that perhaps we should not even attempt it. In fact we collected 15-20 sacks full, plus some stuff too big to fit into sacks.

Individual allotment holders – almost certainly a minority – who are guilty of this fly-tipping should be taken to task by the allotment committee. If this doesn't work then possibly London Borough of Redbridge should bring the committee to task. And what of Epping Forest? The City of London have a responsibility to manage the Forest in an appropriate way, and they have certainly failed for years in this particular respect. I've included a photograph that I took in March 2008 which shows the problem then, and I suggest that all that has happened since is that the rubbish of then is now submerged under more recent stuff.

How can we get a grip on this problem as individuals if those who have, or have been given, responsibility are not carrying it out?

Paul Ferris, 6th December 2013

Back to Bombardier Beetles

On Friday 5th October 2007, having just attended Newham General Hospital to have a broken arm put in a sling, I joined a group of volunteers working nearby to rescue a colony of beetles.

Apart from the awkwardness of trying to unearth and capture a beetle about the size of a medium ladybird from a heap of brick-rubble using only one arm, the task was an enjoyable one – and a potentially important one considering the probable fate of these creatures.

The beetles were Streaked Bombardiers Brachinus sclopeta, and this was the only known colony in Britain. As you may have guessed, the site was due for redevelopment.

Brachinus sclopeta 7  Benoit MarthaStreaked bombardier beetle © Benoit MarthaMy mind has returned to this event because of two articles in the latest (2011/2012) issue of the Essex Field Club's annual journal – the Essex Naturalist. One article “The state of brownfields in the Thames Gateway” discusses the importance what are now termed “brownfield sites” - areas have typically become abandoned after industrial use and where nature has returned to colonise the various habitats and substrates left behind. We would have called these “debris” or “bomb-sites” after the second world war, and to us children they were very much our playgrounds. It is possible that memories of the weeds that we played amongst and caught butterflies and ladybirds gave me my first interest in wildlife.

It is only in recent years, perhaps, that the present day equivalent of these debris have become recognised as havens for a great variety of plants and animals that have otherwise become scarce in our built-up and disturbed surroundings.

So it was on such a site that in 2005 entomologist Richard Jones* discovered a population of a beetle that had been considered extinct in Britain since 1928, and the site was to be developed. The second article “The Beetle Bump: innovative urban habitat creation” describes the efforts put in under the auspices of the University of East London and Buglife to collect 61 Bombardier Beetles and to move them to a specially created habitat and nature reserve nearby. Moving species to a habitat created by man is fraught with difficulties and there are few examples of successful transfers of invertebrates, so this was a rescue attempt carried out as a last resort - and with perhaps little hope of success.

So – was it a success? The original mound of bricks and rubble where the Bombardier's lived has now grown into riverside apartments, and in 2010 the beetles were found to still be living in the mound developed in 2007. One female was also found in Mile End Park, which does suggest that there might be other colonies. In 2012 the mound was searched again, but none were found. However, on another mound a couple of hundred metres away a population was found - but this site was was due for imminent development. In May, Buglife organised another rescue and 15 beetles were transferred to yet another specially constructed site using over 60 tonnes of bricks, chalk and rubble, sown with wildflowers. This is on part of the UEL Docklands Campus site, and the site will be monitored by Buglife and UEL to check the progress of the Streaked Bombardier beetles.

Back to brownfield sites again, then. Between 2005 and 2008 Buglife and English Nature (now Natural England) collaborated on a project called 'All of a Buzz in the Thames Gateway'. This resulted in a clearer understanding of the importance of brownfield sites, 450 of which were assessed in Thames Gateway. Of these, 198 were recognised as being of High or Medium potential for invertebrate biodiversity. Despite this recognition, less than half of these remain intact, and even these may be at risk of development.

Does this have any bearing on our much more localised Wanstead wildlife? Well, I think it does. I can't think of any long-term sites in the area that might be called brownfield sites; any that might have been have been at the least tidied-up by now. One area that does come to mind though – and might be relevant when thinking on bits of land that are perhaps less appealing to our tidy minds and sense of aesthetics – is the fairground site on Wanstead Flats. There were a variety of reasons why many of us didn't want a “muster station” built there for the Olympics – but pretty low down on these was the disturbance to wildlife. Oh, yes – I appreciate the concerns that were raised about the skylark population, and this was an important factor – but the half-day out-of-season wildlife assessment as far as I know took little or no account of the invertebrates that may have lived there.

Biodiversity is a popular term now, but perhaps we should be thinking a little more about this on a local basis. We need a variety of habitats for all of our local plants and animals, and the visiting ones that we get. More and more the birders are beginning to look at some of the other creatures around us, but we still have a vastly long way to go to really build up our knowledge of what species we have here. Whilst that is being undertaken, let's also remember that they can only live here if they have the variety of habitats in which to do so. Maybe we should be creating some? Surely we should not be destroying any.

My thanks to the Essex Field Club and to the Authors of the articles for the information used here.

Paul Ferris, December 2012

 References and links

The state of brownfields in the Thames Gateway. Jamie Robins and Sarah Henshall.

The Beetle Bump: innovative urban habitat creation. Stuart Connop.

Essex Naturalist No. 29 (New Series) for the year 2011/2012.  http://www.essexfieldclub.org.uk

Buglife – The Invertebrate Conservation Trust, Peterborough.  http://www.buglife.org.uk

* Richard Jones ("Bugman Jones")  http://bugmanjones.com/

 

Moth trapping in 2012

It was in 2005 and 2006 that I last put out a moth trap in my garden, which is south of Wanstead Flats and adjacent to Manor Park Cemetery at TQ 413 860. This was part of a moth trapping exercise instigated by the three members of East London Nature. This was to investigate the moth-species that might be found in this part of East London, and the result was that over a hundred species were identified. For more information on this, click here.

Black ArchesBlack ArchesThis year – 2012 – I put the moth trap out on occasions between 24 February and 22 August. The weather in 2012 was not very conducive to moth-trapping, but whenever I was able and the weather permitted, the trap was set out. I was aware of another problem, too; the lamp of the trap was old, and they apparently do lose their attractiveness (to moths, that is).

East London Nature did have another trap available, one that had been bought for a school project, but the lamp was missing. As this trap was a more powerful one, I obtained the necessary lamp and eventually set it up in the garden.

Considering the inclemency of the weather throughout much of the year thRuby TigerRuby Tigere results compared favourably with those of 2005/6. A total of 742 (identified) moths were trapped comprising 154 species. This was clearly better than the previous years and there are a number of reasons why this should be. One is the more powerful lamp that was used compared to 2005/6. Another was the availability of the excellent book which describes and illustrates the micro moths – the "Field Guide to the Micro Moths of Great Britain and Ireland" by Sterling, Parsons and Lewington (British Wildlife Publishing Ltd.). The third perhaps was my own skills in identification based on previous experience – but that was probably negligible.

Nut tree TussockNut-tree TussockDuring 2012 a moth trap was also put out by Tim Harris in his garden on the Lake House Estate near to Bush Wood (TQ 402 870), at the other end of Wanstead Flats to me. Tim's trap was set out for a longer period than mine and probably on more nights - from 23 February to 13 November. The trap was consistently a higher light-output one – comparable to the second of the two that I used - and these factors may well have resulted in the higher numbers caught in the Lake House trap during the year, a total of 1576 (identified) specimens and 170 identified species.

It is interesting to compare results, and Tim has created a pdf file summarising these which is available here.

My own results have been laid out on a spreadsheet of a similar nature to those of 2005 and 2006. These are all available from here.

Paul Ferris, December 2012