What did you see today?

This year we’ve been keeping a record in the office of all the different things we encounter while on the job. There are are lists for birds, plants, mammals, herptiles, moths & butterflies, and poo. Something can only be entered on the list once, there are no winners (because if there were, Simon would thrash everyone and it’d be no fun), we just want to see how much we see in a year between the 10ish of us.

It has the pleasant effect of turning every job, even the potentially dull ones, into a potential new find. Today I paid a visit to a waste water treatment works we surveyed for great crested newts last year which still has some fencing in place, to inspect the fence and check it was still a functional barrier. The filter beds with their revolving sprinklers attract birds in large numbers, who feed off the insects which the beds attract. Each round circular bed has a ring of wires leading from a central pole to the rim. Today the wires were bedecked in carrion crows giving them the appearance of macabre big-tops. Pied wagtails ran around on the stones below them. Some old, now defunct, beds have long overgrown with bramble scrub. A tree sparrow observed and chastised me from above as I walked past, and I caught a glimpse of a rabbit’s bottom disappearing into the thicket.

When I reached the fence line I started my perimeter walk and out of habit rather than necessity I turned over some of the left over carpet tiles, remnants of the bucket traps and carpet tile trapping surveys of last summer. Earth worm heads flinched back down their holes and centipedes flowed over and under stones or clods of earth. The contracted bodies of many slugs clung to the underside of the tiles but there was little else under the mats yet. The myriad of beetles were still absent.

Under an old plastic panel lying on the ground I watched a field vole zoom through its exposed labyrinth of tunnels in the damp, yellow grass. Then, under a tile I found two frogs and toad.  All three appeared still to be in a torpid state and I gently placed the mat back down. I returned to the mat a few minutes later having considered it and decided to move them. Ordinarily I wouldn’t disturb animals in this state but as they were on the wrong side of the fence it wasn’t right to leave them there. So I fetched an empty bucket, lined it with vegetation and placed them in.

I have a fondness for all wildlife, but I love toads. I genuinely love them, they illicit an emotional response in me that other animals don’t. When I look at a toad I get the feeling you get when you run into a really good friend. I can’t help but anthropomorphize them they just have such wonderful faces. This was my first toad of the year and my day was instantly made by finding it and I handled her with the usual care, plus a little extra due to her docile (even by a toad’s standards), dozy condition.

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I don’t anthropomorphize frogs. They exude wildness. Reflexive, instinct driven, dynamic and slightly repellent in their curiousness. If you pick up a frog they throw in everything they have to kick, leap and headbutt their way out of your hands. These two took only a moment to come to life and become alert and escape driven.

I placed them in the hibernacular, constructed for  surveys last year and carried on, finding no more. Towards the end of my walk a buzzard dropped from a nearby tree, in that heavy fall then suddenly weightless swoop of theirs. Jackdaws yapped their disapproval and song thrush and blackbirds went about their business along the field margin. I wondered if I’d seen a raven, sat up a tree on the other side of the site, but it was just another crow. I scanned along the tree line through my binoculars and was rewarded with the sight of a male kestrel, glowing almost pink in the afternoon sun. I followed him as he flew from his tree, over the field I stood in and hung in the sky, treading air above me for a half a minute before going on its way.

Frog, toad and field vole all firsts for the work list. Not bad for an hour’s fence check.

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2017 Ecological To Do List

I recently read Inglorious by Mark Avery. Aside from the compelling subject matter, at one point in the book Mark mentions that in his first blog of the year he sets out a few things that he wishes to achieve over the coming 12 months:

I’ve written it down and published it, and even if no one notices then I need to do it.

Having recently become a father my ecology life outside of work has quietly, politely stepped into the background as I expected it would in these chaotic early days. Naively, predictably I had underestimated how long it would be waiting there, but as 2017 appears on the horizon, and I’m getting >5hrs sleep a night, I find myself looking forward to reintegrating ecological pursuits back into my outside of work life.

So, taking a leaf out of Mark’s book, here are a few achievable goals for the coming 12 months:

Gorse Hill Urban Botany Project

My little local project to create a flora of The Gorsehill Estate is all planned and ready to go, having been put to one side after all the planning (and a couple of surveys) had been completed.  The nice thing about this is that there are no deadlines, it can happen at its own pace, but I suspect that once I get going with it my enthusiasm will gain momentum. My plan this year is to start on some residential streets that can be quickly completed (unlike last year where I started on the canal tow path which was interesting but the biggest job on the list). That way I’ll have the satisfaction of being able to shade off chunks of the estate on a map. My son is now robust enough to join me on these surveys too which will provide me with the chance to wave leaves under his nose, avoiding his ever grabbing hands, and tell him what they are.

Birds

I say every year I’m going to work on my bird ID skills. This year I intend to get down to my adopted stretch of the Mersey embankment, once a month if I can and do some recording. I was given some good advice by a work colleague, Simon, recently. I was complaining that so often when I’m out attempting to work on bird ID I can see but not hear them. Simon’s advice was to find the birds I could hear and have a look at them. It seems obvious but it had never occurred to me to diligently hunt down the mystery singers. So I’ll be doing more peering, loitering and rummaging on my walks this year.

Herptiles

I saw my first sand lizard last year, just a glimpse of a female.  I’d like to see more. So I’ll be getting back out with my local ARG group on their habitat management days in the hope of helping out with their monitoring later in the year.

Saw my first #SandLizard in the wild today. #WellChuffed

I’d also like to contribute to the Biodiverse Society Project which aims to enhance and update the information on wildlife sites in Lancashire and North Merseyside.

Trees

Having recently visited the National Trust property Biddulph Grange Gardens which boasts Britain’s oldest Golden Larch, I thought it’d be fun to seek more oldest British trees. It’d be over ambitious to aim to make it up to the Fortingall Yew in 2017 (one day though), but the Talley Abbey Ash should be doable. If I make it to any other oldest/biggest/tallest example of a tree this year I’ll consider this achieved.

If I do all the above, and see some spiked speedwell and an aesculapian snake,  I’ll consider 2017 a job well done.

Wishing you a happy and productive 2017. What’s on your list?

Gorse Hill Urban Botany Project – Survey #1

Beginning an urban botany project…

On March 27th, the day the clocks went forward I set out as planned to do my first survey for this urban botany project of mine. I’d put it in my diary weeks prior and decided that whatever the weather I would go out…at least for a bit.

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It was cold, wet and windy. I headed for zone 7:

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Zone 7 is the one at the top, the big one with the freight terminal and Old Trafford in. I walked to Old Trafford, passed the stadium, down the steps and onto the Bridgewater Canal tow path. The north towpath of this stretch of the canal is arguably outside the Gorse Hill boundary but for this project it is the boundary, as to exclude it would be to exclude my favorite patch of habitat in the area. This was also my reason for making it the site of my first survey. There might be lots of pavements with not much growing on to come, but the towpath was sure to get the project off to a fruitful start.

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I worked my way west, starting just to the west of the bridge which carries Sir Matt Busby Way, and covered a couple of hundred meters of the towpath embankment, recording the 30 or so species listed below…

Common name Latin name
Grey willow Salix cinerea agg
Bramble Rubus fruticosus
Great willowherb Epilobium hirsutum
Bracken Pteridium aquilinum
Common nettle Urtica dioica
Michaelmas daisy Aster novi-belgii agg
Buddleia Buddleja davidii
Broad-leaf dock Rumex obtusifolius
Herb robert Geranium robertianum
Cleavers Galium aparine
Common ragwort Senecio jacobaea
Ribwort plantain Plantago lanceolata
Great mullein Verbascum thapsus
Oxeye daisy Leucanthemum vulgare
Willow Salix spp.
Oak spp. Quercus spp.
Holly Ilex aquifolium
Fox glove Digitalis purpurea
Willowherb Epilobium spp.
Creeping buttercup Ranunculus repens
Violet Viola spp.
Common hogweed Heracleum sphondylium
Elder Sambucus nigra
Nightshade (to be confirmed) Solanum spp.
Forget-me-not  Myosotis spp.
Spanish bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica
Groundsel Senecio vulgaris
Weld Reseda luteola
Toadflax Linaria
Moss spp. #1  Grimmia pulvinata
Petty spurge Euphorbia peplus
Colts foot Tussilago farfara
Dandelion Taraxacum agg
Daisy Bellis perennis

 

#Dandelion #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany

#GreatMullien #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany

#PettySpurge #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany

#Weld #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany

#FoxGlove #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany #AwesomeSharkRuler

Grimmia pulvinata

#MichaelmasDaisy #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany

So if you’re local/interested get on down there. Since that survey the bluebells have come out in flower. There is also a chunky Japanese Knotweed stem working its way up the fence at one spot now. And a patch of some rather lovely white deadnettle.

#WhiteDeadNettle #BridgewaterCanal #GorseHill #Stretford #Manchester #UrbanBotany

So far so good. I’ll add updates as I go. Feedback welcome.

Vegging Out. Part 3.

More on vegetative plant identification. A useful stumbling block…

Attempt #3. Great Willowherb.

Keying out a dandelion and petty spurge using The Vegetative Key to the British Flora been reassuringly straight forward. I was feeling confident (cocky), so when I saw this growing in a wet ditch while out on a job I thought I’d have a bash at it…

#GreatWillowherb

That picture doesn’t show it very well but it was growing out of a water body. I had it in my mind that it was therefore going to be an aquatic plant. I don’t know my aquatic macrophytes very well so for all I knew it could be a young bog bean, marsh marigold etc.

The key took me through the following features (my descriptions below are not always direct quotes from the key):

  • Leaves simple
  • Leaf margin toothed
  • Leaves alternate. This took me to KEY N
  • It’s a herb
  • Stipules absent
  • Latex absent
  • Leaves with hairs all simple or hairless
  • Leaves with pinnate or palmate veins
  • Petiole developing 1-2 hollows (Ranunculaceae) Key RAN. So now I’m thinking maybe it will be marsh marigold though if I’d looked at a photo I’d have realised straight away I was wrong, the leaves are totally different.
  • Leaves lanc to ovate, not orb, unlobed but weakly toothed.

Here is where I knew I’d gone wrong. I spent some time trying to convince myself that that the leaves could be described as lanceolate to ovate but they just aren’t! They are obovate if anything. I was seduced by the weakly toothed bit making it hard to let it go. You brain likes to latch on to a bit that works in a plant description making you blind to all the other bits that don’t.

So there’s lesson one: Don’t ignore the descriptive elements you don’t like. If it’s wrong it’s wrong.

Next it all kinda fell apart as these things sometimes do when you get stuck. I misread an early line of text and convinced myself I should have answered yes to:

  • Plant with submerged or floating leaves. Key E

Lesson two: Always read the key carefully and make sure you’ve understood it before moving on.

I started again and after a while trying and failing I admitted defeat and asked Miranda what it was. She took one look at it and said: “It’s great willowherb”. My heart sank. Oh yeah, I thought. “But it was growing in water” I said. “Yeah it often does” she said. “Oh”. I set about reverse engineering the key so I could see the route I should have taken.

#VegetativeID

It seemed to me that I would have needed a stem to use The Vegetative Key. I had another go using a young willowherb growing in my garden and again became stuck without a stem…

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I consulted my favorite social media resources to check I was right. The BSBI on Twitter, and the ever obliging folk of Facebook’s Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland group confirmed my suspicions. I asked Sarah whether she had any advice on getting further than ‘willowherb sp’ with plants this size. Her advice was: “I’d walk on by…willow herbs are a really tough group, they also hybridise, and doing them vegetatively is tough enough without doing rosettes.”

Lesson three: You need a stem to identify willowherbs using The Vegetative Key.

The next day I was working in North Wales. I’d been rummaging around in some woods and was on my way back to the van, parked in a lay-by on a country road. I looked into the roadside ditch as I walked along and saw lots of young great willowherb (Epilobium palustre) growing there…

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Lesson four: Mistakes and failures can be every bit as useful as simple successes. 

It took more than the key on its own to get there but knowing a species at every stage of it growth is so useful.

Thanks for reading. I hope you’ve found it useful or at least reassuring. Onward and upwards! More to follow…

Vegging Out. Part 2.

Continuing getting to grips with vegetative plant identification.

Attempt #2. Petty Spurge.

Buoyed on by my success with the dandelion in my previous blog I ventured once again into my back yard with the aim of attempting to use The Vegetative Key to the British Flora to identify the first plant I saw. This meant ignoring 3 more dandelions for the sake of variety but in just a few steps I came across this unassuming little thing…

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I thought it might be petty spurge when I saw it. I don’t know spurges very well but I vaguely remember someone telling me once that a plant that looks a bit like this was petty spurge so I had an idea what it might be. Less confident than the dandelion which seemed appropriate for my next attempt.

The key took me through the following features (my descriptions below are not always direct quotes from the key):

    • Leaves simple
    • Leaf margin entire
    • Leaves with pinnate veins
    • Leaves alternate. This took me to Key K.
    • It’s a herb
    • Latex present:

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As you can see the latex is obvious (please excuse the close up of my thumb nail. I googled what ridges mean on finger nails and apparently it’s a sign of age. I am in my mid thirties which apparently is the age you start getting all gnarley).

  • Leaves all on stems but never clasping with auricles (Euphorbia). This is encouraging as spurges are in the Euphorbia genus. On to Key KH.
  • Leaves hairless
  • Leaves >2mm wide
  • Plant green. Ruderal.
ruderal
ˈruːd(ə)r(ə)l/
BOTANY
adjective
  1. 1.
    (of a plant) growing on waste ground or among rubbish.
noun

While I bristle slightly at this apparent slur on my back yard I accept it’s a green ruderal.

  • Annual with vertical tap root. This kind of feature could cause me problems when I’m carrying out surveys for my upcoming urban botany project in which I intend not to kill any specimens while identifying them, but for now while I’m learning I allowed myself to pluck this one up…

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And I was encouraged to see a pleasingly vertical, tap root.

  • This gets you to Petty Spurge (Euphorbia peplus).

This is easy, I thought. And I was of course quickly proved wrong. My next attempt was frustrating but useful. Blog to follow…

Thanks for reading. If you disagree with my IDs or have thoughts on the subject please comment. All feedback welcome.

Vegging Out.

Getting to grips with vegetative plant identification.

This is The Vegetative Key to the British Flora by John Poland & Eric Clement:

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It’s a magic book that gives you the power to identify British plants in their vegetative state (no flowers) but leaves some of us mysteriously reluctant to use it.

I first heard of the book while doing a course in 2012. I was still getting my head around floral keys generally and the idea of vegetative ID was new to me. Someone asked Ros Bennett to recommend a vegetative key and she recommended Poland. She said it was good and that John Poland was younger than you’d imagine.

I went away and bought it with my usual good intentions, but as time went on and I began to gain a better understanding about how hard identifying plants with flowers was, the idea of attempting to ID them without got shelved along with bryophytes, diptera, Spanish and the ukulele.

Thing is, I knew it wasn’t going to be as hard as those. I had my copy with me when I attended an MMU day course in Shrewsbury, and Mark Duffel talked me through IDing something with it. The key is ever so slightly different to the usual dichotomous floras. It’s polychotomous with sometimes several options to choose from rather than the usual two. Mark drew a few lines in pencil on the opening key to major divisions and I got it…

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The polychotomous  thing really isn’t a big deal but it can be enough to put you off trying when you aren’t confident. So now I understood how it worked but I continued to procrastinate over veg ID. Four years after purchasing the key it still looked annoyingly new.

Well now I’ve given myself a project to do. As mentioned in my last couple of blogs I’m having a crack at producing a complete flora of the walls, gutters and random green places of Gorse Hill, where I live. Vegetative ID will be really useful to the project so I’m pulling my finger out and finally doing what I should have done all along and just use it so it.

I’m going to talk you though my practice attempts, where I went wrong, what I figured out etc, in the hope that it illustrates how good this key is and encourages a few people like me to get their copy out and have a go too.

Attempt #1. Dandelion.

I went into my back yard with the intention of IDing the first thing I saw. It’s a dandelion I thought. Let’s find out…

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The key took me through the following features (my descriptions below are not always direct quotes from the key):

  • The leaves are simple, not composed of leaflets.
  • The leaf margin is lobed.
  • The leaves are alternate. Now I got a bit stuck here because I didn’t realise they were alternate at first. That meant I went wrong and had to retrace my steps. Then I remembered someone had told me before how you tell if if a plant has alternate or opposite leaves by its basal rosette. I had a rummage through my old note pads (always keep your note pads) and found it! This took me to Key P.

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  • A non climbing herb.
  • Plant with latex (I tore a leaf off and there was clearly white latex on my fingers).
  • Hairs simple, smooth or absent. The alternatives here were hairs forked or scabrid which on inspection through a hand lens they clearly weren’t…

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  • Leaf midrib or leaf margins never spiny or prickly. Takes you to Key PG.
  • Leaves without large terminal lobe, often dandelion-like (with backward pointing lobes).
  • Petiole (leaf stem) hollow. Couldn’t get a photo but it was when you pinched it between your thumb and forefinger.
  • This gets you to Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg). There are subspecies of dandelion but this was good enough for me.

A good start. It didn’t take long. Next step will be to try something less familiar. Update to follow…

Gorse Hill Urban Botany Project – Planning

Planning an urban botany project…

As I described in my previous blog I’ve had the idea to attempt to produce a complete flora of the walls, gutters and random green places of Gorse Hill. That blog was good fun to write. It’s great having ideas isn’t it? Like planning to get fit in the new year then merrily scoffing all the cheese in the world throughout December. Saying you’re going to do a thing is easy but somehow when it comes to putting on your running shoes in January that motivated feeling is suddenly nowhere to be seen. That’s partly why I wrote a blog about it. It’s quite easy to conveniently forget to do something if it hasn’t made it beyond  your internal monolog. But if you tell the internet you’re going to do something, well, then you have to, right? I’m pretty sure that’s the rule.

My first act was to defer serious project planning for a while by spending some time dividing Gorse Hill up into zones and producing some basic maps to use in the planning of surveys and on the surveys themselves.

uploadGorse Hill, zones

uploadGorse Hill, zone 1

This was useful, giving me a better idea of the scale, geography and composition of the area. Gorse Hill is approximately composed of:

  • 74 Roads
  • 1 canal tow path
  • 3 parks
  • 1 allotment
  • 2 stretches of railway embankment
  • 2 major sports venues
  • 1 freight terminal
  • 1 metro station
  • 1 trading estate
  • 5 stand-alone urban features with grounds (Police station, College, Town hall etc)

This wasn’t horrifying. Ambitious but not implausible was my objective and these numbers felt about right for that.

Next I had a look online to see if there were any similar projects already happening elsewhere that I could use as a model for my own. I found a couple of bloggers in the US talking about urban botany but in a fairly general way, small case studies of individual species, that kind of thing. The closest thing I could find to my idea in Britain was the Urban Flora of Scotland project run by the Botanical Society of Scotland. That is a great project which aims to encourage the recording of neglected urban flora by collating urban records across Scotland in towns with a population of over 1000. So there is other urban botany stuff happening out there but not in the form of a comprehensive study of a particular urban area like mine. Please correct me if I’m mistaken. If there are similar projects already I would love to know about them.

I took a break from the maps and research and wandered down to the shop to buy a Pot Noodle. On my way I noticed tiny green shoot after tiny green shoot and began to get a little intimidated. These were going to be tough to ID and realistically I would have to ID them without pulling them up. It’d be no good producing a flora for an area which represented what was there before I’d removed it all. Urban flora is often made up of isolated individuals so attempting to leave the specimens as I’d found them was going to have to be a consideration. It also occurred to be that I was going to have to get over the fact that I might look a little weird. There are definitely going to be people walking past me, looking down and wondering what’s wrong with me as I squint at something on the pavement with a book in my hand.  I had that bitten off more than I could chew feeling.

I decided to take a step back and have a think about why I was doing a project. Without another, existing project to use as a model I was free to figure out what my motivations were and build my project around them. This came pretty easy. I want to use the project:

  • as an antidote to procrastination;
  • to give myself regular practice IDing with a key;
  • to get to grips with vegetative ID;
  • to engage with my community;
  • as a creative way to improve existing skills and gain new ones.

So, with these in mind, as well as some comments and suggestions from others, the basics of the project are as follows…

  • Survey all accessible places in Gorse Hill 4 times, once in each season.
  • Record higher, naturally occurring plants outside of peoples garden boundaries.
  • Record plants inside people’s gardens when easily viewed and identified from the street, and obviously wild.
  • When not in flower, attempt vegetative ID.
  • Produce and update an interactive map showing the location of species identified on surveys.
  • When all roads/features/areas have been surveyed 4 times, produce floral key for Gorse Hill.
  • Communicate survey/project info with community via social media.
  • Submit records to Greater Manchester Ecology Unit.

I’ve decided not to think too hard about a time scale. This is one of those ‘life’s a journey not a destination’ situations where the process is more important than the finished product.  But with all those roads, parks, tow paths etc, there are over 300 bits to survey before it’s finished.

I’m considering Sunday 27th March to be the official start date. Clocks go forward so the evenings will be lighter. That gives me a couple of months to prepare. Next job is to head out into the garden with The Vegetative Key and have a practice…

Essential tools for an upcoming #botany project

 

Thanks for reading. Do you have any thoughts, comments, observations about the project? All input welcome.