The Marine Biological Association’s 10th Annual Bioblitz

On the weekend of the 13th – 14th July, a small team of staff from NHBS attended the Marine Biological Association’s 10th Annual Bioblitz which took place at Newton Ferrers and Noss Mayo on the Devon coast.

View of Newton Ferrers from Noss Mayo Harbour. Image by Oli Haines.

This stunning area, which features a tidal estuary with its many associated creeks, secluded beaches, cliffs and woodland, has long been celebrated as an area of beauty and natural diversity and is designated as an Area of Outstanding Beauty (AONB). In recognition of the area’s diverse and high-quality habitats, the Yealm estuary is also a Special Area of Conservation, all of the intertidal mudflats and the woodland around the coastal path are classed as Priority Habitat and a proportion of the region has also been selected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

This year’s Bioblitz featured a huge range and variety of activities for children and adults of all ages; including whale and dolphin watching, reptile, butterfly, bug and fish surveys, stream dipping, nocturnal walks looking for bats, owls and glow worms, moth trapping and much more.

Keep reading for accounts from NHBS team members Kat, Soma and Bryony about the activities that they enjoyed over the weekend.

Editorial Assistant Kat Clayton took part in a crabbing competition on Friday evening:

“As the sun began to lower it was time for the crabbing competition. Conveniently situated on a pier by The Ship Inn at Noss Creek, this event sure was popular with the locals! The aim of the game was to catch the biggest crab and, along the way, survey the population of the Green Shore Crab (Carcinus maenas) around the pier. Children were wet-suited up and were not afraid of swimming off with their bait to find the best spot. After depositing their bait, they quickly swam back to the pier to reel in their catch. A twist on the mark-capture-release method was used, where the marking consisted of a dab of lipstick on the carapace of an unsuspecting crab. Bacon was flung as bait, children were dripping on the recording sheets and lipstick found itself on most peoples’ fingers and t-shirts. This organised chaos was much loved by all and I’m sure it will become a regular annual event. As this was a BioBlitz however, other species were recorded too, such as the sea slater (Ligia oceanica). Secretly, we were all hoping to see the crab parasitic barnacle Sacculina – which this year remained elusive”.

As well as the popular woodland walk, the list of activities included a dusk bird and bat walk. Image by Oli Haines.

Marketing Coordinator Soma Mitra-Chubb went along to the Bioblitz on Sunday with her children to take part in the Ancient Woodland walk:

“On Sunday, we joined in an Ancient Woodland walk. Ancient woodlands are those which have existed since the early 1600s and are the UK’s richest land-based habitat for wildlife. Our aim was to spot as many different types of trees and plants as possible, so off we went armed with our recording sheets.

Our walk took us through the beautiful Newton Woods running alongside the river Yealm. Fiona, our guide, set the younger children (and some adults) the task of collecting as many different leaves as possible which were gathered in a pile. We spotted leaves from cedar, ash, pine, oak, and a host of smaller plants including a nettle which was collected by one brave child. (There were, alas, no dock leaves to be found, triggering a discussion on why, in nature, you often find both poison and antidote growing next to each other). Some unusual finds included wild strawberries, and a herb named Robert.

It was a delightful walk, helped by the brilliant weather and congenial company. Unfortunately, as the walk overran, we were forced to turn back at the halfway point. We will be returning to Newton Woods to complete the walk at a later date!”

Bryony stands ready to help at the NHBS stall. Image by Oli Haines.

Wildlife Equipment Specialist Bryony attended the Bioblitz, both to take part in the activities and to provide a friendly face behind the NHBS stand, which offered a great range of wildlife survey equipment and identification guides for sale at the event:

“The MBA’s BioBlitz was a fantastic event to be a part of! It aimed to encourage more people to get involved in nature conservation and raise awareness of the abundance of wildlife on their doorstep.

Children, ecologists, naturalists and enthusiasts all got involved, no matter the age or the background. Activities were constantly on the go, wellies marched onwards to location after location on the search for more species; buckets, field guides and nets in hand. Marine, land-based, air-borne and tidal were all explored and examined.

Having the NHBS stall at such an active event was brilliant as we were able to provide inspiration to children, ecologists and families. We sold all manner of items enabling everyone to get closer to nature and to experience it first-hand. Our Educational Rock Pooling Kits and Pond Dipping Kits were a great success, along with bug magnification pots and pooters. Ecologists loved the new books that we had, aiding identification of all manners of sponges, seaweeds and lichens.

We were also able to answer questions, show children how to use the equipment and partake in the activities ourselves.”

The Bioblitz Research Hub. Image by Oli Haines.

Photos and highlights from the BioBlitz will be showcased in a celebration of the diversity of life along the Yealm at an event in the WI Hall in Newton Ferrers on Saturday 13th October. Everyone is welcome to drop in between 11am-4pm, with tea and cake being served.

The Bioblitz was organised by the Marine Biological Association and was supported by the Royal Society of Biology, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Yealm Waterside Homes.

The Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds arrives at NHBS

After 18 years in preparation, the highly anticipated two-volume Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds is now in stock and available from NHBS. Continue reading for a behind-the-scenes look at the logistics behind the arrival of such an exciting title.

Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds

Due to the incredible popularity of this book, four members of our staff dedicated three entire days to unpacking eight pallets of books, carefully repacking them and dispatching them to our eagerly awaiting customers.

The Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds, just arrived at the NHBS warehouse.

Watch the video below for a behind-the-scenes look at how this all happened.

We still have plenty of copies of the Handbook in stock, so order now and take advantage of our special price.

 

An NHBS field trip – searching for Nightjars

This week a small group of us took a trip to Dartmoor to try and catch a glimpse of Nightjars. As well as getting a chance to see one of the UK’s most elusive birds this was also a great opportunity to field test some of the equipment we sell.

Heading out to Dartmoor in the evening. Image by Oliver Haines.

Nightjars are cryptic, nocturnal birds that arrive in the UK in May to breed before migrating south in September. For the best chance to see these amazing creatures you need to head to heathland, moorland or open woodland on a warm, still evening. If you are early enough in the season you may also get a chance to see the males displaying, showcasing a repertoire of wing claps and churring.

This great selection of equipment meant that we could look out for bats and moths as well as Nightjars. Image by Oliver Haines.

So what did we pack for an evening of Nightjar watching? Our kit bag is below:

Wildlife Equipment Manager Steve sets up the SM4 Acoustic Recorder. Image by Oliver Haines.

Looking for moths using a simple torch and white sheet. Image by Oliver Haines.

At the site we visited we were lucky enough to see 2-3 males displaying and, despite the low light conditions, the binoculars were extremely useful for picking out individuals on branches. We were also able to capture some great audio recordings with the SM4 Acoustic recorder which we deployed for a few hours. A sample audio clip from the SM4 can be found below. The Tascam allowed us to record as we watched the nightjars displaying, giving us the chance to record all parts of the display. During the walk back we started up a couple of the bat detectors and were greeted by a few different species including noctules and pipistrelles.


Images by Oliver Haines and from Nightjars of the World.

What would we take next time?

A parabolic microphone (Telinga PRO-X or Hi-Sound Mono Parabolic Microphone) would have been extremely useful for getting some high-quality recordings. Although the Tascam worked well by itself, a highly directional parabolic microphone would have allowed us to get higher quality recordings and reduce background noise.

The binoculars performed fairly well given the low light conditions but on the next trip I would be really interested in testing a night vision scope such as the Pulsar Digiforce 860RT as a way to try and spot perched nightjars later into the evening.

Nightjar chicks in their nest on the ground. Image by Oliver Haines.

We had a great evening observing these fascinating birds and I highly recommend it. Nightjar populations have been recovering recently but they are still an amber listed species. They are highly sensitive to habitat change and, since they nest on the ground, are particularly vulnerable to disturbance from people and dogs. So if you decide to go and observe the Nightjars displaying this summer please be mindful, stick to paths and keep dogs on leads. More information on Nightjar conservation and identification can be found on the RSPB website.

National Insect Week 2018

National Insect Week is organised by the Royal Entomological Society and occurs every two years. In 2018 it takes place from 18th to 24th June.

National Insect Week 2018

Following the shocking news in 2017 which revealed recent drastic declines in insect numbers, insect and invertebrate biodiversity has never been more critical. National Insect Week aims to inspire people of all ages and backgrounds to learn more about insects and the vital roles they play in almost every ecosystem on earth.

To celebrate National Insect Week hundreds of events will be occurring throughout the UK, ranging from Bioblitz days, insects walks, workshops and even the chance to dine out on edible insects. Take a look at the interactive map on the official National Insect Week website to see what’s happening where you live. Or why not organise your own event? Don’t forget to submit the details on the website though so that it can be added to the map!

New to the world of insects?

Why not get started by watching the following videos from the Royal Entomological Society. They provide a brief introduction to the various groups of insects and explain why they are so vitally important to life on earth. If you’re eager to learn more then you can read about all of the main orders of insects here.

Ready to start finding and observing insects outside?

At NHBS we sell a huge range of insect identification guides as well as butterfly and sweep nets, moth traps, handheld magnifiers, bug pots and all the other accessories you need to start identifying insects in the field. Follow the links below to visit the shopping pages on our website.

Guides to Butterfies and Moths
Guides to Bees, Ants and Wasps
Guides to Beetles (Coleoptera)
Guides to Flies (Diptera)
Moth Traps

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Insect Nets and Beating Trays

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hand Lenses and Microscopes
Bug Pots

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Curlew Moon: An interview with Mary Colwell

Mary Colwell is an award-winning writer and producer who is well-known for her work with BBC Radio producing programmes on natural history and environmental issues; including their Natural Histories, Shared Planet and Saving Species series.

Her new book, Curlew Moon, documents her 500-mile journey from the west coast of Ireland to the east of England to raise awareness and funds for the Curlew, now one of the UK’s most threatened birds. Part travel diary and part natural history, the book is also a beautiful exploration of the way in which the Curlew appears in local myths, culture and language.

We were delighted to chat with Mary about the book and about her fight to save the UK Curlew population before it’s too late.

Curlew MoonI guess I’ll start with the obvious question – why Curlews? What is it about them that captivates you and has made you dedicate so much time and energy to raising awareness for their conservation?

That’s perhaps the most difficult question. I honestly don’t know why Curlews in particular, other than I love the way they look, how they sound and where they live. Those calls over wetland and meadow or over mountain slopes are soul-grabbing. W S Graham described the Curlew’s call as a ‘love-weep’ a melancholic, yearning, beautiful sound. I grew up in the Staffordshire Moorlands and back then, in the 70s, they were common, so perhaps they infiltrated my brain! What I found on the walk is that many people feel the same. To know them is to love them. And over the last few years, as I became aware of what was happening not out on the savannah or in a rainforest, but right here under our noses, I decided to try to help. A contract with the BBC Natural History unit came to an end and the next day I started to plan the walk.

Curlew MoonWhere I live in North Wales, on the banks of the Menai Straights, the sight and sound of curlew are very common. Living somewhere like this, you could easily believe that they are both abundant and thriving here in the UK. Do you think that this, along with a lack of understanding of their complete natural history (e.g. the types of habitat they require to breed, food sources and predator pressures) contributes to masking the problems they face?

For sure that is the case. The UK and Ireland population of Curlew are boosted by winter visitors. From August to March as many as 150,000 Curlews rest up and feed ready for the breeding season. But come the warmer months most disappear back to N Germany, Scandinavia or Finland, leaving our own breeding birds thinly scattered. Also, as Curlew don’t breed until they are at least 2 years old, juveniles may well spend all year on the coast. The story of loss is in the fields and meadows. A Curlew’s life is complicated, and we are only just getting to grips with that. It needs whole landscapes to feed, roost, nest and over-winter. They bind the coast to the mountains and country to country. It’s hard to understand, but worth the effort. They really are fascinating.

Curlew MoonPoetry features heavily in the book and I absolutely loved how you explore the myriad ways in which the curlew features in the myths, legends and cultures of the areas you passed through. (I am currently in the process of moving to Clynnog Fawr so I was particularly thrilled with the tale of St. Beuno!). Why did you choose to style the book in this way rather than writing a more prosaic natural history and travel diary?

I think being a producer on Radio 4’s Natural Histories for two series deepened my understanding of just how much the life around us has contributed to art, literature, poetry, science, folklore and spirituality. For all of our time as humans on earth we have looked at the natural world and forged connections. We still do that today. Part of the reason for the walk was to discover how curlews have inspired us. I had known about the lovely story of St Beuno and the Curlew for a long time – enchanted by it – so I knew there must be more out there. And there certainly is!

Particularly at a time where it seems that we are encouraged to value wildlife primarily for how it can benefit us, and ‘ecosystem services’ type approaches aim to put a monetary value on our wild spaces and creatures, do you think the arts have an important role in highlighting and championing those species that might otherwise fade away without notice?

Yes of course, anything that helps us to re-engage with nature is vital, be that through arts or science or economics. People are complicated – each of us has so many facets, rolled into one being. We are consumers, parents, children, lovers, friends. We are both rational and irrational, emotional and calculating, loving and full of division. Spiritual, religious, atheist, agnostic, often all at the same time. The arts understand this complexity and great art touches all those facets. The role of the arts in our lives is incalculable, so it isn’t surprising it doesn’t appear on a financial spreadsheet. I’m not sure I could write a straight natural history of any animal, bird or plant. I will always want to delve into its connection to our lives.

Curlew MoonWith any conservation work, it can sometimes feel as though you are swimming against the tide, with every move forward followed by two moves back. Especially with a species such as the Curlew, where there seem to be so many challenges to overcome, how do you maintain the hope required to keep fighting and how do you prevent yourself from succumbing to despair?

I touch on this a bit in the book – in the section where I walk though the middle of England with a friend who is an ex- Dominican friar, a gay activist and a writer, Mark Dowd.  He helped put my feelings into context. This wasn’t a walk that will necessarily produce tangible proof of more Curlews on the ground within 5 years. Rather it is in the realm of hope –  that something good will emerge at some point. It was a walk of trust, that if you put yourself on the line, people will respond. And so I didn’t walk with the aim that there would be a 20% increase in curlews in the UK and Ireland by 2020 (although that would be great), rather it was underpinned by a hope that people will be more aware of what needs to be done and will act on it. The series of workshops I organised with help from so many good people also gave me hope. We may fail, we may yet lose curlews from large areas, but, as David Attenborough once said, “As long as I can look into the eyes of my grandchildren and say I honestly did what I could, then that is all I can do.” I agree with that.

My final question is of a more practical nature, as I’m fascinated by people who take time out of their lives to undertake challenging journeys. Are you a seasoned long-distance walker or is this the first walk of this length you have undertaken? How did you prepare for it, both physically and mentally?

I used to do a lot of walking, but then children came along and life changed. So for 20 years I didn’t do much. But determination takes you a long way – and going to the gym. I just felt ready for the challenge and was so sure it was the right thing to do. But I did suffer from blisters! Still, a small price to pay and a good excuse to buy new boots for my most recent long distance walk – 230 miles through the Sierra Nevada in California along the John Muir Trail. That was tough, it made 500 miles along footpaths look like a stroll in the park.

Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell is published by William Collins and is available from NHBS. You can read more about Mary and her work at www.curlewmedia.com.

Signed copies of the book are available while stocks last.

 

Hedgehog Awareness Week 2018

The hedgehog is one of the nation’s favourite garden visitors. However, due to severe declines in their numbers, they are now a priority species in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan. Image by Peter O’Connor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Hedgehog Awareness Week runs from 6th – 12th May and is organised by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

Here are seven ways that you can get involved this year:

1. Donate to the BHPS by texting HHOG18 £5 to 70070, or donate via their Just Giving page. The BHPS is a charity that relies solely on membership and donations. They provide advice to the public on how to care for and encourage local hedgehogs and they maintain a national list of hedgehog rehabilitators. They also raise awareness and support for hedgehogs and fund research into the behaviour and conservation of hedgehogs in the UK.

2. Hold a coffee morning or other fundraising event to raise funds for hedgehogs. Make sure you tag any posts about your event on social media with #hedgehogweek and don’t forget to let BHPS know what you’re doing, so they can keep up-to-date with everything that’s going on around the country.

3. Post some leaflets in your local area letting people know how to care for hedgehogs in their garden and what to do if they find an injured hog. Lots of leaflets can be downloaded from the information section on the BHPS website.

4. Contact your local council or tool hire centre and ask them to put free warning stickers on all of their strimmers.

5. Educate yourself about hedgehogs and their needs. Take a look at our Hedgehog Facts & FAQs blogpost for lots of information or treat yourself to one of the great books about hedgehogs available from NHBS:

The Hedgehog

Hedgehogs

Hedgehog

 

 

 

 

 

A Prickly AffairHedgehog RehabilitationHedgehog New Naturalist

 

 

 

 

 

From left to right, top to bottom:
The Hedgehog – Pat Morris
Hedgehogs – Pat Morris
Hedgehog – High Warwick
A Prickly Affair – Hugh Warwick
Hedgehog Rehabilitation – Kay Bullen
Hedgehog New Naturalist – Pat Morris (Due June 2018)

6. Make your garden hedgehog-friendly: Attempt to keep some areas wild and overgrown and, if you have a garden fence, cut a hole at the bottom measuring 13 x 13cm as this will allow hedgehogs to pass through on their nightly wanderings. Provide a shallow dish of fresh water along with some dog or cat food, some chopped unsalted peanuts or some sunflower hearts. Finally, make or buy a hedgehog home. This will provide a safe and warm space for hedgehogs to hibernate throughout the winter, and also for a female to raise her young in the spring and summer.

Igloo Hedgehog Home

Hedgehog Nest Box

Eco Hedgehog Nest Box

 

 

 


From left to right:

Igloo Hedgehog Home
Hedgehog Nest Box
Eco Hedgehog Nest Box

7. Find out if hedgehogs are visiting your garden with our brand new Mammal Footprint Tunnel. Simple to set up and safe for children (and animals), the tunnel is a fun way to collect tracks of hedgehogs and other small mammals in your garden.

The Big Bluebell Watch 2018

In late April and May bluebells create a stunning blue carpet in woodlands around the UK – a favourite sight for naturalists and walkers everywhere. Image by Carine06 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

What is the Big Bluebell Watch?

The Big Bluebell Watch is organised by the Woodland Trust and takes place from 2nd April until 31st May. This nationwide survey involves members of the public submitting their sightings of bluebells around the UK via an online map, the results of which will allow the Woodland Trust to monitor the status of native bluebells and to guide future conservation efforts.

Continue reading for more information about bluebells in the UK, as well as some tips on telling the difference between native and non-native species. Then head over to the Woodland Trust website to submit your findings.

Bluebells in the UK

Our native bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, flowers between mid-April and the end of May, transforming our woodlands with a stunning blue carpet beneath the budding canopy. Although present throughout Western Europe, more than half of the world’s bluebells are found in the UK where they are an important indicator of ancient woodland.

Despite being one of the nation’s favourite flowers, H. non-scripta is now threatened by habitat destruction, illegal collection and hybridisation with non-native species. Because of this, they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and, since 1998, it has been illegal to collect native bluebells from the wild.

The Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) is a closely related species which was introduced to Britain in the 1600s as an ornamental garden plant. It has now spread into our countryside where it hybridises freely with native bluebells. This is a problem as the hybrids tend to be hardier and can outcompete the native bluebell, while diluting their gene pool and characteristics. There is a huge concern that, if left without monitoring or management, the native British bluebell will no longer exist in the wild.

How to tell the difference between native and non-native bluebells

There are three types of bluebell that you may encounter in the UK: the native British bluebell, the introduced Spanish bluebell and the hybrid, which results when the two species cross-breed. Here are a few tips to help you tell the difference:

British Bluebell
Image by User:Colin via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

British bluebell
• Leaves are narrow (approximately 1 – 1.5cm wide)
• Stem often droops to one side
• All or most of the flowers are on one side of the stem
• Tips of the petals curl up
• Flowers are cylindrical in shape
• Flowers are usually deep violet-blue although sometimes white or pink
• Flowers have a strong sweet scent
• Pollen is creamy-white

Spanish Bluebell
Image by Leonora (Ellie) Enking via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Spanish Bluebell
• Leaves are broader than those of the British species (often over 3cm wide)
• Stems tend to be straight and erect
• Flowers are distributed around the stem
• Tips of the petals do not curl
• Flower are bell or cone-shaped
• Flowers often paler blue or pink or white
• Flowers have little to no scent
• Pollen tends to be blue

Hybrid Bluebell
The hybrid bluebell is a cross between these two types and may show a wide range of intermediate characteristics. If you find a bluebell that has any of the characteristics from the second list, then it is probably safe to assume that you are looking at a hybrid bluebell.

Where do I submit my bluebell sightings?

During April and May, the Woodland Trust are collecting records of bluebell sightings from all around the UK. It doesn’t matter where you see them – whether they are in your garden, in a field or in a woodland, every sighting is important and will help to build a comprehensive picture of the state of our native bluebells. If you’re not sure which type you’ve seen then you can still make a submission to the records.

Submit your sightings before 31st May on the Woodland Trust website.

Wildflower Guides

If you’re interested in learning more about the flowers and plants you see while out and about, why not pick up a wildflower guide. Below you will find a list of some of our bestsellers.

Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland

Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland
Marjorie Blamey et al.
This is the first fully-illustrated and fully-mapped guide to the British and Irish flora, covering more than 1,900 species. Its restriction to the British Isles alone allows far more detail and more local information, and identification is made easier with the inclusion of maps for most species.

 

Collins Wild Flower Guide

Collins Wild Flower Guide
David Streeter
Featuring all flowering plants, including trees, grasses and ferns, this fully revised and updated field guide to the wild flowers of Britain and northern Europe is the most complete illustrated, single-volume guide ever published. Illustrated by leading botanical artists.

 

The Wild Flower Key

The Wild Flower Key
Francis Rose and Clare O’Reilly
The expanded edition of this essential guide is packed with extra identification tips, innovative features designed to assist beginners and many more illustrations. Also includes a compilation of the latest research on ancient woodland indicator plants.

 

The NHBS Guide to UK Amphibian Identification

 

The UK is home to seven native species of amphibian. Over the winter, these frogs, toads and newts have all been hibernating, but it will soon be time for them to venture out to their breeding ponds and pools. If you’re lucky, you will be able to spot them when you’re out and about.

In this blogpost we will provide you with some of the key characteristics of each species which will help you to identify exactly what you’re looking at. For those of you who are keen to find out more, we have also provided a list of field and identification guides at the bottom of the page.


Newts

Newts are members of the salamander family and have a lizard-like body shape. They are semi-aquatic, spending part of the year on land, returning to the water in spring to breed. Eggs are laid in the water where they hatch into tadpoles and then proceed to develop front and back legs, along with gills for breathing. They leave the water in late summer once their gills have been lost.

The three species of newt which are native to the UK are the Smooth Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris), the Palmate Newt (Lissotriton helveticus) and the Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus).

Smooth Newt:

Image by gailhampshire via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Look for the pale spotted throat. Image by gailhampshire.

• Size: Grows to around 10-11cm in length.
• Colour: Males brown/olive; females light brown. Belly is usually yellowy orange with black spots. The throat is pale with darker spots.
• Skin Texture: Smooth
• Habitat: Spring to early summer in ponds and pools (frequently found in garden ponds). Late summer under logs and stones near to water.
• Other notes: The male has a wavy back crest during the breeding season.

Palmate Newt:

Image by Laurent Lebois via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Look for the pale throat without spots and a dark stripe through the eye – this can help you to distinguish it from the smooth newt. Image by Laurent Lebois.

• Size: Grows to around 7-11cm; slightly smaller than the smooth newt.
• Colour: Males olive brown; females yellowish brown. The throat is white/pale pink and does not have spots or speckling. The eye has a dark stripe running horizontally through it.
• Skin Texture: Smooth
• Habitat: During the breeding season (early March to late May) in shallow ponds, often in heathland bogs. During summer in woodland, ditches and gardens near to water.
• Other notes: During the breeding season, the male palmate newt has a ridge running along its back and a tail which ends in a filament. Its back feet are also webbed.

Great Crested Newt

Much larger than the smooth or palmate newt, the male has a large crest which is broken where the tail meets the body. Image by Chris H.

• Size: Up to 15cm in length. Females may be even larger than this.
• Colour: Dark brown or black with white/silver dots on sides. Underside is orange with black spots. Pale throat.
• Skin Texture: Warty
• Habitat: March to May in deep ponds with vegetation. Great crested newts often range further than smooth or palmate newts during the summer and can be found in gardens, ditches and woodland.
• Other notes: The male has a very distinctive crest during the breeding season which is broken at the point where the tail meets the body. The crest also has a silver stripe.


Frogs

Frogs are short-bodied, tailless amphibians that largely lay their eggs in water. These eggs hatch into aquatic larvae, known as tadpoles, before metamorphosing into froglets and then adults.

There are two native species of frog in the UK: the Common Frog (Rana temporaria) and the Pool Frog (Pelophylax lessonae).

Common Frog

Keep an eye out for dark patches behind the eyes and dark barring on the back legs. Image by Erik Paterson.

• Size: Adults grow to 6-9cm in length.
• Colour: Olive green to yellow-brown. Usually spotty or stripy with dark patches behind the eyes and darker barring on hind legs.
• Skin Texture: Smooth and moist.
• Habitat: From late February to early October in all sorts of ponds and pools. Common in gardens.
• Other notes: Moves by hopping. Common frogspawn is gelatinous with black embryos and tadpoles are initially black but turn speckled brown. (This is a useful way of distinguishing them from toad tadpoles, which remain dark until development).

Pool Frog

• Size: Adults grow to 6-9cm in length.
• Colour: Usually brown with dark spots. Light yellow back stripe.
• Skin Texture: Smooth and moist.
• Habitat: Currently only present in localised spots in East Anglia.
• Other notes: Males have prominent vocal sacks on the side of the mouth.


Toads

Toads are characterised by dry-looking, warty skin and short legs. They usually move via a lumbering walk, as opposed to the hopping motion used by frogs. As with frogs, most toads lay their eggs in water. These hatch into tadpoles before growing legs and metamorphosing into the adult form.

Within the UK there are two native species of toad: the Common Toad (Bufo bufo) and the Natterjack Toad (Epidalea calamita).

Common Toad

The common toad moves with a lumbering walk and has distinctive bulges on the back of its head. Image by stanze.

• Size: Females grow up to 13cm whilst males are smaller and usually reach only 8cm.
• Colour: Brown to grey-green. Paler on the underside.
• Skin Texture: Dry-looking and warty.
• Habitat: From late February in damp, shady spots near to breeding ponds. During the summer in woodlands, gardens and fields.
• Other notes: The common toad has amber eyes with a horizontal pupil. Moves with a lumbering walk or small hop. Eggs are laid in strings in a double row. Upon hatching the tadpoles are dark and, unlike frog tadpoles, remain so until they develop. 

Natterjack Toad

The natterjack toad has a yellow stripe down the spine. Image by Bernard Dupont.

• Size: Females grow up to 8cm whilst males are slightly smaller.
• Colour: Pale brown/green, often with brightly coloured red or yellow warts. Yellow stripe down the spine.
• Skin Texture: Dry-looking and warty.
• Habitat: Coastal dunes and lowland heath, often in open, unshaded habitats. The natterjack toad is very rare in the UK.
• Other notes: The natterjack toad has amber eyes with a horizontal pupil. Moves with a running motion, rather than hopping. Lays strings of eggs in a single row.


Further reading:

 

Amphibians and Reptiles

Amphibians and Reptiles
A comprehensive guide to the native and non-native species of amphibian and reptile found in the British Isles. Professor Trevor Beebee covers the biology, ecology, conservation and identification of the British herpetofauna, and provides keys for the identification of adult and immature specimens as well as eggs, larvae and metamorphs.

Britain's Reptiles and Amphibians

Britain’s Reptiles and Amphibians
This detailed guide to the reptiles and amphibians of Britain, Ireland and the Channel Islands has been produced with the aim of inspiring an increased level of interest in these exciting and fascinating animals. It is designed to help anyone who finds a lizard, snake, turtle, tortoise, terrapin, frog, toad or newt to identify it with confidence.

 

FSC Guide: Reptiles and Amphibians

A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Britain and Ireland
This laminated pamphlet is produced by the Field Studies Council and covers the 13 species of non-marine reptile and amphibian which breed in Britain, as well as the five species which breed in Ireland. These include frogs, toads, newts, snakes and lizards.

 

Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Britain and Europe
This excellent field guide covers a total of 219 species, with a focus on identification and geographical variation. The species text also covers distribution, habitat and behaviour. Superb colour illustrations by talented artist Ilian Velikov depict every species.

 

The Amphibians and Reptiles of ScotlandThe Amphibians and Reptiles of Scotland
This book is designed to be an interesting and informative guide to the amphibians and reptiles that are found in the wild in Scotland. The authors have focused on those species native to Scotland, plus those which are non-native but are breeding in the wild.

The 2018 Big Garden Birdwatch

Great Tit by Jannis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Big Garden Birdwatch provides the RSPB with a huge amount of data and allows them to monitor changes in abundance and distribution of garden birds throughout the UK. Image by Jannis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is the world’s largest garden wildlife survey – in 2017 almost half a million people submitted results! Now in its 39th year, this annual event has become vital in helping the RSPB monitor trends in the abundance and distribution of birds in the UK.

This year the survey takes place from Saturday 27th to Monday 29th January. It’s a great activity for the whole family, and all it takes is an hour of your time. Here’s how to take part:

  1. Choose a good place to view your garden. If you don’t have a garden then wrap up warm and head down to your local park or green space to take part from there.
  2. Watch the birds for an hour, counting the maximum number of each species you see at any one time. (This reduces the likelihood of counting the same bird more than once). Don’t forget to make a note of any other wildlife that you spot as well.
  3. Submit your results, either on the Big Garden Birdwatch website, or by posting a paper form.
  4. Look out for the results being published in March!

Useful links:

Recommended reading:

The Everyday Guide to British Birds
Charlie Elder
The perfect companion for nature enthusiasts and birdwatching beginners. It describes the most common and widespread species that a birder is likely to come across in Britain, and illustrates the features that make each of them unique.

 

Collins Bird Guide
Lars Svensson
The UK’s most popular bird guide. Covering Britain and Europe, the book provides all the information needed to identify any species at any time of year, with detailed text on size, habitat, range, identification and voice.

 

Britain’s Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland
Rob Hume et al.
Focusing on identification and containing maps, facts and figures on numbers and distributions, this breakthrough publication was devised by a team of lifelong birdwatchers, all with many years’ experience of showing people birds and producing user-friendly field guides.

Guide to the Top 50 Garden Birds
Edward Jackson and Andrew Simms
This handy fold-out guide is designed to help identify the majority of species likely to be found in a garden throughout the year. The choice of ‘top 50’ is based on the relative abundance of species recorded in the UK by the BTO Garden BirdWatch survey.

 

RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds
Simon Harrap
A compact and informative field guide which covers more than 200 of the most common birds found in Britain. Features concise descriptions of each bird’s main characteristics including plumage, calls and song, confusion species, habitat, distribution and status, and behaviours.

 

A Practical Illustrated Guide to Attracting and Feeding Garden Birds
Ed. by Jen Green
This is the complete book of bird feeders, bird tables, birdbaths, nest boxes and backyard bird watching. It helps you learn what to feed garden birds, from seeds, grains and peanuts to fruits, suet cakes and fat balls, as well as how to attract birds by planting the right flowers, trees and shrubs.

The Plant Messiah: An interview with Carlos Magdalena

Carlos MagdalenaCarlos Magdalena is a botanical horticulturist at Kew Gardens, famous for his pioneering work with waterlilies and his never-tiring efforts to save some of the world’s rarest species from extinction. In his book, The Plant Messiah, Carlos shares stories of his travels and his work at Kew and, in doing so, opens our eyes to the delicate wonder of plants and the perils that many of them are now facing.

We recently caught up with Carlos to chat about plant conservation, his views on extinction and lots more.


The Plant MessiahIn your book you describe your trips to some incredible places – most of which have resulted in the collection of valuable herbarium specimens and seeds for growing or storage. Where does the impetus for these projects come from? Do you get to choose the species and/or projects that you work on or are these assigned to you?

They can happen for various reasons. Sometimes, they are assigned to me, like the projects in Peru and Bolivia: there is a need for a horticulturist capable of speaking Spanish, with experience in propagation of tropical plants and therefore, they contact me and from there we start the ball rolling. However, there is always the personal interest, though this works in an indirect way. Because I have been interested for years in tropical waterlilies, especially those from Australia, I had built up masses of knowledge, contacts and experience and therefore one day, someone needs someone with those skills and they want you to join in their projects. My endeavours in Mauritius started when seeds were set in a Ramosmania plant in a glasshouse in London. After this happened, there was a need to bring back this species to the island. Since this was a very genuine reason that could be solved at a very low cost, funding was allocated soon to travel and then, any time I go, I return with many more species that need working on to secure them ex-situ so you establish a working relationship with the country. There is so much work to be done that at the end of the day, money and time are the limits to be honest, but especially, funding is the main issue I have.

The Plant MessiahMany of the methods you use for germinating seeds and propagating plants have been considered unorthodox, and this is undoubtedly one of the reasons behind your outstanding achievements. Did you find that your peers and colleagues were initially suspicious of your techniques and approach, or did you always feel supported in your methods?

I guess they are not that unorthodox after all, I will say is more in the lines of ‘if something does not work, let’s try something else’, which is a bit unorthodox but also the sensible thing to do in those cases. I guess it is always tricky to swim against the ‘mantras’ or certain situations where is easier to stick to ‘oh, it won’t work because it cannot be done’ but even when I can be a victim of this myself, I try to do my best to think that you never know if you don’t try. Horticulture is a bit complicated since there are so many aspects to take into account. Science has a big part to play in it, but there is also that bit that is more like cooking, not witchery, but no white lab coat stuff either.
In cultivation, there are too many factors, compost types, light, humidity, temperature, temperature fluctuation, pests, seasons, fertilizers, nutrient levels, and so on and so forth. It is very difficult sometimes to come from an answer as result of traditional science when trying to work out what are the best parameters for each of the 400,000 known species of plants. Good basic science knowledge is vital, but the capacity of guessing, the ability to acknowledge and correct your own mistakes, to be capable of observing very small changes in the general looking of a plant (which I guess involves good photographic memory) are equally important, throwing in a bit of ‘gut feeling’ as it can help too! Sometimes first you manage to grow a plant by ‘play it by the ear’ and if you succeed and manage to grow many, then you can do the empirical work in a more traditional scientific manner, but first, it has to grow!

Many of the processes you describe in your book are very labour intensive and appear to involve a certain amount of trial and error. With the understanding that time is of the essence for many of the species you work with, and that availability of seeds may be severely limited, how do you cope with the prolonged uncertainty and pressure that must surely exist when attempting to germinate seeds or propagate cuttings?

You try to do the obvious first. Sometimes you know that something works very well with that family, so you will try that first. If it does not work you need to come up with a theory of ‘what happened’ and then create a scenario that tries to prevent that situation happening again. When quantities of seeds are abundant, then that makes things easier since you can try many things at once. With very small quantities of material this is not possible, so you try to use safer options. Seeds that cannot be dried die if you dry them. Seeds that need to be dried to germinate can stay wet for a period after harvesting, so if the seeds have not been dried already, I may sow them without drying in a way that I can recover it later to try a dry, then wet method. If something can be undone, sometimes takes preference over some action that cannot be undone. If that fails, then try plan B. if everything fails and there is no more material, you had that experience so that next time something is available you can try something else. However, were the seeds non-viable? Were they too old? It can be a bit tricky to get the whole picture sometimes. There are quite a few general rules that help, the difficulty is to spot the exceptions to the rule. In these cases, experience is the mother of science and not the other way around, but then, you have to be sure that whatever change you want to do make sense from a natural science point of view.

You frequently state in your book that extinction is unacceptable. How do you feel about the proposals by some ecologists that our modifications to the planet have in fact stimulated evolution, and that extinctions and non-native invasions are just part of a natural process, albeit it one that our actions may have accelerated?

First, I think that even if something is naturally going extinct, it should be preserved. No-one questions that we preserve items such as cathedrals or classic paintings under the excuse that ‘oh well, naturally they will fall apart and disintegrate in time’. They are an immeasurable resource and relevant part of our heritage. Regarding the invasive introductions…this is complex and cannot be summarized in a simple statement like the one above. There are species that naturalize and do not create a massive change, they just integrate as another item in the system, others occupy heavily pre-damaged ecosystems, so in fact, and they are a symptom rather than an illness of the damaged ecosystem. Look at Buddleia and its preference for cracks in concrete, brownfields, and decaying urban environments. Conservation is in a way altruistic (every species should have the right to live, just because it is a species), but also is an act of egoism and self-preservation because they are so useful to us in many ways. The more that we can keep, the more biodiverse the planet will be. As earlier stated, it is a very complex issue. What is the impact of invasive plants on CO2 absorption? Not sure what the answer to that is, but I bet that in some cases they are sequestering CO2, but not for all the species nor all the situations either. Avoiding extinctions should be always high on our agendas. We can aim to preserve many species long term, even if we still allow for lots of human changes taking place, but only if we can stop climate change and we manage the land properly. If we think ‘yeah, is all part of a natural process’ then we have to admit that burning fossil fuels is as natural as flying rabbits from Spain to the Antipodes, and also, that climate change will lead to a mass extinction but then, it will recover in a few million years later? No thanks, I rather keep the world as it is, beautiful and biodiverse, because guess what, nearly all of it is avoidable. Key word here: avoidable.

Animal conservationists often bemoan the fact that it is difficult to get the public interested in the “non-charismatic megafauna”. So, while the whales, tigers and pandas of the world have plenty of public attention and support, the plankton, toads and flies are often neglected. Do you feel this problem exists within the sphere of plant conservation too? Are the beautiful “charismatic” plants given attention over the less visually striking species? Or do you think that plants as a whole are neglected? As an extension of this, how do you think we should go about getting the public to care about the conservation of plants?

Firstly, yes, I think that plant conservation is low on people’s minds when compared with furry large animals. True that. But to be fair, a subspecies of the Javan rhino was declared extinct in Vietnam in 2011 and all the populations of this emblematic mammal are declining badly despite its cuteness, so there is work to be done with animals for sure.
I think we need to understand that plants are more important to our survival, and to the animal species survival than we think they do. With plants, we need to know them better before we can truly appreciate them. There is no Rhino without savannah and we need to look at the savannah more like a vegetation community rather than a background setting for Rhinos. Plants are the green glue that sticks the planet ecosystems together. We need to look at the system more, but systems are made of components and we cannot lose them if we want to keep the system going. It is always easier to attract funding and interest to showy plant species. Sad but true, but on the other hand, many stunning looking species are threatened and nothing much has been done. We need to raise the game in all departments of conservation. At the end of the day, it is the planet that we are protecting, not single species only. I have the feeling that avoiding plant extinction is easier than animal extinction, at least ex-situ. Yet, there are more instances of animals being reintroduced to the wild than plants. Sometimes, you need to introduce animals to recover the vegetation, i.e wolves rather than planting trees. Sometimes you may need to plant trees to reconnect two populations of large mammals. Fisheries rely heavily on seagrass and mangrove forest. Those two marine habitats fix massive amounts of CO2. Does global warming affects Panda’s favourite food? Rather than focus on animal vs plant conservation, we need to do this: to focus on single species so that they do not go extinct but also make sure that the worlds ecosystems are functioning. Easier said than done, but I refuse to accept that ‘cannot be done’. It is all avoidable.

Finally, is there a plant, either extant or presumed extinct, that you dream of seeing during your lifetime?

Only one? The trouble here is what to choose…there is so many things I do not want to miss in my life time. Never seen the redwood forest, I’ve never been to South Africa, Madagascar, New Guinea, Socotra…just to name a few incredible biodiverse areas that contain 100s of interesting ‘must see’ species. The discovery of a living fossil plant in the likes of Ginkgo or the Wollemy pine would always be very exciting…indeed the reappearance of an extinct species is always uplifting, however, if I have to choose, I go for the ‘extinction avoidance’. Mostly because, if I’m aware it is about to happen, and when it happens, it is so depressing. So I choose this: to produce and germinate seeds of Hyophorbe amaricaulis from Mauritius. Only one palm tree left, and decades of failures mean that is likely it will go extinct during my lifetime. I’m aware of this, and I cannot bear the thought of waking up one day to the news that a cyclone has split it in half.


The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena is published by Penguin Books and is available from NHBS in hardback. The paperback version is due for publication in April 2018.