Turning your wildlife sightings into valuable data for science!

In these strange times many of us who are lucky to have gardens and green spaces have probably spent more time in them than usual over the past few months since the Covid19 outbreak in March, and by doing so you may have noticed the varied wildlife on your doorstep a little more – from the butterflies visiting the flowers to the bats foraging above you at dusk. Jennifer Owen, author of Wildlife of a Garden, conducted a 30 year study of her own garden and recorded over 2,700 species – so you’d be surprised what you might find when you start looking.

The Big Butterfly Count is on until the 9th August 2020.

Observing the life in your garden is rewarding as it is but making a record and submitting this to the relevant recording scheme is a really simple way you can turn your evenings in the garden sipping elderflower champagne into valuable science. Scientists can use these records in research to understand the changing world around us. Questions such as ‘how species are affected by climate change’ or ‘which species are in decline or at risk’ can be investigated more successfully when we all chip in to the data collection – the bigger the data, the more accurate the research can be. Citizen science projects such as the Big Butterfly Count to the Longhorn Beetle Recording Scheme, give scientists access to a much larger (and therefore more reliable) dataset than they would be able to gather solely on their own and their research has given us important insight into the way populations are changing, which in turn enables us to direct conservation and policy changes to where it is needed.

If you are a bit more versed in species identification and want to make your own list rather than or as well as a particular recording project, you can get help with identification in various Facebook groups such as ‘Wildflowers and Plants of Norfolk and Suffolk’ (cheeky plug for my group!) or the many specific invertebrate groups. Once you have a positive identification, you can submit your records to your local county recorder or recording scheme. To find a list of different recording projects head over to the National Biodiversity Network here.

British Mammals are incredibly under recorded. The European hedgehog is in decline and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species is running a recording scheme to get a better picture which can be found here.

You can also find information on local recording events to meet up with other enthusiast (when allowed) to improve your identification skills. Additionally, records can also be submitted to using iNaturalist which I believe has a great online community to help with identification, or iRecord, which is my personal preferred method. The handy app is really easy to use, and you can upload photos along with the record, which gets verified by an expert at the other end.

Penological data on emerging spring species such as the hairy footed flower bee, or the blooming of primroses, can give scientists an insight into how species are responding to climate change.

Either way, dipping your toes into the world of recording can be incredibly exciting. Not only will you find out what’s living on your doorstep, you are making a valuable contribution to the world of ecological and conservation science – and who knows, you may even find a new species!

Gardening for Butterflies

It’s that time of year again where we head out into gardens and green spaces to spend 15 minutes observing butterflies and sending our findings to Butterfly Conservation… that’s right, it’s The Big Butterfly Count.

This year marks the 10th year of this citizen science project. Data sent in by you via their handy app feeds into long term monitoring of our British butterflies. Why is monitoring butterflies so important? Not only are they under threat and been suffering large scale declines since the 1970s, butterflies tend to react to environmental changes ahead of other species, making them brilliant indicators of upcoming environmental threats such as climate change.

As well as taking part in the Big Butterfly Count, you can help these winged beauties (and their nocturnal cousins) by making your garden lepidoptera friendly! Read on to find out ways you can garden for our British butterflies!

Ringlets copulating (Aphantopus hyperantus)

Larval Food Plants

Moths and butterflies start off life in a larval stage as a caterpillar. Adult butterflies will lay their eggs on plants which the larvae will enjoy eating and this can vary between species. Some butterflies such as the gatekeeper Pyronia tithonus, meadow brown Maniola jurtina, small heath Coenonympha pamphilus, speckled wood Pararge aegeria, large skipper Ochlodes sylvanus and wall Lasiommata megera, will lay their eggs on grasses including such as the bents Agrostis spp., Fescues Festuca spp., cocksfoot Dactylus glomerata and false brome Brachypodium sylvatica. This is why leaving your grass to grow long can be so beneficial.

The herbaceous bird’s foot trefoil Lotus corniculata is enjoyed by the larvae of the common blue Polyommatus icarus, green hairstreak Callophrys rubi and dingy skipper Erynnis tages, whilst both the green-veined white Pieris napi and the orange tip Anthocharis cardamines larvae will feed from garlic mustard Allaria petiolata.

Male orange tip

Many of the British butterflies belonging to the Nymphalinae family including the Comma Polygonia c-album, peacock Aglais io, red admiral Vanessa atalanta, small tortoiseshell Aglais urticae and painted lady Vanessa cardui all use nettle Urtica diocia as their larval food plant.

Some butterflies will lay their eggs on more than one plant, whereas others are more specialist such as the common blue Polyommatus icarus, who’s larvae only feed on kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria, and it’s these specialist butterflies which are more at risk of habitat loss. By planting native British species in your garden you can help to extend their habitat and give them a better chance of survival. – but remember, you will only attract the butterflies in your area, for example, planting milk-parsley Peucedanum palustre is unlikely to attract a swallowtail unless you live on the Norfolk Broads.

Nectar Rich Flowers

As adults many butterflies feed on a variety of nectar rich flowers – though some will feed on pollen, tree sap, rotting fruit and even animal dung! To encourage adult butterflies to your garden, plating flowers full of nectar is always a good start. Look for simple open flowers as many of the fussy ornamental garden plants are inaccessible to pollinators. Also beware of where you buy your plants from. Many garden centers and plant suppliers still treat plants with insecticides and introducing these plants to your garden will do more harm than good. If in doubt, ask the staff and buy from places which can give you a reassuring answer.

Some great native nectar plants are:

  • Hemp agrimony
  • purple loosestrife
  • bird’s-foot trefoil
  • oxeye daisy
  • red clover (but also other clovers)
  • ragwort (not as toxic as people think!)
  • red campion (likes shade)
  • aliums

Non-natives loved by butterflies include:

  • bowles mauve everlasting wallflower
  • sage
  • thyme
  • lavender
  • verbena
  • cat mint
  • Evening primrose (for moths)
  • Jasmine (for moths)

I haven’t added in buddleia here because whilst butterflies do enjoy it, it is thought that the nectar quality is pretty poor – it’s the equivalent of us having fast food over a home cooked organic meal. There are so many richer plants out there, if you have a choice, don’t reach for the buddleia.

I hope this has been useful. If you are already gardening for butterflies I would love to hear in the comments some of your tips and the butterflies you are attracting. Meanwhile, don’t forget to download the Big Butterfly Count app and take part between now and the 9th August!

X Larissa

Fun with Kids during Lockdown – #1 Spring Flowers

We are all finding ourselves in uncertain times, and if you’re at home with the children right now, you may be looking for ideas to keep them entertained. I am going to write a series of articles covering different gardening and nature related activities you can do with your children, whether in the garden or on on your allowed walk for exercise as well as some from the comfort of your home. Going outside in nature lowers stress levels and is wonderful for mental health, which is perhaps even more important now than ever before.

This first piece takes a look at some different spring flowers to spot when you’re out. You can adapt it depending on the ages of your children, for example, for younger ones you could talk about the different colours and shapes of the flowers as well as opening up the idea of seasons as these are all spring flowers. Older children could perhaps press one or two, or draw them for an art project, even labelling the parts of each different flower.

As part of her home education my eldest Lily has put together a handy spotter sheet with some of these flowers (and more) which you can print off and take with you on your walks You can find this at the bottom of the page. If you use it we’d love to see your photos – tag us on Instagram or Facebook at @larissasgarden, or @LarissaCoop on Twitter.

Thanks for reading!

Forget-me-nots

#1 – Forget me not

These delicate blue flowers are found all over right now, from gardens to meadows.


Cuckoo flower – Cardamine pratensis

#2 Cuckoo flower (or Lady’s smock)

This flower can be found in damper areas and is the larval food plant for the orange tip butterfly (which also likes garlic mustard Allaria petiolata).


Violets

#3 Violets

There are a few different species of violets in the UK including dog violets Viola canina and sweet violets Viola oderata. Look closely at woodland floors and hedge banks to find this purple beauties.


Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara

#4 Coltsfoot

Coltsfoot flowers appear before the large leaves do. Similar in appearance to dandelions, these flowers have a distinct scaly stem. In traditional medicines, coltsfoot is used to treat chronic coughing.


Cowslip – Primula veris

# 5 Cowslip

Cowslips like to grow in sunny spots and are often found in meadows. These bright yellow flowers are loved by springtime pollinators.


Gorse – Ulex europeaus

# 6 Gorse

These bright yellow flowers are found on the prickly gorse bushes which are abundant on healthlands and areas with acidic soils. If you smell the flowers they have a slight coconut scent to them. Bees love them too!

Bluebells – Hyacynthoides non-scripta

# 7 Bluebells

A common plant in ancient woodlands at springtime, often carpeting the forest floor. Due to hybridisation with garden varieties our native bluebells are in decline. Are the bluebells you’ve seen native ones? Use this handy guide to find out.


Primroses – Primula vulgaris

# 8 Primrose

These flowers can be found in woodlands and hedge banks or where these habitats once existed. They are loved by early springtime pollinators such as this male hairy-footed-flower bee.


Red campion – Silene diocia

# 10 Silene diocia

Red campions are able to thrive in shady areas such as woodlands, but can be found almost anywhere. They are prolific seeders and are sometimes overlooked because they are common, but I think they are one of our best wildflowers, and pollinators agree too!


Wild garlic – Alium ursinum

# 10 Wild garlic

These members of the onion family are seen on woodland floors. They spread well so often carpet the patch they grow in. Loved by pollinators, wild garlic is also favoured by foragers. All parts of the plant are edible, however if you are foraging, it is illegal to uproot a wildflower, so take only the leaves. It’s a good rule of thumb to only take what you will use and to ensure you leave much more behind that you take.Wild garlic can be used in cooking for flavour, or makes a delicious pesto!


Feel free to download & share! Made by Lily

PDF version below

Spring Flowers Poster

Please ensure that you adhere to the guidelines on social distancing if you are venturing out for daily exercise. If this information changes, please follow the updated guidelines.

The Species Recovery Trust

The Species Recovery Trust is a charitable organisation headed up by Dominic Price, the Trust’s director, working to the primary aim to ‘remove 50 species from the edge of extinction in the UK by the year 2050’. The team at the Species Recovery Trust does this alongside volunteers by combining scientific knowledge and effective conservation practices. The species targeted are a mix of both plants and animals and include some of the rarest in the UK. These include invertebrates such as Cicindela campestris – Green Tiger Beetle, Erotides cosnardi – Cosnard’s Net-winged Beetle and Hagenella clathrata – Window-winged Caddis Fly as well as these plants: Carex depauperata – Starved Wood-sedge, Gentianella campestris – Field Gentian and Lycopodiella inundata– Marsh Clubmoss. Head over to their website to find out more about the important work they are carrying out.

As well as being super-awesome species protectors, the Trust also offers a range of ecological training courses aimed at people wanting to develop their skills in  identification and ecological practices. I have been lucky to have attended a few courses with Dominic including the winter tree identification and grasses identification courses held within the Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Garden, and can highly recommend these to anyone who is able to sign up to one (some of the courses are already fully booked).

One of the other fantastic resources offered by The Species Recovery Trust are their two field guides. Both are excellent guides to have with you when out on a survey. You can preview a sample of the grass ID book here. The grass ID book comes out with me on every field trip and is a wonderful compliment to the somewhat more picture-less (and heavier!) Stace. The descriptions are very clear and concise without using too much complicated terminology so it’s also perfect for beginners as well as seasoned botanists too. You can purchase both books in their shop.

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My own copy of the Grass Identification book. It’s ace!

I’d like to thank Dominic for a kind donation of Wildflower Seeds which will be available as freebies at the Royal Norfolk Show next week. To come and get yours, head over to the new horticultural area to  find the pollinator garden and come and say hello!

Finally, here’s a link to a quick video showing you how to identify some British grasses, give it a go! It’s not as daunting as you might think!

 

x Larissa

The Species Recovery Trust is a charitable organisation. If you’d like to support them with their work, I’m sure any donations would be greatly appreciated. You can find out more on how to support them over on their website here.

Easton College Nature Reserve

Yesterday I spent the day doing one of the things that makes me happiest; wandering around looking at and recording plants. This time I was at the Easton and Otley College open day at the Easton Campus, just outside of Norwich. The college boasts a 245 acre farm and within this farmland there is a real gem (which even some of the college tutors haven’t visited) – the Water Meadows, situated along the river Yare. This is where I was, alongside other naturalists, ex-students and tutors Jerry, Anna and Nick.

Arriving at the Water Meadows, Nick gave some of us a tour around the site so we were aware of the boundaries and where we could wander and record. We headed towards the river and then west towards a fallen (non-native) Poplar tree. On the way we looked under the reptile refuge and saw three wonderful grass snakes. Just a little further on, the meadow was abundant with southern marsh orchid Dactylorhiza praetermissa including one monster specimen! There were also a few early marsh orchids Dactylorhiza incarnata too but these were almost over, but I have never seen such a density.

 

 

The Water Meadows run adjacent to the river and seem to be largely comprised of four areas, separated by ditches of open water. Some patches were clearly more diverse than others. The meadows are used for grazing highland cattle by the college and some areas have been enhanced with nitrates for the grazing, although this was a while ago now and the flora does seem to be recovering well.

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The next four hours were spent surveying the plants within the meadows. In total I recorded 79 flowering plant species and I am confident this is nowhere near a complete list, with many more species yet to be found. What I did notice is that for an area which has been largely neglected, and at times, mistreated with nitrate enhancement, the diversity of plants is certainly comparable to any other nature reserve. In fact, the list reminded me of a similar survey carried out on an FSC training course in Slapton Ley – a National Nature Reserve on the South Coast. Notable plant species included masses of common valerian Valeriana officinalis  and meadow rue Thalictrum flavum and of course the plant which probably has the best scientific name ever – brooklime Veronica becabunga. Say it, go on – ‘bec-a-bun-ga’. Beautiful! 


I tried to record other non-plant species that I could as I went around, which included four butterfly species: small white, meadow brown, red admiral and a skipper which skipped away before we could ID it. There were also common carder bees Bombus pascorum and white tailed bumble bees Bombus lucorum, red-headed cardinal beetles Pyrochroa serraticornis and garden chafers Phyllopertha horticola, a rove beetle, likely Bolitobius sp. and numerous hoverflies which flew before I could photograph them. There were also numerous odonata including a few Norfolk Hawkers Aeshna isoceles and masses of banded demoiselles Calopteryx splendens by the river. These are just the invertebrates which I spotted and I am far from being an expert. I am sure the real experts managed to record many more.

One of the downsides of studying ecology based subjects is that the academic year runs from Sept- June with the latter months usually reserved for exams or putting together final projects. However, the key time of the year to learn about plants is during the flowering season – which for an area like the water meadows, the best months will be June- August. (Because of this, I have never seen the meadows looking so wonderful having only ever visited in Winter!).

The water meadows could be utilised far not only around the whole year, but also during the summer. The college could offer short courses in natural history or identification, or use the meadows as a location for school children to discover pond life or invertebrates. Even as a location for Forest Schools. There are so many possibilities and just so much potential.

Though the most important is to firstly recognise what a wonderful resource it is, and quite rightly it deserves the upgraded title of Easton College Nature Reserve.

x Larissa

Put down your phone, take a moment to look.

It’s just a few weeks away from the Royal Norfolk Show and today whilst the children were either at school or nursery I took the opportunity to get away from the office and spend the day outside in the garden, potting up plants ready for the pollinator area at the show.

I moved some strawberries and herbs into some beautiful vintage style crates and began tending to the weeds in front of the house where my vegetables are growing. Just to note, I’m not usually one to call a plant a weed as most ‘weeds’ have a great wildlife value, but these were getting so out of control the potted plants were beginning to be shaded out! – and besides, it was mostly rye grass and creeping buttercup, the latter of which I have plenty of in the wildflower border.

As I was clearing the area around our rather humble tomato plants, casually out of nowhere appeared a ruby-tailed wasp – Chrysis sp. and settled on the wall in front of me. Now this might not sound too exciting, but I’ve been wanting to spot one for years after seeing everyone post their sightings in the Bees, Wasps and Ants Facebook group. And there it was. Scouring all the little holes in the brickwork of our country cottage, looking for mason bees to parasitise. Beautiful (in a somewhat morbid way).

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Ruby-tailed wasp  (approx 10mm)

I managed to catch the wasp hoping to get an ID on the exact species, but they are hard to differentiate unless you look under the microscope and I didn’t want to kill this beauty today so I let it go. But it made me curious – what else was in the garden? The sun was shining and it was definitely a good bug-hunting day, so I started looking. There were so many bees visiting the flowers; mason bees, bumble bees, carder bees and those really tiny black bees. There were hoverflies, beetles, other beautiful wasps, butterflies, damselflies.

I had read a Facebook post earlier in the day about nectar robbers and that with some long tubed flowers such as the comfrey below, the bees (especially Bombus terrestris and Bombus lucorum in the UK) would steal nectar from little holes near the nectary as they don’t have tongues long enough to reach down the corolla. They either create the holes  themselves (primary robber) or use holes already there from previous robbers (secondary robber). Sitting watching the bees in our comfrey patch I noticed this exact behaviour and even managed to catch a bee at it on camera below – you can see it’s proboscis poking into the flower! In the top photo you can clearly see the little holes close to the sepals. This method of taking nectar is called robbing because the insect doesn’t come in contact with any of the flower’s reproductive organs and so doesn’t facilitate pollination. They are simply stealing the good stuff without giving anything back to the plant! Cheeky.
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I’m still learning to identify invertebrates, but I’ve definitely caught the entomology bug (pun intended). I was really enjoying sitting in the sunshine, soaking up some much needed vitamin D whilst trying to get as many photos as possible of the insects so I can get an ID later and add the record to iRecord. I lost myself for a good couple of hours without realising and before I knew it it was time to collect the children.

I wont always admit it but I am quite often stuck to my phone. Either from working or socialising, I do forget sometimes that there is a world away from that bright screen. Today I managed to remind myself that some of the best days are missed with a phone in your hand. I’ll be making more of an effort for technology-free days and turn my eyes towards the flowers,  the insects and the world outside. You should too 😉

Here are some of the photos from today… I’ll add the ID of each insect as and when I have it confirmed.

x Larissa x

 

Back after a little break

It’s been nearly two years since I last posted. A lot has happened since then and we are in a new home with new, smaller garden. Instead of being in suburban London, we’re living in rural Norfolk in the Breckland area. We are still lucky enough to be adjacent to a woodland, however the two woodlands couldn’t be more different from each other; the previous woodland was a large ancient woodland whilst the current woodland was recently planted (c. 1950) and is just a couple of acres surrounded by crop fields. There is a meadow adjacent to the property which looks like we may have use of later in the year, and if this comes to fruition, then we plan to acquire some sheep for wool production and grazing! Watch this space.

With this move there is a noticeable change in the wildlife which we are seeing in and near our garden here compared to London, although we have only been here since Autumn last year so we don’t have the best two seasons to go by. There are lots of birds of prey here, including a buzzard which seems to always be around somewhere and a pair of kestrels, not to mention the rooks which live in the woodland and flock each morning and evening in such a wonderfully haunting way.  I have noticed an absence of early pollinators this year however,  which I hope this is much more to do with a change in location northwards and the recent cold snap, and of course some of the species I would see previously aren’t as common here either.

As well as moving, I’ve also signed up to the National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS). The general idea is to record plants in three 5x5m quadrats and two linear plots within a 1km specified area, and do this twice a year for as many years as possible to record any plant and habitat changes. You don’t need to be a botanical expert and you are given lots of resources to help you with recording. My 1km plot is north-east of Norwich in the Broadland area, but is still relatively rural with approx 85% of the plot being agricultural fields. I made the initial visit last summer to identify possible plot locations and will be returning again in late spring to being the first year of recording. I have applied for a second, local plot which consists of a large proportion of woodland. I’ll update with the progress of recording here on this blog. If you’d like to get your own 1km square head over to the website here and sign up.

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Big Garden Birdwatch 2016

I didn’t take part this year – but read Wildlife Kate’s account of the 2016 Big Garden Birdwatch!

www.wildlifekate.co.uk

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I watch the birds in my garden just about every day and, with the cameras I have, I am in the privileged position of being able to watch all my feeders even when I am working at my desk, where they are connected to screens in my office. I can even access them via my phone app, through the icatcher software that I use to monitor and record all the footage. So, when Big Garden Birdwatch comes around, I already could pretty much predict the exact species and numbers I am likely to see!

Yesterday, I spent an hour in my hub, photographing the visitors there. This is set up for photography and the background from these feeders is on the other side of the lane, so is always nicely out of focus, making the birds stand out. I get more of a variety of visitors on the patio feeders…

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2016… Off to a botanical start

I returned to work yesterday after a Christmas break with family in Norfolk. After 10 days It’s great to be home  in London and with the new year brings the start of a new season of species recording. Given I finally got around to signing up my daughter and I to become members of the BSBI, I think this year will be a botanical one.

I haven’t really been looking hard, but I noticed cow parsley in flower and spring bulbs leafy and green in Norwich, and back home in London, my viburnum bush is bursting with flowers attracting opportunist bees foraging on the more milder days.

Sitting on the train this January morning, listening to the women next to me moan about the state of their nail varnish and what they had for dinner last night (sushi for one and the other had home made tagine), I’m sat with my chipped teal nails wondering how many flowers I can spot on my commute this month.

Happy Wednesday!

– Larissa

 A fox sneaking past my office window yesterday!