Reports of early spring sightings throughout the country have been coming in for weeks now… not surprising since it’s been the warmest winter since records began. In the Museum’s garden those early signs have included wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) that flowered on 3 February – nearly a month earlier than the previous 3 years; and another early plant record – our first primrose (Primula vulgaris) flowered before mid-winter’s day, again nearly a month earlier than last year but more about primroses in the next blog.
No records for our amphibians yet as the cold spell these last few weeks seem to have deterred early movements from breeding frogs and toads – usually in our pond in mid-March.
We are also waiting patiently for signs of fox cubs, first spotted last year by Daniel Osborne at the end of March. On most days we catch sight of the adults that have made the wildlife garden their home and hope to share some sightings with you on video. In the meantime, Daniel, who followed their movements closely last year gives an account of his observations…
As the end of the year draws closer, my mind has cast back to another story about bats… Well it’s not just that I’m obsessed with bats, but I do like sharing good news – in autumn we found that we have two species of bats newly visiting the wildlife garden.
During the week of our Bat Festival and International Bat Night, and through the help of Philip Briggs of the Bat Conservation Trust and tree surgeons Liam and James from Wassells Arboriculture, an Anabat recorder was installed in the lime tree overlooking the pond. This provided us with a new way to register bats visiting our small patch of London.
Our annual Bat Festival this year follows International Bat Night on 29-30 August. We’ll be teaming up with our partners Bat Conservation Trust and the London Bat Group to celebrate the wonderful world of bats. You can discover many fascinating batty facts including how to help bats in your garden, the diet of bats and how to make a flappy bat.
There will also be an opportunity to see some of the specimens from the Museum’s collection. As we wrote in our Going Batty post last year, curator Louise Tomsett will reveal more about the Museum’s collection of over 30,000 specimens of bats including the importance of their use in research and in the discovery of new species.
Which is very timely because a new species of horseshoe bat has just been described from one of our specimens held in the Museum collections.
Kath Castillo, our Orchid Observers Project Officer, tells us about the orchids you can search for out in the field this month.
August is nearly here and with it the start of the holiday season, so if you are planning a walking holiday or a bit of wildlife photography in the UK, there are some stunning species on our list to look out for and photograph for Orchid Observers.
Our timetables, until now a collage of various colours, have become a very busy reality over the last two months. We got our teeth into another batch of long-anticipated ID workshops – Flowering Plants, Beetles, Flies and Earthworms. I think I speak for everyone when I say the skills and knowledge we’ve been passed by some of the leading scientific experts in the Museum have been rich, extensive and unique. Developing techniques to hoard as much of this golden information as possible have become paramount.
A family of long-tailed tits were noisily searching the woodland canopy for insects, as I arrived at work – a welcoming sight and sound! Following a week’s absence from the Garden, the woodland vegetation has changed to a darker green, while the meadows and ponds are now brighter with meadow clary (Salvia verbenaca), bee orchids (Ophrys apifera), and an increased number of oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and common spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii). All these are great plants for insects to forage amongst, but what about the native plants good enough for us to eat?
Our resident foodie, forager and wildlife gardener/ecologist, Daniel Osborne, explores some of our edible plants:
“Until about 7,000 years ago, every human that lived in the British Isles hunted and gathered all of their food. They had and shared a rich knowledge of the uses and edibility of the plants in their landscape and were able to sustain themselves throughout the year. They had skills that, through the study of bushcraft and books like Richard Mabey’s Food For Free, I have become confident enough to dabble in. The results have been truly enriching.
In these few paragraphs I do not intend to list all edible native species, share recipes or discuss the health benefits or legality of wild food, as these are covered elsewhere with much more expertise and clarity than I could achieve. Instead I will talk about what thrills me: finding new flavours and connecting with our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
This month it is the turn of Katy Potts to give us an update on the progress of the trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project. Since Anthony’s review of their first month with us the trainees have progressed onto Phase 2 of their programme, where their species identification training really starts in earnest and we’ve certainly been keeping them busy! The past two months have been both exciting and enlightening in educating us about the world of biological recording and species identification. It was while I was at Plymouth University that I first discovered species identification in an invertebrate taxonomy module with the ever inspiring entomologist Peter Smithers. It was under Peter’s guidance and teaching that I fell in love with the six legged insects that run our world. Moreover, it was the passion for taxonomy from Peter that inspired me to delve into this field of biology.
We take a diversion this week from the Microverse and our newest project, Orchid Observers, to introduce one of the projects that wouldn’t get anywhere without the general public reporting sightings, the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP). Cetaceans are the infraorder of marine mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises, and the Museum has been involved in recording their strandings on UK shores for over a century. So it’s over to Rebecca Lyal, Cetacean Strandings Support Officer at the Museum, to introduce the project and what she does as a part of it.
Warning: You may find some of the images that follow upsetting as they are of stranded and injured animals.
The CSIP was created in 1990 to unite the Museum with a consortium of interested parties to formally investigate the stranding of any cetacean, seal, shark and turtle upon the UK coastline. The Museum has actually been recording strandings since 1913 when the Crown granted it scientific research rights for the collection of data on the ‘fishes royal’.
The first recording was a Cuvier’s beaked whale that stranded in Northern Ireland during the summer of 1913. Since then there have been over 12,000 logged reports of whale, dolphin and porpoise strandings, that have ranged from the mighty blue whale to the common harbour porpoise, and even a rogue beluga whale found in Scotland.
The rich warbling song of the blackcap has welcomed us into work over the past 2 weeks! (you can hear an Eurasian blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla, as recorded by Patrick Aberg here). Not only that but we’ve had robins nesting just above the threshold of our shed with the accompanying chatter of baby birds anticipating food, holly blue butterflies visiting clusters of fresh holly flowers, sightings of orange tip, brimstone, peacock and speckled wood butterflies, tadpoles in the main pond, the occasional glimpse of a fox cub, and many more signs that Spring has well and truly sprung.
The mosaic of ground flora throughout the different habitats in the Garden is changing by the day with a particular blue haze and glorious scent of bluebells in the woodland areas.
While winter tasks in the Wildlife Garden kept most of us busy outside for the first quarter of the year, these cold months are also a good excuse to hunker down inside and look back at the previous season’s species records, enter new records on our database and consolidate reports on our findings.
As mentioned in one of our early blogs biological recording is carried out – like most activities here – with the help of many volunteers (specialists as well as beginners), and naturally our own scientists, during the course of their working day. Sometimes we enlist the help of aspiring young scientists…
Recording is carried out by observation and surveys. From mosses on walls, rocks and bare ground and the animals that inhabit these miniature forests, to the tree tops where great and blue tits may be spotted feeding on aphids and other small insects in the upper branches, as well as high flying butterflies such as the purple hairstreak that feed off honeydew.
Invertebrate surveys are carried out using a variety of methods including pitfall traps for ground invertebrates, malaise traps for flying insects, and light traps for nocturnal fliers.