Tree Following 2014

Processed with VSCOcam with m5 presetAfter last year’s Tree Following adventure where I followed a dead tree in Merrions Wood, where I looked at clouds of St Mark’s Flies, filmed bats foraging above the tree and bumble bees nesting at it’s base and discovered the (almost) westernmost record of tinsel-faced wasp Stigmus pendulus, I’m diving in with both feet – a living tree this time!  This one is also at Merrions Wood, which is on the south eastern border of Walsall.  The tree I’ve chosen is away from the main nature trail of Merrions Wood, and is as such undisturbed by passers by.  I’m hoping that this will mean more nesting birds, small mammals, etc, and I suppose time will tell.  The tree is in the middle of some fields, the management of which is due to change to traditional grazing / meadow management, and we can look forward to the presence of new cows later in the year.  So you’ll see the meadow around the tree change too!

Processed with VSCOcam with m5 presetI can’t wait to get started – you can check out trees that others are following here on the Loose and Leafy blog… and follow @LucyCorrander on Twitter! #TreeFollowing

A Close Encounter on the Common

Part of my job involves lots of explaining.  Explaining why we do what we do for wildlife and the countryside.  Some of you will know that the last 12 months have been a contentious year from a habitat management perspective in Walsall.  To endlessly justify what you’re doing to (albeit well-meaning) people who have a fundamentally single-minded view of conservation (through no fault of their own) can be a thankless task.  But not this week. This week I felt that the months of campaigning, reasoning, theorising and educating have been vindicated by the presence of just a couple of species in a selectively cleared site on one of our lowland heaths, Brownhills Common.  Take a look…

People were worried about the deer.  They thought that the deer would have nowhere to go if some of the trees were removed.  They feared that if we did this heathland restoration work as planned, that the deer would leave.  And who am I to dismiss their concerns outright – all I and my colleagues can do is to explain the science and reasoning behind our management practices and ask the public to trust us.  We are, as they say, professionals.

The deer will stay, we told them.  And the bees will come…

What you’re watching (above) is Clark’s mining bee (Andrena clarkella), which have moved (in some numbers!) into some of the areas that were cleared as part of this winter’s management programme.  These bees require an open, sandy area, ideally with a sunny aspect, in which to dig their numerous nests and lay their eggs.  Mining bees are solitary in habit, and do not have a hive like honey bees or bumble bees – they simply excavate a hole (quite laboriously as I’m sure you can see from the video.  They then industriously forage for pollen, leaving a store of it inside the nest as food provisions for their larva that hatches from the egg that they lay.  Without the nesting opportunities, we would lose bees like this on our heathlands.  Encroaching coniferous trees remove this habitat, and existing conifers growing taller create huge shaded areas which are unsuitable for the bees.

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We were amazed and vindicated at the presence of these bees in the cleared areas, so soon after the management was undertaken.  It goes to show that if you provide the habitat, the bees will come.  So it was an afternoon of amazing close encounters – hopefully the shape of things to come this spring and summer.  We’re currently making big plans for the Brownhills BioBlitz where people will be able to come and meet some of these species. 20140311_170134sm

Its been a long December…

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Really, really sorry.  I haven’t blogged since September!  I usually look forward to Winter as it is a quiet time of year for me – time to catch up on my rest after ‘bat season’… With no bees around and no bats around, I expected another long, quiet winter, with lots of knitting, spinning, windowsill gardening/sprouting and blogging but I just don’t seem to have stopped to breathe!

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So after a few emails demanding more blog posts, I have decided to take the time to overhaul the blog page and just generally keep you up to date with what’s been going on this Winter, and what’s in store for 2014…

For a start, the whole ‘no bats around’ thing was never going to happen – I’ve been busy doing flight practice with our over-wintering bats, not to mention playing with my new gopro…

 

And we have an IMMENSE 2014 planned for work, with Stargazing Live already behind us, we have National Astronomy Week in March, Wild Food Weekend, Lyrids MeteorWatch and Peregrine Watch (returning for a fourth year) in April, the Brownhills BioBlitz and Springwatch Walks in May, National Insect Week in June, a month of canal surveys & National Moth Night in July, Bat Walks all over the place and Basket Making Weekend in August, more bat walks and foraging events in September, before AutumWatch and the Orionids in October, Leonids in November, and Christmas Crafts & Geminids meteors in December.

All these are in my calendar and its still only February!  So stay tuned, folks – I am back and you can expect more Audioboo and Youtube clips, blog posts and general social media shenanigans…

Morgan x

p.s. the bees will be here soon!

Dark Matters

The sky darkens as we set up the telescope for the Lyrids MeteorWatch on Barr Beacon in 2012.

I’ve noticed the nights drawing in, which for me means two things: the end of bat season, and the start of astronomy season.  The long, dark nights and cold, clear skies make for the best conditions for stargazing, and as usual, I’m holding a series of informal events on Barr Beacon again this winter.  In December 2011 I succeeded in getting Barr Beacon to be the first urban Local Nature Reserve to receive the designation of Dark Sky Discovery Site. There will be some among you who think that giving such a title anywhere in the West Midlands Conurbation is a bit of a misnomer, but I disagree.  You see, its the DISCOVERY part that is key for me.  Barr Beacon is far from what any sensible person would call a place of notable dark skies, as by and large the sea of lights to the south and west can, on cloudy nights, create an urban glow which can present a considerable obstacle to astronomy, even with telescopes.  But its height above the surrounding landscape makes it one of the best spots for stargazing, because of the AMOUNT of the sky visible, which on a cloudless night is really impressive!  And its worth remembering that some of the brighter objects (planets, constellations, etc.) are perfectly visible in urban areas – so if you’re new to astronomy and just want to get your stellar bearings and dip your astronomical toe in the water, you don’t need to travel to dark, rural sites and set up expensive equipment.  You can come along to Barr Beacon, bring a folding chair and a flask of hot chocolate, and enjoy the atmosphere and the sights through binoculars, telescopes and with the naked eye.  The following images were all taken at urban sites, including Barr Beacon:

Orion rising over Barr Beacon

The craters on the moon, taken through a telescope on Barr Beacon

The Orion Nebula, taken through a telescope at Barr Beacon

Saturn and its rings as seen from Cannock.

Having said all that, it is true that light pollution is a HUGE issue.  Light pollution seems to be, in many people’s minds, a concept from the 1980s we dismissed along with several other environmental concepts (when was the last time you heard someone talk about ‘acid rain’?), but it couldn’t be more relevant today.  There are several projects and websites devoted to the subject:

The Campaign for Dark Skies (be sure to scroll down and have a play with the Light Pollution Simulator!)
The Need-Less Campaign (There’s a really nifty Night Sky Simulator at the bottom of the page, plus posters and widgets you can use!)
LightPollution.org.uk
Save The Night’s incredible “Loss of Star Visibility” map

So, if you fancy coming along to any of the free astronomy events on Barr Beacon this Winter, you can find booking details here:

MeteorWatch: Taurids, Nov 4th
MeteorWatch: Geminids, Dec 14th
Stargazing Live, January 7th, 8th and 9th

…or you can ‘book’ by indicating your attendance on the WalsallLooksUp Facebook Page.

Sprouting for Girls

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Ok not just sprouting for girls, but I couldn’t resist the title.  Boys are welcome to do this too. :-)  (If you’re wondering ‘why sprout?’ – a bit of googling will fill you in – sprouts are an amazing live food and a super cheap way to flesh out salads, stir-fries, etc.)  You’ll need a kilner-style jar (the kind with the removable disk inside the round screw-on lid), an old seive, and something to sprout (lentils, chick peas, mung beans, etc.) – btw don’t get split lentils, you need whole ones for it to work – but lentils are my favourite!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From your old seive, cut a disk the same size as your jar’s removable disk.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Insert it into the lid of the jar…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Take whatever you are sprouting (amount depends on the size of your kilner jar – I am using 1/4 cup of organic green lentils – you will think that is not enough but they really EXPAND!!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Fill up with water and soak overnight.  (Amazing – you don’t have to take the lid off at all, just pour through the seive mesh!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On day 2, empty the water out, fill it up again, and empty it again.  You only soak on the first night, the rest of the time you are just rinsing!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Rinse your lentils twice a day, morning and night and place on a window sill.  They will start to sprout within a day or two, and are ready to eat when the first leaves appear…

Watch…

Day 1… Lentils soaked, starting to soften
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Day 2: Lentils start to swell up & fill the jar a little more, first little roots peak through…
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Day 4:  Lentils now have roots and tiny stems – you can start eating these now, or grow them on for another couple of days.  When they get to the point when you’re ready to eat them, put them in a sealed container in the fridge (tupperware, etc.) and continue rinsing daily until you’ve eaten them all. :-)

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Foraging Special: Marsh Samphire

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Okay so its that time of year again when we become aware of Summer’s mortality – August Bank Holiday weekend is upon us, and before you know it there will be aisles of orange and black Halloween tat in Tesco, so what does everyone do on this last oasis of a Bank Holiday before the vast expanse of holiday-desert between August and Christmas? We head for coastal sites in our thousands, hoping for one more weekend of sun.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The bees may be starting to fade, but nature still has a few tricks up her sleeve (watch this space for sloe gin, blackberry liqueur and more) – and Best In Show in the August larder is this glowing green wonder – Marsh Samphire.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Looking like fat little alien-fingers, its no wonder that Samphire (pronounced ‘Sam-Fur) has the nickname Asparagus-of-the-Sea, and it can indeed be used as its vegetable namesake as a hot, buttery ‘green’ served traditionally with fish.
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But in a sense, that seems a bit of a waste to me, and I much prefer to pickle it, so that it serves as a lasting autumnal reminder of the summer spent paddling about in estuaries near Conwy or fishing on Cley Beach.
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I’ve made this pickle before using Star Anise, as the traditional pickle would contain fennel seeds (Fennel also grows in coastal habitats and so is considered a natural companion to Marsh Samphire), however the wild fennel seeds are not ready yet, and I have no fennel at home (I am ordinarily an aniseed/liquorice hater but make an exception for this pickle!). However I’ve seen a few recipes using cinnamon, cloves, bay, black peppercorns and ginger instead, so thought I would try the christmas version!
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It is relatively straightforward to prepare – you trim your samphire to ensure any woody or yellow parts are removed, leaving you with plump little fingers of bright green.  Wash this thoroughly in a colander, and then blanch for 1-2 minutes (immerse in boiling water), before immediately running it under cool water to stop it cooking, then spread it out on a clean tea towel to dry.
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Now take a few cloves, a few black peppercorns, a bay leaf or two, and half a stick of cinnamon, and crack these in a mortar & pestle and add them to some vinegar.
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Many recipes call for white wine vinegar, but as this is a Christmassy version, I have gone for organic apple cider vinegar.  Heat the cracked spices in the vinegar until hot (but not boiling) and keep on the heat for 5 minutes or so.
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While this is on the heat, stuff your cooled, dried samphire into jars that you have sterilised. (Easiest way to sterilise jars is to wash in hot soapy water, rinse well, then put into a cold oven.  Turn the oven on to its lowest setting (90-100 degrees c) and by the time it is up to temperature, your jars are sterilised and you can turn the oven off and allow your jars to cool.)
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Once the jars are full, pour over the warm spiced vinegar all the way up to the top (use a seive when you do this so that you don’t end up with peppercorns, etc in your jars).  You can then seal the jars and leave them for at least 3 weeks before serving.
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So if, like many people, you are going to be at the seaside for the Bank Holiday weekend, keep your eyes peeled for this absolute gem of a wild food!

Wish you had built-in sunblock?

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So I know I’m not the only one who’s enjoying today’s brief respite from the heat wave.  In spite of covering myself in sunblock, drinking loads of water, wearing a hat, etc., I’ve still been really suffering with the heat, including SUNBURNED FEET! (Mental note to sunblock my feet when I’m in sandals!) I thought you might like to see one way that nature deals with the problem – the spectacular St John’s Wort Leaf Beetle!

This fab little metallic bronze beetle feeds exclusively on St John’s Worts (Hypericum spp., giving the beetle its scientific name: Chrysolina hyperici).  The botanists and herbalists amongst you may know that although St John’s Wort is prized for it’s medical properties (it’s used for treating depression, anxiety and insomnia), one of the side effects is increased sensitivity to sunlight.  This is due to a toxin called Hypericin.  So how is it that our glam little beetle can feed all day in full sun on a plant that should by rights make doing so dangerous?

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The theory is that the magic is in the beetle’s wing casings (called ‘Elytra’ – actually modified front wings which cover the second pair of wings which the beetle use to fly with – a common arrangement in beetles -think about ladybirds flying, holding up their elytra and flying with their other pair of wings!).  The reflective, opaque elytra actually block all but .01-.2% (Fields et. al, 1990) of the harmful rays of the sun, allowing C. hyperici to forage in full sunlight!  So what does it do when it’s a larva and doesn’t have the protection of its super-sun-blocking elytra?? – it feeds only at night and buries itself during the day!

If you see St. John’s Wort around, it is always worth checking to see if this beetle is present, as it is very likely to be under-recorded, with records at only a few sites within the West Midlands. – The bronze colour and paired rows of dimples (called punctures) set it apart from other similar beetles C. brunsvicensis (which has rows of punctures, but not in pairs) and C. varians (which has punctures all over the place, but not in rows).

Fields P.G., Arnason J.T., and Philogene B.J.R. (1990) Behavioural and physical adaptations of three insects that feed on the phototoxic plant Hypericum perforatum. Canadian Journal of Zoology 68(2): 339-346