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Unlocking Landscapes podcast: south London’s ancient woodlands

In this episode, I am delighted to welcome Chantelle Lindsay and Sam Bentley-Toon. Chantelle and Sam are environmental professionals who worked together on London Wildlife Trustโ€™s Great North Wood project. You can also listen via these podcast providers:

Apple: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/unlocking-landscapes/id1551547335

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/3fkXaryfdB1g0PVdz6WPMb

Podbean: https://unlockinglandscapes.podbean.com

Chantelle and Sam share their experiences of protecting and managing south Londonโ€™s ancient woodlands. They talk about their passion for volunteering and some of the challenges that woodland conservation in London involves.

We also discuss rewilding in a London context and whether beavers could possibly be returning to London.

Since recording this podcast, Sam has moved on to work on Londonโ€™s rivers and Chantelle has become a minor-celebrity with her brilliant appearances on Blue Peter and a Great North Wood-focused segment on BBCโ€™s Springwatch.

People like Sam and Chantelle are lesser known in the conservation world, but they are having big impacts at a community level. Their contribution to our understanding and enjoyment of landscapes is really special and should not be underestimated. Of course, you can say the same for many people the world over, and just itโ€™s such a pleasure to be able to feature people like Chantelle and Sam on this podcast.

Thanks for tuning in and I hope you enjoy the episode.

Links:

Chantelle on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Chan_Naturelle

London Wildlife Trust’s Great North Wood Project: https://www.wildlondon.org.uk/great-north-wood

London Wildlife Trust’s Keeping It Wild Project: https://www.wildlondon.org.uk/keeping-it-wild

Chris Schuler’s Great North Wood episode: https://unlockinglandscapes.podbean.com/e/the-wood-that-built-london-londons-historic-great-north-wood-with-chris-schuler/

Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: spring spiderlings

Just a note that throughout June I’m posting a macro photo each day for the Wildlife Trusts’ #30DaysWild campaign, which you can keep up with here!

There has been a clear shift in the invertebrate world and it’s resulted in a lot of macro photos for me. So much so that I can’t fit them all in one post and will need to post more than once a week!

After early May’s heavy downpours, warmer weather arrived towards the end of the month and with that the insects, spiders and other arthropods. Summer feels closer now, with June being that tipping point between cooler spring weather and the hot mess of July.

One day last week I noticed a small clutter of, well, things on the garden fence. From a distance they looked like a smudge. At closer viewing they were tiny spiders all bundled together. This will be quite disconcerting to some people perhaps, including a friend of mine who I hide social media posts from because of his arachnophobia. I don’t have that problem luckily and I’m fascinated by spiders.

I had no idea what the spiders were until I submitted the record to iNaturalist and then waited for a suggestion. I leafed through my new spider book and landed on a page with the same image as the one that heads this post. They are garden spider spiderlings! The scientific name is Araneus diadematus.

It is pretty amazing that they will develop to be such large spiders, holding their places in webs over the summer months. Imagine the biomass of flies and other insects this clutch will manage to consume over the months ahead. Then again, many of them will be taken as prey themselves by birds and other insects. Don’t forget there are such things as spider-hunting wasps.

Here is one of those spiderlings (I am guessing) having set up its own web on the other side of the garden (approx. 3-4 metres).

And here was one of the adults garden spiders. I don’t know enough about the ecology of this species to say if this could be the parent or one which appeared earlier in the spring. One thing is assured – they will be getting much bigger and by August you won’t be able to miss them.

Thanks for reading.

More macro

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Postcard from the Dales

Hi everyone, No usual blogs from me this week as I’m away in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s been very hot here which makes walking more difficult (for me). The evening light has been absolutely sensational, though. Walked the Muker-Keld loop incorporating the Pennine Way in part. It’s such an incredibly rich landscape of natural and… Continue reading Postcard from the Dales

Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: gearing up for London’s planthoppers

I visited the family home last week and, despite heavy rain most of the time, managed to spend an hour papping the inverts in the garden. The garden has good views of London’s ever-changing (and IMO, degrading) skyline, not that the inverts much care. The view is a bizarre localised battleground, with neighbours trying to annoy their nemeses by blocking the view where they can, usually with trees. My parents also received a letter once passively offering to pay for tree surgeons to cut their trees down so a neighbour could enjoy this view. Otherwise, London’s gardens are quickly become outdoor rooms, if all your indoor rooms contained plastic grass and a Porsche.

Smokebush looking lovely in the low evening light

The garden was quite aggressively rewilded in recent years (๐Ÿ‘€) and has become particularly rich in birdlife. It’s a mixture of small trees, hedges, shady and sunny areas, with ornamental plants like smokebush and the otherwise invasive snowberry, but also lots of self-seeded wildflowers.

Female hairy-footed flower bee having a bask

I find that early evening, on what has been a warm or sunny day is a really good time to look for inverts. Particularly if there’s a shrub or hedge with some of the low evening sun. All the life photographed here was on the combination of elder, bramble, snowberry and hawthorn that made up the garden’s boundary hedge. My first species was this female hairy-footed flower bee, often mistaken for a bumblebee. She is solitary, and she is usually being followed by a male bee. I haven’t seen any males in the past week, so I think their time has been and gone for 2021. It’s the work of the female bees to now finalise the chambers and food caches for next year’s brood.

Common carder bee

One of the most common bees in London is seen here, the common carder bee. This gingery bee was also basking and preening in the low-slung sun. They are fairly easy to identify if you can acquaint yourself with their ‘ginger’ thorax. Don’t quote me on that.

Marmalade hoverfly

The hawthorn was blossoming and a marmalade hoverfly was feeding on the flowers. It was nice to see, as English hawthorns appear to be falling silent, in comparison to those in Europe. This is a really very common hoverfly.

Here it is again, having stocked up on nectar. They get their name from the orange and yellow abdomen.

Gammoptera ruficornis, named after its red antennae

Though I was seeing mainly common species, I found one that I’d never seen before. It’s always nice to see a longhorn beetle and this species, Gammoptera ruficornis, was new to me. It was first feeding on the hawthorn flowers but then moved to bask on this leaf. It gets its name from its red antennae, hence the ‘rufi’ in the scientific name.

A planthopper in the Issus genus

This is a planthopper in a stage of metamorphosis, I think, before it becomes an adult. Having read about this genus, Issus, I’ve learned that this group have biological versions of gears. They are the only animals to use gears, other than those invented by us humans. Amazing! They use the gears to hop or propel themselves to such great distances:

This video gives an insight into the jumping prowess of these insects.

I’ve covered spiders (well, one) a lot in the past couple of weeks. I found a couple of spiders in the London garden with this one in the process of feeding on what appears to be a former caterpillar.

The magic of macro is of course its ability to ‘blow up’ something like an insect to a size far greater than that seen by the naked eye. This is a speckled bush cricket nymph and, I promise you, with that green on green was almost impossible to see. It reminded me again of the power of patience and of looking more closely.

Thanks for reading.

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Fungi ๐Ÿ„: fungus amongus – common mushrooms in England (Zoom talk)

Really pleased to share this 45 minute Zoom talk I did for Bell House, an educational charity based in London, earlier this month. All the photos here are mine (bar one).

The talk includes a general intro to the ecology and culture of fungi in the UK with a spin through some common species to find.

Thanks to Bell House for giving me the opportunity to speak.

Enjoy!

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Letting the cemeteries grow wild for #NoMowMay

On wilder cemeteries and flowering trees

After a year of lockdowns and Covid waves, I managed to visit London again for a couple of days in what could be the wettest May on record in the UK. May can often be unsettled and is still spring after all, so we shouldn’t be too surprised. That said, I’ve never known it this stormy.

Camberwell Old Cemetery

London is renowned for its wild cemeteries with Nunhead being one of the most famous. One of my favourites is Camberwell Old Cemetery, a haven for uncommon local bird species like green woodpecker, stock dove and mistle thrush. These are species which like open, parkland style habitats with rich grasslands alongside older or veteran trees to nest in.

St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Shard as seen from the cemetery

It has some good views of London’s skyline in places, with quite interesting correlations between tombstones and skyscrapers.

A Victorian gravestone resting against the stump of a horse chestnut

This isn’t something that happens by accident. I can’t tell you how many times in the past I lobbied for these grasslands to be allowed to grow where possible or appropriate. Many times in May I would walk through and find the evidence of strimmed grass where flowers had flourished days previously. It’s a matter of communication with grounds staff but also the political will from people in managerial and leadership roles. There’s also the matter of complaints, the sense of things being ‘unkempt’ and ‘wasteland’.

The demand to mow everything is ingrained in English society. It’s a destructive tendency that reduces biodiversity on many levels, however much unintended. The success of initiatives like #NoMowMay are a sign that things are beginning to change and ecological literacy is developing in society. In places like Camberwell Old Cemetery it’s a ‘no-brainer’ because this is old meadowland and it’s been grown and cut once a year, or so, for hundreds of years.

It’s not just in the grasslands that flowers are appearing at this time of year. Many of our trees are angiosperms (flowering plants) and horse chestnut is one of May’s most attractive.

Up close these flowers can look like orchids, sometimes.

In England we have a tree that is also named after the month. One of hawthorn’s folk names is ‘may’. The ‘haw’ refers to the fruit, the ‘thorn’ the tree’s prickly nature. I wonder if the climate crisis may turn hawthorn into ‘april’.

It’s an exceptionally good tree for invertebrates.

In Czechia, my friend Karel recommended checking the flowers of hawthorn if you’re looking for insects. He wasn’t wrong. This tree was covered in large beetles, hornets, wasps, butterflies and bees, all nectaring on it. We lack that biomass and diversity in the UK, perhaps because we stopped allowing our grasslands to flower. At least we now have #NoMowMay to help us on our way.

There’s an old hawthorn growing in my family’s garden. That evening I had a look for invertebrates on the shrubs and flowers. It was a relief, in a way, to find the flowers of the hawthorn were being pollinated by a marmalade fly. Our hawthorn still has something to offer in the wettest of Mays.

Thanks for reading.

Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: the oak jumping spider returns

I came back from a walk the other day and, customarily, went straight to wash my hands. Looking in the mirror, I noticed something small dangling from my hair. Having just been on a walk my nature senses were fine-tuned and I realised it was an invertebrate. Looking more closely and removing it from my hair with care, I realised it was, one – alive, and two – a jumping spider.

I am fortunate enough not to have any fear of these spiders and, unlike a close friend, I’m not arachnophobic. I also have them fresh in my mind, after having a species of a nationally scarce spider confirmed by the county recorder earlier this week.

I looked at this tiny spider as it rested on my hand and thought, ‘it’s the same species’. I had my camera with me but perhaps not the best lens, i.e. not a macro, but one with some close-focusing capabilities. I took the spider outdoors, anxious that it might jump and never get outside again. I took photos with what I had. Without a macro lens I had to crop the images heavily in post-processing.

Looking at the photos, I am confident it is the same species again, Ballus chalybeius, the oak jumping spider. That confidence is boosted even more by this purchase, which arrived in the post the other day:

I have no idea where this particular spider came from – possibly from any of the oak trees I walked under? The book above states that the species is one of the only ones found only in trees and bushes. Its common name is oak jumping spider, which means I may have picked it up during my walk as there are no oaks anywhere near my house or along the street. It could also means it’s more common than is understood. That’s the beauty of community science!

Thanks for reading.

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Fungi ๐Ÿ„: spring inkcaps

Last week I went to visit a woodland that was for sale. I wasn’t buying and the woodland was quickly snapped up anyway. I hope it went to someone who will care for its wonderful ancient woodland wildlife, and that the badger sett within it will go undisturbed. Leaving this beautiful snippet of the Sussex Weald, I found some mushrooms growing in an area of grassland alongside more woodland.

Common inkcap

We have been inundated with rain in the past 10 days, after a very dry April in southern England. Things are leafing and flowering later than last year, and there have been no spring mushrooms from what I have seen. These were mushrooms that were so plain I really wasn’t sure what they were. I took some photos and posted them on iNaturalist.

They are common inkcaps. I’m not sure how I’ve missed this species before, as this was my first known sighting of them. That wasn’t the final grassland inkcap I was to see in that week.

I have a small garden which is ‘managed’ for wildlife and gentle recreation. We’re currently in the midst of #NoMowMay, an initiative in the UK to let any grasslands grow so flowers can thrive, and all the life that comes with that. It’s not just about flowers, though. I was pleased to see (and nearly step on) a tiny inkcap in the lawn.

This is a golden haired inkcap, quite easily confused with pleated inkcap, I would say. The most obvious difference is the size, with the former much smaller.

After all the rain we’ve had, quenching the woods’ thirst, I’m hopeful of some more shrooms appearing in the next week or so. Fingers crossed!

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: is that a nationally scarce spider sitting on the fence?

*Update: this record has now been accepted as correct by the county expert and has become official ๐Ÿ˜*

Most of the jumping spiders I find in my garden are sitting on the fence, LITERALLY.

The jumping spiders are a group of beautiful arachnids (spiders and arachnids are not insects FYI) that are renowned for their cartoon eyes and ‘cuteness’. There is something very ‘floofy’ about them. This video by Thomas Shahan has some lovely images of some American species:

I love to see them in my house, exploring the doors and window frames. One got into difficulty recently and was captured as prey by another window-dwelling species. Even the indoor parts of our homes are wild places at macro level.

Most of my macro is getting done through intensive 5 minute breaks during my working day, in which I take rushed and low quality photos (as seen here). I am stuck at a computer all week at the moment and these micro-macro garden safaris are keeping me ‘productive’.

I spent some of the time checking out one of the fences where I’ve found lots of interesting species like hornet-mimic hoverflies, digger wasps and jumping spiders (above).

During one break I noticed a tiny jumping spider exploring one of the posts and attempted some snaps. The pics are grainy and nowhere near portfolio quality, but that’s not what matters here. I put the photos on iNaturalist and an Italian spider expert gave an ID of Ballus chalybeius.

I tweeted the British Arachnological Society and they were happy enough that it was this family, with only one species within that family in the UK. Looking at the map of their records, it has not yet been recorded in this part of West Sussex. It’s also Nationally Scarce. Bingo!

One of conservation’s big problems in the UK is its insularity and misanthropic tendencies. Thankfully organisations like BAS are active on sites like Twitter to speak up for spiders and to engage with people online. Nature conservation in the UK is claimed to be better when bigger and more joined up. You could say the same for its ability to communicate and gather information. That’s me off the fence, then.

Thanks for reading.

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Fungi ๐Ÿ„: witches’ broom

A deformity in the branches of a birch tree

For a long time I’ve noticed an explosion of twigs among the canopies of birch trees but never taken the time to find out what it was. Recently I read that this unusual grow pattern, if that’s what it was, could be caused by fungi. Last week I was out walking in a woodland not far from home when I saw a fine example of this strange occurence.

You can see how this could simply be confused with mistletoe, a similarly bushy growth high up in the tree. But mistletoe is caused by the sticky seeds of the plant becoming attached to a branch. The ‘deformity’ in birch trees looks all the more unusual. I took some photos and had a look online when I got back. When I submitted the record to iNaturalist for some help, I got the result of a fungus with the scientific name of Taphrina betulina. ‘Betulina’ relates to birch in Latin, Betula pendula.

A sunburst lichen with the ascomycete fungi visible in the form of the fruiting cups

This fungus is an ascomycete, related to cup fungi and the fungal fruiting bodies found in lichens. Unfortunately I couldn’t get close enough at this point to ever see those details on the witches’ broom.

It could easily be confused with random birds nests, and you have to wonder if they may actually form decent nesting habitat for some species, probably woodpigeons more than anything else. One thing I notice about the cultural significance of the species is its name – another reference to witches. It must be that anything which looked unusual in nature was referred to as the work of ‘a witch’.

Yellow brain fungus

In the fungal lexicon (is that a thing?) there are a host of jelly fungi which go by the name of witches’ butter. It may be in the case of witches broom that the cluster of twigs looked like the flying broom of a witch, as per the old folktale. That or Harry Potter, anyway.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: this bee is Goodenough for me

One of the things I love about the insect season in England is the diversity. We are surrounded with doom messaging around wildlife in the UK – it really is too much – but that’s what you get if you only look for birds. The invertebrate world is far richer, more complex and fundamental.

In April and May the first of the nomad bees make their appearances. I spend a lot of time making a fool of myself trying to keep up with these solitary bees. They are extremely beautiful and very cool-looking. Twice in April I witnessed nomad bees in my garden and on both occasions they passed me by.

One afternoon while #WorkingFromHome I went downstairs for a break. I noticed an insect on the inside of the windowpane. It was a nomad bee! I couldn’t believe my luck. I grabbed my camera and attempted to get some photos of this now very slow bee (it was a cool, wet and grey day). I got some average images and then decided it was time to get this bee back into the wild. I ushered it onto my hand and found that it didn’t want to leave my skin. It gave me a great opportunity to take some better images. I’m not sure of the species, they are difficult to separate.

I had another bee-break but this time in my garden and on a better day. There was so much happening in the hedge I didn’t know where to look. I saw three nomad bees flying around and resting but never long enough for me to get a decent pic.

The sun dipped in momentarily and the cooler air forced the nomad bee to remain on this leaf. I got as close as possible. When I submitted the photo to iNaturalist someone suggested it was Gooden’s nomad bee. That’s… Goodenough for me. Now do people see why iNaturalist is so much more preferable to iRecord? You get help with your identifications, not just thanks but no thanks from our man in the shires.

What do nomad bees do? They’re parasites of solitary bees, with some species laying their eggs in the sites of others. Their eggs hatch and the larvae consumes the eggs of the host, before eating its food stash. Not nice in human terms (because we’re all so lovely) but definitely something that has been occurring for many millions of years.

Thanks for reading!

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