A collection of wildlife photographs

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Kinder Scout

On the 9th February me and some friends decided to sign up for a task with the Sheffield University Conservation volunteers. Our destination: Edale, and ultimately Kinder Scout. We rendezvoused at the Moorland centre, with the folks from Moors for the Future. Today, we intended to set out vegetation quadrats to assess the species composition of some of the moorland. Additionally, we set out to measure various components of climate, to contribute to a long-term study on climate change. After a cup of tea, we set out for the plateau.

Although originally roasting in our kit, we became bombarded by stronger winds with the ascent of the steep path overlooking Edale valley. As we plodded up the hill, the vegetation began to transition. Acid grassland, marked by Mat Grass, Nardus stricta, Common Bent Grass, Agrostis capillaris, Sheep's Fescue, Festuca ovina and Soft Rush, Juncus effusus covered fields closer to the bottom of Edale Valley. Yet as altitude increased, the acid grassland gave way to a steady increase in Ling Heather, Calluna Vulgaris cover and other shrubs such as Bilberry, Vaccinium myrtillus and Crowberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea. As we came to top of this heathland plateau, the wind buffeted around us.

Almost an hour after setting off, we arrived at a locality near the 'Ringing Roger' outcrop. The term windy did not do this place justice. We sheltered behind some rocks and rested for a few moments. Then we began to survey the vegetation. There was abundant Common Cotton Grass, Eriophorum angustifolium shown in the quadrat below, which formed extensive mats. As it turns out, Common Cotton Grasses are actually sedges. Its leaves were colored red, which is their habitual response to the end of summer and this contributed to a red-hue of the moorland. As you can see, its underground shoots (rhizomes) enable it to form extensive carpets.

Quadrat dominated by Common Cotton Grass, Eriophorum angustifolium with distinctive red winter leaves
Ling Heather, Calluna vulgaris, was also abundant. It was accompanied by Wavy Hair-Grass, Deschampsia flexuosa, with its distinctive rubbery stems, that were quite 'flexy', as its name suggests. Bilberry plants, although perennial, had retracted into their stems over the winter, and leaves were few and far between in the plants of these species. These bare, upright stems still covered a good 5% of the quadrats.

There was an abundance of feather mosses and cushion mosses, as well as the notorious 'Shrek ear' lichen, from the Cladonia genus. Peat accumulates in this moorland because Sphagnum species decompose and contribute organic matter to the subsurface soil horizons. Sphagnum was not present in any of the quadrats that we had sampled. However it was clearly abundant some patches of the surrounding moorland. Moors for the future are attempting to increase the quantity of Sphagnum on these uplands, to enhance peat accumulation, and aggregate soil to reduce soil erosion. These both have positive implications for climate change through reducing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The moorland was covered by Crowberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea shrubs, which remained intact. This was impressive considering the perpetual winds and low temperatures, which apparently dropped to -20°C in the depths of winter. One is held by Robyn in the photograph below. Crowberry have white stripes on the underside of their leaves, which distinguishes them from Ling Heather, Calluna vulgaris. Unlike Bilberry, which supports oval leaves in the summer, Crowberry supports narrow, evergreen leaves.
Crowberry and arctic explorer
The weather was not permitting any more vegetation surveys, as the cold had begun to really set in. We proceeded to set up some quadrats for future surveys, and added a rain gauge to measure precipitation. After plotting the locality of these into a GPS for future visitations, we called it a day.

Retracing our steps down again, through the acid grassland, we reached a river. On its banks we found dense mats of Opposite-leaved golden saxifrage, Chrysosplenium oppositifolium. Trying to keep up with the others, our eyes continued to scan the surroundings for plants. On a road-side wall, we found Rusty Backed Fern, Ceterach officinarum, a local rarity, with just two clumps in the whole of Edale according to local botanist, Karen.

The Moors for the Future was set up to protect the moorland of the Peak District and Southern Pennines, along with its ecosystem services. They engage readily with the local community, and the Conservation Volunteers of University of Sheffield have now organised future training in Bumblebee and Sphagnum identification. There is an open door to complete vegetation surveys on the moor between June and September 2014, and anyone who is keen can sign up at www.moorsforthefuture.org.uk. Despite this shameless promotion, I believe all those who attended thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Feeling thrilled, satisfied, and invigorated, we headed back on the train, gently aching from the good exercise that the moors had provided.

After I thought all the excitement had ended for one day, I heard a familiar hooting sound from the road that ran parallel to the one on which i lived. Inquisitive from having seen so many new and exciting species that day, I followed the sound up the road. Although I walked past it, I heard it again, this time from behind me. I spotted a silhouette on the side of a roof.

I stood peering up at it for a few moments, unsure as to whether it was an owl or merely some sort of passerine. However, it flapped across the street, revealing a pale underside with dark streaks, which answered my queries. It was evidently a Tawny Owl, Strix aluco. I had often heard it from my room, and finally I had caught a glimpse of it! No time for a picture, just the image of it gliding overhead framed in my mind.

I was feeling great. Not only had we accomplished something worthwhile, but seen many interesting sites, and met some friendly new people. I was keen for the next conservation task with SUCV.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Plants of Sunnybank

In early February, I decided to visit Sheffield Wildlife Trust's Sunnybank reserve. I had been there before, once to move Common frog, Rana temporaria individuals into the reserve's pond. The frogs were translocated shortly before the meadow was strimmed. Such annual strimming practices are implemented to maintain optimum species richness. This previous visit had been a thoroughly enjoyable day. 

I did not expect to see Common Frogs this time, because all UK amphibians hibernate during winter. They slow down their metabolism in underground tunnels, or large log piles, so that they can survive the colder months. On this visit, I wanted to check out the plant species that grew there. What Sunnybank lacks in size, it makes up for with a surprising abundance of wildlife. Embedded in the urban fabric of Sheffield city, this site has particular importance in ameliorating the negative impacts of habitat fragmentation on species persistence. 
Lords-and-ladies, Arum maculatum

On venturing into the reserve, I discovered an unmistakable Lords-and-ladies, Arum maculatum individual growing beneath a pond-side bench. Its arrow-shaped leaves, growing from long stalks, are large and hairless. Its flowers had not emerged yet, as April-May time is not yet upon us. Lords-and-ladies enjoys the neutral soils of woods or hedgerows, which have a readily available water supply.

This habitat was bramble, Rubis fructosa agg.-dominated scrub. Also present in this assemblage was the unspectacular Common nettle, Urtica dioica, and Goosegrass, Galium aparine. A tiny Goosegrass plant is displayed in the bottom right of the same photograph. Goosegrass tends to stick to clothes, and has 6 leaves in each whorl (3 or more leaves growing from the same point around the stem).

Water Mint, Mentha aquatica and Lesser spearwort, Ranunculus flammula grew in the pond.

Annual meadow-grass, Poa annua
I left the pond to have a nose around a patch of woodland. On my way, I was struck by an Annual meadow-grass, Poa annua individual growing at the foot of a bench. This annual species can flower all year round, and is a very successful species. The photograph to the right shows that its oval or oblong spikelets (the subunits of a grass plant's inflorescence)  are subtended by distinctive pale-green to pink-flushed glumes, and each contain 3-5 florets (the flowers of grasses). Annual meadow-grass has wide leaf blades, less than 10cm in length and up to 5mm wide. These leaves are typically folded, and have abruptly pointed tips.

Annual meadow-grass is tolerant of disturbance, such as trampling by people or animals. The surrounding bare ground in the photograph to the right illustrates that few other plants can withstand the intense disturbance of trampling by muddy boots. This tolerance of disturbance allows it to grow in sites, where its short stature is not overtopped and shaded by surrounding vegetation. 

The bench sat in the shadow of a patch of Silver birch, Betula pendula. This tree species is particularly distinctive because of its peeling white bark and characteristic upright branches with drooping 'pendulous' twigs. In a glade, grew Wood Avens, Geum urbanum, an ancient woodland indicator species. This perennial species has leaves and stems that are covered in sparse hairs, and feel furry to the touch. It has a relatively large terminal leaf (pictured below), that is usually three lobed. This species also has 2-3 distinctive smaller pairs of leaflets below this terminal leaf. 

Wood Avens, Geum urbanum
Wood avens prefers soil in woods, and is often found beneath dense shade. It can grow in both dry and moist soils, ranging between neutral and basic. Wood Avens produces 5-petaled and miniature yellow flowers, which resemble those of a buttercup. The presence of Wood avens and multiple broadleaved trees, left no doubt that this patch was indeed ancient broadleaved woodland. It was impressive that the land managers have preserved it so rigorously.

Common field speedwell, Veronica persica
After an amble beneath chirping birds, I noticed a Common field speedwell, Veronica persica growing on the opposite edge of the woodland. With coarsely-toothed leaf edges, the underside of its oval-triangular leaves are hairy, as are the short stems on which they are fixed. The photograph below shows the solitary flowers to be pale blue, and positioned on longer stems than the leaves. A whorl of sepals contain the flowers, with 5-6mm oval lobes, which incidentally are also hairy. Individuals from this species are annuals, and can be found flowering throughout year. 

A species from the Cabbage family, Shepherd's purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris also grew in this ruderal wasteland. The winter annual produces white, 4-petalled flowers, which transform into triangular seed pods, with a small notch in their widest side, after blossoming. This species has a basal rosette of deeply lobed leaves, which resemble those of a Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, although its lobes extend out horizontally, instead of backwards, as they do in those of a Dandelion.

Shepherd's purse grows well on frequently disturbed patches with high nutrient contents, reaching heights of 30cm. It may be important to mention that Shepherds Purse is now the second most common weed on earthThis species is harmless here, but reduces the yield of farmer's crops, when it thrives on arable fields.

Shepherd's purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris
I finally saw some Crocuses flowering, indicating the impatience of spring.

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