What’s the buzz?

Maybe you’ve noticed the spring arrival of huge queen bumblebees? From March onwards they begin to emerge from hibernation and begin the search for a nesting spot. You’ll see them buzzing along near the ground or along walls, stopping every so often to investigate a likely looking hole or crevice.  More often than not it’s found wanting as a nest site and out she comes a few moments later to try somewhere else.

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Buff-tailed bumblebee Bombus terrestris (Photo credit: Tom Wood)

There are 24 species of bumblebee in the UK but only 8 of these are widely distributed. 6 of these are pictured here although the photo quality is very variable!   The biggest threat to bumblebees is habitat loss due to changes in agricultural practices in the UK. Since the 1930s 97% of flower-rich grassland in the UK has been replaced with arable crops or grazing land. Bumblebees are entirely dependent on the pollen and nectar provided by flowers so this has been a huge blow.

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Common carder bee Bombus pascuorum

Back in February, I attended a talk at the university by Dr Catherine Jones, a visiting research fellow who is heavily involved with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and the reintroduction of the Short-Haired bumblebee in Kent. She explained the importance of monitoring and introduced the Beewalk. This is a citizen science project using a transect method to quantitatively surveying for bumblebees. The idea is that you set up your transect of 1-2 km and walk the route every month from March to October, identifying and counting the bumblebees you see on the route.

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Garden bumblebee Bombus hortorum

More recently I attended a training event as part of the survey volunteer group at Marsden Moor NT. This was run by Moors for the Future and intended to train volunteers to survey bumblebee transects in the Peak District and South Pennines. In order to collect robust and comparable data they have set up a number of transects following Beewalk methodology. However, to simplify the data collection process, the Moors for the Future survey focuses on 3 key species. These are species which are particularly expected to change in distribution in the Peak District area in the future so are of great interest to help monitor these changes. The Bilberry bumblebee  is an upland species, which is found in colder climates and expected to decline in the Peak District in response to climate change. The Tree bumblebee is a newcomer, first seen in the UK in 2001 and spreading rapidly northwards so expected to increase in abundance and distribution in the Peak District. The Red-tailed bumblebee is common across the UK but expected to become more common in the colder uplands in response to climate change.

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Tree bumblebee Bombus hypnorum

Following all this bumblebee talk, I’ve decided to set up my own Beewalk transect to survey for bumblebees in Leeds. I’m starting a little late but hopefully I’ll get some good results and improve my bumblebee ID skills. After a chat with a representative from Butterfly Conservation Yorkshire, I’m hoping I can combine the same route with a butterfly transect this summer and learn more about these beautiful insects too.

More on these to come then!

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Early bumblebee Bombus pratorum
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White-tailed bumblebee Bombus lucorum

Newts galore

Sorry, more newt stuff… well, ’tis the season!

So this week I’ve been surveying for newts at some Pondnet sites in the Lower Aire Valley and I’ve also assisted with my first professional survey. Mid-April to mid-May is newt season proper and it’s all kicking off! Lots of first for me too so bear with, it’s all exciting!

On Sunday evening we torched and set bottle traps at ponds at Rothwell Country Park near Leeds. We set the traps at each pond while it was still light and as it grew dark we worked our way back round all the ponds, torching for newts. We saw a few by torchlight and also a handful of toads. This confirmed that smooth newts were still present at the site and we were not expecting any great crested newts there.

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At one of the pond we were surprised to hear a frantic scrabbling noise as we moved around the pond and discovered a water shrew in one of the bottle traps. Shrews have a very high metabolism and need to eat a lot to stay alive, luckily we could release it unharmed and we removed all the bottle traps from that pond. Since bottle traps are often a death sentence for water shrew, they should not be used in ponds where they are known to be present. The water shrew we found was probably a new record for the site and lovely to see, they are the largest UK shrew and have very dark fur and distinctive white tufts of fur on their ears.

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Poor little water shrew (Photo credit: Kate Wright)

The next morning we found we had caught a handful of smooth newts in bottle traps and I got my first proper look at both male and female smooth newts. We also had several great diving beetles and in a couple of ponds quite a few bottles of fish!

Great diving beetles are huge, and easily recognisable. About an inch long with a pale border around the edge of the elytra and thorax they are vicious predators and feed on other water invertebrates and small fish. Any newts that are unlucky enough to get caught in a bottle trap with one of these probably wouldn’t come off too well either!IMG_20160411_091228820_HDR-COLLAGE.jpg

The fish were three-spined stickleback, a common native fish. Large populations of fish are not a good sign for newt populations though since they eat the eggs and larvae. In one of the ponds, we also saw four goldfish which had not been recorded there previously… someone’s unwanted pets no doubt.

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Monday morning also brought me my first toad spawn. Unlike frogs who lay clumps of spawn, each encased in its own jelly covering, toads lay their spawn in jelly strings. These are wrapped among vegetation at the water surface and can be quite difficult to spot!

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Finally onto the newts then! We caught both male and female smooth newts in the bottle traps. The males are in full breeding regalia at the moment with a continuous wavy crest along the back and tail and distinctive black spots with a pale ‘flash’ along the bottom of the tail. Both male and female smooth newts have orange spotty bellies and the spots often continue onto the throat and chin (unlike palmate newts).IMG_20160411_084050515_HDR.jpg

 

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Male smooth newts belly (Photo credit: Kate Wright)

On Tuesday evening we surveyed a site on the Lines Way near Great Preston. On this site there are usually two ponds and a long ditch which has been good for smooth newts in the past. There were known to be great crested newts on this site so I was quite excited!

The area where the ponds should be is currently flooded so instead of nice separate ponds, the entire area was covered in water up to about 10inches deep. We set bottle traps around here as best we could then once it had got dark enough we started torching the ditch. The Lines Way is a footpath and cycle path that follows the route of an old railway. Since the ditch runs right along next to the path it’s not really suitable for bottle trapping since they are at risk of being tampered with or removed by members of the public.

As there were 6 of us there with 3 torches between us, we worked our way down the ditch in pairs. Each pair counted increasing numbers of smooth newts, with the largest count being 329, a site record! We also saw several toads and I saw my first crestie, a large male, although it took a bit of following him along the ditch to get a good look!

After the success of the ditch we headed to the ponds area to see what was there. We were rewarded with lots of great crested newts, 40 counted in total from torching. This was up from aout 10 counted last year! Several of these were just in the ditch right alongside the path as the whole area was so wet and we got a good look at them.

After the success of the evening, we were keen to get back in the morning to see what was in the bottle traps.  Disappointingly, a lot of them didn’t catch anything. We ended up with 2 smooth newts and one female crestie. It’s amazing how different they look in daylight compared with the torchlight of the  night before. Under torchlight they appear quite pale and spotted while in the day their skin looks very dark and warty with white speckles towards the belly.  Underneath they are bright orange with irregular black patches. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to see and handle some more of these before the season is up!

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We did also see lots of newt eggs at this site. They are laid on leaves which are then usually folded over to protect the egg from sunlight and predation. Egg searching is another technique for assessing newt presence at a pond. To see these eggs we did not need to unfold any leaves but if eggs are found in folded leaves, they are then vulnerable so once one egg has been found, further leaves should not be unfolded. Great crested newt eggs tend to be whiter than smooth or palmate newt eggs which are more of a beige/grey colour.

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I think that’s just about enough for today so more on newt surveys to come!

Easter Weekend at Malham

More amphib adventures as promised.

This Easter I was at Malham Tarn Field Studies Centre with two fellow MSc students. The aim of the trip was to survey the many ponds on the fen for amphibians. The first step was to check NBN Gateway for any existing records. There were not many amphibian records for the site and as far as we knew there had not been any systematic surveys carried out so it was quite exciting to be part of establishing the site records.

The Field Studies Centre very kindly agreed to accommodate and feed us for the weekend so on Friday morning we set off, and despite getting embroiled in the bank holiday traffic we got to Malham in the early afternoon ready to make the initial site assessment and measure variables to calculate the great crested newt Habitat Suitability Index (HSI).

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When we got there, we found that there were many more ponds than we had anticipated from a preliminary search based on satellite images. Most of them appeared to be deliberately cut into the peat on the fen, although we have no idea what the purpose of these holes was – it’s on the list to ask the National Trust ecologist when we meet him next time! Many of the ponds were very deep with vertical sides, or even overhanging banks, so we were very careful not to fall in! Several were alive with frogs as we approached, although we only recorded two clumps of spawn. The adult frogs themselves were difficult to count as they tended to hide themselves away as soon as we approached.

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For the habitat survey, we recorded a number of variables including size and permanence of the ponds, vegetation, presence of fish and waterfowl, water turbidity, pH and conductivity, underlying geology and surrounding habitat. For the GCN HSI a few other factors allowed calculation of an index using the system developed by Oldham et al. (2000) which is used nationally to assess sites for GCN potential.

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After the initial site assessment, and some well earned tea and cake, we headed out to set the bottle traps for the evening. This was a completely new technique to two of us so it was fascinating to see them. There’s nothing complex about a bottle trap, it’s just a 2l soft drink bottle with the top cut off and inverted to make a funnel. This is attached to the body of the bottle and a bamboo cane passed through the sides of the bottle to allow it to be fixed in place in the ponds. We distributed the traps among the ponds, a few metres apart, spaced around the edge with a bubble of air caught inside… adult newts aren’t able to breathe under water and must come to the surface for air.

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After setting out the traps (and meticulously recording what we’d placed where!) we had dinner, and once it was dark we set out to do some torching. We saw several more frogs, mostly in amplexus (mating pairs) and our first glimpse of a possible newt turning and diving into the dense spagnum vegetation lining the sides of the pond.

In the morning, excited, we headed down to the ponds to collect in the bottle traps and see if we had caught anything. Sadly there were no newts in our traps, although we had caught several frogs… a first for our resident expert!

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After breakfast we headed out to the ponds again to assess the vegetation surrounding the ponds to describe the general area and to do some netting for invertebrates. The invertebrate diversity of ponds is a good indicator of the pond quality and a factor used to assess GCN habitat suitability. We did not find a huge number of inverts in any of the ponds, although it is possible that there is seasonal variation in invert activity and we were simply too early. There were plenty of caddis fly larvae and lesser water boatman though.

This is also when we found our first newts! Sarah, an expert after a childhood spent fishing for newts in her grandmother’s pond, managed to find both an adult male palmate newt and an eft (juvenile). These were in the same pond that we caught a glimpse of a newt the previous night and the presence of the eft showed there was a breeding population present, exciting stuff!

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A wet day was spent indoors trying to identify our vegetation and invertebrate samples before heading out into the rain to set the nights bottle traps. This time we decided to concentrate our efforts on the cluster of ponds where the ‘newt pond’ was located. A bit more experienced this time, we set the traps around the pond edges, this time facing into the submerged vegetation at the sides rather than into the open water at the edges of the ponds. Newts like to walk along the bottom of ponds, and generally it is best to set bottle traps so that they are on the bottom. Since these ponds are so deep with vertical edges, this is impossible . The newts we had found earlier and seen on the previous torching attempt appeared to be hidden in the sphagnum lined sides of the pond so we hoped that by setting the traps this way we might have more success.

Since the weather was not good and the results from torching previously had been limited, we decided not to go out torching on Saturday evening and instead had a lovely pub meal at the Lister Arms in Malham before heading to bed.

Early on Sunday morning (still in the rain) we checked and collected the traps. From the first few ponds still nothing but frogs. Then, excitement building, came the ‘newt pond’. This time we had three newts! Two adult male and one pregnant female palmate newt. IMG_20160327_075748450.jpg

Palmate newts (Lissotriton helveticus) can be distinguished from smooth newts (Lissotriton vulgaris) by the absence of colour in the skin on the underside of their head. Both can have orange spotty bellies but palmate newts have a pink chin, this is the only way to distinguish between females of each species. Male palmate newts in breeding season have frilly webbed toes on their hind feet and a thin filament on the end of their tails. In the individuals we caught these are not very distinct, possible because it is still early in the season, so on our next visits these should be more pronounced.

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There will be two more visits to Malham this year, I will be going on the next one at the end of April and it’ll be exciting to see if we see more newts. The presence of lots of mating frogs and little spawn shows that it is still early in the season up at Malham. Being higher and colder than down in Leeds, it is likely that things are a bit behind there. Newts tend to get going a few months behind frogs and toads, peak time being April-May so hopefully we’ll get a lot more activity next time!

It’ll also be interesting to see if we can find newts in any of the other ponds. In the ‘newt pond’ area there are 12 other ponds that we surveyed, all within an area about 25 x 50m with some very similar to the ‘newt pond’ so it seems odd if none of the others are home to a newt population.