Saturday, 30 August 2014

Strange Bindweeds and unusual wildlife sites

Calystegia silvatica var quinquepartita
Image: S. Hawkins
BSBI member Steve Hawkins saw the post on Strange Bindweeds and emails to say "I don't get out much nowadays, but I've seen a good patch of Calystegia silvatica var quinquepartita along the River Lea, near Walthamstow, and in a few other places. Here is a photograph from Stockwood Park, in Luton from a couple of years ago.

"The patch by the Lea was so attractive that I took a root cutting, hoping to get it to grow as a native alternative to clematis in the garden, but, true to form, weeds never grow where you want them to! I was a bit late coming upon the Stockwood Park patch, and there were not many flowers on it by then, but I still think it is a greatly unappreciated and beautiful wild variety.  

Betony at Stockwood
Image: S. Hawkins
"Stockwood is also one of very few places in this region where there is a nice patch of Betony, and there are some unusual trees dotted around the golf course too.  Not somewhere you would immediately think of for wildlife sites, but very photogenic when the light is right.  Rather sadly being encroached by horrendous earthworks just for a new motorway junction fly-over at the moment, to get people to the airport five minutes earlier!  

"However, as I was dumbstruck on seeing the state of what was once a beautiful meadow scene on the 'gateway' to Luton, I could not help thinking that most of the interesting plants these days seem to be the ones that grow on the inaccessible sides of motorways and, for a season or two, this newly exposed soil will be a riot of Spring flowers, and probably more interesting than the enriched fields were.

Bay Willows Salix pentandra around the Golf Course
Image: S. Hawkins
"Another unusual plant that I was kicking myself for not taking a cutting of, was a blue common mallow, that I once saw at Aldeburgh, where it was likely to be strimmed away by the road.  The only blue one I've seen." 

Thanks to Steve for sharing his views and plant observations with us. His closing comment was "Always good to read your posts, though it does make me rather jealous of what I'm missing!" This prompts me to remind any botanist who doesn't get out much any more - due to ill-health, pressures of work, caring responsibilities or not being as young as we once were - that you can still share your botanical views and any interesting plants you've recorded over the years here on the News & Views page.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Some help with ferns

Looking at Asplenium adiantum-nigrum
Image: M. Godfrey
Martin Godfrey (Staffs.) has been in touch to tell us about a fern ID training session he led recently. He said "On Wednesday 27th August, I went out with a group of Kate Thorne's VC47 recorders and folks from the Montgomeryshire Natural History Society to give them a fern ID training session.  

"Our site was Roundton Hill on the borders with Shropshire - geologically complicated with some nice rock exposures to add to grassland and damp woodland.  

"There wasn't a huge variety of species at the site but they were able to see several species of Asplenium and both Polystichum as well as making an aquaintance with some of those pesky members of the Dryopteris "affinis" complex.  

Sorting out Polypodium cambricum
Image: M. Godfrey
"We were very pleased to refind an old site for Polypodium cambricum - a bit early but it did mean that they could see the difference between that and P. vulgare.  Another nice treat was a patch of Ceterach - unusual here on natural substrates.  

"Sessions like this are quite important I think - it's not so much that people cannot identify things, rather that they feel under-confident in their own abilities and a bit of encouragement and confirmation that they can do it can only improve records for this oddly under-recorded group". 

I agree, going out botanising with somebody who has a little bit more experience in the field, and can pass on their knowledge, makes you feel much more confident about what your plant is the next time you see it. Keep up the good work Martin! 

And a final photograph shows how, even during a fern ID session, a botanist just cannot help but be drawn to any difficult plant spotted en route...

The County Recorder cannot resist Hieracium
Image: M. Godfrey

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Watch out for strange Bindweeds!

Paul  recording on Lewis, August 2014
Image: L. Marsh
Paul Smith, County Recorder for the Outer Hebrides, just can't stop recording interesting plants. 

Freshly home in South Wales, following three weeks of intensive recording across the hills and bogs of the isle of Lewis, Paul nipped out the other day to see what he could find in his local area.

That's a good way of coping with the back-home-after-fieldwork-blues! 

Only last week, Paul was leaping from tussock to tussock and climbing crags, hurling his grapnel into remote lochans to see which aquatic plants he could fish out and take back for Claudia Ferguson-Smyth to look at, peering into saltmarshes and examining the tops of drystone walls to see if he could find an interesting Hieracium (Hawkweed). 

Margaret, Paul & Mary spot something interesting.
Image: L. Marsh
Just picture the poor posties, lugging heavy bags to the homes of BSBI Referees for aquatic plants and Hawkweeds, bearing Paul's specimens for checking. 

He really keeps the BSBI Referees busy every summer! Fortunately, we have 105 of them, covering 180 difficult plants/groups, and being able to consult them and send them stuff is one of the main perks of being a BSBI member. There are also two referees just for beginners.

But now Paul is home again in South Wales, and has found an interesting plant in Gelligaer cemetery at grid ref ST135970, while recording a tetrad in VC41.  

It's a Bindweed, but not quite the usual one that you see in hedgerows. I imagine that Paul used Sell & Murrell - the "bible" for infraspecific taxa - to go that bit further in his identification.

He got this one to Calystegia silvatica var quinquepartita. 

Calystegia silvatica var. quinquepartita
Image: P. Smith
Paul sent me the photo on the left and said "I'm not sure if this is the sort of thing you want to blog (though it is pretty), but it could be a reminder to folks to look out for infraspecifics in Calystegia and more widely." 

Well said, and that's why it's exactly what we want for this News & Views blog.

If you are spotting interesting plants, please send me a pic and a comment, and I can post them here!

Friday, 22 August 2014

Botanists on Ben Nevis

Getting ready to set off
Image: J. McIntosh
Jim McIntosh has been in touch to tell us about a joint initiative to conduct a botanical survey of the north face of Ben Nevis. 

Work was carried out over the past fortnight and involved BSBI members.  

Climber recording new location for Arctic Mouse-ear
on North-east Buttress
Image: I. Strachan 
Jim said "The BSBI recorder for the area, Ian Strachan, has been the main botanist involved, but Gordon Rothero helped out on the first of the two weeks and I spent a day helping on Wednesday. 

"It was an amazing experience surveying with climbing guides in such precarious places.

Highland Saxifrage, Comb Buttress
Image: I. Strachan 
Whilst it was great seeing good populations of Sibbaldia procumbens, Veronica alpina (Alpine Speedwell), Cerastium cerastoides (Arctic Mouse-ear) – it was absolutely fantastic seeing healthy populations of Tufted, Drooping, Brook Saxifrages (Saxifraga cespitosa, S. cernua & S. rivularis).  

A new record for the north face of Ben Nevis was Alpine Saxifrage (Saxifraga nivalis) – thanks to Ian".

Thanks for letting us know about this, Jim. I also got in touch with Ian Strachan, who said "I had an amazing two weeks - extreme botanising!

"It was a major highlight of my botanical life. This project is a unique opportunity to work with local climbing guides, who know the North Face intimately but are now seeing it from a different perspective - it was great to see how enthusiastic they became about the rare plants. 

Alpine saxifrage in Number 4 Gully
Image: I. Strachan
We got to places I never dreamt of reaching and found new localities for 11 nationally rare or scarce species, including S. cespitosa (Tufted saxifrage) which seems to be struggling elsewhere in Britain.

This blogpost by one of the climbers and also this one have some good photos showing what I got up to - a kid on Christmas Day indeed!
I also found this one on another of the climber's blogs,  taken just after I had struggled back up No 2 Gully!"

Jim and one of the climbers
Image courtesy of J. McIntosh
Thanks, Ian! And thanks to the funders and sponsors: the project, which is led by the Nevis Landscape Partnership working in collaboration with Midland Valley Exploration, is funded by Scottish Natural Heritage, Heritage Lottery Fund, The Highland Council and is sponsored by equipment manufacturer Mammut.

If you’d like to hear a bit more about the Ben Nevis survey, you can listen to a report from BBC Radio Scotland's 'Out of Doors' programme. This is available here on BBC iPlayer - about 44m 40 sec in. 

If you'd like to read a bit more about the survey, you might be interested in this article in the Scotsman

It must have been amazing surveying up on Scotland's highest peak! 

Ian and Jim's photographs are so great, I just have to show you another one, preparing to climb... click on the images to enlarge them.
Coire na Ciste, preparing to climb
Image: I. Strachan

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Towards a new national plant monitoring scheme

How can we monitor changes in our wildflower populations more effectively? 

This question has recently been on the minds of many of Britain’s botanical movers and shakers, across the various societies who take an interest in such things. 

The group assembles to start work; Kevin Walker on right
Image: M. Pocock 
These organisations are looking at a range of survey methods that might be used in a new national plant monitoring scheme, similar to ones already up and running for birds, bats and butterflies.

I asked BSBI botanist Oli Pescott, based within the Biological Records Centre/Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, to tell us a bit more about one trial that he recently helped to organise, and to give us a bit of an insight into the scientific rationale behind the methods being tested.

LM: What’s your involvement with this, Oli, and how are these trials connected to the proposed national plant monitoring scheme?

Woodland trials: Oli Pescott (right); Bob Ellis (centre)
Image: M. Pocock 
OP: "My employer, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), has long been involved in botanical monitoring through the links between the Biological Records Centre (based at CEH) and the BSBI. CEH also co-authored a review of the need for a new plant monitoring scheme, jointly published with BSBI, Plantlife and the British Trust for Ornithology in 2010. 

The reason for the recent field tests was to try and see if methods utilising randomly selected plots would be practical for the national plant monitoring scheme currently being developed.  We wanted to field test survey methods, which have been designed by BSBI in collaboration with CEH, Plantlife and JNCC.".

Felicity Harris (Plantlife) and WFC volunteers
Image: M. Pocock
LM: So you held a workshop to trial some methods? What were you hoping to achieve?

OP: "We wanted to find out how different ways of selecting plots for monitoring might affect the practicality and see how volunteers experience the survey. We decided to field test three different methods of plot selection (the scheme will be based around volunteers recording up to 5 plots within a 1 km square)".

LM: Why was that so important?

OP: "It’s very important to have randomisation at the heart of any monitoring scheme. The benefits of randomised plots are not only for the quality of the information provided, but they can also mean that surveyors have fewer choices to make in the field. 

The team, with Pete Stroh, Bob & Oli
Image: M. Pocock
We often found that self-selecting plots for recording can be fraught with difficulty: should you include or exclude the scrub from your chalk grassland plot? Do you put your woodland plot in the nice open glade one side of the ditch or the empty shady area where you are standing? 

One idea is that by giving a largish (25-30) selection of random plots to volunteers, some accessible plots can be found and surveyed, but the unknown bias inherent in surveyor’s self-selecting locations is minimised as far as possible".

LM: So you all held a workshop at Juniper Hall to trial some of the different methods currently on the drawing board. Who was there?

OP: "Yes, we had a very successful two days at Juniper Hall in Surrey last month (thanks to the FSC for hosting us!). Kevin Walker, Bob Ellis and Pete Stroh from BSBI and Felicity Harris from Plantlife were there, as were volunteers from Plantlife’s Wildflowers Count".

Pete, Kevin and the volunteers
Image: M. Pocock
LM: And what happened when you went out in the field to test the three methods?

OP: "Well, we spilt into three groups and each group was assigned one of three methods to try out on a grid square. So, essentially we were all traipsing around a 1 km square trying to work out how many of the plot locations on our maps were accessible! We also tried out laying our plots in different habitat types, and attempted to see how different plot sizes would affect how many ‘target’ species were recorded in any one habitat.

Gridded plots
Image: O. Pescott
We had prepared maps for a number of 1 km squares around Box Hill. For any one square, three different plot selection methods were used to generate 1 km square OS maps overlaid with the potential plot positions for any one method. All the groups had a chance to try each one of the methods trialled. For example, one of the methods trialled uses gridded plots. 

Here (on left) is an example of a systematic plot selection method with the plots laid out in a regular grid, so you can see what I mean".

LM: So, what do you see as the main challenge with this approach?

OP: "Well, the main challenge when volunteers self-select plots is that they may choose the nicer locations containing the species that we are asking them to monitor. This means that the starting point of the scheme is a set of fairly species-rich plots, and so any indicator that might be produced and used to inform on the state of the countryside is far more likely to go down (i.e. most plots are better than average and are therefore more likely to get worse than better). 

Volunteers try out one of the survey methods
Image: M. Pocock 
We need plots in all type of situations so that we can detect increases in plant populations as well as declines. Ultimately it’s about knowing that the approach will provide information that is as accurate as possible, but still remains fun and interesting for volunteers".

LM: Did you find anything interesting while you were out in the field?

OP: "Yes! One of the squares had good populations of one of Britain’s rarest woodland plants, Cynoglossum germanicum (Green Hound’s-tongue)! Box Hill is one of it strongholds but we had no idea we would find it in the woods we were surveying. This came to light as we were walking to a random plot location in the evening gloom".

Cynoglossum germanicum
Image: K. Walker
LM: And here is BSBI's distribution map for C. germanicum. Oli, can you close by giving us an idea of what the next step is and tell us a bit more about how these trials are connected to ideas for a new national plant monitoring scheme?

OP: "The next step is to review all of the results from these trials. This year Wildflowers Count volunteers have also been given the option to use plots in their surveys, although these were all self-selected. We have to review the feedback from those volunteers as well, and then finally recommend a particular approach to JNCC. The scheme is currently out to tender, but the organisation (or organisations!) that are successful in their bid will roll-out the scheme for an initial three year period using the methods that we have developed.

It’s a big challenge, but it would be fantastic if the plant world finally had something to rival the Breeding Bird Survey or the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme!"

Thanks Oli, I couldn't agree more! Let's close with a few words from Kevin Walker, BSBI's Head of Science:

Pete, Felicity, Kevin and one of the WFC volunteers
Image: M. Pocock
"The absolute key for this scheme is to make it as straightforward and enjoyable as possible for volunteers. We therefore wanted to road-test the different methods to help us select which approach worked best, as well as to iron out as many 'bugs' with the methods as possible. 

"It was great to be able to discuss these issues in the field with colleagues whom we've been working with for a number of years, developing the methods and producing the guidance. It was also very sobering to see how things did or didn't work, but great to be able to make decisions on the spot when it was clear that aspects of the scheme weren't practical. We are now much more confident that the scheme will work, and that it will provide an enjoyable and rewarding experience for volunteers!"

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Birdfair Plant ID Quiz.

David Roy (BRC/CEH) watches Birdfair staffers trying
the ID quiz with BSBI member Rachel Benskin
Image: L. Marsh 
We were very busy at Birdfair all weekend. Our Plant ID Quiz attracted 35 participants!

We asked people to identify 9 reasonably common wild flowers which are considered indicators of good meadows in Leicestershire. 

They are all Local Wildlife Site criteria species for neutral grasslands in VC55 Leicestershire & Rutland, where the Birdfair took place. 

Many people who do not consider themselves botanists were able to make a pretty good stab at these species, especially when they tried using plant ID keys: we had a small library with us! 

Helen Roy draws the winners with Simon Harrap.
Image: L. Marsh
Author Simon Harrap joined Dr Helen Roy of BRC/CEH when she drew the winners' names at 3pm on Sunday. 

The first prize is a copy of The Vegetative Key to the British Flora (Poland & Clement, 2009) which aims to help you identify 3,000 British plants NOT in flower, within 3 turns of a page.

The second prize is a copy of Simon Harrap's Wildflowers (2013), a photographic guide to 934 British species.

I will be contacting all our entrants in the next few days and notifying the winners about their prizes. 
Geoffrey Hall & Oli Pescott (on right);
John & Monika Walton on left.
Image: L. Marsh

It was lovely to talk to so many local and national BSBI botanists during the three days of Birdfair and to see everybody catching up with old friends and meeting new ones.

John & Monika Walton dropped in for a chat on Sunday, as did as did Geoffrey Hall, fresh from the BSBI recording meeting in Wales. 

He was able to compare notes with BRC's Oli Pescott, who is also an active BSBI member (Oli sits on Records & Research Committee) and has recently returned from recording in the Outer Hebrides.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Day 2 at Birdfair

Trying the Plant ID Quiz at Birdfair
Image: L. Marsh
A very busy but successful Birdfair so far! 

The Plant ID Quiz has already attracted 21 entrants and the lucky winner will be drawn out of a hat (actually a large black bag) tomorrow by Dr Helen Roy of BRC/CEH. 

The most difficult thing for me was seeing people struggling to identify a plant and not being able to tell them what it was and why. At least, not until they had filled in the quiz sheet and handed it in.

Chris Preston & Mike Jeeves
Image: L. Marsh
It was great to see so many BSBI members dropping in to the stand, many from the VC55 local group.

Ian Denholm and Plant ID Quiz entrants
Image: L. Marsh
Neill Talbot and Chris Hill from LRWT came for a catch-up, as did Mike Jeeves, BSBI Recorder for VC55, the county in which Birdfair takes place. Mike had a chance to chat to Chris Preston, one of the co-authors of  the New Atlas of the British & Irish Flora.

Martin Godfrey from VC39, Ian Benallick from Cornwall, and recorders from East Anglia, Devon and Merseyside all came by to bring updates from their home patches.

BSBI President Ian Denholm was also on the stand today, guiding participants through the Plant ID Quiz and chatting to BSBI members and other exhibitors. So it was all quite busy! More to follow...