Last chance to see the Wildlife of Borneo   17th January 2012

When Ray Hale was 14 he read ‘The Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin and this sparked a life- long interest in evolution and naturalism. He has also been greatly influenced by “The Malay Archipelago”, written by the naturalist Alfred R Wallace (little-known today). Ray was debating whether to follow in the footsteps of Darwin or Wallace when his wife said that she wanted to go to Malaysia.

Why go to Borneo? One reason is to look for spiders (Ray Hale is an entomologist). Borneo is the third largest island in the world. Near the airport is a large city, Kina Bala, which has a massive shopping centre mainly for westerners and Muslims who can afford to shop there. This contrasts strongly with the 22 hours it took in various forms of transport to reach the rainforest conservation area in the Danum Valley .

Today there is very little left of the rainforest. In 2004 Malaysia banned the felling of trees with a diameter of less than 6 feet. By 2010 this limit had been reduced to 2 feet. Local people, working long hours for low wages, often with families to feed, have now planted a palm plantation for the production of palm oil which is used in anything from chocolate to makeup. This involves a 2 year cycle after which the palms are cut down. No nutrients are put back into the soil and in this environment only rats and snakes can thrive.

Ray then talked about some of the birds he had seen – the rhinoceros hornbill which has a 4 foot wingspan and flies in formation. They are the least vulnerable and can survive. Then there is the black and yellow broadbill which is a thick billed spider hunter and has no fear of humans. One bird which is vulnerable and which Ray and his wife did see was the Bornean blue flycatcher. It is about the size of a robin and had not been seen in the area for 25 years. The brahminy kite, which hovers at 300 feet and swoops on snakes to carry them off, is very vulnerable. The buffy fish owl, four feet tall, is also vulnerable, and has now become dependent on humans.

Ray then mentioned snakes. The vine snake is venomous and rear fanged, while the wagler’s pit viper is front fanged. This one is very dangerous and venomous and has superb camouflage. The banded krait (black and white and 6 inches long) is the most venomous snake in Borneo. The biggest Bornean snake is the reticulated python. This snake has 72 teeth and kills by constriction. It wraps round and tightens its grip every time its victim breathes. One needs to hold its tail and unwrap it. Then there is the salvator monitor with venomous saliva. The female is bigger than the male. This snake is becoming reliant on humans also and scavenges on rubbish.

Ray then moved on to mammals, mentioning the small western tarsier which is extremely rare and critically endangered. The pigtailed macaque which is aggressive and will steal anything is also vulnerable. He also mentioned the orang-utan, (of which only 15,000 remain wild in the world). Bornean gibbon, proboscis monkey (less than 6000 left in the world) and red leaf monkey, all vulnerable. The clouded leopard, too, is endangered as is the sambar deer, its prey.

The rarest animal in Borneo is the flying lemur. This is a solitary animal which glides through the trees and cannot walk on the ground.

Some of Ray’s favourite finds include the weevil, which has good camouflage, the wasp, the carpenter bee (which has no sting and uses chewed wood to make a nest), the longhorn beetle (quite rare), the long legged centipede (1 foot long), cicada beetles, stick insects, horned spiders , tarantulas and scorpions.

Ray showed a photo which looked at first glance to contain just a tree. On further inspection we could see a spider and many baby spiders (according to Ray about 450) on the tree. He concluded a fascinating talk by saying that in order to discover things of interest we need to look closely around us.

Susan Painter

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Wildlife of Sussex Seabirds   7th February 2012

Kate Whitton provided a packed audience with an entertaining and informative insight into her work as the RSPB’s Senior Events Officer promoting public interest in the local kittiwake population on the cliffs at Seaford. This theme of local relevance and interest formed part of a broader exposition about the Society’s far more extensive conservation role both in Britain and overseas.

The first part of the talk focused specifically upon the development of the RSPB and its functions both as a repository of expertise in conservation work and as a campaigning and lobbying organisation. The Society was first established in 1889 to curtail the use of egret feathers and kittiwake wings to decorate the hats of stylish Victorian ladies. By the 1960s the RSPB was playing the leading role in the highly successful conservation programme designed to protect the rapidly dwindling population of osprey and avocet (the latter becoming the Society’s logo). At this stage in its development the Society had 10,000 members. Today it has grown into an organisation boasting some 1.1 million members.

Although this impressive figure is more than the combined membership of all the major parties, Kate’s claim that this level of mass support confers such authority upon the organisation that government is ‘forced to do what it says’ was perhaps a rather over optimistic assessment – particularly given recent events. Nevertheless, the lecture provided a fascinating insight into the breadth of the RSPB’s influence and activities; a remit which ranges from ownership and management of 100,000 ha of Indonesian and Sumatran rainforest and its many conservation and environmental protection campaigns within Britain to its very local presence at Splash Point where it seeks to focus public attention upon the kittiwakes breeding on the cliffs. Of particular interest was a discussion of the marine campaign which obtained over 200,000 signatures on its Marine Pledge to protect sea life and which culminated in the passage of the Marine Act. Unfortunately, however, while some protection zones are already in place, the legislation omitted the conservation of seabirds and thus the RSPB has been compelled to extend its campaign to press for their inclusion. Of particular interest to members was the suggestion that Seaford Head might become a marine conservation zone benefitting from a far higher level of legal protection than it currently enjoys.

Building on this foundation, the second half of Kate’s lecture was devoted to the RSPB’s on-going Kittiwake Project and its activities at Splash Point. Although in the past this species had another foothold on the cliffs at Newhaven this dispersed after a cliff collapse, leaving Seaford with the distinction of being by far the most southerly colony of kittiwakes in Britain today. The most encouraging information to emerge from the talk was that during the last breeding season the colony contained a larger number of birds than ever before with a great many nests containing two chicks. Indeed, on the basis of two comprehensive counts, it was concluded there were around 1100 pairs compared with the usual 800. In order to promote public interest in both the fortunes of this important species and the role of the RSPB in conservation generally, Project Kittiwake maintains a physical presence at Splash Point from the end of June until August enabling members of the public to look through telescopes at the birds on their breeding ledges and to gain first-hand information about this particularly charismatic seabird.

The kittiwakes return to the same nesting ledges each year and repair or rebuild their old nests made from a combination of mud, seaweed and excrement. Perhaps predictably, breeding success depends to a considerable extent on the proximity of sand eels (and other suitable fish) as a food source for the chicks. As such, the success or otherwise of the species is an important indicator of the general well-being of the local marine environment. In contrast with the breeding success of the 2011 season, failures in past years have been variously attributed to a general shortage of food, an over-reliance on pipefish (sometimes known as garfish) which the chicks find far more difficult to swallow than the preferred bite-sized sand eel, while in 2006 overheating during the abnormally hot summer led to a high rate of mortality among fledglings trapped on the scorching cliff face.

Kate also discussed the threat from the resident peregrine population which sometimes includes a kittiwake among its prey and these agile predators have even been seen to seize chicks directly from the cliff face.

In the final section of her talk Kate provided a brief account of the other species to be seen around Splash Point. Among those mentioned were the fulmar, which has never enjoyed a comparable level of success on the cliffs at Seaford, raven, the superficially similar shag and cormorant and gannet.

Mention of the latter’s species inevitably prompted fond memories in some minds of the famous ‘Gordon the Gannet’ who for many years roosted on a roof in Cricketfield Road – a very rarely observed piece of idiosyncratic behaviour for an essentially marine species. Another species mentioned was the rock pipit, a relatively common resident on Splash Point and the surrounding grass, chalk and beach. During this discussion, members were informed that the SNHS has adopted and sponsored this species in the forthcoming and eagerly awaited updated volume on the Birds of Sussex which is scheduled for publication next year.

Bob Self

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6th March 2012 – Life and Fossils on the Seashore

Tony Smith brought along some of his collection of his twin interests – fossils and seaweeds. These included a chunk of Sussex marble, an iron nodule which grows in chalk, sea urchin fossil in stone, mermaid’s purse (the eggs of dog fish), cods eggs, cuttlefish, and fossil shark teeth (which are very common although they take a bit of finding). We were all encouraged to look at and handle these pieces.

Beginning with seaweeds, Tony showed us samples of seaweeds dried on paper and explained how to do this. He explained that seaweeds fall into three groups: at the top of the beach they are green, further down when the tide begins to go out one is able to see the brown seaweeds, and further down still it is only at low tide that the red seaweeds are revealed. There is a massive variety of seaweeds and they can grow very large.

During his talk Tony showed some photos of the seaweeds beginning with the green ones like seakale, which grows high up on the beach, viper’s bugloss (sea lettuce) and zoster, which is one of the very few plants growing under the water. He then moved on to brown seaweeds like the serrated wrack and bladder spiral wrack. Kelp grows in deeper waters. And then the red seaweed in deep waters, rarely exposed. All of these are algae.

Some of the seaweeds are edible and can be used for example in making laver bread. Seaweed is also used in various ways, including for example as a fertiliser, and for extracting iodine, agar etc.

Tony then mentioned semmet which is animal not seaweed, and sea fern which is also animal although it mimics seaweed.

Tony then moved on to crustaceans like barnacles which use their tentacles to feed on plankton. The hermit crab is a symbiotic carnivore. It crawls around and is able to move into a bigger shell when it has outgrown its own. The anemone, which usually is unable to move itself, hitches a lift on top of the crab and from there it can catch its prey. The star sea squirt is minute individually but by combining in large numbers they are able to work together and survive.

He also mentioned ammonites, one of the most widely known fossils, which were once common around the world. Although they have become extinct other cephalopods such as the nautilus and cuttlefish are around today.

Tony’s enthusiasm was infectious and he made the point that if we take our time when next walking along the beach and look closely it is surprising what there is to find. The afternoon ended with a lively question and answer session about various aspects of his talk and also on the origins of flint.

Susan Painter

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October 9th - Rye Harbour Nature Reserve

Barry Yates has worked at the nature reserve for 26 years and is now the manager.

He began by saying that the original reserve established in 1970 at Rye was just a beach reserve which today has now grown to 1,100 acres. All of this land is SSSI. Many organisations work together in partnership to manage the reserve including the Environment Agency, the Friends of the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, and the SWT, who have recently become involved.

Great efforts are made to ensure that the reserve is an attractive place for people to come to visit and enjoy watching the wildlife. Every year the reserve has about 20,000 visitors and hosts a number of public events and educational visits. A number of benches have been installed along the footpaths to encourage people to stop and observe rather than just keep walking round. There are plans to improve facilities for those who are less able-bodied by providing more access for wheelchairs. Also a 3km road has been constructed which has five birdwatching hides that can accommodate wheelchairs.

In the last ten years reed beds have been created at Castle Water which gives an area of safer nesting. When SWT took over there were 7 islands; now there are 145. Marsh harriers, once rare, are now breeding. Water rail, bearded tit and chetti’s warblers are also breeding. Bitterns are now thriving and it is hoped that they will breed in Sussex next year for the first time in 100 years. Regular working parties are needed to maintain the reed beds. Over time willows tend to take over and they have to be cut down by hand and the exposed surfaces painted with weedkiller. Another threat is Australian swamp weed which smothers the ground with a layer almost one foot thick. Herbicide has been applied but is not entirely successful in controlling it.

It was recently decided to recreate the salt marsh, partly in order to halt the steady decline both locally and nationally. They trap sediment and increase land level as sea rises and can also absorb large amounts of carbon and are home to many plants and animals. Starting from bare mud in 2011 it is remarkable to see the speed at which salt marsh plants have colonised the area.

All this variety of habitat has led to an increase in the number of species, including many rare ones. Nearly 500 species of fly have been recorded and one rare one has recently been discovered which has been named Megaselia Yatesi after Barry. There are currently around 80 species of breeding birds.

Somewhere like Rye Harbour cannot simply be left to nature and needs careful management to keep a balance between the various species. This sometimes means that difficult decisions have to be taken to protect one species by controlling another. Electric fences have had to be erected to protect vulnerable ground or island nesting birds like skylarks, terns and marsh harriers from culprits such as badgers and foxes. Unfortunately preying birds like crows and jackdaws tend to perch on the posts. In order to discourage this various methods have been tried including the insertion of thousands of nails driven into the top of the posts. Electric fences also keep out rabbits to enable plants like birds foot trefoil, least lettuce and stinking hawksbeard to flourish on the protected side.

This year has been a disastrous breeding season for common terns owing to the very windy weather during the breeding season in May and June. This meant that there was very little suitable food available for the chicks and none was raised to maturity. Chicks became vulnerable and kestrels etc had easy pickings. As previous years were more successful Barry will only be worried if this trend continues.

A couple of years ago there was concern when the County Council pulled out of the partnership. However, now that the SWT is involved he is optimistic about the future. The reserve will continue to provide a safe home for a large variety of flora and fauna and one that people will be able to continue visiting and enjoy.

Susan Painter

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October 30th – Dragonflies on your Doorstep

John Luck, co-author of The Dragonflies of Sussex, was surprised that we hadn’t included dragonflies in our surveys of High and Over, and set out to convince us why we should include them in future.

There are 5,500 species in the world, 159 in Europe, 42 in the UK, 29 in Sussex and 21 – that’s 50% of all UK species – in Seaford. John admitted that some people are put off by the speed they fly and their reluctance to land, but actually 75% of dragonflies are obliging and will sit still long enough for us to identify them.

We should look in ponds, ditches, rivers, hay meadows, heathland (for rarer species) hedgerows (good for females) and woodland (for the larger hawkers).

In our garden ponds we are likely to find large red and azure damselflies, broad-bodied chaser, common darter, emperor, and southern and migrant hawkers. In the still waters of Frog Firle ditches, we could find emerald damselfly, hairy dragonfly, four-spotted chaser and black-tailed skimmer.

Along the Cuckmere, we can hope to see banded demoiselle, red-eyed damselfly and a thriving population of scarce chaser – our only rarity. The latter are to be found opposite the Clergy House.

Abbots Wood is a good site for beautiful demoiselle and brown, southern and migrant hawkers.

For identification, John recommends The Field Guide to Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain (edited by Steve Brooks, illustrated by Richard Lewington, published by British Wildlife Publishing). When looking, we should choose a warm, still and dry day. We can expect to see mainly males.

Dragonflies’ hind wings are deeper and wider than their forewings, whereas both damselflies’ wings are the same width. Females are fatter and duller in colour.

Metamorphosis can take up to two years. Larva can go through 10-15 sheddings before they emerge from their exuvia. Pre-flight emergents are prone to predation while they take up to a week to become adult. It is difficult to identify newly emerged damselflies as their colour changes.

John was rather sheepish about revealing the mating habits of dragonflies but it appears that in their four weeks as adults, males will resort to some foul play including scooping out a female’s previous partner’s deposits!

John finished by mentioning some good sites further afield: Black Down for the black darter; Old Lodge for the keeled skimmer; Nyman’s for the downy emerald; Pevensey Levels for the variable damselfly; Arun and Western Rother for the rare club-tailed damselfly; Shoreham for the southern migrant hawker; and Arlington for the red-veined darter.

John East thanked John Luck for an informative and engaging presentation.

If you would like to know more, the Sussex Wildlife Trust is running a course: An Introduction to Dragonflies and Damselflies, Thursday 27 June, Lewes Railway Lands. Book via their website or Woods Mill. There will also be some dragonfly safaris during the summer.

Jenny Wistreich

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November 13th- Sussex Saline Lagoons

Our speaker, Chris Joyce from Sussex University, told us that saline lagoons are for him the most fascinating type of wetland. He began with a slide showing pictures of Brighton Marina, Pett Pool, Church Norton Lagoon and Rye Harbour Quarry Pool. Which was the odd one out, he asked us?

The first task is to define what we mean by a saline lagoon. The key features of a saline lagoon are: 1) A partial barrier exists between the lagoon and the sea. 2) A micro-tidal environment i.e. it has some tidal movement preferably controlled by a sluice. 3) Salinity of 15 to 40 parts per thousand (more than brackish but less than marine). 4) It is normally quite shallow, less than a metre deep, allowing light in. 5) The presence of specialist lagoonal flora and fauna. Why are saline lagoons important? 1) As natural buffers for storm protection. 2) For recreation. 3) For their specialist lagoonal species such as rare invertebrates which need protection. 4) Their scarcity makes them a priority under the EU Habitat Directive – they make up only 5% of the European coast.

Saline lagoons are a variable resource. Some are created naturally, for example by a storm shifting a shingle bank but these tend to be short-lived. There are many artificial lagoons – mill ponds, marinas and gravel pits near the sea – some of which may be saline.

Specialist flora found in saline lagoons will include green algae, such as at Widewater Lagoon in Lancing. Other specialist flora include stoneworts and tasselweed. Specialist fauna include the mud snail, the lagoon cockle and rare shrimps. However the casual passer-by is more likely to notice larger fauna where present in the shape of little egrets, shovelers or avocets. The latter in particular have benefitted from the development of saline lagoons on the east coast.

Ivell’s sea anemone (Edwardsia ivelli), discovered at Widewater Lagoon by Professor Ivell in 1975, was last seen here in 1983 and has been found nowhere else in the world.

To find out the current status of our Sussex lagoons, Chris and his team set out to do a baseline survey in the summer of 2001. Out of the 35 known sites covering 84 hectares, they managed to survey 28. The other sites were either privately owned and permission was refused or they were in military training areas.

The result of the survey was that 43 plant and 106 animal species were found.

There was a range of between 10 and 27 species per site. 10 specialist lagoonal species were found – a good total as only 26 such species occur in the whole of the UK. Two of our Sussex species are nationally rare and one is nationally scarce.

Chris showed us some charts which demonstrated how indicator species like green algae, tasselweed, mud snail and lagoon cockle thrived in the right conditions but did not flourish if the balance was not right.

It was deduced that the perfect saline lagoon, in Sussex at least, should have an irregular shape with a mixture of steep and shallow edges. It requires a large volume of water with a regular but slight tidal exchange ideally controlled, as 80% are, by a sluice. The specialist flora and fauna require an above normal temperature, salinity and PH level.

Only 13 of the sites surveyed covering just 64 hectares, it transpired, support a lagoonal community. Two sites surveyed, Rye Harbour Quarry Pool and Little Spit, turned out to have a marine ecology, while other pools at Pett lacked the hoped-for salinity and were closer to the freshwater end of the ecological spectrum. Interestingly, our Sussex saline lagoons tend to be more saline than those found elsewhere with over 28 parts per thousand.

Church Norton Lagoon is a natural feature, Chris asserted, but it lacks aquatic vegetation and may have been affected by agricultural pollution, hence it does not have a saline lagoon flora.

The Scrape, the Tidal Pool and the Oxbow Lake at Cuckmere Haven all qualify as saline lagoons as does Pagham Pond which is well protected. Other less protected saline lagoon sites include Birdham Pool, Newhaven Tide Mills, Brighton Marina and Widewater.

Repeat surveys at two of the sites have revealed ongoing changes. Firstly at Widewater while Ivell’s sea anemone has probably become extinct, another sea anemone, Haliplanella lineata, has been found. Following some drying out here in the 1990s, a new pipeline was inserted through the shingle bank in 2003. Without regulation of the flow, this has meant the lagoon has at times become too tidal with higher salinity levels and a decrease in lagoonal molluscs. An upsurge in the numbers of the crustacean Microdeutopus gryllotalpa was however recorded in 2005.

At Pagham Lagoon, the ecology was affected by pollution either from an adjacent caravan park or agricultural run-off. However, tasselweed was back in 2011 so the lagoon is showing signs of recovery.

What are the challenges, Chris asked, facing saline lagoons in the future? 1) Identification, classification and quantification of the lagoonal resource base. 2) Being something of a poor relation to studies of marine or freshwater ecosystems where much more work is taking place. 3) Climate change bringing potential rises in sea-level, storm damage and new invasive species. 4) Lack of scientific understanding of what is a rare and endangered environment. Tasks Chris outlined for the future include: 1) Co-ordinated research and monitoring to establish the lagoon resource and baseline ecology. 2) Longer-term, specialised methods that assimilate lagoon dynamics. 3) Developing biological indicators, e.g. fish, invertebrates. 4) An eco complex approach that acknowledges the transitional and networked nature of lagoonal patches within the coastal landscape.

Finally, which was the odd one out of the four sites pictured in Chris’s quiz at the start of his talk? Counter-intuitively, it was Brighton Marina – the only one that qualifies as a saline lagoon.

David Crawford

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27th November 2012 - Streamside Meadows in the Upper Ouse

River Ouse Project - Restoring species-rich meadows

Dr Margaret Pilkington (University of Sussex)

The aim of the project is the restoration of a meadow rich landscape. In 1995 there were only 15,000 hectares of such landscape remaining in Britain and the total area has continued to decline, being lost to roads, housing and commercial development.

The first problem that Dr Pilkington faced was that there are very many tributaries of the Upper Ouse and, as a consequence, many different landowners to consult even before the survey could start. So, she and her students concentrated initially on examining 30 small linear sections to establish which plants were already present.

In the survey they found buttercups and knapweed, both excellent for insects as they produce a lot of pollen over a long period, as well as marsh orchids, bluebells, wood speedwell and birds foot trefoil. Red clover, which is an important plant as it is an early pollinator popular with bumble bees, was also noted.

Meadow brown butterflies and large skippers, both very characteristic of meadow rich areas, were recorded as were banded demoiselles and the day flying six spotted burnet moth.

Work was undertaken with local farmers recording the oral history of the survey area which included the historic role of the Sussex Upper Ouse catchment area in flood alleviation. There is a view that the Environment Agency does not see the area as having a significant role in flood prevention. However, local farmers reported the existence of many brooks and streams in the Upper Ouse area which, whilst remaining dry for most of the time, provide some relief on the two or three occasions each year when the river is in full flood. This meadow grassland, and the plants which thrive in it, will tolerate short periods of inundation provided the area drains relatively quickly.

The field trials were undertaken jointly with the National Trust at Wakehurst Place and Sheffield Park. They concluded that seed from yarrow, ox-eye daisy and cowslip grew well from direct sowing, but that bird’s eye trefoil, ragged robin and self-heal established better when grown on as small plug plants that were prevented from flowering in the first year.

Seeds and plugs were sowed on four iconic sites, of 0.5 hectare each and it is hoped that this will produce a more connected landscape that will benefit all insects and plants in the overall area. Subsequently green hay from these flower rich patches will be spread on neighbouring areas.

Diana Swaysland

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Page updated 10th December 2012