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4th September 2018 – SNHS bird walk on Seaford Head

I know, I know: I have said it before (and I somehow suspect I will say it again) but the truth is that although I have experienced some very quiet days on Seaford Head and I have even endured some truly mind-numbingly slow and disappointing days there, I have never ever (ever) been there on a morning as quiet and bird-less as it was on the day selected for the SNHS bird walk this autumn! Fortunately, through some mystical process the membership must have intuitively sensed the gloomy foreboding and only three people turned up to the first session at 07:00 hours at the South Barn – and one of these was Paul in his capacity as the Health and Safety Officer.

The morning began well enough with a party of four yellow wagtails flying overhead and an attractive whinchat near the South Barn – albeit that other than me I am not sure that anyone other than Derek got on the bird in time to enjoy its good looks. But after that the first group was heavy going all the way and only a collective feeling of heroic camaraderie in the face of adversity kept us walking - much in the manner of Scott of the Antarctic. We proceeded down to Hope Gap and followed the track towards the sea during which we recorded a derisory total of two common whitethroat and a single reed warbler – but that was literally almost all we saw until we came upon a party of 30+ blackcaps at the bottom. The highlights of this section of the walk were an adder and a male sparrowhawk doing his usual circuit in search of food. Scanning over the sea we picked up a fulmar with a few curlew and oystercatchers, but most attention was paid to the arrival of three apparently overseas visitors dressed in climbing kit and armed with a six-foot ladder. What they were planning to do with it remains shrouded in mystery – maybe they seriously underestimated the height of the cliffs but it was a rather amusing spectacle. The first circuit finished with three greenshank flying over the Cuckmere.

The second group which assembled at 10:00 hours consisted of no fewer than 23 members. These lucky people enjoyed rather more good fortune than their predecessors as we proceeded up the concrete road towards the radio beacon and then along the edge of the golf course before returning via the cliff edge. Whether these participants recognised that this was ‘better’ or that they were ‘lucky’ in any meaningful sense of the term must remain a moot point. By the time we reached the barbed wire fence on the edge of the golf course we had re-located the whinchat, which performed well in the company of two female wheatears. To add to the interest, we also watched a pair of peregrine hunting in such a skilled and co-ordinated manner that they almost immediately took a pigeon in mid-air, leaving only a cloud of white feathers behind them as they retreated to the safety of the cliffs to devour their prey. The other notable feature about this circuit was the vast number of hirundines to be seen in the sky forming-up into large groups consisting predominantly of swallows accompanied by fairly substantial groups of house martins and a good sprinkling of sand martins. As these birds congregated on the Sussex coast before flying south, there was also evidence of a fairly significant fall of meadow pipits which had just arrived in the area. For all our efforts, however, I suspect that for many the sight of the thriving moon carrot patch at Hope Bottom represented the real highlight of the morning.

In fairness, it should be recognised that this has been a depressing autumn for bird migration throughout this part of the Sussex coast with very little evidence of any significant movements of migrants whether nocturnal or diurnal. For all that, however, despite the paucity of birdlife on the day, the species list still approached 60 – but both Derek and I were painfully aware that it should have been far better given the date. As proof of this proposition, three days later, on exactly the same circuit, I recorded almost constant activity in Hope Gap and Harry’s Bush and this included pied and spotted flycatchers, garden warblers, whinchats, wheatears and yellow wagtails, as well as large numbers of all the commoner migrants and several clouded yellow butterflies. The sight of any one of these species would have transformed the day for all concerned. Let us hope for better next year.

Bob Self

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18th September 2018 – Fungi walk

On 18 September Janet Howell led a group of 14 members from Jevington car park up into Friston Forest and Lullington National Nature Reserve, to explore the ecology and some of the diverse roles fungi play in the environment. The focus of the walk was on ecology and life form rather than species identification. Janet explained that fungi play essential roles in both the Nitrogen and Carbon cycles, particularly in relation to the decomposition of plant and animal material. One of the first things that was apparent was that with the drought it was mainly the fungi associated with tree roots and the wood-rotting fungi that were seen fruiting.

Although no fungal fruiting bodies were seen on any of the horse dung found on the hill, Janet pointed out that this is the habitat of many specialist fungi. Dung fungi tend to have thicker spore walls, to withstand digestive processes. Spores from dung fungi need to land on vegetation accessible to grazing/browsing animals in order to continue the life-cycle, and this in turn is more likely if the dung is dropped on vegetation rather than on the path.

Janet also noted that there are numerous species of fungi hidden within plant species. These “endophytes” have only relatively recently been discovered and their biology is poorly understood. Many have a symbiotic relationship – the fungi benefits their hosts by improving nutrient uptake and, in some plants protecting against herbivores and pathogens.

It was explained that most trees have their root areas increased very dramatically by associating with the hyphae of fungi. Trees need this mycorrhizal relationship for healthy growth. Trees such as sycamore and ash have an endomycorrhizal relationship, and these fungi do not produce large fruiting structures. Others such as beech and oak have an ectomycorrhizal fungal relationship and on the walk many of these fungal fruiting bodies were found. Various Russulas, Boletes and Milkcaps, which all have ectomycorrhizal relationships with the trees we passed, were looked at and discussed.

A number of saprobic (feeding on dead material) fungi were found on rotting wood or in leaf litter. The role of those able to break down lignin causing white rot was discussed. The commonest white rot fungus found on the walk was Lumpy Bracket (Trametes gibbosa). Other saprobes found were Sulphur Tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare), Rooting Shank (Xerula radicata), Common Inkcap (Coprinopsis atramentaria) and The Deceiver (Laccaria laccata). Another fungus found was the Giant Polypore (Meripilus giganteus), which can be a weak parasite (usually on beech), although usually a saprobe.

Leaving the woodland behind, the group ventured out onto Lullington Heath, to a lone Scots Pine tree not far from the edge of the woodland as this was a particularly interesting habitat. The Bolete-type fungus (with pores), Suillus sp. was seen. This has a role in facilitating the establishment and spread of the tree. The other fungus seen associated with the Suillus and the pine was the unusual Copper Spike (Chroogomphus rutilus). Although it has gills it is most closely related to Suillus. Janet was very excited this year to also find a Russula fruiting under this pine tree for the first time. It is likely that the Russula will outcompete the Suillus and we could be seeing this fungal succession occurring over the coming few years.

Also on the walk, lichenised fungi were discussed. Lichens are an association, usually of one fungal species with one or more algal or Cyanobacteria partners. The lichen is named based on the fungal component; it is estimated that up to a fifth of fungal species are lichenised. The importance of the partnership in colonising extreme environments and the threat of pollution was discussed.

Needless to say other fungi and their roles were looked at but this gives you a flavour of the exciting world of fungi that was seen and discussed on the outing.

Janet Howell

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2nd October 2018 - Seven Seaford Birds - Colin Whiteman

Sadly the opening talk of the SNHS Winter Programme 2018/19 “Restoring Woodland Culture in the Weald” could not take place due to the abrupt departure of the planned speaker from his SWT employment. The hastily arranged replacement talk “Seven Seaford Birds” was given by Colin Whiteman. Its essence involved brief discussions of the lifestyle and migration pattern of seven birds, either resident or visiting the Seaford area in the last few years. The introduction of each species was enhanced audibly by Marion Trew electronically playing the call or song of each species into the microphone for members to hear.

The magpie (Pica pica) opened the sequence. Love it (for its spectacular appearance) or hate it (for its alleged treatment of small song birds), the magpie is a common feature of the Seaford scene. It frequents gardens and Seaford Head, finding ideal conditions for feeding, nesting and cover, whatever the season, as the SHLNR Common Bird Census (CBC) reveals. Maps of its national breeding and wintering distribution are remarkably similar, emphasising that it has little incentive to migrate. In fact British ringed magpies have never been recovered outside the country!

Slightly less of a ‘home bird’ is the stonechat (Saxicola rubicola), another species recorded in SHLNR. Stonechats usually perch conspicuously on low shrubs surrounded by short grass where they forage for insects and sometimes worms and snails. They breed widely in Britain except in the dominantly arable parts of the country, where their favoured scrub, particularly gorse, is sparse. In Sussex, Ashdown Forest is the hot spot but many can be seen along the Seven Sisters and east of Birling Gap. Like the magpie they are reluctant to migrate, but will go as far as southern Spain if winter weather is very severe.

Yet another SHLNR-nesting species is the fulmar (Fulmaris glacialis), not a gull but a petrel, which frequents reserve cliffs during the summer, occupying nesting holes in the chalk or the sandy part of cliffs between Hope Gap and the Cuckmere. The distribution map shows that they are northern birds, their breeding sites scattered across Arctic and sub-Arctic cliffs with Seaford very much at the southern margin of their breeding range. Outside the breeding season, research in both the Atlantic Ocean and the Bering Sea has demonstrated that fulmars are essentially oceanic birds, feeding on shrimp, fish, squid, plankton and jellyfish. Sadly, other research has shown that plastic fragments are now also part of their diet.

Having spotted the record of a snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), photographed by Matt Eade on Seaford beach in November 2014, the speaker could not resist a ‘twitch’ (the obsessive chasing after bird records), having become familiar with this species during visits to glaciers in Iceland and Norway. There, snow buntings nest amongst the rocks exposed in front of retreating glaciers, feeding on a variety of invertebrates and seeds. In Britain a few cling to territories on top of the Cairngorm Mountains, a relic from the last Ice Age when glaciers would have occupied the corries. During the winter many Icelandic snow buntings retreat from their summer haunts, swelling the numbers in Scotland and extending coastally down eastern England and along the south coast where they can occasionally enhance a day’s birding.

There was just time to include the Brent Goose (Branta bernicla) before the tea break. Many Brent Geese summer on the Taimyr Peninsula in Arctic Siberia, nesting on the tundra with the aid of Eider down. Once the tundra starts its winter freeze-up, these geese are forced to migrate. Many spend the winter in and around Chichester, Langstone and Portsmouth harbours, a few sometimes stopping off for short breaks in the Cuckmere valley near the end of their journey. The Solent Waders and Brent Goose Strategy is a scheme devised to ensure that these birds are well catered for during their winter stay in Sussex and Hampshire. In January 2016, 14,260 Brents were recorded across the area of the harbours.

The penultimate species introduced was the swallow, strictly the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), appropriately named due to its reliance largely on buildings for nesting sites. Ringing recoveries have confirmed that barn swallows undertake a long-distance migration between Britain and South Africa, where many of them spend time at Mount Moreland reedbed just outside Durban. After a new airport was constructed close to the reedbed disturbance by late-flying aircraft as the swallows came into roost threatened to disturb this spectacular roost site, where people pay to picnic and watch the evening’s entertainment. Fortunately, special radar has been installed so that aircraft can be diverted if necessary. The airport’s operators are legally obliged to maintain the roost for the benefit of the swallows. Good news!

Finally, a mystery bird, a very rare vagrant to Britain, let alone the Cuckmere valley; an American Golden Plover (Pluvialis dominica), only the third record for Sussex when it visited, 11-14 June 2013. Having left its summer breeding grounds, somewhere in Arctic Canada or Alaska, it should have been on the Argentinian Pampas, but almost certainly became caught up with a strong Atlantic depression and was diverted towards the UK, where it enhanced the speaker’s ‘tick list’.

After a few questions Douglas Young introduced a generous vote of thanks.

Colin Whiteman

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30th October 2018 - The World of Lichens - Simon Davey

Prior to today’s talk (and the morning lichen walk at Seaford Head) I would have counted myself in Carl Linnaeus’ camp on lichens – he apparently thought them uninteresting and lumped them all into a single genus. For many the first challenge is that very few lichens have vernacular names so to name them means getting to grips with binomial (aka scientific or Latin) terminology.

After Simon Davey’s presentation I think my interest has been stimulated – not only are they interesting, many are easy to find locally and can best be studied when there are no leaves on the trees.

Simon’s enthusiasm for and deep knowledge of lichens took us on somewhat of a globe-trotting tour of where interesting lichens can be found. In addition to various parts of the UK including Sussex, Norfolk, Kent, Aberdeenshire, Inverness we were taken to Jersey, Scandinavia, Canada, Costa Rica, Germany and the Galapagos Islands.

Many of the lichens Simon illustrated are rare. On one occasion Simon was shown an apparently very rare lichen on Jersey which was covering a whole road.

Simon’s talk had 2 broad themes – what Lichens are and their habitats and requirements.

Lichens are a symbiotic association of a fungus (the mycobiont) and most often an alga or, less frequently, a cyano-bacterium (the photobiont). Although the photobiont can survive independent of the fungus the fungus can’t survive without the photobiont.

At Rhynie Chert in Aberdeenshire (a site of fossilised plants) Psilotum nudum a primitive plant with no roots can be found. It is not a lichen but associates with mycorrhizal fungi – so may be a precursor.

The British Lichen Society (BLS) also studies certain fungi, for example Stenocybe pullatula, so apparently a lichen is lichenised fungus or any other fungus that the BLS is interested in!

Each fungus can associate with a variety of photobionts and vice-versa. Some lichens (always named after the fungus) can have both an alga and a cyanobacteria so that the lichen may appear green in part and black in others – Simon showed examples.

There are also lichenicolous fungi which parasitise the lichen.

Lichens are very sensitive to pollution. 30 years or more ago there was a lichen desert stretching from London to Newcastle, a result of pollution with sulphur dioxide. Hyde Park had only a single lichen the SO2-tolerant Lecanora conizaeoides which thrives on acid substrates and evolved on Mt Vesuvius. The impact of Clean Air legislation now means that many lichens have returned to areas previously devoid of them.

The major pollutant now are nitrogen compounds from agriculture and motor transport. Nitrogen-tolerant and nitrogen-loving lichens are now widespread. The most abundant lichen seen on the morning walk was the nitrogen-loving Xanthoria parietina – it was probably more that 50% of the lichens we saw – (Xanthoria apparently means golden yellow).

Lichens grow in many habitats and can be found from the tropics to the polar regions but are sensitive to pollution. They can be very fussy. One lichen grows only on the stumps of felled native pines in Scotland – but requires 30+ years of rotting before it appears.

Light is essential. The substrate (mainly wood – both with and without bark- and stone) also has a major influence on which lichens will grow. Lichens also need ecological continuity as they are spread in the digestive systems of molluscs. Ancient woodlands with open areas are ideal – the New Forest is home to over 300 species of lichen.

Churchyards are excellent lichen habitats. St. Brelade’s churchyard in Jersey has the highest score for lichens of any churchyard in the British Isles.

Another interesting habitat is the coastal and intertidal. There is an inter-tidal black lichen which may be mistaken for an oil-slick on the rocks.

There are some lichens, metalophytes, grow in the presence of heavy metals for example mine spoil-heaps. These can be ephemeral appearing only between November and February. They require a constant supply of spoil (whether because that suppresses competition or because the lichens need the heavy metals is apparently not known). That can cause some challenges for conservation – the normal “rules” of rare species, designated a SSSI (so development is not permitted) would be counter- productive. The solution was to regularly introduce small piles of spoil.

Other habitats included bone, glass (greenhouses for example) and cars. Both Simon’s and his wife Amanda’s car sport an impressive array of lichen. Simon’s was damaged by a coach driver but there was an upside as lichens colonised the cracks.

One especially particular lichen is one that grows only on parts of wooden benches where bottoms have rubbed. Kew Gardens has some good examples. It gives “bums on seats” a whole new perspective.

Simon asked us particularly to look out for a particular lichen – Teloschistes chrysophthalmus the Golden-eye Lichen. Before 2012 the last sighting in Sussex was in the late nineteenth century near Lewes. Several sites were discovered along the coast of England during 2012 and 2013, where the hosts include hawthorn and apple trees. Simon was shown it N of Brighton in early 2013 but the branch on which is grew is no longer there.

In response to questions Simon said that not all lichens grow slowly. Dog lichen (peltigera sp.) grows in lawns and can spread rapidly.

For those interested in identifying lichens there are three forms – crustose, foliose and fruticose – into which lichens can be categorised. Many can be identified in the field with the aid of a 10x hand lens. Some require chemical tests (bleach – the C test, potassium hydroxide – the K test and para-phenylenediamine – the Pd test) and/or microscopic examination.

Books Recommended by Simon were:

  • Lichens - An Illustrated Guide to the British and Irish Species by Frank S. Dobson. The 6th edition reputedly has better illustrations than the latest (7th) edition;
  • The Lichens of Jersey – by Simon and Amanda Davey.

Other information sources:

British Lichen Society Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/BLSlichensF/ ;
British Lichen Society on Twitter https://twitter.com/blslichens?lang=en

The Field Studies Council (FSC) produce a number of individual charts of Lichens as well as a collection of charts in the Lichens Wildlife Pack.

Lichens illustrated (with thanks to Wendy Brewer for the list) included:

  • Acrocordia geminate
  • Arthonia varians
  • Cladonia coccifera
  • Cladonia diversa
  • Cladonia mitis
  • Cladonia rei
  • Collema tenax
  • Fuscopannaria sp.
  • Graphis elegans
  • Lecanora jamesii
  • Lecanora rupicola
  • Lobaria amplissima
  • Lobaria pulmonaria (Common Lungwort)
  • Peterjamesia sorediata
  • Pertusaria lactesens
  • Stricta canariensis
  • Usnea (Dolichousnea) longissima
  • Xanthoria parietina
  • Xerotrema quercina - new species found by the speaker - grows on oak

Chris Brewer

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page updated 5th November 2018