A walk around the Whiteknights Lake

Whilst this walk did not encompass the entire lake as the rain came down hard part way through, I did manage to find a small selection of plants with which to top up the records of whiteknights biodiversity. Mostly plain and simple finds today.

Route Maps

These finds were made in the area as denoted on the accompanying map. The Arctium has become dessicated but lasts as a sign that it is in this area during its growing season. All other specimens were in leaf with very few holding seed not yet dispersed. The Acer platanoides was of interest as it appears to be a cultivar and yet this specimen was young and self-seeded.

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A 9th for Berkshire

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Yellow-browed warbler on Whiteknights Campus (Chris Foster)

We have a new addition to the campus bird list following the exciting discovery by David Flack from the Meteorology department of Berkshire’s ninth recorded yellow-browed warbler. He kindly sent me the following account of his find:

“I got into work for another Friday morning’s work preparing the slideshows for the department’s weather and climate discussion. A brief glance out of the window and I noticed a group of blue tits and a smaller bird in the birch tree outside my office window.

Initially I thought it was a goldcrest given the company it was keeping. I then thought I may as well check it with my binoculars just in case it was a firecrest. When I got the binoculars up I immediately got excited as it had two broad creamy wing bars and a creamy yellow supercillium and knew I was onto something special and a likely Berks rare bird and campus first.

My thoughts immediately went to yellow-browed Warbler or Pallas’s warbler, and I knew I had to get a view of the top of the head to confirm my suspicions. I briefly lost it for a second or two but moving further along my office I was able to get opposite the tree and it eventually showed itself slightly below the window at a distance of about 2m and there was clearly no crown stripe, leading to the conclusion of Yellow Browed Warbler.

I went to get some paper to make some field notes and by the time I had finished the warbler had come even closer to the window and was only about six feet away, giving clear views away from the leaves and of the distinguishing features without the need for binoculars. There was someone else in my office at the time and I asked them to look at the bird just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming and it was really there.

This is when I put out the news and just as I was doing so it disappeared; I noticed it was heading towards the lake so added that onto the end of my report as due to work I was busy all morning.

It took a while for the reality of what had just happened to sink in but as I was working I had decided that I was going to try and refind it at lunch. “

Yellow-browed Warbler (by Hans Oloffson on Flickr, used under Creative Commons License)

Yellow-browed Warbler (by Hans Oloffson on Flickr, used under Creative Commons License)

Yellow-browed warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus) is an attractive, pale green coloured leaf warbler (in the same genus as chiffchaffs) with a double yellow wing bar and a bright yellow eyebrow, as its name suggests. It predominately breeds in Siberia and usually winters in Southeast Asia. Each autumn a few hundred are seen in the UK, thousands of miles off their usual course. This was thought to be wholly due to the phenomenon of reverse migration or misorientation, whereby a bird has somehow got one of its navigation aids switched and sets off at 180 degrees to its intended route.

However, the wide geographic spread of records up and down the east Atlantic coast and the increasing occurrence of P. inornatus in our region has led to speculation that a small proportion of the population has an established southwesterly migration to as yet unkown wintering grounds in Western Europe or North Africa, perhaps arising in tandem with the westward expansion of the breeding population this side of the Ural mountains. Every year a very few yellow-browed warblers do winter in Britain, and last winter a Pallas’s leaf warbler (a scarcer, closely related species) passed the winter in Berkshire at Moor Green Lakes local nature reserve. But the numbers wintering must be very small, as there are surprisingly few spring records even after allowing for the fact that spring migration tends to be both more rapid and more direct than autumn migration, which involves a large number of inexperienced juvenile birds. A survey of records in Iberia suggests that much of the autumn influx of both species into Western Europe may in fact be due to exploratory migration by juveniles, which migrate back to Asia later in the autumn.

The first ever record of yellow-browed warbler in Berkshire was in the winter of 1986 to 1987, when one spent over a month residing in a Thatcham garden. The county’s birdwatchers had to wait 17 years for another, at Theale in 2003, but since then they have occurred with increasing frequency each autumn, matching the growth in numbers passing through nationally, culminating in one bird trapped and ringed in Hungerford on 2nd October and finally Friday’s Whiteknights bird. They very often mix with tit flocks – Friday’s was in the company of blue tits for most of its brief stay – and can evidently turn up almost anywhere, so it’s worth having a close look at any small, greenish birds mixed in with tits and listening for the yellow-browed warbler’s distinctive, piercing call throughout the autumn.

Listen: Yellow-browed warbler songs and calls at Xeno-canto, BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day

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A new county record

While preparing for my lichen ‘walk’ on campus I examined one of the Horse chestnut trees near the pond in the Harris Garden. I’ve used this tree for teaching lichens on the MSc Plant Diversity course for the last three years. This time I spotted something new.

Squamules of Normandina pulchella.

Squamules of Normandina pulchella.

Normandina pulchella is an interesting lichen that grows as oyster-shell shaped squamules (small thalli of limited size). It has raised margins that develop a coating of small flour-like soredia. These are small bundles of fungal hyphae and algal cells that can break off and grow into a new thallus elsewhere – a form of asexual reproduction.

Normandina is expanding it’s range throughout the south of Britain, probably in response to less sulphur dioxide pollution. This is the first time that the species has been recorded in Berkshire.

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Birds On The Move

hough Whiteknights is perhaps not the best spot to observe bird migration, a few species have been on the move in the last couple of weeks. Our most abundant summer visitor, the chiffchaff, is still around (though in declining numbers), still audible in the Wilderness, uttering occasional soft ‘hueets’. A few will stay for the winter, though increasingly their place in the pecking order is being taken by goldcrests, an even more diminutive and extremely attractive little bird. Goldcrests are present in Whiteknights Park all year but numbers in the winter are bolstered by migrants from the continent.

Fortunate observers often pick up one or two firecrests among them, so it’s worth getting a closer look at any tiny birds darting in and out of conifers or dense vegetation such as ivy on trees. Even the tangled masses of laurel and rhododendron in the Wilderness seem to be suitable foraging grounds for the two Regulus species, where they presumably glean for tiny invertebrates eking out a winter existence under the broad evergreen leaves. A rare example, perhaps, of an ecological benefit from those insidious invasive plants. I’ve yet to see a firecrest this season – my last on campus was a singing male next to the Harris Garden pond back in April – but I hope that they’ll be back with us before the term is out.

Firecrest, by Isidro Vila Verde on Flickr (Creative Commons license)

Firecrest, by Isidro Vila Verde on Flickr (Creative Commons license)

Jays have been particularly noticeable over the last couple of weeks, seen making distinctively floppy flights all over campus as they go about caching acorns for the winter. And more recently we’ve seen the return of redwings, perhaps the most striking of Britain’s native thrushes. There’s often a good sized flock feeding on the playing fields or on the short grass near the Student’s Union.

There are other migrants about that never or hardly ever touch Whiteknights soil, such as meadow pipits and skylarks. Single meadow pipits flew over campus early on Friday 10th and mid-morning on Thursday 16th, and at about quarter to ten on the morning of Friday 17th two skylarks were passing southwest in the vicinity of the AMS tower. The flight calls of both species are quite easy to pick out once you know them: the pipit’s is a thin repetition of the first part of its name (“Pip! Pip-pip!”), whilst the skylark’s call is a burbling cheep (listen here) that I find somewhat difficult to describe. No matter, once heard it is very distinctive, and you’ll soon see how commonly skylarks are flying overhead at this time of year.

What birders often refer to as ‘vismig’ – short for visible migration – is becoming quite popular, especially as the trend for birdwatchers to focus on the comings and goings of a local patch rather than on twitching rarities continues to gather pace. With the establishment of the Reading University Ornithological Society, interest in birds on campus has probably never been higher, so with plenty of ears and eyes to the skies we will hopefully be noticing and reporting (via the BTO’s BirdTrack site) an increasingly useful proportion of the birds flying overhead.

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Magpie Inkcap – Coprinopsis picacea

Thanks to Dave Butlin I can add another toadstool to our campus list – the black with white spots is a distinctive feature of Coprinopsis picacea, the aptly called Magpie Inkcap.  These toadstools were seen today in wood chips and leaf litter under the Catalpa next to the library.

The magpie inkcap, Coprinus picaceus, found on wood chips under the Catalpa speciosa growing byt the Library.

The magpie inkcap, Coprinuopsis picacea, found on wood chips under the Catalpa speciosa tree growing by the Library.

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A Walk through the Wilderness 15th October 2014

As part of my time volunteering at the University Herbarium, I will be attempting to document some of the species on campus, in order to update the WB blog species list. To start me off, as I am as yet just a tenderfoot, I will be working through some of the more simple species before I set off into the great unknown. Continue reading

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Lichen exploration on campus

Whiteknights is an amazing teaching resource. Recently I led a lichen ‘walk’ for the Reading District Natural History Society from the car-park in front of the Harborne Building. I’ve put ‘walk’ in inverted commas because we really didn’t walk very far.

Lichen observation in action.

Lichen observation in action.

Starting with a red-leaved Acer in one corner of the car-park we explored crustose and foliose lichens and examined the curb-stones at the edge of the tarmac. Then we looked at the roadside trees behind the Engineering Building, seeing how the availability of rain water affects lichen distribution. Large foliose lichens were common in branch axils where water accumulates before draining down the trunk, while only leprose lichens survived in the rain-shadows below large branches.

A near-by wall gave us the chance to see how different lichen species prefer either the acidic surface of the bricks or the basic, and more porous, mortar.

We examined nitrogen-enriched lichen communities on painted window sills and looked at the orange smudges of Trentepohlia, a free-living green alga, that we found on bark. We even spotted a coral pink licheniclous fungus, Marcandiomyces corallinus.

Admiring Collema tenax growing on soil.

Admiring Collema tenax growing on soil.

Going in the opposite direction we looked on soil behind the greenhouses and admired the tiny colonies of the gelatinous lichen Collema tenax. Unfortunately I forgot to show everyone the free-living cyanobacteria Nostoc that occurs in the next bed. But we did stop to admire some thalli of a Peltigera species and also the similarly shaped thalli of Marchantia polymorpha, a thalloid liverwort.

All this diversity lies within 200 metres of car-park 13!

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