Wimbledon Common BioBlitz

Sunday 21st June 2015

The first BioBlitz on Wimbledon and Putney Commons in 2014 was a success and it looks like becoming an annual event. This year, the bat walk in the evening of Saturday 20th had to be cancelled because of the weather, but the moth trap was set up and lots of specimens were collected.

On Sunday 21st June, as part of the Quekett Microscopical Club’s microscopy outreach programme, Alan Wood, Barry Wendon, Dennis Fullwood and Paul Smith set up their microscopes and cameras in the Information Centre (next to the Ranger’s Office) to assist with identifying plants, insects and other organisms found during the organised walks. Barry got there early to set up the tables and chairs, followed by Dennis who set out yellow pan traps for insects and went down the hill to Queensmere to collect pond life.

We were surprised by the absence of waterfleas and adult copepods (although there were nauplius larvae present) in the samples from Queensmere, and by the absence of spangle galls on oak leaves.

Barry Wendon used his Olympus CK inverted microscope to look at material collected from Queensmere and used his Maplin USB digital microscope to observe lichen, moss, mines on oak leaves, and Cotoneaster.

Barry Wendon and his microscopesBarry Wendon and his microscopes

Dennis Fullwood brought his Nikon Labophot equipped for phase contrast, a USB digital microscope connected to his laptop, and an Olympus SZ4045 zoom stereomicroscope. He used the Labophot to show slides from his collection and look at pond life from Queensmere. He used the USB microscope to look at mines on oak leaves, and a pinned honey bee on a small ball table that allowed it to be rotated. The zoom stereomicroscope was used to examine a variety of insects collected in the yellow pan traps, leaf mines on oak and insects in amber.

Dennis Fullwood and his microscopesDennis Fullwood and his microscopes

Leaf mines in an oak leafLeaf mines in an oak leaf

Paul Smith brought his trinocular zoom stereomicroscope with a Sony digital camera connected afocally, using an old analogue television for focusing. He also brought a small 20× stereomicroscope with an external 2W LED Desk Lamp. The lamp and the television ran all day from rechargeable USB power banks. Despite the absence of waterfleas, Paul found plenty to observe in the samples from Queensmere.

Paul Smith and his microscopesPaul Smith and his microscopes

Alan Wood brought his trinocular zoom Olympus SZ4045 stereomicroscope and linked it to the Centre’s television via his Canon EOS digital SLR and a long HDMI cable. He used it to show moths collected the previous evening, the hairs on leaves, stems and burrs of cleavers (Galium aparine L.), flowers of ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata L.) and dock, lichen on oak, and a spider’s egg sac. He also showed specimens from Queensmere, including a red mite, a waterlouse (Asellus aquaticus (L.)), filamentous algae, and the star of the show, a colonial ciliate (possibly Carchesium sp.) that fascinated visitors by contracting and expanding.

Microscopes and televisionCompound microscope, USB digital microscope and laptop, stereomicroscope, and stereomicroscope with camera connected to the television

Colonial ciliateColony of peritrich ciliates, possibly Carchesium sp., that contracted and expanded on television for our visitors (the colony is about 1.5 mm across)

Hairs on cleaversHairs on burrs, leaves and stems of cleavers (Galium aparine L.)

Burrs of cleaversBurrs of cleavers (Galium aparine L.), actual size 2.5 mm diameter

Plantain flower head Dock flowers
Flower head of ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata L.)
actual size 35 mm tall
Flower head of dock (Rumex sp.)
actual size 35 mm tall

Lichen on oakYellow (Xanthoria sp.) and grey foliose lichen on oak (field of view 12 mm across)

Spider egg sac on oak leafEgg sac of the spider Paidiscura pallens (Blackwall) on the underside of an oak leaf (actual size 3 mm wide)

Norman Chapman was there too, photographing flowers of brambles (Rubus spp.), a taxonomically-difficult group, using a Gorillapod to hold his Nikon Coolpix 4500.

Norman ChapmanNorman Chapman

We had a steady stream of visitors throughout the day, starting with youngsters bringing in moths that Les Hill had collected and identified for a closer look. We hope to see some of them again at Young Scientists’ Day in the Natural History Museum on Saturday 27th June 2015.

Outside the Information Centre, the Common’s staff had set up 2 gazebos, one with tea, coffee and biscuits and the other with books and guides to help identify the birds, plants, lichens, butterflies, pond life and dragonflies that are likely to be found on the common. Pond nets, butterfly nets, magnifying jars and pooters were also provided.

The first event on Sunday was a bird-spotting walk led by local expert Dave Wills, but the participants were also fortunate to see hundreds of tiny frogs moving from Bluegate into the surrounding vegetation. There was no sign of the frogs on the later walks.

The next event was examination of the moths that had been trapped the previous evening. Les Hill of Butterfly Conservation (the Data Manager of the National Moth Recording Scheme) was on hand to identify the moths, and children brought several of them into the Centre for a closer look under our microscopes. All of the moths were released unharmed.

Discussing mothsLes Hill (left) discussing moths collected the previous evening

The morning walk, led by Dr Ros Taylor (one of the Conservators) set off past the area that is dominated by hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium L.) with some stinging nettles (Urtica dioica L.) at this time of year, after the cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris (L.) Hoffm.) has died back. There were lots more people on the walk this year, including enthusiastic youngsters from the Wimbledon Common Nature Club. Throughout the walk, Ros explained how the various areas of the Common have to be maintained so that they do not revert to woodland.

Hogweed patchPatch dominated by hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium L.)

Hogweed flowersFlower head of hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium L.)

Beetles on hogweedBeetles on hogweed

White-lipped banded snailWhite-lipped banded snail (Cepaea hortensis (O. F. Müller)), common on plants beside the path

The hogweed patch is separated from the grassy area of the plain by a path. Part of the plain is mowed and is open to the public, while part is left uncut and closed to encourage skylarks (Alauda arvensis L.). These birds have been absent for several years, but returned this year and we were fortunate to see a male flying up vertically and to hear its loud song.

Uncut grass on the plainRos Taylor (front left) and John Weir (standing behind Ros) pointing out flowers among the uncut grass on the plain

Ros pointed out yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor L.) which is a parasite of grasses. It has not been present on the Common very long and is thought to have been introduced on mowing machines. It is being allowed to stay because by restricting the growth of grass it allows more flowers to thrive.

White clover, yellow rattle and trefoilWhite clover (Trifolium repens L.), yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor L.) and bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus L.)

Red clover and trefoilRed clover (Trifolium pratense L.) and bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus L.)

Prue Whyte (one of the Conservators) and John Weir showed us some orchids that are not visible from the paths, and agreed that they were southern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa (Druce) Soó).

Southern marsh orchidSouthern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa (Druce) Soó)

Les Hill with groupLes Hill (front left) accompanied us on the walk to help identify insects

One creature that we did not want to see was this caterpillar of the oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea L.) that was low down on an oak tree; there were 2 nests high up in the tree. The caterpillars eat the leaves of oak, and their hairs can irritate the skin, eyes and lungs.

Oak processionary caterpillarCaterpillar of the oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea L.)

Oak processionary nestNest of caterpillars of the oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea L.) in an oak tree

From the grassy plain we moved on to an area of heathland where heather (Calluna vulgaris (L.) Hull) and other plants can thrive because trees are prevented from encroaching.

Duncan Sivell with groupDr Duncan Sivell (centre) from the Natural History Museum helped to identify insects

Collecting in heathlandCollecting insects and identifying plants in heathland

From the heathland we walked through the woods to Bluegate pond where we saw lots of damselflies.

Bluegate pondBluegate pond

Damsel fly on brambleLarge red damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula (Sulzer)) resting on blackberry leaf

Blackberry flowersFlowers of blackberry (Rubus sp.)

From the pond we walked back through the woods to the grassy plain, collecting more insects and identifying more plants on the way back to the Ranger’s Office.

Collecting on the plainRos Taylor (left), Prue Whyte (second from left) and John Weir (third from right) collecting insects and identifying plants on the plain

Ragwort with small skipperSmall skipper butterfly (Thymelicus sylvestris (Poda)) on ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris Gaertn.)

After lunch, Ros led a second walk on the Common, while the Quekett members spent the afternoon in the Information Centre observing specimens and entertaining and educating a steady stream of families. We hope to see some of the families again in the Natural History Museum for Young Scientists’ Day on Saturday 27th June 2015.

Members of the Quekett Microscopical Club will be in the Information Centre again for Stables Open Day on Sunday 13th September 2015.

Report and photographs by Alan Wood

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