News of wildlife and other issues
Another cycle-way disturbs the natural aspect
A warning that work was taking place on the track that continues from the car-park at the end of Warren Road, Wanstead, prompted me to take a look.
The Heronry Pond end of the track which runs between Wanstead Golf Course and Chalet Wood in the Park was blocked off, and already a substantial amount of what was evidently to be a surfaced track was being built up the hill towards Warren Road. Two metres wide, a substantial sub-surface, evidently laid out in the style of the London Cycle Network routes, much the same as that which has ruined the meadow by the Alders Brook and threatens to invade into the wilderness area of the Exchange Lands. (see here)
A few metres up on the left hand edge, the piece of land that harboured the only Broad-leaved Helleborine known in this area has gone, and so has a perfectly serviceable country-like track, which seemed to reasonably comfortably accommodate both pedestrians and cyclists - albeit there were at times of course, on such a surface, the odd muddy spot. As a person who does suffer from a measure of difficulty when it comes to to walking an uneven surface, I can say that I never ever found this route difficult under any circumstances. As an ex-cyclist, I consider that I would have had no trouble using such a surface even on my sports-style bike, let alone the wide-tyred models that are the norm these days. Is it necessary to again suffer the requirements of the let's-go-faster, let's go-smoother cyclist lobby at the expense of reality and wildlife?
We shall all - pedestrians and cyclists, wheelchair users, pram-pushers and dog-walkers - share the "road"; that is what it is there for. And I know that as I walk down that ex-lane one day (probably on more than one day) a go-faster cyclist will come along from behind, I shall hear a swish, and will try instinctively to move to one side. At the expense of my balance, and at the cost of pain.
When I visited, there was a great pile of gravelled earth in the car-park, and I know that there is a problem of disposing of it. It has been suggested that it be used to resurface some of the Park's paths, but this would be foolhardy. Certainly, there are enough paths and tracks in the Park that desperately need work done on them, but really careful consideration need be made as to using an appropriate material, not just waste material that needs a home. Witness the cock-up around the Ornamental Waters where the material used after re-establishing the path there turned into a nice porridge mix when it rained.
It is an interesting thing, but I actually listened to the London Borough of Redbridge Engineer on the Warren-track project say that the track was a bit of no-man's land; neither part of the Park nor the golf course. Must be under Redbridge's administration, though, for why else would they resurface it when it wasn't needed? Mind you, saying that the road was built under Redbridge's auspice begs the question as to why it has been allowed to continue westwards at the bottom along the edge of the Heronry Pond. A good and fairly recent surfaced path already exists here, and this is Epping Forest! Why did Epping Forest give permission for this to happen?
So what next? I fear that what is next is another part of Epping Forest - the Exchange Land site - for as I have indicated before, the present Roding Valley Way route has been aimed straight at that land. Two or three metres of what is esentially a road through there? We shall see.
One positive outcome of the Warren Road road is that now a super-fast cycle-highway has been built, there will be no need for cycles to go through the Park from Wanstead Park Avenue to Warren Road. It'll be so much easier to use the good surface which will doubtless be built from Park Road that connects via the north edge of Heronry Pond to Warren Road ex-track, won't it?
Paul Ferris, 5th May 2010
Dunlin visit and migrant birds on Wanstead Flats
Walking from home across the Flats to enjoy a coffee in the sun in the cemetery (!), my 'phone rang... "There's a Dunlin on the Jubilee Pond" said Jonathan Lethbridge, so instead of a short walk and sit in the sun, I had a long walk and an excellent view of a Dunlin.
There is a report of a Dunlin at the same site on 6th February 1979, when the pond was then concrete-lined and called the Model Yacht Pond, and the following year I observed a Dunlin that was present by Alexandra Lake from 31st August to 3rd September.
The situation yesterday was similar to that of the 1980 one; the bird was feeding almost persistently along the edge of the pond, just a few feet away from the pond-edge path and passing people, and seemed quite oblivious to any possible danger. I am no expert on Dunlin behaviour, but when I see them more typically, for example, in estuarine habitats, they are always in flocks, and if a possible danger - usually from overhead - goes past the whole lot go up as if one. There are certainly possible dangers on Wanstead Flats - Sparrowhawks being one - and enough going on to startle me at times, but these individual Dunlin seem to be mostly unaware and unfazed. Is it because they are so out of their normal environment and usual company that they are simply just not picking up the usual signals from their peers?
Whatever, the opportunity was there to sit on a bench and observe the feeding just a few feet from the bird.
Yesterday's photographs (digital cameras not being around in 1980) captured the Dunlin almost always with its head in the water. It was still there at 3pm, but not seen just after 5pm.
Wanstead Flats has in the last few years seen an explosion of bird-watchers; it has at last been recognised as an excellent birdwatching site. Back in 1980 I wrote an article for the Wren Group Newsletter entitled "Wanstead Flats - not bad for birds" (read here), but there was only about two of us to my knowledge that covered the Flats. Now - with some excellent bird-spotters about - my long-term thoughts about its possibilities are proving true. However, recently some of us are becoming aware that Wanstead Flats is actually loosing habitats - or is in danger of doing so. An example of these that relates to waders in particular is an area of marsh quite near the Jubilee Pond. This is probably the area where most of the present-day Snipe hang out overnight. But it is drying out. This can be seen by the lack of mosses and liverworts that used to be found here, and the invasion of birches and other dry vegetation. Similarly - on Alexandra Lake I used to fairly often see Common Sandpipers first thing in the morning on the banks of the two islands there. Now these islands are surrounded by willow vegetation, and indeed it has become almost impossible to realise that there are two islands and not just one as the willows tangle together!
The arrival of seven Little Egrets in Wanstead Park last July when the level of water in the Heronry Pond was so low showed how quickly these birds had found a habitat that they found useful for their feeding. What we are lacking in the whole Wanstead area, I believe, are scrapes for wading birds. Perhaps an ideal place to think of creating these might be by the Roding - which must be a migration route for such birds - and a potential area exists. This is the site of the old allotments on the Redbridge bank to the north of Whiskers Island. There are a number of proposals for making use of this un-used and presently bramble-tangled land. These certainly includes a pedestrian/ cycle (and - hopefully - horse) route to complete a missing link of the Roding Valley Way, but also the possibility of moving the present river bund away from the river towards the A406 link road. This is so as to provide a water-relief flood plain in case of high water levels in the Roding.
Notwithstanding that the allotment area probably at present provides a good nesting habitat for a variety of our more common birds, the idea of a flood plain could give rise to the idea of a series of scrapes for wading birds - a much more-needed habitat, I suggest?
Perhaps we could see more Dunlin - and other things - visiting the Wanstead Park area, as careful management could see an increasing number of the wide variety of migrants and residents that we already know visit Wanstead Flats.
Paul Ferris, 22 April 2010
Food for Free!
Roger Snook of East London Nature was looking for mosses recently and noticed three men coming out from under the concrete bridge over the Roding which gives access from the recreation grounds on the Ilford side into the Exchange lands. They all had with them plastic bags which were stuffed full of something, so he decided to brave asking one of them what they'd - evidently - been collecting.
It was explained that they were collecting what they called "Wild Brocolli" for an Italian restaurant possibly somewhere near Gants Hill. Roger thought that it looked like some sort of brassica, and I suspect that it is Brassica rapa var. sylvestris, or Bargeman's Cabbage, which grows in profusion along the river banks. Now it really does grow in profusion along there, but then I understand that primroses used to frequently be found by English roadsides - until they were all picked - and Roger is always telling me how sparse the fungi growth is now in Epping Forest - now that they are all harvested for restaurants!
This brassica incident took place at much the same time as Kathy Hartnett of the Wren Group and I, having spotted a large and impressive clump of potential comfrey in the Exchange Lands, returned a week or so later to find that all of the growth had been taken down to ground-level. I am told that this is used to make an excellent wet-compost, or may be used medicinally. I have seen groups of people on the Plain in Wanstead Park harvesting Common Sorrel, it is oft reported that fish are taken from the lakes in the Park and elsewhere, and even birds have been known to disappear off the lakes.
I reported on this website some time ago how I'd listened to a R4 programme (click here) that not only talked about mushrooms taken from the Forest, but also included a recorded comment from a stallholder at the City of London's own Spitalfield Market that sounded very much like he were a perpetrator. Just a few days ago there was a "Women's Hour" programme that dealt with the different types of "Wild Garlic" - including Ramsons - that could (and should?) be used for cooking. When we are faced with national broadcasts that promote food for free backed up by an increasing number of people that have been used to obtaining much of it that way - then some of our wildlife may be in trouble!
Paul Ferris, 19th April
Grey Mining Bees, Andrena cineraria, in Wanstead Park
Visiting the Temple in Wanstead Park on 11th April 2010, my attention was drawn to numbers of small bees that were busy about the slope leading up to the Temple's portico.
An attractive black and light-grey colour, with the wings giving a somewhat bluish tinge, they were burrowing into the somewhat sparsely-vegetated ground on the slope. After trawling through various identification guides, what I came up with was the Grey - or Ashy - Mining Bee Andrena cineraria, which is listed in the Essex Red Data List as "Vulnerable". The Red Data List consists of species that are classified into different categories of perceived risk.
The photograph to the right was taken from directly above two bees, one above ground and the other just showing as a tail in a hole.
As there appeared to be only three areas within Essex from where these bees have been reported, I reported the find to Peter Harvey, the recorder for Hymenoptera in Essex. He sent an encouraging reply, saying that the only other modern records were also from the Epping Forest area, but all quite a bit further north. He also mentioned that there is another mining bee that looks similar, Andrena nigrospina, but this is only adult later in the season, late May and June. He suggested that the discovery was worth a note in the Essex Field Club Newsletter or the Essex Naturalist.
The bees appear to have a very limited period when they are observable as adults, and this may have been the reason why they have not been recorded before - they have just been missed. This seemed to prove true when a return visit was made to the slope on 18th April. Only a few bees were present, and no holes were visible. The weather conditions were broadly the same - that is to say fine - although the visit was made a few hours earlier than last time, at 1pm instead of 4pm. But it is also true that the condition of the vegetation on the slope has changed within the last few years, with increased usage by humans as the Temple has been opened at weekends and the Temple grounds used for an increasing number of events. This may have led to thinning of the vegetative cover, giving the bees more of an opportunity to burrow.
The slope is home also to a rare plant in this area, Birdsfoot, Ornithopus perpusillus (photo), which is very low growing and perhaps may not be affected by the trampling. However another rare plant in the area which grows here is Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia (photo). This, I suspect, will not benefit from humanity in the same way as the bees may be doing!
Doing a search on the internet for Andrena cineraria a day after contacting Peter, I was surprised to find an entry; what was even more surprising was that it was my own - a record from 2009. I had photographed a bee that I hadn't seen before and had tentatively identified it as A. cineraria. However it was so tentative an identification that I'd forgotten it! That particular specimen was found a little further south in the Park than the Temple, on 19th April.
Paul Ferris, 18 April 2010
Habitat loss on Wanstead Flats
I have lived beside Wanstead Flats for 38 years, and in that time, as a botanist and natural history enthusiast, the Flats have been brought me so much pleasure. I have tracked its changes in mood, the effects of climatic cycles and the influence of man's activities. I have helped to set up the East London Nature group (www.eastlondonnature.co.uk) and have photographed many of its plants. Over the past few years I have been increasingly concerned at the way in which man-made changes have dramatically changed and impoverished the diversity of topography and species on the Flats.
I will illustrate this first of all by referring to the pond near the site of the old bandstand at the junction of Capel Road and Centre Road. In my early days I found a wonderful range of grasses, rushes and sedges around its margins. Succeeding years saw dumping go unchecked, curious and inexplicable dredging, and a general lack of understanding or apparent concern about this important feature of the area. I attach a few of the pictures that I took in the 80's and early 90's to illustrate my point. (see Fig. 1 below). All of these species could once be found in many places on the Flats. Alas, this is no longer true. The cutting off of water supplying 'The Spring' (near the junction of Aldersbrook Road and Centre Road) has lost us a wonderful little habitat where many long-gone species thrived such as the Celery-leaved Buttercup. The Black Sedge (once common) and the Glaucous Sedge (once rare) are now no more.
The recent pipe-laying works also brought casualties as in Bush Wood North, on the Wanstead side of Bush Road. Here, a small population of Harebells has gone and, more importantly, we have lost one of the few occurrences of Silver Hair-grass in this part of the world. The disappearance of a permanent wetland to the east of Jubilee Pond has caused the demise of many species including a beautiful stand of Tufted Hair-grass and leafy liverworts in the damp ditches beside it. On a ridge running from below the Spring southward parallel to Centre Road was a healthy growth of Yellow Oat-grass - not so today. These things, amongst others, have been allowed to happen.
The removal of the invasive birches in recent times was unfortunately accompanied by destruction of the small birch copse that provided an environment for a wealth of fungi including Fly Agaric and Brown Birch Bolete. I now fear that current mowing regimes may threaten other species - Heath-grass, Mat-grass, Grass Vetchling and Marchantia polymorpha to name but a few (see Fig. 2 below).
Local naturalists will know the wonderful diversity of the Flats and just how fragile and vulnerable are its small communities. One imagines that such local naturalists are consulted before these seemingly draconian management and public works initiatives are embarked upon. Since the Flats is 'ours' - Wanstead Villagers, Forest Gate-ites, Leytonstonians, and the wider community for generations to come - I sincerely hope so!
P.S. Has anyone noticed the single clump of Upright Brome in the grassland near the 'Big Beech' at the corner of Aldersbrook and Centre Roads. It has been there for all my 38 years in the area - if no one else has noticed it, how much longer will it remain?