Biodiversity surveying

We are building up a record of species found in the water meadows through systematic survey. Iain Carruthers-Jones leads this work and would be pleased to welcome new volunteers to the biodiversity surveyin team. Contact Iain if you are interested.

Photo: Greater Spotted Woodpecker on the Crankles, by Jillian Macready

Species observed in the water meadows this year:

Look out for our BioBlitz over two days in May 2022, when there will be a race against the clock to find as many species as possible in the Crankles and No Mans Meadow. Will we get a thousand for the 1000 years of the Abbey of St Edmund??

Bury Water Meadows Biodiversity Survey 2021 annual report

The Bury Water Meadows survey area was increased in size this year. As well as Ram Meadow, the Crankles (north and south) and No Mans Meadow we decided to include the Great Churchyard and the Butts. The former turned out to be very fruitful from a plants perspective, especially around the Charnel House. There was, as well, an exciting late addition to the survey area in the form of several hectares of land adjacent to Ram Meadow. Occupied by members of the travelling community until the summer, we have only begun to survey the area. Our preliminary investigations have led us to think that this will be a really interesting addition to our survey portfolio.

Although this report covers 2021, it would be incomplete if the last week of 2020 was not included as well. “Adverse weather” left the Water Meadows underwater; we woke on the morning of Christmas Eve to find that both the Lark and the Linnet had overflowed their banks. The Crankles and No Mans Meadow were completely flooded. We were very concerned about burrowing mammals but as the water subsided there was little evidence of drownings. On the positive side we found that our resident population of one or two egrets had expanded overnight to six. Plus a heron or two. It was a delight to see them wading and feeding. We do not know where they came from but they were with us for many weeks. We rather suspect that a couple of the visitors decided to stay but we have not seen any fledglings.

We had plenty of gulls throughout the year as well. There have been quite a number of Blackheaded and Common gulls. There have been Herring gulls too; ICJ witnessed a wonderfully noisy stand-off one early summer’s morning between a Herring gull and a sparrowhawk. The gull, perched on a chimney pot, gave an open winged display and an aural onslaught while the sparrowhawk perched, apparently cowed, on a branch in the heart of a tree about 20 feet away.

Owing to the Covid restrictions, our survey season did not start until March. The observers got off to a flying start (pardon the pun) and they saw as many different types of bird in the month (45) as were seen in the whole of last year.

Through the year there were regular sightings of smaller birds such as wrens, robins, treecreepers, thrushes and blackbirds. There have been frequent sightings of kingfishers and woodpeckers (greater spotted and green). Pigeons have been commonplace, as have larger birds such as magpies, rooks, crows and mallards. Sadly, no swans have nested this year. For a short while it looked like a pair might nest. They arrived, looked over several nest location possibilities and moved on.

Corvids (crows, rooks, magpies) are everyday sightings throughout the year. Occasionally, jays are seen, too. Corvids appear to be the biggest residents and they crowd together being both noisy and territorial.

We are overflown by other groups of corvids (too high to be sure whether they are crows or rooks but probably the former) every day. Around eight in the morning, hundreds fly north; around dusk, they fly south – probably to roost.

We had regular sightings of kestrels, buzzards and sparrowhawks together with occasional sightings of red kites. We had only one sighting of a barn owl despite it being, what many have described as, “classic barn owl territory”.
There have been “hearings” (as opposed to sightings) of a tawny owl in the South Crankles at night in December 2021.

Recently a decision has been made to erect two owl boxes and two kestrel boxes in the Water Meadows. Hopefully they will be occupied in time for next year’s breeding season.

Overall, our observers recorded a total of 53 different types of bird between March and October. More detailed, month by month listings can be found on the Bury Water Meadows Group website in the Biodiversity Surveying section.

In March both green woodpeckers and greater spotted woodpeckers were seen. The latter were frequent in the woodland at the junction of South Crankles and No Mans Meadow. There may have been an attempt at nesting but we witnessed a harassment attack by magpies who were themselves harassed by crows. The greater spotted woodpecker was not seen in that location again.

There were frequent sightings of bramblings, chaffinches, chiffchaffs, goldcrest, greenfinches and goldfinches. Thrushes, wrens, robins, treecreepers and tits of various types were commonly seen as well. Another bird of note is the kingfisher. Sightings, although it usually feels more like glimpses, have occurred in various locations on both the Lark and the Linnet. We hope that it is a number of kingfishers rather than a single one that “gets around a lot”!!

In April, we continued to see many of the birds mentioned above but we had to wait until May to see swifts and swallows. They add a whole new dimension to aerial acrobatics.

We saw our first blackcaps and whitethroats in June. By August our transients had moved on and our resident birds filled our observation lists. Before long we were seeing flocks of long tailed tits and goldfinches scavenging through the meadows in their search for food such as seeds from teasels, ivy and shrubs.

While we saw more birds this year than we did last year, we sense that there may be still more to see. Walking the Water Meadows in spring and early summer, the birdsong is extraordinary both in variety and volume. It is hard to believe that some of that noise comes from birds that weigh no more than a pound coin.

There was a poor breeding record of small birds this year. It is hard to say why but few nesting boxes were occupied and fewer fledglings were seen in the Water Meadows. It could be that weather conditions were unhelpful; it might also be that some predation occurred. The culprits could include squirrels, blackbirds, magpies and other corvids.

It has been a disappointing year for small mammals but we do have a very healthy population of squirrels and moles! Some water voles have been seen. Perhaps progress may be being made to help the rivers become cleaner.

Deer, especially muntjac but occasionally roe, are regularly seen and there has been a report of successful breeding on Ram Meadow. Hedgehogs have been seen but there does not seem to be a substantial population.

In our 2020 report, we listed more extensive reptile recording as one of our goals for 2021. To this end, additional roofing felt reptile sheets were laid on 23rd March 2021 adding Ram Meadow and the North Crankles to the existing survey areas of No Mans Meadows, South Crankles and the Butt’s (Sarah Gull’s land). Unfortunately, by the time of the first check the following week, one of the new mats in Ram Meadow had already disappeared from the location where it had been placed. This was eventually located and then relocated during a subsequent visit. Several other sheets were lost during the course of the year, either through interference or simply hidden beneath tall nettle growth. We have yet to find any evidence of reptiles using any of the study areas but we have encountered shrews under a couple of sheets in Ram Meadow and voles and a frog in the Butts, along with several ants nests.

We didn’t get out to check reptile mats much in the second half of the year. We need to see how many of them we can re-find this winter when the nettles have died back. We may need to rethink some of the locations as many of them get so swamped by nettles that they are hard (painful!) to reach and difficult to find, plus too shaded to warm up in a way that would make them attractive to reptiles. Thinking ahead it would probably be really worthwhile laying a few sheets in Ram Meadow East if we are likely to be allowed regular access next year. The south-facing slope beside the pond looks to be a promising reptile habitat.

While there have been sightings of butterflies, it is sightings of whites and red admirals that have been most frequent. However, in March we saw brimstones and peacocks as well as red admirals. In April we saw brimstone, commas and orange tips. In May we saw brimstone, commas, orange tips, cabbage whites and speckled woods. In June, we saw red admirals and an elephant hawk moth. We saw, as well, buff tailed bumblebees, red tailed bumblebees and carder bees. Hover flies and a blue darter made the list, too. In July we saw red admirals, meadow brown, gatekeeper, green-veined white, comma and peacock butterflies. A similar list was seen in August as well as buff tailed bumblebees and lots of ladybirds and wasps.

The BWMG has decided to make a determined effort to encourage the seeding of plants, such as yellow-rattle, which are known to be attractive hosts to a variety of caterpillars.

Last but by no means least, we have been recording the plants that are seen in the Water Meadows. There is an enormous diversity of plants ranging from tiny violets to architectural plants such as bullrushes, mulleins, indian balsam and hemlock. Needless to say, the latter two are invasive and unwelcome.

We have extended our wildflower recording this year. One of the most fruitful areas, so far, has been in and around the Charnel House in the Great Churchyard. Over 60 plant species have been seen growing in this small area. The majority seem to have been established following the laying of wildflower turf in 2014, but some interesting species, including Bee Orchids (Ophrys apifera) and Changing-Forget- Me -Not (Myosotis discolor) have appeared in addition to the list of species knowingly introduced at that time.

While for many the pinnacle of flowering in the Great Churchyard is in April and May when the cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) blooms – and this year it was, as always, astoundingly beautiful – there was an earlier flowering which appears to be more widespread each year. This is the Few-flowered garlic (Allium paradoxum) which peaks in March.

Partway through the year, we were fortunate enough to be able to add Ram Meadow East to our survey area. It is situated at the northeast end of Ram Meadow. Until mid year it had been occupied by members of the travelling community and so no access was available. Once they moved on, we discovered that they had occupied only the northern end of the site; the majority of the area being relatively undisturbed. We found a variety of different habitats which are home to a very mixed array of plant species. Over 130 have been recorded so far and, no doubt, there are more to find. These range from the opportunistic ruderals( e.g.Henbit Deadnettle and Pale Persicaria) and eclectic garden survivors (e.g. Lungwort and Opium poppies) appearing in the disturbed soils at the northwest end of the site through to wetland species growing in (e.g. Reedmace) and along the margins of a silted up pond (e.g. Celery Leaved Buttercup). There is an interesting area of dry south-facing slope supporting species such as Wild Basil and Small Scabious. These are typical of unimproved species-rich grassland.

While not strictly within the Water Meadows catchment that we started with last year, it has been interesting to note an apparent spread of Small Teasel (Dipsacus pilosus) along the edge of the river Lark and Water Figwort (Scrophularia auriculata) cropping up in new places this year, including growing out of a wall alongside Harp Meadow.These are examples of two species that seem to have benefited from the very damp conditions we have had through the year.

Ivy is a wonderful source of nectar in the autumn as well as providing berries and nesting sites for birds through the winter and spring. In September one of the observers noted a variety of insects feeding on ivy growing on the Friars Lane footpath. As well as Red Admiral and Comma butterflies, there were lots of hoverflies and other dipterans. Some boldly striped Ivy Mining Bees were seen as well. These were only recorded for the first time in the UK in 2001.

A more detailed, month by month breakdown of the plants our observers have recorded can be found under the Biodiversity Surveying section on the website. Additionally, all have been uploaded to iRecord so that our records become part of a national register as well.

For all the observers there were special moments.

For Sue. After spotting the grey wagtails in the Lark for the first time, I always looked forward to seeing them again and the day there were four of them – two pairs – doing wagtaily things among the pebbles and rippling water was special. And another day a small tree (near the allotments in Ram Meadow ) was absolutely covered in goldfinches. Magical – or perhaps I should say charming.

For Stephen. One highlight of my observations was in June when the Linnet water level was (unusually) normal and clear. In brilliant sunlight, very small minnow-like creatures were observed swimming at the Linnet bridge location by the Premier Inn car park. Also seen was a blue dragonfly flitting between the banks. There is some life in the Linnet after all!

For Peter. There’s nothing like thinking to yourself “This is a great spot for a (insert species)”, and then it appears on cue! Truly magical when it’s a kingfisher.

For Iain. For me there was an extraordinary experience with a butterfly. Every evening, for a couple of weeks, at much the same time a red admiral butterfly came to my garden by the South Crankles and rested for several minutes on my shoulder. Entrancing!

For Iain a second special moment came right at the end of the year. On a morning walk, a pause on the Abbey Gardens bridge to watch a moorhen resulted in a sighting of a water vole. It swam across the Lark at a distance of five yards or so from the bridge and disappeared into a clump of undergrowth at the river’s edge.

Many thanks to the volunteers for helping to create the huge amount of data generated . They included Sue Russell, Stephen Brunner, Peter Armitage, Jaq Campbell and Vic Ward.
Iain Carruthers-Jones and Anna Saltmarsh

BWMG biodiversity survey 2020

This is a preliminary report of the 2020 biodiversity survey in the historic Bury St Edmunds Water Meadows. The survey took place in late summer 2020 in the 5 hectares of green space that comprise the Crankles, No Mans Meadow and Ram Meadow. Within this area are two chalk streams, the Lark and the Linnet.

The team of observers included Anna Saltmarsh (AS). Libby Ranzetta, Sue Russell, Jillian Macready and Iain Carruthers-Jones (ICJ).

37 types of birds were recorded. The largest bird sighted was a raptor. A Buteo buteo (buzzard) was seen several times and in different locations. It would seem likely that this is a single bird; we had no sighting of a pair of birds and no active nest was seen.
However, an old nest has been seen on adjacent land owned by the Gulls.

In July, there was a sighting on Ram Meadow of a hunting Kestrel. It was close to a strike on a pigeon when it pulled away. The pigeon survived to breathe another day. Clearly others had not been so fortunate because there was a large spread of feathers on the ground nearby.
A pair of egrets were sighted in Ram Meadow as well. While this was the only sighting of a pair there were several sightings in the Crankles and No Mans Meadow of solitary birds. A heron has been seen a number of times in various locations along the Lark and the Linnet.

A pair of swans fledged a single cygnet. Their range stretched from the Lark bridge that crosses the Crankles as far downstream as the Eastgate weir. They were last seen as a family in late September. One parent and the cygnet were seen for another week or two. Finally the cygnet was left alone. It has not been seen since mid-October.

There have been sightings of pheasants and partridges. One partridge mother raised a brood of five cheepers very conscientiously for several weeks and could be seen at different locations in the Crankles and No Mans Meadow.

There were many sightings of pigeons, crows and rooks. One morning in May ICJ witnessed an unusual sight. In No Mans Meadow a couple of sheep were surrounded by rooks. At first it looked like they might be attacking the lambs that were with the sheep. However, on closer inspection, it became obvious that this was not an attack but a collaboration. The rook on the sheep’s back was pulling out wool from the fleece and passing it to rooks on the ground. They promptly flew off with the wool, presumably to create a warm and comfortable nest for their fledglings. The host sheep stood still, and presumably acquiescent, for at least five minutes.

There were frequent sightings of some smaller birds. At least one kingfisher has been flying along the Lark from the Abbot’s Bridge to No Mans Meadow. Small flocks of blue tits and long tailed tits have been seen frequently as well. Chaffinch, greenfinch, brambling, goldfinch and linnet have been seen from time to time. There have probably been more than we recorded. Robins and blackbirds have been seen frequently. Other species also sighted include coal tits (frequent), great tits (frequent), wren (frequent but very localised), nuthatch, willow warbler, and swifts.

There have been sightings of magpies but it is difficult to gauge whether they are numerous.

Water based birds have been sighted frequently. Moorhens and, especially, mallards frequent the stretch of the Lark from the North Crankles to the Eastgate weir. It is intriguing that the male birds outnumber the females.

A single grey wagtail was spotted in late July.

Both green woodpeckers and greater spotted woodpeckers have been seen. Various types of gull have overflown but there has been no ground based activity.

The biggest and most numerous category was plants. We recorded 108 different plants. Excluded from this count were plants which were known to have been seeded or planted (e.g. snowdrops or wildflower seed mix) by volunteers in the last couple of years. However, it will be interesting to see which of these thrive.

Of the 108 types recorded there was a huge variety. Some had “old names” like lady’s bedstraw, fat hen, yorkshire fog, sneezewort, old man’s beard and some were old plants which featured in herbals, such as horseradish, marjoram, oregano, angelica, hemp agrimony and St. John’s Wort.

Three plants recorded were a cause for concern. Firstly, himalayan balsam has been seen growing along the river margins. There has been an active programme to remove this vigorously invasive plant.

The second plant is hemlock which has been a prolific grower this year. It is poisonous. It has grown along the river margins at the south end of the Lark in No Mans Meadow and beyond as far as the Lark Path junction with the main road. It has grown to a height of more than eight feet in places; when in full leaf it overshadowed all the other plants along the path.

Hemlock is not a new arrival since it was first recorded in 1548 ( according to the NNSS). It does appear to be spreading possibly due to pollution and eutrophication (high nutrient levels) as well as climate change. While it is not a controlled species in the UK it will be monitored carefully in coming years.

A third plant, giant hogweed, has been seen in the area. While it is not present in our survey area it has been seen on the banks of a ditch leading into the Linnet in Holywater Meadows. This can be described as a problematic, non-native invasive species. Its sap can cause severe photosensitive blistering.

Probably the easiest survey to do involved the trees of the Water Meadows. When you want to count them, like plants, they remain still.! We counted 27 different types. Most numerous were willow (white, black, weeping, grey and crack ) and poplar ( white and black), maple, sycamore, ash and aspen. There were a few horse chestnuts, maple, alder and hawthorn as well as walnut (black and english), elder, scots pine and guelder rose.

Our surveying of butterflies and moths was insufficiently comprehensive and systematic. The coronavirus restrictions blocked our efforts in the first quarter but in the second quarter we saw 14 different types of butterfly. These included large whites, small whites, green veined whites, small blues, peacocks, brimstone, commas, brown argus and gatekeepers. Less common, an eyed hawk moth was seen. It might have been injured because only one “eye” was visible but it must have recovered enough to fly away after a couple of hours. Also observed was an Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar. What a triumph of camouflage.

Mammals seen have included voles, rats, rabbits, grey squirrels, muntjac deer, roe deer and hedgehogs.
Reptile mats were put out at six sites in the Crankles and No Mans Meadow. They were checked periodically. One was destroyed by grass and nettle cutting. The other five yielded little except for a number of invertebrates.

No reptiles have been seen this year.

Ground nesting bees were seen at several locations in the Crankles and the northern end of No Mans Meadow. It was not possible to be more specific about the types of bee seen because they were extremely irritable and the observers did not have “bee suits”.

It had been intended to survey other species as well. However, it wasn’t possible to do a survey of bats, bees and other insects and fish. It is hoped that they will be included in next year’s survey.

Fungi were not recorded methodically. In recent weeks one giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea) has been spotted. Although not a fungus, a striking slime mould (Tubifera ferruginosa?) was spotted in the North Crankle.

In conclusion, our intention to do an intensive and detailed biodiversity survey was hampered by COVID. Nonetheless we recorded an impressive number of observations, with the most numerous being plants. This year’s survey will serve as a benchmark for next year. If circumstances allow next year we should record more in every category (with the possible exception of trees) since we will have a longer observation and recording window.

A list of records is being stored. All records will be submitted to SBIS (Suffolk Biodiversity Information Service) and will subsequently be available on the National Biodiversity Network (NBN Atlas). Further, we are exploring the use of iRecord as a means of uploading and collating these and future records.

Iain Carruthers-Jones and Anna Saltmarsh