Over the past year we’ve been observing the wildlife of a small urban site in Winson Green, Birmingham.
The rather quirkily-named Centre of the Earth is the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust’s education centre, located next to the Soho Loop of the Birmingham Canal in Winson Green. The site was previously an old goods yard and work began on transforming it in 1987, with the purpose-built classroom buildings being finally opened in 1993.
From the beginning the centre was designed with sustainability and wildlife in mind, and, even though the site is quite small, there are a nice mix of wildlife habitats, including meadows, blocks of planted woodland, raised beds and two linked wildlife ponds.
Though the Wildlife Trust have maintained a small presence at the site through the years, it wasn’t until 2017 that it was decided that the building would become the Trust’s new headquarters, with the organisation having been previously based in offices near to Five Ways in the City Centre.
It’s been a joy to be able to observe wildlife directly outside (and occasionally inside!) our offices and now that we’ve been here for a over year we have a better understanding of the creatures, large and small, we share this unique space with.
Since the Centre of the Earth was opened, Wildlife Trust staff, school children, and the occasional visiting expert have been noting down some of the interesting species that they’ve spotted at the site.
There is quite a good list of plants for the site, primarily from an in-depth botanical survey carried out in 1996 and also later surveys and ad-hoc records. In total 188 plant species had been recorded on the site, with a mix of woodland, grassland and plants of disturbed-ground. The list also includes some plants that have been planted or introduced over the years.
Interesting plants spotted here in the past include Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera), so named as it resembles a bumblebee. First noted on site in 2016, this flower occurs sporadically on shallow soils or rubble.
Another plant of dry, nutrient poor soils, Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) has also been spotted here back in 2008, though did not subsequently reappear.
A third orchid species, Common Spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) has also been recorded here, in 2016, though it is believed that this plant was originally transplanted here from the Wildlife Trust’s previous HQ at Harborne Road.
A further notable plant – Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris) was recorded growing in the woodland in 2016. This is a plant particularly associated with post-industrial sites in our area.
Aside from plants, an impressive 24 species of bird had previously been recorded on site. These were mostly garden birds, but included some interesting migrating birds such as Ring Ouzel (Turdus torquatus) and wetland visitors including Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea), Goosander (Mergus merganser) and Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). Another interesting sighting was Ring-Necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameri), a more recent UK arrival.
An invertebrate training day was held here in 2002, led by two local experts and this led to the recording of, amongst other things, five species of bumblebee, seven species of moth and 23 species of fly. In addition, butterflies and dragonflies have been recorded on site on an ad-hoc basis through the years.
Mammal records for the site were scarce with a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) spotted in 2017 and Badger (Meles meles) foraging signs also noted the previous year.
With, out HQ move complete, and the site now brimming with Wildlife Trust staff, surely we would be able to increase the list of species spotted at the Centre of the Earth.
We first arrived at our new base during a dark, damp November, which initially might not seem like the most inspiring month for wildlife spotting, but we soon began to notice a plethora of bird species visiting the site, with our bird feeding station proving to be particularly popular with the likes of Great Tit (Parus major), Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), Blackbird (Turdus merula), Robin (Erithacus rubecula) and Starling (Sturnus vulgaris).
In the woodland around the site we spotted Coal Tit (Periparus ater), Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus), Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) and Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris), while other visitors included Goldcrest (Regulus regulus), the odd Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) and a flock of Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis). On the 24th November we were lucky to see a flock of Redwing – the UK’s smallest thrush species, and a common winter visitor to parks and gardens.
All the while, the site was also being patrolled by some larger birds including not insignificant numbers of Crow (Corvus corone) and Magpie (Pica pica) while occasionally a Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) also kept a watchful eye on proceedings.
Some birds also strayed onto the site from the adjacent canal, including Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), a Grey Heron, a flock of noisy Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) and Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) while a Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) was also spotted flying over.
Not all wildlife is as active during this time – amphibians spend the colder months in overwintering sites, often under rocks or logs or buried deep in mud, occasionally emerging on warmer days to forage. During late November, we happened upon by chance two Smooth Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris) sheltering underneath a log, waiting for spring to arrive, when they will head to the pond to breed.
There’s many invertebrates obviously visible during this time of year, with many species spending the winter months as either eggs waiting to hatch or as larva, hidden in nest holes or in leaf-litter.
One invertebrate group which can be seen well into the winter are harvestmen, which belong to the same eight-legged taxonomic class as spiders (Arachnida), but possess neither venom glands nor the ability to spin a web. There are 30 species of harvestmen in the UK and they can often be seen on walls and fences. Harvestman are easy to distinguish from spiders as their legs tend to be quite long compared to their globular body.
During November we spotted two species: Paroligolophus agrestis, a common species that lives in trees and a Dicronopalpus sp. which has large, distinctively-forked pedipalps (the two appendages on the front of the head).
Other invertebrate signs spotted during November included this Sallow Pea gall on the underside of a willow leaf. Many species can cause plant galls from fungi, to wasps, aphids and flies. This particular gall was formed by a species of sawfly – Pontania pedunculi which induces globular pale yellow galls on willow leaves. The sawfly larva develops inside the gall, until it is fully grown, at which point it then leaves the gall and pupates in the soil.
Late autumn and early winter can be a great time to look for fungi, and the Centre of the Earth didn’t disappoint on that score, with a reasonable range of fungi spotted on site. A particularly abundant species was Candlesnuff (Xylaria hypoxylon), which can be commonly found growing on stumps and fallen branches.
Another distinctive fungus spotted was Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex), which was found growing in good numbers in leaf litter in an abandoned raised flower beds. If you squeeze the fruiting body they emit a cloud of spores through a hole in the top.
Other fungi spotted throughout the winter included Redleg Club (Typhula erythropus), Scarlet Elf Cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea), Stump Puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme), Silverleaf Fungus (Chondrostereum purpureum), Clouded Agaric (Clitocybe nebularis), Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus), Jelly Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) and Hairy Curtain Crust (Stereum hirsutum).
On the 30th of January we noticed that both Primrose (Primula vulgaris) and Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) were now in flower – a sign that spring was hopefully not too far away.
With the season progressing there was a feature onsite which was desperately in need of some attention – the wildlife pond.
The existing pond had a leak and it was also overgrown – being dominated by Flag Iris (Iris pseudacorus), reeds and Crassula.
We emptied and completely relined the pond and around the edges we installed coir mats and rolls pre-planted with a mix of wetland plant species. Other species were also introduced including Water Forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides), Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), Greater Spearwort (Ranunculus lingua), Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum) and Brooklime (Veronica beccabunga).
This would hopefully create a better wildlife habitat for the returning newts and other wildlife.
After a cold and snowy winter we were relieved to finally see some proper signs of spring.
Crocuses began to flower in the neighboring All Saints Park at the beginning of March and we spotted our first Buff-tail Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) queen on the 15th. Buff-tails are often the first bumblebee species to emerge from hibernation – and just a day later it was joined on the Crocuses by queens of two more species – Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) and Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum).
Bumblebee queens can be easily recognised due to their large size – they are the giants of the insect world with only the fattest surviving the winter. When they first emerge from hibernation, nearly starved they must quickly build up their energy levels by foraging for the crucial pollen and nectar they need in order to establish a new colony.
We soon also spotted the same three species on the Centre of the Earth site along with Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum) and Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius).
Other interesting sightings during March included more bird visitors such as Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), Goldfinch, Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus), Jay (Garrulus glandarius) – and a Sparrowhawk, which has taken to parching on the pond-dipping platform and was observed catching at least one Feral Pigeon (Columba livia domestica). Early April also saw the arrival of a Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), attracted to the nut feeder.
A handsome Red Fox was also seen prowling around the site.
Aside from the more familiar bumblebees and honeybees there are also over 200 species of solitary bee in the UK, many of which can only be seen during the spring.
The first spring solitary bee we spotted was the buff coloured male Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes), with several of them rapidly darting around the raised beds, attracted to the plentiful Grape Hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) flowers. This is one of the first bee species to appear and we first saw them on the 26th March. The females, which are black, with and orange pollen brush tend to emerge 2-3 weeks after the males, and nest in walls, chimney stacks and cliff faces.
Where there are bees there are quite often a whole range of other species associated with them such as parasites or kleptoparasites.
The Common Mourning Bee (Melecta albifrons) is a kleptoparasite of Hairy-footed Flower Bee and can often be found by where they are nesting. The female of this species enters a Hairy-footed Flower Bee nest hole and lays its egg with the pollen food already supply gathered by the resident bee. When the Common Mourning Bee egg hatches the larva feeds up on the food supply intended for the Hairy-footed Flower Bee larva, pupates and emerges next year instead of the host. We spotted one of these bees on the 16th April – showing there must be a large healthy population of its host nesting on the site.
The raised beds were also proving popular for a wide range of mining bees (Andrena sp.) with the first one showing up on the 23rd of March. There are 67 species of mining bee in the UK, and they dig individual burrows in light soils, and may nest solitary or in large aggregations.
The first species we spotted was Gwynne’s Mining Bee (Andrena bicolor) followed closely by the grey coloured Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria), the ginger Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva), Buffish Mining Bee (Andrena nigroaenea), Clarke’s Mining Bee (Andrena clarkella), Chocolate Mining Bee (Andrena scotica) and finally Orange-tailed Mining-bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) – though we didn’t see this last one until June!
Like with Hairy Footed Flower Bees, mining bees also have a selection of species associated with them. Nomad bees (Nomada sp.) are rather small bees with wasp-like markings which enter the hosts nesting burrow and lay their own egg. The egg develops into a grub which then destroys the host egg or grub with its large sickle-shaped mandibles and proceeds to feed on the food store. There are 34 species of nomad bee in the UK. Some nomad bees have one specific hosts, though many use several closely related species.
We spotted several Nomad bees near to where the mining bees were foraging, though we were unable to identify some as several nomad bee species look identical in the field. One we did manage to ID was Marsham’s Nomad Bee (Nomada marshamella), whose main host is the Chocolate Mining Bee.
Another interesting species associated with mining bees is the Dark-edged Bee-fly (Bombylius major) – a strange-looking fly with its long proboscis, furry body and patterned wings. The female bee-fly flicks her eggs towards the entrance holes of solitary bee nests. After hatching, the larvae find their way into the nests to feed on the grubs.
Another distinctive bee we spotted as Red Mason Bee (Osmia bicornis) – a common spring-flying species with an orange furry abdomen. Mason bees have large box-shaped heads and strong jaws for chewing up leaves to create mastic. They nest in pre-existing cavities in wood, and commonly make use of ‘bee hotels’. The nest hole, with the egg inside is sealed with a combination of chewed up leaves (mastic) and mud.
Apart from bees we also saw a range of other insects foraging on the early spring flowers, including several species of another group of important pollinators – hoverflies such as the Stripe-eyed Dronefly (Eristalis tenax) a honeybee mimic along with seven other hoverfly species.
On the 5th April we spotted our first butterfly of the year – a Comma (Polygonia c-album).
A particularly interesting insect spotted in early May was Brassica Shieldbug (Eurydema oleracea), which was the first time that this species had been recorded in Birmingham and the Black Country! Our area is thought to be at the edge of this species’ range, which seems to be expanding northwards.
The Meadows Come Alive!
By mid-may the meadow areas at the Centre of the Earth started to come to life. It’s believed that the meadows were originally created a few years back by sowing a meadow wildlife seed mix. The meadows are by now quite well established.
Elsewhere in Birmingham and the Black Country, the Wildlife Trust had created a number of new wildflower meadows as part of the Birmingham and Black Country Nature Improvement project. These meadows had been created in suitable areas by strewing species-rich green hay, which had been cut from other local diverse meadows. Many of these creation schemes were successful, with a number of new diverse meadows being created, containing a suite of classic meadow species such as Green-winged Orchid (Anacamptis morio), Common Spotted Orchid, Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor), Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra).
One of the successes has been a meadow, created on top of a covered reservoir on Sedgley Beacon, which had established brilliantly and now contained a nice mix of meadow wildflowers. However, when it was decided that the reservoir needed some unexpected maintenance to be carried out, it appeared that the meadow would be lost. Thankfully, some of the more species-rich areas of meadow were transplanted to the meadows at the Centre of the Earth. These bits of transplanted meadow included Green-winged Orchid, Common-spotted Orchid and Cowslip (Primula veris), which added to the diversity of the existing meadows.
Meadows support a wide range of invertebrates from pollinators and predators to detritivores. We spotted many of the species you might expect – butterflies including Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus), Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines) and Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus) and day-flying moths including Burnet Companion (Euclidia glyphica) and Common Nettle-tap (Anthophila fabriciana).
Bees were also plentiful in the meadow, with various bumblebees spotted along with Common Yellow-face Bee (Hylaeus communis), plasterer bee (Colletes sp.) furrow bee (Lasioglossum sp.) and Patch-work Leafcutter Bee (Megachile centuncularis).
Hoverflies were probably the most numerous group of pollinators seen in the meadow with at least 14 different species spotted. Most numerous were Marmalade Hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus), Batman Hoverfly (Myathropa florea), Long Hoverfly (Sphaerophoria scripta) and the Plain-faced Dronefly (Eristalis arbustorum), with Ox-eye Daisy, Buttercup and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) proving particularly poplar.
Of particular note was the bumblebee mimic Greater Bulb-Fly (Merodon equestris) which has a distinctive high-pitched whine while flying. The larvae develop in bulbs, mostly those of daffodils. Two other slightly less common hoverfly species spotted were Eupeodes latifasciatus (which seemed to be enjoying a bumper year in 2018 with the hot weather) and Epistrophe nitidicollis.
Other distinctive flies spotted in the meadow included the soldier fly Broad Centurion (Chloromyia formosa), Red-spotted Tachinid (Eriothrix rufomaculata) – flower feeders, whose larva develops inside the subterranean larvae of moths and Yellow Dung-fly (Scathophaga stercoraria) which preys on small insects and feeds on flowers. It visits the dung of large mammals to mate and lay eggs.
By mid-spring it was already clear that the newly-restored pond seemed to be establishing nicely with lots of Common Pondskaters (Gerris lacustris) spotted on the surface and at least 30 Smooth Newts spotted in the water!
Water Boatmen (Corixidae) and Backswimmers (Notonectidae) were also seen and a quick pond-dipping session revealed ‘glassworms’ – larva of phantom midges (Chaoborus sp.), Mosquito larva (Culicidae) and Plume Midge larva (Chironomidae). We also spotted a Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) next to the pond, and also for a couple of days, a whole family of Canada Geese!
The best was yet to come, however as the pond was to really impress with the abundance of dragonfly and damselflies that were seen in and around the water during the summer.
Blue-tailed Damselfly (Ischnura elegans) was the first species to to spotted on the 14th May, soon to be joined in June by Azure Damselfly (Coenagrion puella), Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa) and Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea).
July saw our first ever site record for Emperor Dragonfly (Anax imperator), Britain’s bulkiest dragonfly. We saw it flying above both the pond and over the adjacent canal. Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) was also spotted around the pond during july and this was joined in August by out final species of 2018 – Brown Hawker (Aeshna grandis). These species were all recorded as part of EcoRecord’s Damsels & Dragons Survey
Big Butterfly Count
On two occasions, one during July and once again in August we took part in Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count Survey, where we noted down every butterfly or moth spotted during a 15 minute period.
In total we recorded seven species of butterfly during these surveys – Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus), Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus), Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria), Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus), Large White (Pieris brassicae), Green-veined White (Pieris napi) and Small White (Pieris rapae). Not a bad total.
At other times of the year we had also seen Comma, Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus), Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Orange-tip and Ringlet, bringing our year total up to 11 species. Conspicuous by its absence was Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) which, according to the national results of the survey, appears to have had a particularly bad summer.
We only saw one day-flying moth during the Big Butterfly Count – the abundant Mint Moth (Pyrausta aurata). Other moths spotted during the year included the large Poplar Hawk Moth (Laothoe populi), Bee Moth (Aphomia sociella) and Angle Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa).
A Good Year for Wasps?
While other insects may have been struggling with the heat, a group of species seemingly benefitting from the long hot summer was wasps. We spotted quite a few species of wasp including potter wasp (Ancistrocerus sp.), Ornate Tailed Digger Wasp (Cerceris rybyensis), spider-hunting wasp (Dipogon sp.), sand wasp (Ectemnius sp.) and of course, plenty of the two most common species of social wasp – Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) and German Wasp (Vespula germanica).
As wasps are fearsome predators you would think that they have it all their own way, however, like bees, wasps also have a number of associated species.
A number of hoverflies in the Volucella genus lay their eggs in the nests of social wasps – we spotted three of these species.
Both the Hornet Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) and Large Pied-hoverfly (Volucella pellucens) lay its eggs in the nest of social wasps, where the larva hatch and eat the debris and rubbish in the wasp nest. This type of relationship where one species benefits and the other is unaffected is called commensalism or symbiosis. The pupae then overwinter in the soil and hatch in following spring.
We also spotted a larva of the Lesser Hornet Hoverfly (Volucella inanis), whose larvae live in the social wasps nest and feed off the grubs themselves.
Another species that we spotted, which is associated with wasps is the Wasp Nest Beetle (Metoecus paradoxus) – a rather spectacular beetle with huge feathered antennae. This was spotted on 13th September and was only the second sighting of this species in Birmingham and the Black Country!
Eggs are laid in the autumn on rotting wood, and larvae hitch a lift on wasps which visit to collect wood scrapings. Once back at the nest, the larva drops off and finds a part-grown wasp grub, which it parasitizes and eats before emerging as an adult in mid-summer.
Late Summer and Early Autumn
Even as the meadow was going over, there were still quite a few insects to be spotted on the site – with the raised beds planted with a variety of herbs and garden plants proving a particular focus of interest.
One interesting sighting was a rose leaf absolutely covered in sawfly larva, probably belonging to Large Rose Sawfly larva (Arge pagana). Sawflies are in the same taxonomic order as bees, wasps and ants, but unlike these species they don’t have a waist or sting. Most female sawflies possess ‘saw-like’ genitalia which they use to cut through plant tissue in order to lay their eggs. There are about 500 species of Sawfly in the UK.
During 2018 we also spotted an adult Large Rose Sawfly (Arge pagana), Bramble Sawfly (Arge cyanocrocea) and a species in the Tenthredo genus.
This also seemed like a good time of year to spot Shieldbugs and their allies, of which there are about 70 species in the UK.
Aside from the Brassica Shieldbug recorded back in May, another interesting bug sighting can come in July with a sighting of the vivid Cinnamon Bug (Corizus hyoscyami) – only the third record of this species in Birmingham and the Black Country! Before 1990 this was a local species of southerly and westerly coasts but has since undergone a dramatic range expansion and now widespread across much of England and Wales.
Though late summer and autumn we spotted a further six species: Hawthorn Shieldbug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale), Hairy Shieldbug (Dolycoris baccarum), Birch Shieldbug (Elasmostethus interstinctus), Parent Bug (Elasmucha grisea), Green Shieldbug (Palomena prasina)Gorse Shieldbug (Piezodorus lituratus).
A final exciting species which we spotted during September was the fruitfly Acletoxenus formosus which is classified as Nationally Scarce in the UK. There are only 10 UK records for this species on the NBN Atlas. The larvae are recorded as feeding on the whitefly Siphoninus immaculatus upon ivy and more recently on the cabbage whitefly (Aleyrodes proletella).
Ivy: An Overlooked Gem?
For much of the year, Ivy (Hedera helix) doesn’t really draw much attention to itself. However by mid-September most of the ‘showier’ plants have now finished flowering and it begins to feel as if autumn is properly setting in. However there is one important plant left to flower which provides an incredibly important source of late-season pollen and nectar to a whole raft of insect species.
The ivy at the Centre of the Earth began flowering on the 27th September and soon it was absolutely buzzing with insects. Amongst those noted were lots of Common Wasps, 9 species of hoverfly and 3 species of bee.
There were several other types of fly including the tachinid fly Tachina fera, the house fly Graphomya maculata and the wonderfully-named Awkward Clusterfly (Pollenia rudis).
As the autumn decay set in we were noticing more and more fungi appearing around the site. Particularly impressive was a large Pestle Puffball (Lycoperdon excipuliforme), Common Ink Cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria) and the return of one of the first species we spotted when we moved in November 2017 – Collared Earthstar!
We were now noticing more birds once again visiting the feeder, with the nice new addition of a Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) to the list of usual suspects. Harvestmen were also once again putting in an appearance.
This brought us back full circle to our starting point, so what have we learnt during our year of recording the wildlife of this site?
In terms of the invertebrates recorded (my own particular passion!) I fed the results into an analysis tool called Pantheon, which calculates habitat types and feeding assemblages based on the species recorded at the site. Of the species recorded 32% were nectar feeding. The habitats identified based on the invertebrates recorded were open habitats comprising of mostly ‘flower-rich resource’ with some scrub-edge habitat. This sounds pretty accurate, though it seems strange that it hasn’t also identified the pond/wetland habitat. It’ll be interesting to re-run the analysis with subsequent year’s results.
We recorded two invertebrate species – a fruit fly and a shieldbug which hadn’t previously been recorded in Birmingham and the Black Country (one of which is listed as Nationally Scarce) and a further two species – a beetle and a shieldbug – for which less than three records exist in our area. It just shows what you find if you look, and I’m sure we’ve only scraped the top of the iceberg.
Including older records, a total 463 species have been recorded at the Centre of the Earth. There are still quite a few gaps in recording, and further monitoring of the site in 2019 and beyond will help to fill some of these. In particular it would be good to carry out an an updated botanical survey and also do some moth trapping.
Thanks to all those who have helped to record the wildlife of the Centre of the Earth in 2018!
Personally I’ve been very impressed with the number of species present on such a small urban site. The fact that there are a nice mix of habitats certainly helps, and the pond restoration can only be judged a great success. The sites position next to the canal also helps, as does the fact that there are other green spaces nearby – All Saints Park and Norman Street Park.
Lets hope 2019 brings some even more exciting wildlife sightings!