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Field work with Nature Live

6 Posts tagged with the mark_spencer tag

At 10am I find Mark Spencer and Jacek Wajer on St. Mary's south beach identifying a plant specimen with a field guide. The Isles of Scilly are the northernmost habitat for a number of plant species, including aeoniums, which originate from the Canary Islands and were introduced in the 1850’s as a garden plant. But it is not the garden plants that Mark and Jacek are interested in, it is the weeds.


While we root around in flower beds by the south beach, local authorities jokingly suggest that they could do with a bit of weeding. "Save us some effort!" they say. Mark tells them about the Museum's work and assures them that we will indeed be helping remove some of the unwanted plants. The three of us continue to nosy around in the flower beds.

mark-bagging-weeds.jpgBy the south beach on St. Mary's, Mark Spencer approaches weeding with more enthusiasm than most.


We find lots of interesting weeds and some fungi, and I find a small succulent weed which Mark says may never have been recorded at St. Mary's before. The specimens we select show a good representation of the whole plant in maturity; flower, leaf, all salient features that are necessary to qualify for the herbarium. The morning’s collections are then bagged and tagged, each labelled with who collected it, the location, the date and the species. It may take up to six months for the specimens to be dried, prepared and mounted on a herbarium sheet, at which point they finally become part of the Museum’s collections.


Unidentified succulent weed found by Gemma Anderson in a flower bed near St. Mary's beach. A possible first record of this species for the area.


We then carry the bagged plants back to base for sorting. Delicate specimens are prioritised, and the specimens are left to wilt overnight in a flower press until herbarium paper is brought on Monday.


At 4pm we leave the base and walk to the east of St. Mary's, plant spotting in hedges along the way. Jacek spots another possible new plant record for the Isles of Scilly, and we immediately press the specimen in my sketchbook before continuing along footpaths, small lanes, fields and coastal paths. We finally come to gorse land in wave formations, a micro landscape which Mark tells us is an endangered environment. There is an unusual mix of white and purple heather and a folkloric atmosphere as a rainbow emerges overhead.


An unusual mix of white and purple heather on the Heathland, St.Marys.


I ask Mark if the walk is part of his method: to orientate, to locate, and to formulate ideas and questions. He replies ‘yes, very much so’. I had taken an observational walk the evening before for the very same reasons; as artist and scientist, this method is essential to the beginning of our fieldwork.


Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.


Day 10 was our last full day on the Isles of Scilly; the weather was glorious and everyone took the chance to finish off any things that needed to be collected. Over the past few days Nature Live host Ana Rita has been linking live to the Museum from the top of the bunker and today was our final event. With all of our responsibilities taken care of we could think about the past two weeks on the islands and how the trip has gone.



Mark and Tom wrap up the Scilly 2013 trip


I have loved being on the Isles of Scilly, we have been welcomed warmly by everyone we’ve encountered and, walking around the islands, the scenery is spectacular and the ocean an amazing mix of colours.


PIC 1 (Custom).JPGThe Scilly sea


I have loved the roadside shops that operate of a strict trust system, selling local produce ...


PIC 2 (Custom).JPGMrs Watt’s ‘Shop’


... and some more exotic goods ...


PIC 3 (Custom).JPGA lovely bunch?


We have eaten like kings, Vanessa being the chief chef, and I think every meal has included something foraged (usually by Mark), even if it is simply the humble, ubiquitous three-cornered leek.


PIC 4 (Custom).JPGGrows everywhere and gives a garlicky kick to anything you add it to!


Everyone is the team has been fantastic and despite sleeping 6 to a room, everyone has got on exceptionally well. For all their help and fun times, I’d like to especially thank my colleagues Ana Rita:


PIC 5 (Custom).JPGAna Rita Claro Rodrigues


And Tony (Grillmaster) Vinhas:


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It has been such an enjoyable trip as well as an educational one.


Finally, I would like to thank Mark Spencer for organising the trip and getting us all to the islands. Mark has been an excellent guide, fantastic company and reliable provider of foraged ingredients, and a brilliant team leader.


PIC 7 (Custom).JPGMark in his element


Spending time with Mark and the other scientists is an education in the natural world, it opens up and changes your view of what is living on the planet and I feel very fortunate to work at such an extraordinary place as the Natural History Museum.




PIC 8 (Custom).JPGGoodnight from the Isles of Scilly


Our last day in the field arrived sunny and, with it, our last live-link to a Nature Live event in the Attenborough Studio. Mark Spencer, curator of botany and team leader of this field trip told us about why the Isles of Scilly are special for wildlife and why he wanted to bring curators of other specialities here to collect and enhance the Museum's collections.


Picture1.jpgAn example of the outstanding natural beauty of the Isles of Scilly


Of course, we also talked about very small flowers, the elm trees, and ate the three corned garlic live - all things that our readers might recognise by now. Scilly is also famous for farmed and wild flowers, Mark told us about both, and how the bulb farms are important not only to local people but also to other organisms. Wildlife thrives in these fields, and of course, our scientists have been collecting there, everything from insects to slugs.


picture 2.JPGLinking live to the Attenborough Studio at the Museum, with a audience of local people from St Mary's


As usual, we had an audience with us in Scilly, including a blub farmer. It was a pleasure to share our excitement at seeing the material collected already. They left us with a wave and a smile, looking forward to meeting the next scientists visiting the islands later on this year.


Ana Rita


Today started dull and overcast - grey and gloomy - but we weren’t going to let the weather get us down because this morning we did our first, live video conference from the field with schools. Students from all over the country get to talk with our scientists and ask questions about what they are doing here in the Isles of Scilly.


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Tom chatting to Mark during a video conference with students at a primary school.


In the first VC, primary school students got to meet Mark Spencer, the botanist of the group and team leader, and Jon Ablett, Curator of Molluscs. Mark did a small tour of the wild flowers we can find here, explaining that the Isles are located at a crossroads between Mediterranean plants and northern ones.


The relatively mild climate of the islands mean that plants that are usually more typical of Mediterranean countries find a home here, while for other species, the Isles mark their southern-most limit. It’s an overlapping landscape, which is a delight for us to experience, and a joy for the many species of insects and birds who pollinate these plants.



Museum scientists taking in the beautiful scenery, while Holger Thues (far left) is distracted by a rock covered in lichen!


Jon Ablett showed some of his slugs and talked about innovative ways of preserving specimens for the Museum’s collection, while the white vapours of liquid nitrogen made Mark and Tom (who was hosting the event) feel even more cold. Jon is looking mainly for land snails, but will also try to fish for some octopus and squid as we are not sure which species live in these waters. Keep an eye on this blog to find out what he discovers!


The secondary school students had the chance to meet lichen curator Holger Thues. Holger explained that lichens are composite organisms (comparable to corals), meaning they are a combination of a fungus and an algae living side-by-side in a symbiotic relationship (i.e. they both benefit from one another). Lichens are incredibly important indicators of the environment around them and are often used to study changes in the atmosphere and air pollution.


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Orange lichen on a rock, but how did it get its nutrients?


The orange lichen in the photo above only exists in places with high levels of nutrients, you will see them near the sea where the wind itself is loaded with nutrients. However, if you see them on a rock in land, wait and with time you’re more than likely to see a bird arrive ...  you’ll soon find out how the nutrients arrived there!


Thanks to all the schools for their many questions during the video conferences, it was great to speak to you all!


Today we took the short ferry to Bryher, about 15 mins across the bay from our home island of St Mary’s.


DAY 2 PIC 2 (Custom).JPG

Hiking across Bryher



Bryher faces out in to the Atlantic and feels the full effect of the ocean, yet it still has some unique and exquisite flowers, tiny things that seem to stand defiant against the wind and rain that smashes into them. Looking for these minute darlings means leaving your modesty at the door.


DAY 2 PIC 1 (Custom).JPG

Good thing no one is watching...


But we were rewarded with some close encounters with some of the most perfectly formed little plants I have ever seen. Mark’s enthusiasm for these flowers was infectious and soon we were all face down, searching for more and attracting others who were visiting the island.



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... oh, wait, no they are!


In order to give you an idea of the absolute tinyness and fantasticness of these things - we got as close as we could...



Tom and Mark find some small wonders: the dwarf pansy, orange birdfoot and subterranean clover


It’s difficult not to marvel at the things that have made a life for themselves on these islands thrust out in to the Atlantic and I really admire these small, resolute plants. It goes to show how important it is to really explore and examine an environment to take in the full extent of the the things living in it. We didn’t collect any of these plants, but I hope the film and pictures give you an idea of how wonderful they are.


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Another tiny beauty


Last night's foraged meal made for a great evening and once we had finished our Wild Watercress Soup and and Sea Shore Pasta, we went up onto the roof of our bunker to take in the sunset ...


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It's nice here


We have settled in to island life on the Isles of Scilly. Our digs for the next two weeks are an old bunker in the south western corner of St Mary’s with a wonderful view across to St Agnes. It is quiet and beautiful and we are surround by the spectacular atlantic ocean.



The view out onto the Atlantic Ocean


Our trip is part of a project led by Mark Spencer, Senior Curator of the British and Irish Herbarium at the Natural History Museum. The Isles of Scilly are a unique and stunning environment and they contain common and rare and (in some cases) invasive species - Mark’s work here aims to enrich the Museum's collection of British and European plants and animals with recent material.


This will fill gaps in our collections and make sure they cover a continuous span of time right up to the present day. Often, we don’t know how a collection will be used in future and they can play a key role in research. By keeping a collection like the one at the Museum, we have access to the information locked inside the specimens which could be used to answer questions on environmental change and other, similarly huge issues in the future.


The rest of the science team are arriving later in the week so, as an introduction to the island (and to find something to eat), Mark led us on a foraging tour of St Mary’s.



Mark Spencer looking for plants on St. Mary's to cook for supper


We found a whole host of amazing (and delicious) species, more than enough for supper. It should be said that we found a lot more edible species that we didn’t collect. It is important to understand a plant's role in the ecosystem and environment and some plants were too rare, or delicate to collect. Mark has an excellent knowledge of the local flora and it is important to really understand an area before harvesting anything from the wild as well as having permission for anything you want to collect.



I think it is safe to say if you’re in doubt, leave it in the ground. Not only does this protect the environment but also saves any potential poisoning (so don't try this at home unless you know what you are doing!). We passed lots of species that are absolutely deadly including whole fields of hemlock water dropwort, which is exceptionally poisonous.



The exceptionally poisonous hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) - not part of our supper later in the day!


Having said that, when in the company of an expert like Mark, the natural world explodes with interest and intrigue. Every plant has story and history and a whole world of edible possibilities is opened up.


scilly-day-1-image-4.jpgThe basis of our supper, all harvested from the wild.


Later in the day we cooked up our foraged plants - finding things that are good, or interesting, to eat is always great fun and the meal at the end of the day was blooming delicious.