Poor old Gilbert is getting restless. Despite the fact that there is more interest in wildlife than ever before, it seems that most of the so-called conservation organisations are losing interest in species. Instead they prefer to babble on about landscape scale conservation and ecosystem services (whatever they are). Could this be because most of their staff don't have any knowledge about species if they don't have four legs?
This is my attempt to encourage an interest in good old-fashioned natural history.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Some thoughts on a Pondweed Leafhopper

There is of course no such thing as a useless biological record but some are undoubtedly more useful than others. I seem to average one really good record a year these days and I've just had my one for 2017. Having spent most of my spare time so far this winter dissecting moths for other people, I have finally cleared the backlog and been able to make a start on my own specimens.

I started with the plant- and leaf-hoppers as this is a group I want to prioritise in 2018. One specimen keyed to Erotettix cyane, sometimes known as the Pondweed Leafhopper. Now I knew that was a UK Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Species which is known from very few sites so it couldn't possibly be that. I re-keyed it but couldn't make it in to anything else. I had recorded around the pond at this site on one occasion in 2017 but upon checking, I found that this specimen came to MV light several hundred metres from the pond. I sent some photo's to the national recording scheme organiser, asking if he could point out my schoolboy error but instead he confirmed my identification.

Erotettix cyane - the Pondweed Leafhopper
He also pointed out that the most significant feature of this record was not that I had found it at a new site but that it was the first evidence that this species can disperse and therefore potentially colonise new sites. So, a very rare species found at a new site and with some useful additional information about its dispersal ability, happy days, end of story right? Well not quite. I think it is worth examining how this record came to be made.

The first point is that I was moth-trapping and this isn't a moth! If I had ignored all the 'by-catch', the record would never have been made. Another point in favour of the pan-species listing approach. But why was I moth trapping at this site in the first place?

Back in the latter part of 2016, the Senior Ecologist for Sussex Wildlife Trust undertook a process of collating all the records of every species on every Trust reserve. He put all this information in a spreadsheet and offered to send a copy to absolutely anyone who was interested in recording on Trust reserves. What is this heresy? Surely the reserves will be over-run with collectors, twitchers and all manner of other people who are up to no good? Of course not, although such views do seem to be prevalent these days. The reality is that there are very, very few cases in which there is any justification for keeping quiet about where species are found.

Having received my copy of the spreadsheet, I spent many hours studying it, looking at gaps in recording where I could contribute something useful, etc. Like most people, I have a competitive streak. One of the first things that I looked at was which reserve had the biggest species list. Oh dear, it's Rye Harbour. That isn't even in proper (i.e. West) Sussex but in the frozen wastelands of East Sussex. It's virtually in Kent for god's sake! Second place was held by Ebernoe Common. Now that is in proper Sussex and is a reserve that I like and have done some recording on. Worse news was to come when I looked at the family that I know most about; moths. Once again Rye Harbour was in first place with Ebernoe second. This really wouldn't do and I made it my personal mission to get Ebernoe into first place! Ok, it's all a bit pointless and silly but it gave me motivation to go recording at Ebernoe which in turn led to the discovery of a very rare leaf-hopper.

I know that the Trust Ecologist hoped that his initiative would be copied by other conservation organisations but thus far there is very little evidence of this happening. Why is this? I fear that an awful lot of people responsible for nature reserves really don't care what species occur on their sites apart from the 'charismatic mega-fauna', and orchids. Worse still, I am increasingly finding wardens who don't want you to find rare species, especially from 'obscure' groups, because it might complicate their simplistic, text-book management. Don't believe me? Go and tell your local warden that you've found a rare spider, leaf-hopper or moss on their reserve and that it needs a particular type of management and see what reaction you get. Of course there will be some who are delighted and happy to engage with you but there are an awful lot who will be rather less positive. I sincerely hope that this situation will change but the signs are not great at the moment.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Malham wrap-up

On the Saturday we spent a couple of hours at Goredale Beck, ostensibly to look for a rare stonefly under stones around calcareous seepages. None were found, probably due to the continued foul weather. The highlight for me was finding the tiny soldierfly Oxycera pygmaea under a stone. This species is associated with calcareous springs so the habitat was right but under a stone is the last place I would look for a soldierfly. Presumably it thought about the same of the weather as I did.

Oxycera pygmaea (Photo: www.diptera.info )
There were few plants flowering which was rather disappointing, perhaps the hot weather earlier in the summer had pushed things through quickly. I did manage to pick up a few new species:

Knotted Pearlwort Sagina nodosa
Bloody Crane's-bill Geranium sanguineum
Green Spleenwort Asplenium viride
Not new for me but I haven't seen it for many years and had to look up what it was as I had no idea initially:
Grass-of-Parnassus Parnassia palustris
The flower in the background of the photo above was a particular highlight though. I had written off any chances of seeing Bird's-eye Primrose as the books say it flowers in May and June and the fact that most flowers seemed to have gone over didn't increase my expectations but there were loads of them. No idea why this species should buck the trend, maybe the books are wrong, not that I'm complaining on this occasion.

Bird's-eye Primrose Primula farinosa
The roadside verges in the area had frequent clumps of Giant Bellflower.

Giant Bellflower Campanula latifolia
Finally, a mystery object. Anyone got any ideas what this is?

Saturday, 29 July 2017

The Malham Sedge

I am currently doing a course on 'river flies' (caddis, mayflies and stoneflies) at FSC Malham Tarn. A really grim journey up meant that I was unable to do any fieldwork yesterday and most of today was spent in the lab looking at specimens that I brought with me. However a quick outdoor session in fairly poor weather this morning provided an opportunity to see one of the rarest species in Britain; the 'Malham Sedge'. This isn't a sedge as in the group of plants but rather the caddisfly Agrypnetes crassicornis. In Britain it is only known from Malham Tarn and I believe it was said that it was only known from eight sites worldwide. It is far from guaranteed that you will see it at Malham as the national recording scheme organiser found out when he did a programme about it on Radio 4. However the bad weather worked in our favour as there were few sheltered places for them to hide. We must have seen about 20 including two females, which are rarely seen, and I found three males and a female myself. A number of exuviae of the species were also found. It isn't exactly a looker but I was delighted to see it nevertheless.

Agrypnetes crassicornis - The Malham Sedge
Although it looks perfectly capable of flight, the adults never fly but can run across the water remarkably quickly.

I had no time for looking for anything else but did manage to stumble across half a dozen plants that I've never seen before including

Shining Pondweed Potamogeton lucens
Monk's-hood Aconitum napellus
Northern Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza purpurella

Monday, 24 July 2017

Handbags at dawn

I'm not really very interested in dragonflies. I don't know why, they just don't fire my imagination. Having said that, when a huge invasion of Yellow-winged Darters Sympetrum flaveolum occurred in the 1990's and a friend offered me a lift to Dungeness to see them, I felt I ought to go. It was something of an 'event' and I might be really in to dragonflies in the future and regret having missed out if I didn't go. That choice paid dividends as I also saw Vagrant Darter Sympetrum vulgatum and Camberwell Beauty Nymphalis antiopa that day.

Twenty-odd years later and I have little more interest in Odonata than I did back then but news of 30+ Southern Migrant Hawkers Aeshna affinis at Canvey Island was mildly tempting, more so because of the guarantee of Scarce Emerald Damselfly Lestes dryas at the same site. I was working in Kent on Friday and really couldn't face driving all the way home, only to turn around and head to the other side of the river first thing on Saturday. So I stayed in Kent till after 10pm to avoid the hassle of working out how to pay the Dartford crossing toll and then made the short hop round to the A13 where I managed a few hours sleep in a lay-by.

For once the weather did the decent thing and the overnight rain stopped at 5.30am and I was on site half an hour later (with my handbag of course, I felt I should try to fit in with the locals). It was still cloudy and cool but I soon found some roosting Scarce Emeralds. I soon learnt that my new camera doesn't like taking pictures of Odonata but you can at least tell what it is.

It took another hour and a half for the sun to come out and apart from a few Blue-tailed Damselflies Ischnura elegans and a few darters, one of which I managed to convince myself was Ruddy Sympetrum sanguineum, I had seen nothing else. The arrival of the sun did the trick though and a male Southern Migrant Hawker was suddenly there, a few feet from me, basking on a bramble stem. It only allowed one photo before departing and over the next half hour I saw no more. Returning to the original spot, I found that he was perched in exactly the same place but again his stay was fairly brief and then the cloud returned.

This was the best I managed but you can find much better on the web.

The cloud looked quite extensive so I headed off as I wanted to have a look around the Canvey Wick reserve which was just a couple of miles away. This brownfield site was threatened with development but a long campaign by Buglife saved it, much to my surprise I have to admit. It is now in the ownership of the Land Trust and is managed by RSPB and Buglife. I see that the idiots in the marketing departments have been hard at work and describe Canvey Wick as having 'as many species per square metre as a rainforest'. This of course is patent bollocks. Please give us your evidence for this statement, which square metre, which rainforest?

I reckon my backside has more species than this square metre
Despite this nonsense, Canvey Wick does have a number of interesting species and I have wanted to visit for some time. The site is more heavily scrubbed than I expected and with less disturbed ground. It will be interesting to see how Buglife and RSPB manage to retain the interest of the site, much of which will be dependent upon large-scale disturbance. As expected, there were large amounts of invasive non-native plants. Some, such as Goat's-rue Galega officinalis are a problem and need dealing with before they get totally out of control but others are things that I don't see very often. Narrow-leaved Ragwort Senecio inaequidens is a species that I have only previously seen on the Isle of Sheppey but it was abundant here. Surprisingly it did not seem to be very attractive to insects as a nectar source.

Narrow-leaved Ragwort
Both Rose Campion Silene coronaria and Rock Stonecrop Sedum forsterianum are species that I have only seen occasionally before.

Rock Stonecrop
I spent an interesting few hours on the site but I wasn't blown away as I expected to be. Maybe the marketing hype had got to me after all and I was expecting too much, maybe it is better for groups that I don't focus on, maybe the weather was reducing activity. Hopefully there will be some more interesting species amongst the material that I have brought back for identification but in the mean time here are a couple of the more notable species that I did find.

Adonis' Ladybirds Hippodamia variegata clearly enjoying the site.
The 'Tumbling Flower Beetle' Variimorda villosa
I don't bother much with spiders (remember, six legs good, eight legs bad) but this one was quite funky so I took a photo and a friend has kindly named it for me.

Neoscona adianta
When I returned to my car a Buglife staff member was starting a guided walk and I was pleased to hear her say that participants were welcome to collect specimens as long as they sent records in afterwards. So I didn't need to hide my net after all!

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Tail end of the nesting season

It's getting towards the end of the nesting season, during which I spend most of my spare time finding and monitoring nests for the BTO's Nest Record Scheme. In terms of how we have done, it has been a successful year with over 120 nest record cards completed. The picture is somewhat more complicated in terms of how the birds have done, some species rearing good numbers of young but others such as Wood Warblers suffering very high levels of predation. Brood sizes in recent nests have also been rather poor which I cannot explain, given the generally good weather.

The weekend produced what may be the last Stonechat nest of the year, containing 4 healthy chicks about 8 days old.

I then checked on the last Wood Warbler nest of the year and its fate matched that of the species generally this year. Four eggs produced three chicks, one disappeared before ringing and the final check produced two dead chicks. The contents of the nest were too gruesome to show you as they were being consumed by a couple of Nicrophorus vespilloides beetles and the larvae of the Calliphorid fly Protocalliphora azurea.

Nicrophorus vespilloides
On Sunday evening we got a bonus nest, found by a friend who was searching for his lost mobile phone!

Nightjar chicks
Earlier on Sunday I had been at a site where a male Red-backed Shrike is hanging around. It's presence is being kept quiet, just in case, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence of a female there. Here is my entry for the worst bird photograph of the year competition.

Adult male Red-backed Shrike!
Don't believe there's a shrike there?


Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Is there anybody still out there?

Gilbert has noticed that all the more interesting natural history blogs are rather moribund and felt pangs of guilt that none are more moribund than his own. So a quick blog to see if either of his readers is still out there.

Today I carried out the annual monitoring of the rare moth Coleophora vibicella. This species is now known from just two sites in Hampshire, one in West Sussex, one in Dorset and one on the Isle of Wight. One Hampshire colony became extinct a couple of years ago and the Dorset one is heading in the same direction. Only the West Sussex and Isle of Wight sites could be described as secure.

The larvae make a silken case about an inch long, from which they feed on the foliage of Dyer's Greenweed Genista tinctoria. The cases can be all black or can have pale sections like this one.

The number of larval cases has been in decline at the West Sussex site for a couple of years, for reasons that are not entirely clear so it was pleasing to record over 1300 cases during the timed counts today. This is the highest total since I switched to timed counts from a 'full' survey.

The early season was reflected in the fact that I also saw a couple of adults.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The day I found out that I'm no badger

The geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane said that 'if he exists, god has an inordinate fondness for beetles', due to the fact that there are more species of beetles than any other group. I have never developed such a fondness, preferring moths, flies, true bugs, etc. and only really bothering to take beetles when there were few of my favoured groups around. I think that this was at least partly due to the relative lack of identification resources but that is improving and they are starting to grow on me.

Last night I was working through my large backlog of unidentified insects. Having slogged though keys for several hours, for the last specimen of the evening I thought I'd look for something a bit easier. A small red beetle caught my eye and under the microscope it had a distinctive net pattern on the wing cases and an oddly shaped thorax. This should be easy.

Scanning through Brock's insect guide led me to the family Lycidae - the net-winged beetles. There are only four species in this family and three are illustrated in Brock. Platycis minutus occurs in the south but that has an all-black thorax and yellow tips to the antennae. Brock states that Dictyoptera aurora is the only member of the family with the thorax red but that is confined to Caledonian pine forest and my specimen came from deciduous woodland in West Sussex! Now I know there is still much to be learnt about the ecology and distribution of many invertebrates but this seemed a stretch too far.

I resorted to Google to see if there was any variation in the appearance of any of the species but could find no matches so checked the Coleoptera checklist to find out what the name of the 4th species in the family was. This was Erotides cosnardi and bingo, that's the one. Further Googling revealed that this is a very rare (or at least rarely recorded) species but it is known from the Downs in West Sussex. I sent a picture to a proper Coleopterist to check that I'd got the identification right but couldn't resist further research into the small hours and by the time he replied today I was already convinced.

My thanks to Mark Telfer for sending me a copy of his report on Erotides cosnardi for the Species Recovery Trust, from which the following information is derived. The larvae of E. cosnardi develop in the white rot heartwood of Beech trunks, presumably large dead trees. There are only 11 verified records of the species in Britain, from the Wye Valley and the South Downs in West Sussex. My specimen was from a new site but within the wider landscape from which it had previously been recorded.

This is another important find resulting from the Pan-Species Listing approach. Would I have retained the specimen, resulting in discovery of a new site for this very rare species, if it hadn't been for PSL? Probably not. Some people are a bit sniffy about PSL, probably due to a misconception that it is all about twitching, rather then the reality that for most people it is about improving your natural history skills. This approach has already resulted in the discovery of at least one new species to Britain and one new species to science. Hopefully such finds will convince the doubters of the value of PSL.

So why the blog title? The day that I found cosnardi I was taking habitat photographs for an imminent funding bid. It's quite a long walk from one end of the project area to the other and when I'd got all the images that I wanted I found myself on the wrong side of a deer fence which meant I had to walk in the wrong direction before I could start heading back. I spotted a place where Badgers had pushed up the bottom of the deer fence and decided that I could squeeze through there and take a short cut back. I'll leave the rest of the story to your imagination.