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.

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.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

A star lily

It's not often that I get a whole weekend with no commitments but, partly as a result of the continued awful weather, that was the situation this weekend. So what to do at this time of year? Well I could (and probably should) have spent the weekend staring down a microscope at my backlog of unidentified insects but I'd much sooner get out in the field and there is a plant that is flowering at the moment that I have wanted to see for quite a while. No contest.

The Early Star-of-Bethlehem (aka Radnor Lily - the name that I prefer) Gagea bohemica is only found in Britain at a single site, Stanner Rocks NNR in Radnorshire. I have a particular affection for Radnorshire, having visited many times when a friend worked for the Wildlife Trust there, and have driven past Stanner Rocks on a number of occasions. However, Stanner Rocks is a closed reserve. Normally this would be sufficient encouragement for me to trespass but in this case there are genuine reasons for restricted access as there are a number of rare plants, mosses and lichens which could be damaged by an ill-informed footstep.

Having decided during the week that I wanted to visit to look for the Radnor Lily, the question was whether I could obtain permission and instructions in time. Fortunately I know someone who visited last year so I asked her if she could put me in touch with the right person to ask. This she kindly did, and her contact was immensely helpful, providing lots of detailed information about where and how to find the lily without causing damage as well as lots of other information about interesting species on the reserve.

So I made a 4 am start to avoid the traffic and hopefully get there before the predicted poor weather. This proved to be a good choice as it was already blowing a gale and spitting with rain when I arrived (and the weather as I drove home was atrocious).

There are only two flowering Radnor Lilies in the accessible part of the reserve this year. One was very easy to find due to the directions provided and the fact that it was in a cage.

I was told that I could remove the cage to photograph the plant as long as I put it back afterwards. As predicted, it was a little past its best.

The other plant which was only found earlier this week was predicted to be in better condition so I was quite keen to see it. However it was in a more sensitive area and despite being provided with a photograph of the location with a big arrow pointing to where to look, I couldn't quite tie up the photograph with what I could see in front of me and I didn't want to go bumbling around the rocks causing all sorts of damage. Eventually I decided to have a quick, careful look and immediately stumbled upon the plant (not literally!). The flower wasn't fully open, perhaps due to the weather, but it complemented the first one nicely.

Most of the interesting species at Stanner Rocks at this time of year are lower plants and I was left feeling frustrated by my incompetence in this area. I did find what I believe to be the rare liverwort Riccia beyrichiana however.

A huge thank you to Megan and Andy for facilitating my visit and providing invaluable information.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

A very rare hopper

I rarely feature invertebrates on this blog apart from fairly big stuff that can be identified in the field. Part of the reason for this is that my microscope camera (which it took two years to get the supplier to send me all the bits to make it work!) doesn't work with Windows 8.

Last week a friend recommended the Eyecam, sold by Brunel Microscopes. At under £60, I decided to take the plunge and ordered one on Wednesday evening. It arrived first thing on Friday which was a nice contrast with the previous company. I haven't had the time (or inclination) to read the instructions yet but just using the basic settings I took the following image of this hopper.

Idiodonus cruentatus
This was swept from a fairly nondescript area of damp heathland in the New Forest in August and I was able to get the identity confirmed at the BENHS hoppers workshop on Saturday. The rather aged key to hoppers doesn't suggest that it is anything special, describing it as local, but the national recording scheme organiser tells me that he only aware of three other records since 1980 and considers it the most declined hopper species in the country.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The James Bond lichen

I joined a Flora Group meeting in Portsmouth which was aimed mainly at recording alien escapes but we started off with a scarce native; Slender Hare's-ear Bupleurum tenuissimum. This is an umbellifer but it doesn't look at all like one, at least superficially. According to my records I have seen this species before but I have no recollection of doing so.

Slender Hare's-ear
Next was a species that is normally thought to be introduced, except in west Cornwall; Bermuda-grass Cynodon dactylon. However, expert opinion is that it is also native on the Isle of Wight and that this Portsmouth colony could also be native.

A slight diversion was made to the world of lower plants when we were shown the Golden-eye Lichen Teloschistes chrysophthalmus. This was a mega-rarity, having not been seen in the area for over 100 years but it now appears to be spreading rapidly on the coast of central southern England. It has also been spreading in Brittany. Presumably it has recolonised from the continent but the fact that it has reappeared in the same area that it was known from in the 19th century is interesting, could it have hung on in Britain unnoticed for all that time?

Teloschistes chrysophthalmus
On the same bush was a lichen that I had not seen before; Physcia stellaris. This appears to be quite scarce in southern and eastern England but is fairly common elsewhere.

Physcia stellaris
A brief lesson in bramble identification produced a new species for me in the form of Rubus tuberculatus. One member of the Flora Group is working on a web site for identifying brambles which will hopefully make them more accessible in due course.

We then reverted to looking at alien plants. This provided me with a number of new species such as Grape-vine Vitis vinifera and Chinese Mugwort Artemisia verlotiorum but I cannot say that such ticks give me much satisfaction.

Chinese Mugwort

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Aliens on the island

A friend wanted to see the stick insect Bacillus rossius which occurs on Hayling Island so I arranged to show him where I had seen it in previous years. He couldn't make it till lunchtime so in the morning I went to the east coast of the island. I wanted to look for Dwarf Eelgrass Zostera noltei which I have not seen before. The usual traffic chaos held me up and the tide was rising rapidly when I arrived but I had a fairly precise grid reference so I was able to find the plant quite quickly - a good thing as another 15 minutes or so and it would have been in water over wellie depth.

Dwarf Eelgrass with close-up of leaf showing notched tip
Another thing that I wanted to do whilst at this site was to look for the larval cases of Coleophora aestuariella and C. deviella on Annual Sea-blite. A friend and I found both these species new to Hampshire back in 1996 but I have never been back to look for them since. I found C. aestuariella quite quickly but a search throughout the area of our original find produced no deviella cases. By coincidence, the friend with whom I made the original find, also visited the site a couple of days later and had the same results. It is of some concern that neither of us could refind deviella but it was much scarcer than aestuariella in 1996 and it is to be hoped that it can be refound in future years.

Coleophora aestuariella larval case
 I went off to meet my friend but he was running late so I had a look for the alien escape Cock's-eggs Salpichroa origanifolia which is well known in the area. I saw a likely looking patch of plants and headed towards it but before I got there I almost trod on another garden escape which I had not seen before; Pink-sorrel Oxalis articulata.

My friend had now arrived and we spent some time searching the bramble patches around the beach huts for the stick insect. Sadly there were none to be found, with a few Knot Grass Acronicta rumicis larvae being the only herbivores seen.

Knot Grass larva
We moved to Sandy Point where I was able to show my friend the scarce Sea Knotgrass Polygonum maritimum.
Sea Knotgrass
 Despite having been in this area on numerous occasions, I had never previously noticed that there was a Monterey Cypress Cupressus macrocarpa sapling just a few metres away. Having found one, we then proceeded to find several more. It's amazing how blind you can be.

Monterey Cypress sapling
Finally we walked down to Black Point where we found several Spanish Broom Spartium junceum bushes, another alien plant that I have not seen previously.

Spanish Broom

Friday, 6 November 2015

Earwig bum-face

Back in late September I collected some Horse Chestnut leaves which contained lots of mines created by the micro-moth Cameraria ohridella. The aim was to see what parasites emerged from the mines so I placed the leaves in a clear plastic bag. The first thing to appear in the bag was not a parasite but I had no idea what it was. In retrospect I really should have known, or at least been able to work it out, but sometimes neither brain cell is working and after searching the internet for some time I resorted to posting an image in the Pan-species Listing Facebook group, asking if anyone knew what this strange thing with an earwig's bum stuck on it's face was.

From the flood of responses it was clear that everybody apart from me knew that it was a lacewing larva. One correspondent stated that it was one of the brown lacewings as the green ones don't have the assorted detritus on their back.

The following day I went to look for a new plant for me, and this time I could identify it. There were a number of Henbane plants growing in a game cover strip in an arable field near Up Marden. I managed to squeeze records from two tetrads.

At the weekend I went out with a local fungus group to Witley Common in Surrey. It was by far the most productive fungus meeting I have been to and there was really too much going on to keep up with all the finds but I did manage to see a number of new species, a couple of which were the Redspored Dapperling Melanophyllum haematospermum with it's characteristic reddish gills

Melanophyllum haematospermum
and the Stinking Earthfan Thelephora palmata which reputedly has a 'repulsive smell of putrid garlic'. After my experience with Stinking Goosefoot earlier this year, I decided not to test this description.

Thelephora palmata
On the way home I stopped in at a heath in north Hampshire to look for the St Dabeoc's Heath Daboecia cantabrica. As a native in the British Isles it is only known from two counties in southern Ireland but it is occasionally found as an escape / introduction in southern England. Although it was only recently discovered at this site, I suspect that it may have originally got there during the second world war when there was considerable military activity on the site, with much planting of alien species around buildings, etc.

St Dabeoc's Heath

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Entering the Lyons Den

One of my favourite wildlife blogs (albeit almost as quiet as this one in recent times) is The Lyons Den, written by a Sussex ecologist. Today we entered Lyon country in the hope of catching up with one of the Sussex-bred Long-tailed Blues that has been emerging recently. I tried several times during the last Long-tailed Blue invasion but my only reward was a 'probable' at a range of about 20 metres that flew off, never to be seen again. During the last invasion I spent a lot of time staring at Broad-leaved Everlasting-pea at the derelict Shoreham cement works so I was rather dismayed to be told by my local contact that this was the best place to try this time. A sense of deja vu quickly descended as the only butterflies to be seen were a couple of Speckled Wood. My contact was racing around various sites where he had seen the butterfly but was having a similar level of success.

Just when it all seemed futile, a message came through saying 'get yourself to Southwick Basin asap'. My contact had not only found one but he kept his shadow over it so that it didn't fly off before we got there.

Once the sun was allowed to fall on the butterfly, it opened its wings for a couple of minutes before flying and vanishing into thin air.

So a huge debt of thanks is owed to this person, not only for finding the butterfly but for having the presence of mind to keep it shaded long enough for us to see it.