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, 7 January 2020

Challenge update

Seth has a weeks head start on me but I have managed to record a couple of flies and a beetle since the start of the year. Firstly the fly Phytomyza ilicis, the mines of which can be found on virtually every holly bush in the UK - apart from northern Skye (hahaha). Another fly in the same genus, Phytomyza chaerophylli mines the leaves of umbellifers such as Cow Parsley and I found large numbers of mines at Warblington cemetary when I called in to see the various paper bags there (aka 5 Cattle Egrets and 10+ Little Egrets).

Phytomyza chaerophylli mines
Assorted paper bags
As I said in the previous post, I am utterly useless at beetles but I found one under a log whilst looking for springtails at Hindhead Common the other evening. Given its appearance and location I assumed it was a carabid and, being blue and orange I thought it would be relatively easy to identify. It very quickly fell out of the carabid key so I resorted to using a picture book to see if I could find something similar. Much to my surprise I quickly came across a suitable looking thing in the family Erotylidae - apparently called 'Pleasing Fungus Beetles'! Of the ones in the book, mine looked a good match for Triplax aenea and searches on the web haven't changed my mind but I would like to get confirmation before I count it as it would be a new species to me and identifying beetles by picture matching is seriously dodgy.

Triplax aenea - hopefully
So I reckon that puts me on about 2 and a half combined total for the year. Not sure what Seth is on but I think he's ahead of me, for the time being.

Game On

My mate (yes, I only have one) Seth comes up with a natural history challenge each year. He creates a new blog to document what he's doing and then by about mid-February he gives up! This year his challenge can be found here

So his aim this year is to focus on beetles and flies and to identify as many species in each group as he can, with the aim of becoming more competent in the identification of these groups. This got me thinking. I am completely useless at beetles and slightly less useless at flies but would like to improve my skills in both groups. A little friendly competition might provide motivation to us both so last night I challenged Seth to a competition. The challenge was accepted.

The winner will be the one whose combined total number of species of flies and beetles recorded during 2020 is the higher. The species can be recorded in any life stage and we can get help with identification from other people as it is impossible to define a clear-cut line between doing it all yourself and just mindlessly asking people 'what's this?' that makes any sense. Neither of us is the type to just collect vast numbers of specimens and get others to do all the ID work anyway, and if we did it would sort of defeat our original object of improving our ID skills.

We both have advantages and disadvantages in this challenge. Seth is much better at beetles than me and I'm probably better at flies than he is although neither of us would describe ourselves as competent in either group. I live in the tropical south of England whilst Seth is in the tundra wastelands of Skye so I have access to a greater number of species, but Seth can largely devote his natural history time to the challenge whilst I have commitments with other taxa that I cannot ignore for the year.

It's going to be interesting to see how we get on. I honestly have no idea who will win and am largely relying on Seth giving up in mid-February to give me an easy win (and subsequent bragging rights for about the next 10 years). Whatever happens, there should be some good banter for the next five weeks (or however long Seth lasts).

Sunday, 22 April 2018

First for England

Back in August last year Mr Egg and I went moth trapping at a site in West Sussex. The purpose of our visit was to look for Crimson Underwings. Earlier in the year someone had photographed a Crimson Underwing caterpillar at the site but the photographs were inconclusive as to which species it was so we thought we'd have a go for the adults.

One of the first moths attracted to the traps was new for both of us.

Gypsy Moth Lymantria dispar
The Gypsy Moth is now well established in parts of the London area and is known to be spreading but we certainly weren't expecting it this far west. Amazing antennae.

An underwing flapping round the traps got our hearts pumping for a moment but sadly it was just a Red Underwing Catocala nupta.

A somewhat less spectacular visitor was a Devon Carpet Lampropteryx otregiata. This didn't particularly surprise me as I'm used to seeing Devon Carpet whilst looking for Crimson Underwings in the New Forest. Mr Egg was on the ball though and remembered reading that there were only two previous Sussex records so we were able to get photographic evidence for the county recorder.

Devon Carpet
As well as using light traps we used rotting banana lures but the only thing they attracted was a Dark Bush-cricket Pholidoptera griseoaptera.

General searching with lamps also turned up the attractive (for a beetle) Anthocomus rufus.

Despite me getting a case of dodgy guts and Mr Egg managing to stand on two moth trap bulbs, it was an enjoyable and worthwhile evening, even though we never saw the hoped-for Crimson Underwing. But why am I writing about it now?

Today I attended a workshop on Ichneumonid wasps run by Gavin Broad from the Natural History Museum. Whilst looking through my specimens he said 'that's the second British record'. I didn't take him seriously at first, how could he know that without even looking at the identification keys? But he was serious and the specimen was Ophion areolaris. The man is an absolute genius.

Ophion areolaris
The only previous British record was from Scotland so as some smart alec pointed out that 'second is just the first of the losers' I will refer to it as the first for England rather than the second for Britain.

Update : Gavin tells me that the previous record was from Kinloch Rannoch in 1969. So what does a wood in West Sussex have in common with that site? Answers on a postcard please.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

A mythical fish

Today I saw a mythical fish. Why mythical? Well everyone else claims that it is common in the New Forest streams and report it on an almost daily basis at this time of year. Having failed repeatedly to see it, I came to the conclusion that this was nothing to do with my incompetence but was in fact due to a conspiracy to wind me up and that the fish in question did not actually exist. The evidence for this mounted last spring, 10 figure grid references were followed up without success and the final proof was that whenever I was with people who claimed to see it all the time, they couldn't find any. I'm not going to fall for this one guys, it is quite clearly is a figment of your imagination.

Now I finally have to accept that it is real. So what are we talking about? The Brook Lamprey Lampetra planeri.

They use the amazing suckers on their mouths to move small pebbles around to make their nest site.

There were only two fish making this nest, often there are more and they will cooperate to move larger stones.

Many thanks to Rich for finally proving that these fish do actually exist.

The other highlight of today was that there were the first three Wood Warblers back in the Forest. The obsession resumes.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

What heatwave?

The supposed heatwave has so far produced more in the way of rain than anything approaching summer but the sun did show itself for one afternoon so I headed up to Stanley Common to see what was around.

The total absence of worthwhile nectar meant that insects were thin on the ground, and in the air for that matter. Everything I netted in flight seemed to be a Staphylinid beetle so was promptly released. Life is too short.

I did get a few new species for the year. Gymnocheta viridis is a parasitic fly whose larvae feed in the larvae of Noctuid moths.
File:Gymnocheta viridis. Tachinidae (33836100342).jpg
Gymnocheta viridis (Wikipedia Commons)

A Striped Ladybird Myzia oblongoguttata was beaten from pine foliage.

Striped Ladybird
An Orange Underwing moth Archiearis parthenias whizzed past and a Psychid moth Taleporia tubulosa was hauling it's case up an oak trunk.

Taleporia tubulosa larval case
My first Willow Warbler was singing in the birch but after a while switched to a very wonky version of Chiffchaff. Before anyone gets over-excited it wasn't an Iberian Chiffchaff, just a Willow Warbler with an identity problem.

The highlight of the last few days however was the emergence of Glyphipterix haworthana from the cottongrass seed heads that I collected on Skye a couple of weeks ago.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Snippets from the gloom

Got out to do my first monitoring surveys of the year this week, with mixed success. First up was a trip to look for the larvae of the micro-moth Coleophora wockeella at its sole known UK site in Surrey. The larvae make cases which they live in and from which they make blotch mines in the leaves of Betony. The larvae feed for a period in the autumn before overwintering and then emerging to complete their development in the spring. I have recorded larvae more than a month earlier than this in previous years but a pretty thorough search of the main area produced no larvae or feeding signs. Hopefully this just reflects a late emergence due to the grim weather, rather than anything more serious. I'll be back in 10 days or so to find out. We found very little else, the shieldbug Eurygaster testudinaria being the highlight.

Eurygaster testudinaria
There was some litter on the site with a message on it.

The message read 'Please lift this up and look underneath', or something like that.

So I did as instructed and there were three Slow Worms underneath.

The following evening I went to a site near Shoreham to meet the new warden and look for Barred Tooth-striped moths. BTS larvae feed on Wild Privet which many conservationists view negatively as it can invade open chalk grassland. It is therefore frequently removed and the moth is lost. Just four known sites are left in Sussex, and none in Hampshire. So this was not just about finding the moth but also making sure that the warden was aware of the importance of privet and making sure that it was given due consideration when planning management.

In contrast to the previous day, we quickly found the target species and ended up with 11. Most were quite worn, as would be expected at this stage of the season, but a few were fairly fresh.

Barred Tooth-striped Trichopteryx polycommata
 A few hours in the New Forest on Thursday produced a surprisingly large number of singing Tree Pipits and Redstarts but generally it was very quiet; I didn't hear a single Phylloscopus warbler for example.

Finally, I ringed my first brood of chicks last night, three Robins in the ivy on my garden fence. Hopefully the fact that I was completely unaware of the nest until yesterday is a reflection of my lack of interest in my grotty little garden, rather than of my nesting skills.

Monday, 9 April 2018

As Arnie would say

After a great day out there was still time for some last minute searches. We headed up to a small bog on private land behind the hotel. My main target was Lesser Clubmoss Selaginella selaginoides but we were unable to find this. Instead my eyes were drawn to some manky old seedheads of Common Cottongrass Eriophorum angustifolium. By this time of year they should have been blown away and their continued presence indicates that a larva of the micro-moth Glyphipterix haworthana - new to Skye (and me) has spun the seeds together. Our initial attempts to find the actual larva resulted in a parasite larva and an apparently empty spinning but we were both able to find larvae eventually.

Some Delicate Stonewort Chara virgata was new to me and a micro-fungus on the dead stems of Bog Asphodel Narthecium ossifragum would also have been, but for the fact that it appears that no-one knows for certain what it is.

Seth revealed during the evening that he was 10 short of the halfway mark in his 1000 in 1km square challenge in 2018. With him having to work the next day, we just had to head out with torches and nets to see what we could find in Uig Wood in order to push him over that milestone before the end of March. A biting cold wind meant no moths, no Carabids scuttling down the path, not even an earwig on a tree trunk so eventually we had to concede that Seth would have to achieve his target by going through previously collected material the next day. A couple of new spiders did at least reduce his target.

So Saturday morning came and it was time for the long slog back south. Cheers to Seth for a great week, even at such an unpromising time of year. I had an absolute blast.

The drive home was punctuated by a quick stop up amongst the snow in the mountains to collect some Sphagnum samples for a mad friend and another to check the features of some Early Pampas-grass Cortaderia richardii that I had spotted by Loch Lochy on the way up.

A good place to stop for Sphagnum mosses
Before the trip I had set Seth a light-hearted target of 155 new species so that I could overtake the 'James Bond villain' of Pan Species Listing. It really wasn't a serious target, just a bit of a wind-up. Did I achieve this? No, at the time of writing I have 102 new species from the trip. This will no doubt rise as I work through some of the insects that I brought back but there weren't that many due to the time of year and the cold weather. Any target that I had, no matter how light-hearted was soon forgotten once I started getting out in the field. I learnt loads as much of what we what we were looking at were taxa that I don't know well but the thing that inspired me most was how under recorded everything is on Skye. In southern England you get a few new species for a county each year, on Skye you can get a few new species in a day. I haven't got such a buzz from biological recording since I recorded micro-moths in Radnorshire (then the worst recorded vice-county in England and Wales) in the late 1990's.

I'll be back.