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, 31 December 2013

New moth for West Sussex

Cosmopterix pulchrimella was first recorded in Britain in 2001 at Walditch in west Dorset. Since then it has been spreading along the coast and it has been common at Portchester in east Hampshire for several years. There are no records in West Sussex so for the last couple of years I've paid a visit to Bosham around this time of year, to look for the larval mines in Pellitory-of-the-wall. Each visit has been unsuccessful until a couple of days ago when I found half a dozen occupied mines.

The larvae will turn into a rather stunning little moth.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

It's the final countdown

Made it to my target of 1000 new species in a year with three days to spare! For most of the year it has been a really pleasurable experience and I have learnt loads, but the last few days do seem to have been a bit of a chore.

The final half dozen were:

6. Ilyocoris cimicoides (Saucer Bug). A common species in ponds in the southern half of England and Wales. This one was caught in the pond outside my office on 1st October.

5. Brünnich's Guillemot. A bird!

4. Balclutha punctata. A fairly common grassland species, mine was found in Chiddingfold Forest in late September. This was the only hopper that I could positively identify, out of several examined, as all the others lead to comments like 'the species in this genus are very difficult, and sometimes impossible, to identify'. Clearly a total beginner couldn't claim such species without expert verification.

Photo: www.britishbugs.org.uk
3. Coelioxys conoidea. Gave up on hoppers and had a go at this oddly-shaped bee. It is a cleptoparasite of a leaf-cutter bee and is fairly common on the coast and heaths of south-east England. I found a number on the beach at Shell Ness on the Isle of Sheppey in July.

Photo: www.bwars.com
2. Allantus cinctus. A common sawfly whose larvae feed on various plants in the rose family (and one of the few I've ever managed to get to run smoothly through the keys).

Photo: www.insecte.org
1. Oxybelus uniglumis. A widespread and common solitary wasp which preys mainly on Muscid flies. Mine was found at the same time as the Coelioxys. Oh the joys of using old keys! We may moan about modern keys but it seems that older ones were deliberately written to make them inaccessible to everyone who wasn't already an expert. Why did they think it was a good idea to use terms which weren't explained anywhere? This species is a classic example. I was pretty sure that it was uniglumis but the confirmatory feature was the shape of the mucro. What the hell is that? Half an hour on Google finally produced an American paper which revealed that it is the upper median propodeal projection! Another couple of minutes on Google and I finally knew what to look at. 

Achieving 1000 new species in a year would have been utterly impossible without the help of many individuals and organisations who ran field meetings, confirmed identifications, told me where to see things, joined me on field trips, etc. My thanks to them all. Now what daft challenge can I come up with for next year?

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Brunnich's eaten by shark shock

I was wondering what to do today. Didn't fancy sitting at the microscope all day when the weather was fairly decent but nothing else particularly appealed and I was just mulling about what to do when I heard that there was a Brünnich's Guillemot in Portland Harbour. There's unlikely to ever be one closer and there was even a lift coming virtually past my door so it would be rude not to go.

I always thought that if I ever saw a Brünnich's in Britain it would be a speck on the horizon, constantly disappearing behind waves and it would be a struggle to convince myself that I could see the relevant features, so it was a pleasant surprise to say the least that it was floating around a mill pond-like marina at a range of about 100 metres. This meant that even with my cheap little camera I could get passable photo's.

After spending about an hour around the same small area, it started to drift towards us. As it came round the front of the quay we moved round the corner expecting it to emerge right in front of us but it didn't appear. After a couple of minutes people started to look back where it had been, then all around the area. No sign. Now this was clearly an extreme version of the 'Why does the watched diver always drown?' conundrum but after giving the matter due consideration, I came to the only obvious conclusion; that it had been eaten by a shark.

Now some might say that my theory was disproven by the discovery of a Brünnich's about half a mile away towards Portland Castle shortly afterwards but this is clearly a second bird. I'm just rather gutted not to have added Great White to my pan-species list today.

Further highlights today were my first Black Guillemot for many years, also in Portland Harbour, and a ridiculously situated Glossy Ibis on a football pitch just north of Weymouth.

Half way there

Counting down the last dozen new species that I need for 1000 in the year:

12. Agapanthia villosoviridescens. A cracking longhorn beetle that I found in July at Mitcham Common. It is fairly common, the larvae feeding in the stems of thistles, Hogweed, etc.

11. Pseudovadonia livida. Another longhorn, caught in July near the crossing to the Isle of Sheppey. The larvae are said to feed in the soil of grassland infested with the Fairy-ring Fungus.

 10. Anaglyptus mysticus. Another longhorn, this one being Nationally Scarce. The larvae feed in dry dead wood of deciduous trees. I found this at Odiham Common in June whilst looking to see if the Forester moths had emerged.

9. Coleophora trochilella. A Nationally Scarce micro-moth whose larvae feed on various Compositae from within a case. A female was caught in July at Sandwich Bay but I've only just dissected it.

Photo: www.lepiforum.de
8. Chionodes distinctella. Another Nationally Scarce micro-moth, the larvae of which seem to be unknown. The moth seems to be found mainly on coastal grassland and in the Brecks. This was caught at light at West Wittering back in July and was one of two identical-looking featureless brown moths that I brought back for dissection. Contrary to expectations the other specimen was a different species, the very common Bryotropha terrella. Presumably the specific name was ironic.

Photo: www.gelechiid.co.uk
7. Badister bullatus. A fairly common ground beetle that I found at West Dean back in June.

Away from the microscope I've managed to spend a few hours in the field but without finding anything new. I spent a few hours in the New Forest, seeing some good birds including Firecrest, a flock of Brambling and, best of all, two Merlins mobbing a Raven - the size difference was amazing. I did find a distinctive-looking lichen which I brought back but it turned out to be Usnea florida which I've seen before. No idea what the other species is!

Last night I went to Shortheath Common to count the Fieldfare roost. It was an easy count - two, but there were at least 47 Snipe roosting on the bog. An attractive moss caught my eye but it proved to be Polytrichum juniperinum. Mixed in the sample I brought home was some Campylopus introflexus but I've seen both of these before. Five more days to get the final six species.

Polytrichum juniperinum

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The fat lady is gargling

It seems to have been hard work this month keeping on track for my target of 1000 new species in the year but despite that feeling, I have managed to keep the required number of species per week coming down. The last couple of fungus group meetings have not been very productive but have both provided a few new species, ranging from the moderately scarce such as Hypholoma sublateritium to the ridiculously common Sycamore Tar Spot Rhytisma acerinum.

Hypholoma sublateritium
Sycamore Tar Spot (Photo: Royal Horticultural Society)
Of course, I have seen the Sycamore Tar Spot before - I'm sure that anyone who opens their eyes in the countryside will have seen it - but I've never paid it enough attention to actually work out what it is.

A bryophyte meeting at Portsdown Hill had the potential to give me all the remaining required species but was severely hampered, and eventually curtailed, by awful weather. A jelly lichen, Leptogium schraderi was of interest in the car park

Photo: www.lichens.ie
and a tiny liverwort Leiocolea turbinata was also of note, mainly because it was so small that with the naked eye it just looked like algae growing on the bare chalk. It was only under a lens that you could see the notched leaves.

Photo: www.cisfbr.org.uk
The remaining new species have been a mixed bag of insects that were collected earlier in the year. The highlight was the Red Data Book Tephritid fly Myopites eximius - a pair of which were found on the larval foodplant, Golden-samphire, at Thorney Island.

Photo: goweros.blogspot.co.uk
 So by the beginning of the weekend I was left needing 12 more new species to reach the 1000, with 10 days left to do it.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

New to Britain

Whenever I'm trying to identify something and fail to make it run through a key successfully, or match any of the pictures in a book, I say 'Must be new to Britain'. It's the only logical explanation really, it can't be anything to do with my utter incompetence can it? Over the years I must have had dozens of 'new species to Britain' but now, finally, I have a real one!

A few weeks ago I sent a small number of Ichneumon wasp specimens to Dr Gavin Broad at the Natural History Museum for identification. All bar one were collected during 2013, the exception having been lurking unnoticed in a store box since 1996! This latter specimen proved to be Aphanistes gliscens - new to Wales. Pretty good, as were a couple of Enicospilus species which Gavin had few records of, and a scarce wetland species Netelia fuscicarpus, but his last paragraph started 'Best of the bunch....'.

Hang on. Best of the bunch? I've already got a new to Wales and some other stuff that you're pleased with. What can be better than those? Lymantrichneumon disparis can - a new species and genus to Britain.

Lymantrichneumon disparis Photo: Gavin Broad / NHM
This species is a parasite of the Gypsy Moth and possibly other Lymantriid moth species. Gypsy Moth has been colonising parts of southern England in the last few years and is now considered to be breeding at a couple of sites in Sussex ( Pratt, C.R., in prep. A complete history of the butterflies and moths of Sussex. Supplement number 3) but neither of these are close to the Broadwater Warren RSPB reserve where I caught the disparis. I am sure that the warden will be looking next year to see if there is an overlooked Gypsy colony.

Over the last few weeks I have been identifying a large number of micro-moths for a recorder in East Sussex. His specimens have included Monochroa arundinetella (new to Sussex and 3rd British record since 1930) and Lyonetia prunifoliella (also new to Sussex and 4th British record since about 1900), as well as a couple of other species that are new to East Sussex. All quite exciting but also a bit frustrating as they don't count on my Pan Species List! The identification of the Lymantrichneumon disparis by Gavin is therefore possibly the first recorded case of Pan Species Karma!

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

BTO conference

Over the weekend I attended the BTO's Annual Conference at Swanwick in Derbyshire. I drove up early so that I could go for a walk in the Dales; only the second time I've ever visited the area. I managed to see a couple of new ferns although sadly not the rarer ones that I was looking for, but it was an enjoyable afternoon exploring habitats that I rarely see and topped off with a singing Dipper near my car at dusk.

But on to the conference. Friday evening kicked off with a talk by Steve Roberts on Honey Buzzards. It was a bit light on results from his research but was entertaining. I was amused that Gilbert White got the blame for the fact that all the books say that Honey Buzzards nest in Beech trees. Everyone since then appears to have just copied his comment about a single nest! Steve's frustration with this rings bells with me as I feel similarly when I see books stating that Dartford Warblers nest in gorse bushes and Wood Warblers nest in Beech woods. Do all authors just copy each other? One particularly interesting fact that Steve has found from nest cameras is the number of frogs that the adults bring in (alive) for the chicks - I thought they just fed on wasps nests.

The Nest Records Scheme meeting presented provisional results from the 2013 breeding season. I must admit that I had managed to eliminate from my mind just how bad the spring was, I guess it just merged into 2012 as we just seemed to have a 15 month winter. The NRS results brought it back home to me however; 17 out of 26 species that they have analysed the results for showed delayed nesting by 8 - 12 days; despite this, productivity was about average for most species although clutch sizes were small for tits and Pied Flycatchers - indicating that the adults struggled to get into breeding condition; Tree Sparrow clutch sizes were also down and nest failure rates were up; Reed Warblers had a very poor season, probably due to very late reed growth; many Barn Owls failed to breed at all. Conversation in the bar afterwards revealed just how bad things were for one Tree Sparrow colony. One of the few remaining colonies in south-east England has declined from 60 pairs in 2012 to 8 pairs this year.

On Saturday Lianne Concannon gave a talk about her PhD research on the Pink Pigeon which is endemic to Mauritius. One has to feel sorry for students when they have to carry out their research in such places but are there really so few valid research topics in the UK that so many students have to go swanning off to the tropics? Having said that, Lianne appears to have done some worthwhile research. Pink Pigeons were on the brink of extinction but intensive conservation work has meant that the population has recovered to about 350 individuals. In recent years the recovery has stalled however and Lianne's research aimed to find out why. It appears that the artificial feeding of the birds has resulted in lots of old females which occupy territories but are no longer able to breed successfully.

Pip Gullett reported on her PhD on the somewhat more mundane topic of Long-tailed Tits in Sheffield. The result which surprised me most is that the average length of their breeding season has decreased by 25% since 1995. This has obvious implications for their ability to have repeat nests if their first attempt fails but is currently being compensated for by improved adult survival rates.

I skipped the AGM and apparently missed out on someone having an extended rant about the proposal for Chris Packham to become the new BTO President. I don't agree with Packham on lots of things and I think the BBC make him look a bit of a dick on Springwatch but when he has the freedom to say what he wants, he shows that he is both knowledgeable and willing to say unpopular things so overall I think that his appointment is positive. Who else is there at the moment anyway if you want a celebrity figurehead?

On Sunday morning there was a new feature for a BTO conference - a panel discussion on the direction that the BTO should be taking in the next 10 years and the issues they need to address. It was both entertaining (especially Mark Avery) and informative and I hope that this sort of thing is repeated at future conferences.

Obviously there were lots of other talks and interesting chat in the bar but that'll do for a flavour of the conference. Highly recommended for anyone interested in birds beyond the twitching scene. 

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Herald of Winter and a little gem

It's getting increasingly hard to write about things that I've seen so the blog runs the risk of going into hibernation. The alternative would be to have a bit more of a rant about various things. There are plenty of suitable topics. How about the fact that this awful government has decided to appoint a banker as the chair of Natural England? It's ok though because he likes gardening so he's ideally qualified to be in charge of our wildlife! Others have covered this topic in detail though so how about my favourite target; Surrey Wildlife Trust? Their latest inspired appeal for money is for woodland management (which seems only to consist of coppicing). Apparently if we give them £30k they'll be able to save the Pied Flycatcher (has never bred in Surrey) and the Wood Warbler (virtually extinct in the county and certainly would become so if they coppiced its habitat). But they really are a lost cause.

The latest fungus group meeting was not especially productive but I did see a few new species including the appropriately named Herald of Winter Hygrophorus hypothejus.

One interesting find was a batch of Vapourer moth eggs laid on the cocoon that the adult female had hatched from.

I wasn't expecting to see anything of interest today as I was stuck in the office but my colleague was doing some ringing nearby and caught a Firecrest. It's interesting that they are still around as the New Forest population is thought to have moved away by this stage of the winter (although no-one knows where to).

Never noticed before that they have such a stern look! 

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Getting tough

Back at the beginning of the year I set myself a target of seeing 1000 new species (in any taxonomic group) during the year. I haven't mentioned it much in the blog because it's only a bit of fun that was prompted by a friends attempt to do the same thing a couple of years ago. I've really been treating it as a motivation to get in to groups that I've been planning to learn more about but have never got around to doing. It's certainly been a success in that respect, although being out of the country for nearly a month in late July to mid-August didn't help.

So how is it going? As of tonight I've seen 933 new species so the target is still attainable but it's getting tough to find new species. The recent frosts have reduced the amount of fungi around and the last fungus group meeting that I went to produced just a handful of new species.

Common Stump Brittlestem Psathyrella piluliformis
Nectria punicea
The Nectria punicea is apparently quite rare as it was new to virtually everyone in the group. The most impressive species to me though was Marasmius hudsonii due to the fact that it grows out of a dead Holly leaf. I also liked the hairy cap but you can't really see that in the photo.

On the way home I stopped at a random roadside to do a bit of leaf mine recording. A patch of Ground-ivy unexpectedly produced two new species for me; the leaf-mining fly Phytomyza glechomae

and the gall midge Rondaniola bursaria - the picture showing the galls on the right and the raised holes where the mature galls have fallen to the ground to over-winter.

I also called in to see the 1st winter male Long-tailed Duck at Hayling Oysterbeds. Whilst walking back to the car I remembered my failure to find Sea Slaters at Emsworth recently so thought I'd have another look. The third rock that I turned over produced

and about 40 others!

So what of the remaining 67 new species that I need to get to 1000? I've certainly got that many insects that I collected earlier in the year which are awaiting identification but will I be able to confidently identify enough of them without feeling that they need to be verified? Probably not, given that Christmas will get in the way and I can't really ask people to look at specimens for me during that period. So it's still all to play for, I may need to get the moss key out.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Carry on fungus

For the benefit of Steve and anyone else whose humour is at the 'Carry On' level, today I've been checking out the Bishop's Ring (SU950156) but I saw little of note apart from Cut-leaved Crane's-bill still in flower.

So back to a fungus foray at Oxshott Common. Apparently this site has the largest number of recorded fungi anywhere in the world, with a list of over 3000 species. Well I'm glad it has something going for it because I wasn't impressed! An extremely dull secondary woodland that is so riddled with dog shit that it was impossible to avoid stepping in it. I was delighted to leave.

Whilst there I did see some interesting fungi. Plicaturopsis crispa was, surprisingly, new to the site.

The Funnel Chanterelle Cantharellus tubiformis wasn't new for me but is worth a photo nonetheless.

Earth Fan Thelephora terrestris was common in one small area.

One of my favourites from the day was the Ear-pick Fungus Auriscalpium vulgare which grows on old pine cones.

The undoubted highlight though was the non-native Aseroe rubra. This species is a native of Australia and Oxshott Common is its only known British site. It seems to have been twitched by every man and his dog this autumn and it was great to catch up with it. Continuing with the Carry On theme, I can't help looking at the stem and thinking that it looks like some sort of animals phallus. What could have happened to a phallus to make the end like that doesn't bear thinking about though.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

The Smurf Spider

Another fungus foray but I forgot my camera so have a look at Graeme's blog to see what we found. In the evening we went looking for the Plumed Prominent moth on the Sussex Downs. Anything that flies in November is going to be tricky and I've only seen this species once in about ten attempts.

The plus side is that it tends to fly by about 7.30pm so you don't have to stay up all night. The temperature dropped quickly at dusk and we didn't hold out much hope of seeing any Plumed Prominents so as usual we took to looking for other things. There's an old lime kiln at the site and we usually see a bat on the 'ceiling' but we've never managed to identify it. The first time we looked there was a group of hibernating Herald moths so it seemed unlikely that there would be any bats this year.

 However when we looked later there were two bats sat a couple of feet from the moths. This time I managed to get a photo which proved sufficiently good for a bat boffin to identify them as Natterer's.

There aren't any obvious crevices in the lime kiln so it's a mystery where they were hiding earlier. It was great to see a new bat but the species of the evening was the spider Cyclosa conica with it's bizarre abdomen. According to Wikipedia it has no English name - until now; it is undoubtedly the Smurf Spider!

A few days later and I planned on going to another fungus foray but I got delayed in traffic so would have missed the start and so I diverted into Liss to have a look for a new fern for me, the excellently named Rustyback. As it was growing on someone's garden wall I only snapped one quick image and didn't think about getting a picture showing the dense scales on the underside that give it it's name.

I then went down to the coast at Emsworth to look for the Sea Slater; Britain's biggest woodlouse. I'd only ever seen this species dead and despite turning over loads of rocks on the beach, that remains the position. All I could find were Shore Crabs.

The weather that day was sunny and once out of the wind it was warm enough for Red Admiral and Ruddy Darter to be basking - probably my last butterfly and dragonfly of the year.

Friday, 22 November 2013

No dodgy title

Well what a surprise, the slightly dodgy title to my last post produced by far the highest number of page views this blog has ever had. I wonder what proportion of visitors were interested in natural history and how many very severely disappointed. No sympathy, saddo's.

Spent a great day in West Sussex recently with the aim of looking for a few plants that I've not seen before but at a relaxed pace and looking at anything else of interest that we saw. On the way to meet my friends I stopped in at some allotments in Havant where there was Common Ramping Fumitory growing up the fence and Weasel's Snout nearby.

Common Ramping Fumitory
Weasel's Snout
We started off on a ridiculously steep slope on the downs hunting for Limestone Fern. No luck with that but we found various other things of interest including a couple that have defied identification so far.

Unknown slime mould
Unknown lichen
We still have high hopes of finding out what the lichen is as a specimen has been sent to an expert.
The next stop was a site further along the downs where out target was Fly Honeysuckle. As well as the plant itself we found leaf mines of the moth Phyllonorycter emberizaepennella and vacated mines of the fly Aulagromyza luteoscutellata. The fly was first discovered in Britain in 2007 and according to the main web sites, had only been seen in Hampshire and Kent and had not been found on Fly Honeysuckle in Britain. Of course this proved to be wrong on both counts and it has now been found as far north as Cheshire.

Vacated mine of Aulagromyza luteoscutellata
We then moved to Arundel Park to look for White Horehound. I had looked for this a couple of weeks previously and both sites had been destroyed so it was good to actually find it but the area had been topped (presumably because the disturbed ground that suits this plant also suits nettles and thistles) so few plants had managed to flower or set seed. I can see why it's so rare. A few other bits and pieces there included the first spider I've ever managed to identify (and as it was identified on the internet, I got someone who knows what the are doing with spiders to confirm the ID).

Araneus diadematus
Finally we went to Cocking. Plenty of potential for a dodgy title there but I can live without those readers. Our target was Dwarf Elder and we found about 200 plants in a very non-descript hedgerow. In complete contrast to the White Horehound, it is very difficult to understand why this plant isn't all over the place.