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!