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.

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.