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.

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.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Fried Mars Bars

My last full day on Skye and the county botanical recorder was coming over from Raasay to show me some of the interesting plants that can be found at this time of year. Not only that but he did all the driving as well. What thoroughly nice people naturalists are (apart from birders obviously). After a quick diversion to check out a report of American Skunk-cabbage Lysichiton americanus which sadly turned out to be correct, we headed out to Oisgill Bay.

The first task was to look for Carline Thistle Carlina vulgaris which had been reported in the area but not seen for many years. As we worked our way towards the reported area the ground got steeper and steeper and eventually it got to the point where I decided that wellies, wet ground and my fear of heights dictated that a search of the scree lower down for Wood-sorrel Oxalis acetosella (which had never been recorded in this 10km square) was in order. It wasn't long before Seth and Stephen returned, having been unsuccessful. I was a bit concerned that they had aborted their search early because I had wimped out, when I was actually quite happy doing what I was doing. It was only when we moved round to the other side of the bay that the reason for their early reappearance became apparent.

Slightly tricky ground for searching for Carline Thistle
The terrain on the other side of the bay was fortunately somewhat easier and Stephen took us to an area of boulders where Downy Currant Ribes spicatum bushes were able to grow away from the attentions of the resident sheep. They weren't exactly looking their best ......

Downy Currant asleep
Shortly after, he pointed out Roseroot Sedum rosea which was similarly 'resting' but did at least give a vague indication of how it acquired its name.

I look forward to returning at some point in the future to see these plants looking a bit more impressive. It didn't take long though before Stephen called us over to the species I was really looking for.

Purple Saxifrage Saxifraga oppositifolia
Purple Saxifrage is unlikely to be flowering at times when I would normally visit Scotland so it would have been frustrating if I had returned without using this opportunity to see it. This was undoubtedly my highlight of the day but I suspect that Stephen's highlight came as we walked back to the car, when Seth spotted some Common Duckweed Lemna minor in a trickle of water. Apparently this is quite a scarce plant on Skye.

We headed off to a stream just outside Dunvegan, I can't remember if we were looking for something in particular but it gave me an opportunity to look for stoneflies. A search under the bridge produced an exuviae of Perlodes mortoni - a valid record but frustrating as it would have been a new species for me. Having spent a while looking round the site, we came to leave and Seth spotted something crawling up Stephen's cheek - Perlodes mortoni!

Male Perlodes mortoni (Photo taken after it was removed from Stephen's cheek)
The males are flightless and this is the main reason why it is now considered a separate species from the continental one P. microcephala and therefore a UK endemic.

Our final stop was at a quarry just outside Dunvegan which had been used as something of a dumping ground. At the entrance Seth turned over some dumped material to reveal something that he got very excited about.

What is this rather gross thing? It is a New Zealand Flatworm Arthurdendyus triangulatus. You may have heard of it as there was a lot of media attention regarding this species a few years ago. As its name suggests, it is a non-native species and it is also a predator of earthworms. The media line when it became established in the wild in Britain was that it would 'wipe out' native earthworms, causing massive knock-on problems with things like soil fertility, and loss of species like thrushes which feed on earthworms. The media reaction obviously had an effect on some people, apparently there is someone on Skye who has killed over 30,000 New Zealand Flatworms! I am sceptical. We keep on hearing this sort of hype (e.g. Harlequin Ladybird) and I'm afraid that the little boys are crying wolf too often for my liking. An interesting article in the latest BSBI News showed that the impact of non-native plants on rare native species was much lower than a number of other factors, including invasive native species such as bramble.

The quarry held a number of alien (dumped) plants, including a couple which had evaded identification thus far. We also saw a couple of Field Voles Microtus agrestis. They're huge, I reckon they've been on the fried Mars Bars. On the way out I saw my second ever Water Cricket Velia caprai in a horribly polluted puddle, somewhat ruining my image that they inhabit the backwaters of pristine mountain streams.

The tale of the missing flatworm

Today was focused entirely on the Uig 1km square where Seth is trying to record over 1000 species in a year. There was a fairly decent low tide so we headed straight down to the bay.

Uig Bay
Seth kept to type and turned rocks on the shore while I headed out into the water with a net, hoping for more exotic fare. Almost straight away I netted a Brown Shrimp Crangon crangon which was new for the square. A number of bug-eyed shrimps were also caught but these defied identification.

Unidentified bug-eyed shrimp (Photo: Seth Gibson)
The bay was like a mill pond and visibility was superb so a quickly spotted a couple of shells walking across the sand. Shells don't walk of course but they do if they have a Hermit Crab Pagurus bernhardus inside, another new for the square.

I saw of shoal of small fish in the shallows and, displaying remarkable stalking and pouncing skillz, I managed to secure four. Unfortunately I had forgotten to bring my tray and Seth's contribution to the field equipment was a container so small that two of the fish leapt straight out and burrowed into the sand. The remaining two were clearly sandeels. I've seen sandeels before but never been able to identify them to species. This time, armed with the necessary information we were able to quickly resolve that they were Lesser Sandeel Ammodytes tobianus. Unfortunately, before I could get a photo Seth decided to poke them and the were out of the container and buried in the sand in the blink of an eye. Doh! It was an eye-opener to me that they could, and did, bury themselves like this.

Seth did manage to compensate by finding me a second new fish; Shore Rockling Gaidropsarus mediterraneus hiding under the most unlikely of rocks, with virtually no water to survive in until the tide returned.

Shore Rockling in the company of an Estuary Ragworm Hediste diversicolor 
We saw a number of sponges but these are tricky to identify and Breadcrumb Sponge Halichondria panicea was the only one that could be confidently named.

Breadcrumb Sponge
We seemed to have exhausted the possibilities in the bay and the temperature was reaching the heady heights of about 8C so I was keen to get into the wood to look for insects. Seth was becoming increasingly obsessed with finding me three species that he had failed to find; a micro-fungus on Herb Robert, a flatworm and the White Slug Mite Riccardoella oudemansi - a creature with a bizarre lifestyle which you can guess from it's name. So after looking at a few flies on some daffodils, we commenced turning over every rock within a 10 mile radius of Uig (OK, slight exaggeration). We worked our way down through most of the wood without success but finally, in a scrappy little patch at the end where a load of rubble had been dumped we scored the slug mite. I was, err, delighted, yes that's the word, delighted! We continued in the desperate search for the flatworm but instead came across this weird looking thing.

Boreal Ensign Scale Newsteadia floccosa
Respect to Seth for a) seeing it (I just saw a bit of white fluff) and b) having a pretty good idea what it was, even though he'd never seen it before. That of course doesn't get him off the hook for failing to find me the 'guaranteed' flatworm. Just to rub salt into the wound, he texted me yesterday to say he'd just found two in Uig Wood.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Rusty Rocks

Wednesday dawned cold but vastly improved on the previous day. We planned on a quick look at Uig bay before I dragged Seth kicking and screaming out of his beloved 1km square to explore a bit more of the island. The tide was quite high in the bay but Seth's intimate knowledge of the site soon produced some new species for me. It has to be said that some were more impressive than others. I thought we had plumbed the depths with the miniature full stop on Egg Wrack that he had shown me on the first evening (apparently a fungus called Stigmidium ascophylli - see this photo and be truly amazed). Today though he surpassed himself.

Seth modelling the most impressive species I will ever see - not
It's a rock right? Well have a closer look.

Still a rock. But a rock with some reddish stuff on it. This is a marine alga called Hildebrandia rubra. I bet you're impressed.

I've seen the centipede Strigamia maritima a few times before, it is fairly common on beaches around the UK but I usually see the odd one or two and the numbers on Uig beach are astonishing. These were just a sample from under one rock.

Another species that was in unusually high numbers was the Beadlet Anemone Actinia equina.

We left Uig and headed south. Seth got very excited about a possible Mute Swan on a small loch which, much to his disappointment, turned out to be a Whooper. It's a weird place Skye, I think if I'd found a Coot I'd have been in danger of being kissed. We ended up in Dunvegan Woods. A strange place and the first section we walked round was uniformly dense, dark conifers; not a ride to be found anywhere. Seth tried to show me a weevil that you can find under dead bark on fallen conifers but the only one he found was dead. He questioned whether it was really dead as 'they can play dead really well' but was convinced when I showed him that it's head had fallen off.

Perhaps the most interesting find in the woods for me was the fungus Phytophthora ramorum.

This is known as Sudden Oak Death in the US where it is responsible for the death of millions of oaks. It was first found in plant nurseries in Scotland in 2002 and in the wild in 2007. There was the usual hype in the British media about how it was going to wipe out all our oaks but it seems that the native oaks in Britain are immune. It does infect a range of woody plants and in Britain its most serious impact has been on larch, resulting in the clear-felling of many larch plantations before the value of the timber is lost. Rhododendron is a major host of Phytophthora and this has caused the Forestry Commission to make attempts to eradicate this pernicious weed which has caused so much damage to the wildlife value of many woodlands, especially in western Scotland. It is of course possible that Phytophthora might start to infect other tree species but on the basis of its effects so far - the clearance of non-native conifer plantations and Rhododendron - it is a disease which I welcome with open arms.

Charismatic megafauna

An update on the ants. As I feared, they weren't what I keyed them to. Never mind, too many species new to Skye in one day would just be greedy.

Tuesday dawned wet and windy, and with little prospect of improvement during the day. Sensible people would have found a nice sheltered woodland but we decided to test how good our waterproofs were on top of the Trotternish Ridge (in case you're interested, the answer was not very). The main reason for going up there was to look for the moss Sphagnum skyense which is virtually endemic to Skye. One of Britain's best bryologists lives just down the road but unfortunately was too busy to join us. He did give us the useful tip that unlike most Sphagnum species it does not grow in wet areas but on grassy ridges.

Shortly after leaving the car park we found some potential skyense but continued up the ridge looking for anything different. Going by the criteria in the book we got some samples that looked promising so, thoroughly soaked, we headed back to the car. Seth had something else for us to look for before we returned to the hotel however.

We drove to a secret site where he had been told there were Freshwater Pearl Mussels Margaritifera margaritifera. Sites for pearl mussels are usually kept strictly confidential due to illegal collecting and this species wasn't even on my radar. If we could get this it really would constitute charismatic megafauna - for this trip anyway. Seth had only tried this site once before and a combination of high river levels and dodgy directions meant that he had failed. Ten minutes or so of searching though and

Well chuffed, we headed back to the hotel to dry out and do some serious Sphagnum studying. Of the three books that we had, two don't cover S. skyense because it wasn't recognised as a separate species when they were written. That leaves the British Bryological Society book. This gives some information about similar species and we were able to conclude that at least some of our samples were not one of the main confusion species. The trouble was, nothing was said about how to separate it from one of the other species that, at least to us, looked very similar. It's a bit like telling you how to separate Ring-necked Duck from Scaup but making no mention of how it differs from Tufted Duck! Never mind, we'll use the Sphagnum key in the book. Or rather we won't because the key doesn't include skyense! So, would someone from the British Bryological Society care to explain what the point is of producing a key that doesn't include all of the species? Attempts to identify other mosses later in the week produced similar frustrations with this book. It looks impressive when viewed superficially but when it comes to serious use, not impressed. After a couple of hours of struggle we gave up and moved on to other things.

Sphagnum skyense? Probably not but we will never know
Seth squeezed a few drops of water from the Sphagnum sample and from those few drops I got seven new species! What? How? Freshwater algae, that's how. This was a whole new world to me and I love 'em. I don't have any photos but you can see some of the funky shapes you get in Seth's blog from last year. I was going to be saying that I'm considering getting the identification book but I am weak and earlier today I ordered it!

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Skye - Monday

My first full day on Skye but Seth had to work so I headed off to look for Purple Saxifrage Saxifraga oppositifolia as he didn't need to see it and it was the one flowering plant that should be looking its best at this time of year. I had a recommended 1km square, supplied by the County Recorder, so headed up the mountain towards some likely looking bare rocks. I hadn't quite bargained on how steep the ground would become and my fear of heights started to kick in. I sat down to contemplate my next move and spotted a sawfly crawling through the grass, then another one. I suspect they were Poodolerus aeneus as this is a spring species that I have found at high altitude before but I haven't had time to key it yet. Even given previous experience of this species, I was still stunned to find a sawfly at altitude at this time of year, especially as it was too cold for it to fly.

The only flowering plants I had seen so far were the Hazels at the base of the mountain.

Hazel flower
Given that, and the fact that I hadn't seen a hoverfly yet this year in southern England, I really wasn't expecting to get my first by sweeping along a little stream half way up a mountain on Skye but that is what happened. It was Melangyna lasiophthalma which we went on to find at several other sites during the week.

Melangyna lasiophthalma (Photo: S. Rae - Wikipedia Commons)
An indication of the level of under recording on Skye is that our records of this species during the week more than doubled the total number of records on the island ever according to the Hoverfly Recording Scheme.

Despite checking out loads of rock faces and scree I failed to find any Purple Saxifrage, although it was good to reacquaint myself with Fir Clubmoss Huperzia selago.

Fir Clubmoss
I headed down the mountain but as Seth was still working I stopped off at a river to look for stoneflies. One Leuctra hippopus on a fencepost by the river appears to be the second Skye record but I then swept the very common planthopper Empoasca vitis from some young conifers - new to Skye.

Empoasca vitis (Photo: Tristan Bantock www.britishbugs.org.uk )
Leaving the river to head back to Uig, I had a Flying Barn Door (aka White-tailed Eagle) over the car. Back at Uig we headed down to the woods where I added 13 new species; lichens, fungi, a snail and a liverwort. 

The lichen Pyrenula macrospora showing the black lines along the boundaries between the colonies.
Perhaps the best find of the day was still to come though. Seth had told me how rare ants were on Skye. I think he said he'd only seen ants once during his 15 months on the island - fairly amazing for someone who spends so much time turning over rocks, logs, etc. Walking back down the road behind the hotel, he turned over a rock and there were some ants. I took one specimen, it's a bit tricky to interpret the key with this one but if I'm right it will not only be new to Skye but only the third record for Scotland. I await verification or correction.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

In search of spring

So what do you do when you're fed up with this cold, late spring and you really want to get out and do some fieldwork. You go to the north of Skye because it's bound to be better up there right?

Never mind though because I was heading for Uig; world famous home of Seth, chief finder of things under rocks, micro-fungi the size of pinheads and other things that you can still find in arctic weather.

After 17 hours on the road with little more than two hours sleep, I was pretty wasted when I arrived but we went out for a couple of hours in Uig Woods anyway. I forgot to take my camera with me but I was awake enough to get 24 new species. The highlight for me was undoubtedly the Water Cricket Velia caprai, probably the species I most wanted to see in advance of the trip.

Velia caprai (Photo: S. Rae - Wikipedia Commons)
The Tree Lungwort Lobaria pulmonaria wasn't new for me but was impressive in its almost weed-like abundance on trees and anything else that stood still for long enough. I reckon if you sat sea-watching for long enough it would grow on your wellies.

Lobaria pulmonaria
We wandered down to the beach and amongst other things, found the ground beetle Aepus marinus. This has a bizarre lifestyle in that it lives under rocks on the beach that are submerged by the sea for several hours at high tide.

Aepus marinus (Photo: U. Schmidt - Wikipedia Commons)