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.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Feeling Blue

My last fieldwork of note in September was an end of season flora group bash in the New Forest. We split into four teams and each covered a 1km square within the same tetrad. As usual I learnt loads but when the teams reconvened I heard that one of the groups had seen lots of Greater Broomrape. I'm a big fan of broomrapes so I couldn't resist going and having a look before I joined the rest in the pub. Ok, so it was long-dead but I was still impressed and I'll definitely be putting a return visit into my diary for next summer. I can't help wondering why a parasite of Common Gorse is so rare?

On to the matter in hand. Perhaps the wildlife event of this autumn has been the large number of British-born Long-tailed Blues that there have been. I don't normally twitch butterflies, hence the fact that there are still a number of resident species which I haven't seen (including one that breeds within a few miles of my house). But when there is an 'event' like this, you feel that you ought to make the most of the opportunity. It was the same in the 'Yellow-winged Darter year' when I went to Dungeness to see them, even though I don't really 'do' dragonflies.

So on a Saturday in early October I travelled to the cement factory at Shoreham where Long-tailed Blues had been seen a couple of days previously. As was to be expected, the forecast was completely wrong and the sun never came out all day! It was warm enough for some insects to be active and I occupied myself with watching various species visiting the ivy blossom.

There were lots of Colletes hederae - this one obviously feeling as sick as I did! This species was first recorded in Britain in 2001 but it has rapidly spread throughout the south and is now a common visitor to ivy, especially near the coast. There were also lots of Eristalis hoverflies, mainly pertinax and tenax.

Eristalis sp. This one is probably pertinax.
There was a brief visit to the ivy by the impressive hoverfly Volucella zonaria - another species which is spreading rapidly at the moment.

A few other things that caught my eye were leaf mines caused by the fly Amauromyza verbasci

Galls caused by the aphid Cryptosiphum artemisiae

Larval cases of the micro-moth Coleophora argentula were common on the Yarrow seedheads.

On the way home I stopped in at Climping and found a larva of the Yarrow Pug which was new for me so I did get a Lepidopteran tick that day after all. Somehow it wasn't really compensation.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

A ladybird with too many legs

Many years ago I had to produce a leaflet about the management of a heathland site that I worked on. I wanted to include illustrations of a variety of heathland species and one of those that I chose was the Ladybird Spider. In the ignorance of youth (and before you could Google such things!) I had no idea that Ladybird Spiders only occurred on a single site in Dorset and that they had never set foot on the site that I was managing!

Ever since my error was pointed out to me I have had an ambition to actually see the real thing. Fortunately I have been working with someone who is involved with the Species Recovery Project on Ladybird Spiders so I asked if I could tag along when he next visited the site. It wasn't the best time of year to actually see the spiders as most were deep in their burrows preparing for winter but at least I would know what to look for in future.

I helped out with looking for, and marking, the nests which is easier said than done as many of the nests are very difficult to see. The picture below is of a particularly obvious one.

One way to find the nests is by finding the remains of prey items left outside. The commonest item found was the 'shell' of Violet Ground Beetles and I was seriously impressed that the spiders were taking on such a large, dangerous prey - and winning.

 Eventually I found a female outside her nest.

She is quite impressive but not a patch on the male but fortunately I at least got to see a male that was due to be released on one of the reintroduction sites later in the day.

The plastic container doesn't make for a good photo but I was well chuffed nevertheless!

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Wandering in the Weald

I had to visit several woods in the western Weald in late September. There was a purpose to my visits but it meant that I could just have a relaxed explore around the woods and look at whatever I saw. Several of the sites were places that I'd never visited before and I love exploring new places.

Among the new species that I came across were a fairly common plant; Small Balsam (still plenty of common plants that I've not seen), a sawfly; Croesus septentrionalis and the gall-causing fungus Taphrina tosquinetii.

Small Balsam
Croesus septentrionalis larvae feeding on Alder
The gall caused by Taphrina tosquinetii on Alder leaves
One of my favourite finds was the amazing parasitic fly Phasia hemiptera. This isn't a new species for me but it is one that I only see occasionally.

At a couple of sites I came across large numbers of the micro-moth Prochoreutis sehestediana. Prior to this year I had only seen this species once - a specimen so worn that I had to dissect it to even be able to tell which family it was in. I came across a few in the New Forest during their first flight period but at a couple of the Wealden sites they were really common. I suspect that they are having a good year but that I am also becoming more aware of how to find them.

Fungi seem to be really abundant this autumn but they are a group that I know virtually nothing about. I did however manage to identify the Porcelain Fungus Oudemansiella mucide which seemed to be on every piece of dead Beech that I came across.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Miscellaneous observations

Nearly a month behind so here are a few things of note from the end of September.

It's not often that I get to see a new macro-moth so when I heard that there were decent numbers of Bloxworth Snout being seen at Portchester Castle, I just had to give it a go. Arriving about an hour before it got dark, I thought I'd have to wait until it got dark and then wander round with a lamp but five minutes of tapping vegetation on the castle walls produced five Bloxworth Snout.

A trip to the New Forest to do some recording for the Hampshire plant atlas with the county recorder unsurprisingly produced many new plants for me. My favourite of the day was Pale Butterwort

and the rarest was Small Water-pepper, found on a patch of disturbed ground along the roadside (although I forgot to take a photo so the one below is some that we saw elsewhere two weeks later!).

Two years ago we released the larvae of the very rare Barberry Carpet on an estate in Hampshire as part of the Species Recovery Programme for the moth. Last year we searched for the larvae without success but Ian, the person who does the captive breeding, was keen to release some more. So we were back this year to see if they had bred successfully but we weren't holding out a lot of hope. As soon as we got to the hedge, I saw a female Brown Hairstreak searching for a site to lay her eggs - the first adult Brown Hairstreak I've seen for over 25 years!

A great start but after having beaten all the planted Barberry bushes, the only larvae we had found were Barberry Sawfly - a recent colonist. One of these larvae hatched out today so hopefully I'll get a photo tomorrow. We went to beat the one remaining bush - a monster of a bush that was apparently planted by the estate owners great grandmother. Most of the foliage is out of reach but we beat what we could. Again, no joy but while Ian was distracted I continued to stare at his beating tray and amongst the debris I spotted a tiny Geometrid caterpillar about 2mm long. I asked what he thought but it was too small to tell what it was so he took it away to see what it turned into.

Time passes and Ian was able to confirm that it was indeed a Barberry Carpet so he returned to the site and was able to find larvae on several of the planted bushes. Clearly this colony is several weeks behind most of the others and we have to wonder if we had looked later last year, would we have found that the initial release was a success?

The Barberry Carpet larva after it had grown a bit! 

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Back to primary school

Well that's the last time that I went rock pooling anyway. So when I saw an opportunity in the Southampton Natural History Society programme I was quite excited. Images sprang to mind of a hot, sunny day, pottering about in rock pools with my net, catching all manner of weird and wonderful fish and crabs.

But hang on a minute, there aren't any rock pools near Southampton, it's all mud or concrete! In fact I cannot think of any rock pools anywhere in Hampshire. Nevertheless a small group assembled at Calshot spit in cold, cloudy weather at what looked to me like high tide! After wandering along the shore looking at various plants, the tide eventually began to drop. There weren't any rock pools but there were a few pools and a few rocks! I didn't count everything that we saw by any means but I did manage to get 30 new species. Some of those where the photo's didn't come out too badly were:
Grey Top Shell Gibbula cineraria - quite common near the high tide mark.

Long-legged Spider Crab Macropodia rostrata. I'd never even heard of spider crabs before and I found them really fascinating. They are difficult to identify but fortunately a lady from the Southampton Oceanography Centre turned up and was able to confirm the species.

Sand Goby Pomatoschistus minutus.

The hermit crab Pagurus bernhardus - the photo doesn't do it justice.

Leathery Sea-squirt Styela clava - rather gross but also rather cool.

Blenny Lipophrys pholis - probably my favourite creature of the day.

So it wasn't quite the afternoon that I had imagined but it was good fun, and interesting to see what lived on a rather nondescript beach. Next year I must pick a hot, sunny afternoon and visit some real rock pools.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Pointless twitching?

I'm not a great fan of twitching. At least, not twitching as most people think of it - hundreds of birders trashing a place and taking no notice of anything else in order to just tick something off a list.

Pan-species twitching is somewhat different. Firstly, the number of people taking part rarely, if ever, reaches double figures so there is hopefully no damage to habitat or non-target species. Perhaps more importantly, most participants treat it as part of a learning process which will improve their biological recording skills. Even if that isn't the case in a specific instance, I think a bit of twitching for pure enjoyment is justified if you make a positive contribution to conservation in other ways.

So, having tried to justify my 'pointless' twitching, here is what I saw during a couple of recent sessions! A trip to north Hampshire in mid-September produced the hoped-for Copse Bindweed.

The plants are located on a non-descript roadside bank and it is hard to comprehend why it is such a rare species.

A few days later I teamed up with a friend for a mega-twitch around south-east England. We started off at Box Hill where my friend wanted to see the rare micro-moth Phyllonorycter scabiosella and the formerly rare (but now spreading rapidly) Box Bug Gonocerus acuteangulatus. Having successfully completed that mission, we moved to Epsom where there is a colony of Fire Bugs Pyrrhocoris apterus along a footpath next to an industrial estate. A few adults and many larvae were found in one very small area.

To keep the diversity of taxonomic groups going, we travelled further east in Surrey to try for the Hop-garden Earwig Apterygida media. My friend had dipped this species at the site before (possibly the only person ever to dip on an earwig!) but we quickly beat several individuals from the hedgerow.

Things were running so smoothly that we had some spare time before our next 'appointment' so we decided to try for Saltmarsh Goosefoot. We didn't have any specific locations to try, just a tetrad map that pointed towards the north Kent marshes being a good area. We decided to have a try at Elmley RSPB reserve as we at least knew that there was public access there. After checking a couple of places without success, we came to a cattle trampled ditch with bare mud that looked a plausible site. Sure enough there it was, together with the similar Red Goosefoot for comparison.

Red Goosefoot (left) and Saltmarsh Goosefoot
Still no dips by early evening and the pressure was on me as the next two targets were species that I had promised to my friend. First stop was on the Medway to look for Marsh Mallow Moth. I helped my friend set up his trap at the well-known site then headed off to a lesser known site a few miles away to try dusking for the species there. I found two individuals fairly quickly and texted my friend to see how he was getting on - no luck so far, oh no, what do I do now? Relief came quickly with another text saying that he'd got one. By the time I got back he'd seen at least four plus a Hop-garden Earwig!

Marsh Mallow Moth - not the most stunning species!
Next came a long drive, followed by a long walk to a 'secret' site for the legally protected Fisher's Estuarine Moth. As this species is on Schedule 5 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act, it is an offence to 'disturb' it. We searched the foodplant by torchlight and easily found two adults, neither of which were 'disturbed' - both sat quietly where we found them whilst we took our photo's. The use of flash doesn't create a good effect with moths but there's no option to take this species away to photograph in daylight.

The final twitch of the day took us to Sheerness docks where we hoped to see a stunning creature. We arrived around midnight and spent over an hour searching the dock walls without a sniff of our target. Just as we were losing hope and the rain was starting to fall, my friend spotted one hidden in a crack in the wall. Ok so we'd seen it but it wasn't very satisfactory. Very quickly we found two more but they were also hiding in the cracks, then finally......

Yellow-tailed Scorpion

Finally arrived home well after 4am. So, pointless twitching? Not for me, one of the most enjoyable days natural history that I've had.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Norfolk bound

More catching up. In early September I called in to the New Forest on my way back from Dorset to twitch one of the Forest's speciality plants; Small Fleabane. It turned out that the best site for the plant was a site that I had walked round during a winter survey for the BTO's bird atlas and I'd thought at the time how awfully overgrazed - indeed trashed - it was. Well that's just what Small Fleabane needs, further evidence if it were needed that it is dangerous to assess the value of a site without considering all taxonomic groups.

In early September I went to Norfolk for a couple of days. The main purpose of the visit was to meet up with an RSPB researcher who is looking at Redshank breeding on saltmarshes in East Anglia. My job was to show him how to look for the larvae of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan moth Scarce Pug so that he could keep an eye open for it during his work. Scarce Pug larvae feed on Sea Wormwood and in recent years it has only been found on the NW Norfolk coast and at one site in Lincolnshire. The larvae are quite well camouflaged and when you find one you often notice several others in the same area that you completely overlooked.

We found good numbers of larvae at both sites visited and hopefully the RSPB researcher will extend our knowledge of known sites. Whilst surveying for Scarce Pug I always keep an eye open for the larval cases of the Nationally Scarce Coleophora artemisiella which is found on Sea Wormwood at the same time. Normally I find C. artemisiella larvae in much greater numbers than Scarce Pug but this year was the exact opposite. Presumably the earlier flight period of adult artemisiella fell before the weather improved this summer and resulted in low productivity.

Whilst surveying at Titchwell RSPB reserve I saw Common, Lax-flowered, Rock and Matted Sea-Lavenders within a few metres of each other which was very useful for sussing out the differences. The latter two species were both new to me and Matted Sea-Lavender is only found in Norfolk and Lincolnshire.

Matted Sea-Lavender
There is a great swath of Prickly Saltwort along the seaward side of the dunes at Titchwell which I don't remember seeing before. It was probably there all along but overlooked due to my botanical ineptitude!

Prickly Saltwort is the larval foodplant of the Nationally Scarce pyralid moth Gymnancyla canella and sure enough there were loads of larval spinnings (the larvae feed within the shoot in the early stages so the spinnings are the only evidence of their presence).

Potentially of more interest were several Noctuid moth larvae that were feeding on the plants. The only Noctuid that is recording on this foodplant in Britain is Sand Dart and it clearly was that - apart from anything else, Sand Dart feeds on the roots!

Consultation with a couple of experts has come up with the suggestion of Bordered Straw although neither were sure. If they are Bordered Straw then it would be a previously unknown foodplant. I now have a pupa in my kitchen so hopefully I'll find out soon!

That evening I ran a moth trap in the Brecks. It was too late in the year to get any of the Brecks specialities that I've not seen before but it was a productive night, the highlights being 3 Lunar Yellow Underwing and several Square-spotted Clay. The main reason for visiting the Brecks was to see some excellent work that a colleague has been doing to create bare ground to encourage rare, moths, plants, etc. It wasn't the best time of year to look at the sites but I did see Spanish Catchfly in poor light on the first evening. When I returned the next day to photograph it, I couldn't find any! One of the larger experimental plots had three pairs of Stone Curlews nesting on it this year. Hopefully I'll get the chance to revisit next summer.