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 November 2015

A very rare hopper

I rarely feature invertebrates on this blog apart from fairly big stuff that can be identified in the field. Part of the reason for this is that my microscope camera (which it took two years to get the supplier to send me all the bits to make it work!) doesn't work with Windows 8.

Last week a friend recommended the Eyecam, sold by Brunel Microscopes. At under £60, I decided to take the plunge and ordered one on Wednesday evening. It arrived first thing on Friday which was a nice contrast with the previous company. I haven't had the time (or inclination) to read the instructions yet but just using the basic settings I took the following image of this hopper.

Idiodonus cruentatus
This was swept from a fairly nondescript area of damp heathland in the New Forest in August and I was able to get the identity confirmed at the BENHS hoppers workshop on Saturday. The rather aged key to hoppers doesn't suggest that it is anything special, describing it as local, but the national recording scheme organiser tells me that he only aware of three other records since 1980 and considers it the most declined hopper species in the country.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The James Bond lichen

I joined a Flora Group meeting in Portsmouth which was aimed mainly at recording alien escapes but we started off with a scarce native; Slender Hare's-ear Bupleurum tenuissimum. This is an umbellifer but it doesn't look at all like one, at least superficially. According to my records I have seen this species before but I have no recollection of doing so.

Slender Hare's-ear
Next was a species that is normally thought to be introduced, except in west Cornwall; Bermuda-grass Cynodon dactylon. However, expert opinion is that it is also native on the Isle of Wight and that this Portsmouth colony could also be native.

A slight diversion was made to the world of lower plants when we were shown the Golden-eye Lichen Teloschistes chrysophthalmus. This was a mega-rarity, having not been seen in the area for over 100 years but it now appears to be spreading rapidly on the coast of central southern England. It has also been spreading in Brittany. Presumably it has recolonised from the continent but the fact that it has reappeared in the same area that it was known from in the 19th century is interesting, could it have hung on in Britain unnoticed for all that time?

Teloschistes chrysophthalmus
On the same bush was a lichen that I had not seen before; Physcia stellaris. This appears to be quite scarce in southern and eastern England but is fairly common elsewhere.

Physcia stellaris
A brief lesson in bramble identification produced a new species for me in the form of Rubus tuberculatus. One member of the Flora Group is working on a web site for identifying brambles which will hopefully make them more accessible in due course.

We then reverted to looking at alien plants. This provided me with a number of new species such as Grape-vine Vitis vinifera and Chinese Mugwort Artemisia verlotiorum but I cannot say that such ticks give me much satisfaction.

Chinese Mugwort

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Aliens on the island

A friend wanted to see the stick insect Bacillus rossius which occurs on Hayling Island so I arranged to show him where I had seen it in previous years. He couldn't make it till lunchtime so in the morning I went to the east coast of the island. I wanted to look for Dwarf Eelgrass Zostera noltei which I have not seen before. The usual traffic chaos held me up and the tide was rising rapidly when I arrived but I had a fairly precise grid reference so I was able to find the plant quite quickly - a good thing as another 15 minutes or so and it would have been in water over wellie depth.

Dwarf Eelgrass with close-up of leaf showing notched tip
Another thing that I wanted to do whilst at this site was to look for the larval cases of Coleophora aestuariella and C. deviella on Annual Sea-blite. A friend and I found both these species new to Hampshire back in 1996 but I have never been back to look for them since. I found C. aestuariella quite quickly but a search throughout the area of our original find produced no deviella cases. By coincidence, the friend with whom I made the original find, also visited the site a couple of days later and had the same results. It is of some concern that neither of us could refind deviella but it was much scarcer than aestuariella in 1996 and it is to be hoped that it can be refound in future years.

Coleophora aestuariella larval case
 I went off to meet my friend but he was running late so I had a look for the alien escape Cock's-eggs Salpichroa origanifolia which is well known in the area. I saw a likely looking patch of plants and headed towards it but before I got there I almost trod on another garden escape which I had not seen before; Pink-sorrel Oxalis articulata.

My friend had now arrived and we spent some time searching the bramble patches around the beach huts for the stick insect. Sadly there were none to be found, with a few Knot Grass Acronicta rumicis larvae being the only herbivores seen.

Knot Grass larva
We moved to Sandy Point where I was able to show my friend the scarce Sea Knotgrass Polygonum maritimum.
Sea Knotgrass
 Despite having been in this area on numerous occasions, I had never previously noticed that there was a Monterey Cypress Cupressus macrocarpa sapling just a few metres away. Having found one, we then proceeded to find several more. It's amazing how blind you can be.

Monterey Cypress sapling
Finally we walked down to Black Point where we found several Spanish Broom Spartium junceum bushes, another alien plant that I have not seen previously.

Spanish Broom

Friday, 6 November 2015

Earwig bum-face

Back in late September I collected some Horse Chestnut leaves which contained lots of mines created by the micro-moth Cameraria ohridella. The aim was to see what parasites emerged from the mines so I placed the leaves in a clear plastic bag. The first thing to appear in the bag was not a parasite but I had no idea what it was. In retrospect I really should have known, or at least been able to work it out, but sometimes neither brain cell is working and after searching the internet for some time I resorted to posting an image in the Pan-species Listing Facebook group, asking if anyone knew what this strange thing with an earwig's bum stuck on it's face was.

From the flood of responses it was clear that everybody apart from me knew that it was a lacewing larva. One correspondent stated that it was one of the brown lacewings as the green ones don't have the assorted detritus on their back.

The following day I went to look for a new plant for me, and this time I could identify it. There were a number of Henbane plants growing in a game cover strip in an arable field near Up Marden. I managed to squeeze records from two tetrads.

At the weekend I went out with a local fungus group to Witley Common in Surrey. It was by far the most productive fungus meeting I have been to and there was really too much going on to keep up with all the finds but I did manage to see a number of new species, a couple of which were the Redspored Dapperling Melanophyllum haematospermum with it's characteristic reddish gills

Melanophyllum haematospermum
and the Stinking Earthfan Thelephora palmata which reputedly has a 'repulsive smell of putrid garlic'. After my experience with Stinking Goosefoot earlier this year, I decided not to test this description.

Thelephora palmata
On the way home I stopped in at a heath in north Hampshire to look for the St Dabeoc's Heath Daboecia cantabrica. As a native in the British Isles it is only known from two counties in southern Ireland but it is occasionally found as an escape / introduction in southern England. Although it was only recently discovered at this site, I suspect that it may have originally got there during the second world war when there was considerable military activity on the site, with much planting of alien species around buildings, etc.

St Dabeoc's Heath

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Entering the Lyons Den

One of my favourite wildlife blogs (albeit almost as quiet as this one in recent times) is The Lyons Den, written by a Sussex ecologist. Today we entered Lyon country in the hope of catching up with one of the Sussex-bred Long-tailed Blues that has been emerging recently. I tried several times during the last Long-tailed Blue invasion but my only reward was a 'probable' at a range of about 20 metres that flew off, never to be seen again. During the last invasion I spent a lot of time staring at Broad-leaved Everlasting-pea at the derelict Shoreham cement works so I was rather dismayed to be told by my local contact that this was the best place to try this time. A sense of deja vu quickly descended as the only butterflies to be seen were a couple of Speckled Wood. My contact was racing around various sites where he had seen the butterfly but was having a similar level of success.

Just when it all seemed futile, a message came through saying 'get yourself to Southwick Basin asap'. My contact had not only found one but he kept his shadow over it so that it didn't fly off before we got there.

Once the sun was allowed to fall on the butterfly, it opened its wings for a couple of minutes before flying and vanishing into thin air.

So a huge debt of thanks is owed to this person, not only for finding the butterfly but for having the presence of mind to keep it shaded long enough for us to see it.

Monday, 26 October 2015

A bunch of useless twonks

It's been a while since my last rant and my reader is keen that I have a go about this so.......

Back in 2013 I found the ichneumon wasp Lymantrichneumon disparis new to Britain. It was found on an RSPB reserve and they were keen to issue a press release about the find but I insisted that nothing was done before the discovery was properly published in a relevant journal. This took some time but the paper was eventually published a couple of months ago so I gave the RSPB the go-ahead to do the press release. They consulted me on the draft and I made a few changes so that it was factually correct. I put up with the cheesy quote attributed to me, even though it bore no relation to anything that I did or would say. It seems that all press releases have to have some sort of naff quote of this sort.

Neither I nor the RSPB expected the press release to be picked up by more than the odd local newspaper but it must have been a slow news week as it was used by at least 13 local and regional newspapers, plus two nationals; the Guardian and Express. I haven't looked at the local coverage but did look at the two nationals. Both reproduced the press release almost word for word but added little bits. The Guardian added that the site it was found at was in Kent (wrong) and that I am a butterfly collector (Seriously? What in the press release gave you that idea? Look at who I work for you ignorant prat). The Express went a little bit further and their accompanying pictures and captions are just so hysterical that it is worth having a look. I will of course now be carrying out all fieldwork wearing a 1950's suit and will start hunting for rare butterflies over the sea.

I suppose I shouldn't have expected any better as the standard of the British media is so awful these days but when the topic is something so innocuous, with no political connotations that certain sections of the media would want to put their right- or left-wing slant on, one has to question how they can make such a mess of the article. This isn't just an isolated incident as I see it every time I have any involvement with a press release.

So, one has to pose a question. What is the point of journalists? If they had just copied and pasted the press release it would have been accurate and would have conveyed to the readers all the information that was in the final article. All that the journalist has added is some nonsense about me collecting butterflies - despite the fact that the press release says that I was undertaking moth monitoring (of larvae as it happens) and that I was working for Butterfly Conservation. How did they take those pieces of information and come up with the claim that I was a butterfly collector? Presumably they had to read the press release so the only conclusion is that they have such a poor understanding of the subject that the words 'butterfly' and 'net' have only one meaning.

I cannot think of another profession (apart from politician) where such a level of incompetence would be tolerated.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Ahhh grasshopper

I've never really been very interested in Orthoptera. It's a small group so theoretically not much of a challenge but the identification criteria for a lot of species always seem to be a bit vague and comparative. This is all well and good when you're familiar with them but not much help to a beginner. Even the 'experts' seem to struggle with some species, I have a couple of cockroach specimens which are either Tawny or Dusky but I've shown them to various people and no-one has been able to definitively identify them.

Despite this I have managed to pick off most of the common species over the years, but Stripe-winged Grasshopper had eluded me. The opportunity of a meeting near Dorking on a warm, sunny day encouraged me to pay a visit to Box Hill. The grasshopper was very easy to find (although not a very cooperative photographic subject) but there was little else of interest on the slopes.

Stripe-winged Grasshopper
Back at the Zigzag car park I noticed a couple of groups of an unfamiliar plant. It really should have been easy to identify as the leaf-shape was very distinctive but the flower wasn't right. Eventually it was resolved as Buckwheat but I maintain that the picture in the Collins guide is very unhelpful. Buckwheat is a member of the sorrel family and they illustrate very sorrel-like flowers, not at all like this:

A quick stop in at Chiddingfold Forest produced little of note apart from the larval case of the moth Coleophora discordella on Common Bird's-foot Trefoil. This is not a rare species but I've only found it in the larval stage on a couple of occasions.

Coleophora discordella
There has been news recently from Dungeness of two very unusual Orthopterans. The Sickle-bearing Bush-cricket which was resident for a while at Hastings and the Italian Tree Cricket which has not previously been recorded breeding in Britain as far as I know. I had a couple of work related things to do in Kent so an evening visit to Dungeness seemed in order. I had fairly detailed info on where to look for the Italian Tree Crickets but the best chance of them was when they start singing at dusk. I did have a grid reference for the Sickle-bearers but it was worked out from aerial photo's rather than being taken at the time. I spent some time looking for these without success, a couple of hoppers and an interesting looking beetle may be new for me when I get them identified but the only new species for me by dusk was New Zealand Spinach - a plant so boring I am not going to post a photo.

As dusk fell the Italian Tree Crickets started to sing. It was really rather bizarre to be standing at Dungeness in a cold wind, listening to noises that would not be out of place in the tropics. There were a good couple of dozens crickets singing but actually seeing one was proving to be rather difficult as most were hidden deep in brambles. I did get one brief view but the photo's that I took were all horribly out of focus. At this point the warden of Dungeness Bird Observatory arrived and he kindly took me to see the Sickle-bearing Bush-crickets (well, cricket singular while I was there). It turned out that the grid reference I'd been given was a good 100m+ out.

Male Sickle-bearing Bush-cricket
  I returned to the tree cricket area and eventually they became more cooperative (or I became better at finding them).

Italian Tree Cricket
Also of Orthopteran note was a mating pair of Lesser Cockroach.

Mating Lesser Cockroach

Friday, 25 September 2015

The (re)awakening

It's about time Gilbert put in a reappearance, if only to stop his brother from nagging him. I'll backtrack a couple of weeks so that I have a few posts lined up.

I've been aware of the presence of Wild Clary in Emsworth for some time but have only made one previous attempt to find it. This was after a period of drought and I could find no sign, so news that it was flowering again prompted me to call in. The site is a road verge in a residential area and a 'wildflower verge' has been designated to that the area is (theoretically) not mown repeatedly during the summer. Of course, the clary ignores the designated section and grows out of the mown verge further down.
Wild Clary with scenic kerb in background
My colleague had found a couple of plants near our new office that he wanted my opinion on. Yes, bizarre as it may seem, someone actually asked me about plant identification. One of the things he wanted to show me was an amaranth growing on an area of dumped soil. This was too immature to be identified at present but in the same area we found half a dozen specimens of a mysterious goosefoot. It looked like Nettle-leaved but that is far too rare so surely it couldn't be. I took a small piece to examine closely at home but that still pointed to Nettle-leaved. I returned a couple of days later to get some photo's which were sent to the county recorder and he confirmed that our identification was correct and that it was the first record in vice-county 12 for 31 years.

Nettle-leaved Goosefoot
On the way back to our office we found several enormous fungi. These were Giant Puffballs. It is not a rare species but I have never seen it before. Giant Puffballs can weigh as much as 5kg!

Giant Puffball

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Lung relief

My reader claims that there is actually a second person who reads this nonsense and that that person has been complaining about the absence of postings. So for their benefit here's something that I got up to in April.

One rainy day I decided that I had to get out of the house and Narrow-leaved Lungwort was calling me so I researched a couple of sites with recent records and headed off to the New Forest. The Collins Guide claims that they have basal leaves up to 60cm long in autumn so I reasoned that even if it wasn't in flower yet, I'd be able to find the plants.

After scouring two sites and the surrounding areas throughout the afternoon with just a single Brambling to provide some interest, I had to admit defeat.

The following week I was back in the Forest looking for the first Wood Warblers of the year. No luck there but I had a chat with a guy who, it turns out, is a very active naturalist in the Forest (but like many of the best naturalists, tends to keep himself to himself). He mentioned that he had seen Narrow-leaved Lungwort in flower in the same wood I had visited the week before and gave me some directions but I've got a head like a sieve so no chance of remembering where to go.

I spent a couple of hours freezing my nuts off, trying (and failing) to find a Stonechat nest and decided that I needed to do something more active to warm up so I might as well go and have another crack at the lungwort. Despite my very vague recollection of the directions I soon found a dozen or so by the edge of a track.

Narrow-leaved Lungwort is a rare species, being confined to the New Forest and the Isle of Wight. In the Forest at least, it seems to be declining quite badly for reasons that are not immediately apparent. I am left with one question: where the **** are the 60cm basal leaves Collins?

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The disappointment of the shiny black slag, and other stories

The Easter weekend provided a rare opportunity - a day with no commitments when I could do absolutely anything I wanted. Rather than spend the day locally I thought I'd take advantage of the chance to go somewhere further afield. But where could I go so early in the year where there would be interesting things to see? For no reason other than the fact that I'd noticed that Bristol Rock-cress was flowering at this time of year, I decided upon the Avon Gorge. I mentioned the plan to the Sussex posse and they were all up for it.

Warm sunshine greeted us upon our arrival at Durdham Down and one of the first things that we saw was a Hummingbird Hawk-moth. Before the trip, one of my friends had asked if there was any chance of seeing any of the rare whitebeams that occur in the Avon Gorge. I rather scathingly replied 'only if they've got labels on as they won't be identifiable without leaves'. So what do we find? Yep, the whitebeams had got labels on! The first one we looked at was the critically endangered Sorbus wilmottiana although all the subsequent ones were just Common Whitebeam.

While we were still trying to work out whether we were in the right spot, we came across a number of flowering Bristol Rock-cress.

Bristol Rock-cress Arabis scabra
In true pan-species style, we recorded a number of other species across a range of taxonomic groups that were new to one or more of the group, including the Nationally Scarce Lygaeid bug Rhyparochromus pini, the ant Temnothorax nylanderi, the pill woodlouse Armadillidium depressum, the moth Mompha miscella (larva mining the leaves of Common Rock-rose), Dwarf Mouse-ear, the rust Phragmidium sanguisorbae which is found on Salad Burnet and the galls on Red Valerian that are caused by the psyllid Trioza centranthi. It was also good to see the Dotted Bee-fly Bombylius discolor.

Dwarf Mouse-ear Cerastium pumilum
At lunch we decided to move on to another site. We had info on various (mainly non-native) plants that we all needed but the vote went to the Snake's-head Iris Hermodactylus tuberosus so we headed off to Sand Point. Whoever named this site needs to check the particle size of the soil here. Sand? What sand? Try Mud Point. We found the iris easily enough but it had finished flowering so we decided to head down to the point to see if there were any decent rock pools. There weren't but we did find Common Scurvygrass on the way.

Common Scurvygrass Cochlearia officinalis
The site didn't hold anything to inspire us so we decided to head off to a final site. On the way back from Sand Point we stopped for a mystery plant that we'd seen from the car on the way in. This proved to be Spring Starflower and we also picked up Sweet Alison Lobularia maritima at this stop.

Spring Starflower Tristagma uniflorum
Our final destination was a former lead mine where the target was Alpine Penny-cress Noccaea caerulescens. The directions told us to walk up from the car park and look for the shiny black slag from the old lead workings. We found this easily enough but the predicted 'plenty' of Alpine Penny-cress eluded us.

The shiny black slag, not looking very shiny in this photo
Nevertheless, a great day out to kick off the field season with some great company and some good cracks.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

The road to 5000

At the end of 2014 my Pan-species list stood at 4881 species. Over the winter it crept up slowly as I worked through insect specimens from last (and previous) years and added the odd moss or fungus. This left me a few 10's short of the 5000 mark. The start of the new field season meant it was all systems go to hit the magic number.

The first excursion was to Ambersham Common with a couple of friends, one of whom specialises in groups such as spiders that I know little about. This inevitably resulted in quite a few new species, the best spider being the Red Data Book Uloborus walckenaerius.

One of the most interesting finds of the day though was of these galls on a Scot's Pine.

These are caused by the mite Trisetacus pini. I have spent a lot of time on heaths over the years and have never seen these before but this one tree was riddled with them.

The next trip was a Shoresearch event run by Sussex Wildlife Trust at Beachy Head on one of the lowest tides in decades. I have done very little marine stuff so new species a plenty were in order. There is still a major shortage of identification literature on marine species though so quite a few finds remained nameless, or at least could not be named with absolute certainty. Despite that, it was great to see loads of new things.

Butterfish Pholis gunnellus
The Green Paddle-worm looks like a massive green millipede.
Green Paddle-worm Eulalia viridis
Green Sea-urchin Psammechinus miliaris 
Long-spined Sea-scorpion Taurulus bubalis - not a new species but so ugly I just had to include a photo
a Sea-fir Dynamena pumila
Sea-firs are related to corals, sea anemones and jellyfish and this species is widespread and common around the coast of Britain, although seemingly scarce in the south-east.

Squat Lobster Galathea squamifera
I presume that I can still count this, even though a big chunk of it was missing!

Velvet Swimming Crab Necora puber - stunning and vicious! 
Finally, the commonest fish of the day was the Tompot Blenny. I feel a bit bad about this as it is one of the most-wanted species of the person who told me about the Shoresearch event - and he wasn't there.

Tompot Blenny Parablennius gattorugine
A few more insects from last year and a couple of fungi courtesy of Penny at the Knepp Estate left me on 4999 the day before a work trip to the Isle of Wight. I haven't been to the IoW for about 30 years and to be honest I won't be in a rush to get back, but it did give me the chance to get number 5000 from a taxonomic group that you probably wouldn't expect at this time of year.

Glanville Fritillary larvae
Four hours stuck on the motorway on the way home meant that I wasn't in much of a mood to celebrate but I've made it. Here's to the next 5000.