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, 22 March 2016

The day I found out that I'm no badger

The geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane said that 'if he exists, god has an inordinate fondness for beetles', due to the fact that there are more species of beetles than any other group. I have never developed such a fondness, preferring moths, flies, true bugs, etc. and only really bothering to take beetles when there were few of my favoured groups around. I think that this was at least partly due to the relative lack of identification resources but that is improving and they are starting to grow on me.

Last night I was working through my large backlog of unidentified insects. Having slogged though keys for several hours, for the last specimen of the evening I thought I'd look for something a bit easier. A small red beetle caught my eye and under the microscope it had a distinctive net pattern on the wing cases and an oddly shaped thorax. This should be easy.

Scanning through Brock's insect guide led me to the family Lycidae - the net-winged beetles. There are only four species in this family and three are illustrated in Brock. Platycis minutus occurs in the south but that has an all-black thorax and yellow tips to the antennae. Brock states that Dictyoptera aurora is the only member of the family with the thorax red but that is confined to Caledonian pine forest and my specimen came from deciduous woodland in West Sussex! Now I know there is still much to be learnt about the ecology and distribution of many invertebrates but this seemed a stretch too far.

I resorted to Google to see if there was any variation in the appearance of any of the species but could find no matches so checked the Coleoptera checklist to find out what the name of the 4th species in the family was. This was Erotides cosnardi and bingo, that's the one. Further Googling revealed that this is a very rare (or at least rarely recorded) species but it is known from the Downs in West Sussex. I sent a picture to a proper Coleopterist to check that I'd got the identification right but couldn't resist further research into the small hours and by the time he replied today I was already convinced.

My thanks to Mark Telfer for sending me a copy of his report on Erotides cosnardi for the Species Recovery Trust, from which the following information is derived. The larvae of E. cosnardi develop in the white rot heartwood of Beech trunks, presumably large dead trees. There are only 11 verified records of the species in Britain, from the Wye Valley and the South Downs in West Sussex. My specimen was from a new site but within the wider landscape from which it had previously been recorded.

This is another important find resulting from the Pan-Species Listing approach. Would I have retained the specimen, resulting in discovery of a new site for this very rare species, if it hadn't been for PSL? Probably not. Some people are a bit sniffy about PSL, probably due to a misconception that it is all about twitching, rather then the reality that for most people it is about improving your natural history skills. This approach has already resulted in the discovery of at least one new species to Britain and one new species to science. Hopefully such finds will convince the doubters of the value of PSL.

So why the blog title? The day that I found cosnardi I was taking habitat photographs for an imminent funding bid. It's quite a long walk from one end of the project area to the other and when I'd got all the images that I wanted I found myself on the wrong side of a deer fence which meant I had to walk in the wrong direction before I could start heading back. I spotted a place where Badgers had pushed up the bottom of the deer fence and decided that I could squeeze through there and take a short cut back. I'll leave the rest of the story to your imagination.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

A star lily

It's not often that I get a whole weekend with no commitments but, partly as a result of the continued awful weather, that was the situation this weekend. So what to do at this time of year? Well I could (and probably should) have spent the weekend staring down a microscope at my backlog of unidentified insects but I'd much sooner get out in the field and there is a plant that is flowering at the moment that I have wanted to see for quite a while. No contest.

The Early Star-of-Bethlehem (aka Radnor Lily - the name that I prefer) Gagea bohemica is only found in Britain at a single site, Stanner Rocks NNR in Radnorshire. I have a particular affection for Radnorshire, having visited many times when a friend worked for the Wildlife Trust there, and have driven past Stanner Rocks on a number of occasions. However, Stanner Rocks is a closed reserve. Normally this would be sufficient encouragement for me to trespass but in this case there are genuine reasons for restricted access as there are a number of rare plants, mosses and lichens which could be damaged by an ill-informed footstep.

Having decided during the week that I wanted to visit to look for the Radnor Lily, the question was whether I could obtain permission and instructions in time. Fortunately I know someone who visited last year so I asked her if she could put me in touch with the right person to ask. This she kindly did, and her contact was immensely helpful, providing lots of detailed information about where and how to find the lily without causing damage as well as lots of other information about interesting species on the reserve.

So I made a 4 am start to avoid the traffic and hopefully get there before the predicted poor weather. This proved to be a good choice as it was already blowing a gale and spitting with rain when I arrived (and the weather as I drove home was atrocious).

There are only two flowering Radnor Lilies in the accessible part of the reserve this year. One was very easy to find due to the directions provided and the fact that it was in a cage.

I was told that I could remove the cage to photograph the plant as long as I put it back afterwards. As predicted, it was a little past its best.

The other plant which was only found earlier this week was predicted to be in better condition so I was quite keen to see it. However it was in a more sensitive area and despite being provided with a photograph of the location with a big arrow pointing to where to look, I couldn't quite tie up the photograph with what I could see in front of me and I didn't want to go bumbling around the rocks causing all sorts of damage. Eventually I decided to have a quick, careful look and immediately stumbled upon the plant (not literally!). The flower wasn't fully open, perhaps due to the weather, but it complemented the first one nicely.

Most of the interesting species at Stanner Rocks at this time of year are lower plants and I was left feeling frustrated by my incompetence in this area. I did find what I believe to be the rare liverwort Riccia beyrichiana however.

A huge thank you to Megan and Andy for facilitating my visit and providing invaluable information.