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Confessions of a pan-species lister …

Why do I want to see a big list of species and what makes me think other people might also want to be pan-species listers? I’ve had to think hard about the answers to these questions in recent months following the Twat-gate affair and various thought-provoking and satirical blogs from the North Downs and beyond.

I get a thrill every time I see a species for the first time: it’s a tick! It’s a unique and unrepeatable moment, whether you go on to become intimately familiar with the species or never see one again, the first encounter is usually the most memorable.

8th June 2008

I have to identify the things I see. I know there are naturalists who can appreciate wildlife without feeling the need to identify it. And I admire those who can enjoy nature for its purely aesthetic appeal. I try to do this when I’m abroad, where I’ve little hope of being able to identify everything, but not very successfully. For me, identifying wildlife is as much of a buzz as seeing it, if not more so.

I love making discoveries. So I’m always keen to be out looking for wildlife and keen to scrutinise what I find to check for anything unusual. I’ve discovered 5 beetles new to Britain so far. One of these (Acupalpus maculatus) had already been collected on several occasions but everyone had overlooked it as A. parvulus, assuming that they’d found a species already on the British list. Even in my utterly unremarkable back garden, I have discovered numerous beetles new to Bedfordshire.

Acupalpus maculatus by John Read

With pan-species listing, I’ve found a way of enjoying the thrill of seeing things for the first time, of making discoveries and finding rarities. In some ways it’s the opposite of twitching. I don’t have to chase after anything: I can just go out in the field locally whenever I like and be sure that I will see something I’ve never seen before! Despite a certain nostalgia about twitching birds in the 80s, I’m mightily glad to be able to get my nat hist kicks much closer to home now. And at the same time, most importantly of all, I can make a contribution to conservation and to the promotion of natural history.

All-round naturalists are important. There are about 70,000 species in Britain and most are poorly-known and poorly-recorded. Lots of birders in recent years have been spreading their interests into butterflies, dragonflies, moths, orchids, cetaceans and many other groups, generating lots of valuable records. I think it would be a terrific boost to natural history and conservation if this trend continues into ever more neglected groups of British wildlife. I have entered all 50,000+ of my invertebrate records into my MapMate database, all of which I make available to national recording schemes, county records centres, etc.

I was interested in wildlife from a young age but, like most keen naturalists, it was birds that first got me really fired up. I used to love everything about twitching: ringing the grapevine, driving through the night, service stations at 3 am full of familiar faces, dawn in some new and distant part of the country, once-in-a-lifetime birds from Siberia or North America. I’ve hitched to many parts of Britain for birds including Shetland and Scilly, and for a while in the 80s I didn’t miss much. But to be a good twitcher you need commitment, deep pockets and a flexible lifestyle. I am not a good twitcher but twitching has given me some great experiences (and still occasionally does!). It was a brilliant gateway into nat hist for me and a superb training ground for developing rigorous ID skills. But I really wish I’d cottoned on to the rest of biodiversity at a younger age. I didn’t identify a single beetle until I was 22!

Conservation in Britain is a democracy. For much of the early part of the 20th century it was a two-party system and many of our NNRs, SSSIs and Wildlife Trust reserves are primarily of botanical interest. But in recent decades, the ruling party has been the birdwatchers. They do their best to cater for other wildlife but inevitably birds come first. Ultimately, the more people in this country who care about each and every species of British invertebrate, the more chance we have of conserving them and their habitats. And they need all the help they can get.

I wish I’d been born to be the next David Attenborough. I wasn’t, but if I can help a few more people to get more enjoyment out of Britain’s wildlife and to put more back in, I will be a happy man.

Lundy invertebrates: Britain’s little Galapagos

Lundy has been described as Britain’s Galapagos in miniature. Lundy Cabbage Coincya wrightii has evolved here in isolation to become one of Britain’s few endemic plants. Lundy Cabbage in turn supports the endemic Bronze Lundy Cabbage Flea-beetle Psylliodes luridipennis and two other beetles of uncertain taxonomic status: Lundy Cabbage Weevil, a pale-legged form (form pallipes) of the weevil Ceutorhynchus contractus, and Blue Lundy Cabbage Flea-beetle, a flightless variety of Psylliodes napi (Compton, Key and Key, 2002).

Lundy and its Cabbage

Before leaving Lundy on the afternoon sailing of the MS Oldenburg on 7th May, I spent a few hours searching for invertebrates in Millcombe Valley. I concentrated on the beetles associated with Lundy Cabbage, mostly by tapping plants over a tray. The Lundy Cabbage Weevil was abundant with several in every tap-sample. Flea-beetles were a different story and it took over half an hour to find the first one. I eventually found a total of 6 flea-beetles and although at the time I thought, disappointingly, they were all Blue LCFb’s, there were actually three of each. In the field the two Flea-beetles are very similar but Bronze LCFb has a more bronze-green and less shining appearance, with paler antennae. A bit worrying to find so few Bronze LCFb’s but all three individuals were teneral so it is likely that the beetles will be more numerous later in the season.

Lundy Cabbage Weevil

Lundy has one other speciality beetle that I was keen to see: Melanophthalma distinguenda. Despite the ‘distinguenda’ name it is anything but distinguished – this is yet another little brown job from the Latridiidae family, associated with moulds and detritus. It has been known from Lundy since before 1931 and in 1995, A.J. Parsons discovered it further up the Bristol Channel on Steep Holm by examining loose gravel on a path. It is not known from anywhere else in Britain and its world range otherwise includes France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary and Italy. I didn’t hold out much hope of finding it, and hadn’t expected it to be associated with the Lundy Cabbage. But I found 6 by tapping Lundy Cabbage plants and by sieving litter from around their roots. It doesn’t appear to have been recorded from Lundy for more than 40 years!

A single Rose Chafer Cetonia aurata was nice to see and a short walk north along the coastal path revealed a few Green Tiger-beetles Cicindela campestris, including a mating pair.

Rose Chafer

mating Tigers

Compton, S.G., Key, R.S. and Key, R.J.D. (2002). Conserving our little Galapagos – Lundy, Lundy Cabbage and its beetles. British Wildlife, 13, 184 – 190.

Counting sheep and lack of sleep

Just back from four days on Lundy Island (4 – 7 May) as part of a team of 13 carrying out the National Trust’s annual mammal monitoring; counting Soay Sheep, Feral Goats and Sika Deer, and estimating Rabbit numbers by counting droppings in quadrats. This was my fourth visit to Lundy but the first since about 1990.

In the twenty years since, my attitude to alien or feral wildlife has changed. I have no recollection of seeing Soays or goats on any previous visit and I think I just regarded them as beneath contempt. But I was pleased to see them on this visit and admired them for getting on with their lives, thanks to and in spite of humans.

Soay Sheep ewe and lamb

Billy Goat

We had easterly or south-easterly winds throughout which held the promise of some good migrant birds. There wasn’t much time for actual birding but we saw three Pied Flycatchers, 1 Spotted Fly and a Tree Pipit on the first day (Wednesday), as well as a few Willow Warblers, Chiff-chaffs, Whitethroats and a Sedge Warbler. Cloud cover and showers on Thursday morning brought a few more migrants in: a Collared Dove looking lost on the barren north of the island, a couple of Swifts, 1 Yellow Wagtail, 1 White Wagtail and two Cuckoo’s including this exhausted female.

Female Cuckoo sheltering

On Friday in fair weather, there was a smart male Black Redstart at the north end, and pushing up through the tussock sedges in South Combe revealed several warblers: 1 Sedge, 2 Chiff, 2 Whitethroat, 1 Blackcap and a Grasshopper. This is birding Shetland-style! Pausing to shed a layer at the top of the combe I realised I was standing on some Small Adder’s-tongue Ophioglossum azoricum, only the second time I have seen this plant (17+ plants at SS 13320 47236).

Small Adder's-tongue

By mid-afternoon, I’d also seen 1 Whimbrel, a fly-over Hawfinch, 1 Yellow Wagtail, 1 White Wagtail and heard 2 Tree Pipits. And having finished all my mammal monitoring duties, I headed to Millcombe Valley with high expectations. I found nothing unusual in Millcombe but conditions were beautifully calm and sunny and I could see the sea was starting to glass over inshore, so headed to the clifftops near the Castle for a seawatch.

Seawatching was a good move. I concentrated on checking through the assembling rafts of Manx Shearwaters. I was quite impressed to see over 200 birds by 17.00 though up to 700 had been seen recently: still a tiny fraction of the estimated 5,000 breeding pairs that rat-free Lundy now supports. Also a distant Great Northern Diver and at least 5 Porpoises racing along the tidal rip. And then … a big whale, side on. It surfaced three times and each time I saw the arch of its body first, which then flattened out a bit and eventually the sickle-shaped dorsal fin followed through. Now I was half-expecting to see a Minke Whale but with Minkes you don’t have to wait that long for the dorsal fin to roll through. This was a big whale and, despite my own incredulity, it must have been a Fin Whale! I have seen dozens in Biscay and several off California but never expected to see one in British waters. Fin Whale is Britain’s (and the world’s) second largest mammal (after Blue Whale) and from my perch on the clifftops I could also hear Britain’s smallest squeaking in the grass: Pygmy Shrew!

Fin Whale

I dedicated the last day (Saturday 7th) to entomology, sampling the endemic Lundy Cabbage in Millcombe Valley and looking for its specialist beetles. A Wood Warbler sang from the trees all day but I didn’t go and look for it (if I had, I might have seen the male Golden Oriole which I only heard about once we were on the boat!).

And finally, yes I did hear the Little Shearwater. It called for about 15 minutes on the night of Wednesday 4th from 23.04. With the easterlies, the background noise from the wind and surf was very loud and, having been up since 02.00, I hit the sack soon after. Sadly, on the following night, the weather was no better and I didn’t hear the Little Shearwater at all from c. 23.30 to about midnight. And on the last night when I would have been able to stay out into the early hours, the beautiful weather that I’d been whale-watching in earlier broke down into a dramatic thunder storm. I took a drenching for the best part of an hour: the Manxies were still calling but I didn’t hear the Little. I had hoped that with three nights on the island I might be able to repeat Johnny Allan’s lucky sighting. But I’m lucky to have even heard it. Anyway, the experience of listening to the Manxies and seeing the occasional bird flap past in the starlight was really magical.

Heath Goldsmith

I’m still beetling, if not blogging very much in recent weeks. I had a great day out in the New Forest on 26th April where Jo and I met up with John Walters. The highlight for me was Carabus nitens or the Heath Goldsmith, surely Britain’s most beautiful carabid beetle. It’s also been my bogey carabid for several years – by far the commonest British carabid I’d never seen. I have looked for it on several previous occasions, or tried to. Richard Lyszkowski and I set out one night to go torching for it at a good spot Richard knows near Tyndrum in Scotland but we never made it: I hit a Red Deer at 60 and we were lucky the windscreen held. This trip almost ended in disaster too when the car lost power a few miles short of Lyndhurst. But it was just a loose turbo hose and half an hour and a new jubilee clip later we were sorted. Once we got to Stagbury Hill it took only a few minutes to find this male Carabus nitens under a loose sprig of heather.

Carabus nitens, the Heath Goldsmith

Youtube clip here.