Home » 2011 (Page 2)
Yearly Archives: 2011
When we moved into this house and planted up the garden with insect-friendly plants, we put in loads of Lavender and Rosemary, hoping one day to attract the Rosemary Leaf-beetle Chrysolina americana. Today I saw the first one in the garden … on Lemon Balm! This is an alien beetle which despite the ‘americana‘ name is a native of southern Europe. It is such a looker that I am happy to welcome it in, in any case it has now become well established since it was first recorded in Britain (at RHS Wisley in 1994): see map here.
It is best to look for it on Rosemary and Lavender but it can also breed on Thyme and Sage. See the Royal Horticultural Society’s Rosemary Beetle Survey webpage for more info and to submit sightings.
The only similar beetle in Britain is the very rare Rainbow Leaf-beetle Chrysolina cerealis which feeds on thyme on the slopes of Snowdon and in Cwm Idwal. I have been up and looked for it but without success. I hope to see it one day but meanwhile it is great to have americana in the garden.
I put away my pooter and trowel for this trip and dusted off my bins and scope. The plan, hatched on Friday night, was to spend a few days birding on and around the Dingle peninsula, Co. Kerry. It’s been a record-breaking autumn for transatlantic vagrants already, following Hurricanes Irene and especially Katia. I was hoping to get a piece of the action. It sounded as though what few birders were out on the west coast of Ireland were finding yanks wherever they looked. Would it be like looking for a needle in a sewing-box?
En route to Luton Airport on Tuesday morning, I got a text that Hudsonian Whimbrel had been found on Three Castles Head, Co. Cork. Drove 2½ hours straight there from Kerry Airport. The bird was quite a way off but I got one clear view of its diagnostic dark rump. A tick!
Hung around birding Three Castles and Mizen Heads until late morning on Wednesday. Rather few migrants in the bushes and gardens (1 Spotted Fly, 1 Reed Warbler and 1 Willow Warbler plus 1 Sand Martin with the other hirundines). Local birders reckoned there’d be nobody birding out on the Beara peninsula so I headed over there for the rest of Wednesday. Firkeel valley is a magical place with an awesome track record including Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Red-eyed Vireo, Scarlet Tanager and Ireland’s first Parula. On this day it held just a Chiff-chaff and a Willow Warbler.
It was so windy it felt like I ought to be seawatching so I had a look off Garnish Point. Great views of Sooty and Manx Shearwaters and a lovely flock of 11 Grey Phalaropes bobbing in the surf below me.
After two days spent doing a lot of driving, on Thursday I walked and birded from dawn till dusk, covering the whole of the Inch strand and estuary on the Dingle peninsula. Saw thousands of birds but got the tides wrong and the all-important flocks of Dunlin and Sanderling were too distant. I did pick out a Buff-breasted Sandpiper though, my first yankee find of the trip. Excellent, even though this is a species I have found before on Scilly and Fair Isle.
I was back out near Inch Point on Friday, in position for the rising tide and spent hours scoping through hundreds of Dunlin, Sanderling and Ringed Plover as they came closer and closer. Eventually my scope landed on something different – Semi-palmated Sandpiper! The first one I’ve found. A couple of times I suspected there were two birds but it was hard to be sure in the mêlée. Saw the Buff-breast again and at least 10 Curlew Sandpipers. I think this is a top-class birding site but it’s a 1½ hour fast walk from Sammy’s Café at the start of the beach, even if you know where to cut across the dunes. It’s one of the places Jo and I birded on our honeymoon.
Spent the last of the afternoon birding Blennerville and Black Rock Strand. Both sites I’ve heard of but never visited before. Had great views of the adult American Golden Plover at Black Rock Strand, albeit in driving rain.
Saturday, my last full day. Planned to bird as many of the bays and beaches of the Dingle Peninsula as I could and really give it socks. Started at Trabeg where the White-rumped Sandpiper was still present and showing well, the fifth species of yankee wader for the trip, so far. Gareth Richards texted some bird news while I was there and said “Keep checking the Ringed Plovers …”. Had a look in Dingle Harbour where I didn’t see much but learnt that Funghi the dolphin is still around 29 years after his first appearance.
Ventry Harbour was next, a pretty uninspiring site for waders, especially with all the loose dogs, horse-riders, joggers, etc. But I walked up to the quiet, seaweedy end of the beach, scoped through a few dozen Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Sanderling and Dunlin, then moved round to Cuan Pier. Looking back from the pier to the part of the beach I’d been at 5 or 10 minutes earlier, I was amazed to see three other birders. And they were sprinting full-pelt along the beach with their tripod legs extended! My first thought was that the only bird I could’ve missed that would be worth more than a gentle trot was Semi-palmated Plover. A few minutes later and I was with them: Dan Brown, Rob Martin and Alex Lees, alpha-birders all of them and three of the punkbirders. They had seen, photographed and sound-recorded a Semi-p Plover and then watched it fly off. The second for Ireland. Totally gutting. There have only been two in Britain and fortunately I saw the one at Dawlish Warren. But I was utterly disconsolate to have walked past such a massive rarity without noticing.
I decided to give up on wader ID and hone my corvid ID skills instead. So 2½ hours later I was chucking cheap white sliced bread around Kennedy Pier, Cobh. The House Crow hadn’t been reported since 6th September but Cork birders reckoned this was just through lack of interest and that the bird would still be around. It didn’t show up in the three hours I was there but was seen on the following Monday morning. ****! I was advised that early mornings are best for this bird. So maybe a Saturday afternoon with Jimi Hendrix covers blasting out from the Bandstand was not optimal! However, an adult Sabine’s Gull made a brief and thrilling appearance attracted to bread. It reminded me that for all its frustrations, birding is always capable of providing unexpected excitement. Night drive back to Kerry, missing a Sika by an antler’s breadth.
The Semi-p Plover had returned on Saturday afternoon on the falling tide. So I was keen to see it on my last morning. As I walked down the track to the beach at first light, a dog Otter crossed in front of me a few paces ahead. Great!
No other birders present and only 5 adult Ringed Plover at the spot. Working my way up the beach towards the stream outflow, the first juv. plover I looked at was the Semi-p! By this time, a dozen or so Irish twitchers had assembled on the other side of the stream. After about half an hour watching the bird I went round to talk to them and, although they were watching the same bird, they weren’t yet convinced it was ‘the bird’. Which just goes to show how easy it was to overlook and what a quality find it was by the punkbirders. At least I took some consolation from it anyway!
Watched it till 10 and then dashed to the airport seeing my 100th bird species of the trip en route when a House Sparrow flew across the road in Dingle. It had been a pretty hard trip on the hire car and I didn’t let the grass grow under my feet.
There are highs and lows to birding and there’s always someone, somewhere, seeing more than you. But I enjoyed myself and saw a lot of good birds in a beautiful part of the world.
Yesterday I went to look for a rare carabid Pogonus luridipennis at a site near Skegness where it was discovered earlier this year. The site was visited again on 10th September when at least 6 were seen under a piece of discarded carpet within the first 5 minutes, followed by four hours of fruitless searching. On 17th September I also found a piece of carpet within the first 5 minutes but there were only Pogonus chalceus, Dicheirotrichus gustavi and D. obsoletus under it. Two hours of hard graft later and it was looking like yet another wasted journey. And then I found another piece of discarded carpet with dozens of carabids under it including 5 Pogonus luridipennis!
Published habitat information for this species in Britain includes “on clayish seashores, mostly in marshes under seaweed” and “coastal habitats, particularly saltmarshes”. The reality for this and several other ‘saltmarsh’ carabids is that they prefer the margins of lagoons which are only rarely inundated by seawater. Pogonus luridipennis seems to be particularly fussy and after a long run of records from Salthouse, Norfolk in the 80s and 90s, it was last seen there in 2001 (and has been repeatedly looked for since without success). The last Norfolk record was from Titchwell in 2005 (Dave Gibbs). It has not been recorded from the Severn Estuary for a few decades now. It still persists on the Dorset coast with a recent record from Eype.
Hopefully, now that we have a reliable site for P. luridipennis, research by John Walters under the Biodiversity Action Plan will be able to answer a few questions about when, where and how to find it, and ultimately how to conserve it.
At Skegness, it looks as though it would be extremely difficult to find if it wasn’t for a few pieces of old carpet that someone has thrown away on the edge of the lagoon. Before I got into beetles, I thought all litter should be collected and disposed of properly. Now I usually regard pieces of litter as valuable refuges for invertebrates and I put them back carefully after looking underneath!
Flushed with success, I thought I’d check out a site near Lincoln where Alan Lazenby discovered Amara nitida on 8th July 1990. Having started my interest in carabids in the Brecks, a hotspot for Amara species, I still regard Amara as the most interesting genus of all. Amara nitida is easily misidentified and is probably not as common as the distribution map suggests. My efforts to see it in Britain have concentrated on sites with definite records. I’ve been to the heathy clearing in Swanton Novers Wood, Norfolk where Bryan Sage discovered one on 11th June 2006. I’ve worked flood debris at Pontrilas, Herefordshire where C.E. Tottenham found it on 29th November 1929 and I’ve looked for it at Lyme Regis, Dorset and Ports Down Hill, Hampshire. It’s always felt like a wild goose chase and I’ve never seriously believed I would ever see this beetle. And now I have! Alan’s site looked unremarkable and I was deeply pessimistic of my chances. But it came up trumps! In a fairly quick look I found one female so there’s probably quite a good population there.
Twitching rare beetles usually requires patience, doggedness and immense reserves of optimism. Saturday was a truly exceptional day. Maybe I should go and look for the real holy grail next?
This is a species I have never seen though the distinctive holes it leaves in hazelnuts were a familiar sight in my childhood in Gwent when gathering nuts in the autumn. I know other coleopterists have encountered this species rarely or not at all and there is a general belief that it has declined severely. Presumably Grey Squirrels are to blame as they have increased in recent decades and most hazelnuts are now eaten by squirrels before they’ve ripened.
Has it declined? Was it ever common? Fowler (1891) referred to it as “local; generally distributed in the London district and the South of England …”, and Joy (1932) gave it as local. Roger Booth investigated this in 2003 by surveying some of the early beetle collections at the Natural History Museum. It is not always easy to interpret such sources but, for example, C.E. Tottenham recorded adults on 9 occasions in a 38-year period (1911 – 1949) totalling only 10 specimens. Roger concluded that the weevil never was very abundant.
Nevertheless, it does look as though C. nucum is rarer now. It now seems to be a species that an active coleopterist will encounter about once in every 20 years (or less often than that in my case!).
So, I was really pleased to see lots of hazelnuts with holes in on the Isle of Wight on Monday (12th September). I picked up 141 hazelnuts of which 14 had C. nucum exit holes. The island is still free of Grey Squirrels and maybe the local Red Squirrels are less voracious in their appetite for hazelnuts?
We could get a much better idea of the current status of C. nucum by recording exit-holes in hazelnuts rather than looking for the adults on hazel bushes in May and June. I’m going to start keeping more of an eye out and I’d be interested to hear what others find.
The hole is made by the fully-grown larva as it exits the nut before overwintering in the ground where it will pupate in the following spring. I’ve brought some nuts home from the Isle of Wight in the slender hope that there may be some larvae still to emerge, and in the even more slender hope that I’ll be able to rear them through to adulthood in 2012.
This is a great time of year for finding species of Ophonus ground-beetles by checking the seed-heads of Wild Carrot Daucus carota. As the seeds ripen, the heads change from a flat-topped umbel into a more or less spherical shape with all the seeds on the inside. Ophonus like to sit inside the middle of carrot seed-heads, spending their days munching seeds. It’s quite easy to prise open the seed-heads and check for beetles.
At least some species of Ophonus will also fly to light. O. ardosiacus is quite frequent in moth traps. One of the rarer species, O. melletii, has only been recorded seven times in the last decade but two of the records are from light traps.
It would be great to get more records of Ophonus, especially from moth-trappers. I would be happy to receive Ophonus specimens for identification from anyone and everyone. Details on posting live specimens here.
Of the 14 British species, only three could be described as at all common (rufibarbis, puncticeps and ardosiacus) and the rest are at least scarce and in some cases extremely rare. Many have clearly declined dramatically during the 20th century, in the same way that many once-common arable weeds such as Corncockle and Corn Buttercup have declined. Losses of the beetles are probably also related to agricultural intensification and the loss of areas of disturbed ground that have a diverse range of weeds, producing lots of seeds, year-in year-out.
I have a passion for these ground beetles. I have attempted to see all the British species, visiting last-known sites, often repeatedly over many years. But there are still five species I have never managed to find. At least four of those species I believe should still be findable in Britain if only I could work out exactly where, when and how. The other one (O. subsinuatus) has not been recorded since 1886 (Portland) and it would be an amazing discovery if it was ever found again in Britain. Four species of Ophonus are currently on the Biodiversity Action Plan list but several others are of equal concern.
I have just had a week’s holiday, and dedicated a few days to searching for Ophonus. It was great to see Ophonus melletii (two males) at long last, by visiting the best known area for the species at Cheam on Monday. As far as I know it was last seen here in 2004 by Martin Luff. I also found one O. schaubergerianus (previously recorded here by David Copestake in 1993), three O. ardosiacus and one O. puncticeps.
On Wednesday, I targeted one of the more recent (1988) localities for O. puncticollis near Hurley, Berkshire but the habitat seems completely unsuitable now. Later in the day I explored some field edges around Lodge Hill in the Chilterns near Princes Risborough and came up trumps with a new site for O. laticollis, a species which seems to be having a mini-resurgence on arable margins thanks to the ESA scheme and similar subsidies.
On Saturday, Jo and I day-tripped the Isle of Wight and worked the soft-rock Red Cliff, east from Yaverland out to the start of the chalk Culver Cliff. I was targeting O. cordatus again, a species last seen in Britain on Salisbury Plain in 1996. It was recorded from “Sandown, Culver Cliff” by W. Holland in 1903 and from “Red Cliff” by Howard Mendel in 1988. We found dozens of O. ardosiacus, several O. puncticeps, a few O. azureus and one O. rupicola (only the second I have found): O. cordatus must still be there but as so often in the quest to find rare beetles, doggedness is going to be the key to success.
Amazingly, despite seeing seven species of Ophonus in a week, I didn’t see any of the commonest of them all: O. rufibarbis!
This male Jersey Tiger was fatally attracted to the bright lights of London’s West End. I found it last night, dead, in the foyer of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Although it was appropriate to the existentialist theme of the night’s performance, it seemed an unlikely place to find one. It is a new 10-km square according to the Atlas but, as this map shows, it’s not far for a moth to fly from the extensive green space of St. James’ Park/ Green Park/ Buckingham Palace Gardens.
To me there is something thrilling and exotic about blind beetles. They’re the sort of things I expect to exist in guano-filled bat caves in the tropics, or deep underground in the limestone districts of the Mediterranean. But I’ve been finding one species in my back garden recently when lifting the spuds: the tiny bothriderid Anommatus duodecimstriatus. To be found by carefully inspecting the remains of the seed potatoes. The potatoes have many eyes but the beetles have none!
Although most likely to be encountered in old seed potatoes, it has apparently also been recorded ‘under elm wood’, under bark and from ivy. It is Nationally Scarce (Na) but I tend to think that anything that occurs in our perfectly ordinary garden must be common, even if it isn’t seen very often. There is another, even rarer (RDBK) species in the genus, Anommatus diecki, which is associated with subterranean dead wood.
Parabathyscia wollastoni (Leiodidae) is another splendidly-named blind beetle that I saw for the first time this year by suction-sampling in grassland surrounding Sutton Bingham Reservoir, Somerset. It has no conservation status – in other words, it is common – so maybe I just haven’t been looking properly for the last twenty years. Joy describes it as having a ‘very small eye’ but I can‘t see one. Like A. duodecimstriatus, it can sometimes be found in old seed potatoes. There is another blind leiodid on the British list, a species I have yet to see, Leptinus testaceus (on the left in this photo). It can be found in or near the nests of mice and bumblebees and is probably an ectoparasite on mice.
The weirdest blind beetle I have seen in Britain is Claviger testaceus, a pselaphine that inhabits ants’ nests. My sole encounter with this species was on the extremely steep, loose, chalk rubble of Culver Cliff on the south coast of the Isle of Wight in a Lasius ?niger? nest. I’d love to see more of them and also to see the really rare (RDB1) Claviger longicornis but given that I must have looked at hundreds of ants’ nests under rocks and only once found a Claviger, I suspect it could be a long time before I see another.
With the help of Steve Bolchover, Roger Booth, Michael Darby, Tony Drane and David Murray I think there are six other blind beetles on the British list, in addition to the six already mentioned above, though there may be more. The subterranean weevil Ferreria marqueti (Raymondionymidae) was added to the British list from Kew Gardens by Alex Williams in 1968. More recently John Owen has established that a good way to find it is by setting subterranean traps at the roots of exotic conifers in suburban gardens in SW London. Owen’s study recorded 193 individuals, with records from 10 out of 12 gardens studied. The same study found 162 specimens of the blind subterranean colydiid beetle Langelandia anophthalma, from four of the gardens. Langelandia is a Rare (RDB3) species, associated with a range of decaying underground plant material: it has been found around decaying tree roots but also in old seed potatoes. There are also three species of Ptinella (Ptiliidae) that can occur in either blind or eyed forms: P. errabunda, P. aptera and P. taylorae.I’ve seen errabunda and aptera on several occasions, either under bark or (aptera) in a woodchip pile. Finally, there is the peculiar salpingid Aglenus brunneus which I have only found once, by sieving straw on the floor of a barn. This seems to be its typical habitat, especially where there is mouldy corn mixed in with the debris.
We may one day get another if the beaver reintroductions bring Beaver Beetle Platypsyllus castoris (another leiodid) with them. But the beavers have been combed before release into the wild, and so far, no Beaver Beetles. Shame! Bizarre-looking things (on the right in this photo).
Although they lack eyes it is probably not fair to describe these beetles as blind – they probably have enough photosensitivity to be able to shy away from the light and burrow into the dark.
Thanks once again to Oxford University Museum of Natural History for use of the digital photo-montage kit.
Once, while sitting in the famous Nancy’s Café in Cley, I asked Nancy about a horizontal line marked at about head height on the doorpost with “1953” written next to it. This would have been in about 1986 but she still remembered the ’53 flood in harrowing detail. 307 lives were lost along the coast of eastern England that night. I can only imagine what impacts it had on wildlife but we do know that it wiped out the Dainty Damselfly Coenagrion scitulum, then known from a couple of sites on the Essex side of the Thames Estuary.
So I feel very privileged to have been able to go and see Dainty Damselfly on Saturday, back on British soil and seemingly breeding in the brackish borrow pits on the Isle of Sheppey just west of the two bridges. It has been slowly expanding northwards on the continent so it looks like it has naturally re-colonised Britain: an amazing feat for such a dainty creature!
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.
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.
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 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).
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 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.
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.