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The worst dip ever

I know this is a bold claim but I don’t think there has ever been a worse dip in the history of British twitching. On 3rd July 1987, I sat my last A-level exam and then with Hamish Mackay, Ian Hunt, Adam Wilson and Adrian Jaques we set off in a hire car to see “Albert”. Albert was the 8th Black-browed Albatross for Britain and Ireland and only the second twitchable one after the bird which joined the Bass Rock gannetry in 1967-69. He (or she) had been a fixture in the gannetry on Hermaness from about February to September every year for 15 years since discovery on 21st July 1972. And we knew our mate Keith Holland had scored on the 2nd. How could we possibly fail?

But fail we did. It would have been 811 miles to drive direct to the northernmost headland of the northernmost Shetland isle, plus three ferries. To dip a mega-rarity that had been present for 15 years! We kept going back for 5 days, initially hoping it was just on a foraging trip and would fly back in at any moment. But as the days wore on, all hope was lost. We thought the chance of a lifetime had gone.

Dipping. One of us would go on to serve as one of the Ten Rare Men. Click for a bigger image.

That’s not the end of the story though. Albert returned to Hermaness three years later on 27th March 1990: a totally unexpected second chance. I set off hitching north from London on the evening of 5th April. This wasn’t the usual hitch, chatting to a succession of generous strangers but the other sort – weird, frightening and dangerous. On the following morning in Glasgow I decided to fork out for a bus instead to get me the rest of the way to Aberdeen in safety. Finally, I arrived at Hermaness to savour the sight of a Black-browed Albatross sitting on its nest, alone and in the wrong hemisphere. The only good thing about dipping is that it makes it all the sweeter if and when you succeed.

Albert returns

When to go beetling?

In 20 years of beetling, I have done most of it in April, May, June, July and August. In fact, I think of this as “the field season”. And if I count up the number of beetle records I’ve made by month, May, June, July and August are the top months.

So, for beetle survey work, when you want to maximise the number of records you can make for each day’s fieldwork, May, June, July and August are the best months, especially May.

But there’s more to beetling than survey work. What would be the best time of year for me to go out and get a beetle tick? Over the 20 years, most of my ticks have come from May, June and July. But that’s largely thanks to a massive amount of recording in those months.

Surprisingly, when I’ve gone beetling in October, November, December and January it’s been much better for ticks. And August has been the worst month. A beetle found in November is over three times more likely to be a tick for me than one found in August!

Compared to most other branches of entomology, one of the great things about being a coleopterist is that it is a genuinely year-round activity. Admittedly, winter beetling tends to be pretty grubby work: tussocking, and sieving through compost heaps, manure, wood-chip piles and flood debris. But I’m obviously going to have to man up and do a lot more of that sort of beetling in my next 20 years as a coleopterist.

Sieving wood-chip at Dinton Pastures, with Tony Allen and Andrew Duff.

Sieving manure at Denham Marsh Wood with Tony Allen.

Thanks for the dets

Another surprise from my 20-year dataset of beetle records was the large number of people who have helped by identifying (= determining) beetles for me. These 28 names came up and I am grateful to each and every one. So often when I’ve been completely stuck with an identification problem, it has only been by getting help from others that I’ve been able to crack it.

Keith N.A. Alexander Brian Levey
Tony (A.J.W.) Allen Derek A. Lott
Roger G. Booth Martin L. Luff
Stan Bowestead Richard M. Lyszkowski
Dave Boyce Darren J. Mann
Jon Cooter Bob (R.J.) Marsh
Martin Collier Howard Mendel
Mike L. Cox Mike G. Morris
Brian C. Eversham Brian Nelson
Andy P. Foster Glenda M. Orledge
Garth N. Foster Eric G. Philp
Peter M. Hammond R.W. John Read
Norman F. Heal Martin Rejzek
Peter J. Hodge R. Colin Welch


Even this list only tells part of the story. There are quite a few other people missing (e.g. Max) who have helped with suggesting or confirming identifications that I’ve ultimately computerised as my own.

Getting into British and Irish beetles is a hard journey. I realise that I couldn’t have made as much progress as I have without the generous help of those who have cleared the trail ahead.

20 years of beetling: a good start

One of the best things about beetling for me is that I can never be bored: there are always new beetles to be seen and always more to learn. It’s also one of the worst things about beetling: there will always be loads of beetles I haven’t managed to see and loads of things I should know but don’t!

In twenty years of beetling in Britain and Ireland, I’ve made 33,453 records of beetles, from 525 different 10-km squares and on average seen a new beetle every 3.3 days. So it doesn’t feel like I’ve been mucking about at it! But take a look at this graph:

There are two really surprising things about this graph. Firstly, I’ve only seen just over half the British and Irish beetle fauna (the red line marks the half-way point). And secondly, my list has grown in pretty much a straight line for 20 years and I’m still seeing new beetles at about the same rate as when I started. Clearly I am still on the steep beginners’ part of the learning curve with no sign that I’m approaching the broad, sunlit plateau of being a beetle expert!

It just shows what a big job it is to get to know all the British and Irish beetles. I once had the chance to pick the brains of veteran coleopterist Alex Williams during a car journey and got onto the subject of aleocharine staphylinids and the many obstacles that have to be overcome to be able to identify this group. I was looking for advice, or at least sympathy! But Alex’s simple yet profound response was “Well, we wouldn’t be coleopterists if we didn’t enjoy a challenge!”.

Alex is right. Coleoptera is a big, challenging group, guaranteed to last a lifetime and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I’m glad that it is getting easier to identify beetles. And anyone taking up the challenge of beetles now should be able to hit the half-way mark in much quicker time.