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Monthly Archives: July 2012

Sunshiners, Shortspurs and Starlets

One of my best jobs this year has been a four-day survey of Orford Ness for the National Trust under an EU LIFE programme. The main aim of the survey was to survey invertebrates in and around saline and brackish lagoons, including some which have recently been created as well as some older examples.

I’d never been to Orford Ness before and I was soon wondering why on earth not. The range of habitats is excellent, including some amazingly natural and undisturbed transitions from saltmarsh through to shingle. And although there’s a good list of invertebrates for the site, it still feels massively under-worked for somewhere that is clearly a nationally important site for invertebrates. Despite some dreadful weather in late June, I kept hard at it in the hope of making some good discoveries.

The best spot.

This was the best spot on the whole survey. There were several Saltmarsh Shortspurs Anisodactylus poeciloides under the wood when I turned it over, scattering in all directions. Grubbing about at the roots of the Marsh Foxtail, I also found a single Great Trident Sunshiner Amara strenua.

Saltmarsh Shortspur Anisodactylus poeciloides

Great Trident Sunshiner Amara strenua

Thinking that this was a very good spot indeed, I looked harder still and spotted a tiny (1 mm), globular, shiny, black insect. It could have been a mite but it moved like a beetle so I got a lens on it and realised it was an Orthoperus (Corylophidae). I managed to get it safely into a pot along with a second individual but couldn’t find any more despite an hour spent searching within the red ring above. I was instantly hopeful that an Orthoperus in such habitat might turn out to be O. brunnipes, a Rare (RDB3) species that I had attempted to find at Murston Marshes, north Kent only three weeks earlier. On that occasion, not only did I fail to find O. brunnipes but I found a large new industrial estate on the site, and after searching around the remnant bits of marsh, returned to find I’d got my car locked in for the night. So to bump into it unexpectedly on Orford Ness was a real highlight for me. Also here was my first Peritrechus nubilus (a ground bug). Corylophidae once seemed such an impossibly difficult family to me, so it is encouraging to know that I have now found all the British species except for O. atomarius, the one that usually occurs in wine cellars. Now if anyone knows of a wine cellar that I could poke about in, preferably with plenty of mouldy old wine casks, do get in touch!

Starlet Sea-anemone Nematostella vectensis. A tiny delicate species in shallow, saline lagoons.

Sea Pea on the outermost shingle ridge. We saw a possible Bombus humilis foraging on the flowers but it eluded confirmation.

NT lent me a golf buggy: my new favourite item of entomological equipment!

This was the only lagoon where I found Common Goby Pomatoschistus microps. Everywhere else was a Goby desert.

Barn Owls were frequent by day, and I also got good views of Little and Short-eared Owls.

Helops caeruleus. Several of these beauties seen under old timber sleepers.

Porcellionides cingendus, a common woodlouse in the SW but reaching its NE limit at Orford Ness (where it has been known since Jon Daws visited in the early 90s).

Top Snail

The Top Snail Trochoidea elegans is one of the most distinctive British species, and one of the rarest. It inhabits chalk grassland where there is bare ground and chalky rubble, especially on steep slopes which help to maintain eroding, bare ground conditions. A dry, sunny microclimate will make it feel at home here, as it is an introduction from the Mediterranean, first recorded in Britain in 1890. Michael Kerney’s (1999) atlas shows 4 dots for it, in Kent, Surrey and Sussex.

I have always wanted to see it and got a chance to look at Hawkshill Down (TR 3736 4981), south of Deal on Tuesday morning. It was another damp day with occasional drizzle which for once was absolutely fine with me – perfect weather for snails!

Unfortunately, I was only able to find empty shells, after a pretty thorough fingertip search. And none of them even look like they’ve held a living snail in recent years. In fact, most of them were in the spoil-heaps outside abandoned rabbit burrows which suggests they may have been dug up from down in the soil. I reckon Trochoidea elegans is extinct at this site, as already suggested by Ron Carr after a visit in 2005. Why has it gone? Well, there’s very little bare ground, no livestock grazing, the rabbits seem to have gone, and the scrub and coarse vegetation are moving in.

Trochoidea elegans: empty shells only and all looking like they've been empty for a few years.

Former site for Trochoidea elegans.

Should we care? I guess not, for a non-native species. Only it demonstrates a problem that many species face and shows how easily small populations can blink out. It wouldn’t take much management effort to restore the right habitat conditions to that bank but as for Trochoidea elegans – when it’s gone it’s gone.

I would be very interested to hear from anyone with news of the other British populations of Trochoidea elegans: Lydden, Kent; Chaldon, Surrey; and Denton, Sussex.

Compensation was provided in the form of my first Marbled Whites of the year, a superb Lapidary Snail Helicigona lapicida, some Porcellio dilatatus woodlice in debris down an old rabbit burrow, and at the edge of a nearby wheat field some Prickly Poppies and Alsike Clover (tick!). But searching suburban green spaces on hands and knees is a risky business and there was a depressing inevitability to my encounter with a dog turd.

Lapidary Snail Helicigona lapicida. A declining snail. I think the name refers to the finely roughened texture of the shell, resembling something a lapidary would use to polish a gemstone.

Cloves and Billy Goats

If I tell you I sniffed two flowers on Monday evening, one that smelt of billy goats and one that smelt deliciously of cloves, where in Britain was I?

These are the aromas of Lizard Orchid and Bedstraw (or Clove-scented) Broomrape and I was on the fabulous calcareous dune grasslands at Sandwich Bay. Both species were abundant though most of the broomrapes have gone over by now.

Lizard Orchid. They are certainly malodorous but I've never actually sniffed a billy goat to find out whether they smell of Lizard Orchids.

Bedstraw Broomrape. A tick for me, all the better as I wasn't expecting to see any still in flower.

Yes, those are actual Lizard Orchids growing in the lawn!

I can hardly believe that I have only been to Sandwich Bay three times before, and two of those were just to twitch birds (the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and an American Golden Plover that BBRC rejected). It’s such an impressive site and I am keen to spend more time there.

I have much more to tell from the last two days in Kent, and with a lot of rainy days ahead and fieldwork postponed I may have time to blog about this and other recent trips.

And just in case there’s anyone left that I haven’t told the story to, my only beetling trip to Sandwich Bay on 12th June 1999 was superb for beetles but I will always remember the magic moment when I heard a ‘prrp, prrp’ from above, chucked down my trowel, ripped my binoculars out of my rucksack and looked up to see a Bee-eater circling overhead!