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Tree-spotting

I found myself in the Brecon Beacons on Sunday after a family gathering. I’ve always thought of the Brecon Beacons as a biodiversity coldspot but I realised prior to this trip that I could potentially tick six species of Whitebeam including three which are restricted to this part of Wales. I didn’t have time to purchase Tim Rich’s BSBI Sorbus Handbook but I was able to get some Sorbus gen from Dave Gibbs, albeit from maybe 20 years ago before Google maps and GPS.

I have been talking vaguely about going to see all the British (and Irish) Sorbus for years but this is the first time I have actually done anything about it. What appeals to me about the idea is that they almost all grow in nice parts of Britain that I’ve spent very little, if any, time in: North Devon, Avon Gorge, Brecon, Monmouthshire, Montgomeryshire, Wye Valley, Anglesey, West Lancs, Westmorland, and Arran.

But after Sunday’s experience, I now realise that seeing all the Sorbus would be a major undertaking. My main problem at Craig y Cilau was that the trees only grow where sheep cannot reach them. And I am considerably less agile on the mountains than a Welsh sheep. And with most of the leaves already fallen, it wasn’t the best time of year for it. Plus I was getting a thorough drenching, right down to my undergarments, though I was able to retreat to the caves to consult my increasingly sodden copy of Stace.

Taking refuge.

I found Least Whitebeam Sorbus minima to be the commonest species, though it is known only from this 10-km square and nowhere else in the world.

Leaves of the same Sorbus minima tree.

I only found one English Whitebeam Sorbus anglica that I was confident of.

Some fallen leaves from below the Sorbus anglica.

This one looked good for Rock Whitebeam Sorbus rupicola.

Detail of the Sorbus rupicola showing leaf shape. 29.v.2013: Andy McVeigh and I checked my herbarium sheet with the Sorbus handbook and confirmed this as rupicola.

I think this is either S. porrigentiformis (Grey-leaved) or S. leptophylla (Thin-leaved), probably porrigentiformis. Though I wouldn't be greatly surprised to be told it is rupicola. I think this photo says everything about the conditions on the day, and this was as close as I dared to get. 29.v.2013: leaves collected from below this tree confirmed as porrigentiformis by Andy McVeigh and I.

Leaf of the same porrigentiformis/leptophylla tree.

The large Sorbus leptophylla tree described as forming a carpet against the cliff prior to Agen Allwedd cave must be dead and gone. I’m sure with more time and better weather I could have found all five Sorbus species at this site but I’ll give it another go some day, and also try to visit Craig Penmoelallt at Merthyr Tydfil for Ley’s Whitebeam Sorbus leyana.

Recent ticks … and a tragedy

Nearly at the end of my field season so I should be able to reactivate my blog now. I’ve recently swapped my Panasonic Lumix FZ-38 superzoom camera for a FZ-48 so that I can fit it with a macro adapter. After some truly neanderthal attempts to use my new kit, I eventually sussed it out with help from Mark Skevington, so here are some of my ticks from the last fortnight.

Lopus decolor: a common mirid bug of grassland but the sort of drab mirid I've tended to ignore in the past. Seen in Luton on 14th August.

Lygus pratensis. Still officially Rare (RDB3) but it has spread and become much commoner. My first meeting with it was in Luton on 14th.

Calosirus terminatus. A Nationally Scarce (Nb) species of Wild Carrot. Found by suction sampling, Luton on 14th.

Paralaoma servilis (aka Paralaoma caputspinulae and Toltecia pusilla). I actually ticked this snail in Kent earlier in the year and then found it again in North London on 16th. The ribbing is reminiscent of Vallonia costata but that species is creamy white. First recorded in Britain from a plant nursery in Luton in 1985, and I think still establishing.

Isochnus sequensi. One of the hopping weevils (Rhamphini) but without conspicuously fat hind femora, though it can still hop. Disovered at Canterbury in 1952 and given Insufficiently Known (RDBK) status in 1992, it has spread across much of the south-east on Crack Willow and is on its way to being common. Seen in North London on 16th.

Killarney Fern gametophyte in the deep, damp shade of a rocky stream gully in Alfoxton Wood, Somerset on 20th August. It's the green felty stuff.

Great Scented Liverwort Conocephalum conicum sensu stricto, a common species. At the Killarney Fern site.

Corizus hyoscyami. I have been waiting to see this species for a while but it wasn't until a visit to Salisbury Plain on 21st August that I finally connected, thanks to Dave Gibbs who swept it and called me over.

In a 1972 paper on British ground beetles (Carabidae), Carl Lindroth predicted that Harpalus griseus could occur in Britain, perhaps as a migrant, but could be overlooked as a small Harpalus rufipes. And in July 1995, Lindroth’s prediction came true when a single specimen of Harpalus griseus was found at a moth trap in Wimbledon. And then in 2008, Marcel Ashby found three by pitfall trapping in an arable field margin on Croxton Hall Farm, Thetford. I was working nearby in 2009 so I spent quite a bit of time revisiting this field margin, as did Marcel, but despite finding a load of other interesting beetles, including Ophonus laticollis, Norfolk’s first Zabrus tenebrioides for over 100 years, and Norfolk’s second record of Xantholinus laevigatus, there was no further sign of Harpalus griseus. But this year James McGill decided to check it out again and found a single Harpalus griseus on the night of 20th August, the 5th British individual. On a fairly warm Thursday night, Dave Buckingham, Andy Schofield and I joined James to take another look. We did find another singleton Harpalus griseus but tragically it was dead.

Harpalus griseus, aka "The Brazilian"

The pronotal shape is a good character to separate from H. rufipes, which has slightly concave pronotal side-margins towards the base, and more distinct, less blunt, hind-angles. On the underside, the last three abdominal segments provide the clincher: whereas rufipes is punctate and pubescent at the sides but smooth and hairless in the middle, griseus has a stripe of pubescence down the middle only. Or to put it another way, it has a Brazilian.

Harpalus griseus underside by James McGill, illustrating the medial pubescence on the abdominal segments

Harpalus rufipes underside by James McGill

I am pretty gutted to have only found one dead griseus on the night, despite collectively checking what must amount to well over 100 Harpalus rufipes. But at least we know that it has been established in that field for at least five years now.

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!

Salisbury Plain again: Broomrape, Toadflax and ground-huggers

Another fine day on Salisbury Plain on Thursday with Dave Gibbs. Added a few more scarce insects to our list from the first visit, including the red-tailed cuckoo-bee Bombus rupestris, and the weevil Protapion filirostre (a new beetle for me). The suction sampler also turned up another individual of Ptomaphagus varicornis, the Red Data Book beetle I recorded here on 11th May, and this time I was able to show it to Dave in the field. With Knapweed Broomrapes pushing skywards, Small Blues on the wing, and a Quail quick-lick-licking from a nearby field, it reminded me of a few happy weeks surveying invertebrates on Salisbury Plain in 1997, my first job after finishing my PhD.

Knapweed Broomrape

A surprise record from 11th May was a single individual of Rhinusa collina, a weevil which develops on Common Toadflax Linaria vulgaris. This is a Nationally Scarce (Na) species with a single previous Wiltshire record. I hadn’t even noticed any Linaria on 11th May but on Thursday, we made a specific search for the plant and eventually found a small patch of a few sprigs up to about 5 inches high within an area of about two square feet. The first sprig I looked at had four elongate cylindrical weevils on it of a species I’d never seen before! My first thought was Baris but I soon found a match in Mecinus janthinus, Nationally Scarce (Na) and another one new to Wiltshire. I suction sampled the entire population of the host plant, which only took a few seconds, and produced one more Mecinus janthinus, three Rhinusa collina, two Rhinusa linariae (Nationally Scarce (Na); one previous Wiltshire record) and the pollen beetle Brachypterolus linariae.

Mecinus janthinus

I don’t know whether anyone else has come to the same conclusion but I think the way to find both the two scarce Rhinusa species is to look at Linaria when it is just a mere few inches high. By the time it is in flower, all I ever find is the common one, Rhinusa antirrhini. My dates for the three species are as follows:

  • linariae (Na) 17th May to 5th June
  • collina (Na) 31st May to 2nd June
  • antirrhini (Common) 9th July to 14th September

So if anyone is out and about now and sees Linaria, it would be interesting to know which weevils you find. As Thursday’s observations show, even a tiny patch of the plant can support the scarce species.

The suction sampler is turning up a lot of interesting beetles for me but, unexpectedly, the flies in the suction samples have been very interesting too. There are a few species with very reduced wings that are clearly adapted to a life on foot. But there are also some species which look perfectly capable of flying off but choose a ground-hugging way of life, running about in the bottom of the tray and seeming reluctant to even climb up the walls to escape. Amongst Thursday’s samples Dave has already identified two Nationally Scarce species, Geomyza apicalis and Geomyza breviseta, with more specimens still to be looked at. I guess these flies would be recorded more often if more dipterists used suction samplers – they’re probably not so scarce, just very good at eluding capture by nets!

The toughest day of 2010: Phratora polaris

24th June 2010: day three of my Scottish fieldwork campaign was to be a change from surveying for saproxylic beetles in woodland. I was headed to the summit plateau of Ruadh-stac Mòr, Beinn Eighe where Mike Morris (1970) discovered the leaf-beetle Phratora polaris new to Britain in 1966. Ruadh-stac Mòr lies within the massive (5,800 hectares) Torridon Forest SSSI.

male Phratora polaris

I had picked a day with a dry forecast but normal weather forecasts don’t apply in the mountains. I set off walking at 07.35 and it started raining 10 minutes later. Within another 40 minutes, I was out of mobile signal for the rest of the day. After a couple of hours of slog, I entered the fearsome Coire Mhic Fhearchair and picked my way across to the steep scree fan in the far corner, passing a few mangled bits of plane wreckage where some poor aviator met his doom. The scree was treacherous underfoot and I was ascending into cloud, with worsening rain and an increasingly strong wind. At the top of the scree, the route steepens into a narrow chute of shattered rocks, exposed and channelling a wicked gusting wind. No place to miss your footing. Step by careful step I got to the top. But there was no relief there – I found myself on a knife-edge ridge in ferocious gusting wind and driving rain. On hands and knees I found a cleft in a boulder and wedged myself half in. Put some dry layers on and decided I’d better abandon the survey and descend. But actually couldn’t face the chute again straight away so I decided to stroll up towards the summit plateau for a bit of respite before beginning my descent. Conditions had worsened further and I was soon reduced to lying full-stretch on the ridge-top path, clinging to the ground and holding my rain-spattered specs on to my face. I realised the ridge had broadened out and I could safely drop off the path to the leeward side, where I could get about in a crouch rather than a crawl.

The chute.

I soon realised I was treading on quality turf: dolomitic limestone grassland with Racomitrium moss, Sibbaldia Sibbaldia procumbens, Dwarf Cudweed Gnaphalium supinum and, more importantly, some patches of Dwarf Willow Salix herbacea, the foodplant of Phratora polaris. I found fragments of a dead Phratora polaris under the first stone I lifted, and a live one under the third stone. Flushed with success I carried out a standard 30-minute timed search but didn’t see any more of the leaf-beetles. All I saw were three Oreostiba tibialis (Staphylinidae), a common species of montane habitats, and one Patrobus septentrionis (Carabidae), found feeding on a pill-beetle Byrrhus fasciatus (Byrrhidae).

Habitat of Phratora polaris.

Phratora polaris was added to the British list (under the former generic name Phyllodecta) by Morris (1970) on the basis of specimens he found near the summit of Ruadh-stac Mòr, Beinn Eighe in 1966 and 1967. Morris (1970) also reported a specimen collected by A.M. Easton near the summit of Tom a’ Chòinich, Inverness-shire in 1968. Owen (1983) added two further sites in 1981: Sgurr Mor and An Teallach, both Wester Ross. Lyszkowski (1988) found the species in 1984 some 60 miles to the south of these sites near the summit of Beinn Achaladair, Argyllshire. Cox (2007) was able to map the species from 9 Scottish 10-km squares of the national grid and commented that the species is “probably under-recorded”. Quite frankly, it’s no wonder!

Once I’d made it down to the bottom of the scree, I found some shelter from the dreadful weather and took a break. Astonishingly, a Mountain Bumblebee Bombus monticola flew past my nook as though it were just a normal summer’s day. I was also filled with respect for the elderly Munro-bagger I passed on my way down – he was heading up in shorts!

Acknowledgement

These observations were made during SSSI condition monitoring work for Scottish Natural Heritage.

References

Cox, M.L. (2007). Atlas of the seed and leaf beetles of Britain and Ireland (Coleoptera: Bruchidae, Chrysomelidae, Megalopodidae and Orsodacnidae). Pisces, Newbury.

Lyszkowski, R.M. (1988). Phyllodecta polaris Schneider (Col., Chrysomelidae) in Argyllshire. Entomologist’s monthly magazine, 124, 71.

Morris, M.G. (1970). Phyllodecta polaris Schneider (Col., Chrysomelidae) new to the British Isles from Wester Ross and Inverness-shire, Scotland. Entomologist’s monthly magazine, 106, 48 – 53.

Owen, J.A. (1983). More about Phyllodecta polaris Schneider (Col., Chrysomelidae) in Britain. Entomologist’s monthly magazine, 119, 191.

Owen, J.A. (1988). A note on the life history of Phyllodecta polaris Schneider (Col.: Chrysomelidae). Entomologist’s record and journal of variation, 100, 91 – 92.

 

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.