Chui

Walking along the sandy track among the luscious wet-season vegetation just outside Tandala Camp, near Ruaha National Park, Tanzania, our accompanying Maasai taught us the Swahili names for some common African animals. Impala is swalapala, elephant is tembo and you might recognise simba, meaning lion, from The Lion King. Tandala itself means kudu.

The one sighting that we had during our long stay at Tandala that will stay with me for a long time, however, was of a male chui. We were lucky enough to see four feline species in the ten days we were there, including simba, African wildcat and serval. Chui was the other, and we were fortunate to have two sightings of the same individual, on Christmas Eve and 29th December. Chui is a widely-distributed but declining and elusive cat, and unlike most African cats can climb trees deftly. The Leopard.

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We were lucky to have prolonged views of the serval, my first for a long time.

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For most of the time, the serval was obscured by long grass, however we were fortunate to have seen one at all. We were even treated to one of their famous pounces: they can jump over six-and-a-half feet in the air (2 metres) before coming down on their prey feet-first.

Leopards are extremely tolerant of a wide range of habitats and climates. Most authorities recognise 8 Leopard subspecies, which inhabit the Middle East (Arabian and Persian Leopards); Asia & Russia (Sri Lankan, Indian, Javan, Amur and Indochinese Leopards); as well as the African Leopard. Throughout their global distribution they can be found in semi-arid landscapes, rainforests, grasslands, cities (in India particularly) and they can even tolerate temperatures as low as -25 °C in Russia. They are much better climbers than Cheetahs and Lions, and the habitat in which we saw the Leopard in Ruaha was fairly typical: boulder-strewn bush with some large trees up which they can haul their kills.

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The Leopard sat for ages on this shady rock as the midday heat intensified. This photo allows you to appreciate the impressive paws, vital for gripping tree trunks.

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The pattern of spots on each individual leopard is unique. I was able to compare the markings around the left eye to ascertain that the two leopard sightings we had were both of the same male.

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One of the ways to separate the sexes is to look at the neck, as male leopards will on average have thicker necks than females. However, a possibly less subjective method would be to look near the derrière…

Despite a few vehicles being present, this leopard remained remarkably unperturbed by the attention. It even managed to hunt successfully, catching a rock hyrax right in front of our eyes, before proceeding to eat it under a bush just metres from our car. Although leopards have the strength to tackle large prey, they mainly favour prey with a lower mass than themselves. The day before our first sighting we came across an Impala that had been killed by a leopard just a few hours before; small to medium-sized antelopes that don’t prefer open plains are typical prey.

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The leopard chomps down on the innards of the rock hyrax.

It was brilliant to have such superb sightings of a leopard, easily among my favourite large mammals. They are often shy, particularly where other large carnivores are present such as tigers and lions. Despite the competition between these large cats, all are heading towards a similar fate. Many of the leopard subspecies are on the brink of extinction as a result of hunting and habitat loss. The Javan, Amur and Arabian Leopards are all thought to have fewer than 250 individuals surviving and there are not that many more Persian, Sri Lankan or Indochinese Leopards remaining.

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Pan-species Listing: Top 10 New Species of 2018

I’m very fortunate to be flying to Africa in a couple of days, so this year-in-review is slightly early. However, it’s great to be celebrating what has been another excellent year of natural history. It has been hard to condense the hundreds of species I’ve added this year to just 10!

10. Sea Mouse

In November, I gratefully hitched a lift with Brad Scott to Dungeness for a meeting of the South-east group of the British Bryological Society. It was my first visit, and we were treated to several rare bryophytes including Porella obtusata. After the meeting, we decided to look for some marine springtails to add to the site list. Although we weren’t successful, we did come across some bizarre organisms that had been washed up following a storm. Sea Mice, Aphrodita aculeata, are, unbelievably, closely related to earthworms despite appearing like some sort of iridescent marine slug.

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9. White-rumped Sandpiper

New birds are already becoming hard-to-come-by these days without going many miles out of my way. Therefore, when a White-rumped Sandpiper – a species that certainly wasn’t on my radar for December – arrived at Pulborough Brooks just last week, it was a rare opportunity to add to my British bird list. This is the fifth species of Nearctic (American) bird to make it on to my list, following Long-billed Dowitcher, Horned Lark, Pectoral Sandpiper and Bonaparte’s Gull. Sadly, it was incredibly distant – I hope you weren’t expecting needle-sharp photos…

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8. Frog Orchid

Admittedly, Frog Orchids are not the most beautiful of orchids (their name is not all that glamorous either), however the time of year I saw these rare plants was remarkable. By mid-October, most flowering plants, let alone high-summer specialities like orchids, are long gone. But not this peculiar population of Frog Orchids which had definitely not read the books.

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7. Water-soldier

Stratiotes aloides, commonly known as Water-soldier, may be a garden escapee in this part of England, but it was my 3000th species and therefore worthy of recognition. It was found on 14th July, on a field meeting to the Pevensey Levels with the Sussex Botanical Recording Society.

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6. Rootless Duckweed

Featuring on this list has to be one of the coolest plants I’ve seen. Wolffia arrhiza – Rootless Duckweed or Spotless Watermeal – is the smallest flowering plant in the world. It looks just like a tiny clump of algae, but it can produce minuscule flowers in a small depression on the plant. This, along with the Water-soldier, was found by the SBRS group on the field-meeting to the Pevensey Levels.

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The whole extent of an average-sized plant of Wolffia arrhiza.

5. Black Darter

From the world’s smallest flowering plant, to Britain’s smallest dragonfly. The Black Darters I saw at Thursley Common in July were certainly smaller than I expected, and a new addition to my pan-species list.

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4. Common Clubtail

To continue the dragonfly theme, almost exactly a month earlier, I was watching a completely different species of Odonata. Despite its name, the Common Clubtail is not common, and one its main British strongholds is along the River Arun in West Sussex. Here I managed to make a double-figure count of these striking dragons.

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3. Black Hairstreak

Like birds, new butterfly species for my list are becoming much harder to find. However, this year, an amazing discovery was made in the heart of Sussex. A population of Black Hairstreaks appeared to have established itself at Ditchling, a long way from known populations of this localised species. I was fortunate to see a handful of them when I visited in June. Hopefully this population will prosper!

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2. Early Spider Orchid

Unlike the Frog Orchid, this delicate plant did appear at the right time of year. However, it certainly makes up for the beautiful colouration that Frog Orchids are sorely lacking. Between revision sessions I was fortunate to be able to appreciate the variety in patterning that this scarce orchid exhibits, not a hundred miles away on the South Downs.

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1. Beluga

This was the undoubted highlight of my year. In January, I would never have guessed that I would be watching this near-mythical Polar whale just outside Greater London.

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It’s been another fantastic year, it’s amazing what can be found with minimum travelling – everything on this list was encountered in the South-east of England! I’m looking forward to an even better 2019, can I progress towards 4000 species? Only when GCSEs are over though…

From Asia with devastation

Hawaii was first to be invaded in the shadow of the Cold War, in the 1980s. Just under a couple of decades later, an attack was launched upon mainland USA. The first troops made landfall in 2008, in California. Over the next two years the front line progressed eastwards and now the whole of the USA is enemy territory. Meanwhile a stealthy attack was being launched on Europe, with many Western countries such as Italy, France, Belgium and Spain besieged. Six years ago, in 2012, the UK fell under fire. Drosophila suzukii had arrived from South-east Asia, with consequences.

The genus Drosophila is massive, with around 1,500 species described. One species, Drosophila melanogaster, is famous for its use in genetics and developmental biology experiments; they are “lab flies”. When one uses the phrase “fruit flies”, one is usually referring to this genus. Despite their frugivorous (fruit-eating) habits, they are, on the whole, fairly harmless to the fruit industry. This is because the vast majority of them lay their eggs in rotting fruit, while fruit pickers obviously tend to choose fruits that are ripe or not yet ripe. Therefore, Drosophila species have no impact on fruits prior to harvesting. Except for Drosophila suzukii, that is.

Drosophila suzukii has one minor difference in its lifecycle that has earned it the infamy of being one of North America’s most prolific crop pests. The females possess on their ovipositor (from which the eggs are laid) a serrated knife-like structure which can slice through the skins of fruits like cherries and blueberries. This allows the species to thrive in and damage fruits prior to harvest, while other species have to wait until decomposition has rendered the fruits soft enough to lay eggs in without relying on cutting into them.

Finding this species in my very own garden really drove this worldwide colonisation home (almost literally). It is amazing to think that, having lived in the same house for my entire life, if I’d hung some banana slices from our plum tree – like I did last week – up until I was nine in 2012, I probably wouldn’t have found this prolific invader. Yet, sometime between then and now, Drosophila suzukii has winged its way into our village and begun to breed. Below is an image of the tiny fly, around 2.5 mm in length, which has hitched a series of lifts aboard ships and other vehicles around the world from its native home in South-east Asia to appear at my doorstep. Little does it know about the billions of dollars of crop damage its species has caused along the way.

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The male of Drosophila suzukii is distinguished by the black spots near the apex of the wings

 

 

Beluga in the Thames!

Contrary to my normal style, this blog post’s title is a little more self-explanatory than usual. This is so that when I’m scrolling through the archives in fifty years time I’ll be able to instantly recognise what this post will be about: something I’d never even considered possible.

If I was looking ahead to today from this point last week, I would probably be wondering how I’d managed to book a flight to Greenland or Svalbard at such short notice, and why it was a mild 17 degrees at such high latitudes. At the very least, I would be curious as to where I’d sourced my drugs from. I cannot believe that this morning I was enjoying a plate of chips in the warm sun at a table outside the Ship & Lobster on Mark Lane in Gravesend, Kent, while behind me a Beluga surfaced, just behind a barge with the words ‘Working for the Tidal Thames’ inscribed on its side.

The whale was first found by Dave Andrews on Tuesday, and I imagine he must have had the shock of his life when he spotted it. I certainly would have, with this record constituting one of the most southerly records of this species in the world. Belugas have a circumpolar distribution, with the nearest populations to the UK being over 2500km away. I was surprised to find out that this is the 19th sighting of Belugas in UK waters, although they have chiefly been seen in the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney, with outlying locations being off Northumberland and Northern Ireland, both in 2015.

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The stretch of the Thames where we saw the Beluga

Belugas are interesting among whales as they can easily tolerate brackish and even freshwater. They are quite at home in estuaries and during summer often travel hundreds of kilometres up rivers in search of fish. In the remote polar regions they usually inhabit, this is fairly risk-free. The Thames is something else, however. As you can see from the above photo, residing in the Thames is not without its dangers. During the short while we were watching the sub-adult Beluga, about half-a-dozen vessels passed right over where the Beluga was seen just minutes before including a couple of massive ships.

Although, ship strikes are not the only danger this whale may have to face. There is also, of course, a higher concentration of plastic in the river than it will be used to. If it ingests too much it will die a slow and painful death. No doubt the overall relatively balmy climate will have an effect, although I’m not sure exactly how. But if Belugas weren’t affected by warm temperatures, then they wouldn’t be restricted to such icy climes.

It will be interesting to see how this Beluga’s slight wander will pan out. The best case scenario is that it will be seen swimming downstream and into the North Sea, where its instincts will kick in and it will swim back north to where it ought to be. To finish this blog post, here is a video of the couple of times I managed to record ‘Benny the Beluga’ coming up for air (email subscribers may have to click through to the blog to view the video):

Coot-like coot-foot

Scientific names, often consisting of a mix of Greek and Latin, can sometimes be a little peculiar. For example, Phalaropus translates to coot-foot, and fulicarius to coot-like, to produce the scientific name for the Grey Phalarope. It isn’t really coot-like on outward appearance at all, only the feet as suggested in the generic name Phalaropus.

Phalaropes are waders, but are unusual among the group as they have partially webbed feet (like coots). This allows them not only to feed along the muddy margins of wetlands but also to lead a pelagic lifestyle, often congregating in large numbers offshore on their way to spend the winter in tropical oceans. The nearest they breed to the UK is in Iceland and the east coast of Greenland. Phalaropes are also unusual in their breeding behaviour. Their breeding plumage is an attractive rusty-red although uncommonly among birds, the females have the more beautiful attire. This is because they perform the courtship displays as well as defend the territory. In this role-reversal, the males incubate the nest and look after the young as they are developing.

Grey Phalaropes pass through UK waters twice a year on their migration, although mostly keeping out of sight of dedicated sea-watchers on coastal headlands. This all changes, however, when events like those earlier this week occur.

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I was lucky to see this male Grey Phalarope in breeding plumage on the Svalbard Archipelago in Arctic Norway a few years ago.

On Wednesday, Storm Ali struck the UK, powering its way from the west with wind speeds in excess of 100mph. Less than two days later, Storm Bronagh also blew in from the Atlantic. The combination of these two systems had notable effects on sea-going birds, particularly Grey Phalaropes. Over the past few days they’ve been turning up all over the UK, including double-figure counts at locations in the South-West. Of this large number, around 60 were found at inland locations, one of which being Bough Beech Reservoir in Kent. This is only a half hour drive away from me, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see my first British phalarope.

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The Grey Phalarope at Bough Beech Reservoir. It has been aged as a first-winter, meaning that it hatched this year somewhere in the Arctic.

Sadly, as with any vagrant bird, it is likely that at least some of these displaced phalaropes will be unable to make it back to where they’re supposed to go. Storm-driven birds often use up a lot of energy on their wayward journeys and cannot find enough food where they end up. Furthermore, birds like these phalaropes have usually never seen humans before in their remote, high-latitude nesting grounds. Therefore, they are frequently confiding and approachable, putting themselves at huge risk. Fingers crossed that this one gets back on track!

 

The People’s Walk for Wildlife – my three hopes

It is fair to say that a better day could have been chosen weather-wise for today’s People’s Walk for Wildlife, although that didn’t stop thousands of people old and young making their voices heard in London. There were attendees from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands and even Uganda! This illustrates how much we care about the state of our environment and the unfathomable diversity of species it supports. Everyone at the walk today shared a common goal: to restore wildlife to the condition it was in before the disastrous effects of the Anthropocene. However, I have three hopes for the near future which I’d love to be fulfilled.

1. Large-scale rewilding

I’m lucky enough to be able to visit the Knepp Estate in West Sussex fairly regularly for bird ringing and general wildlife recording. It is one of several rewilding projects in the UK but the only one of its kind in the South-East, which is what makes it even more special.

The idea of rewilding involves restoring ecosystems to how they were in prehistoric times – before humans reaped such major consequences on the environment – mainly by reintroducing or replicating the megafauna which would have populated them. In less densely populated areas of the UK, there are plans and ambitions to reintroduce large carnivores such as lynx and wolves. However, in the South-East, there is simply not enough space for a thriving population of animals such as these. Yet, rewilding at Knepp has still had a noticeable effect on biodiversity without such iconic predators. On the estate, large herbivores/omnivores have been introduced to mimic those which would have been present in England many centuries ago. Free-roaming Tamworth pigs rootle in the undergrowth in the place of wild boar; longhorn cattle fill a niche which would previously have contained aurochs; Exmoor ponies replicate the benefits tarpan (Eurasian wild horses) would have had on the ecosystem.

It is evident that rewilding has already greatly benefitted Knepp’s wildlife. The pigs have produced bare ground ideal for nesting solitary bees. The tough cattle and ponies have prevented unique species-rich grassland and scrubland from reverting to woodland.

The idea came about at the start of the millennium when the lack of profit from the working farm the estate once was became a problem. Fields had to take up every scrap of available land and push wildlife to the edge in order to produce a good crop. Therefore, Charlie Burrell and his wife Isabella Tree (who has written a book on this subject entitled ‘Wilding’ – highly recommended as this blog post far from explains everything!) decided to think outside the box.

If rewilding can be so successful on a lowland farm surrounded by towns and less than forty miles from the centre of London, then it can surely also be implemented on farms nationwide. This would bring back biodiversity we have not experienced for many generations.

2. Putting nature back into childhood

The younger years are when lifelong interests are kindled. What’s experienced during childhood can spark a passion that can burn for decades. Long gone are the days when playing in the wilderness used to be the default for children, replaced by addictive screens. Without learning to love and appreciate even the wildlife on their doorstep, there is no chance that young people will be the driving force for conservation in the future. This is why it’s imperative to teach the next generation why our natural heritage is something that must be conserved.

3. Leave no species under-recorded

It is a simple truth that we cannot conserve a species if we don’t know its ecology, where it’s distributed or even if it exists. This is why recording the species we come across is so important for conservation. Even records one might consider as commonplace, such as a harlequin ladybird overwintering in the corner of your living room, can feed vital data to recording schemes. How far has this invasive ladybird spread? Which times of year is it most active? What consequences is the advent of this non-native having on our indigenous species? These are all questions that a few seconds spent uploading a record could answer.

There are many easy ways to submit records. Many recording schemes accept records from the Biological Records Centre’s iRecord website. Alternatively, you can email records directly to the relevant recording scheme or records centre. A list of recording schemes can be found here.

Daily, exciting new records are being made nationwide; a new species for a county, or even a country. Anyone can make a ground-breaking discovery just by sending in a record. There are tens of thousands of invertebrate species, thousands of fungi, thousands of plants, algae, lichens, mosses in the UK alone. Every one of them is equal, and requires conserving just as much as the iconic birds and mammals. Yet, there is no chance of preventing a planning application from destroying a site if there is no data on any scarce or declining species which might inhabit it. There is no possibility of stemming the invasion of a non-native species if we don’t know that it has arrived. There is no way of managing a habitat for a species if we don’t know which kind of habitat it prefers.

The catastrophic decline of biodiversity in this country and elsewhere in the world must be halted, and if possible reversed; our own futures depend on it. The simple tasks listed here would begin to help; but there is much much more to be done.

Skulker

As many of you will know, I am a trainee bird ringer and have been since 2014. Involved in the complicated process is putting a small, lightweight ring on the leg of a bird, on which is inscribed a unique number. This enables individual birds to be recognised if they are later recaught or found dead, allowing ornithologists to learn more about their migration and biology.

In my four years of being a ringer, I’ve had the chance to ring a wide variety of bird species, ranging from over 100 Blue Tits to some scarcities including Yellow Wagtail, Redstart, Wheatear and Wood Warbler and larger birds such as Stock Dove and Woodpigeon. However, last Sunday’s ringing experience will probably go down as one of my favourites so far.

Fellow Sussex young birder Mya Bambrick and I arrived at Knepp Estate, south-west of Horsham, at 6am. There we met my trainer Tony Davis who had already set up four mist-nets around a field consisting of mainly bramble and willow scrub. This is a fantastic habitat for migrating birds as well as several scarce breeders due to the amount of cover the scrub produces and the blackberries which ripen at exactly the right time to fuel many migratory passerines on their southward journeys. The mist-nests are ideal for catching birds as they are fine enough to be invisible to birds flying between bushes, which fly into the net and fall into a pocket from which they are extracted by licensed ringers.

It was on the first net-round when I noticed that there was something slightly different in the bottom pocket of one of the mist-nets. It didn’t take long for me to realise that it was a Grasshopper Warbler. Grasshopper Warblers, so-called due to their bizarre song which resembles that of a stridulating grasshopper, is a localised breeding species found mainly in fens and coarse grassland and is not often found in high density. However, while researching for this blog post, it was good to learn that they are showing a positive population trend with the UK population experiencing a 23% increase in numbers in the 14 years between 1995 and 2009. This is thought to be as a result of improved survival rates in the wintering grounds of west Africa. Particular preference is shown by British Grasshopper Warblers towards Senegal and The Gambia, which we have learnt from recoveries of ringed birds in those countries. However despite this recent increase, this is in comparison to a proportionally larger decrease which took place in the years prior to that period. Only a few decades ago, this species used to be found in a greater range of habitats than to which it is currently restricted.

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The Grasshopper Warbler

Grasshopper Warblers (often shortened to just Gropper) are renowned for the difficulty involved to see them. They have skulking habits, only really coming out into the open when the males sing their distinctive song. Most of the time they remain hidden in thick vegetation. In fact I’ve only seen this species twice before, and both times the birds were located by the loud song. The first time was a bird claiming its territory in May 2014 in a sand dune in Budle Bay, Northumberland and the second had probably only just arrived in the UK in April last year, when I found one singing in a garden at Selsey Bill in West Sussex from a small clump of ornamental pampas grass. In fact in the past 20 years Tony had only caught two or three, highlighting how lucky we were to catch this reclusive skulker.

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This was my only photo of a Grasshopper Warbler before Sunday, from Northumberland. This photo illustrates how hard-to-see Grasshopper Warblers are usually. And this one was, in relation to most other sightings, ‘showing well’!