The spider on my wheelbarrow

When I was five or six, I used to play with a small green and yellow wheelbarrow, ‘helping’ my dad transport sticks to the compost heap. It has been sitting outside the garage on a bit of patio since then, contributing nothing except a few algae species that have accumulated at the bottom. However, on Sunday, I had a big surprise.

On Sunday I went out for a complete circuit of my garden and my first stop was the dry bit of patio where the wheelbarrow was. Except for the Tree Bumblebee nest in the wall and the Procumbent Pearlwort growing out of a crack, there wasn’t much else. That was until I bent down to look at a small spider running across the patio – Salticus scenicus. Not a new species for me nor anything rare but the first for me in the garden this year.

Turning around to get up I noticed another spider, even smaller, running intermittently along the yellow handle of the wheelbarrow. I got up and moved into a better position to see the spider and it paused, allowing me to get a few quick photos. I was doubting the fact that it could be identified so I didn’t try until that evening, when I put it on iSpot. Soon enough, to my surprise, I had an identification!

Steve Gregory, one of the invertebrate experts on iSpot had added an identification to my observation: Bianor aurocinctus. He wasn’t certain as it was quite a rare species, he said, although he added in the comments section that he didn’t think there were any similar species. Looking on the NBN Gateway I think he is right that it is quite rare. The Gateway doesn’t hold all the records but the Bianor aurocinctus records on it at the moment are mostly along the River Thames with a few scattered records in central England and east Wales.

The most striking and distinctive feature of this spider are its swollen, hairy front legs. I’m not too certain about the purpose of these legs, but I am assuming that they are used in attracting a mate. They are definitely useful in identification though! Despite being so rare, this spider doesn’t show much of a habitat preference. All it needs is a dry area, so our patio is perfect. However, it is more often found on short vegetation, which there is none of on our patio, in sand and chalk quarries. Sites such as Portland Bill are perfect for it. It has only been recorded in 38 hectads (10km x 10km squares) since 1992 and is Na (Nationally scarce A).

I’m excited to find out what other rare species are hiding in the unlikely corners of my garden over the coming summer…

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More Redpoll News!

The Redpoll numbers in our garden have been stable during the past month, if not increasing. On the 12th, Tony Davis came back to our garden to do some more bird ringing and I was really excited to catch the Redpolls that have been visiting the nyger feeder.

Tony set up the Redpoll tape on the speakers, in order to attract them to the net. The session was slow to begin with, but soon enough we had five Redpolls in the net in one go! It was really great ringing what I think is now my favourite bird and we even ringed another orange-capped individual, sadly definitely a Lesser Redpoll this time rather than a Mealy!

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The next Redpoll was just a bit more exciting! It was caught on its own in the net and when Tony said that it already had a ring on, I wasn’t that happy. However, I had rushed to conclusions! All of the Redpoll-sized rings I have used with Tony start with a ‘T’ followed by the numbers, but this one started with a ‘Y’, which meant it hadn’t been ringed by us!

A number of exciting possibilities went through my head. Maybe it was ringed in Russia? Or Estonia? Unfortunately it had the details of the London Natural History Museum on it which means that it was ringed in the UK.

To get the details of where the bird was ringed originally, Tony had to submit the data to the BTO, who would send back the details. It took just over a week to receive the results, which were very interesting!

The bird was originally ringed at Allerthorpe Common, East Riding of Yorkshire, 312 km away from here in Domewood, on the Sussex-Surrey border! Also, it was ringed with the age code ‘3’ on the 24th November 2011! This means that it hatched in the 2011 breeding season as the code ‘3’ means that it hatched during the calendar year it was ringed in.

To sum up, the Lesser Redpoll ‘Y562211’ was ringed 312km away from Domewood, 1580 days before we caught it and it is coming up to its fifth birthday! Lesser Redpolls usually only live to about 2 years old and the maximum recorded age is 6 years, so hopefully we catch this bird again next year!

The Redpoll Stake-out

Before 2016, Lesser Redpolls (Acanthis cabaret) had not been seen in my garden since 2013, when seven would commute between a Quince bush at the back of the garden, some bare ground beneath a large oak tree and our small two-port nyger feeder in January and February. There would be loads of scuffles between the Redpolls as there were seven of them but only two ports. Sadly our nyger feeder got stolen by a Grey Squirrel and we still haven’t found it. We did buy a new nyger feeder though, with four instead of two ports.

It took a while for the Redpolls or the Goldfinches to find the nyger. Both species are very timid, but once they discover a food source they visit very regularly. The first time I saw a Redpoll in our garden for 3 years since 2013 was on New Year’s Day. Tony Davis, my bird ringing trainer, and I were ringing in my garden and by about 10am we had caught a fair amount of tits, Goldcrests and other passerines (perching birds). However, when Tony was extracting birds from the (safe) nets and I was getting my gloves he came back with two species of birds, both finches, that I hadn’t ringed yet this morning. The first was a female Chaffinch. The second was a Lesser Redpoll ! It was a stunning adult male:

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Despite the Redpoll having visited our garden, it was another week before one came to our nyger feeders. Two came one Saturday afternoon, one normal adult male (but not the one I’d caught a week earlier as it had no ring) and one intriguing female with an orange crown. A closer look revealed an almost white rump, very pale wing bars and less streaking on the breast: a Mealy Redpoll (Acanthis flammea flammea), a subspecies of the Common Redpoll, which is uncommon in the UK! Even stranger was the orange crown  which is rarely encountered in Redpolls of any species, let alone a county rarity! The orange colour instead of the red is caused by the bird’s diet: carotenoids are likely to be the cause of the orange colouration and they can be present in some plants. Apparently a third species, the Arctic Redpoll (Acanthis hornemanni), has this orange cap more often than Lesser or Mealy Redpolls. Perhaps the plant that causes the increased number of carotenoids in Redpolls is more common up north? Here is a bad photo of it taken with my Camcorder, showing the orange crown. Unfortunately the camcorder makes it look darker than it actually is:

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And here is a photo showing the pale rump:

Common Redpoll Screengrab

This morning I planned to get a better photograph of a Lesser Redpoll. The only photographs I had obtained so far were from my Camcorder, which were really poor quality as it is obviously designed for videos rather than photos. My small camera hadn’t a zoom large enough to get a good photo of the Redpolls either. What I planned to do was sit near the feeder with my camera on a tripod until the very shy Redpolls came down to feed. Unlikely to happen any time soon.

I wrapped up very warmly and settled down just after 8am. It was fifteen minutes until I heard the Redpolls and then spotted them, high up in the huge oak tree the Redpolls fed under 3 years ago. There were six of them at first, but only 3 flew to the Holly bush next to the feeder. After they saw me, however, they flew away again.

It was 8.45 until they returned. 3 of them again, in the Holly bush. 1 was braver than others and came within 30cm of the feeder but then flew away again, irritatingly. The same thing happened five times until eventually, at 9.08, a brave male made its way first to a branch adjacent to the one on which the feeder is hanging, then to one just below it, the finally to the feeder! I was over the moon! Here are a few photos I managed to take:

 

Exploring the British species of the Ambigolimax genus

There are only two!

In the summer, I photographed an unidentified slug and posted it on iSpot to see if anyone knew what it might be. Recently someone tentatively commented on the observation and said that it might be Ambigolimax nyctelius, the Balkan Threeband Slug. If you have a look at the National Biodiversity Network map for this species, you will see that there are few records for this species (only five!) so I was quite excited!

I emailed Martin Willing, the mollusc recorder for Sussex, and he replied saying that it is likely that the slug is Ambigolimax nyctelius! He couldn’t be certain though, as it needs dissection to reliably identify it. Therefore he forwarded my email to Dr Ben Rowson, the curator for Mollusca at the National Museum Wales. Dr Rowson replied asking if I could confirm if I still had the specimens, which I didn’t, and if I could send some specimens to him for dissection. I sent two new ones along with one of the original three in a pot to the museum, a concept my mum found quite comical. It was probably the idea of three slugs going on holiday to Wales!

He received the slugs surprisingly quickly and he was also kindly quick to identify them. He replied with the scenario I was hoping for: the specimens were of two different Ambigolimax species: Ambigolimax valentianus (the Greenhouse Slug) and Ambigolimax nyctelius (the Balkan Threeband Slug).

What concerned me is that he only received two specimens. The image that immediately sprang to mind was one of a slug crawling around a Welsh post office or somewhere in a postman’s bag in Cardiff. However when I asked about the third slug, he replied saying that the other two slugs were in fact cannibal slugs! I wasn’t expecting that!

Both of these species are special as they aren’t native to this country, the Greenhouse Slug is an alien from Spain; and I’m assuming the Balkan Threeband Slug comes from the Balkans, but there is little information on this little-known species. They are usually imported here by accident in pot plants and survive and breed well in greenhouses (hence the common name of Ambigolimax valentianus). The most obvious place these slugs could have come from is our local garden centre, Haskins. It’s still about a mile away (as the slug crawls)! Most of their route, if they do come from there, is through suitable woodland. Therefore I’m surprised that they’ve come so far. I’m hoping this is because my efforts at creating a wildlife garden are paying off!

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Ambigolimax nyctelius

 

An Insight into Daphnia biology

Daphnia are truly amazing. They are often called ‘water fleas’ as they look like tiny fleas swimming around in lakes and ponds. However, they are harmless and fascinating to observe. You can easily find some at home – just scoop a bit of water out of your pond with a pot and hopefully there’ll be plenty of these complex organisms bobbing about!

Believe it or not, Daphnia are actually tiny crustaceans, related to crabs, lobsters and woodlice. The reason they don’t look very similar is that the shell of Daphnia is uncalcified (not hard). This means they’re see through, and so great to put under a microscope. Yesterday and today I collected a few Daphnia from the pond with my pipette (like a small turkey baster), put a drop of water containing the Daphnia on a microscope slide and placed a cover slip gently on top so that the Daphnia wouldn’t be squashed.

Looking at them under a microscope reveals a whole new view on their lives, which we could never see with the naked eye. This photo I took yesterday and I find it most intriguing, Daphnia obtusa giving birth!

Daphnia giving birth!

Daphnia giving birth!

In the photo you can make out a smaller version of the adult Daphnia just below it’s rear end, at the bottom. Look for the black eye. To add to that, as the Daphnia is see through, you can also see its twin still inside the adult!

With the Daphnia collected today, I could also see their tiny heart beating. This short video I recorded shows it well:

To help give an idea of where the heart is on a Daphnia, this is the image of the pregnant Daphnia with most of its anatomy labelled:

Simple Daphnia Anatomy

Simple Daphnia Anatomy

The antennules – These are antennae, but instead of being sensory organs, they have evolved to be used to propel the Daphnia through the water. The ‘proper’ antennae are found beneath the rostrum, and are tiny. The mound on which the ‘proper’ antennae are born, sensibly called the antennal mound, is an important identification feature of Daphnia obtusa and is just visible in the image above. Daphnia obtusa has a noticeably larger antennal mound than similar species like Daphnia pulex.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post on Daphnia. Hopefully this has inspired you to look for Daphnia in your own local pond or lake. Daphnia are incredibly unrecorded for such an abundant animal, which is probably present in nearly all squares in the UK:  >>CLICK<<

3 West Sussex firsts in one summer!

This summer has been a productive one, with my first three vice-county firsts all being found in my garden. I find out whether a species is a vice-county first or not by emailing the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre, who are really kind and give me all the information I need. These are the three species:

Orius laevigatus – I came across quite a few of these small bugs on various bushes in my garden including Yew and our Buddleja. They may be small, but they are also predatory, and will feed on small invertebrates like bug nymphs and so on. There are 12 records in the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre database for this species, but believe it or not they are all from East Sussex! Most of the records are concentrated around nature reserves like Rye Harbour, so I’m really pleased to have found it in the garden!

Entomobrya nivalis – Entomobrya nivalis is a species of springtail, which are tiny invertebrates you can sometimes find hopping around among leaf litter. However, this is quite a conspicuous species and is covered in stiff bristles and has greyish mottling all over. This time there are only 9 records in the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre database, but again they are all in East Sussex!

Entomobrya nivalis

Entomobrya nivalis

Now, I’ve saved the best for last – Bright Four-spined Legionnaire (Chorisops nagatomii) – The Bright Four-spined Legionnaire is a fly with not only a great name but is quite colourful too. It has a yellow abdomen with black stripes running horizontally across it as well as a beautiful iridescent blue-green thorax. I was very surprised to find it on my kitchen window while I was having lunch, and even more so to find out that there are only records for Sussex and neither of them in West Sussex!

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Bright Four-spined Legionnaire (Chorisops nagatomii)

Canary-shouldered, Purple and Early, a Thorny Moth Trap!

When I checked the moth trap on the morning of August the 2nd, there weren’t as many moths as there usually is. However, there were many species I’ve never seen before, including three species of Thorns. Thorns can be identified by the way they hold their wings – not flat like most moths but angled upwards.

The first species of Thorn I found by the trap was the Purple Thorn, which was resting on the sheet. It’s a pretty large moth, the individual I caught had a wingspan of 34mm. However that’s not the species’ maximum wingspan. The Purple Thorn has two broods (generations) each year, the first flying in April and May and the second flying in July and August. The first brood has a larger wingspan, whereas the second has a smaller wingspan, and the moth we caught was from the second brood. The species is fairly common in the south, and prefers habitats like woodland and heathland. However, it gets scarcer as you move northwards. It is patchily distributed in Scotland, with the main stronghold being around the Moray Firth. It’s common in Wales, but practically absent from Ireland.

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Purple Thorn, above view

Purple Thorn

Purple Thorn, side view

The second species found, the Canary-shouldered Thorn, was perched on the metal bit which holds up the bulb. It’s the prettiest species we caught, with a bright canary-yellow thorax and yellowy-orange wings. It is also the largest species, even larger than the Purple Thorn, and it also only has one generation. It’s widespread throughout the UK, from Cornwall to Orkney, although like the Purple Thorn, it’s scarcer in Scotland. However, this might be because there are fewer recorders up in the highlands, and there are many concentrated around the South-East (like me). The Canary-shouldered Thorn can also be found in Northern Ireland and even the Isle of Man.

Canary-shouldered Thorn

Canary-shouldered Thorn

The last Thorn species is called the Early Thorn. It’s by far the smallest species and, like the Purple Thorn, has two broods each year. We caught an individual from the second brood which flies from August-September. The first flies from April-May. Even though it might be the smallest, it’s the most widely distributed, being found on Scilly as well as England, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland (including Orkney) and the Isle of Man. It’s identifiable by the way it holds its wings, flat above the body like a butterfly. A melanic (dark) form of this species is fairly common in Northern England, but rare down here in the South.

Early Thorn

Early Thorn

The reason we put the moth trap out was because I had an event planned for the following morning. I thought that as I lived in a small, quiet village it would be nice to teach the people who live in my village a little bit about the moths found in their area. I invited all the people I knew from the village and was pleasantly surprised that quite a few people decided to come! I even got a few to sign up to my monthly natural history newsletter, which I will be writing for the residents.