Brighton blues

With our changing climate, distributions and abundances of a wide range of invertebrates are ever-changing. In this regard, the headline butterfly event of the year was the record-breaking influx of long-tailed blues, reaching the British coast from their regular haunts of southern Europe. At the moment, in September, the offspring of the first wave of primary migrants are emerging from the broad-leaved everlasting-pea plants on which the females had laid their eggs in late August, allowing keen lepidopterists another chance to see this elusive species. However, I did not need this second chance – I was fortunate enough to lay eyes on some of this year’s earliest arrivals.

Walking up Whitehawk Hill on the late summer day of 29th August felt typical, 20 degrees yet with a fresh breeze blowing up from the Channel. However, what I was about to witness was an indication of our warming planet.

Upon reaching the top of the hill, I immediately saw two small butterflies spiralling frantically upwards against the expanse of Brighton in the background. I knew exactly what they were – territorial male long-tailed blues. These were small, dainty yet tireless butterflies, which had crossed the Channel and much of Western Europe to gambol between the community allotments and the scrubby border of the local nature reserve in the shade of the transmission tower.

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During brief interludes between the combat, these two males and a further individual occasionally paused on ground vegetation, allowing photo opportunities and examination of the species’ beautiful intricacies. The long-tailed blue is so-called on account of the two ‘tails’ which project backwards from the hindwing. These mimic the antennae of the butterfly, and coupled with the eye-spots on both the upper and lower surfaces, the tactic is to make predators attack this end of the insect, thinking it is the head. This protects the actual head from any damage from hungry insectivores.

The photo below shows one of the more worn-looking blues. There are chunks missing from the left hindwing where the eye-spot usually is, suggesting a predator mistakenly attacked the rear end of the butterfly, fooled by the fake antennae. This left only superficial damage to the butterfly.

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I did not expect finding these long-tailed blues to be quite so easy, and in the past it certainly wouldn’t have been. The first British record of this species was from Brighton all the way back in 1859 (leading to one of its earlier vernacular names being the Brighton argus), although in the succeeding 80 years it had only been sighted again 36 times. The number of sightings more than doubled between 1940 and 1988, with a large proportion of these being during an influx in 1945. However, it took until 2013 and 2015 before the long-tailed blue numbers really became significant, when relatively major immigrations took place into the southern counties. Already it is looking likely that the 2019 influx will surpass all previous influxes.

But why are these long-tailed blues making an effort to reach our shores? There are many other butterfly species which have similar distributions to the long-tailed blue in southern Europe, although they have made no attempt to colonise the UK. However, the long-tailed blue is not only found around the Mediterranean – one of the world’s most successful butterfly species, its distribution also stretches right down to Australia. For such a small lepidopteran, its flight is powerful and determined, showing no reluctance to cross seas and mountain ranges such as the Channel and the Pyrenees. Furthermore, the long-tailed blue is renowned for its ability to pass through its entire life-cycle incredibly quickly. Despite most primary migrants only appearing in the UK in late August, their offspring already started to emerge as adults in mid-September. This allows the long-tailed blue to gain a foothold on new lands with great speed, which gives this species a huge advantage in the face of increasing temperatures in the long-tailed blue’s ancestral homelands. Although the current year-round climate of the UK is too cold for the species to overwinter, it is quite possible that it won’t be long before it is resident in the UK and there will be more chances to admire this resolute butterfly.

 

The Saxons are invading again

In July 1987, Dolichovespula saxonica, commonly known as the Saxon wasp, was first recorded in the UK at Juniper Hall in Surrey. In the 32 years that has since passed, the species has spread throughout south-eastern England, with scattered records further north to Yorkshire and a handful of sightings from Scotland. Eventually, at the end of July this year, I saw my first ever Saxon wasp, in the same county it was first seen. It is one of two social wasp species which have colonised the UK in modern times, along with Dolichovespula media, the median wasp, which was first found by Steven Falk in 1980 in Sussex.

Contrary to what many people might expect, there are several thousand wasp species in the UK, ranging from tiny parasitic wasps which barely reach 0.2mm in length to the docile hornet. Most of these wasps are solitary, and the social wasps comprise only about 1% of all the world’s wasp species. They’re mainly restricted to the subfamily Vespinae, which has around 11 members in the UK.

My recent sighting of the Saxon wasp came as quite a surprise to me. In the past few weeks I’ve been noticing more broad-leaved helleborines Epipactis helleborine (a species of orchid) than I usually do in my local area. They like to grow beside paths within woodland, perhaps due to the increased amount of light that reaches their leaves in comparison to the centre of the dense woodland. As a result, they are one of the most frequently encountered orchids in my region. However, despite their frequency, before I found my first Saxon wasp I had never observed any pollinators visiting these orchids.

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A spike of the broad-leaved helleborine on my neighbour’s verge

As you can see from the photo, their flowers are not particularly attractive colour-wise. Many other orchid species have evolved to mimic their pollinators, so that they are not drawn to the flowers by the promise of a meal but by the promise of a mate; as a bee, for example, attempts to mate with the flower of a bee orchid, pollination will take place. Moreover, the flowers emit a scent mimicking the pheromones emitted by the female bee, attracting the pollinating bees from far afield. This may sound clever, however reducing your number of pollinators to just one or a handful of species greatly restricts spread. Indeed, in southern England, the pollinator of the bee orchid is quite rare, and most of the time the bee orchid reproduces by self-pollination.

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The early spider-orchid, despite its name, has evolved to mimic the mining bee Andrena nigroaenea. I can’t personally see the similarity, but perhaps the bees can.

However, the broad-leaved helleborine does it slightly differently. Its primary pollinators are social wasps, such as the common wasp Vespa vulgaris (one’s standard picnic-botherer) as well as the Saxon wasp. Like many flowers it produces a nectar to entice the wasps in. However, once the wasps have arrived at the orchid flowers, they begin to become intoxicated by traces of opioids within the nectar. The narcotic-like qualities of the nectar cause the wasp to sleepily visit all of the flowers on the orchid multiple times, to ensure that all the pollinia from the flowers are transferred. I like to think that the opioids are also addictive to the wasps to encourage them to visit other broad-leaved helleborines, but I’m not sure whether this has been studied yet!

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A drugged Saxon wasp walking between helleborine flowers.

In the photo of the wasp above, it is quite easy to see a number of white objects on the face of the insect. These are the pollinia of the orchid, which stick to the face of the wasp after it has visited each flower trying to reach the nectar within. Each individual flower only has a few pollinia, which is the whole product of an anther. It is a coherent mass of pollen which is attached to the flower by a stipe (or stalk) and has a sticky disk on the other end which attaches to the face of the insect. Ideally, the insect then transfers these masses of pollinia to another plant, where the pollen in the pollinia will be transferred to the stigmata, completing pollination.

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The wasp reaching into a helleborine flower, looking for nectar. The pollinia can be seen just above the thorax of the wasp, attached to the roof of the flower, ready to attach to the wasp. 

It was fascinating to document this sighting, which was two firsts in one: my first Saxon wasp, and my first observation of pollinia in action. I’ll be keeping an eye on the helleborines this summer to see if any other wasps are enticed to the flowers by the sweet nectar and drugs!

Apples on sticks

Yesterday the south-east group of the British Bryological Society visited the town of Wadhurst in the far east of Sussex, near Tunbridge Wells. A variety of habitats including streams, woodland, grassland and ditches led to an array of moss and liverwort species being recorded. All were new for the area as this was a place no bryologist had dared to tread before.

Highlights included my favourite liverwort, the large and fragrant Conocephalum conicum (Great Scented Liverwort), as well as non-bryophytes such as two new plant species for me – Orpine and Soft Shield Fern – and a new carabid in the form of Carabus monilis with its bronze lustre. However, apparently the best find of the day was one of mine. This was the apple-moss, Bartramia pomiformis.

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Bartramia pomiformis

This moss immediately struck me, growing on a sandy bank on the edge of a narrow lane. The patch was almost perfectly circular, a richer green than the surrounding winter vegetation. And it was easy to see how it got its name, from the rounded apple-like capsules.

These capsules, that many mosses have in some form or another, form the final stage in the life cycle of a moss. The capsules contain the spores. Like a fruit, the capsules darken with maturity, starting off green such as these but soon becoming dry and brown with age, at which point the spores will be released.

These spores, upon germination, will then grow into a protonema, which will develop into a sheet of felt-like rhizoids, from which the gametophore will arise. The gametophore will be the stage of a moss that many people will be familiar with. It is the typical plant-like form, with stems and leaves, resembling a flowering plant although without vascular structure. This means that mosses lack the transport systems that vascular plants use to transport water, nutrients and minerals to their cells through tubes such as the xylem and the phloem.

Mosses can be dioicous or monoicous. Dioicous mosses have the male and female reproductive organs on different individual gametophores, while monoicous mosses have both sex organs on the same plant. In both cases, the sperm from the male sex organ will be transported to the female sex organ by a drop of water, which is one reason why there is a higher density of moss species in wetter climates such as the Atlantic rainforests of western Scotland and Ireland.

Once fertilisation takes place, a sporophyte begins to emerge from the venter, where the embryo develops. Over a period of many months, a seta (stalk) will grow, on top of which a capsule will be produced. Eventually this will release spores, and the cycle will repeat itself.

When diving into the life cycles of many taxonomic groups, I am often amazed by the complexity behind what appear to be fairly simple organisms at a cursory glance.

Goldeneye, in lichen form

Running backwards into the Devils Dyke Pub to get out of the fierce hail certainly wasn’t the intended end to today’s outing. We had been caught out on a grand scale; a band of completely unforecast precipitation left our clothes so sodden that not even a hot chocolate and four-cheese pizza could warm me up. But was it worth it?

Birders may be used to the sight of a goldeneye floating out on a windswept gravel pit or reservoir at this time of year. Although the diving duck breed in trees, the nesting sites are solely in cavities in larger trunks and at latitudes further north than the UK. So, how many British birders can say that they’ve seen a goldeneye in a tree? I doubt many of them – yet as of this morning I can, but not sensu stricto.

The goldeneye lichen, Teloschistes chrysophthalmus, is named after the bright orange apothecia borne on blue-tinged stalks. The apothecia are disks containing the asci, which in turn contain the spores which will be carried on the wind to colonise new sites. Indeed, this is likely to be how the goldeneye lichen arrived in the UK. In the 19th century there were several sporadic records along the South Coast, and this decreased to only two in the 20th century. Yet, since 2007, recolonisation has been in full swing and there have been records from most South Coast counties along with an outlier in Herefordshire. It is still a fairly rare species, but definitely on the increase. It is not completely known what might be driving the recolonisation. Increasing temperatures could be a factor, yet in the early 19th century when well-established populations could be found in the south, it was relatively much colder than modern times.

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The bright orange apothecia really stood out on this drab, dull day

For this sighting I am indebted to @apeasbrain who first found the lichen last weekend and who provided brilliant directions (only the one individual plant has been found so far, like a needle in a haystack). However, it turned out that despite the lichen being the main instigator for my visit to Devils Dyke, it was not the only highlight. Just past the Hawthorn on which the lichen is growing, the path descends into a copse of Ash trees. On one of these trees I managed to spot some movement, out of the corner of my eye. At first glance I took it to be a ladybird larva, but I knew something wasn’t quite right. On arrival home, I realised it was in fact a pre-adult Endomychus coccineus, known vernacularly as the False Ladybird. This was a species I’d been wanting to see for months, so it’s a bit embarrassing that I didn’t recognise it immediately – but coupled with the Teloschistes, the incredibly painful scramble back to the pub once the hail set in was absolutely worth it.

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Teloschistes chrysophthalmus becomes my 100th lichen and Endomychus coccineus my 250th beetle. Together they put me on 69 new species for the year so far, a good pace I think!

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!

 

Species no. 3000!

Admittedly Stratiotes aloides, known vernacularly as Water-soldier, is not the most desired plant to have in an ecosystem. It is possible that it is native in East Anglia and Lincolnshire however in Sussex, where this species became number 3000 on my pan-species list, it is more likely to be introduced.

Yesterday I joined the Sussex Botanical Recording Society on a visit to Court Lodge Farm on the Pevensey Levels, which possesses a rich assemblage of aquatic plants in the many ditches. Some special species recorded included Potamogeton obtusifolius (Blunt-leaved Pondweed) and Petroselinum segetum (Corn Parsley), the latter growing on the banks of the ditches rather than within them as was the case with the pondweed.

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An example of one of the ditches where we were recording. The majority of the water plants you can see in the photo would  be Lemna trisulca (Ivy-leaved Duckweed), Elodea nuttallii (Nuttall’s Waterweed) and the aforementioned Potamogeton obtusifolius (Blunt-leaved Pondweed).

Although despite these Levels specialities being present, for the ditches it is hard to escape the colonisation of several non-native invasive plants. Fortunately we didn’t come across any ditches which were dominated by these unwanted waterweeds however both Azolla filiculoides (Water Fern) and Hydrocotyle ranunculoides (Floating Pennywort) were found along with the robust growth of Water-soldier.

Water-soldier can be quite problematic for native flora. Small populations can, if left undisturbed by boats or large numbers of waterfowl, develop into armies. These can completely annex stretches of canals or ditches, out-competing ‘friendlier’ water plants for resources. The following quote is from the Water-soldier’s species account in the recently published Flora of Sussex: “On Pevensey Levels it has spread considerably, and in 2010 was found to be completely covering a ditch for several hundred metres”.

Despite this, I find its biology quite interesting. In the autumn it will begin to stop photosynthesising, and gradually lose the gas in its leaves that keeps it afloat. It will sink to the bottom of the ditch or canal where the water is unlikely to freeze. In the spring the increased strength of the sun’s rays will penetrate deep enough to allow the sharp, serrated, sword-shaped leaves to photosynthesise again, producing oxygen which gives the rosettes their buoyancy.

I was not originally planning to write a blog post on the Water-soldier until I realised today while inputting yesterday’s finds into my list that it fits into the 3000th slot. I am quite relieved that I have managed to reach this milestone, as the target I set myself in a blog post I wrote when I reached 2000 was to record my 3000th species before my 15th birthday. As of today I’m 14 years, 11 months and 1 day old. So I reached my target, but only just. It is hard for me to imagine stopping pan-species listing, however with upcoming GCSEs and A Levels I imagine I might have to slow down a little. But to keep it ticking, I have decided to set myself another target: 4000 by the end of 2019. Wish me luck!

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Two plants surrounded by Frogbit (Hydrocharis morsus-ranae) resembling miniature water-lilies.

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The snow-white flower of Water-soldier. The flowers are not seen too often, with the main method of reproduction being vegetative: the lowest leaves of the plant have axillary buds which will detach when the leaves decay and can disperse long distances before resprouting. This species is what’s known as dioecious – this means that male and female flowers are found on different plants. For some reason, there are very few if any male plants in England, so all reproduction in this country is vegetative as described above.

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The four or five plants in the photo here represent about half of the largest population of them I saw, luckily it hasn’t reached the levels of dominance seen at other parts of the Levels.