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.

RSCN2354

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

RSCN2355

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.

DSCN2812

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.

DSCN2655

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.

DSCN2826

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.

DSCN2691

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.

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.

DSCN0899DSCN0893

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…

DSCN1107 arrows

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.

DSCN0710

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.

DSCN6943

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.

DSCN6955c

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.

DSCN6610c

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.

DSCN5882

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!

DSCN6290 (2)

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.

DSCN5360

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.

DSCN0552 (2)

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.

Drosophila suzukii male crop

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

 

 

Thick-headed

At the end of March I had the good fortune to be able to visit North-east India for a few weeks. For the first part of our trip, we stayed at the Sunderban Jungle Camp on the edge of the Indian Sunderban Tiger Reserve. Each day we would take a boat and explore the unique habitat of the mangroves and hope to find some of the special species that inhabit it.

Luckily we had several great sightings of restricted-range birds in particular, such as Brown-winged Kingfisher. This species is restricted to the mangroves on the coast of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea from Odisha to the southern tip of Myanmar. It was one of six Kingfisher species encountered in the Sunderbans, surely the Kingfisher capital of the Indian subcontinent.

DSCN3391

Brown-winged Kingfisher

Although my personal highlight was not the intricate beauty and variety of the many kingfishers seen, but the drab Grey Thickhead. Unsurprisingly this is not the modern accepted vernacular name for this species, although it is the literal translation of the Mangrove Whistler’s scientific name, Pachycephala cinerea. Although is is unclear to me what warranted their scientific name, the genus appears to me to be just like typical flycatchers albeit with a slightly broader bill and perhaps chunkier. However it is not the appearance that drew me to this species, but the melodic song.

The voice of the Mangrove Whistler rises high and proud above the accompanying chorus of the mangroves. It consists of a series of tuneful notes which crescendo to a concluding flourish which is audible even above the din of the motorboat as it chugs along down the wide mangrove channels.

Having heard the distinctive tune, our guide Sujan ordered our boat to be stopped at the edge of the mangroves near where the whistler was whistling. To him it sounded abnormally close, the species usually prefers to remain deep within the mangrove forest without access by boat. This is why they are very tricky to see in the Sunderbans: walking is forbidden due to the danger of tigers. So when I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, I knew that I was very privileged.

The small nondescript bird flew up to a convenient perch on one of the higher mangrove bushes along the river. From there it began to sing, occasionally switching position but almost constantly in view for several minutes. So hard to find, so unexpected that this species wasn’t even on our trip checklist – a cumulative list from around 9 years of running this trip with 2 or 3 trips a year. Our guide has the honour of having seen over 1100 species of birds in India, yet the elusive thickhead only 5 or 6 times before.

DSCN3383c

The Mangrove Whistler sitting dignified on its mangrove perch

It’s Popping Hot

Some people find plants boring. However, they are very clever. How can a plant be clever? Through evolution, plants have developed many fascinating ways to survive and thrive.

The key to a plant’s success is largely in the seed dispersal technique. Without a way to disperse seeds, plants would not be able to colonise new suitable habitat and spread. Therefore plants have learnt to be ingenious in their methods of ensuring the future of generations to come.

Yesterday afternoon I was walking through my local farm when I heard a few pops coming from the vegetation beside the path. At first I thought they were the calls of a grasshopper or a cricket, but definitely not a species I had heard before. I stopped and waited to see if I could hear anymore. I did, and this time I thought they sounded like click beetles, but why would so many be clicking at the same time? I was puzzled by this strange sound until, accompanied by a pop, I saw a quick movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked closer to where the movement had come from but I couldn’t see anything that I thought could have made the sound, just a patch of vetch. Then I realised that the sound was coming from the vetch itself!

Vetches are plants related to peas, they have pods like peas although usually much smaller. The pods begin green, the same colour as the leaves, and then as they mature they turn darker until they are brown. Plants in the pea family often have pods that pop, which is advantageous to the plant as it is a great method of seed dispersal. This method ensures the seed is enough distance away from the parent plant to prevent overcrowding.

Before I witnessed the popping of the seed pods yesterday I had no idea how it actually worked. How did the pods pop? I have done a bit of research and what I found out was fascinating. On hot days like yesterday the seed pods dry out, aided by the dark colour of the mature pods in some species which absorb heat. During the drying process forces build up inside the pod until it reaches a point when the pod explodes. In most pods there are two lines of weakness running along the pod, and it is here where the tensions which are set up in the wall of the pod cause the pod to explode. Similar to when a pulled spring is let back, the two halves of the pod curl back at lightning speed which flicks the seeds out of the pod!

DSCN7983

These two pods are still green and have not dried enough to pop.

DSCN7981

Two seed pods which are ready to pop! They have dried in the hot weather and turned brown.

RSCN7986

Two freshly-popped seed pods, showing the two halves of the pod

 

Mongolian Dinosaur Bones

This is my first post on bones, I would love to do more but I’m not the luckiest of people with finding skeletons. I once found a freshly dead Robin, but somehow it was stolen under a bucket that was still upright. Unfortunately the bones that I am writing about today were not my find, but my dad’s.

My dad was very fortunate to be able to visit Mongolia on a birding trip while I was still beavering away at school. Understandably I was very jealous. But it wasn’t all birding, he visited the Flaming Cliffs and dug up some dinosaur bone fragments!

Mongolia is well known for its paleontology. The first ever dinosaur eggs were discovered in the Flaming Cliffs site of Mongolia’s Gobi desert. These eggs were discovered in 1923 by paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews who went on many paleontology expeditions throughout China and Mongolia. Chapman Andrews removed many of his finds from Mongolia. Now of course all bones must be left in situ, so the desert is strewn with small fragments. But there must still be big discoveries waiting to be made.

There are a few ways to tell bones from stones. The easiest method, and the one my Dad used, is that when a dinosaur bone is placed on your tongue, it should stick. It did, surprisingly well!

1 Garden, 24 Hours, 184 species!

…and counting! Last Sunday, the 5th, I took part in the Garden Bioblitz for the first time. The aim of a bioblitz is to record every species you find in an area within a period of time. For the Garden Bioblitz, you record every species you find in your garden during a 24 hour period.

To begin my Garden Bioblitz I looked through the moth trap from the previous night. There was a very wide range of species, including 23 that were new to me. The highlights were:

  • Great Oak Beauty – annual in Domewood, but Nationally Scarce B (NB).
  • Cacao Moth – usually found indoors in stores of products such as nuts, almonds, tobacco and cacao. I’ll be checking my muesli from now on…
  • Scorched Wing – a beautiful moth which is also classed as Local. There were 8 in the trap.
  • Peach Blossom – a great moth with a great name although quite common.
  • Cypress Carpet – quite an uncommon moth, which arrived in Britain through its host plant, cypress. There are lots of Lawson Cypress trees in the garden which probably explains its occurrence here.
  • Diamond-back Moth – for some reason, I rarely see immigrant moths. The Diamond-back Moth is only the third immigrant moth I’ve recorded. I recorded it for the first time during the last weekend of May, but there were 29 in the trap!

I also caught a very interesting beetle that had a very pungent smell. I thought it was a sexton beetle and I was right. However, I wasn’t too sure which species it was. It was all black and luckily there are only two all-black species in the British Isles: Necrodes littoralis (the Shore Sexton Beetle) and Nicrophorus humator (the Black Sexton Beetle). It turned out to be the Shore Sexton Beetle due to the antennal clubs not being brushes as in the Black Sexton Beetle. Thanks to Chris Brooks on iSpot for the identification. Sexton beetles are interesting because they feed on dead animals. If the dead animal is small then they will bury it to keep other scavengers from taking it. They do this by excavating the soil under the body so that the dead animal sinks into the ground. The adults lay eggs nearby and when the larvae hatch they crawl to the dead animal to feed and even be fed by the adult. Even though this beetle was caught in the moth trap there isn’t necessarily a dead animal nearby as they can fly quite long distances in order to find their food.

DSCN5597

After I had finished looking through the moth trap, I walked around the garden listing all the wild plants. Before I added the plants I already had a list of almost 70 and there was still lots to identify! Other non-moth highlights included a Canada Goose flock flying over and the first Grey Heron I have seen fly over the garden in more than a year. After I finished off the plants I had breakfast, meaning that I had a list of 130 before breakfast. Things were going well!

It wasn’t just plants that I added to my list on the walk around the garden. It was quite early but there were still some insects on the wing, including Rose Sawflies, Speckled Wood butterflies, Large White butterflies and various bees. I was even lucky to see the young fox that has been hanging around the garden for the past few weeks. It is not that shy, here is the photo I took when I first spotted it:

DSCN5342

After breakfast I looked under the logs and stumps in my garden. As always, they were brimming with slugs, beetles, woodlice and other creatures. The most common ground beetle was Agonum emarginatum, a species usually associated with damp habitats near freshwater. This makes sense as most of the stumps were near our tiny pond. The list of slug species was quite good too: Budapest Slug, Leopard Slug, Yellow Slug, Dusky Slug, Greenhouse Slug and Ambigolimax nyctelius, the species I found new to Surrey last year. When I first found it I had to send it off to Wales to get the genitalia looked at, but this confirmed the scientist’s suspicions that there were slight morphological differences between Ambigolimax nyctelius and the Greenhouse Slug. In my experience, Ambigolimax nyctelius is more boldly marked than the Greenhouse Slug.

Finally, the highlight of my bioblitz was finding an amazing fly species that I have been looking for in my garden since Tony Davis told me that it was likely to appear here. It’s not rare or scarce, but it is impressive. It is a species of hoverfly that mimics bees. It has many different forms that each mimic different bee species. It’s called the Narcissus Bulb Fly or the Greater Bulb Fly and it’s eggs are laid in bulbs of various species such as garden daffodils. I found a mating pair on a Bulbous Buttercup, perhaps the plant that the eggs were about to be laid in? The male seemed to be an Early Bumblebee mimic:

RSCN5654

However, I’m not sure which species the female was impersonating:

DSCN5662

It seemed to be all black except for the last 4 or 5 abdominal segments, which were off-white.

So, I’m currently on 184 species and hope to identify a few more for my bioblitz list.