My top 10 natural history highlights of 2020

It would be hackneyed to describe 2020 as a year like no other, although it certainly provided a fresh set of challenges which I had never had cause to experience before. However, through all of the disruption, this year cemented the fact that fascinating wildlife is wherever you look for it, even when you’re confined to your garden or local park.

  1. Long-eared Owl, Isle of Sheppey, Kent

My first wildlife highlight of the new year came on January 2nd, in a gravel car park on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent with Calum Mckellar. The aim of the trip was to get our birding year lists off to a good start (although for me at least, for obvious reasons, this did fall by the wayside as spring advanced). In that regard the foray was a great success, with Bearded Tits, Barnacle Geese, White-fronted Geese, a Tundra Bean Goose and my best ever views of the notoriously hard-to-see Long-eared Owl in its daytime roost.

Long-eared Owl, Isle of Sheppey

2. Entomobrya corticalis, Broad Oak, Sussex

2020 was a year full of springtail highlights. With such an under-recorded group, there is plenty of scope for some exciting and rare finds. During the first half of the year, these included the first Surrey records of Pogonognathellus flavescens and the undescribed species Jordanathrix nr. superba (the latter in my garden). My favourite, however, was the first Sussex record of the arboreal Entomobrya corticalis, while I should have been looking for mosses and liverworts at a bryophyte recording meeting!

Entomobrya corticalis, Broad Oak, Sussex

3. Rhinoceros Beetle (Sinodendron cylindricum), my garden

At the start of the year, I was gifted a pair of vane traps from the co-ordinator of the National Agromyzidae Recording Scheme (a family of leaf-mining flies). Vane traps are traps designed to intercept flying insects, allowing the recording of many species one would not normally encounter. One of the traps was deployed in my garden during the spring, summer and early autumn and, among many other fantastic invertebrates, caught not one but two Rhinoceros Beetles. Despite being one of Britain’s largest beetles and the evidence of them breeding in my garden, this was a completely new species for me!

Rhinoceros Beetle, my garden

4. Inostemma boscii, my garden

One of the more welcome challenges of 2020 was attempting to get to grips with the identification of parasitic wasps. To the naked eye, most chalcidoid wasps look like tiny, black, boring insects, yet under the microscope are intricately beautiful and interesting. Inostemma boscii was one such example: a <2mm wasp swept from long grass in my garden, the female of this species has a remarkable horn (cornutus) which it uses to store its long ovipositor, used by the wasp to lay eggs in the early stages of gall midges.

Inostemma boscii, my garden

5. Agrilus laticornis, Hedgecourt Lake, Surrey

A lot of my time in summer was spent on my local patch, Hedgecourt Lake. On one visit, on the shore of the lake (unusually), I found what I had been looking for for a long time, a jewel beetle. Despite being the most speciose of all animal genera, the genus Agrilus is not the easiest to find in the UK nor the easiest to identify, but I was able to put this find to good use and make a short identification video for British jewel beetles:

6. Orchesella flavescens, Hedgecourt Lake, Surrey

Agrilus laticornis was far from my only wildlife highlight from Hedgecourt during the year. Again, springtails are featuring in these highlights, with this find definitely in the running for my favourite of the year. Orchesella flavescens is a winning combination of beautiful, distinctive and very rare, not being seen in the UK between 1925 and 2009. To find it so very close to home was the icing on the cake. The other springtail highlights of the second half of the year were Surrey’s first Folsomia manolachei, the rarest Lepidocyrtus species (L. ruber), the first record of Ptenothrix atra from Sussex, swiftly followed by finding P. atra in my own garden, the second record for Surrey after the first in 1943.

Orchesella flavescens, Hedgecourt Lake, Surrey

7. Ponera coarctata, my neighbour’s garden

In August I was given the opportunity to conduct a wildlife survey in a neighbour’s garden in return for a donation to Reserva: The Youth Land Trust (http://www.reservaylt.org). The donation, in support of Reserva’s work to purchase a nature reserve in Ecuador’s Choc√≥ Rainforest using solely youth-raised funds, was not the only benefit of conducting the survey. I also uncovered a rare new ant species for me, Ponera coarctata, a very localised denizen of warm sites in southern Britain. This record complements other cryptic ants I found in my own garden this year: Lasius brunneus, an arboreal woodland species, Stenamma debile and Temnothorax nylanderi, tiny ants of leaf-litter.

Ponera coarctata, my neighbour’s garden.

8. An abundance of Ivy Bees (Colletes hederae), Pulborough Brooks RSPB, West Sussex

In contrast to just a few years ago, Ivy Bees are no longer a rare species but rather the opposite, which is what makes them such a spectacle. In September, Arjun Dutta, Samuel Levy and I joined Mya Bambrick on her charity walk at Pulborough Brooks RSPB, raising money for the Cameron Bespolka Trust (https://www.cameronbespolka.com/). Alongside some brilliant bird sightings, we also had the opportunity to immerse ourselves amongst hundreds of Ivy Bees busy foraging on a wall of ivy:

9. Caloptilia honoratella, West Runton, Norfolk

Over the course of the year I’ve been assisting a few young lepidopterists with my improving dissection skills, a necessary facet of moth identification in many cases, allowing accurate records of more obscure species to be made (known colloquially as gen. det., for genitalia determination). During 2020 I wasn’t able to visit Norfolk, and I’ve never been to West Runton. However, thanks to some specimens from Louis Parkerson, I was still able to contribute to our knowledge of the Norfolk moth fauna. One of these specimens transpired to be Caloptilia honoratella, the 7th British record and first record for Norfolk. This accompanies the first Coleophora orbitella for East Norfolk and the first records of Grapholita molesta, Oegoconia caradjai and Parornix carpinella for Berkshire, the latter three courtesy of Finley Hutchinson.

10. Rustic and Little Buntings, Thursley Common, Surrey

The final natural history highlight of 2020 is a two-in-one. Both Little Bunting (below, left) and Rustic Bunting (below, top right) are very scarce birds in the UK, and even more so in landlocked Surrey. Both buntings breed in the taiga of north-eastern Europe and northern Russia, a far cry from balmy Surrey. However, both species have been frequenting the same bush on Thursley Common since October, and are still in residence as I type. I was fortunate to see both buntings on a visit in mid-December, before Waverley was put into Tier 4. Since then, to further tantalise the birders unable to visit, a second Little Bunting has joined the flock!

It is clear that despite staying local during 2020, this has had little effect on the quality of the wildlife I’ve been able to see. In fact, building up a good picture of the wildlife present in your immediate area is perhaps even more important for biological recording and nature conservation. Going into 2021, I’ll be interested to see which other members of the local fauna I can uncover!

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!

Flower of the Illyrians

Yesterday, 2nd September, was the final field meeting of the year for the Sussex Botanical Recording Society at Chailey Common. Chailey Common is a good example of where conservation grazing has been put into place, in order to keep dominant vegetation to a level that won’t swamp more precious flora. Sheep, ponies and cattle are rotated around the commons in order to control plants such as birch, gorse and bramble that will degrade the quality of the heathland habitat if they get out of control.

It was great to see how this conservation grazing was working. It allows smaller and more fragile wildflowers to grow as well as others that may have been at risk from habitat loss. We recorded a good number of scarce and interesting plants, including Heath Milkwort, Scented Agrimony and Lesser Skullcap.

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Scented Agrimony, with subtly notched petals distinctive of this species.

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A flower of Heath Milkwort, so-called as farmers thought that allowing their cattle to feed on this plant would increase milk yields.

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The minuscule flower of Lesser Skullcap.

However there was one stand-out highlight, and that was a small patch of Marsh Gentians. Gentians are often a favourite of photographers as they have a photogenic beauty. I am not a photographer, but I did try my best with the following shots.

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The Marsh Gentian is quite a locally distributed plant, growing on wet heathlands rather than marshes. It does benefit from grazing, which is perhaps why some of its main strongholds are places like the New Forest and Ashdown Forest.

It is one of a number of Gentian species in the UK, in the genus¬†Gentiana,¬†including Autumn Gentian and Field Gentian. On a global scale it is cosmopolitan, with around 400 species; and some species are known to have been used in herbal medicines for quite a variety of ailments. These range from cancer to malaria to parasitic worms, however studies have been conducted that don’t prove that it has any benefits beyond a placebo effect! Despite this, the genus name¬†Gentiana is in honour of the Illyrian king Gentius, who supposedly discovered the plant’s tonic qualities. What it is definitely known to be good for however, is as a dye, especially the Marsh Gentian.

 

Marsh Gentian is my 500th British plant and although summer is now over and most flowering plants are past their peak, there are still late summer and autumn species in bloom. Some of these I hope to see over the next few weeks!

 

 

 

Photo-Stacking at the Angela Marmont Centre

On Wednesday I was very lucky to be able to visit the Angela Marmont Centre at the Natural History Museum in London. The Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity is an amazing place for naturalists in the United Kingdom that is available for anyone to use. With such a range of resources such as the photo-stacking equipment; a huge library; and the whole of the British collections, it really is invaluable.

I have used the photo-stacking equipment here once before and I really do think it is a very clever piece of kit. It takes lots of photos (I took around 65 for each specimen) all at different focal points and then merges them together using software called Helicon Focus. With all of the different focal points on the specimen covered, there is no part of the specimen that is out of focus and it is all very sharp. This produces a clear image that can show many different features, excellent for identification or illustration of species.

I think that photo-stacking is incredibly useful for a number of projects. For example, if you were writing an identification guide and space was limited, you could in many cases show all the features of an organism in just a single photograph. Also for illustrating an article or a short piece of writing where there is a limit to the number of photographs, you could include just a single image with all of the key features clear and visible.

Below are a few of the photo-stacked images that I took using the equipment. You can find all of the images of the identified specimens on this page. I still have some photographed specimens that I need to identify, and I will post them on that page once I have put a name to them.

Stenodema calcarata labelled

 This Mirid bug is just 8mm from head to end of the abdomen. Its distiguishing feature is the two short spines on the hind femur. This separates this species and the very similar Stenodema laevigata.

 

 

Poecilus cupreus labelled

This is the largest specimen that I photographed, 13mm. This rather big Carabid beetle was swept from a patch of nettles, much to my surprise!

Agriotes pallidulus labelled

This is a very small Elaterid, or click beetle, only 4mm long. When they are threatened they often roll onto their backs and catapult themselves upwards to escape predators and they make a ‘click’ sound as they do so.