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 ChocĆ³ 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!

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 notĀ sensu stricto.

The goldeneye lichen,Ā Teloschistes chrysophthalmus,Ā 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-adultĀ 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 theĀ Teloschistes, the incredibly painful scramble back to the pub once the hail set in was absolutely worth it.

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