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 Chocó 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!

Dotards of Ditchling

The Eurasian dotterel is a bird which doesn’t seem so far removed from its close relatives upon first glance, yet a sortie into its ecology soon proves this to be untrue. Its appearance, particularly in the winter months, resembles a golden plover, although the dotterel is classified in the same genus as the ringed plovers. However, unlike the ringed plovers – and practically every other European plover – dotterel are very rarely found near water. Dotterel will breed in the summer months at the very top of mountains and plateaux, which in the UK means upland Scotland and a select few sites in northern England. So how did I manage to photograph the bird below at Ditchling Beacon, in south coast Sussex?

Eurasian dotterel, Ditchling Beacon, photographed with my phone through my telescope.

Apart from its unusual habitat choices, another interesting aspect of this species’ behaviour is its migration habits. In spring, and occasionally in autumn, this species will migrate in parties known as ‘trips’, which can number about 20-30 individuals nowadays. In both seasons another peculiar feature of their migration is that they regularly stop over at traditional sites, which many decades ago would draw hunters from far and wide. These traditional sites seem to be clustered further north but there are a handful in southern counties, with Ditchling Beacon occasionally hosting the bird. The ‘trips’ won’t always stay true to their traditional sites, with the first group of dotterel to be recorded in Surrey for 128 years appearing near Banstead in 2012.

On passage, the group of 3 dotterel I was fortunate enough to see last week had swapped the mountaintops of the Scottish Highlands for the stubble fields of Ditchling Beacon, with the English Channel just visible in the distance to the right of the image.

The word ‘dotterel’ was used in the 1400s for someone simple-minded or a dotard as well as for the bird, and it is unsure which word stemmed from which. The dotterel is so-called due to the ease with which one can approach them, making them easy targets for hunters in addition to their predictable movements. As you can see from the photo above, I was not willing to approach the Ditchling birds too closely in case they were disturbed. Birds on migration have enough trials to overcome without the added pressures of humans and dogs disturbing birds when they could be feeding and putting on weight for the next leg of their journey.

An identification composite from Crossley.

Third in the list of unusual details of dotterel ecology is their plumage. The three Ditchling birds were all either juveniles or winter-plumaged, so more dull than one would expect to see them on their breeding grounds. However, as the ID composite above shows, dotterel are very attractive birds in the summer months. As you might anticipate, the two birds in the foreground are adults in breeding plumage, although the sex of each might surprise you. The duller bird on the left is the male, while the more strikingly-plumaged individual on the right is the female.

The dotterel is one of the very few bird species in which the roles of either sex could be considered reversed, with the male incubating the eggs and taking care of the chicks, and therefore requiring more camouflaged feathering. The females on the other hand are polyandrous, producing several clutches with different males each season. This is rare in birds, with only a tiny fraction of species exhibiting this behaviour, mostly shorebirds such as phalaropes and jacanas. Polygyny, the male equivalent, is much more frequent, occurring in 8% of bird species, such as birds-of-paradise and grouse, in comparison to the 0.4% of bird species which are polyandrous. Polygynandry is the rarest mating system, where both the males and females are promiscuous. There may be several reasons why these behaviours are practised, but in polyandrous species the clutch success rate is often lower. As a result, it is more beneficial for the female to have her progeny guarded by multiple males in the hope that at least one of them is a competent father.

As you can see, the dotterel is a fascinating bird, much more so than one would have assumed from my photo above. I hope that trips of dotterel will long be stopping off at their regular haunts for many migration cycles to come, and I hope that soon I’ll have the chance to see their unusual breeding behaviour first hand.

I smell a rat

16th July, World Snake Day

The region of southern Ontario where I was lucky enough to be able to stay for a couple of weeks in the first half of July holds an important yet threatened population of the Gray Ratsnake, Pantherophis spiloides. While participating in the memorable BIOSPHERE Youth Environmental Leadership Expedition at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS) on the shores of Lake Opinicon, the enthusiastic program leader Dr. Shelley Ball interrupted our dinner one evening with a Gray Ratsnake she had just hand-caught. Perhaps one of the few things I will stop dinner for!

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Gray Ratsnake being held by Shelley

Gray Ratsnakes are one of Canada’s largest snakes. They are the largest in terms of length, with adult able to reach over six feet from head to tail, but are pipped by Bullsnakes with regard to mass.

During the expedition at QUBS, we were treated to a short presentation by Matt and Meg who are working on how to prevent the decline of this sizeable snake. One of the leading causes of fatalities in this species is road collisions. The dark colouration of the ratsnakes means that they are often mistaken for the shadows of overhead branches on roads, and are therefore not noticed by motorists. Even when they are recognised as snakes drivers have a hard time avoiding them, as due to their length they can easily stretch across the entire width of the road.

On account of this, Matt and Meg are working on avoiding these snake RTAs by reducing the incidences of snakes crossing the road. They are helping to develop snake-proof fences which aim to guide the snakes to specially-built culverts which they can use to get to the other side of the road without risking being hit. Gray Ratsnakes are semi-arboreal and spend lots of their time in trees, so are adept climbers. The fences to be implemented, therefore, need to be resistant to climbing by these agile snakes. Creating fences that not even ratsnakes can ascend also prevents a wide variety of other wildlife such as turtles from being hit and allows them to utilise the culverts as well.

Gray Ratsnakes are remarkably docile and are rarely aggressive when handheld. When threatened they do possess the abilility to release the contents of the cloaca, musking the assailant with a foul smell. However, the related Northern Water Snake behaves in this manner with far greater regularity. It, like the Gray Ratsnake, is non-venomous, so has to make itself as unappealing to predators as possible, by releasing both musk and excrement. Despite the lack of venom, the bites are still painful and the saliva of the Northern Water Snake has an anticoagulant which causes the bite to bleed more freely. However, although it might sound threatening, the water snake is another fascinating reptile.

I had the good fortune of glimpsing a Northern Water Snake on one occasion at QUBS as it swam past the boathouse. As its name suggests, it is a very strong swimmer. It will take sleeping fish at night in shallow water and during the day it will hunt other prey such as crayfish and amphibians among vegetation at the water’s edge.

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Northern Water Snake snaking through the water at the QUBS boathouse

To finish off this post for World Snake Day, I’ll mention the third species of snake we encountered on our expedition at QUBS, which was also the most numerous. The Common Garter Snake is, as its name suggests, frequent, but also fairly skittish. As a result, they are difficult reptiles to photograph. However, nearing the end of the expedition we disturbed one from a pile of dead leaves near the library. It retreated to a stone wall, from which it poked its head out to survey the scene, giving a rare opportunity to photograph this species.

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A curious Common Garter Snake.

The Common Garter Snake, like all but one snake in Ontario, is another non-venomous species. Snakes are often misrepresented as being solely dangerous creatures. However, less than a fifth of the world’s snake species are considered a threat to human health, with very few venomous snakes being found in the more populated temperature regions of the world. Instead of being feared, snakes should be more appreciated for their incredible diversity and fascinating range of habits.

Sussex Rarities – Hairstreaks & Clubtails

This morning, having heard some exciting news on the website of the Sussex branch of Butterfly Conservation, I found myself in Ditchling Common Country Park, scanning bracken after bracken with my binoculars. I was looking for a Black Hairstreak or two. The windy and overcast conditions were not conducive to my hopes of sightings along the lines of the day-count of 98 that was made earlier in the month!

These numbers are quite extraordinary considering the fact that this species was only confirmed to be found in Sussex just over a week ago. Following a few battered individuals found at the same site last year, a survey has been undertaken to determine the presence of this colony. Its appearance here is particularly notable as this site is far from the existing distribution of this species in the UK. It is thought to be confined to a band of clay soil in the Midlands, mainly Cambs, Northants and Oxon.

The closest Black Hairstreaks have previously come to Sussex is Surrey, where they were introduced in the middle of the 20th century. However, the habitat at the introduction site was destroyed and the species disappeared there. The species is not known for their long distance movements or dispersal at all, in fact patches of identical habitat to where they are found elsewhere on the same site often go uninhabited due to the reluctance of the butterfly to travel long distances. Therefore it is thought that this colony is also an introduction similar to the Surrey one, although despite it only being discovered very recently it is likely that the species first appeared in the 1990s – this is because the expanse of the population at Ditchling Common suggests that it has been expanding for quite a while. It’s so slow that the rate of expansion, even of a healthy population, is estimated to be only about a kilometre per decade!

Now, back to this morning. The foodplant of the Black Hairstreak is Blackthorn, and it was in abundance at the country park. This was especially true at a corridor that extends from the fish pond south-west to the Folders Lane East. This was where we focused our searching, which turned out eventually to be the right idea. At 10.30 the sunshine finally made a prolonged appearance and the wind died down slightly. This appeared to trigger the daily emergence of the hairstreaks to warm up on the bracken. The first one we found was perched at quite a gradient on one of the fronds, perfectly angled towards the sun. After a few minutes of sitting very still, it switched sides rather in the fashion of a sunbather aiming for an even tan. As it had not yet gained enough thermal energy it was being quite ‘co-operative’, allowing for great views. This sighting was repeated with up to three other Black Hairstreaks, a very satisfying way to see a new butterfly species for me: not a common occurrence!

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Although the sexes are hard to differentiate on physical appearance, it is likely that those we found were females. The males will emerge earlier, in order to have established a territory prior to the emergence of the females. They will fiercely defend their territory, which is usually centred around an oak known as the ‘master oak’, and approaching the end of the flight period this activity will render them quite battered and damaged. It is likely that this species is past its peak already this year. The species’ very short flight period is one reason why this colony may have remained undiscovered for such a long period of time. Years where the population is dramatically increased compared to previous and following years are also characteristic of this species. It is likely that this year is one of these ‘boom years’ which is what may have lead to this year being the one in which this colony was finally discovered. So if you haven’t yet had a chance to visit this true Sussex rarity, I would recommend that you do so sooner rather than later. Their short adult stage will be over before the end of June, and in future years there probably won’t be as many as there have been this year.

Black Hairstreaks are not the only entomological rarity I’ve had the good luck to see in Sussex this month. At the beginning of the month I took a walk along a small stretch of the River Rother, near Fittleworth in West Sussex. Having been advised about their presence there by Amy Robjohns and Olly Frampton, I was on the lookout for Common Clubtails, a species that isn’t actually as common in the UK as its name suggests. On the British Dragonfly Society website it is described as “extremely local”, only being found on a few rivers in Wales and southern and central England.

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However, its scarcity on a national basis was certainly not evident along this tranquil, luscious river in the mid-morning sun. Along only a few hundred metres of the river we managed to find at least 10 either hunting along the river or perched on bankside vegetation and overhanging willows. The vast majority were males which were patrolling their recently acquired territories while many females would be seeking protection in the nearby woodlands away from the water. They will soon return to mate and lay a new batch of eggs, which will complete their immature stages in the silty riverbed within 3-5 years.

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