Myrmecomorphy in action!

Sunday the 15th October was the date of the Amateur Entomologists’ Society field meeting at Rye Harbour Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve. It’s not often that I do a focused invertebrate hunt at this time of year, so I was looking forward to seeing what we found.

The field meeting was unexpectedly good on the arachnid side of things. I had no idea that the reserve was so rich in numbers and species of spider. We spent most of our time in a compartment of saltmarsh and shingle, where the shingle was really shallow. The layer of shingle was about two stones thick, and the soil beneath it was compact. This meant that the spiders could not escape deeper into the shingle as they would at most shingle sites.

One of the highlights of the field meeting spider-wise was the fantastic Myrmarachne formicaria. As the scientific name suggests, this species of spider is an ant-mimic (the prefix ‘myrm’ means ‘ant’ and a formicarium is an ant farm). The mimicry of ants in the animal kingdom is known as ‘myrmecomorphy’ and is quite common across a number of invertebrate orders. Invertebrates that are known to be ant mimics include young grasshoppers, true bugs (Hemiptera), flies, beetles and of course spiders.

But why do so many invertebrates mimic ants? Ants are known among the predators of invertebrates to be aggressive or distasteful, so they are avoided. And the predators will also avoid any insects that look like them, but lack any means of defence such as the young grasshoppers. This is known as Batesian mimicry, as it was first described by H W Bates. Some ant mimics have even gone as far as to mimic the ants chemically as well, by emitting ant-like pheromones, which is referred to as Wasmannian mimicry.

However, Myrmarachne formicaria may mimic ants for a different reason. It is thought that some spiders mimic ants not only for protection against predators but also so that they can hunt the ants themselves. Ants will overlook the spiders as one of their own colony, giving the spider the perfect opportunity for a meal. This type of mimicry is aggressive mimicry. As you can see from the photo below, the spider has a long abdomen, which helps it to resemble an ant.

Myrmarachne formicaria male by Evan Jones

Myrmarachne formicaria, photo by Evan Jones, one of the field meeting attendees.

Myrmarachne formicaria really was a fantastic sight, and I hadn’t personally seen anything like it before. It was fascinating to learn how and why so many different invertebrates mimic ants. The sheer number of ant mimics must indicate that ants are one of the most successful of all invertebrates.

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Technology: Help or Hindrance?

My recent blog post – Youth & Nature: Is There Hope? – sparked a lot of interesting discussion on the role that technology plays in connecting and inspiring young naturalists. I mentioned in the blog post that screens tend to consume hours of young people’s time that could profitably be spent outdoors. However technology clearly has many benefits as well. In this blog post, I’ll mention some of the many ways in which technology is aiding the development of young naturalists.

July 2016, the incredibly popular game Pokemon GO was released. The objective of the game is to go in search of Pokemon characters, and ‘catch’ them. This got hundreds of millions of people outside, doing an activity which could be equated to geocaching. But the problem was, were they really interacting with the natural world, or were they too engrossed in their screens to pay attention?

In my opinion geocaching is much better for getting children outside. It’s like a treasure hunt, where families can follow co-ordinates through wild landscapes to find hidden boxes. Many nature reserves and other wild spaces have geocaches hidden inside, and the fact that you are actively looking for a box in real life rather than on a screen means that you are far more attuned to the natural world around you. And when you’re out there, exploring, looking for geocaches, the chances are that you will bump into some brilliant wildlife.

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Furthermore, technology has been incredibly important in connecting most of the young naturalists I know today. Using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, young naturalists have been able to share their work and discuss ideas. Without a doubt, social media has given many young birders, botanists and all-round naturalists the support they need from others to get them going.

It may be, for some naturalists, that the daunting prospect of identifying things that they see is off-putting. One used to have to spend hundreds of pounds on literature to  master even a single group like fungi before technology. Now on social media like Twitter and Facebook there are accounts, groups and pages especially to help people identify what they have found. One example is the @MothIDUK Twitter page set up by Sean Foote, which answers many ID queries from puzzled naturalists every day. Without a doubt accounts, groups and websites like this are making naturalists’ lives far easier, and allowing them to enjoy nature that extra bit more.

Collins Bird Guide is one of several apps that have increased people’s connection with and knowledge of the natural world.

Finally, there’s no way that I would be writing this blog post without the help of technology. I wouldn’t be able to raise the issues of youth & nature, and the benefits of technology. I’d like to thank people like Calum Urquhart, Dara McAnulty, Megan Shersby, Josie Hewitt and others who reminded me that technology, although it can distract from the natural world, can also be incredibly useful for connecting existing naturalists and inspiring new ones. There are probably several points I’ve failed to mention here; and as technology advances I’m sure that the number of ways in which it benefits naturalists will increase. 

Youth & Nature: Is There Hope?

Only a few decades ago, before the advent of time-consuming technologies such as laptops and phones, getting out and enjoying nature was a thing of normality. Although many young people wouldn’t have considered it in that way, they were exploring the countryside and discovering the environment for themselves, which is what’s important.

In my view and that of many others, technology is the greatest factor that has caused the young people of this millennium to become sheltered from nature. Eyes just cannot be peeled from screens; young people are more often than not interacting with their phone or device rather than the natural world. Quality time needs to be spent away from one’s phones or tablets, however that so rarely happens.

Young people need to look (and be fascinated by) the intricate detail of all living organisms.

Another major reason for the decline in young people making connections to the natural world is over-protective parents. It is clear that there is a difference between the parenting styles of the 20th century to those of the 21st; as the years have progressed so has the reluctance of parents to let their children explore on their own. This has in many cases restricted children’s opportunities to get out and discover.

Ironically, phone technology allows today’s parents to keep a closer tab on their children by means of messaging and trackers. And children who are allowed to roam outside will roam outside. Young people have a natural tendency for exploration, and together with fascinating discoveries such as a bird’s nest or a badger sett, this can cement an interest. This interest will then stay with them, stimulating them to make positive changes later in life for the benefit of our planet.

Exploration allows young people to understand the world around them and build a better connection with nature.

The lack of opportuities for people to positively influence the environment is the aspect that most worries me in the recent decline in young people interested in wildlife. The more people are on their screens the less they can explore, and the less they can learn about how amazing nature can be. Without them realising how fascinating the natural world is, they feel no urge to protect it.

Therefore, I believe that the priority of people interested in the conservation of nature and the environment should be educating the youth of today. They need to be taught the weird and wonderful ways of wildlife so that they can see that nature really should be conserved. Obviously young people are the future of this planet; the future of this planet lies in their hands. We don’t want to see the environment neglected and disrespected in the decades to come, so we need to make it in the best interest of the next generation to preserve it.

Amazing and intimate encounters can stay with a young person for life.

But what can we do to help? We need to ensure that young people are inspired to cherish the world around them. We need to make sure that they are motivated to protect all living things no matter how seemingly insignificant they might be. We need to get them off their screens and instead we need to get them outside and exploring!

Slime Moulds: Fascinating and Complicated

It is without a doubt that the vernacular name ‘slime mould’ is not the most appealing, although the slime moulds themselves are often not the most appealing organisms to look at either. However, what they may lack in aesthetics they do make up for in pure ‘bizarreness’.

Taxonomy is the science of classifying living things into groups such as phyla, families and genera. And slime moulds, scientifically known as Myxomycetes (or ‘myxos’ for short), are a taxonomist’s worst nightmare. Their taxonomy is so poorly understood that even which kingdom they should be classified under is unclear. Some still class them as fungi, however others think they’re protists.

The reason why I find them so interesting is their behaviour when food is not plentiful. When there is a decent availability of nutrients, they will live single-celled lives; yet whenever food becomes hard to come by they will congregate together. Once they are in this state they will become able to detect food sources. When they congregate, they become noticeable, as they produce fruit bodies which release spores much like fungi. This helps these fascinating moulds to colonise new areas.

Yesterday, the last day of September, I was at a Sussex Fungus Group foray at Tilgate Park in Crawley. The diversity of fungi found was incredible, and we also came across this slime mould. It was identified as Stemonitopsis typhina, and what you can see in the photo are the immature fruit bodies. Given a short while, these fruit bodies will mature and release spores.

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However, not all slime moulds produce fruit bodies like this. Slime moulds can reproduce using gametes, asexually or a mixture of both. Far too complicated for me to understand at the moment! Perhaps as complicated as the fern reproduction I explained in a previous blog post. I think that there’s a lot still to learn about slime moulds.

 

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!

 

 

 

Sri Lanka 2017 Part 2: Kandy & Nuwara Eliya

Kandy is a major Sri Lankan city, known for its tea and also the Temple of the Tooth, one of the most sacred locations for Buddhists. Located in the intermediate zone, between the dry zone and the wet zone, the climate is akin to that of a rainforest. We were staying just outside of the city, at the Tree of Life hotel. All around us was rainforest.

We could tell that the area was going to be great for birdlife on the first afternoon of our stay there. Just walking a little distance from my room, I encountered a bird wave, or more formally a mixed-species foraging flock, that was moving through the hotel gardens. Bird waves often occur during the heat of the day when the flocks result in a higher feeding efficiency. Another reason for these flocks is the increase in the number of pairs of eyes, which makes spotting predators easier.

Usually flocks form around a particular species that initiates it, the so called ‘nuclear species’ and these are usually the centre of the flock and keep its form. Often these are babblers as their obvious vocalisations probably draw in birds from the surrounding area. However, in this flock there did not seem to be a ‘nuclear species’ but more or less equal numbers of each participating species.

As we had just left the dry zone and this was our first stay in the intermediate or wet zones, the birdlife was markedly different. Within the feeding flock we came across our first Jerdon’s Leafbirds, Golden-fronted Leafbirds, Sri Lanka Woodpigeons and Great Tits of the trip. The latter may not sound very exciting however it was distinctly paler than the Great Tits we get back in the UK,  and is treated by a lot of authorities as a separate species, the Cinereous Tit (Parus cinereus).

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Sri Lanka Woodpigeon

The highlight of my stay in Kandy was the session we spent in the hotel gardens during the evening, past nightfall. The hotel gardens are one of the best places to see the Giant Flying Squirrels, a species I was not expecting to see before going on this trip. Giant Flying Squirrels are mainly nocturnal animals, which have to travel from where they spend the day to where they feed at night. For the squirrels here this means crossing a road. However, they don’t do so on foot.

As it got darker, we waited on the road and scanned the canopy with our torches. Despite the tour group being unlucky last year, it wasn’t long until we spotted the eyeshine from the first flying squirrel. We watched it run along the branch right to the edge where it waited and assessed the situation. Soon it simply jumped into the air, splayed open its legs and glided into the trees on the other side of the road. Wow!

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Nuwara Eliya, the coolest town in Sri Lanka, was our next stop on our Sri Lankan tour. The town has a climate very similar to the UK’s, which made it popular with British pioneers looking for a taste of the country they came from. This has influenced several aspects of the town, especially the architecture. This town was very different to every other town we visited or passed through on our journey.

Sitting at quite an altitude, overlooked by Pidurutalagala, the highest mountain in Sri Lanka, its surroundings host lots of special birdlife including some species found solely in the Sri Lankan high hills. During our stay in the town, the first site we visited was Hakgala Botanical Gardens. The gardens were surprisingly good for wildlife, considering that it’s a very popular place for schoolchildren to play in at that time of day, once classes had finished. One of the highlights was the ‘Bear Monkeys’ – a speciality of the area.

Bear Monkeys are a subspecies of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, a Sri Lankan endemic. This subspecies was given the name ‘Bear Monkey’ due to their long shaggy coat which keeps them warm in this chilly climate.

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The following day we were out very early for our trip to Horton Plains, the main reason we were staying at Nuwara Eliya. Upon arrival at the national park, the only one in Sri Lanka where you can walk freely and don’t have to stay in a vehicle, we split into two groups. I chose the slower paced group as I thought that it would give me a greater chance of seeing more birds, and I was right!

I had two main targets for this walk, the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler and the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. I hadn’t very high hopes for the Whistling Thrush as its a very elusive species that usually only shows itself in the open at dusk or dawn, and by the time we had arrived at the park it was a bit too late in the day.

However, we did have luck with the other target, as not long after we set off I heard a short, clear call coming from the dry, scrubby montane forest. A small brown bird hopped into my view, only metres away, and began hopping around on a bank right next to the path. It was highly mobile and in deep cover, but it was a great sighting, especially after another Sri Lanka Bush Warbler joined it.

At one point along the walk, I stopped by a stream and waited a little while to see what turned up. This is the favourite habitat of the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, which nests in stream banks and patrols the streams to look for food. Although I predictably had no luck with the thrush, I did sense a movement behind me. I looked around to see, on a log barely a few feet away, a small dark squirrel hopping along. There are several species of squirrel in Sri Lanka, ranging in size from the Grizzled Giant Squirrel, about the size of a monkey, to this, the Dusky Striped Squirrel. An uncommon species, Horton Plains is one of the best places to see it.

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Now that we had explored the mid- and high-hills, we then headed back down into the lowlands. Next stop: Yala NP.

A few other photo-highlights from our stay in the hills:

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BTO Birdcamp 2017 – Part 3

It was just after 8pm on the Saturday evening, it was a crisp evening on Thetford Forest and the attendees of BTO Bird Camp 2017 were in a group on a ride through an area of young Scots Pine trees. We were with Greg Conway, who is working on tracking technologies for investigating the private life of one of our least-seen species, the Nightjar. It was very interesting to hear of his research, and tonight we were there to try and help with it.

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The Nightjar habitat at Thetford Forest

Right on cue, at 21:18, the first Nightjar was heard churring. The song of the Nightjar is a peculiar sound, quite unlike most other bird songs. As well as the male’s churring song the Nightjar produces another peculiar sound which is a loud, sharp cracking sound. This is not a vocal sound however. It is produced by the Nightjar’s body, and the sound was long attributed to the tips of the wings meeting each other in flight. However it is hard to believe that this is true as Nightjars, and other birds that make this sound such as Short-eared Owls, have very soft feathers that seem incapable of making such a sound in that way. One theory that seems plausible is that the quick downward motion of the wings creates the sound in the same way a whiplash would.

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This photo was about as good as it got with the light levels not exactly going hand-in-hand with bird photography!

The first Nightjar was seen shortly after, at about 9.30pm, sitting right on top of a pine tree. We were able to watch it churring in plain view for quite a while, before it flew away producing some ‘wing-clapping’ sounds. I was incredibly pleased with this sighting as it was the first time I had ever heard a Nightjar, despite living only about 20 minutes away from one of the best sites in Sussex, Ashdown Forest. Nightjars are well distributed across most of England, Wales and southern Scotland on heathland, moorland and similar habitats. So if you have what you think is a suitable location for these birds nearby and you live within the Nightjar’s distribution I would highly recommend an evening walk there!

It wasn’t long before two Nightjars were giving close, although often invisible, fly-bys of the group. Occasionally however they would come into view, and when they did they were incredibly close above our heads. It was a memorable experience and I don’t think it would be easy to get much better.

Well, I was about to get proved wrong as a car came driving up the track towards us from the direction of where several mist-nets had been erected. Mist-nets are very fine, thin nets; so-called as they are not easy to see. They catch birds easily and safely, without harming the birds in any way. I knew that the arrival of this car meant one of two things: either the ringers had given up trying to catch anything or a Nightjar had been successfully caught. To have gone from not seeing a Nightjar to seeing one in the hand in the space of a few hours was an excellent thought, so I was overjoyed when a white bag emerged from the car, containing a Nightjar.

The Nightjar was quicky ringed, biometrics were speedily measured and all other details were transcribed into the book of data. Following this was a chance to admire the bird for a short while as well as one to take photographs. It was amazing to be able to see an otherwise mysterious bird up close and in detail like this, and surely something I’ll never forget.

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Nightjar in the hand

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Nightjars are long-winged and long-tailed. This makes them much lighter than they look!

Although most of us didn’t get to sleep until midnight, that didn’t mean we were able to have a lie-in the next morning. We left the camp again a little after 6am, on our way to the Suffolk coast near Felixstowe and more specifically Landguard Bird Observatory.

I have only visited one bird observatory before and that was Portland Bird Observatory, in Dorset, last August. It was an eye-opening experience to see first-hand what work goes on at an observatory instead of just reading about the sightings on the internet. I loved my visit to Portland Bird Observatory, therefore I was eager to visit another one.

Although it was still early morning when we arrived at Landguard the sun was already beating down and most of the wildlife was awake and active. We passed a large patch of Green Alkanet flowers on our way to the observatory building, just outside Landguard fort, which provided a vital feeding stop for 3 or more migrant Painted Ladies which had crossed over from Europe in the warm weather during the previous week. These were my first Painted Ladies of the year.

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After pausing for a while to watch and photograph these strong insects (many fly all the way from Africa and still look pristine!) we continued on to the observatory building where we had a look at the observatory moth trap. It was really interesting to see how the lepidopterous fauna can change with habitat and geographical position. The species of moths were much different to what I usually find in my garden moth trap, so there were a number of lifers.

As in most moth traps there were lots of little brown jobs although also a fair few very interesting ones too – my favourite were the Small Elephant Hawk-moth and the Cream-spot Tiger.

The Small Elephant Hawk-moth is related to the much more common Elephant Hawk-moth although smaller and more brightly coloured. It is usually found in chalky and grassland habitats, where its foodplant (bedstraws) can be found. The Cream-spot Tiger is just as beautiful and impressive, with even more colour hidden behind its dark forewings with large cream-coloured spots. It has orange hindwings and a bright scarlet abdomen, which are revealed suddenly when the moth is startled to scare away a potential predator.

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Small Elephant Hawk & Cream-spot Tiger

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Cream-spot Tiger

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Small Elephant Hawk & Cream-spot Tiger showing its stunning hindwings!

Following the moth trap we went on a walk around the Landguard LNR. The LNR is a nice coastal reserve, with breeding Ringed Plovers probably the star attraction. Most pairs had chicks, in differing stages of development with some still quite young although others well developed. It was also great to learn about the shingle habitat and the plants that grow there.

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Ringed Plover parent

After leaving the observatory the plan was to go to a piece of beautiful Suffolk heathland where we might be in for a chance to see another very elusive species, the Dartford Warbler. The Dartford Warbler is a species mostly southern in its British distribution, therefore it would be a lifer for many of the young birders who had come from Northern England or Scotland.

Upon arrival at this heath we were immediately greeted by the luscious song of a Woodlark, coming from right above our heads. This was a big surprise as Woodlarks are not common in Suffolk and therefore a very good species to see. It was excellent to watch performing its song flight, with the song of Yellowhammers also in the background. I wasn’t able to get a good photo of the Woodlark (it just turned out as a dot in the sky) however a Yellowhammer singing on a bush behind us was more than happy to pose for photographs.

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Singing Yellowhammer

We walked down a track through the centre of the heath and there we waited to try and get a glimpse of our target species. Although there were loads of other birds, a hunting female Kestrel, several Stonechats including a recently fledged youngster and a flyover Yellow Wagtail (my first of the year) we ended up waiting quite a long time without any luck. That was until David Walsh, a bird guide who was helping out, came running along the road where the vans were parked exclaiming that he had seen a Dartford Warbler on the other side of the heath. We all quickly made our way towards where the bird had been seen and scanned the area to see if we could re-find the bird.

After a few minutes of searching, someone eventually spotted the bird and tried to get everyone else onto it. I struggled at first as it was quite distant and exactly matched the colour of the heather, however when it flew it was easily seen. Luckily, I think everyone managed to catch a glimpse of the bird. Looking back at some photos it appeared to have a few green caterpillars held in its beak; the Dartford Warbler was feeding young in a nest!

After a very enjoyable break for lunch at a nearby pub we were on to our last site of the weekend, RSPB Hollesley Marshes. We soon set out to walk through the reserve towards the sea wall. A Marsh Harrier drifted over the wetland in the distance while Swallows hawked for insects over the water’s surface. The track-verge was bursting with umbellifers and insects sipping the nectar, and damselflies danced on the leaves of Horse Chestnuts. It was clear that this reserve was one that was full of life.

As we walked towards the sea wall, we  passed a smaller marsh on our right. Here we could see Shelducks, and Avocet and a single Common Gull. From the sea wall we could see back over the marsh and out to the choppy water of the Alde River and the North Sea. Several Common Terns flew up and down the river and Herring and Black-headed Gulls battled the strong winds to keep in the air. Plenty of Avocets could be seen on the marsh, as well as a single Teal which was a surprise.

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Avocet with food

Finally, we stopped off at a hide that overlooked the larger marsh. From here we were treated to a close-up view of a Swallow on the wires just metres away and some close sightings of Linnets too. Avocets gave good views once again – a good end to our visit to this RSPB reserve and to the Bird Camp as a whole.