Beluga in the Thames!

Contrary to my normal style, this blog post’s title is a little more self-explanatory than usual. This is so that when I’m scrolling through the archives in fifty years time I’ll be able to instantly recognise what this post will be about: something I’d never even considered possible.

If I was looking ahead to today from this point last week, I would probably be wondering how I’d managed to book a flight to Greenland or Svalbard at such short notice, and why it was a mild 17 degrees at such high latitudes. At the very least, I would be curious as to where I’d sourced my drugs from. I cannot believe that this morning I was enjoying a plate of chips in the warm sun at a table outside the Ship & Lobster on Mark Lane in Gravesend, Kent, while behind me a Beluga surfaced, just behind a barge with the words ‘Working for the Tidal Thames’ inscribed on its side.

The whale was first found by Dave Andrews on Tuesday, and I imagine he must have had the shock of his life when he spotted it. I certainly would have, with this record constituting one of the most southerly records of this species in the world. Belugas have a circumpolar distribution, with the nearest populations to the UK being over 2500km away. I was surprised to find out that this is the 19th sighting of Belugas in UK waters, although they have chiefly been seen in the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney, with outlying locations being off Northumberland and Northern Ireland, both in 2015.

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The stretch of the Thames where we saw the Beluga

Belugas are interesting among whales as they can easily tolerate brackish and even freshwater. They are quite at home in estuaries and during summer often travel hundreds of kilometres up rivers in search of fish. In the remote polar regions they usually inhabit, this is fairly risk-free. The Thames is something else, however. As you can see from the above photo, residing in the Thames is not without its dangers. During the short while we were watching the sub-adult Beluga, about half-a-dozen vessels passed right over where the Beluga was seen just minutes before including a couple of massive ships.

Although, ship strikes are not the only danger this whale may have to face. There is also, of course, a higher concentration of plastic in the river than it will be used to. If it ingests too much it will die a slow and painful death. No doubt the overall relatively balmy climate will have an effect, although I’m not sure exactly how. But if Belugas weren’t affected by warm temperatures, then they wouldn’t be restricted to such icy climes.

It will be interesting to see how this Beluga’s slight wander will pan out. The best case scenario is that it will be seen swimming downstream and into the North Sea, where its instincts will kick in and it will swim back north to where it ought to be. To finish this blog post, here is a video of the couple of times I managed to record ‘Benny the Beluga’ coming up for air (email subscribers may have to click through to the blog to view the video):

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Coot-like coot-foot

Scientific names, often consisting of a mix of Greek and Latin, can sometimes be a little peculiar. For example, Phalaropus translates to coot-foot, and fulicarius to coot-like, to produce the scientific name for the Grey Phalarope. It isn’t really coot-like on outward appearance at all, only the feet as suggested in the generic name Phalaropus.

Phalaropes are waders, but are unusual among the group as they have partially webbed feet (like coots). This allows them not only to feed along the muddy margins of wetlands but also to lead a pelagic lifestyle, often congregating in large numbers offshore on their way to spend the winter in tropical oceans. The nearest they breed to the UK is in Iceland and the east coast of Greenland. Phalaropes are also unusual in their breeding behaviour. Their breeding plumage is an attractive rusty-red although uncommonly among birds, the females have the more beautiful attire. This is because they perform the courtship displays as well as defend the territory. In this role-reversal, the males incubate the nest and look after the young as they are developing.

Grey Phalaropes pass through UK waters twice a year on their migration, although mostly keeping out of sight of dedicated sea-watchers on coastal headlands. This all changes, however, when events like those earlier this week occur.

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I was lucky to see this male Grey Phalarope in breeding plumage on the Svalbard Archipelago in Arctic Norway a few years ago.

On Wednesday, Storm Ali struck the UK, powering its way from the west with wind speeds in excess of 100mph. Less than two days later, Storm Bronagh also blew in from the Atlantic. The combination of these two systems had notable effects on sea-going birds, particularly Grey Phalaropes. Over the past few days they’ve been turning up all over the UK, including double-figure counts at locations in the South-West. Of this large number, around 60 were found at inland locations, one of which being Bough Beech Reservoir in Kent. This is only a half hour drive away from me, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see my first British phalarope.

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The Grey Phalarope at Bough Beech Reservoir. It has been aged as a first-winter, meaning that it hatched this year somewhere in the Arctic.

Sadly, as with any vagrant bird, it is likely that at least some of these displaced phalaropes will be unable to make it back to where they’re supposed to go. Storm-driven birds often use up a lot of energy on their wayward journeys and cannot find enough food where they end up. Furthermore, birds like these phalaropes have usually never seen humans before in their remote, high-latitude nesting grounds. Therefore, they are frequently confiding and approachable, putting themselves at huge risk. Fingers crossed that this one gets back on track!

 

The People’s Walk for Wildlife – my three hopes

It is fair to say that a better day could have been chosen weather-wise for today’s People’s Walk for Wildlife, although that didn’t stop thousands of people old and young making their voices heard in London. There were attendees from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands and even Uganda! This illustrates how much we care about the state of our environment and the unfathomable diversity of species it supports. Everyone at the walk today shared a common goal: to restore wildlife to the condition it was in before the disastrous effects of the Anthropocene. However, I have three hopes for the near future which I’d love to be fulfilled.

1. Large-scale rewilding

I’m lucky enough to be able to visit the Knepp Estate in West Sussex fairly regularly for bird ringing and general wildlife recording. It is one of several rewilding projects in the UK but the only one of its kind in the South-East, which is what makes it even more special.

The idea of rewilding involves restoring ecosystems to how they were in prehistoric times – before humans reaped such major consequences on the environment – mainly by reintroducing or replicating the megafauna which would have populated them. In less densely populated areas of the UK, there are plans and ambitions to reintroduce large carnivores such as lynx and wolves. However, in the South-East, there is simply not enough space for a thriving population of animals such as these. Yet, rewilding at Knepp has still had a noticeable effect on biodiversity without such iconic predators. On the estate, large herbivores/omnivores have been introduced to mimic those which would have been present in England many centuries ago. Free-roaming Tamworth pigs rootle in the undergrowth in the place of wild boar; longhorn cattle fill a niche which would previously have contained aurochs; Exmoor ponies replicate the benefits tarpan (Eurasian wild horses) would have had on the ecosystem.

It is evident that rewilding has already greatly benefitted Knepp’s wildlife. The pigs have produced bare ground ideal for nesting solitary bees. The tough cattle and ponies have prevented unique species-rich grassland and scrubland from reverting to woodland.

The idea came about at the start of the millennium when the lack of profit from the working farm the estate once was became a problem. Fields had to take up every scrap of available land and push wildlife to the edge in order to produce a good crop. Therefore, Charlie Burrell and his wife Isabella Tree (who has written a book on this subject entitled ‘Wilding’ – highly recommended as this blog post far from explains everything!) decided to think outside the box.

If rewilding can be so successful on a lowland farm surrounded by towns and less than forty miles from the centre of London, then it can surely also be implemented on farms nationwide. This would bring back biodiversity we have not experienced for many generations.

2. Putting nature back into childhood

The younger years are when lifelong interests are kindled. What’s experienced during childhood can spark a passion that can burn for decades. Long gone are the days when playing in the wilderness used to be the default for children, replaced by addictive screens. Without learning to love and appreciate even the wildlife on their doorstep, there is no chance that young people will be the driving force for conservation in the future. This is why it’s imperative to teach the next generation why our natural heritage is something that must be conserved.

3. Leave no species under-recorded

It is a simple truth that we cannot conserve a species if we don’t know its ecology, where it’s distributed or even if it exists. This is why recording the species we come across is so important for conservation. Even records one might consider as commonplace, such as a harlequin ladybird overwintering in the corner of your living room, can feed vital data to recording schemes. How far has this invasive ladybird spread? Which times of year is it most active? What consequences is the advent of this non-native having on our indigenous species? These are all questions that a few seconds spent uploading a record could answer.

There are many easy ways to submit records. Many recording schemes accept records from the Biological Records Centre’s iRecord website. Alternatively, you can email records directly to the relevant recording scheme or records centre. A list of recording schemes can be found here.

Daily, exciting new records are being made nationwide; a new species for a county, or even a country. Anyone can make a ground-breaking discovery just by sending in a record. There are tens of thousands of invertebrate species, thousands of fungi, thousands of plants, algae, lichens, mosses in the UK alone. Every one of them is equal, and requires conserving just as much as the iconic birds and mammals. Yet, there is no chance of preventing a planning application from destroying a site if there is no data on any scarce or declining species which might inhabit it. There is no possibility of stemming the invasion of a non-native species if we don’t know that it has arrived. There is no way of managing a habitat for a species if we don’t know which kind of habitat it prefers.

The catastrophic decline of biodiversity in this country and elsewhere in the world must be halted, and if possible reversed; our own futures depend on it. The simple tasks listed here would begin to help; but there is much much more to be done.

Skulker

As many of you will know, I am a trainee bird ringer and have been since 2014. Involved in the complicated process is putting a small, lightweight ring on the leg of a bird, on which is inscribed a unique number. This enables individual birds to be recognised if they are later recaught or found dead, allowing ornithologists to learn more about their migration and biology.

In my four years of being a ringer, I’ve had the chance to ring a wide variety of bird species, ranging from over 100 Blue Tits to some scarcities including Yellow Wagtail, Redstart, Wheatear and Wood Warbler and larger birds such as Stock Dove and Woodpigeon. However, last Sunday’s ringing experience will probably go down as one of my favourites so far.

Fellow Sussex young birder Mya Bambrick and I arrived at Knepp Estate, south-west of Horsham, at 6am. There we met my trainer Tony Davis who had already set up four mist-nets around a field consisting of mainly bramble and willow scrub. This is a fantastic habitat for migrating birds as well as several scarce breeders due to the amount of cover the scrub produces and the blackberries which ripen at exactly the right time to fuel many migratory passerines on their southward journeys. The mist-nests are ideal for catching birds as they are fine enough to be invisible to birds flying between bushes, which fly into the net and fall into a pocket from which they are extracted by licensed ringers.

It was on the first net-round when I noticed that there was something slightly different in the bottom pocket of one of the mist-nets. It didn’t take long for me to realise that it was a Grasshopper Warbler. Grasshopper Warblers, so-called due to their bizarre song which resembles that of a stridulating grasshopper, is a localised breeding species found mainly in fens and coarse grassland and is not often found in high density. However, while researching for this blog post, it was good to learn that they are showing a positive population trend with the UK population experiencing a 23% increase in numbers in the 14 years between 1995 and 2009. This is thought to be as a result of improved survival rates in the wintering grounds of west Africa. Particular preference is shown by British Grasshopper Warblers towards Senegal and The Gambia, which we have learnt from recoveries of ringed birds in those countries. However despite this recent increase, this is in comparison to a proportionally larger decrease which took place in the years prior to that period. Only a few decades ago, this species used to be found in a greater range of habitats than to which it is currently restricted.

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The Grasshopper Warbler

Grasshopper Warblers (often shortened to just Gropper) are renowned for the difficulty involved to see them. They have skulking habits, only really coming out into the open when the males sing their distinctive song. Most of the time they remain hidden in thick vegetation. In fact I’ve only seen this species twice before, and both times the birds were located by the loud song. The first time was a bird claiming its territory in May 2014 in a sand dune in Budle Bay, Northumberland and the second had probably only just arrived in the UK in April last year, when I found one singing in a garden at Selsey Bill in West Sussex from a small clump of ornamental pampas grass. In fact in the past 20 years Tony had only caught two or three, highlighting how lucky we were to catch this reclusive skulker.

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This was my only photo of a Grasshopper Warbler before Sunday, from Northumberland. This photo illustrates how hard-to-see Grasshopper Warblers are usually. And this one was, in relation to most other sightings, ‘showing well’!

Orchid on the Hill

The Early Spider-orchids Ophrys sphegodes at Castle Hill NNR have one of the best views of the South Downs as well as Brighton to their south-west. On the northern edge of Woodingdean, a chalk grassland slope supports this nationally scarce species, which has only a scattered distribution along the South Coast from Dorset to Kent.

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This orchid is named after its appearance, with its flowers apparently resembling the abdomen of orb-weaver spiders. However, its flower shape has evolved so that it resembles bees, which come to try and mate with the flower, known as pseudo-copulation. This is also the case in the perhaps more appropriately named Bee Orchid for example. To complement the shape of the flower, these orchids also release the scent of female bees which further entices the male bees to unknowingly pollinate the plants.

However this technique may show to be detrimental towards the success of the species in the face of climate change. Despite the strength and accuracy of the scents wafted by the flower, they cannot compete with actual female bees. Therefore, the plants most likely to pollinate and reproduce successfully are those which blossom after the male bee has emerged although before the females. Although sadly warmer spring temperatures are pushing the phenology (life cycles) of these two species out of sync.

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It is also interesting to observe the variation in the exquisite patterns shown on different individual flowers, such as these:

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Travelling to find these orchids (a new plant for me) was a perfect break from revision. Despite their rarity, there are several reliable sites such as Durlston Country Park and Dancing Ledge in Dorset, Samphire Hoe in Kent and of course where I visited today, Castle Hill NNR in East Sussex. I would definitely recommend looking for them before they stop flowering in early June!

 

Mid-March Moth Madness

After a snowy delay, last weekend it seemed like spring had finally sprung and temperatures rose into double figures. Looking at the forecast for this weekend and into next week however, it looks like the wintry weather will return once again which is very odd for this time of year. I’m usually a fan of a bit of snow, but only at the appropriate times of year. So I decided to write this blog post to try and keep my spring feeling going for as long as possible, before the snow showers begin to move in from the east again.

Saturday night was the first time I have put my moth trap out this year. In previous years I have been a little more keen, with very little reward and sometimes even null counts at this early stage in spring, so I decided to hold it off until now. And with the Beast from the East only about a week gone, my hopes were not particularly high. Although I was in for a surprise.

Most of the time, I just leave my trap out for the whole night and check it in the morning. However, on the off-chance of something notable (or anything at all!) being in there, I decided to look down from my bedroom window just an hour or so after switching on the light. To my surprise I saw what seemed to be an Oak Beauty already within the trap, so I rushed down to check if there was much else about.

To my immense surprise, there were at least 20 moths flying around the trap and on the nearby house wall. Most were March Moths as well as several more Oak Beauties, along with a couple of Tortricodes alternella and a Common Quaker. Already we had recorded around twice as many moths as I usually get in an early-spring night!

I was more than keen to check the trap the following morning. Unsurprisingly, there were moths everywhere, with the final tally being 55! I would be happy with that in May or September, let alone the first half of March! I will run through a few of the stand out highlights:

Small Brindled Beauty

This was the rarest moth that I caught last night, and the second time I’ve caught this species, the previous occasion being early March last year. It is most common in southern England, becoming rarer further north although classified as ‘local’ – found in less than 300 sites nationally. The females of this species are one of many winter and spring species that are apterous – lacking wings. The females of many of these apterous species seem completely unlike most moths to me, although I’m yet to find one myself.

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Small Brindled Beauty

Dotted Border

This species is unique among the early spring moths as it is one of the few Geometrid moths out at this time of year. In my experience it is usually the Noctuids (such as the Clouded Drabs, Hebrew Characters and the Quaker species) that are the most commonly trapped, although the most abundant species caught during this night were the 18 Oak Beauties which is a slightly unusual Geometrid species. The Geometrids can be distinguished by the way they hold their wings; most Geometrids hold their wings out to the side whereas most Noctuids fold their wings over their abdomen.

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Dotted Border

This species can usually be identified by the row of dots running along the bottom of the wing which you can see in the photo above. However, it is a variable species throughout its distribution and there are forms which are very dark making the row of dots (the dotted border) very hard to see.

Clouded Drab

This species is quite common especially where its foodplant Oak is plentiful although, despite its name, it is can be really nicely patterned. It is another species that is really variable, with many colour forms. We caught three, one of them in particularly was particularly good-looking, with its pattern enhanced by the flash on my camera.

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Clouded Drab

Hopefully the upcoming cold snap will be the last of the winter, and spring will be allowed to continue unabated. I look forward to moth trapping further once it warms up again, hopefully we’ll continue with some good numbers!

Final Tally

  • Common Quaker 3
  • March Moth 9
  • Oak Beauty 18
  • Hebrew Character 4
  • Tortricodes alternella 2
  • Small Brindled Beauty 1
  • Dotted Border 5
  • Clouded Drab 3
  • Small Quaker 8
  • Chestnut 1
  • Brindled Pug 1

 

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.