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 not sensu stricto.

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

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

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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!

 

Species no. 3000!

Admittedly Stratiotes aloides, known vernacularly as Water-soldier, is not the most desired plant to have in an ecosystem. It is possible that it is native in East Anglia and Lincolnshire however in Sussex, where this species became number 3000 on my pan-species list, it is more likely to be introduced.

Yesterday I joined the Sussex Botanical Recording Society on a visit to Court Lodge Farm on the Pevensey Levels, which possesses a rich assemblage of aquatic plants in the many ditches. Some special species recorded included Potamogeton obtusifolius (Blunt-leaved Pondweed) and Petroselinum segetum (Corn Parsley), the latter growing on the banks of the ditches rather than within them as was the case with the pondweed.

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An example of one of the ditches where we were recording. The majority of the water plants you can see in the photo would  be Lemna trisulca (Ivy-leaved Duckweed), Elodea nuttallii (Nuttall’s Waterweed) and the aforementioned Potamogeton obtusifolius (Blunt-leaved Pondweed).

Although despite these Levels specialities being present, for the ditches it is hard to escape the colonisation of several non-native invasive plants. Fortunately we didn’t come across any ditches which were dominated by these unwanted waterweeds however both Azolla filiculoides (Water Fern) and Hydrocotyle ranunculoides (Floating Pennywort) were found along with the robust growth of Water-soldier.

Water-soldier can be quite problematic for native flora. Small populations can, if left undisturbed by boats or large numbers of waterfowl, develop into armies. These can completely annex stretches of canals or ditches, out-competing ‘friendlier’ water plants for resources. The following quote is from the Water-soldier’s species account in the recently published Flora of Sussex: “On Pevensey Levels it has spread considerably, and in 2010 was found to be completely covering a ditch for several hundred metres”.

Despite this, I find its biology quite interesting. In the autumn it will begin to stop photosynthesising, and gradually lose the gas in its leaves that keeps it afloat. It will sink to the bottom of the ditch or canal where the water is unlikely to freeze. In the spring the increased strength of the sun’s rays will penetrate deep enough to allow the sharp, serrated, sword-shaped leaves to photosynthesise again, producing oxygen which gives the rosettes their buoyancy.

I was not originally planning to write a blog post on the Water-soldier until I realised today while inputting yesterday’s finds into my list that it fits into the 3000th slot. I am quite relieved that I have managed to reach this milestone, as the target I set myself in a blog post I wrote when I reached 2000 was to record my 3000th species before my 15th birthday. As of today I’m 14 years, 11 months and 1 day old. So I reached my target, but only just. It is hard for me to imagine stopping pan-species listing, however with upcoming GCSEs and A Levels I imagine I might have to slow down a little. But to keep it ticking, I have decided to set myself another target: 4000 by the end of 2019. Wish me luck!

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Two plants surrounded by Frogbit (Hydrocharis morsus-ranae) resembling miniature water-lilies.

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The snow-white flower of Water-soldier. The flowers are not seen too often, with the main method of reproduction being vegetative: the lowest leaves of the plant have axillary buds which will detach when the leaves decay and can disperse long distances before resprouting. This species is what’s known as dioecious – this means that male and female flowers are found on different plants. For some reason, there are very few if any male plants in England, so all reproduction in this country is vegetative as described above.

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The four or five plants in the photo here represent about half of the largest population of them I saw, luckily it hasn’t reached the levels of dominance seen at other parts of the Levels.

Pan-species Listing: Top 15 New Species of 2017

2017 has been another fantastic year for me with regards to pan-species listing. I am pleased that I am continuing to add species even throughout the quieter months and although I am sure to slow down sooner or later as the number of species I can add is not infinite, I am still yet to break my steady stride. I have managed to delve into groups I haven’t tackled before such as lacewings and springtails. In this blog post I will list my favourite species added to my Pan-species List in 2017, out of about 700 added this year. If I have written a separate blog post about that particular species, the species name is hyperlinked to that post.

15. Marsh Frog

Adding new non-bird vertebrates is not easy, and so it was great to see several Marsh Frogs on a mid-June day at the nearby Warnham Local Nature Reserve. Although they’re non-native, they come in many different shades of bright green and so are much more attractive than the Common frogs!

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A couple of Marsh Frogs on the edge of a pool in the summer sunshine

14. Purple Toothwort

Plants are more regular pan-species listing additions for me, and although I’m still getting to grips with their huge diversity I have found that attending some Sussex Botanical Recording Society meetings throughout the year has been really helpful. This plant however was found in March, one of my earliest plant additions of the year, at Wakehurst Place. It’s one of several really fascinating plant species in the UK which lack chlorophyll to photosynthesise and therefore gain their nutrients directly from other nearby plants!

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A patch of the bizarre leaf-less Purple Toothwort, one of many found at Wakehurst Place

13. Waxwing

The winter of 2016/17 was one of the much hoped-for Waxwing ‘invasion’ years, and therefore it would be rude not to see some! The first flock I saw comprised over 30 birds, which is an amazing number for so far south in the UK. It was at a typical setting, an industrial estate! Waxwings often prefer these habitats because of the wealth of berry-producing bushes that grow there. I also saw a couple more later in the year, feeding in a Davidia (Paper Handkerchief) tree at Wakehurst Place, the fruits of which are large and kiwi-like. Very weird food for Waxwings!

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A Waxwing at Wakehurst Place, among the Davidia fruits.

12. Vestal

I have been moth-trapping in my garden for a few years, yet save for many Diamond-back Moths I hadn’t caught any migrants in my trap. Autumn presented a window of favourable air-flow from southern Europe and North Africa, which seemed likely to bring decent numbers of migrant moths to our shores. I put my trap out with anticipation on a couple of occasions that week, and on the second I caught exactly what I had been hoping for: 3 Vestals!

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One of the Vestals on the wall by the moth trap. They’re not the most attractive of moths but I was really pleased to see them!

11. Stemonitopsis typhina

I have very few slime-moulds on my list like this one, partly because they’re so tricky to identify. However this species, which I came across during a Sussex Fungus Group outing, was a great excuse to research their fascinating life cycle.

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10. Wryneck

In September, I was really lucky to be able to venture up to Spurn Bird Observatory in Yorkshire for the annual Migration Festival. Spurn is undoubtedly one of the major sites for rare birds in England and even quite early on in the vagrant season I managed to see brilliant birds such as Long-billed Dowitcher, Barred Warbler, Long-tailed Skua, Short-eared Owl, Caspian Gull, Roseate Tern, Black Tern, Little Stint, Little Gull, and one of my highlights, a Wryneck. This bird showed beautifully well, feeding on the cliff edge near the Sandy Beaches caravan site. It was so great to watch that I visited the bird three times over the weekend to take in the marvellously intricate plumage.

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Wryneck, taking a break from feeding on ants on the cliffside vegetation.

9. Cut-grass

This rather unassuming rare species of wetland grass has a deadly secret! Its blades are exactly that, as sharp as a knife. I didn’t want to test the sharpness on the Sussex Botanical Recording Society outing to Amberley Wildbrooks on which we saw it, however the blades are apparently able to slice through human skin thanks to the minute stiff hairs along the edges!

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Cut-grass: blades of steel

8. Devil’s Fingers

I’m sure that many people who are lucky to come across a Devil’s Fingers fungus by accident will not be certain that this intriguing organism is natural at all. It bears resemblance to an octopus that had been stuck into the ground upside down, with only its red tentacles emerging from the soil. Furthermore, the tentacles seem to have begun to decompose, with a foul-smelling covering of dark brown goo attracting flies that disperse the fungus’ spores.

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The Devil’s Fingers fungus that we came across on a Sussex Botanical Recording Society meeting at Chailey Common.

7. Green-winged Orchid

Orchids are surprisingly one of the groups that I haven’t seen many of. During the course of the year I added a few species, no rarities unless you count the Greater Tongue-orchids of dubious origin at Wakehurst Place. The Green-winged Orchid was my first orchid species of the year, at Danehill Churchyard. It was great to see the orchids with the nice church in the background, yet I think that the lawn where they were growing was scheduled for mowing. I didn’t have a chance to revisit to check if they were left alone or not, however hopefully they did have the opportunity to flower a little longer.

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A dark-purple Green-winged Orchid in front of Danehill Church. There were also light pink varieties present.

6. Beewolf

One of the highlights of my summer holiday was a two-day course led by Steven Falk on solitary bee identification at the fantastic Rye Harbour Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve. Of course, although we identified huge numbers of solitary bees, it wasn’t all about them on the weekend. We also came across a large wasp known as the Bee Wolf, which is the invertebrate equivalent of the wild canine. Females will catch adult Honey Bees and bring them back to their nest hole, where they will place the bees in a chamber. It’s within this chamber that the young Beewolf develops. At Rye Harbour, we were lucky to watch Beewolves excavating their nest holes and bringing Honey Bees into the chambers.

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5. Queen-of-Spain Fritillary

Birds are the group of organisms most likely to be associated with the word ‘vagrant’. However, during the summer a fortunate lepidopterist found no less than three Queen-of-Spain Fritillaries on his transect near Peacehaven, a species that is unable to breed in the UK as they can’t survive the cold winters. They are therefore very rare summer visitors at best. I am very grateful to the farmer Colin Appleton for allowing lots of keen naturalists onto his land to watch these three regal butterflies ‘lekking’ around a bonfire. Although they apparently travel in groups, explaining why three arrived at once, they are very territorial and the bonfire was the central spot for their territorial disputes, like a boxing ring.

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One of the Queen-of-Spain Fritillaries basking in the sun near the bonfire.

4. Moon Carrot

This wonderfully named plant is not very distinctive, looking very similar to more common umbelliferous plants such as hogweed, yet it’s rare nationally. To make up for its likeness to the other members of its family, it has chosen a spectacular site at which to grow. What seems to be the only modern site for this species in Sussex is the cliffs at Seaford, near the Cuckmere. Some individual plants grow right on the cliff-edge, and look marvellous with the Seven Sisters cliffs in the background. They’ve even made the cover of the new Flora of Sussex!

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The Moon Carrot is so-called as it apparently glows in the moonlight!

3. Wood Warbler

I loved listening to a male Wood Warbler sing its heart out at an undisclosed site in Sussex this year, although it was quite a sad experience. This was the first Wood Warbler on territory for 3 years in Sussex, a county where it once used to be a regular breeder. The energy the warbler put into its song was incredible, for weeks it would sing as loud as it could non-stop while hopping tirelessly from tree to tree. Yet due to the species’ rare status in Sussex these days, there was never a female to respond.

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A brief pause from what must be absolutely exhausting for the Wood Warbler

2. Lesser Glow-worm

Of all the species included in this top-15 blog post, this one is my most recent find. In fact it was just before Christmas that I found a beetle larva beneath a log at Hedgecourt NR. I sent it to Max Barclay, the beetle curator at NHM London asking what it could be as I was stuck. I had only managed to find one possibility, Phosphaenus hemipterus or the Lesser Glow-worm, however I doubted it was that as it is the rarest of all the glow-worms found in the UK. As far as I know there is only one known modern-day colony in the whole of the country, at a site in Hampshire. To my surprise Max kindly replied saying that he did think it was indeed a Lesser Glow-worm, and he had even received confirmation from another expert on glow-worms! Now we’re just waiting to hear back from some specialists in the Czech Republic before we can be 100% certain, yet it certainly seems highly likely I’ve found quite a rarity!

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Despite a thorough search of around 20 logs a few days later, I was unable to find another larva.

1. Wart-biter

At number one, the Wart-biter must be one of my favourite finds from this year. It’s a massive, elusive bush-cricket that’s hard to find at only 5 known modern-day sites in the UK. I visited one of those sites, Mount Caburn on the South Downs, with the Amateur Entomologists’ Society in August specifically to look for this species. The easiest way to find them is to listen for the stridulation (singing), however they only stridulate on warm, calm days and there was a heavy band of rain moving in. I decided to use the highly sophisticated technique of walking around and hoping to chance upon one and it worked! A female jumped from my feet as I was walking, to land in a perfect position for all of the attendees of the field meeting to get an excellent view.

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The Wart-biter gets its name from the old Swedish method of getting rid of warts: allowing this cricket to bite them off!

There concludes my top-15 pan-species listing additions of 2017. It was very hard to condense all the brilliant finds into just my 15 favourites, this blog post could easily be 10,000 words long.

 

 

Amphibian lifer!

As many of you will know, I’ve been working hard on my pan-species list recently. It’s a list of all the species I’ve seen in the UK and I’ve just broken the 2200 species mark. With an ambition to get to 3000 by mid-August 2018, 13.5 months away, I need to use every opportunity I can get to boost my total! Mostly these days my lifers are invertebrates with some plants, mainly beetles and bugs. Very rarely do I get a vertebrate lifer and I certainly wasn’t expecting to get an amphibian lifer any time soon! However, last weekend I visited Warnham LNR, a fantastic little wildlife site right on the edge of the large town of Crawley.

I have visited this beautiful local reserve only once before, yet then I had no idea about the population of a rare British vertebrate that inhabits the small ponds and the main lake of the reserve. Of course the reserve always holds plenty of wildlife and therefore my first visit was excellent, yet my recent visit was made all the more special by this exciting creature.

With a distinctive call that has earned this species its alternative name of laughing frog, the Marsh Frog Pelophylax ridibundus has been a main attraction at the reserve this spring/early summer although I only found out about it not long ago. With my amphibian & reptile total relatively low on my pan-species list, a new addition in either group was greatly needed and wanted and therefore I was eager to visit and hopefully catch a glimpse of this generally shy species if I was lucky.

My expectations were that I would possibly hear the plop of a frog jumping into the water unseen, or catch a swift movement of a frog fleeing out of the corner of my eye. However, these expectations were soon proven very wrong. It is a non-native species only introduced into the UK in 1935 in Walland Marsh, Kent and has since spread to areas in East Sussex and London. The population at Warnham LNR must be one of the only places where this species is found in West Sussex. The purpose of its introduction was to occupy an ecological niche as it is more aquatic in nature than the native Common Frog and more frequently breeds in ditches and dykes. Many of the places Marsh Frogs inhabit aren’t busy, such as the East Sussex levels, which I suppose has lead to its tendency to leap into the water at the slightest human disturbance. But the Warnham Marsh Frogs behaved in a way completely opposite and, probably due to the large numbers of visitors, were not too afraid of humans at all! Throughout the visit I must have seen at least 10 of varying colours, patterns and sizes. Not a bad looking species whatsoever!

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A Lifer; at Drakes Plumbing Supplies?

This morning was looking clear and sunny so I decided to take a trip to my nearest area of open heathland, Ashdown Forest. On the hills there were still a couple inches of snow in places which changed the landscape dramatically. There wasn’t much about bird-wise in the area where we walked except for a few Dartford Warblers which gave only brief views.

It was 11:45am and we had just arrived at Old Lodge SWT at a different part of the forest when I saw news of a flock of 18 Waxwings which I had been sent by a fellow Sussex birder Alastair Gray. These weren’t far away at all, only just over ten minutes drive!

When we arrived at the site where they had been reported it was clear that it wasn’t a habitat I would usually associate with rare birds. We immediately spotted the Waxwings in a tall tree just behind Drakes Plumbing Supplies in the Independent Trading Centre in East Grinstead! Although obviously not a habitat that has been around for long, Waxwings have adapted to it very well. In Britain they are usually found in supermarket car parks and trading estates like this due to the number of ornamental berry-producing trees and shrubs.

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The Waxwings were frequenting the birch on the left and feeding on a small rosehip bush just in front of the blue building

When we looked closely we could see that there were clearly more than 18 birds present. The number had increased to 31, which makes it one of the largest flocks in Sussex in a few years.

The light was poor, however there was luckily another birder there who’s scope I could look through. The detail was amazing, you could clearly see the red waxy buds on the wings that give them their name. This photo was taken through the scope:

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I am very pleased to have caught up with these Waxwings as it is still quite early in the Waxwing season for the south of England. Waxwings arrive in the UK annually, however every so often we have what are called ‘irruptions’ which is when larger numbers than usual turn up here due to lack of food in Scandinavia.

Waxwings always arrive in the north-east first, with the first few arriving in October with numbers building into December. Then when all the berries up north have been depleted they begin to filter south in search of fresh fruit. It is normally only in irruption winters that Waxwings find themselves this far south and usually later on in the winter from mid-February through to April. However, the first records in Sussex this season were in late November. The last irruption was the winter of 2012-2013. However with birds arriving this early, it is certainly looking like it will be a big irruption year!

 

My article in Wingbeat

The RSPB write and compile a number of magazines about wildlife and nature aimed at a range of different age groups. For instance, teenage RSPB members receive the Wingbeat magazine. The Wingbeat magazine is ‘written by teenagers… for teenagers’ and this summer I was lucky enough to be given permission to write my very own article for the magazine. This article was recently published in the January 2017 issue.

I chose to write about one of my main passions: pan-species listing. As detailed in my last post, I recently recorded my 2000th species. In my article in Wingbeat I explained more about what a pan-species list is; what one needs to keep a pan-species list; why to keep a pan-species list as well as some of my pan-species listing highlights.