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 Choc√≥ 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!

The Glue Pistons

For a long time I’ve been wanting to be involved in a recording scheme. Yet I had not quite appreciated the amount of work that is involved in managing what is often a massive collection of records. Over the past few months I’ve been collating the records of springtails (Collembola) from Surrey, which has been a big challenge, even with springtails being one of the least recorded invertebrate groups in the country.

Springtails are often tiny arthropods with six legs. Whether they’re insects or not is up to debate however. Most authorities currently class them as Entognatha, with reference to their internal mouthparts; in contrast to the external mouthparts of insects. However, the other two members of the Entognatha – Protura and Diplura – are just as closely related to springtails as they are to insects.

Another anatomical feature of springtails is the collophore located on the underside of the abdomen, after which they get their scientific name, which means ‘glue piston’. It takes the form of a tube pointing downwards from the ventral side of the first abdominal segment. Originally, it was thought to help to stabilise the animal, although it is now believed to play a part in maintaining the water content of the body.

Springtails get their common name from the furca, a long, forked organ which originates from the end of the abdomen and is often bent under the body. It is used primarily to escape predators, and can fling the springtail at incredible speeds away from danger. However, where and how the animal lands is unpredictable. Some species, such as Ceratophysella bengtssoni, have an inflatable sac on the antennae with which the springtail can adhere to the surface it lands on. Some species have only vestigial furcas or lack one entirely, often in species which live in habitats such as compact soil where the furca would inhibit the movement of the springtail, or those which live near the sea or flowing water, where an unpredictable jump could land them in an even more dangerous situation.

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Brachystomella parvula. Springtails can vary greatly in shape, this being one of the stout, pudgy Poduromorphs.

The best literature for identification is the FSC key written by the late Steve Hopkin, A Key to the Collembola (Springtails) of Britain and Ireland. This provides a complete key to all the described species thought to be present in the British Isles and is relatively recent (2007). Otherwise, there are a few good websites that can be found online, such as www.collembola.org, which has many good-quality images.

If anyone finds and identifies any springtails, I’m sure the co-ordinator of the Collembola Recording Scheme, Dr Peter Shaw, would be happy to receive any records. His details can be found here. And if anyone records any from Surrey, I’d love to hear from you so I can add the records to my growing database. You can contact me using the form under the ‘Feedback/Contact’ page on my blog. I’d also be happy to receive any unidentified specimens in need of ID.

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Willowsia platani (possibly var. nigromaculata). One of the Entomobryomorphs: comparatively long, slender springtails.

Moth #300

After my recent trip to Portland Bird Observatory in Dorset, I added a fair few nice moth species such as the rare Scarce Bordered Straw. Then, following a couple of new additions from my garden light trap, my moth life list was left on 299. I was very close to a big number!

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting my 300th species until I next put out the light trap which would be in another few weeks. However, it was much sooner than that and very unexpected! My mum let me know that she had found a large moth on the wall, my first thought was ‘probably just another Large Yellow Underwing’ as they are very common at this time of year.

Although when I saw it I was quite surprised! It was indeed very large but definitely not a Large Yellow Underwing as I had expected. The abdomen was projecting beyond the wings, which were sandy-brown with black dots and markings. I was able to get it in a pot and with the help of my Concise Guide it was identified as a Bulrush Wainscot, Nonagria typhae.

It is widespread in the British Isles, but usually only encountered in suitable habitat. For the Bulrush Wainscot, this is reedbeds and marshy areas. We don’t live in a marshy area (or a reedbed!) however we do have some in our local nature reserve, Hedgecourt. The larvae of the Bulrush Wainscot feed inside Bulrush (Typha) stems which has only recently started to really colonise Hedgecourt and is greatly outnumbered by Common Reed (Phragmites australis). The very helpful website UK Moths also says that this species can sometimes wander quite far away from suitable habitats, so we can’t be certain that my moth came from Hedgecourt.

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The Bulrush Wainscot that I found inside my house.

Every species is bringing me closer to my Pan-species Listing target of 2000 by the end of the year. I need just over 200 more species to reach this tough target, so every species counts!

Not always straightforward

During my Garden Bioblitz of the the 6th June, I found a moth case on a cotoneaster leaf. I tried to identify it by using this webpage¬†and I thought it looked most like Coleophora trigeminella. I was very excited by this as the species hasn’t been recorded on Cotoneaster in the UK before, only in Europe. Could I have discovered a new foodplant for this species in Britain?

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I emailed the Surrey moth recorder, Mr Graham Collins, with news of my finds. I asked him whether it was likely to be Coleophora trigeminella or something else. He kindly responded saying that he didn’t think that the larval case belonged to this species but¬†Coleophora serratella¬†which is ‘probably the commonest species of British Coleophorid’ according to the UK Moths website. I was quite disappointed!

However, why was it on a cotoneaster leaf? The larvae usually feed on hazel, birch, elm or alder. It is most likely that the larvae fell from the foodplant (there is a birch tree straight above the cotoneaster) on to the leaf where it formed the case, or the larvae wandered off the leaf looking for a better place to create its case.

When I returned to the same leaf nearly a fortnight later, on the 18th June, I was given a huge surprise. The adult moth had emerged from the case overnight and was resting parallel to the case! It was so fresh in fact that the antennae were not resting forward in the typical coleophorid fashion but running backwards along the body! I sent this photo to Mr Collins.

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I thought that it was too light for Coleophora serratella¬†and the ochre colour matched Coleophora trigeminella. Could I have found a species of moth that hasn’t been seen in Surrey for nearly half a century? Unfortunately that was not to be the case. Mr Collins responded writing that he now¬†thought¬†that the moth is either Coleophora flavipennella¬†or Coleophora lutipennella. The larval stages of both of these moths feed on oak leaves, which makes sense as there are several large oak trees which also have branches above the cotoneaster bush. The larva probably fell from the leaves.

However, it is not possible to separate moths of those species without examination of the genitalia. For this I sent the moths off to Mr Collins by post and he kindly looked at them under the microscope. The genitalia point to Coleophora flavipennella, which I think might be the least common of the pair although I am not certain. The genitalia of C. flavipennella look like this:

flavi

Compared to the genitalia of C. lutipennella:

Coleophora lutipennella

There is quite a lot of difference! This is a new species for me and I hope this blog post shows that often identification is not that straightforward.

(genitalia photos from http://www.mothdissection.co.uk)

A Murmuration to Remember!

Our first view was a group of around 500 Starlings flying above the reedbeds on the opposite side of Hedgecourt Lake, my local ‘patch’. More parties of chirruping birds started to fly in above our heads. Soon there were 1000-2000 swarming over the lake, but this was only the beginning.

Suddenly the whole group flew from the lake in the direction of the nearby farm and I was hoping they wouldn’t stay there. Fortunately a separate group started to form where the previous group was and that grew to about 5000.

The group that had gone to the farm returned in ten minutes to join the flock of 5000 and still more separate groups of a few hundred kept on joining. The flock reached 10000 at its climax and I was genuinely stunned and impressed. Unforgettable was the ‘plop, plop’ sound when the flock passed over my head: I was scared to look up!

Suddenly it all ended, all 10000 birds flew down into the reedbeds, how could they all fit? And the question I really want answered, is how they don’t collide with each other?!

I have found out that some believe that when one Starling changes speed or direction, all of the other Starlings respond by following that one Starling almost instantly. Others believe that a Starling copies its seven nearest neighbours. This shows that there isn’t one definite answer, but it would be interesting to find out. Something for the future?

I have also found out that Starlings mainly murmurate like this to avoid predators like Peregrines or Sparrowhawks as these predators find it hard to pick a target in the wreathing mass of birds. They group together to roost in the reedbeds to exchange information about good feeding spots and to keep warm at night.

I’m very lucky to have such an amazing spectacle not far at all from my house!

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Just a small proportion of the HUGE murmuration!