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!

 

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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

 

The invasion continues

This winter Europe has been host to an avian phenomenon I wasn’t even aware was possible. Hawfinches in the UK are very rare and elusive birds, mainly confined to large areas of forest such as the Forest of Dean and the New Forest. Indeed, in February 2017 I hitched a lift with Josie Hewitt for a two hour journey to the New Forest especially to see these birds, and it’s funny to think how oblivious I was to the fact that it would become clear by the end of the year that it was an unnecessary trip.

I don’t think anyone is quite sure why, but this winter Hawfinches have truly irrupted from their core European breeding grounds. The areas where these usually strictly forest-dwelling birds have been recorded over the past few months is incredible, including the Moroccan Sahara, Kuwait and Alaska! In Sussex, where hardly any are seen outside of West Dean Woods, flocks have surpassed 100 individuals at locations scattered across the county. I am not aware of any previous such invasions of this species, so it definitely feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Last weekend, I was ringing at fellow trainees Dave and Penny Green’s garden near Wisborough Green. I had heard that there were one or two Hawfinches visiting their large Yew tree, so I was fairly hopeful that some brief sightings would enliven our ringing session a little more. However, it soon became clear that my expectations were far too low! We were treated to an almost constant presence of Hawfinches throughout the day, at least 6 I think and possibly up to 10 were visiting the Yew at one point. This allowed for some absolutely brilliant views of this normally tricky-to-see species.

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Beautiful male Hawfinch

As you can see from the photo, Hawfinches have a massive bill. These have evolved to crack really hard nuts and seeds, such as cherry stones which they can easily crack. They certainly are attractive, chunky finches and I do hope that the invasion continues, and perhaps there’ll be a bumper breeding season for them here in the UK!

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.

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.