Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Minor taxonomical curiosities in the north

The weekend before Easter was a bit of a change - for once, the main targets for sightseeing weren't some of the UK's 40,000 invertebrates, but a few of those minor taxonomical curiosities, the vertebrates.

The back end of the week was the National Forum for Biological Recording's annual conference, held this year in Derby. These conferences always include a day in the field, as befits an organisation whose entire reason for existence is the promotion of biological recording. Seriously, recording your wildlife sightings somewhere like birdtrack or iRecord is one of the best (and easiest!) things you can do to help wildlife - the records are the only window in the world of wildlife for policymakers, planners, etc, and if you don't record your sightings no-one will ever know that species was there.

So on Saturday 5 of us headed northwards from Derby to the Derwent Valley for a day out with the Sorby Natural History Society, guided by local naturalist Derek Whitely. Scrambling up a precipitous hillside, we stumbled almost immediately across a pair of red grouse, then a couple of violet oil beetles, Meloe violaceus. Normally these are huge, with great big fat abdomens, but that's the result of a couple of week's solid eating - these were tiny, freshly emerged individuals with elytra longer than the small, pointed abdomen.
A freshly-emerged oil beetle, photographed by Paula Lightfoot
Continuing up the path, we were stopped in our tracks by a grey bird quartering low over the moor - a male hen harrier! These beautiful raptors are virtually extinct in England now, with continuing persecution of nesting pairs, so it was fantastic to get good views as it soared lazily by, less than twenty metres away.
Later in the day we began to see tufts of white fur caught up in the heather. In spring, in the Peak District, that can only mean one thing - moulting mountain hares! The theory was quickly proved correct - a strange pale lump moved, revealing itself to be a piebald hare, still mostly white on top, but with plenty of brown fur low down on the sides. These animals - Lepus timidus, the only native British member of the rabbit family - live up in the mountains in Scotland, the Peak District, and the Isle of Man, and they change colour seasonally, white in the winter to hide in the snow, and brown in the summer. One hare quickly became several - half a dozen in the end, all caught mid-change in their seasonal uncertainty.
Hard at work recording by Derwent Water: curlew above, oil beetles below. Photo: Paula Lightfoot
On the way back down I was distracted from whistling Golden Plovers and posing Wheatears by a couple of bumblebees - both stranded on the ground wondering what happened to the sun, both new to me - Bombus sylvestris and the beautiful Bombus monticola, my new favourite bee. Clearly I can't spend too long ignoring invertebrates!
The excellent Bombus monticola. Photo Paula Lightfoot, hand my own


Friday, 11 April 2014

Species galore!

I've had a productive couple of weeks for wildlife-spotting - spring is properly here and the insects in particular are responding to the change.

As the buds burst and flowers begin to appear, insects too are emerging from their winter dormancy. The new leaves are covered with leafhoppers and caterpillars, and the flowers with pollen beetles and bees.
If you go by the media reports you might be forgiven for thinking there's just one British bee, the honeybee Apis mellifera. In fact, it's a bit more complicated than that - we have 1 honeybee, 25(ish) bumblebees and 230-250 species of solitary bees. Various bumbles and the honeybee visit my garden, but I'm lucky enough to have some of the solitaries call it home. In particular two species live in the back wall of my house. One of the signs of early spring is the colony of Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) waking up, darting at high speed between flowers and zipping in and out of the holes in the wall. Zipping is really the word too - electrifyingly fast, the males in particular seem to move flower to flower without occupying the intervening space.
April 2011 007
A male Hairy-footed flower bee, Anthophora plumipes
The other species hasn't shown itself just yet - the Red mason bee, Osmia bicornis (formerly O. rufa, a much more appropriate name for this bright red bundle of energy!). It's about - I found one in Oxford city centre last week, and several in Winchester cathedral close on Tuesday - but my garden colony are clearly having something of a lie-in!

The best indicator of the changing seasons though is the moth trap in my back garden. A 125-Watt mercury-vapour bulb perched on top of a box of moth bedding (aka egg boxes), it attracts in a sample of the moths flying past, ready to be identified and released the following morning. You never get the same mix of species and individuals twice running, so it's a great way to measure the changing of the seasons.
The moth trap, doing its thing in the back garden
I started trapping for the year in early March, catching small numbers of the early-spring species. Gradually as the year wore on, the numbers got bigger (60 moths of 11 species on the 2nd April the best to date) and the species changed - Orthosia (Quakers and the Hebrew Character) began to dominate, Common Quaker in particular. In the last week what I think of as the 'late spring' species have begun to appear - the furry Muslin moth (Diaphora mendica) and an early Bee moth (Aphomia sociella) - reinforcing that the world is moving forwards, and summer is shimmering on the horizon...