Sunday 25 August 2019

A week on the Uists

From time to time over the past five years on this blog I've mentioned my other half.  Well, after 15 months of planning and organising we got married at our local registry office on Friday 2nd August.  The day after we had our reception, with about 80 friends and family in the village hall at the end of our road. On the Sunday we took a somewhat smaller self-selected group on a walk to the lovely St Ann's Well for tea, cakes and views across Worcestershire. Then we had a few days to tidy up and relax (organising everything yourselves creates a wonderfully personalised event, but via a lot of work before, during and after!) before we & the dog were off on honeymoon for a week.

We were headed to South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides - home of eagles, rare bumblebees, huge empty white-sand beaches, and interesting marine mammals.  We drove a 9-hour stint to Loch Lomond through some fairly apocalyptic rainstorms, to be greeted by a text from the ferry company warning that our sailing might be cancelled if the weather continued.  The following morning the weather had gone and the Loch was a millpond.

This was usually a road
Loch Lomond on a calm Saturday morning
Slightly spooked by the text, we decided not to hang about and pushed on two hours north to Fort William, where we refuelled the car and ourselves, and then another hour to the Mallaig ferry terminal. Finding (in order) that:
1. the ferries were running fine;
2. we were about 4 hours early to get into the terminal;
3. there were no vacant car parking spaces in Mallaig;
we pushed off south to Morar and explored the dunes for a couple of hours (11-spot ladybird the highlight), before returning to Mallaig at a time better suited to getting on the boat.

When choosing someone to marry, I recommend picking someone who can find you interesting wildlife
Chugging out of Mallaig en route for Lochboisdale
The storm remnants and resulting white horses made spotting anything in the water difficult - a shame, as the ferries have an enviable record of finding marine mammals and large fish - but there were a decent number of seabirds, including plenty of Manx Shearwaters and one Bonxie. Landing at Lochboisdale at 8.50pm, we trundled north (again) and eventually reached our rented cottage at Stilligarry half an hour later, 518 miles and two day's travel from home.

We were staying about half a mile from the dunes along the western edge of South Uist, so first thing the following morning we walked down the track through the machair to the beach.  Machair - intensely flower-rich wet grassland found around the coasts of northern Scotland - is a fantastic habitat for bumblebees and I couldn't resist having a bit of a look.  Sure enough, the first bumblebee we came across was a Moss Carder (Bombus muscorum) - in this case the striking and beautiful island subspecies B. muscorum agricolae.  This is a species which is struggling in England and Wales, but in northern Scotland - especially on the machair - it still seems to be thriving.

Moss Carder braving the weather 
There were plenty of bumbles about and we quickly added more species to the tally. Garden bumblebees (B. hortorum: big, white-tailed bees with three yellow bands); Heath bumblebees (B. jonellus: the Scottish island form with a yellow tail (instead of the usual white) to go with three yellow bands); Common Carder bumblebees (B. pascuorum: brown all over and a relatively new addition to the island fauna).  Then, sheltering from the drizzle under a knapweed flowerhead, we found the crown jewel of Scottish bumblebees: The Great Yellow.  Bombus distinguendus is instantly recognisable - warm golden yellow fur over an elongate frame, broken only by a transverse black band over the top of the thorax. Go back a century, maybe 150 years, and the species was widespread across England, Scotland and Wales, but inexorable habitat loss and degradation means it can now only be found in the extreme north - the Hebrides, Orkneys, and the coasts of Caithness and Sutherland.
The first Great Yellow of the trip. But not the last!
Once we'd calmed down (and stopped the dog trying to eat the bumblebee), we continued down to the beach.  Every other bumblebee was a Moss Carder, and a decent proportion of the rest were Great Yellows - it was becoming very clear why this is such an important area for bumblebee conservation!

We spent the rest of the week in similar fashion.  Fabulous machair all over the place, stuffed with rare bumblebees.  Fox Moth caterpillars wherever you looked, and one unmistakable, unforgettable Emperor Moth caterpillar at Loch Druidibeag, accompanied by Black Darters (Sympetrum danae), another local speciality.  Dolphins offshore from RSPB Balranald on North Uist, Scots Lovage and 11-spot ladybirds on the beach. The remains of Bronze age terraced houses at Cladh Hallan, where the only known British mummies were found.  Carnivorous plants - sundews and butterworts. A Golden Eagle looming low over the car.  Huge Blue-Rayed Limpets on the strandline. Garden Tigers, Antler Moths, Gold Spots, and the exquisite dark northern form of Dark Arches in the garden moth trap (when it wasn't being blown in the direction of mainland Scotland!).

And on our last evening, I took the dog for a walk down the track to the beach again.  It was trying to rain, and the winds were reaching for gale force, but the bumblebees were still out and I counted at least half a dozen Great Yellows amongst the throng.  I looked up and a faint rainbow appeared over the distant hills to the east.  As I watched, a huge bird flapped into view - a Sea Eagle!

It was the first time I'd ever been to the Outer Hebrides. But we're already planning a return trip.

Black Darter, saving energy by riding the dog

A four-inch-long Emperor Moth caterpillar, wandering off to pupate somewhere

Gold Spot moth in the trap

One of four Garden Tigers in pristine condition

The beautiful Hebridean colour form of Geotrupes stercorarius, a dor beetle

Cladh Hallan: human mummies were displayed for hundreds of years in the nearest house here


Sundews in vast profusion

The bee-mimic hoverfly Volucella bombylans
Even the dog noticed the rainbow

The world's worst picture of a Sea Eagle

Thursday 11 October 2018

Argh! ...Ladybirds!?

It's a warm, still day in the first couple of weeks of October, time for... STD-ridden home-invading alien ladybirds migrating in from Asia!?

Despite the utter drivel vomited up by a range of local and national newspapers this week (e.g. the Sun), ladybirds are not going to come for you this week. They aren't coming from Asia, they're not all black, they are physically incapable of stinging, and being bitten by one consists of a barely noticeable pinching that doesn't break the skin.

These are Harlequin ladybirds, Harmonia axyridis.  Imported into America and Continental Europe as aphid biocontrol, they were never officially released here, but turned up as accidental imports on flowers, fruit and vegetables as well as flying the Channel when the wind was in the right direction.  Like all other ladybirds, they overwinter as adults, and now that the nights are drawing in they are beginning to look for places to sleep away the winter. For Harlequins, this generally means houses.  This, combined with the fact that they like to overwinter in big groups, makes them far more visible than our native ladybird species, which mostly disperse into leaf litter in small groups or individually.

Harlequins quietly gathering in the corner of a window. Terrifying.
 The middle weeks of October are usually the peak time for records coming into the UK Ladybird Survey, and this year the weather has been warm and still - ideal for the Harlequins to gather into large swarms and seek out overwintering sites. They preferentially seek out sites which stand out from the background - pale buildings on top of hills, or at the edges of fields often seem to be favourites - and work their way indoors through open windows, lofts, cracks, and air bricks.

They are, of course, completely harmless. No ladybird is capable of stinging: they simply Do. Not. Have. Stings. Occasionally a particularly hungry individual may try to bite a person: as their jaws are too small and weak to break skin, this is at worst felt as a brief pinch before the ladybird gives up on you as inedible.  There are occasionally stories in the tabloids about people suffering terrible wounds from ladybird bites: these are nonsense.  Like the ridiculous spider-bite stories that have regrettably become a staple of red-top slow news days, all they prove is that any break in the skin is a possible window for infection.

Ah yes, infection.  Apparently these 'foreign invaders' are 'riddled with STDs', in turn causing a tide of people commenting on social media 'Who has sex with ladybirds hur hur'.  This is, again, stretching the truth to breaking point... and it's slightly my fault.  The best part of a decade ago, I found a Harlequin ladybird with tiny yellow finger-like growths on it - the first British record of a Harlequin infected with the fungus Hesperomyces virescens, one of the Laboulbeniales group.  We published the record in 2013 and a friend decided to do some work on it during her PhD: she put out a call for sightings, a newspaper misinterpreted it, and the rest is history.

Finger-like growths of Hesperomyces virescens on a Harlequin (photo c. Katie Murray)
The fungus isn't really an STD - it's a surface-living disease which is spread between individuals by close contact. It's also pretty much harmless - it potentially causes a slight lowering of egg production but not much else. When you combine those two facts, it becomes clear that Hesperomyces is pretty much the ladybird equivalent of athlete's foot or ringworm - not ideal, but hardly a major threat.  It (should) barely need pointing out, but being able to grow on the outside of a ladybird and on human skin are totally different abilities. YOU WILL NOT CATCH AN STD FROM A LADYBIRD.

Although they are native to temperate regions of Asia, they do not migrate from there to here. The Harlequin was first found in Britain in 2003, establishing in 2004, and all the swarms are of ladybirds born and bred here.  Once indoors, they'll generally set up shop somewhere cool - the top corner of a window frame is the classic site - and sleep the winter away until waking up in April. Because houses are warm, they'll sometimes wake up in mid-winter and fly round the light.  If they use up too much energy doing that, individuals will start dying and dropping to the floor after Christmas.  Like all ladybirds, when disturbed they can produce a yellow fluid ('reflex blood') that tastes horrible and this can sometimes stain soft furnishings.  If you need to get them gone, the key is to be either quick (scrape them into a pot and take it outside) or gentle to avoid this.

Obviously they aren't all black.  Their colouring is controlled by several genes so they come in a huge range of different colour forms (up to 109, though most are lumped together nowadays and several have never been found in Britain).  Some of these are black - about 20% of the UK population are black with two or four red spots - but most are orange with 0-21 black spots. The orange can vary from pale yellow to deep red-brown, and the spots from barely-there (or not present at all!) to massive blotches overlapping neighboring spots.  They're tricky to identify because they're so variable (they can resemble most of our common native ladybird species!) but the large size (5-8.5mm long), brown legs, and two-tone underside, combined with a usual 'M' pattern on top of the thorax makes them distinguishable.

Some of the many different colour forms of the Harlequin ladybird
The distinctive two-tone underside and brown legs of a Harlequin ladybird
If you've read this far - thanks!  To find out more about ladybirds, don't read the newspapers, for God's sake.  Next month the Field Guide to Ladybirds comes out (written by experts Helen Roy & Pete Brown, beautifully illustrated by Richard Lewington) and next May it will be followed by my own Spotlight: Ladybirds book - less shouty than this (no caps-lock text about STD misconceptions at all, you'll be sad to hear) but hopefully entertaining and informative with actual facts. I personally find facts so much more satisfying than lies and downright misinformation.

Sunday 30 July 2017

Why is the world's largest bee hotel like Glasgow's postwar regeneration?

I was in Scotland last weekend to lead a couple of bumblebee ID training events.  As I needed to bring a fair bit of kit with me, I drove, and passed through Glasgow on the M8 motorway on my way to Loch Lomond.  The M8 is strange in that it passes through heavily-populated areas: the splitting of communities caused by the massive new road is one of the many reasons cited for the failure of Glasgow's massive post-war regeneration, where entire neighbourhoods of slum tenements in the centre were demolished and the inhabitants moved out to newly-built flats around the edges of the city.

This, slightly implausibly, came to mind again this morning when I saw a tweet from the BBC's Springwatch about 'the team' at WWT Martin Mere building 'the world's largest bug hotel'.
The thing is huge - 17 cubic metres of bamboo, straw, wood, slate, chicken wire and pine cones that took four weeks to construct.  And I'm rather concerned that it - and the general fashion for building ever-bigger edifices of 'insect habitat' - is repeating very similar mistakes to the planners and builders of post-war Glasgow.

The new developments in Glasgow failed largely because they disrupted families & local communities, and they didn't provide amenities - shops, schools, places to work.  Huge numbers of people were placed in new flats in the middle of nowhere seemingly almost at random.  To see friends or family meant facing long, arduous trips across town; any desire or need to work, visit shops or pubs, or do anything outside their new homes meant difficult trips back to the city centre and their former neighbourhoods.

This is almost exactly what happens with these giant bug hotels.  Usually unaccompanied by any more favourable management - more flower-rich grassland, say - they are giant blocks of just-about-passable accommodation in the middle of nowhere.  Bees - especially the smaller solitary species which are the main targets of 'hotels' - have a fairly limited flight range, especially to forage efficiently and bring back the maximum of pollen & nectar in the minimum time.  The area around a giant 'hotel' is unlikely to be able to support the number of bees which could nest in 17 cubic metres of hotel! Thus most will remain empty... which makes things a bit of a waste of time.

Additionally, any large aggregation of host species will inevitably attract parasites, pests & diseases.  There is already some evidence that 'bee hotels' may potentially do as much harm as good by artificially aggregating solitary bee nests in areas which are easy for parasites and parasitoids to spread between nests: one 'hotel' manufacturer even recommends that the products are cleared out each winter to reduce the parasite load on the bees.

Overall, while these giant 'bug hotels' certainly make a statement to the casual visitor, they almost always remain virtually empty (apart from the inevitable earwigs), and those bees which do set up home are at greater risk of death than those nesting in more natural situations.  I haven't visited the Martin Mere 'hotel': I can't comment on whether they have begun managing the site more for pollinators, or whether their showpiece hotel is accompanied by more natural, more dispersed options for nesting or overwintering.  

But I can virtually guarantee that they don't set out to increase bird numbers on the reserve entirely by putting out more nestboxes, which appears to be essentially what they've done here for insects.

More information on the Glasgow regeneration projects can be found on the University of Warwick website and Buzzfeed has an impressive gallery

Monday 12 June 2017

One day... one thousand species?

Out in the wilds of the Lizard peninsula, the near-full moon was visible past the old windmill.  A brisk wind was whipping the grasses back and forth as the final seconds until midnight ticked away.  As the clock struck 12, the generator died, and the light of the moth-trap went out.  Seconds later, the loose connection in moth trap no. 2 played up and it too went dark.  In the distance, the third remaining trap blew over, and it began to rain.  Clearly it was going to be one of those days...

But the story actually begins several months previously.  Graeme Lyons, ecologist at the Sussex Wildlife Trust and fellow Pan-Species Lister, had suggested a challenge: was it possible to find and identify a full one thousand species in just the 24 hours of one calendar day in the UK?  With a few rules (2 people who must stick together as a team, one vehicle, no outside help) and a set date (10th June 2017), the gauntlet was laid down...

My team would be myself and Sally, a friend and fellow PSL-er based just outside Penzance in Cornwall, so Friday evening saw me piloting a van laden with caffeine, ID guides, site species lists and a sleeping dog down the ever-smaller Cornish lanes en route to our first destination, Windmill Farm.  Having to use both the windscreen wipers and the heater didn't bode well, but the site was a Cornwall Wildlife Trust & Cornwall Birdwatching & Preservation Trust Reserve covered with species-rich pools, heathland, mires, trees and grassland, plus a Red-footed Falcon hanging around for the past week - must be good!
Moth trapping at Windmill Farm
Unfortunately, mains power was out: fortunately, the warden Dougy Wright had given us permission to borrow the reserve's generator (thanks Dougy!).  We set up my MV trap in as sheltered a place as we could find, put out a couple of small battery-powered traps, test-ran the generator, and then waited for midnight... without the most auspicious start!

A bit of tweaking and I eventually got the generator running properly, sorted out the dodgy wiring, and moved the other trap to the shelter of the windmill.  A couple of hours torchlit searching and moth trap checking and we were up to 95 species - needing 42 new species an hour we were up on the deal!  With the wind howling, rain falling, temperature dropping to single figures and both of us shattered from election-watching the previous evening, we decided to get a couple of hours sleep.
4am is not a time the dog would like to be awake on Saturday mornings. Can't say I blame him!
At 4am, with the dog snoring next to me and the sun, if not breaking through then at least vaguely illuminating things, it was time to get going again.  We checked the moth traps (a March-like 13 species in all, though three Eyed Hawks were great to see) and had a good poke around the derelict farm buildings (Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell pupae, banded snails, a very fat toad) before heading out across the heathland.  One of the ponds on the farm, Ruan Pool, had loads of high-quality freshwater wildlife as well as rare plants by the bucketload in the trackways leading to it - just the thing to really get our total rocketing.

After about 45 minutes walking, sweep-netting and tree-beating, it was becoming very clear that we were going to need the aquatics: everything else had buried itself deep down in the undergrowth, away from the ever-more-insistent rain pelting against us.  We reached the edge of the Ruan Pool field to find... a large number of large cattle, all very interested in the dog.  We beat a hasty retreat and walked over to the dragonfly ponds on the other side of the reserve.  A couple of stunned-looking damselflies awaited (Common Blue and Blue-tailed), but there was little sign of life otherwise.

The Windmill Farm records
We sought sanctuary in the activity centre with coffee to ID some galls and work out our next move.  With about 300 species spotted we were badly behind, and as the weather was even worse on the coast, the exposed clifftops at Lizard Point and Kynance Cove were out.  Instead we went round the corner to the more sheltered Predannack Wollas, spotting new species from the van as we went (neither of us had ever been so excited to see a horse-chestnut tree!).  A valley pathway out of the wind gave us brief respite with some cold-dazed hoverflies and micromoths added to the tally, but before long we were out on the open grasslands again.  On a warm day the fields are alive with dung beetles, butterflies, choughs and rare clovers, but today the mist was closing in, the wind was buffeting, and there was nothing airborne to be seen except raindrops.  The route to the clovers was fogbound, wet, slippery and wind-beaten a hundred feet above the pounding sea... so we turned tail and headed back to Sally's for lunch, drying out, and a bit of indoors ID time.
The view from Predannack Wollas
We'd only just about managed to scrape together 400 species and it was already 2pm - we knew from Facebook that Graeme had blown past that at about 4am!  With rockpooling looking a bad idea even though the rain had (temporarily) slowed, we headed back outside to do Sally's local patch.  The first stop was a nicely-untidy garden behind the village hall... but the pub next door had annexed it for the occasion, and the garden's ant nests and assorted other creatures were buried beneath a giant white marquee.

We headed back up the hill into the intensifying rain.  Both of us wear glasses and it wasn't long before neither of us could see much of anything, peering Magoo-like at leaf mines and aphids sheltering beneath leaves.  My boots had reached the fully-saturated stage where they actually worked like tiny wetsuits, and I was regretting not bringing my waterproof notebook.  The only way I was managing to record things now was by hunching over my phone to put records directly into the iRecord app: my notebook was long-saturated.

Waiting for the rain to clear slightly
Another indoor spell to ID specimens, dry out and eat tea beckoned before, about 8.30 pm, the rain finally took the hint and sodded off.  We piled back into the van and headed for Marazion: ponds, sand dunes and coast!  Getting there, we pulled over and scanned the ponds for wildfowl... one mute swan.  We parked properly and scanned the sea for birdlife... a mixed flock of Dunlin and Sanderling scuttled around by the waves, but everything else had gone to bed for the night.  Closer at hand, Sally spotted Mullein plants - a bit of poking around and Mullein moth caterpillars were added to the list.  Across the car park (Mossy Stonecrop) and into the dunes, where everything seemed to begin with 'Sea-' - we added Sea-holly, Sea-beet, Sea-bindweed, Sea-rocket, Sea-spurge and the mighty Sea-daffodil in a matter of minutes.

Running out of things prefixed by the word 'sea', we headed back to the van and onwards to the north coast and Upton Towans, another Cornwall Wildlife Trust reserve.  It was beyond dimpsey by the time we arrived, needing some 450 species in the final two hours of the day.  The Towans were clearly a brilliant site: we quickly stumbled across Soapwort, Portland Spurge, Brown Chafers by the bucketload, a Garden Tiger caterpillar.  Further into the dunes, dozens of Amara ground beetles criss-crossed the path with tiny ants, and we cursed the lack of time for microscopy.

The species kept coming - Thyme broomrape, Devil's Coach-horse beetles, galls of the mite Aceria thomasi on wild Thyme - but it was clearly going to be too little, too late.  The sand of time were trickling away too fast, and when a Tawny owl hooted in the trees by the van it proved to be our final species of the day: number 657.
Final scores
So we failed by 343 species in the end, though we were both pretty pleased with the score given the conditions.  A bit of sunshine and I reckon we'd have picked up enough insect life to get there or thereabouts (we finished on 50 moth species (13 of them in the traps), 3 butterflies (all caterpillars/pupae), 38 true bugs, 32 beetles and 1 grasshopper).  I saw more bee species when walking the dog for 25 minutes the next morning in sunshine than in the full 24 hours!  Add in a bit of rockpooling and a few more birds (our 25 bird species didn't include a single blue tit, great tit, starling, black-headed gull, or many others) and a few more plants from the exposed sites, and we'd have reached the target.  After all, in sunshine up the coast in Sussex, Graeme had reached the magic 1k by 7.30pm, so it was definitely possible!

Dog on his way home, channelling both of us
If you fancy sponsoring us, please visit our JustGiving page - all donations go to Cornwall Wildlife Trust to help them maintain the sites we squelched round

Sunday 2 October 2016

A while in the making

My last blog seems a very long time ago now - and that's because it was, almost 20 months ago!  That particular blog was all about a trip to Worcestershire Wildlife Trust's Knapp and Papermill reserve, where we mostly looked at fungi, and I was reminded of it (and the heinous gap between blog posts) as this afternoon has been spent on a fungal foray at that very same reserve.

I never actually meant to stop blogging - life just happened to get slightly in the way!  In the time between my last blog post and writing this one we've moved house again - this time to a house we actually own!  I'm still not entirely sure how we managed to buy, but we now live on the Malvern Hills, and can be out onto the hillside in minutes from our new front door.  The lack of a landlord also means we're finally allowed pets, and so in June we adopted a dog from the local animal rescue centre... and now I have even more excuses for wandering the hills on a daily basis!
Our view, out across the valley to the Cotswolds
Dog, enjoying camping
We moved in April, interrupted only by a quick trip north to take part in Sally-Ann Spence's brilliant EntoSci event - spending the day talking insects and fieldwork misadventures with Andy Salisbury (RHS), Darren Mann (OUMNH), Simon Leather (Harper-Adams), George McGavin (TV), and Max Barclay & Erica McAlister (both NHM) to (try to) inspire the 300 attending school children into taking up entomology as a career.  Seemed to go over well on the day at least!
Before: a stria of coleopterists drinking coffee
Caught in the act
Not long after, the year's travel began in earnest with a week on Jersey.  Visiting the Channel Islands has been on my to-do list for a very long time, so when Paul Chambers of the Jersey Government invited me over to talk at their recording conference, I leapt at the opportunity!  The weather wasn't ideal for bees but it was great to meet up with some of the amazing local entomologists and recorders.  As well as Paul, several others - notably Simon Robson, Tim Ransom, Roger Long & Richard Perchard - all gave up their time to show me around and were great company!
Jersey, shortly before the snow started...
The Jersey (and Continental European) subspecies of the Buff-tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris terrestris
Work has taken over much of both the summers since I last wrote, but we did manage a week away in June.  Starting with my brother's wedding in south Wales, we drove up to Ardnamurchan in the far west of Scotland for a week or two's walking.  Unfortunately, in the evening of our first full day in Kilchoan, I managed to empty an entire kettle of boiling water over my left foot.  Consequently, we spent much of our week sitting in the van or the tent, looking out at the rain.  Far from all bad - we saw sea eagles and dolphins, red deer by the hundred, and a couple of new gall species - but with the scald and a couple of other minor disasters the holiday has now been christened 'A Series of Unfortunate Events'.
Campervanning it in Kilchoan
Our previous holiday, to the New Forest in November, hadn't featured any injuries but was enlivened by the sight of the beginnings of an alien invasion, with hundreds of foul-smelling tentacles hatching from pale, gelatinous eggs on the ground.
Mysterious eggs in the grass
Don't look directly into it! 
This one had narrowly missed grabbing someone's face
Luckily it turned out that they were the fungus Clathrus archeri, Devil's Fingers, and they're from Australia rather than outer space (accidentally imported with Australian troops during WW2). I'm told they're yet to cause any mysterious disappearances. Thanks to Dan Hoare for the location!

My other main activity over the past winter was writing a book!  Over the past few years, Bloomsbury have teamed up with the RSPB to produce a series of 'Spotlight Guide to...'.  These are relatively short (c. 115 pages) but informative, fun and with plenty of pictures.  Having published the Spotlight Guide to... Robins, Foxes, Otters and Puffins, Bloomsbury offered me (and I accepted) the chance to write the 'Spotlight Guide to Bumblebees'.  This will be the first in the series to cover an insect, and the first to cover a group rather than an individual species, and it will hit the shelves in spring next year - can't wait to see it!

Saturday 14 February 2015

A month in Malvern

Six weeks into the new year, and things have finally calmed down enough to go for a wander around our new local area. Having moved to Malvern on the 10th January, the time since the Christmas break has been a whirlwind of packing, unpacking, and flat-pack furniture construction. Now, though, the boxes have (almost) gone, the birds are singing in the front garden, and we've been adopted by a neighbourhood cat with a Hitler moustache.

More or less the first thing we did once we'd unpacked was join the local Wildlife Trust, so with the Malvern Hills themselves blanketed in fog, we had a flick through the membership pack and found that there was a 'flagship reserve' just round the corner - Knapp and Papermill Nature Reserve.

The reserve is set in a valley, bordering the Leigh Brook, a small river bolstered by yesterday's inch of rain.  The information boards promised kingfishers (Alcedo atthis) and occasional otters (Lutra lutra), but neither was in evidence today, and invertebrates were in short supply too - just a few woodlice (Oniscus asellus & Trichoniscus pusillus agg.) and centipedes (Lithobius forficatus & a smaller Lithobius sp.) in the log piles.

It was clear that spring has nearly sprung, however - hazel (Corylus avellana) and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) were in full flower throughout the reserve, and in the hedges and on the banks daffodils, ramsons (Allium ursinum) and cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum) were showing strongly, bright green patches against the dead-leaf background. Winter was still hanging on, primarily in the form of fungi - Kate found a good crop of candlesnuff (Xylaria hypoxylon) on a tree stump, black witches-butter (Exidia glandulosa) was smeared across a few trees by the riverside, and hairy bracket (Stereum hirsutum) was on pretty much every dead log we looked at.

Probably the most interesting fungus of the day, however, were the neon-pink blobs I found on a lichen-encrusted twig. These were Illosporiopsis christiansenii - a tiny fungus which parasitises the lichens Physcia tenella and Xanthoria parietina. Certainly the brightest thing we found all afternoon!

Definitely somewhere worth revisiting...

Candlesnuff fungus (this and all photos below by Kate Ashbrook)
Illosporiopsis christiansenii parasitising a Physcia lichen. Much brighter in real life!
Hairy bracket
Not sure what this is yet
Young jews-ear fungus from below

Monday 22 December 2014

The End

Way back at Christmas 2013, I decided on a couple of wildlife challenges for the forthcoming year. Being a pan-species lister interested in the amazing variety of wildlife to be found in gardens (check out the Garden Bioblitz!), the obvious starting point was Andy Musgrove's 1000 species in a 1km square challenge. As the name suggests, this was an attempt to find one thousand different wild species (plants, fungi, invertebrates - even the tiny handful of vertebrates that call Britain home can contribute) - in a single square kilometre. As a further challenge, I wanted to see if I could reach the magic four figures just in my own rented house and garden - 971 square metres of landlord-controlled standard suburbanity in rural Oxfordshire.
Species #273: The pseudoscorpion Chernes cimicoides from January
Fast-forward a year to now, and that's pretty much it for 2014. As I write, it's the evening of the 20th December, and the newly-decorated Christmas tree is twinkling gently in the corner of the room. The year panned out a bit differently to how I envisioned it back in 2013: primarily, I spent a lot less time at home! Partly because work was a lot busier than planned: more importantly, I met a girl and so began spending a lot of my spare time in Bath.

But the species list continued to grow whenever I was back in Oxfordshire.  The warm summer meant the moth trap was particularly productive - not just moths, but plenty of beetles, flies, woodlice and more. The drought wasn't entirely helpful though - it was noticeable how few invertebrates were to be found beneath rocks and logs, having dispersed to find damper microhabitats.
The year's final wander around my local patch was Thursday, and having gone back to my parents for Christmas, it's time to tot up the final scores...
December Moth on 15/12/2014 - one of the last species of the year, but what number was it?
The most ambitious first: the garden list fell short in the end, with 756 species. This actually ended up lower than last year (796 species identified in 2013), mainly because I did a lot less summer moth-trapping in 2014. It was enough to push the all-time garden list into four figures though, ending on 1185, so half a point there...

For my local 1km square as a whole, the target was reached - species number 1000 for the year (the Batman hoverfly Myathropa florea) turned up in mid-August, and although effort slackened somewhat in the autumn, a few days' work with the microscope dealt with most of the specimen backlog.  The final count: 1,422 species!

Unsurprisingly, insects dominated the final count - 830 species were recorded in total, with a respectable showing for plants (295 species). Breaking down the insect score, moths were the single largest contributor (343 species), followed by the beetles (173 species, including the last additions to the list - two individuals of the dung beetle Aphodius obliteratus which turned up in the moth trap on the 19th December).
Breakdown of the species groups found in my Sutton Courtenay 1km square during 2014
Breakdown of the insects in my 1km square
I've been recording as I go along, so it's easy to see the area covered.  My two main walks - round the lakes in the centre and up to the river and across the weirs - show up well, with a few different excursions.  The only real gaps are the housing estates in the north-east and south-west, and the rank flood meadows in the north-east.
Recorded squares, 2014
Taxonomically, what's been really striking is how much more there is to find! The 1422 species I found includes barely any mosses (1100-ish potential species), lichens (1300 species), flies (8500 species), spiders (650 species), or hymenoptera other than bumblebees (8000 species), not because they're not there, but purely because of my taxonomic limitations!

But I won't get the chance to find out what the upper limit for this particular square is. In January, I'm moving to Malvern in Worcestershire, on the edge of the Malvern Hills AONB. Lots of exploring to do!