Friday, 21 December 2012

Anything to declare ...

GROPPERS

The Orthoptera is an order of charismatic and abundant insects, which includes the grasshoppers, crickets, weta and locusts. Many members of this order manufacture an audible noise by stridulation (the act of producing sound by rubbing certain body parts together). In the case of the Orthopterans this is typically the wings or legs; these body parts containing rows of corrugated bumps. Their ‘song’ is one of the many sounds of summer; a time when they can easily be found in meadows, trees or bushes.

The British Isles currently plays host to twenty-seven native species (grasshoppers and crickets) and a number of naturalised, non-native species. In addition to our native fauna, and those species deemed non-native though naturalised, the unexpected Orthopteran occasionally turns up; with modern air travel providing a suitable mechanism for the transportation of the occasional exotic arrival. The following three species, the largest of which, a species of Tropidacris, has a wingspan of approximately 20cm and is around 10cm in length, were captured from an international airport located in the south of England, as unexpected arrivals in baggage reclaim …

The first is Acanthacris ruficornis (Fabricius, 1787). It arrived on a flight from Africa on 15 June 2001. The second is Anacridium melanorhodon ssp. melanorhodon (Walker, 1870); an arrival on a flight from northern Africa (Palestine) on 2 February 2000. The third, the most impressive of the three, is probably Tropidacris cristata (Linnaeus, 1758); which arrived on a flight from South America (Costa Rica) on 18 August 2001. Members of the genus Tropidacris are the largest known grasshoppers. All three were alive upon arrival. The third, T. cristata, had to be handled very carefully as it is a grasshopper with impressive strength. Any attempt to handle it is likely to be repelled with a lightening quick reprisal; its spiny hind legs inflicting damage to the unsuspecting handler ...

My thanks go to Darren Mann (OUMNH) for confirmation of identification.





























Images copyright OUMNH. Photographed by Katherine Child, Hope Department of Entomology.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Artiodactyla ...

Ashdown Forest, 17 December 2012

Although Fallow Deer were present in Britain some 400,000 years ago, later glaciations restricted them to the Mediterranean basin. The Fallow Deer we see in Britain today, Dama dama ssp. dama, are the result of their re-introduction to Britain, probably by the Normans in the eleventh century; when they were released in forests as highly prized quarry. By the fourteenth century there were many parks where Fallow were hunted. It is from these extensive, wild expanses of land there evolved the landscaped deer park adjacent to a stately home, many of which remain today. The current feral population owes its existence largely to park escapes, both deliberate and accidental.

Ashdown Forest in East Sussex holds a good head of wild Fallow. With a considered and cautious approach, it is not impossible to get quite close; as the pictures below show. I managed to approach within 5 meters of these young wild females, part of a small herd of ten comprising seven young does and three juvenile bucks; which were grazing and resting in a small area of grassland. The second picture, of the same animal in the first shot, clearly shows the white rump patch outlined with characteristic black horseshoe, and the black stripe running down the tail, which is the longest of all British deer. The third picture, a profile shot showing a female with darker pelage, clearly shows the sub-orbital scent gland in front of and just below the eye.





Friday, 14 December 2012

Watching the watcher ...

East Head, 13 December 2012

As I arrived at East Head early this morning large numbers of Brent Geese were grazing in their customary fields to the north of the car park. My luck was in, as Bernie Forbes had already scanned the flock and picked out a single Black Brant (Branta bernicla ssp. nigricans) from amongst the 1000+ birds that were there; the critical id separation features clearly visible. B. b. nigricans is currently considered a sub-species of the Brent Goose (Branta bernicla); it breeds in Alaska and typically winters in western America. A scarce, though in recent years a fairly regular visitor to Sussex - a good start ...

With a late morning high tide the channels in the harbour were full of water. I took a slow walk around the headland and glassed the sea and dunes for life. A single Red-throated Diver flew in from the sea and several, distant, Great Crested Grebes were also seen. I was pleased to note several small parties of Sanderling feeding along the tide line, with the occasional Ringed Plover for good measure. Four Razorbills, in a tight feeding flock, were busy diving for prey. Large flocks of spiralling waders could be seen over Pilsey Island as the tide was reaching its peak. A male Stonechat and two Jack Snipe were seen in the marsh in the shelter of the dunes. A flock of around twenty Skylark reminded me of summer - though the temperature soon brought me back to harsh reality.

As I stopped to scan the sea and shoreline at the end of East Head, I suddenly realised I was being watched - as a dark whiskered head appeared from below the surf! A single Atlantic Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) was watching me and did so for several minutes before going on its way. Although Common Seals (Phoca vitulina), or Harbour Seals as they are also known, can be found around the Sussex coast in small numbers (a population of around 20 is known to live around The Solent and Chichester Harbour areas), Grey Seals are a far less common sight in Sussex waters.

The watcher being watched ...

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Catocala fraxini ...

Clifden Nonpareil

The beautiful Clifden Nonpareil (Catocala fraxini), or Blue Underwing as it is also known, is an immigrant to Sussex and suspected resident since 2001 or 2005. It is generally only found singly and is attracted to sugar, usually at dusk, and occasionally to MV light. Immigrants appear in a wide range of habitats, chiefly in the south of the county; while residents prefer wooded landscapes in the far east. During the middle part of the 20th century it was resident in certain parts of Kent and Norfolk. C. fraxini is single-brooded; flying mainly from mid August to mid October. The larvae, which can be as much as 75mm long, feed mainly on aspen (Populus tremulosa)It overwinters as an egg.

Nowadays, only a handful are recorded per year, mainly from the south and south-east of England; September being the most likely month. On 17th October 2011, my good friend Alec Harmer, took a gravid female at MV light in his garden on the edge of the New Forest in Hampshire. Her forewings were in reasonable condition, but her hindwings were badly torn. She laid 21 eggs and sadly died within a few days of capture. One of her offspring has subsequently laid over 563 ova and it is from her successors that the following larvae were reared. They were photographed on 4th July 2012.

Long may her descendants live on ...

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Controversy ...

National disgrace ...

"Due to the care of past curators, we can (for example) still handle specimens actually from Linnaeus's personal cabinets, as well as others collected and prepared by later giants in the history of biology, Raffles, Darwin and Wallace among them. Ownership of these collections in trust carries an obligation to maintain them in good state and to make them accessible to enquirers and research workers at home and abroad".

Earl of Cranbrook, 1991. Standards in the Museum Care of Biological Collections, 2, 1992. Museums & Galleries Commission.



In early November 2012, The Museums Association (MA) held their annual Conference and Exhibition at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC). Reported to be the largest gathering of museums and heritage professionals in Europe, it showcases suppliers, hosts workshops and various meetings. Darren Mann of the Hope Entomological Collections (HEC) was there as a speaker to present a talk entitled ‘The Elephant in the Room’ which tackled some of the difficult questions that are currently being raised about the future of natural history collections in the UK.

What questions are those?
Well, here is the background in a nutshell:

"Natural history collections are under threat but are vital for taxonomic research, environmental monitoring and education. The number of specialist curators is declining, so should collections be redistributed to centres of excellence or are there other solutions for orphaned collections?"

The main question that is raised by this is - How do we prevent the loss of these collections? and it is one that is very much on the minds of all natural history curators at the moment as we hear of more collections being 'moth-balled' (put away into storage) and the loss of curators through redundancies or down-sizing, leaving many collections without people to care for them, interpret them or make them available for research. The biggest threat of course, comes to the collections themselves, which may become damaged or lost altogether through poor storage and lack of care. For example, any item with fur, feather or chitin (e.g. taxidermy mounts or insect specimens) are open to attack from a host of pests including the one most reviled by curators, Anthrenus, which, whilst being a rather pretty little beetle, views an insect collection as an assemblage of tasty snacks (see image below). In a round up of the problems associated with deciding the future of these collections, Darren Mann pointed out that despite their huge popularity with the general public there has been a movement in the museums sector away from natural history and towards the arts and social sciences. To put some perspective on this, the Ashmolean Museum recently spent £7.83 million on Edouard Manet’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus; a single painting! For the same amount of money the entire UK entomological collections held outside the Nationals and University Museums, of over 10 million specimens, could have been re-housed (including salary costs) and systematically arranged in modern pest proof storage.

One curator recently wrote "There are now more pandas living in Edinburgh than there are natural history curators employed in the whole of East Midlands, West Midlands and South Yorkshire put together".

This surely can't be right?



Images copyright OUMNH. Photographed by Katherine Child, Hope Department of Entomology.

The Aurelians …

Oxford University Museum - Part 2

The first known British specimen of the Bath White (Pontia daplidice) was reputedly caught by William Vernon (fl.1660-c1735) at White Wood, near Gamlingay in Cambridgeshire in May 1702. The specimen purporting to be the first, a battered female (pictured below), resides in the Hope Department of Entomology at Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH) through the collections of James Petiver (1663-1718) and James C. Dale (1792-1872). Although 1702 is claimed to be the date of capture of the first specimen (Ford, 1945) and (Howarth, 1973), it would appear that this is in fact incorrect. It is more likely that the specimen in the OUMNH is a specimen subsequently collected. It is nevertheless still believed to be the oldest known pinned entomological specimen in the world.

The most likely date of capture of the first specimen must be before 1699 as Petiver, in the fourth of his Musei Petiveriani Centuria, completed on 31st August 1699 and published later the same year, lists Papilio leucomelanus, subtus viridescens marmoreus, (black and white butterfly with the underside marbled green) and states “the only one I have seen in England Mr Will Vernon caught in Cambridgeshire”. Consequently 1699 is the latest possible date for the capture and there is other evidence to suggest that it may have been in or before 1695.



In my opinion it is impossible to separate the history of British butterflies from that of their collectors, as our current knowledge of the butterflies is the result of four hundred years of collection and research by the collectors. Our attitudes towards collecting butterflies have rightly changed and although this alone, in many circumstances, is unlikely to have caused the loss or decline of treasured species, in other circumstances it may well have been instrumental in the species demise.

Our knowledge of the entomological world continues to grow partly, at least, through responsible collecting, but this often requires specimens to be killed. This is far less likely with our beloved Lepidoptera, though essential with many of the other insect groups where accurate identification often requires microscopic examination of a non-moving insect. Inevitably this usually means that the insect will be dead. There is also the requirement for a voucher specimen(s), which can be referred to in cases of future doubt or for further research. This last point requires that the collector make responsible and appropriate arrangements for the preservation of his research efforts after he has ceased to care for them.

Death, like it or not, is an integral element of many aspects of detailed entomological research. Providing it is justified, and we learn from our studies in order to better conserve for the benefit of future generations, then I support it. However, if purely for monetary gain or to seek personal pleasure as a collector of large series of the same insect, in the same way as perhaps a philatelist may with small squares of pristine coloured paper set neatly in rows in an album, it cannot and must not be justified without challenge.

Food for thought …



Images copyright OUMNH. Photographed by Katherine Child, Hope Department of Entomology.

Behind the scenes …

Oxford University Museum - Part 1

I have visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH) on numerous occasions and, in particular, have a long-term association with the Department of Entomology, as my good friend Darren Mann holds the position of Assistant Curator, and my friend and work colleague Dr John Ismay, Honorary Associate Curator. I have also donated a number of specimens to the collection, including the social wasp Dolichovespula saxonica following my discovery of it breeding at two locations in Britain in 1991.





The Hope Entomological Collections are located within the OUMNH and house over 25,000 types and comprises in excess of 5 million specimens of insects, arachnids and myriapods. This, along with its extensive library and historic archives, form one of the most comprehensive and important entomological resources within the United Kingdom. The collections are second only in size and importance to the national insect collection housed at the Natural History Museum, London.





The collection began life with the bequest by the Reverend Frederick William Hope (1797-1862) of his entire collection in 1849. The Hope Professors, John Westwood (1805-1893), Edward Poulton (1856-1943), Geoffrey Hale Carpenter (1882-1953) and George Varley (1910-1983) also amassed large amounts of material through both their own research and from donations by some of the most prominent entomologists of the day including, Charles Swinhoe (1838-1923), James John Walker (1851-1939), Arthur Wallace Pickard-Cambridge (1873-1952), Albert Harry Hamm (1861-1951), Edward Saunders (1848-1910), Bertram Maurice Hobby (1905-1983), Karl Richard Hanitsch (1860-1940), James Charles Dale (1792-1872) and his son Charles William Dale, John Curtis (1791-1862), John Francillon (1744-1816), Pierre André Latreille (1762-1833), Christian Gottfried Nees von Esenbeck (1776-1858), Henri de Saussure (1829-1905), Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) and Thomas Vernon Wollaston (1822-1878).

Of particular significance are:

Hope-Westwood collections
Extensive historic collections
The Verrall-Collin collection of Diptera
Comprehensive British collections
The Wytham Woods collections
The Pickard-Cambridge and Blackwall arachnid collections



The C. W. and J. C. Dale collection is probably one of the most impressive single collections of British insects, with over 50,000 specimens. This collection includes specimens used by Curtis, Haliday and Stephens in their published works. The Dale collection also contains the famous Bath White (Pontia daplidice), reputedly collected in Cambridge in May 1702, which is believed to be the oldest known pinned entomological specimen in the world.











The Hope Department of Entomology is an energetic and vibrant department of dedicated staff and associates, promoting entomology and the collections under their care to the highest level. The collections, Library and associated archives are a significant world resource that is accessible for research by appointment. Housed in a Grade 1 listed building, which is renowned for its spectacular neo-Gothic architecture, I highly recommend a visit to this wonderful museum ...

Don't miss it ...

http://www.oum.ox.ac.uk/collect/entom.htm

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Beyond the image ...

The Bigger Picture

Although I like to capture what I see with a camera, I do not class myself as a photographer; my passion is the subject, not the photography. Don’t get me wrong, I want to take pictures that please me, and hopefully others, but I have no real interest in the photographic process or the ‘black art’ of post image capture manipulation software, other than that which allows me to slightly sharpen or carry out other minor adjustments. My pleasure comes from finding subjects to photograph, primarily entomological, and then producing the best possible pictures I can using my camera and fieldcraft. If I don’t succeed first time I need little excuse to go back and try again.

Which often happens ...

To me, a picture is not just about the quality of the captured subject but also, and possibly more importantly, the circumstances under which it was achieved. The location, weather conditions, temperature, time of day, the perfumes present in the air (particularly those that appear heightened at dawn), ambient sounds and, not least, if I was not on my own, the company with whom I shared the experience; the detail, the bigger picture. I know this all sounds a little 'airy-fairy' but it is important to me and is all part of my experience of being at one with nature, the environment and myself ...

With over a month's rain having fallen over West Sussex during a 24 hour period in early June 2012, several of my local rivers and smaller water courses had, not suprisingly, burst their banks. Extensive flooding occurred throughout West Sussex. After the storm came the calm and on the morning of 12 June I headed for Iping and Stedham Commons to look for the beautiful Silver-studded Blue, which had only recently started to emerge. It took little persuasion to tempt good friend Colin Knight to join me, who was also desperate to be out and about. We headed for a small south facing area of heathland where I discovered good numbers during their peak last year. In the poor light and low ambient temperature, I managed to find and photograph just three males in the short time I was there. On 27 June I returned, alone, to Stedham Common; my target, a female Silver-studded Blue. It did not take long before I found the first of many males, as they took flight from the purple heather and birch scrub; the smell of damp pine filled the air. Others, roosting amongst the undergrowth, gradually started to stir and as they did so they revealed their wings to the warmth of the new day. A slow walk through the heather finally produced four females; two rather tatty specimens and two very fresh individuals whose tiny gemstone adorned wings glistened in the hazy sun.

Considering all of the above comments, the female Silver-studded Blue below is my favourite shot of 2012; not only because the composition and subtleties of colour please me, and its not the best picture I've ever taken, but more importantly because of the total experience and the memories which are consequently evoked ...

Friday, 7 December 2012

Dedication ...

The Murray Downland Trust

As many of you will be aware, nearly every Wednesday, between October and the end of March, I am involved in an ongoing conservation project at Heyshott Escarpment; an extremely important chalk downland reserve lying just to the south of the beautiful village of Heyshott in West Sussex. I, along with several of the regular stalwarts, including Neil Hulme and Colin Knight, fly the flag for Sussex Butterfly Conservation; we work closely alongside the dedicated and indefatigable volunteers of The Murray Downland Trust.

So who are The Murray Downland Trust (MDT)?

In brief, The Murray Downland Trust came into being in 1994. It is named after both Dr K. M. Elisabeth (Betty) Murray (1909-98), former Principal of Bishop Otter College (Chichester), and her brother, Kenneth Murray. The Murrays were pioneers of downland conservation at Heyshott, West Sussex. The objectives of the Trust are to rescue and enhance neglected areas of unimproved chalk downland in the counties of Sussex and Hampshire, revealing their richness in terms of the species of flora and fauna present. Five reserves are currently under their stewardship. These are at Buriton Down (Hampshire), Under Beacon, The Devil's Jumps, Heyshott Down and Heyshott Escarpment (West Sussex). All reserves are within the South Downs National Park.

In the September 2012 MDT newsletter, Sue Edwards wrote the following, wonderfully thought-provoking article on the inspiration behind the Trust: Betty Murray. It inspired me and further compounded my views that the sometimes controversial nature of the work we are undertaking at Heyshott, is indeed the right course of action; consequently I felt it worthy of sharing with a wider audience …

Betty Murray



An appreciation of a Founder of the MDT ...

Sometimes, as human beings, we become so enmeshed in the immediacy of the present that we tend to forget about the past. With the formation of the South Downs National Park and the changes which it is likely to bring to our very special part of the UK, it is perhaps apposite that we remember – and give thanks for – a very special member of our community whose vision and energy years ago paved the way for so many of the amenities which we enjoy locally today and, perhaps, take for granted. I refer, of course, to K.M. Elisabeth Murray, popularly and respectfully known as Betty Murray.

A woman of tremendous mental and physical strength and determination she was, first and foremost, an intellectual. Although functioning in an age when women still, largely, expected and accepted male dominance, she bucked the trend without a second thought and made her presence felt in numerous parts of the local landscape. Her tenure as Principal of Bishop Otter College, in Chichester (a training establishment for teachers), between 1948 and 1970, led to her recognition as one of the foremost mid-twentieth century figures in education. Under her guidance the College underwent a succession of major changes, progressing from being a genteel – almost boarding school – environment for young ladies to the admission, in 1960, of men. During the 1960s she instigated and oversaw an ambitious building programme for the College, including new student accommodation for which, using her artistic colour sense, she spent considerable effort and time selecting appropriate furnishings and décor. Under her guidance the student numbers almost trebled. A firm believer in the idea of community, she had, early on, instigated the tradition of The Trundle Walk, where all College members gathered together, early in the first term of the year, to climb the hill together. Upon joining this walk in the 1960s, men were advised that the Principal would always get to the top first. Taking this to mean that one was required to be courteous and allow Miss Murray to be the first to reach the hilltop, several of the men were then amazed to find their Principal striding onwards and upwards at a considerable pace and easily outstripping their efforts!

A College chaplain professed to feeling more in awe of her than of any bishop! Intimidation, however, was not her intention nor was it her modus operandi: she simply inspired awe and respect in those who came into contact with her, not least through her devotion to duty (which was paramount) but also through her perception of what was required for a task and her personal efforts to research it; her incisive comments; and her ability to understand people and their lives.

The Downs in all its moods excited and moved her. She possessed a keen eye for the beauty of landscapes and worked assiduously to preserve and protect them. Her strong aesthetic sense did not, however, lead her into promoting an adherence to the status quo and allowing Nature to take its course; rather, taking the avant-garde approach which she applied as much to her work at Bishop Otter College – as well as on numerous other bodies –  she strove to keep rampant Nature at bay and to promote the natural attributes of native chalk downland, recognising the potential for the richness of flora and fauna which provides endless delight for the senses.

The Down behind her Heyshott home was a constant source of delight and wonder. However, during the 1939-1945 war years the Downs became forbidden territory, having been taken over by the army for the purpose of military training. Sandpits were used for the development and use of flame-throwers. Many areas of the Downs were ploughed up, consequently grazing declined and, eventually, the production of arable crops took over from the previously traditional practice of sheep-grazing. The Downs at Heyshott were used as ranges, which resulted in some areas becoming threatened by developing tree seedlings, much to the consternation of Betty Murray and her brother, Kenneth (who visited, biennially, from his work as an archaeologist in Nigeria). To ensure that the inevitable was not permitted to happen, the two intrepid countryside rangers would choose propitious moments to venture into temporary army land and wage war on the encroaching trees and scrub!



By the end of the Second World War, natural chalk downland had become an increasingly scarce commodity throughout the long stretch of the South Downs. As an active member of the Society of Sussex Downsmen from 1948 onwards, serving as one of its District Officers for forty years, Betty Murray spent many happy and energetic hours on the Downs, clearing scrub and protecting rights of way. She waymarked country footpaths and worked assiduously to help restore the Downs, particularly those at Heyshott, to their former open glory, ensuring that the habitat was suitable for re-colonisation by the beautiful chalk-loving flora in which she – and others – took such delight. There were many other claims on her intellect and time during this period, often to do with public enquiries; but one senses that she was never happier than when wielding an axe or attacking scrub.

A keen archaeologist, Betty Murray was fascinated by the wealth of material in the area, whether it be appreciating local bronze age barrows or working to ensure that the treasures of the Roman Palace at Fishbourne remained in situ and accessible to the public. Her trail-blazing proclivities provided her with the vision and energy to be a major force behind the creation of the Pallant House Gallery, which houses one of the best collections of 20th Century British art in the world. As a determined advocate of a civilised physical environment, Betty Murray also oversaw the creation of what was to become a significant art collection at Bishop Otter College, collecting works from some of the more modern artists and, at least in the early days of the collection, displaying it around the college for all to enjoy and admire. Chichester District Museum, the Sussex Historic Churches Trust and the Sussex Record Society are just a few of the organisations which also enjoyed her tremendous mental energy and physical determination.

Quiet and thoughtful, with her intelligence shining through in everything with which she became involved, Betty Murray led by example and, by undertaking projects with wholehearted intention and belief, encouraged others to follow suit. The idea of a community working together was an important one to her and, although she was never afraid to court controversy – in her view, anything was preferable to apathy – she valued the feeling of people working together for the good of a common cause and of being willing to experiment as they did so. Her enlightened thinking, within the confines of a positive framework, enabled her to continue to push forward the bounds of civilisation and to observe, with satisfaction, the outcomes.

The Murray Downland Trust came into being in 1994, nearly twenty years after the agreement of a lease with the Cowdray Estate which established the reserves at Heyshott; and also at the Devil’s Jumps, leased from the West Dean Estate. Originally, Betty Murray chaired the advisory committee which was set up, under the auspices of the Society of Sussex Downsmen, to manage the reserves. This committee included several individuals who are, today, still involved with the Trust. After the Society decided that it could no longer justify the expense of supporting the Heyshott and Devil’s Jumps Reserves, it agreed to provide a sum of money to allow the formation of an independent group to do so, hence The Murray Downland Trust was formed: a fitting tribute to its new Patron and indefatigable champion of chalk downland. Today, the Trust continues to celebrate her vision and enlightened thinking, preserving and managing for a new generation the wonderful first-hand experience of exploring chalk downland, and providing oases of beauty and calm to promote the well-being of mind, body and spirit in our increasingly hectic lives.

Off course ...

Worthing, 25 October 2012

A very rare vagrant to western Europe, a male Desert Wheatear (Oenanthe deserti) hunkers down out of the wind on Worthing beach ...

Only the eighth in Sussex this century ...


Thursday, 6 December 2012

Progress ...

Heyshott Escarpment, 24 October 2012

Today saw the fourth of our weekly conservation work parties at Heyshott Escarpment.

Fabulous results have already been achieved this season, as a large amount of scrub and secondary woodland has successfully been cleared. In addition, records were smashed today as, for the first time in memory, we cleared so much scrub that three substantial bonfires were required; the tiny holes that cover my clothing standing testament to the intensity of the heat of their aerial embers.

Much of the area we are currently working on is the site of an old rubbish tip linked to the former chalk quarry; as numerous old metal buckets, fragments of broken glass and barbed wire were found. Nearby lies the site of the old limekilns which once served the industrial process; we are currently working just to the northwest of this area. The image below, which I took on 12th March 2012, shows the eastern sector of the reserve looking south. The 'Camels Humps' are just visible to the left of the centre of the picture; just to the right of the chalk track. An area of cleared ground lies just to the right. The old limekilns are located just to the north of this area. As I left the reserve shortly after 1pm, a Small White and a Comma made the most of the sun, which was just starting to burn through the lifting cloud …

Roll on next week ...

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Party season ...

Heyshott Escarpment, 3 October 2012

As September draws to a close it heralds the start of the annual conservation work party season.

Today, I joined Sussex BC and UKB member Colin Knight, and several representatives of the Murray Downland Trust, for the first of our weekly habitat management sessions at Heyshott Escarpment; these will run until the end of March next year. As this was the first get together this season, I was extremely pleased we started on the relatively flat and easy terrain of the lower reserve; as the upper slopes were very slippery due to the recent heavy rain.

One of the key aims of this ongoing programme is to create and maintain habitat corridors at this nationally important site for the rare Duke of Burgundy. This is an extremely exciting project and one where positive management and hard work continues to improve the chalk downland habitat. The extensive scrub clearance achieved during the previous season has now settled and, as it prepares to rest for the coming winter, looks highly promising for primula development in the forthcoming year. The gorgeous female below was photographed at Heyshott on 22nd May 2012; a beautifully warm and sunny day.

Do we need a better reason to turn up every Wednesday ...

I don't think so ...

Pick your own …

Ticehurst, 18 September 2012

Further to reports from Tony Lloyd and Malcolm Phillips on the Sussex Butterfly Conservation website (12th and 13th September 2012) of 1000+ Red Admiral and numerous Comma observed at Maynards PYO fruit orchards, located at Windmill Hill Farm on the outskirts of the East Sussex village of Ticehurst and, more recently, Neil Hulme’s report confirming the same, I was keen to take a look ...

Arriving late morning I soon found the orchard where the butterflies are continuing to enjoy the decaying Brighton Belle plums, which have gone unharvested due lack of market and discolouration of the skins. With the scent of fermenting fruit filling the air, the first of many hundreds of Red Admiral and numerous Comma were easily soon found; many of which were in pristine condition. As Neil mentioned in his UK Butterflies diary, “I've never seen so many in one place in over 40 years of butterfly watching.”

I can only agree, a fabulous sight …

Despite reasonable levels of sunshine, conditions were cold and most definitely autumnal, with a chilling wind continually blowing. I couldn’t help but feel that despite the large number of butterflies present, the end of the 2012 butterfly season will, very soon, be upon us …





Vanessids …

West Sussex, 10 September 2012 – Part 2

With the falcon in the bag I hot-footed the short distance over to Rewell Wood in the hope of catching some Nymphalid action; I wasn’t disappointed …

Proceeding up the main gravel track towards the small woodsman’s hut, Red Admiral were plentiful. The main block of purple scented buddleia just before the sawmill produced further activity, with good numbers of Red Admiral, a solitary Comma, several Large White, a Green-veined White and two Painted Ladies; one in pristine condition. A short walk along several of the adjoining tracks soon added Small White, Meadow Brown and Speckled Wood. As I returned along the forestry track past the woodman’s hut once more it was early afternoon. The two Painted Ladies were still around with the better of the two specimens regularly landing on the track to gain warmth.



It was at about this time that I noticed a Peacock, one of very few I’ve seen this year, sitting wings closed, in the middle of the track straight ahead of me. Apart from a tiny tear in her right hindwing she was in really nice condition. She allowed an extremely close approach and this very personal encounter was undoubtedly the highlight of my afternoon. It is likely that she may have gone into hibernation and then popped back out for a feed. This would certainly explain her rather sleepy behaviour …




Size DOES matter …

West Sussex, 10 September 2012 – Part 1

Despite leaving it several days before heading down to take a look, the beautiful 2nd calendar year male Red-footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus) was still showing well over Nunnery Lake near Chichester early this morning; a lifer for me. I managed to watch it for about an hour, during which time it hawked dragonflies over the reed beds below its vantage point in a large ash nearby. With strong winds and its perch about 100 metres away, my little Lumix really wasn’t up to the job; though I gave it a go (record shot below) ...

This really was a case of size DOES matter …




Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Variations on a theme ...

Common Blue

The female Irish form of the Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus ssp. mariscolore), which also occurs in the north and west of Scotland (including the Orkneys and Hebrides), is typically extensively marked with blue on the upperside of both its fore and hindwings. In addition, the orange marginal spots are generally larger and brighter than those found on the, also slightly smaller, nominate subspecies.

I mentioned in my recent diary posts that many of the Common Blue females I found on the Isles of Scilly were strongly marked with blue; many to a point that some were almost touching on the blue colour intensity of the Irish subspecies. Although I have seen a small number of the brown form on the mainland this year most have been blue, though not as bright or as beautifully marked as a those observed on the Scillies. Female icarus can vary greatly in the amount of blue present; this is particularly noticeable geographically to the west and north of their range. There are also many named and unnamed aberrations of this beautiful butterfly. Pictured below: Common Blue (female), referable to ab. supra-caerulea, Oberthür (1896). St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, 26 August 2012 ...

The beauty of nature ...

Heading home ...

Isles of Scilly, 25 August to 1 September 2012 – Part 3

Thursday

A pristine Red Admiral was the first butterfly to greet us as we arrived at Carn Near Quay on Tresco earlier today. Proceeding past Abbey Pool, five Red Admiral and a single Small Tortoiseshell were recorded nectaring nearby. A Hummingbird Hawk-moth was briefly seen. Pool Road, located to the north of Great Pool, proved productive for Speckled Wood and I was able to get several shots of my target. Racket Town Lane provided our first Meadow Brown and a single female Small White; though the small sheltered quarry did not produce the Comma I was hoping for. As we headed along the edge of Castle Down towards Cromwell's and King Charles' Castles good numbers of Common Blue, including a mating pair, were observed; all females, once again, being strongly marked with blue. A male Large White bid us farewell as we left the island late in the afternoon.



Friday

Friday morning, the day before we are due to leave for home, and the winds finally decide to relent.  We wake to the best day of the week with gorgeous blue sky and golden sunshine shimmering in the calm, turquoise blue sea below. A Red Admiral, that had unwisely ventured into the conservatory where we were having breakfast was, not surprisingly, the first butterfly seen today.

Our destination for our final day on Scilly was the beautiful island of St Martin's. Located on the north eastern limit of Scilly, St Martin's could easily hold the title of the most picturesque of all the islands; it is certainly one of my favourites. Arriving in Lower Town and taking a slow walk through the sheltered centre of the island towards Middle Town, Red Admiral, Speckled Wood, Large White and Common Blue were soon found. Just before the Fire Station and on the approach to Higher Town there is a small quarry on the left of the track and here we found large numbers of Small White egg-laying on nasturtiums. After a brief stop for refreshments we headed along the track past North Farm where we found a Small Tortoiseshell, further Speckled Wood and a surprisingly obliging female Holly Blue (pictured below). Heading past Culver Hole towards Chapel Down and its fabulous views, we found a single Painted Lady nectaring on heather. With time pressing on and our boat (bus) due to depart at 2.30pm, we took a short cut across Carn Wethers towards John Batty's Hill; and I'm glad we did as here we found a small isolated colony of Small Copper. 

According to, The State of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland (2006), the Isles of Scilly have sixteen species of butterflies that are regularly recorded. These include, in addition to the eleven species seen this visit, Ringlet, Peacock, Comma, Clouded Yellow and Monarch. Whole groups or families of butterflies are absent from the islands. For example, there are no species of Skipper, Swallowtail, Hairstreak, Metalmark or Fritillary despite conditions being favourable for a number of species.

Recorded this visit:

Small Tortoiseshell
Common Blue
Small Copper
Holly Blue
Red Admiral
Painted Lady
Small White
Large White
Green-veined White
Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria ssp. insula)
Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina ssp. cassiteridum)




Monday, 3 December 2012

Scilly sights …

Isles of Scilly, 25 August to 1 September 2012 – Part 2

Monday

The predicted, heavy rain and strong southwesterly wind arrived overnight with vengeance and forced an urgent rethink of plans this morning. As a sea crossing was unadvisable we headed to the heathland of Halangy Down, located just to the north of Hugh Town; the site of a former Iron Age settlement and Bant’s Carn Burial Chamber (c. 5th BC - 1st AD). Here we found some welcome shelter and several adventurous Meadow Brown and a single female Speckled Wood. It wasn't until 6.30pm that the sun finally managed to push through the heavy grey cloud, though the wind was still to relent ...

Tuesday

With the storms of yesterday having subsided and with a brighter though blustery day forecast, the beautiful island of St Agnes was our destination for today. We spent the morning investigating Porth Killier through to Periglis and Lower Town, located to the north of the island; in the afternoon we concentrated our efforts to the south over the beautiful heather coated granite that forms Wingletang Down. The morning produced our first of six Painted Ladies, my first this season, three Small Tortoiseshell and numerous pristine Red Admiral, many seen coming in over the sea. Two Pied Flycatchers and several juvenile White Wagtail were also seen. In addition to those already mentioned, six other species of butterfly were found. These included Large White, Small White, Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood, a single Holly Blue and numerous Common Blue.



Wednesday

Following an overnight storm, we woke to a leaden sky and strong westerly winds. As island hopping was out of the question, my son and I decided to hire mountain bikes and cycle to some of the less accessible areas of St Mary's; particularly as a glint of blue sky could be seen on the horizon. A female Green-veined White, my first of the trip, was a good start to the day as we headed north towards Telegraph Hill. After stopping for lunch at Carn Vean we headed out towards Porth Hellick Point and its Neolithic / Bronze Age Entrance Graves (c. 25th - 5th BC). Here we found Common Blue, Meadow Brown and Speckled Wood. A visit to Higher Moors and Porth Hellick Pool Nature Trail, managed by The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, provided some welcome shelter from the wind and an opportunity to photograph a pristine male Speckled Wood (ssp. insula). Red Admiral were once again seen in very good numbers, including an individual sheltering from the strong wind blowing across Peninnis Head. A single Small Tortoiseshell was seen nectaring on flowering ivy by the roadside at Carn Friars.

At 4pm, as I sit and write my diary, storm force winds and heavy rain are once again hitting St Mary's.

To be continued ...

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Revisited ...

Isles of Scilly, 25 August to 1 September 2012 - Part 1

Located just 28 miles (45 km) off the southwestern tip of the Cornish peninsula the Isles of Scilly form an archipelago of five inhabited islands and numerous other rocky islets (around 140 in total). An opportunity to take my son and elderly parents on holiday found me venturing back to this beautiful location after an absence of six years. After a five and a half hour car journey and a twenty minute helicopter crossing we finally arrived at St Mary's and the Star Castle Hotel; our base for the week ahead. Our arrival was welcomed by clear blue sky, sunshine and strong westerly winds. I had visions of a rare American vagrant (well you've got to be optimistic) ...

Bags unpacked, a short, late afternoon walk around a small section of The Garrison revealed Large White, Small White, Speckled Wood, Holly Blue, Meadow Brown (ssp. cassiteridum) and a beautiful Red Admiral sheltering from the strong wind.

Sunday


A hearty breakfast (with all the extras) was followed by a circular walk around the outer wall of The Garrison. This produced good numbers of Common Blue, including numerous strongly marked blue females. Scrub ivy grows over much of the more sheltered areas of The Garrison and Holly Blue were seen in greater numbers than I've observed for some time on the mainland. At 1.30pm (after a light lunch) we headed to the high seas for an exhilarating afternoon on board a 225HP RIB in search of the Atlantic Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus). After a detailed search and with the tide dropping in our favour, several small groups were found around the Eastern Isles.

Three of numerous (many out of focus) shots below ...

To be continued ...







A sting in the tail ...

Plaistow, 22 August 2012

Social wasps are among the most familiar and most feared of British insects. In late spring the over-wintered queens sometimes cause alarm as they search for nest sites around our homes and places of work. From late summer onwards their numerous smaller daughters (the workers) commonly cause nuisance and fear to many people. The continuous comings and goings of wasps from under eaves and other sheltered sites betray the presence of a nest. However, these industrious insects have another, beneficial side to their usual stereotyped image. Both queens and workers provide chewed insects and other invertebrates as food for their larvae. Such prey includes many pest species taken from our gardens and agricultural environments. Wasps also visit flowers for nectar and thus play an important role in pollination.

The eight true species of British social wasps all have a similar life-cycle. Nests are built in sheltered sites e.g. in cavities in the ground, in hollow trees or in lofts and outhouses (most colonies of Vespa and Vespula species); or suspended, usually among foliage, from the branches of shrubs and trees (most nests of Dolichovespula species). Each colony is initiated in the spring by an over-wintered queen. She builds a small golf ball sized nest which contains about two dozen cells forming a single layer. In these her first workers are reared. On emerging from their cells as adults, they take over all of the duties formerly performed by their mother, except for egg laying. They add more cells to the circular comb and will build further combs enlarging the outer shell of the nest to accommodate them.

Mature nests of the Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) can be very substantial in size: one example recorded by myself had a circumference of just over 2.25m. The population of a colony can often number several thousand in late summer. A nest is constructed from wood fibres (scraped from rotten or weathered timber by the wasp’s mandibles) which are mixed with saliva to form a tough paper. The horizontal, circular combs each contain many hexagonal cells, the openings of which face downwards. It is in these that the brood is reared. From mid-summer onwards new queens and males are reared. Once mated, the queens seek out sheltered sites in which to over-winter. The remaining nest population survives until late summer or autumn, depending on the species. Nests are never re-used and those in open sites soon disintegrate. The Hornet (Vespa crabro) is the largest European social wasp. The spectacular queens can measure up to 50mm in length; males and workers are smaller.

The queens and workers of all species have the ability to sting. Most stings are painful, but generally harmless, and only affect the area around the sting. However, some people can have an immediate, and more widespread allergic reaction to being stung, such as an anaphylactic shock, which can lead to death in some people. This is fortunately quite rare, affecting approximately 3 people in 100, though this is of little consequence to those who suffer in this way. The destruction of an active wasp nest can therefore be extremely hazardous and should only be attempted by professional pest controllers. In general, if a nest does not pose a threat, it is best left alone.

The Hornet (Vespa crabro) at its nest entrance ...


Now you see me …

Pirbright Common, 15 August 2012

A female Grayling at rest …




Saturday, 1 December 2012

Scouting for girls ...

Plaistow, 14 August 2012

With school summer holidays very much in full swing, I have been trying to encourage my son to come out with me for some entomological fun! A local wildlife photographic competition with a £50 first prize finally tempted him from his computer. Despite my preference for getting out early morning, it was 11.30am before we left the house. It was already quite hot and humid. A full sun shone above and the early morning still had been replaced by a refreshing breeze as we ventured to our local patch ...

Meadow Brown were everywhere; too many to count and with good numbers of pristine females nectaring on thistle. Gatekeeper were also in abundance and only second in number to their larger and equally active cousin. These were not for me, as I really couldn't be bothered with a chase of known outcome. A beautiful and very freshly emerged female Speckled Wood showed for a brief time though was sadly soon lost. Several Essex and Small Skipper were also seen along with good numbers of Small Heath. Deciding that enough was enough and that our £50 photographic prize wasn't going to be achieved today, we headed back through the meadow and along a small length of mixed hedgerow interspersed with ash and oak; my vision fixed firmly amongst the young blackthorn shoots ...

... and there she was, a beautiful female Brown Hairstreak.

Calling my son over quickly we both watched her flying and crawling amongst her larval foodplant whilst carefully selecting sites to lay her pearly white, urchin-like eggs. Occasionally she would pause and bask open-winged in the sun. She was extremely approachable and graced us with at least 20 minutes of her time before finally being lost from view ...