29 June, 2014

Goodbye civilisation

Back in the spring I was successful in applying for one of two long-term volunteer slots on Skokholm, an island off the Pembrokeshire coast, to assist the wardens in the daily monitoring of breeding and migrant birds, as well as helping survey other wildlife and ensuring the smooth general running of the island. It's come around amazingly quickly, and so tomorrow I shall be swapping the hustle and bustle of urbania for a very much more simple life on the island until October, hopefully taking in the best of the summer and autumn season!

With remote island life comes the inevitable (and rather welcome) cut in internet connection. If things do suddenly go silent on the blogging front you'll know why, but with any luck it'll be useable enough to get a few posts up every now and again. In the meantime I'll leave you with some fantastic plant life from the Canons Farm botany walk last week, spent in the great company of Steve Gale (of North Downs and Beyond fame), Beddington's Peter Alfrey and Canons Farm local patcher David Campbell...

Bee Orchid

Cut-leaved Germander- one of the rarest plants in Britain, believe it or not.

Yellow Bird's-nest

27 June, 2014

In the moth trap last night...

... were four footmen, each a little weirder than the last:

Hoary Footman

Scarce Footman

Common Footman

Buff Footman

26 June, 2014

Goodbye moth

Running a few errands up in town, I made a brief detour to the Natural History Museum to meet veteran Lepidoptera curator Martin Honey, and to hand over Euchromius cambridgei (see more here) for pinning and further examination. After filling in the relevant donor form, I was given a peek at the surprisingly large existing collection of the genus Euchromius; consisting of four shelves of around 50 species, with most originating from around the Mediterranean and Middle East.

The whereabouts of the only other British record is unknown, but as is often the case with interesting insects, many unfortunately find themselves hidden away in private or personal collections, never to be seen again- or only to be thrown away many years later by nonchalant relatives. No doubt this moth will be in good hands with the rest of the historical collection...

23 June, 2014

North Downs moth-trapping

Putting aside the obvious mammalian highlight, last Saturday's all-nighter at Juniper Bottom (a picturesque chalk valley in the North Downs complex) also turned out to a successful one for moth-trapping... bar a slight glitch in the early hours of the morning when a drunk farmer turned up at the car park exclaiming that 20 of his cows (which should have been in one of the fields we were trapping in) had turned up at his house further down the road! He was understandably sullen, but soon realised that we didn't have a key to open the gate leading to the field, and that it was open when we arrived. Thankfully, the field was quickly re-cowed.

It was a fairly run-of-the-mill moth catch for the regulars, whilst I was prancing and skipping backwards and forwards between the traps (not really), soaking in a fantastic range of species I could never have hoped to catch in my own garden...

Wood Carpet

Pretty Chalk Carpet

Satin Beauty

Red-necked Footman

Agapeta zoegana

Perinephela lancealis

Pelochrista caecimaculana

22 June, 2014

An encounter with a Dormouse

I've been running a moth trap long enough now to know that anything can turn up after dark. However, out of all the things I could realistically have expected to encounter during last night's trapping session on Box Hill, a Dormouse wasn't high on the list.

Nevertheless, this golden-brown beauty had all four of us weak at the knees when it suddenly popped out from behind a fence post in the early hours of this morning as we examined the contents of one of eight moth traps set-up in the Box Hill area last night. None of us had ever seen a Dormouse before nor knew anything of its typical nocturnal antics, but I can't imagine that this is a typical way to encounter one.

It quietly observed us through huge, bulging eyes for three hours- adjusting its position every so often to keep us in view- before disappearing into the night as quickly as it had appeared.

20 June, 2014

Scarce 7-spot Ladybird

Judging from the musings I post on the internet, you no doubt think that I'm now constantly pre-occupied by moths. You're right, but every now and again I do try to allow myself to look at something different. Yesterday I visited Esher Common, a local patch which has served me well in recent years for invertebrates (especially dragonflies), this time to scrutinise the many colonies of Formica 'wood ants' which thrive along the woodland-heathland fringes.

I was searching in particular for a beetle- the Scarce 7-spot Ladybird (Coccinella magnifia), which as its name suggests is very much less common than the 'standard' 7-spot Ladybird many will no doubt be familiar with in their gardens. The Scarce 7-spot is extremely restricted in its habitat preferences, being found only in very close proximity to wood ant colonies where both insects appear to live in mutual harmony. To put it in a more jazzy term (which I didn't know existed until just now), the ladybird is a 'myrmecophile'.

Even in prime habitat, the beetle seems to be far from abundant. Previous to yesterday I'd swept around a good 20 odd nests on the nearby Oxshott Heath with no luck, although I did find another cool myrmecophile in the form of Clytra quadripunctata. It wasn't until peering over another dozen ant nests on Esher Common that I finally caught a glimpse of the ladybird, typically by a nest on the main path I'd initially walked down!

Quite similar in appearance to 7-spot Ladybird (Coccinella 7-punctata), the larger central spots, smaller frontal spots and more bulbous elytra help pick out Scarce 7-spot. It also has 4 spots on its underside as opposed to 2. 

The first ladybird I found was actively crawling over a the nest, whilst a few others were perched on vantage points near to or above the nests.

It was fantastic to watch as one ladybird clumsily barged its way through a colony, all the while ferocious worker ants carried off all means of insect prey items back into their nest! Ants would often go up and investigate the ladybird, but would soon lose interest. Reading through some previous studies, it doesn't seem as though any other ladybird is able to withstand aggression from ants in the same way as the Scarce 7-spot. Here's a video I took...

What a ballsy beetle!

18 June, 2014

Bookham Common survey

Last Saturday saw another invertebrate-packed LNHS survey at Bookham Common during mixed weather of intense rain showers and sunny spells. I'd spent much of the previous 24 hours scrolling through endless documents describing obscure mainland European moths, so it was nice to experience a change of scenery (and a complete soaking) with the added guarantee of seeing something I would have otherwise completely ignored, like the nationally scarce beetle Uleiota planata which was found under bark by the LNHS hut...

Uleiota planata- sporting super funky antennae

Chrysomela populi- On poplar

Forest Bug (Pentatoma rufipes)- Final instar nymph

Xylota segnis

What's that? Of course I netted some moths...

Ypsolopha parenthesella- A particularly early emerging individual

Four-dotted Footman (Cybosia mesomella)

Glyphipterix thrasonella

17 June, 2014

Euchromius cambridgei- a lucky find

The past couple of days have been completely packed full of moth-related things to the point where I haven't actually had very much time to do anything else, including writing this overdue blog post. You may well have already heard, but it has all centred around this small moth, who's existence as a species was unbeknown to me before Thursday...

"Oh shit, that really needs to be potted up" was my first thought when it landed on the outside of the garden actinic trap early on Thursday night, during a fantastic spell of weather which had already seen several new species added to the garden list. The sight of a small, compact crambid with a white medial fascia, a row of dark subterminal dots and a beautiful shiny fringe pretty much eliminated every British species I could think of, and instantly got the adrenaline going. I pondered over its identity long into the night, and after correspondence with Martin Honey (lepidoptera curator at the Natural History Museum) and several county recorders the next morning, the moth was confirmed as Euchromius cambridgei- a species distributed through southern and eastern Europe, from France to Ukraine, and into Africa and the Middle East.

The weird thing is that this moth represents the 2nd record of the species for the UK, which is something I've been struggling to comprehend. I have been lucky enough in the past to come across several new species for the county, but to trap something in my own back garden that has only been recorded in Britain on a single previous occasion- in Northampton in 2005- is quite surreal. My complete fascination and admiration for the moth has made it surprisingly hard to come to terms with the fact that it has to be killed to allow it to ultimately be sent to the Natural History Museum for incorporation into their world renowned national collection. I can't help but yearn for unknowable answers to the secrets that this little individual holds. Where exactly has it come from? What prompted it to drop down into my meagre light trap in north Surrey? Why hasn't it been found more frequently? The species isn't even fully understood in its home range of mainland Europe, with no firm knowledge of a possible foodplant.

Taking into consideration the known migration potential of the genus itself (Euchromius ocellea is a fairly regular migrant to the south coast) and the coincidental arrival of Britain's first Aedia funesta at Dungeness on the Friday night, some people I've spoken to believe there to be a surprisingly strong case to be put forward for this being a genuine long-distance immigrant. Whatever its origins, the moth has certainly provided me with an eventful couple of days, and has even satisfied a small crowd of 'moth admirers' from as far away as Worcester!

Talk about a lucky find, eh? I doubt I'll experience anything like this again.

13 June, 2014

On the edge of a slippery slope

June is around about the time of year when I start to get overly excited for the upcoming Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) season. Being a relative newbie to the order, it's nice to be able to wander through water meadows and appreciate these dainty little hunters for their absolute beauty without feeling the same urgent need to find, identify and record as I do when looking for moths. 

The first two beauties were found around the picturesque ponds at Runnymede yesterday, whilst the others are from Esher Common a few days before.

Emerald Damselfly- think I've only seen this species before, and it was certainly no less exciting to stumble across it again! 

Azure Damselfly

Common Blue Damselfly

Large Red Damselfly

Give it a week and I'll be twitching White-faced Darter in Shropshire.

12 June, 2014

Damn nature, you scary!

Witnessed this mad scene at Stokes Field yesterday evening- an Assassin Empid fly dispatching and sucking the life out of an unfortunate Crambus lathoniellus whilst at the same time hanging from a leaf with one leg. I don't know whether to applaud the thing or feel scared for the human race...


10 June, 2014

Sloe Pug

Sloe Pug

This dull grey-looking moth, caught in the garden last night, may not seem like anything interesting to the conventional mind, but to me it's a priceless reward for three years spent examining Green Pugs to finally come across the distinctively curved outer-edge to the post-medial band shown by Sloe Pug, the less common of the two confusion species.

Yeah, I am genuinely that sad.

09 June, 2014

Great Oak Beauty

Whilst I consider whether it might be more appropriate to rename the blog 'Bill's Mothing', here are some moths from the garden last night. The white sheet above the trap was still crawling with moths when I finally hit the hay at 2am, so heaven knows what was missed as I slept through the 4:30am alarm and finally awoke to an almost empty trap at 10am.

It's a miracle that this Great Oak Beauty remained undisturbed all morning, but I'm grateful it did- a very welcome first for the garden. Despite its nationally scarce status, the moth appears to be quite well distributed through Surrey with several fellow enthusiasts also getting lucky this week...

Great Oak Beauty- to give an idea of size, I had to pot it up in a pint glass.

The diagnostic underside markings.

Heart & Club and Heart & Dart

The Sycamore- another addition to the garden list, though quite literally overshadowed by the Beauty.

08 June, 2014

Big things in small packages

It's always nice to find something completely unexpected on a local patch, but it's just that extra bit nicer when it happens to be an orange moth called Commophila aeneana. Hundreds of these dazzling little micros were flying in an abandoned rose field yesterday evening, constituting what appears to be one of the few county records of a colony away from chalk...

Commophila aeneana- an unmistakable moth scarcely distributed in the southern counties, feeding on Ragwort.

The same rose field held Tree Pipit and Redstart last year, as well as various other notable invertebrates.

In all the excitement, I almost completely ignored a single flowering Pyramidal Orchid- a mystical beast of a plant at Stokes Field.

Stokes Field has always held a place close to my heart, not least because it's completely untouched in the way of entomological coverage, but also because I originally cut my ornithological teeth there; staring on in awe at the sight of my first local Nuthatch many years ago. Inevitably, being so accessible to the surrounding housing and with so little designated protection, the site has become dominated by dog walkers and nocturnal fun seekers, making it sometimes more of a hassle to visit than it's worth.

It's evenings like yesterday, with the last rays of sunlight illuminating the grass and enigmatic moths flying about, that make me question how my interest in this little oasis could ever wane...

06 June, 2014

A Stag with longhorns

I figured the blog has been a bit biased towards moths recently, so here are two fantastic beetles to even things out; both of which have graced the garden in the past couple of days. I've lucky enough to be able to say that the Stag Beetle- now a globally threatened species- is an annual occurrence here, often taking respite in the garden from their ungainly evening flight. The longhorn is completely new, and arrived out of the blue to perch on the front door this afternoon...

Stag Beetle

Stenurella melanura (Black-striped Longhorn)

04 June, 2014

Hoary Footman

You don't need to go far to read about the disheartening decline exhibited by moth (and butterfly) populations throughout Britain. The outlook is sombre for many species, caused largely though human exploitation and destruction of delicate habitats. 

Luckily, there are a number of moths currently fighting against the trend. In particular, species such as Small Ranunculus, Toadflax Brocade, Jersey Tiger and Tree-lichen Beauty are establishing themselves in towns throughout central and southern England, despite having previously been restricted only to the most coastal localities. Hoary Footman is another example of a recent expansionist; historically found around sea-cliffs along the south-west coast but now widespread in the London suburbs. Quite why it's population has suddenly boomed is beyond me- perhaps it has something to do with improving air quality, and the subsequent surge in abundance of lichens upon which the larvae feed? Whatever the cause, it's a pleasure to have in the garden, and last night saw the much anticipated arrival of this year's first... 

Hoary Footman- coming to a garden near you.

03 June, 2014

A mystery sound in the woods

Strolling through beech woods along the North Downs Way yesterday morning, I couldn't help but feel a little wistful for the sea of bluebells that carpeted the ground just a few weeks ago- now completely replaced with bare ground, bracken and leafing trees. The bluebell spectacle is by far my favourite event on the nature calender, but it's always surprising how quickly they come and go.

Out on the chalk slopes it was a different story, with Common Spotted Orchid, Chalky MilkwortRock-rose, Germander Speedwell and all manner of wild herbs adding an array of colour to the downs. With the plants came the top-quality moths, including a few which have managed to evade me in the past. The nationally scarce Stephensia brunnichella was abundant around clumps of Basil, as was Mompha miscella around its foodplant, Rock-rose. It's a miracle I even managed to get a shot of the Mompha- its tendency to scurry through the long grass made it an absolute nightmare to photograph; not helped by the fact that the subject itself was just a few millimetres long!

Stephensia brunnichella

Mompha miscella

With things on the invertebrate front going better than expected, I decided to try my luck at finding Britain's smallest 'longhorn', Cauchas fibulella around Germander Speedwell, its foodplant...

Well, what do you know- I found it... Cauchas fibulella.

Pancalia leuwenhoekella- one of the commoner day-flying moths on chalk downland.

I've often stumbled across the empty shells of Roman Snail whilst out on the downs, but until today I'd never seen one with an actual snail inside. These gigantic molluscs stick out like a sore thumb to predators; it's no wonder they're so rare nowadays..

Roman Snail with quite a big phone.

On the way back, a wrong turn took me off the beaten track and along a path leading through a long line of fascinating ancient Yews, the only sign of any life within them being the odd wisp of song from a territorial Firecrest. By the time I'd finally made it back to the car, another bird call had started up in the canopy. I never saw the bird itself, but its call has left me in absolute confusion- I can't remember hearing anything quite like it before...

I'm sure I'll be kicking myself when I finally work it out, but in the meantime feel free to put me out of my misery...