26 August, 2013

500 up

A few posts back I might have slipped in the fact that I was getting quite close to the wildly unimpressive milestone that is the 500th species of moth to be found in the garden. I'm not a massively organised person, and have never managed to commit to logging sightings in notebooks. I'm also pretty rubbish at keeping lists in general (explaining why I'm not a massively organised person), so the fact that I've managed to keep track of 500 different things would probably be more cause for celebration that the total itself.

With three consecutive nights of very mild, calm and cloudy conditions- perfect weather for moths- the 500th species quickly fell into place in the form of an unassuming Yarrow Pug. As with so many 'nationally scarce' moths that reach the trap, Yarrow Pug has increased its range in the Thames Basin in recent years, and is now locally common in small areas of London- t'was only going to be a matter of time before it dropped into the garden.

Moths are ace, there's no doubt about it. I've made a big deal out of it all, but 500 species is a very average haul for a garden. Most normal-sized gardens in the country could easily harbour upwards of this total- it's just a matter of  getting out at night to appreciate them, rather than wondering whether or not they're going to eat that knitted sweater that your mother-in-law made for you, when let's face it you don't really like it anyway. It's about two sizes too small, and you specifically asked for a chequered pattern, not diamonds.

If you haven't checked it out already, I've added the updated garden list on a separate page here- it's a pretty intense read.

24 August, 2013

Bashing around a Bog

Another sweltering day yesterday, so I had a bash around the established heathland of Esher Common in search of late season Odonata (the fancy word for dragonflies & damselflies). The summer heat has clearly taken its toll on the landscape, and the area of shallow boggy pools adjacent to Black Pond that usually provide prime habitat for dragonflies had completely dried up. As a result, the number of species on the wing was disappointingly low. Black Darters should be reaching a peak in activity in late-August, but instead were virtually non-existent. It will be interesting to see where where they lay their eggs this year given the lack of acidic pools; hopefully the Darters can utilize the reedbed borders of Black Pond.

Common Darters were also low in numbers, but a stunningly fresh Ruddy Darter patrolling the outskirts of the pond was great to see, and Migrant Hawkers were very numerous everywhere. The main attraction though was a colony of the localised Bog Bush Cricket that were out in healthy numbers in the heather. The species does well on the acid heaths of Surrey and Hampshire, but up until now I've never managed to catch up with them.

Pretty spectacular looking things...

23 August, 2013

A New County Moth

I had a cheeky feeling something good was due in the moth trap, but with torrential downpours making the last few night's trapping sessions particularly challenging, I certainly wasn't expecting this beauty. The moth looked interesting the moment it settled on the sheet suspended above the trap, and a quick search on UKmoths revealed it to be Ethmia quadrillella, a scarce species confined mainly to wetlands and fens in and around East Anglia. I flicked through the distribution maps in the Smaller Moths of Surrey atlas with excitement, and sure enough there was a blank space on the page where the species should have been. After further email correspondence with the big guns (county recorder Jim Porter and moth guru John Langmaid), it turns out I've got me the first record of this species for Surrey, which is swell and all, but still leaves one nagging question... Where has it come from? 

Is it part of a previously unknown breeding population in the southern counties that has only now made itself known in a suburb in Surrey? Is it a one-off wanderer from known strongholds further north, or could it be a genuine immigrant from mainland Europe- following in the footsteps of Surrey's 'first' Jersey Mocha which reached the garden during peak migration season in late August 2011. I'd like to think that the time of year, combined the fact that its arrival coincided with that of other well known migrants into the country (Clouded Yellow, Diamond-back Moth, Silver Y) would make a pretty strong case for it being a genuine international migrant, but it's all speculation, and that's one of the great mysteries of mothing. 

21 August, 2013

August Invertebrates

Today I found myself spending what was an absolute scorcher of an afternoon on Bookham Common, in the company of hundreds of thousands of invertebrates- it was basically heaven. One invert I particularly wanted to catch up with was Brown Hairstreak, a late emerging butterfly that has a stronghold around Blackthorn bushes in the more open areas of the Common. After hours of searching, I succeeded in finding one, but only managed an agonising glimpse as it flew away over a hedgerow at speed. The show was stolen though by a stonking Clouded Yellow; a migrant that has seen a fantastic influx this year into Britain. It came out of nowhere and slowly fluttered over the grassland, before continuing over the hedges and towards Bookham station. Surely this has to be one of the one of the best, if not the best year for this species in Surrey.

I'm absolutely useless when it comes to grasshopper identification, but with Orthopera providing the loudest soundtrack out in the grassland, it seemed rude not to have a go. Amongst the abundant Field and Meadow Grasshoppers was the rarer Rufous Grasshopper, a lover of rough calcareous downland in the south of the country, and one of the few grasshoppers that isn't an absolute bugger to identify...

One of the more beginner friendly grasshoppers, picked out of the crowd by the characteristic pale-tipped bulbous segment at the end of the antennae. All other grasshoppers (okay, apart from Mottled) have plain antennae.

Field Grasshopper...

Small Skipper are still out in good numbers, with double figures counted this afternoon. This one has certainly seen better days, though...

Back in the garden, the moth trap is still producing the goods. For whatever reason, mid to late-August always seems to be the most productive time of year down here, particularly in terms of 'rarities'. Hoary Footman and Tree-lichen Beauty appear to be two of the more common moths in the trap at the moment, whilst recent additions including Cabbage Moth, Orange Swift and Canary-shouldered Thorn bring the garden moth list to 486 species. With a new species every night for the next two weeks, the big 500 should be an easy total to reach before I head off to uni, and then we'll all have a massive piss-up to celebrate.

If you haven't already got it, here is a quick plug for the 'Photographic Guide to the Grasshoppers & Crickets of Britain & Ireland', part of the absolutely brilliant 'Wild Guide UK' series that also covers Shieldbugs and Squashbugs. Well worth the money. 

20 August, 2013

A Small Spider Mystery

She's half wasp, half spider. She's Wasp Spider. 

Stokes Field had a nice surprise in-store on my first visit to the patch since returning from travelling, when I stumbled upon this female Wasp Spider that had set up a web in a small area of grassland. This beauty has always been high on the wish list ever since I first read about it's expanding range in the southern counties, but I'd never considered it a contender for the patch list.


Looking at this distribution map collaborated by the BAS, you can see how the spider has rapidly expanded it's range along the south coast and up the Thames Estuary in the last 10 years, originating from just a handful of pre-1992 records. Stokes Field appears to be right on the edge of the London population, bordering a gaping blank area in the species' distribution that covers a good amount of Surrey and inland Hampshire, before records reappear again on the south coast. How mysterious. Where is Sherlock when you need him?

16 August, 2013


So here we are again. I'm back at my old desk, back on my old laptop. Your back at your computer screen, having waited so longingly for my return to blogging. As you may have known, I became a very lucky sod at the end of June with the offer of a month's volunteering at the bird observatory on Fair Isle- a stunningly remote island located between Shetland and Orkney, and one of the best places in Britain, if not Europe, to watch birds.

I like Fair Isle a lot; it's got the wildlife, it's got the community spirit, and it's got the unique scenery that combine together to make the island such a special place. Working at the observatory through the height of summer means you immediately avoid the ultra-competitive, rarity-obsessed egos that will arrive in the autumn, and thus are left with like-minded people who genuinely enjoy travelling to remote places to experience island life at it's peak, and who appreciate all aspects of the island's bird populations.

Taking it all in again...

Not surprisingly, summer seabird work took up a large part of the daily schedule during my stay. This included monitoring the island's breeding Gannet population, mapping Bonxie nests, mist-netting and colour-ringing Puffins and their chicks, as well as attempting to locate chicks from the island's dwindling Kittiwake colony. When the sea state allowed, we'd take to the water in a small inflatable Zodiac to carry out a complete survey of the island's cliff-nesting Shag population. Black Guillemot ringing sites also required the use of the boat, and the search for birds would often lead us into remote geos and caves, each one more stunning than the last. The tranquil waters played host to solitary Lion's Mane Jellyfish and other weird cave-dwelling jellies, whilst Grey Seals would show off their curious side, whizzing about just below the boat. Zodiac sessions were always a good laugh, and usually ending in us attempting ridiculously treacherous landings in remote coves to beach comb for as much storm-blown tat as possible. Tree branches would take priority, then buoys (they made great spacehoppers), followed by anything else that looked vaguely interesting. An inflatable boat full of cargo made hanging on during the return journey slightly more interesting!

The last of the year's remaining Kittiwake nests on 16th July- the Warden found both chicks dead the next morning, highlighting a poor year of breeding for the species and for seabirds overall; Arctic Terns, Artic Skuas and Guillemots also failed to fledge young this summer.

Rarity hunting certainly isn't the focus during the summer months, but it's quite hard to visit Fair Isle and not cash in on something unusual. The most spectacular rare came during a manic Storm Petrel ringing session, when a small group of us, led by seabird officer Will Miles, found a calling Swinhoe's Petrel at stupid o'clock in the morning. Considering that this represents a 1st for Fair Isle, 2nd for Scotland, and 6th for Britain, you can begin to imagine the amount of rejoicing (and swearing) that took place during and after the event. A Leach's Petrel also flew into the net that night, and if you happen to see a very badly ringed bird flying around the coast this autumn, it's probably mine. A truly solid night, with the Swinhoe's doing the right thing, and giving itself up to be ringed later in the month for all to see (apart from your truly, who had left). It was a brilliant feeling to be able to head outside every morning with no idea of the surprises that might be waiting for you around the island; I stumbled across the likes of Western Subalpine Warbler and Long-eared Owl whilst doing the daily rounds of the cliff faces and crofts, and a few days of southerly winds in early July brought in another mad rarity- this time in the form of a butterfly- when myself and the obs' Ranger, Teresa, found a Green-veined White in South Harbour. At the time I shrugged it off as a common migrant and didn't bother reporting it, only finding out later that evening that it was actually a 1st for Fair Isle and 2nd for Shetland!

When we weren't Storm-Petrel ringing, or partying (in hardcore Fair Isle fashion), a few of us took it upon ourselves to run the moth trap in the observatory garden. Catches were never high, but did include large numbers of the colourful moorland specialities; Map-winged Swift and True Lovers Knot; both of which always went down well with the guests, as did these two unfamiliar faces...

Northern Rustic
The Confused, brilliant name.

The long daylight hours during the summer months brings plenty of physical tasks for the crofters, and the established relationship between islanders and the observatory means that staff are happy to provide a helping hand. Rounding up the island's thousand odd sheep for shearing requires the help of everyone on the island, and was certainly eventful- sheep and people running everywhere- but a great laugh all the same. Expensive summer cruises would arrive every week for early morning strolls to see the Puffins, and it was a surprisingly hard job keeping guests from falling off cliffs in their endless pursuit for the 'best' photo of one.

I spent hours watching these guys, but still didn't clock in half as much time as some short-stay photography groups, who chose to spend every hour of every day photographing Puffins on a single cliff face near the guest house!

Like it always does, my last morning came around like a train (a fast train, as opposed to a slow one), and I reluctantly slipped off at 7am on the Good Shepherd mail boat back to Shetland, ready to catch the ferry back to Aberdeen that evening. No more breathtaking cliffs, no more Gannet colonies, no more Stormies. It was sad saying goodbye, but I was coming away with all the memories (some best left untold) and experiences. When you combine the four great things in life- birds, beer, moths and great people- the outcome can only be good, and it's safe to say that spending a month of my gap year in the company of like-minded peeps on Fair Isle is the best experience of my 'career' so far. There's no doubt I'm going to carry on with this volunteering business whilst I'm at university; maybe either returning to Fair Isle next year (if I can find the cash), or taking my chances somewhere closer to home- the Welsh islands of Skokholm and Skomer aren't a million miles from where I'll be studying, and I've been told that they have the odd birds there sometimes, so who knows...

Anyway, cheers Fair Isle, it's been great.

Just don't find a pod of Killer Whales and a flock of Two-barred Crossbills the day after I leave next time, yeah? 

P.S. For any youngsters reading, I received a generous grant from the Fair Isle Bird Obs Trust to fund my month's stint. If your considering conservation volunteering- and enjoy remote places- speak to the observatory about the John Harrison Memorial Fund, or apply here. It's aim is to provide financial support to young people (16-25 years, before you ask) who are interested in working there, and you won't regret it if you do.