30 March, 2014

Pied Shieldbug

I spent another afternoon trying and failing to find the Siberian Chiffchaff a few minutes down the road at Poswick Sewage Works, despite it being reported to be singing and showing well just an hour earlier. That's almost 10 hours I've clocked up at the site now, without a hint of anything even remotely Siberian- I think I'll get the hint and stick to Grimley.

Thankfully, the weather was far from Siberian, and there was a great deal of invertebrate activity in the sun-drenched hedgerows surrounding the sewage works. Hundreds of Apion weevils and Lygus plant bugs to head-scratch over, and it was whilst photographing the first Slender Groundhopper of the season that my attention was drawn to this Pied Shieldbug perched on a nettle leaf. 

Despite having a relatively well spread distribution throughout the country, it's a bug I've only ever swept on a few previous occasions, and I'd almost forgot how ridiculously refulgent they are...

If anyone ever needed convincing that British bugs could be as striking as those found in the tropics, they should have a Pied Shieldbug thrown at them.

29 March, 2014

White Wagtails, Wheatears & Garganeys- that's Grimley!

After giving in to the painful Saturday morning phone alarm, I made it to Grimley in time to greet the first two Wheatears of the season as they dropped onto the Pits. Unfortunately, they come a day after Steve Gale ended his renowned 'Who can post the most gratuitous photos of posing Wheatears on their blog before they get bored?' competition, which is a bit of a pain, but I'm not deterred...

Wheatear perched on a fence post. I know, I'm original.

Grimley veteran Mike Bourne turned up, and we went looking for the pair of Garganey found yesterday on a small reservoir nearby. After a bit of searching, both birds (including a drake) showed distantly as they slept on the distant bank- Grimley seems to be the prime location for this species in Worcestershire, so with any luck there will be a few more chances for better views before the end of spring. 

Back at the Camp Lane Pits, a rather stunning male White Wagtail- the first of the season- was feeding with its commoner British relatives on the north-east scrape, providing a nice opportunity to compare plumage features between the two subspecies. 

White Wagtail (ssp. alba) on the Pits this morning.

Wagtail rump montage- left and centre show the pale rump on today's White Wagtail. Compare that with the dark rump of the right hand Pied Wagtail (and very convincing White Wagtail look-alike) from the same place last Wednesday.

It was a productive morning, migrants or no migrants, with 6 species of wader noted. Bar the usual Gadwall, a few Teal and a solitary Shoveler, duck numbers have taken the expected plunge though.

Sand Martins are still whizzing about in numbers, often appearing in large groups to feed over the Pits before disappearing again. This group stopped for a rare breather on the busy, dog-walker infested causeway.

I hadn't come across Hare in Grimley until this morning- several were chasing each other about in a field opposite Camp Lane. 

28 March, 2014

Lead-coloured Success

After Dan (a coursemate at Uni) managed to get his hands on a cheap generator, we made an impromptu visit to nearby Trench Wood to give the set-up a quick test run. Steve Whitehouse was able to join us, and three trap (2 MVs and an actinic) were set up near the entrance to the site under a decent cover of Aspen and Birch.

The weather wasn't too bad considering the past couple of days; not a wisp of wind with overcast skies till we packed up around 11pm, and the traps were soon occupied by good numbers of Quakers, Hebrew Characters and Oak Beauties. I've been in a SSMD (Severe State of Moth Deprivation) since late August last year, so it was nice to see numbers begin to return to normal. 

The highlight of the session, a male Lead-coloured Drab, couldn't have turned its arrival into more of a cliche; flying down to the bulb in the final minutes of play, just as we'd packed up the trap and were about to turn off the electrics. This rather elusive early spring species utilises Aspen as a foodplant- of which there was plenty nearby- but it was still a a bonus after only a few quick hours in the field. The evening ended with the temperate down to a chilly 2 degrees, having recorded 69 moths of 9 species: 

19 Common Quaker Orthosia cerasi 
22 Small Quaker Orthosia cruda
17 Hebrew Character Orthosia gothica
1 Lead-coloured Drab Orthosia populeti
1 Clouded Drab Orthosia incerta 
2 Red Chestnut Cerastis rubricosa 
1 Early Grey Xylocampa areola
5 Oak Beauty Biston strataria
1 Diurnea fagella

The 'lads'... inspecting an MV trap full of spring Orthosia

Star of the show, the male Lead-coloured Drab. A fine example too, exhibiting the curved wing apex  (which is sharper in the confusion species, Clouded Drab), and the strongly bipectinate antennae that is distinctive to the male of the species.

A close up of that superb antennae. Male Clouded Drab also has bipectinate antennae, but to such a tiny degree that the individual pectinations are barely noticable. 

This female Pheasant turned up halfway through the night, found a comfortable branch just above our heads and happily kept an eye on the moth traps whilst we sat around eating Doritos. It turns out Pheasants are actually dedicated moth-recorders... who knew?

26 March, 2014

Spring at Grimley

A fresh and chilly start at Grimley gave way to a mild and bright morning's session on the Uni patch. It was very much a day dominated by Sand Martins, with the number of birds whizzing over the Pits probably reaching three figures- a heavy arrival considering another local had 5 on Monday! Up to 7 Redshank were making their presence known around the shore of the northern pit, and with the added cacophony of several Oystercatcher, you could close your eyes and quite easily be on the rugged west coast of Wales- brilliant stuff!

A group of 9 Linnet were feeding in short grass near the northern entrance, and a Raven drifted high east accompanied by a pair of Buzzard. A small flock of Lapwing- including a few displaying birds- were on the foreshore with a distant Dunlin. A Common Snipe was flushed near the southern causeway.

Redshanks, exercising their enviable ability to fly.

Hopefully my first of many Dunlin at Grimley.

This smart male Kestrel flew through, mobbed by Corvids as it did. 

It was still a bit chilly away from the sun, so invertebrate activity was reduced. With the arrival of spring came the inevitable clouds of midges (sorry, Diptera), along with this slightly nicer looking Yellow Dung Fly (Scathophaga stercoraria)- a female judging on the less 'fluffy' appearance.

Yellow Dung Fly (Scathophaga stercoraria). A nice fly to catch up with this spring, after dedicating so much time to its rarer cousin; Norella spinipes (i.e. Daffodil Fly).

I have several moth-trapping events planned in the next few weeks, so watch this space for Blossom Underwing, Small Eggar, Northern Drab and Silver Cloud. I've just jinxed myself big time, haven't I?

22 March, 2014

A Guide to Spiders of Britain and Northern Europe

This field guide should have been on the bookshelf a long time ago but for the fact that I simply hadn't known about its existence until the other week. It's an oldie, first published in '83 and long out of print, but is set out in the same basic way that most pocket-sized photographic guides are today, with beautiful colour images and a decent paragraph or two describing male/female external features, habitat, season and distribution for over 350 spiders and harvestman found in the UK and Northern Europe. The book is split up by family, with (generally) three or four species described and illustrated on each two page spread.

Instead of a species key, an illustrated four-page section is provided to help narrow most spiders down to family level, and thus the guide should be a great companion to Collins (1996), whose key is definitely tailored more towards the competent spider enthusiast- focusing solely on microscopic detail to identify species. Unfortunately, with many species being so similar (e.g. PardosaTetragnatha etc) I wouldn't advise basing an identification solely around a photograph you've matched it up with in a field guide, and I don't doubt that there have been a some taxonomic changes since the book was published. Mind you, I can see this being a great little guide to just slip into a pocket and use in the field to become familiar with the many different spider genuses out there, even if it isn't necessarily feasible to reach a definitive identification.

I got mine as a bargain ex-library copy, but there are still a few cheap used copies floating around Amazon if you're interested in this gem of a field guide.

20 March, 2014

Pan-species listing- what's the point?

Marchandiomyces aurantiacus, parasitizing an unknown Physcia lichen.

Xanthoriicola physciae (the black stuff) on it's host, Xanthoria parietina. 

When was the last time you actually took a close look at some lichen? It's something I hadn't done for a long time until Seth Gibson pointed out these two parasitic species at Bookham Common the other week, associating with their host lichens on a couple of tree branches.

Why bother even look at, never mind identify, something so obscure I hear you ask? Fair point- there are plenty of ways to enjoy natural history without necessarily putting a name to everything you see. However, why not take that extra step? One of the great benefits of pan-species 'observation' is that it opens one's eyes to the more under-recorded, un-loved taxon that would otherwise be completely ignored by the average enthusiast. Why limit yourself to birds or moths when there is so much more out there? Contrary to what others might say, you won't find yourself blinded by a selfish need to competitively list everything you see, but rather you'll find yourself appreciating things that others will simply walk past- you might just impress your mates in the process.

18 March, 2014

Yellow-browed Warbler, Uffmoor Wood

In an attempt to quite literally take my head out of the clouds after yesterday's post, I found myself at Uffmoor Wood this afternoon, on the outskirts of Worcestershire where a Yellow-browed Warbler has been spending the winter. Considering my luck (or rather lack of luck) with Siberian Chiffchaff recently I wasn't holding out much hope, but in the end the twitch turned out to be as straightforward and pretenseless as the title of this blog post.

I strolled up to the bird's 'favourite' spot at the far eastern edge of the Wood, and almost immediately the Yellow-browed gem of a Warbler started belting out its wagtail-like call from a nearby bush. It appeared soon after, spending much of its time foraging deep within holly bushes, but gave some jammin' views as it flitted between feeding spots in the fading light...

As if the twitch for my first Worcestershire Yellow-browed Warbler could be made anymore straightforward, the bird also took it upon itself to call throughout the afternoon, giving me the chance to make a really, really bad sound recording...

Did I mention there was mud? Lots of mud. 

Just to bring myself back to reality, I've bought back some moss to key out. It's going to get messy. 

17 March, 2014

Cloud Spotting

This weird disc-shaped cloud (one of only a few in the sky at the time) caught my eye as it slowly floated over the Malvern Hills during yesterday's bryophyte survey. It looked like it had come from Teletubbie land, which would be quite unusual, so I posted the photo on Twitter and had soon received a consensus from cloud enthusiasts that it was in fact Altocumulus lenticularis (a.k.a Lenticular Cloud). This is quite a rare type of cloud in Britain that is usually only seen over mountain ranges- clearly the Malvern Hills are at a high enough altitude to provide the right conditions for its formation. Quite an interesting looking thing, you've got to admit...

First mosses, now cloud spotting. Please let me know if this is going too far... 

16 March, 2014

Bryophyte surveying

I found myself spending what was another ridiculously summer-like day surveying bryophytes at Hollybed Common, in the shadow of Worcestershire's Malvern Hills. I say 'surveying', when actually I was pretty much just looking on in awe as a group of experts from around the county (and beyond) effortlessly identified every moss and lichen put before them. In the past couple of months, my interest in bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) has reached the worrying stage where I can no longer suppress it, and so it was rather humbling to be able to key out mosses with help from the likes of Mark Lawley (author of the BBS field guide).

We ended the day having noted around 50 species, most of which were completely new records for this small under-recorded woodland site. One of the highlights from the session was the tiny rare liverwort Cololejeunea minutissima (Minute Pouncewort)- you can't help but give a respectful nod to the person who pointed out a species that is no more than a few millimetres in size...

Cololejeunea minutissima (Minute Pouncewort)- doing its best not to look like a bryophyte

Whilst I eagerly await a full species list from the day, here are a few more that I managed to remember the names of, although I can't take much credit for identifying them...

Conocephalum conicum (Great Scented Liverwort)

Ulota phyllantha (Frizzled Pincushion)- distinguished by the clusters of tiny brown gammae

Orthotrichum pulchellum (Elegant Bristle-moss)

Hygroamblystegium tenax (Fountain Feather-moss)

Cryphaea heteromalla (Lateral Cryphaea)

Mnium hornum (Swan's-neck Thyme-moss)

Plagiomnium undulatum (Hart's-tongue Thyme-moss) 

Plenty of Wood Anemone and Sweet Violet are now beginning to flower...

Nice clear views were had towards the Malvern Hills in yet another day of glorious sunshine. I bet there are some interesting bryophytes up there...

15 March, 2014

Chiffchaff conundrum

Despite multiple birds being present on the patch in recent months, I have embarrassingly failed to catch up with Siberian Chiffchaff in Worcester this winter. Believe me I've tried hard, and this failure was something I was willing to put behind me until a singing bird turned up at a local sewage works last week, a few miles down the road from Uni. This eastern ('tristis') subspecies isn't the easiest of birds to identify in the field (especially when silent) but a singing individual would surely be a piece of cake to pin-down right? ... Right?

I arrived at the sewage works in Powick late this morning with a renewed sense of optimism after an update on the Worcester Birding site confirmed that the bird was still singing in the NW corner of the works this morning. There were easily up to 20 Chiffchaff singing and roaming through the hedgerows that border the site when I arrived, but none stood out as anything different and there were certainly no singing Siberians to fill my ears with joy. A further six hours went by and still nothing. I checked the directions, but this was most definitely in the same place that it had been reported singing earlier in the morning. This bird (which has presumably been singing since it was first found last week) must have somehow known about my previous bad luck with the subspecies, and clearly just wanted to rub it in my face. That's my theory anyway.

Most of the Chiffchaffs in the immediate area were fairly obvious nominates, and the bird pictured below was the only one that caught my eye as looking particularly paler. Unfortunately it neither called nor sang, and plumage colour would vary ridiculously as the bird moved between sunlight and shade. I'm not going to lie, don't have much of a clue where to start when it comes to the plumage characteristics of a spring tristis, and lets be honest, if it wasn't for the fact that the bird was originally reported to be singing I would still have been in bed.

It's a Chiffchaff. End of.

14 March, 2014

Sauteed Shrooms (and a random Ruddy Shelduck)

It was another beautiful day, and once I'd finished sorting out a load of house-related paperwork at the local letting agency with some future housemates, I just couldn't resist an evening visit to the local patch in some warm evening sun.

As hoped for, the exposed mud at the northern end of Grimley Camp Lane Pits had finally attracted some waders, with 10 Lapwing, 3 Oystercatcher and a pair of Redshank all feeding together. A further scan of the north-eastern edge of the main Pit revealed an unusual surprise in the form of an apparent adult Ruddy Shelduck- nervous as anything and fully winged, I took a few distant record shots and carried on. Unfortunately, when I looked again a few minutes later it had done a runner, presumably spooked by a nearby dog walker. The species has a dodgy history in the UK, with the occurrence of genuine vagrants thoroughly clouded over by the presence of captive 'plastic' escapees. Whatever the origin of this smart bird, it was a pleasure to watch on the patch for all of two minutes... 

Before calling it a day, I headed over to a nearby area of woodland where a large patch of Scarlet Elf-cups have been growing. I've been appreciating these delicate little fungi for the past few weeks, but after reading up about their apparent edibility, my stomach told me to bite the bullet and pick a small handful for cooking. The problem is I can't cook, so instead gave them a good sautéing with some butter and chucked them over a slice of bread. The result was a genuine taste sensation; made even better with a sprinkle of pepper. 

Scarlet Elf-cup on bread- absolutely delicious. 

I love mushrooms and indeed all wild foods in general, but I'd never dream of over picking them. Take only as many as you realistically need (i.e a handful or so for something as simple as shrooms on toast), and make sure you know what you're eating... otherwise you could die... very painfully. 

12 March, 2014

A (rubbish) Beginner's Guide to Spring Moths

Early spring is one of my favourite parts of the mothing year. Butterflies and moths are beginning to pop up all over the place; as can be said for a whole range of invertebrates that hibernate as adults, and providing a decent period of mild weather, a good range of species can be clocked up in March.

Even in the first few 'dark' months of 2014, I've been pleasantly surprised at the number of people actively searching for moths in their local area. The likes of Twitter and Facebook pages have been overflowing with enthusiasts reporting back on their early trapping sessions (no matter whether you catch twenty moths or absolute zilch, it's all data that recorders will cherish), which clearly reflects a wider expanding interest in this fascinating group of invertebrates that has taken place in the past couple of years. It really is great to see more people getting interested in the hobby, especially after the sad demise of the fantastic Back Garden Moths forum, which initially linked me up with knowledgeable enthusiasts throughout the country, and fuelled my interest in moths to a whole new level.

I don't have a permanent garden to run the moth trap in this spring what with Uni and such, but instead of sitting at a computer screen drooling at other people's catches, I thought I'd draw up a 'target list' of early season moths that one can expect to encounter in a typical garden in the coming weeks. Many of these moths might seem bleedingly obvious to a competent trapper, but everyone starts out somewhere, and I certainly found (and still find!) some of these species a struggle when I began trapping.

 The 'Micros'

(Left to right) Diurnea fagella, Emmelina monodactyla, Amblyptilia acanthadactyla, Tortricodes alternella

In terms of early season micros, I'd class these as the 'big four' (based on personal experience in the garden). Both Diurnea fagella and Tortricodes alternella are exclusively spring species, with nothing else on the wing at this time to mistake them for. The two 'Plume' moths fly throughout the year, and identification may become slightly trickier during the summer months when similarly obscure species appear. For now though, trap freely in the knowledge that a Plume moth caught in March/April is most likely to be either one of these species.

The Hiberators

(Left to right) Angle Shades, The Herald, Oak Nycteoline, Buttoned Snout

Rather than spend the winter in pupal form, these barmy moths overwinter as adults, emerging in March and April as the weather improves. Angle Shades and Heralds can often be found at rest in dark corners of your house, and are certainly up there in terms of distinctiveness. Oak Nycteoline is another species that can be found throughout the year, but could easily be overlooked as a large micro, particularly one of the Tortrix species. No two individuals are ever the same (in my experience anyway!) and it's best to look out for the relatively long 'snout' and furry legs that give this moth away as a 'macro'. Most specimens I've caught show- to some extent- a small (discal) spot half way down either wing. Talking about snouts, Buttoned Snout is classed as nationally scarce but is no doubt increasing its range throughout gardens in southern England. I find that the best method for finding these hibernators is to sweep through dense vegetation in the more sheltered areas of a garden. It could take a while to find, but is well worth the wait when you find one- stunning moths. Unless you're lucky enough to live along the coastal south-west where overwintering Bloxworth Snout come into the picture, identification of Buttoned Snout at this time of year isn't a problem.

The Pugs

(Left to right) Brindled Pug, Oak-tree Pug, Twenty-plume Moth (not a pug!)

The dreaded Pugs; a family full of species famous for looking exactly like the next species. March, April and to some extent May are the best times to get to grips with these, with only a small handful of species on the wing. Double-striped Pug is easy enough to identify, and can appear from January onwards. Fast forward a few months though, and your trap will soon be visited by the above two nondescript species. Telling them apart isn't easy, but as a general rule the discal spots (those two dark spots towards the top of each wing) are more prominent (wider, larger) in Oak-tree Pug, and usually only appear as slits on Brindled Pug. Brindled Pug is usually also larger, with less rounded wings than Oak-tree. Bear in mind that the two depicted in my photos above are prime examples of both species; be prepared to find intermediate and worn specimens which are best given a wave goodbye and sent on their way without being assigned to species. Typically in my garden, Brindled Pugs start to appear from late-March onwards, dominating trapping sessions until mid-April, when Oak-tree Pugs emerge in force and outnumber the former 3:1 generally until mid/late-May, when both species are on their last legs.

You've probably noticed that the final image isn't a pug, but a Twenty-plume Moth (Alucita hexadactyla). It looks distinctive enough when each of the 'plumes' are spread out, but in certain positions it could be mistaken for small pug- I've fallen into this trap a few times myself (literally, never check your moth trap when drunk, you might fall in).

The Beauties

(Left to right) Small Brindled Beauty, Brindled Beauty, Oak Beauty

As their name suggests, these early-season species really are beauties. The epitome of a 'fluffy moth', you'll know (and probably be able to hear) if you have an Oak Beauty in your moth trap. It's one of the most stunning species in the country at any time of year (fact), and a nice common one at that- all but the most ecologically dead gardens will have a good chance of accommodating this moth. Small Brindled Beauty is slightly less widely distributed, and has a surprisingly short flight period; emerging in late February, the species will reach a peak in early/mid-March before falling sharply in numbers to the end of the month, with very few individuals ever recorded in April. Brindled Beauty (the SBB's steriod-taking cousin) then picks up the baton and has a flight period throughout April until early May. As well as being twice the size of the former, Brindled Beauty has three distinct black cross-lines, and a less angled termen (the side of the wing furthest from the head).

The Chestnuts

(Left to right) The Chestnut, Dark Chestnut, Dotted Chestnut

Emerging as adults in autumn, Chestnuts (Conistra) are one of the few genera to actively fly during the coldest winter months, and as a result will often be the only moth to appear in my trap during December. The Chestnut is usually first to turn up in January, joined in February and March by the extremely similar Dark Chestnut. Indeed, both are so ridiculously similar that I only ever dare use external characteristics to identify well formed, fresh specimens. It is true that Dark Chestnuts (C. ligula) are generally dark, but variable examples of The Chestnut (C. vaccinii) can also be dark. The distinguishing features are all in the wing shape, with ligula showing a sharper apex (the lower edge of the forewing) than vaccinii's, which is blunt in comparison. This article by Steve Whitehouse summarises the differences well:


Despite being fairly scarce and restricted in it's national distribution, the absolute gem of a moth that is the Dotted Chestnut is a very possible treat for garden in southern England with a good bit of deciduous woodland nearby. They hibernate in late autumn, reappearing in early spring according to the literature. I was lucky enough to catch the depicted individual in the garden on 5th May, so it's well worth keeping an eye out for this one all through the spring.

The Quakers

(Left to right) Common Quaker, Small Quaker, Twin-spotted Quaker

No matter where you are in the world, you can expect to catch a lot (and I mean a lot) of these throughout the spring. The genus Orthosia contains nine early-season species, including the very common Hebrew Character and Clouded Drab; for the purpose of this post though I'll stick with the three common species of Quaker. Common Quaker is typically one of the first to emerge in late February, with its warm brown colouration, and large distinct oval (top 'circle' on the wing) and kidney (bottom 'circle') markings. Small Quaker is just over half the size of the former, with a tiny oval mark in comparison to its kidney mark, and typically emerges in the first few weeks of March. The two species might seem a bit confusing at first- especially when caught separately- but are easy enough to get the hang of after a while, and look nothing like each other when side-by-side! Twin-spotted Quaker is another common garden species, easily identified by two (or more) sets of dark spots along the subterminal line.

Of course, the above is merely a smidgen of the total number of species flying at the moment. It seems evident that the relatively mild winter has already sped up emergence of many, so expect the unexpected. Whatever level of expertise you happen to be at, get out and enjoy the season ahead! I've set myself a few spring target species up here in Worcestershire (Blossom Underwing, Northern Drab and the Severn Valley specialist Silver Cloud to name but a few) so be sure to watch this space...

10 March, 2014

Yellow Horned

After three years of solid moth trapping, new species in the garden are becoming thin on the ground, and this Yellow Horned was a very welcome sight when I checked the moth trap this morning; a first for the garden, and a completely new one for me. I've never actually noticed it before when looking at photos of the species, but they do actually appear to have 'horns', and there is indeed a hint of yellow to them! Who would have guessed...