December omnibus

December omnibus

Dedicated readers of my blogs – and if you are one many thanks!  – will have noticed something of a decline in activity lately. I can’t say exactly why, but when I look back on old entries I can hardly believe this productive, dare I say mildly talented individual is the same person. Christmas is a good time to curl up and do some reading, so I thought I’d put together a little roundup of entries from Decembers past. Enjoy!

2015 was the last time we made it across to the USA for Christmas, and saw us hiking a short stretch of the Appalachian Trail through still winter woods. Speaking of hiking, in 2013 I considered the advantages of staying close to home, following up with some thoughts on why it might be worth travelling after all.

Birds are of course a regular feature for the Considering Birds blog – clue is in the name – and one of my picks for a species of the year run down in 2014 was the appropriately seasonal snow goose. Another snow-themed bird featured way back in 2011 , as did a classic Christmas bird of North America. Finally, Christmas 2013 was initially tetchy but still very birdy in the end. 

Going beyond birds, I considered the inherent Christmasy-ness of moth trapping in 2014, I’d still like to see December Moth feature in more Christmas decorations and imagery. At the tail end of last year I was in a philosophical mood, but neither as eloquently or coherently so as I was in this little piece from 2014, possibly one of the best things I have written.

Looking to next year I don’t think I can promise a return to regular updates. I have a PhD thesis to finish – yikes! – and hopefully will be spending some time laying the groundwork for whatever projects will follow it. But since I’ve enjoyed putting this omnibus edition together I may indulge in a monthly trawl of my own archives to see what other forgotten gems I can find. Until then, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

Charismatic Megafauna

Charismatic Megafauna

No, I haven’t been chasing elephants. They’re all insects! Today the University of Reading campus grasslands were a-buzz with spectacular insects, from myriad burnet moths which went spinning away from every knapweed flower to the emperor dragonfly patrolling the margins.

Some butterflies on campus appear to be having a good year too, and I’ve seen heartening pictures pop up on Twitter from elsewhere of big clusters of small tortoiseshell and peacock caterpillars feeding on nettle. I know everything isn’t right with the world of insects but it’s nice to bathe in the illusion, every once in a while, that it is. Their saving grace may well be that numbers climb spectacularly when conditions are right.

Englishman, Mad Dogs

Englishman, Mad Dogs

I had a short birdwatching excursion yesterday morning of rare good fortune. At Greenham Common I enjoyed a brief but excellent view of a stunning male whinchat, a species I usually struggle to find. Despite regular good finds by other birders I usually struggle to find anything at all at Greenham, so this was a good omen. The morning continued with nine species of warbler and four waders: not bad for Berkshire. From the hide at Lower Farm gravel pit I saw my first swifts of the year, twisting in the distance over Newbury Racecourse, whilst a pair of common terns mated on one of the rafts. Further spring cheer came in the form of a gorgeous female orange tip stationary on garlic mustard, sprays of May wildflowers on the hedge banks and a dingy skipper basking on short turf back near the Greenham car park.

At the Crookham end of the Common at least three nightingales were in earshot. However, when I turned my binoculars back towards Greenham and looked across the expanse of open ground my mood finally began to sink. It was a bank holiday, and dog-walking families dotted the Common. People out enjoying fresh air, exercising, spending time with their families – surely that’s a good thing? Well, yes. But it occurred to me that any number of the rare species inhabiting the rich mix of habitats comprising what BBOWT call the West Berkshire Living Landscape could disappear and the vast majority of visitors to these sites wouldn’t notice. Indeed, their purpose for visiting would be completely unaffected. Many wouldn’t recognise any of the nine warbler species, know what a dingy skipper was, or be particularly affected if they heard or saw any of them. They’re mostly little brown jobs anyway – even the butterfly!

Dingy skipper. Only a thrilling butterfly if you know what it is!
Feeders at Lower Farm providing valuable ecosystem services for rats.

There is experimental evidence that sites richer in species offer a heftier dose of whatever psychological benefits we get from nature. Rarity has a genuine allure, as demonstrated by this rather playful experiment at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Yet I still can’t imagine a family’s dog-walk being dampened by a lack of rare birds. Indeed, the gentleman in black striding purposefully across a closed area* with his dog running off the lead had already decided that the presence of sensitive species meant nothing to him, nor did he care if his potential disturbance of them spoiled other people’s enjoyment of the site.

Nature conservation, then, is clearly a niche pursuit. Does this matter? Are we mistaken in thinking it is for everyone? Perhaps a bit of common scruffy nature is quite adequate for the vast majority of people who don’t suffer from the peculiar condition of being a naturalist. I’m not sure. But when we talk about ecosystem services – and as a rule I don’t – it’s worth questioning exactly what these services are and who or what they are being delivered for.  Miles King wrote about ‘ecosystem services for dogs’ a couple of years ago, and when I looked around the Common yesterday morning I certainly saw a lot of dogs having a rather excellent time.

*One might think he could have been excused by poor signposting, but no. The system for protecting ground-nesting birds at Greenham and Crookham Commons is admirably simple, clear and usually policed. An attempt, at least, to accommodate multiple user groups. The gentleman in question was so obviously off the path that I can only think he had deliberately chosen a route to thumb his nose at the Wildlife Trust authorities who dare to tell him and his dog where they can and cannot go.

The Easter Insects

The Easter Insects

As a festival of commerce and gluttony, Easter apparently now rivals The Big One and can be considered The New Christmas. I don’t know about that, but there was certainly a lot of Easter tat in the supermarkets this year. As a natural historian, I find the secular spring-fest a bit twee. It’s all pastel shades, rabbits clutching carrots, cute little chickens and lambs frolicking amid a host of daffodils. I suppose I’m an old grump ahead of my time.

The still much-debated religious elements of the season at least bring with them a refreshing dose of blood and sacrifice. I don’t know enough about the pagan rites of spring to know how they fit into the picture, but the Judeo-Christian tradition certainly highlights a painful truth of the natural world: for something to live, something else often has to die; ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’*

Among the most prolific, alluring and remarkable fruit produced from dead matter will be insects. They can make new life out of seemingly anything, and by life I mean fully fledged little multi-cellular lives with legs and eyes and neurons. From dung to dry skin to grass stems or that old bag of flour you’d forgotten at the back of the cupboard, almost any organic material you can think of has at least one insect willing to sink its mouthparts into it. Not so many home decorations will be sold featuring dung-heaps or desiccated corpses, but they’d be at least as appropriate as daffodils.

If all that death still seems too heavy going, consider the fact that the production of chocolate, now a foundational part of the secular SpringFest, depends entirely on some miniscule flies, the chocolate midges. There are flaws with the ecosystem services argument for conservation, but in this case it works well up to a point: it’s clear that without insects we’d be up to our necks in, well, everything except chocolate**. So since the Easter Bunny is misnamed anyway – by all accounts it should be the Easter Hare*** – perhaps it is time to institute the Easter Midge, Easter Dung Beetle or Easter Skin Moth as new mascots for the season.

Bee-fly (this one is Bombylius major). Another good candidate as they appear fairly early in spring. 

*John 12:24

**And possibly a few other tasty foods, though as a stand-alone argument for insect conservation, ecosystem services still doesn’t quite cut it. Some species simply don’t do anything all that useful, or perform a small portion of a service that could easily be picked up by another species. Even the fun fact about cocoa midges is spoiled a bit when you discover that worldwide we’re talking quite a few species in the biting midge family, Ceratopogonidae. We could probably lose some of these and still have plenty of chocolate, so as an argument for conserving midge biomass in general this works, but for midge diversity it is less convincing.

***I enjoy the hare scrape / lapwing nest folktale – look it up! – and as well as insects I’d be all in favour of hares (which are much better than rabbits) and lapwings having a higher profile in Easter imagery. 

April Explorations

April Explorations

Having recently purchased a new and better bike pump (better in that this one actually puts air in the tyres), I decided to celebrate this weekend’s ridiculously fine weather by taking my bike out for a spin along the Kennet & Avon towpath (which conveniently passes by the end of our garden). It’s an old bike with narrow tyres and an uncompromisingly firm ride, so the loose gravel and various bumps of the path made for a bone-shaking ride. Still, I had forgotten how perfect cycling pace is when you’re trying to get somewhere. Fast enough to fly past anybody on foot and make genuinely quick progress, but still slow enough to enjoy watching the world go by.

The Kennet & Avon canal at Marsh Benham

After just five minutes I passed the entrance to Speen Moors, our most local area of ‘unimproved’ land in the Kennet River valley. A couple of minutes later I slunk under the Newbury bypass and out into proper open countryside. The air smelled deliciously fresh. Dandelions, prolific of late, lined my way, and a male orange-tip butterfly floated past every 100 metres or so. Having left Newbury’s lawnmower chorus well behind, I only heard the breeze and chiffchaffs, plus the occasional willow warbler in full sun-revelling song. Bliss. Well, apart from the bone-shaking.

I had no particular destination in mind, but decided to jump off at the entrance to Hamstead Park, an old estate we first came across on a walk at New Year. Immediately you get a feeling that there’s terrific habitat in there, especially for invertebrates that feed on dead wood: the park is dotted with veteran trees in various stages of decay. Recovering from the ride and cursing the moment I forgot to put a bottle of water in my bag, I spent half an hour in the shade of the nearest trees, two avenues of surprisingly aged sycamores. I don’t recall seeing sycamores this big before.

I remembered there is an old record for the site for the cobweb beetle, Ctesias serra, so named because its larvae tend to forage from spiders’ webs in cracks in old trees. Plenty of the sycamore had accessible cavities, so I had a poke around and eventually found a larva that was clearly in the right family (Dermestidae, like the carpet beetles commonly found in houses) but didn’t have the dense tufts of hairs Ctesias has. Perhaps they’d fallen off? No, it turns out that the larvae of Megatoma undata, another species in the same family, resemble a cobweb beetle without tufts. Adult Megatoma are attractive black and white beetles that I’ve only seen once, though they’re said to visit spring flowers.

Probable larvae of Megatoma undata

I did find one species of invertebrate with tufts of bristles at its rear end, but it wasn’t a beetle. Indeed, not even an insect. The bristly millipede (Polyxenus lagurus) does a good impression of a beetle larva but gives the game away when it moves – ponderously trundling on a carpet of tiny legs that clearly numbers more than six. This is only the third time I’ve seen this species, but it’s swiftly becoming a favourite. So, a good omen for Hamstead Park. In the unlikely event I have significantly more free time in the next year or two, I might find out who the owner is and ask for permission to put up some traps. Or perhaps have a student on the forthcoming Entomology MSc at Reading take it on. Hamstead seems to be fairly off the radar, though there is a set of Natural England records from 1987, so it’s perhaps high time somebody gave it a closer look*.

This odd looking beast is the bristly millipede. Very cute! 

*If you’re reading this, know the site very well and have recent records, I’d be very happy to hear from you and be put right!