This year my New Year’s resolution has been not to have any. January is a terrible time for fresh starts. It’s gloomy, cold and spring feels an age away. Attempting to hold myself to impossible standards would be doomed to failure. That’s not strictly true; I do have a few resolutions. Such as: drink more beer and eat more cheese. Countless wonderful examples of each foodstuff are produced just in this small country, and whilst I may still be relatively young I haven’t got forever to try them all.

I suppose I did also have one or two more noble aims. Instead of interminably thinking things over or chewing on problems for a long time, I will endeavour to just get on with it wherever possible. I’ll let you know how that one goes…when I get round to it! Another is to do more of what I enjoy. Sounds simple, but you wouldn’t believe how many of us find this a difficult thing to act on.

Now, given that this is ostensibly a nature blog I should probably come up with something more natural history oriented. Over the weekend I reviewed my pan species list and updated my tallies on the PSL website. Remembering that participants can view their rank for each different taxonomic group, as well as overall rank, I thought I’d use my relative position on each list as a handy guide to which groups I have catching up on to do, and which ones I’m ahead of myself with (i.e. I’ve seen more than I thought I had relative to my interest).

What follows may be of little interest to anybody other than me, so I’m not offended if you stop reading at this point. Thanks for stopping by, and have a nice year!

For the brave among you, I begin this breakdown with a list of PSL taxa for which I have not recorded ANY species:

Blanks

Slime moulds, protists, sponges, comb jellies, bryozoans, platyhelminths (flatworms), sea spiders

In these groups of organisms I have, therefore, raw untarnished potential. Flatworms are extremely cool but I’ve never handled many for long enough to identify them. We may possibly have an ID for one seen on the Solent coast last November, so I need to check an old notebook and photographs for that. I’ve also potentially got a sea spider to add, for which, again, I need to do some more sleuthing. I’ve certainly seen sponges, but whether any were correctly identified I can’t be 100% sure. As for slime mould, time to go find some dog’s vomit!

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Sea spider on the Solent shore at Hill head, Hampshire. Possibly the introduced species Ammothea hilgendorfi

So what have I seen?

For the following groups, I make the top 50 recorders (50 being as far down as the group rankings go). My species total is in brackets.

Ahead of Myself

Algae (15), cnidarians (5), molluscs (32), crustaceans (28), springtails (5), 3-tailed bristletails (2), hemipteroids (100), coleoptera (185), tunicates (2), reptiles (5)

Algae, cnidarians (mostly sea anemones on my list), molluscs (a fair few marine snails etc.), crustaceans and tunicates (sea squirts) I put down to having made quite a few visits to the coast with knowledgeable guides or enthusiastic friends, a good field guide and a camera. Sometimes that’s all it takes.  The next step is to try and absorb some of the species on my list and ‘earn’ them, by which I mean if I saw them again I’d recognise them straight away or know quickly how to determine which species it was.

I was fairly interested in springtails for, ooh, about two weeks in February 2013. That’s probably enough to have ‘charted’ in the top 50 given their general obscurity, and I did learn enough that I can still ID one or two species in the field. A long way to go, but at least I’ve made a start: springtails are one of those groups which I feel I ought to know something about given how ubiquitous they are.

The presence of coleoptera (beetles) and hemiptera (bugs) reflects, I think, a genuine interest. In each case there’s a long way to go before I’d call myself an expert (that dreaded word) but I am fairly comfortable identifying most beetles or bugs I come across to family without resorting to a key. A few species I know well enough to greet like old friends. It’s a satisfying feeling. I think – whisper it – I have become an entomologist!

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Pantilius tunicatus, a mirid bug.

Reptiles are the only group of vertebrates for which I chart, more by accident than design. There are only six native species in the UK, of which the only one I haven’t seen is sand lizard. If you want to see more species you’re into the realm of exotic escapes and introductions. I do think lizards are rather nice. I should go and seek out a sand lizard!

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Common lizard at Slapton Ley NNR in Devon.

There remains quite a long list of taxa for which my ranking is outside the top 50, and in many cases probably below my current overall ranking (82).

Behind the Curve

Lichens (7), fungi (36), bryophytes (2!), annelid worms (3), arachnids (13), myriapods (5), vascular plants (277), echinoderms (1), amphibians (5), mammals (33), diptera (74)

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Magpie inkcap outside the University of Reading library

For all of the above I would say I’ve made no particularly strong effort. I have some reasonable totals simply by virtue of being out there, exploring the world as a mildly curious naturalist. That’s why plants are one of my highest scoring groups; step outside and you can’t help but fall over them. It is, however, a group I’ve still not quite cracked, relying for the most part on other people’s knowledge. So I wouldn’t describe myself as a botanist just yet, though given how fundamental plants are to habitat assessment and often to invertebrate identification I’m working on it. I probably know more than I think I do, at least in terms of common species.

Odonata (21), orthopteroids (14), hymenoptera (29), butterflies (41), moths (302)

I’ve put some genuine effort into seeing species in these groups; I just have quite a way to go! If pressed I would tell people moths are among my favourite, but next to the 2500 or so moth species in Britain my current total of 302 is pretty low.

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Rosy footman: now that’s a good looking moth.

Birds (251)

Birds started this whole thing for me but I’ve seen comparatively few species in the UK, especially compared with the big list twitchers. Birds remain my first love, but what I enjoy most is knowing and caring for the bird life of the local area. Of course if a new species turns up somewhere convenient or whilst I’m on holiday elsewhere in the country I’m not likely to turn it down! I’d travel for a bee eater, though probably not too far, and I’d need a few days’ notice. What I would really like to do is catch up on a few ‘bogey’ species among those that do breed in the UK. Seeing a honey buzzard, twite, ptarmigan or golden eagle in breeding habitat would be much more satisfying than a half-dead vagrant. I loved seeing some new birds on a trip round central Europe last summer and it didn’t really bother me that much that they weren’t in the ‘right’ country for the purposes of my UK list.

Right, where was I going with this? Resolutions! I didn’t sift through the rankings to compare myself with other listers; it was more a way to measure my relative progress with the different parts of the natural world. With all that in mind, here’s what I’ll be aiming to do in 2017:

  • Get off the starting line with as many of my blank groups as possible
  • Learn to recognise a decent handful of common species in those groups where my list is currently very small
  • Consolidate and expand my knowledge for those groups I’d like to get good at (beetles, bugs and moths in particular)
  • Be confident enough with plants to allow myself the title botanist
  • Be a better local birder. I won’t add any species to my list, but I will enjoy myself!

And isn’t enjoying ourselves the main point of this listing lark, in the end? That and becoming better natural historians, to the eventual benefit of the wildlife we love. I wish all of you an exciting, surprising, wildlife-rich year ahead.

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