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!

Alien Shrimps

Alien Shrimps

Back in January I dug a few pitfall traps in my garden. These are simply plastic cups set flush with the ground and covered with a lid to keep rain out. The lid also serves to block larger animals – vertebrates like mice or frogs – for what I’m interested in catching here is ground-dwelling invertebrates. The traps can be filled with preserving fluid, but in my garden I’ve kept them dry so I can retain any specimens I particularly want to look at whilst letting anything else go.

A cunningly concealed pitfall

Beetles are the most common target of a pitfall trap. So far, all three traps have added species of beetle to my garden inventory. On the one occasion the trap set in the middle of the lawn* flooded, an individual of the mostly subterranean ground beetle Clivina fossor was floating in the top. It’s a curious looking mole-legged creature that twists around what almost looks like a ball-and-socket joint between abdomen and thorax, all the better to contort through small gaps in the soil.

My latest trap round turned up no beetles whatsoever, but when I tipped out the contents of the raspberry bed trap I immediately noticed something pinging about like a rubber ball, much too large to be one of the usual springtails. Flattened from side to side and with a variety of legs and other appendages sticking off seemingly at all angles, this was an amphipod crustacean. Wait: a shrimp, in the garden?!

It turns out there is one species of terrestrial amphipod in Britain, Arcitalitrus dorrieni. It’s an introduction from the forests of New South Wales that was first found in this country back in 1924 on the Isles of Scilly. Common names include landhopper, woodhopper and (my favourite) lawn shrimp. They’ve been well established in the south and west for some years now, mostly on the coast, but seem to be spreading. I first discovered the existence of this creature when I found them under flowerpots in our garden in Twyford, just to the east of Reading. They’re established in the London area, and have clearly made their way along the Thames valley as far as Newbury. Of course this latest leap may have been made in one go by hiding out in a plant pot in our removal van! Perhaps that’s a clue to how this species gets moved around.

By ‘Sarah’ on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The British Myriapod and Isopod group are collating records of this species and also published an informative paper last year updating the landhopper’s U.K. distribution and providing information on how to separate it from other (less common) introduced terrestrial amphipods. Dave Hubble also provides more detail on his blog. I presume it is fairly under-recorded, so why not go pick up some pots in the garden and search for this rather entertaining skipping shrimp?

*Or what I will hopefully be calling the meadow later in the year.

Coffee update (see previous entry):

Somebody at Waitrose customer service replied to say they’ve passed on my enquiry to a colleague for a full response. Nothing for a week or so. In the meantime we’ve discovered that Riverford, from whom we order a weekly vegetable box as well as milk and other bits and bobs, have just started selling a shade-grown Fairtrade coffee produced by Equal Exchange. We’ll order a bag and give it a go! 

Coffee & Birds

Selected Fall Warblers from the Peterson guide

This week I’ve been thinking about coffee. Our household coffee consumption has rocketed in recent years: I’m drinking more of it and Rebecca has joined me since a conversion experience in Italy a couple of years back. As with many of the exotic imported foods we consider staples, it can be hard to remember that coffee beans are grown in real places by real people. We try to do our best for the latter by choosing Fairtrade, or at the very least brands with comparable established relationships with their growers. What about the places the beans are grown and the wildlife which inhabits them? A nicely made video dropped into my inbox from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology this week, reminding me of the benefits of shade-grown coffee in the Americas, especially for new world warbler species (I was going to embed the video here but it’s a private link and I can’t get it to work – try clicking here).

When we’re in the States I see the phrase shade grown on labels fairly often, but a quick survey of the labels in our local Waitrose suggests it is rarely if ever used here. In fact I think I’ve only seen shade grown used by the RSPB. Do other UK suppliers source fewer beans from the Americas? That doesn’t seem likely, and there are plenty of single origin varieties on offer from Colombia, Peru, Mexico, etc which make no mention of growing method. Or perhaps because the warblers in question are not ‘our’ warblers are we simply less bothered about them? That would seem a shame.

Our standard coffee purchase is a Waitrose own-brand. There’s some information on provenance on the Waitrose website, but most of it is unhelpfully vague, for example ‘we receive assurances over the methods used and quality produced’. But since they also say ‘we are proud that our own-label coffee beans come from defined sources’ Waitrose should be able to tell me exactly where in the world the beans we buy come from, and give us some more information about the estates on which they are grown. I’ll write to them and see what happens. In the meantime I’d also like to find out:

  •  Where genuinely shade grown coffee is sold in the UK. I’ll report back here.
  •  Whether growing style (shade vs full sun) is as much of an issue for birds and other  wildlife in other parts of the world, e.g. central Africa. I would guess not so much where coffee plantations have not replaced rainforest, but I don’t know.

I’ve just found this helpful blog by Derek Thomas (always google your questions before writing a speculative blog post!) from a few years back which gives some answers, but it will nonetheless be interesting to see whether anybody at Waitrose has encountered the bird friendly coffee concept since that time, and figure out which new brands on sale in the UK are supporting this. For now, here’s an American warbler. Not a long-range migrant and so not a species likely to turn up in a coffee plantation – but it is the only one I’ve managed to get a few seconds footage of!


New-ish Year (Not) Resolutions

New-ish Year (Not) Resolutions

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:


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!

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!

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!

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)

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.

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.