Looking for nature at Nature Matters 2016

From the outside, the David Attenborough building – home of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative – is unpromising. Not so much an ivory tower as a concrete one. But the building has a quite literal green heart, for a four-storey living wall takes centre stage in the building’s atrium. Sir David himself abseiled down it at the centre’s official opening earlier this year: not bad for a 90-year-old. The CCI incorporates staff from RSPB, Birdlife, Fauna & Flora International and the IUCN, as well as Cambridge University scientists, so perhaps the true green heart of the building is provided by its human occupants. The reason for my visit was the 2016 Nature Matters conference, hosted in Cambridge this year to add another node to the CCI network.

Arriving early for the second day, I was struck by the irony of the Attenborough building’s surroundings. From the multi-storey car park across the road to the impressively extensive cycle storage facility out the back, there was not a plant to be seen. Not much space for nature, but still, wildlife is often surprisingly resilient. Surely I could find something of interest lurking even here?

I had a short poke around. On the east side of the building, fronds of spiderweb dangled from gaps in the Fibonacci-spiral-themed slate wall. They appeared to be gathering no flies, only a thick grey dust reminiscent of volcanic ash. These spiders must have been early colonising pioneers, but by their current absence had perhaps not been rewarded for their optimism. On a ledge across from the west side, a pair of feral pigeons flapped and jostled. One maintained the higher ground and kept dislodging the other, which would regain a perch further along each time only to be knocked right off again. High wildlife drama? Perhaps not.

So, I think I can safely say that the most engaging vision of nature present during Nature Matters was not the real thing, but that running through the minds and hearts of the conference participants. Through one evening and two days of main sessions and workshops we listened, we watched, we debated, we laughed, we ate, drank and socialised, maybe one or two of us shed a tear or two.

Perhaps it was the presence of the great Sir David himself, but the atmosphere was electric in the final session. Our theme was hope. Contributions from the panel on stage were kept brief, leaving plenty of time for conference delegates to offer their own positive stories from the floor. Attenborough rose to offer some closing remarks, and when he finished, he received a standing ovation. It wasn’t so much for the address he had just given – though it was a fine one – but for the fact of who he was, for his life’s work. And perhaps it was for ourselves too, for each other. A needed fillip, a defiant statement that yes, nature does matter, and what is more, it is within our grasp to secure its future.

Live Long and Prosper?

Live Long and Prosper?

I notice a team of researchers have announced in the journal Science that a population of Greenland sharks contains individuals as old as around 400 years. A few people have raised questions (not explored in the paper) about the potential for old sources of the carbon-14 used in the process to have hung around a long time in the stable Arctic environment, making the sharks appear older than they are. Nonetheless, the ages quoted are pretty incredible if true and even if it’s an overestimate these are likely to be the oldest known vertebrates alive.

The good news for would-be explorers of the natural world marooned in rainy-ol’ Britain is that there are plenty of similar mysteries on our doorstep. We simply need to think a bit smaller! Try about 3mm long, for example. That’s the size of the beetle in the right of the picture below, taken in the University of Reading’s ‘Wilderness’ on the 2nd of August. A few more of its kind, Anaspis costai, were hanging out on the same small cluster of fading hogweed flowers.

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Mordellidae sp. (left), Anaspis costai (right), Mirid bug (above) .

I walk past the flowers in question twice a day, once in the morning between 8 and 8:30 and again between 5 and 6:30 in the evening. The following day, a few more A. costai had joined the party – about 8 – and a similar number remained present through the rest of the week. I wondered if they’d remain over the weekend. Sure enough, there they were on Monday morning. And Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday! I say they: how do I know they were the same beetles?! For so many species of insect we don’t even have this kind of basic information. How long do they live, how far will they travel in a day, how far do they disperse over the course of a lifetime?

What I needed to have done was marked as many of them as I could on day 1, perhaps with a tiny blob of enamel paint on the tip of a wing case. That’s what my PhD supervisor Graham Holloway did back in 1987, just around the corner on the same site, with a population of Eristalis pertinax hoverflies. These beetles would make trickier subjects – they’re small and very susceptible to disturbance – so I’d struggle to match the impressive total of 1223 insects marked in the hoverfly study. It would give me some satisfaction just to mark a few, though, and get anywhere towards knowing whether my beetle friends are the same individuals day after day, feeding on the same flower head, or if they represent turnover of newly emerged adults dropping out of the scraggly oak just above. There really are mysteries wherever we look, as insignificant as they may seem in the general scheme of things.

 

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Anaspis costai still present on the same small cluster of flowers, August 10th

Independent Days

Independent Days

Recent events have rather overwhelmed all of my attempts to write. In May came the awful EU referendum campaign whilst I was also busily working on a PhD upgrading report (hopefully before long I shall be officially allowed to continue!) Then two wonderful weeks travelling by train around the European continent, including a brief stop in at the European Parliament visitors centre. What a time to go! For a literary take on our travels see here. Then of course came the Brexit bombshell. I stirred in my sleep at 4 am on the 24th in a budget hotel in Vienna, blearily read the news on my tablet, simply said ‘oh crap’, rolled over and attempted unsuccessfully to go back to sleep.

Existential uncertainty about Britain’s place in the world is not the only reason I’ve been out of sorts and borderline depressed in the last week, but it can’t have helped. Every evening I sit here and attempt to write my way out of this hole, and get nowhere. So I’m going to turn my attention several thousand miles away to the other side of the Atlantic and say ‘Happy Birthday America!’ instead. Banish all thoughts of Trumpery and the ignorant, redneck, rifle-toting USA of news bulletins and popular legend: I know of no more diverse country, and that in itself is worth celebrating. Any opinion you want to listen to, you’ll find it. Any food you want to eat, you’ll find as fine an example as you could hope for. Any type of climate, landscape, natural wonder: check, check, check.

Having a second continent is beneficial to the making of a naturalist, I think, as much as I would normally like to discourage excess air-travel. I’m grateful to have parts of my life rooted in North America, specifically the USA: a country that for all its flaws is still worth celebrating, all the more so in a week when the flaws of my own native land are all too obvious and painful. It’s given me my wife, my second family, many good friends and countless excellent wild adventures. Regardless of who wins November’s election, I’ll be back: there are many more American adventures on our horizon.

What’s in a name?

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The infamous hatbirder, with a beetle on his hand. Wait, that  can’t be right!

I’ve been uncomfortable with my twitter tag hatbirder for a while. It’s limiting. I’m not solely a birder, not even primarily a birder. I don’t know what kind of image it projects. On the other hand people seem to like it, some good friends and colleagues use it as an affectionate (I hope!) nickname and I’d be sad to see hatbirder die altogether.

 

After attending the RES conference in Dublin last year I asked for more suitable suggestions and the only one I got, from entomology professor Simon Leather, had the word ento in it. I think it was ‘entohat’. That doesn’t quite feel right either: as much as I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a birder (nobody ever calls me an ornithologist!) I don’t want to be beetleholed as an entomologist either, though I’m happy and proud to be known as both.

Lately I’ve been tossing ideas around again and checking availability on twitter. Some clearly won’t work. Nature’s Hat becomes natureshat, which would be a bad choice for fairly obvious reasons, and hatinthewild looks like ‘hating the wild’. Nope, that’s not going to work!

But what about these four? One slightly daft and three that incorporate my name and the word nature, much as this blog’s title does.

haturalist

chrisfnature

cwfnature

fosternature

The trouble is I’m still not that comfortable with overly overt self promotion and the word nature comes with a lot of baggage. But then so does any word. Does it matter? hatnature is also available. Or hatwild. Or how about naturewtf…….somehow I think the Hat Birder will be around for a while yet!

 

 

Momentum

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Cowslip flowering in Whiteknights Park

So, a record a day. How’s that going? Well, on several days already this year I have literally submitted a single record. Today’s was a nuthatch, which was trilling in the Wilderness on campus whilst I walked in to work. My 66th bird species for the year.

Besides birds all my other records are plants, mostly inspired by the example of the New Year flowering plant hunt. I’ve submitted 15 different species to iRecord and also to the plant hunt itself, since they were all in flower. I’ve seen a few plants I know but haven’t recorded, i.e. I didn’t pay them any attention. So they don’t count! That makes 81 species recorded in total for 2016, hopefully many to come.

 

Resolve

Naturalists are as likely as anybody to play the New Year’s resolution game, though our aims tend to be more exciting than going to the gym more or taking up ill-advised fad diets. More birds, more plants, more insects, more recording, more everything! It’s an exciting time, thinking about all the wonderful wildlife encounters the next twelve months might bring.

Last year I hoped to add a bit of structure to my biological recording by signing up for two new schemes, the National Plant Monitoring Scheme and BeeWalks (run by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust). Unfortunately the plant scheme fell by the wayside in the chaos of a PhD field season (I should have known!) and I made a poor effort for the bees – just two walks completed. I remembered three, but only had two when I came to enter the data. Another black mark!

In all honesty, I don’t need resolutions. Just resolve. I know the sorts of things I’d realistically like to achieve, and making a list of them probably won’t help. So this year my main resolution is simply to do more of the things I enjoy. Fortunately many of those things are also worthwhile and useful, but if value to society and nature is my primary driver I think I’m more likely to end up disillusioned and guilty about failure.

I do have a few specific aims in mind as well, but I won’t beat myself up if I don’t achieve them:

  • The kind folk at the NPMS allowed me to retain my square so I’ll be back for another crack at plant monitoring. No PhD fieldwork this year will mean a more varied and flexible summer.
  • My BeeWalk route is a rather lovely one hour-ish nature ramble across one of my favourite places in the world and I have no excuses at all, to myself or anybody else, for not walking it more often.
  • A biological record a day. I might see nothing but a woodpigeon all day, nonetheless, that pigeon will be noted and logged.
  • Go birding more often, see more birds! I’m not that concerned about year listing any more, however 158 points to a poor effort indeed for 2015. I missed all kinds of not particularly uncommon species I don’t want to go more than two years without seeing.

Here’s to a wildlife rich and successful 2016 for all!

This year’s adventures to date: 

 

 

Ento-ho-ho

There are plenty of animals in Christmas imagery, whether they’re on the secular side like turkeys, reindeer or robins; or those associated with religious stories, such as camels or donkeys. But what do they all have in common? They’re vertebrates, of course. Aside from the titular cricket in Charles Dickens’s The Cricket On The Hearth (which I’m currently reading and will report on here once I get through it) and the obscure 1913 animated short The Insects’ Christmas, I can’t think of any definitive invertebrate Christmas connections, just tenuous ones, such as the link between ladybirds and Mary the mother of Jesus (who has what you might call a significant role in the Christmas story).

Continue reading “Ento-ho-ho”