Hot wasp

I saw one of these parasitic wasps in the garden…

… which turns out to be Gasteruption jaculator. Nice, innit?

Because it was long and thin with a light tip to the ovipositor, it looked sort of like a small, delicate blue-tailed damselfly when it was flying around the flowerbeds.

» the photo is © nutmeg66 and used under a CC nc-nd-sa licence.

Bird of the Year 2009: best performances in a supporting role

Best Plant

Provence in May was just a great place for flowers. I claimed on Twitter to have seen nine or ten species of orchid, although it’s entirely possibly I over-claimed, since there tend to be lots of very similar species, some of them are quite variable, and I didn’t have a book with me. Still, I definitely saw an absolute minimum of six species because I saw six kinds of orchid: i.e. a bee-type orchid, a Serapias orchid, Lizard Orchid, some kind of hellebore and so on. This is a Serapias species:

And there were lots of other flowers: various kinds of rockrose, asphodel, wild Gladiolus, broom, poppies. I love the Mediterranean in spring.

But my plant of the year is lavender. Not the fields of lavender which are such a familiar image of Provence, but the wild lavender, Lavandula stoechas, which was blooming in great swathes of purple out in the scrub:


In a controversial move, the BOTY judges [i.e. me] have made the shock last-minute change to their [my] decision!

I know, you’re excited.

I was browsing through my pictures from Provence, looking for ones to use to illustrate this post, when I came across this shot I snapped with my phone of a weird-looking red thing:

When I saw it, I thought it might be a fungus, but on closer examination it was clearly a plant. The lack of chlorophyll made me wonder if it was some kind of broomrape just emerging, but it didn’t really look right… so I snapped a picture of it and went on.

Well, when I found the photo, I decided to post it to the ID Please group on Flickr, and it turns out it is a different parasitic plant: Cytinus ruber. You can see a more fully open specimen here.

Apparently the Cytinus plant grows entirely inside the roots of Cistus plants — i.e. rockroses; the pink petals in the picture are from a Cistus — and only produces an external growth when it flowers. So it has a lifestyle normally associated with fungi.

So that’s kind of cool. But it gets better (or at least geekier). Cytinus was previously included in the same family as the famous Rafflesia, the amazing genus of plants from southeast Asia which include the largest single flower anywhere and which also live inside their host plant when not in flower.

But DNA testing has revealed that Cytinus is not closely related to Rafflesia at all; it has now been moved to the order Malvales, a large group of largely shrubby flowering plants that includes the mallows, hollyhocks, hibiscus, okra, cotton, baobab and indeed Cistus. So this plant which is so alien-looking and so highly specialised is part of a family of woody flowering shrubs; but it has changed so dramatically that only DNA testing makes it possible to discover the relationship.

So, for being both attractive and completely geektastic, Cytinus ruber is my plant of the year for 2009. Sorry Lavandula stoechas; maybe your turn will come round again another time.

Best Insect

I think that the hornet I saw at the Lee Valley Park deserves a mention. To give it its full name, it was the European Hornet, Vespa crabro, the largest wasp in Europe*, which I rarely see. And another good London sighting was the Summer Chafer I saw on Wandsworth Common.

And in Provence in May I saw some nice butterfly species, like Swallowtail and Scarce Swallowtail, masses of little blue ones, Red Admirals, Painted Lady, and the Southern White Admiral, which was new to me:

There was also the extraordinary Libelloides coccajus, which completely threw me for a loop when I saw it. I didn’t have most of my books with me, and I don’t know when I’ve last been so baffled by an animal. Being unable to identify an insect isn’t a surprise; they are really hard, and while I’m a reasonably competent birdwatcher, outside the class Aves I’m a complete lightweight. But to see such a large and spectacular insect and have absolutely no idea what group of insects it belonged to was startling. And cool.

And the insect spectacle of the year was the Great Painted Lady Invasion. Painted Lady butterflies were all over the place in Provence, but although there were certainly a lot of them, I didn’t think much of it; and then they started turning up in the UK in record numbers. Painted Ladies are migratory, and they make it to Britain in fairly small numbers in most years; this year they arrived in their millions. And I initially learned about it on the internet: suddenly references to Painted Ladies, sometimes thousands of Painted Ladies, started popping up in my Twitter feeds and on blogs. By the time they reached London they had spread out a bit, and I never saw more than half a dozen in the garden at once. But they were all tending to travel in the same direction, and they just kept on coming for days. I did a half-hour count on May 29th and saw 36 pass through. One a minute is infrequent enough that you could be in the garden and miss what was happening; but scale up those numbers over the whole of the country — over the whole of Northern Europe, probably — and it’s a staggering phenomenon. And all because of a particularly good thistle-growing season in Morocco the previous year, apparently.

But despite stiff competition, my insect of the year was Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth, Hemaris tityus, which, as you can see at that link, is a moth which looks like a bee, right down to the transparent wings. It’s something I’ve wanted to see ever since I got my first moth book, and I was thoroughly pleased to see them in Provence.

Best Invertebrate (other)

Once again, embarrassingly, despite the fact that so many of the world’s species are non-insect invertebrates, I can’t think of single particularly notable spider, scorpion, snail, squid, sea squirt or anything else which I saw in the wild this year…

Best Fish

…and I don’t have anything for the fish category either. Though that’s not particularly surprising because the little buggers live underwater all the time, so you don’t tend to spot them when you’re just casually out and about.

Best Amphibian

Marsh Frogs, at the London Wetland Centre, Barnes, making quacking noises that sound more a duck than most ducks do.

Best Reptile

There’s not a lot of choice in this category, but that’s OK, I’m very happy to choose Moorish Gecko.

I love geckos, with their little buggy eyes, their flat feet, and the way they scamper around on the walls as though it was the easiest thing in the word to ignore the laws of physics.

Best Mammal

My mammal of the year 2009 is the water vole, Arvicola amphibius. These used to be a common sight in British rivers and canals, but they’re sadly quite rare these days, so I was pleased to see one in the Lee Valley. And I’m fairly sure it actually was a water vole rather than the much commoner and much less adorable brown rat.

Best Ecosystem

I love dry scrubby habitats — heathland, savannah, Mediterranean scrub — although it’s hard to explain why, exactly. So the Provençal scrub in the spring, with the wild lavender and rockrose in flower, and orchids and gladiolus, and pine and broom, and the nightingales singing, and butterflies everywhere … love it. There’s nowhere better. And it is certainly my ecosystem of the year for 2009.

Tune in again in an unspecified amount of time to discover the winner of the most prestigious award of all, Bird of the Year 2009.

* To get seriously geeky about it, and here at the BOTY awards we are unashamedly geeky about such things, it is the largest eusocial wasp; i.e. the largest of those wasps that builds a large paper nest. Which are what people normally think of as wasps. Using the term ‘wasp’ in a broader sense, the horntail/great wood-wasp Urocerus gigas is certainly larger, and I think there are even larger species of parasitic wasps in other parts of Europe.

Bird of the Year 2007: best performances in a supporting role

Best Plant

There’s lots of choice here; I’ll just give a hat-tip to the big trees of Kew Gardens and Greenwich Park which I got over excited about in the autumn.

But most of the possibilities were in Crete. Crete has more species of plant than the UK, and a bundle of them are endemics. In spring, it’s an amazing place for wildflowers. Among too many species to mention were little white cyclamens, two species of asphodel, and at least eight different orchids. For example, according to my own notes on Flickr which may or may not accurate, this is either Ophrys phryganae or Ophrys sicula:

Cretan orchid

Either way it’s a cute little thing. But marvellous though all these delicate little wildflowers were, my plant of the year was something bigger and more grotesque: Dracunculus vulgaris, the Dragon Arum. I was just blown away by this thing. I mean look at it! It’s about four foot tall and apparently gives off a smell of rotting flesh, though on balance I’m pleased to say I didn’t notice it.

Dragon Arum

Best Insect

A quick mention for the attractive/destructive rosemary beetles that have been eating my herbs. And I saw Scarce Swallowtail in Crete which is a nice butterfly. But the clear winner this year is the Jersey Tiger moth that appeared in the garden. In the UK the Jersey Tiger used to be confined, as the name suggests, to the Channel Islands and the south coast of Devon, but over the past couple of years a colony has mysteriously sprung up in south London. No-one knows how they got here but it’s very exciting. Particularly as I hadn’t heard the news when I saw one in the garden.

Best Invertebrate (other) and Best Fish

Considering that invertebrates make up such a large proportion of the world’s species, it’s slightly embarrassing to admit I can’t think of a winner. Not a single noteworthy crustacean, mollusc, cephalopod, arachnid, cnidarian or anything else. The fish thing is less surprising, as I didn’t spent any time in a boat or diving or snorkelling last year. Still, in 2008 I must do better.

Best Amphibian

A tree frog I saw in Crete.

European Tree Frog

Best Reptile

I was having some difficulty thinking of any contenders here, but in the end I came up with two, both lizards. One was a slow-worm, a species of legless lizard, which I saw on a country walk; the other was the Balkan Green Lizard, remarkable for being big, fat, and super-super-green. I think the BGL edges it.

Best Mammal

I could only think of one possibility here, but it’s quite a good one. It’s an unidentified bat species. I was in Chania, in Crete, and kept hearing distant bat-squeaks. But despite plenty of street-lighting, I couldn’t see any bats, so I was starting to wonder whether it was something else. But standing in the square in front of the church and gazing up one evening, I managed to see the bats flying around. I noticed than sometimes one bat would chase another one, and I could hear the squeaking get louder and faster. But what was really exciting was seeing a bat chase a moth, and hearing the bat’s calls, which were normally quite sporadic, accelerate up to a crescendo as it approached the moth. I knew that bats did this: given that they ‘see’ with sonar, it’s their equivalent of shining a flashlight. It lets them see more accurately. But I didn’t really expect to observe it with the naked eye (and naked ear). So that was cool.

Best Ecosystem

Up in the mountains above the Lasithi plateau, I found what I think was the closest I’ve ever encountered to a wild version of the classic Alpine garden: lots of big rocks, and growing between them were these delicate little dwarf flowers in endless varieties. It’s an ecosystem for obsessive-compulsives; walk slowly and keep your eyes at your feet. Or to be more accurate, climb up off the path and scramble over the rocks, keeping your eyes at your feet. I took lots of pictures of the flowers but none quite capture the general appearance of the mountainside as I remember it. This will do, though. It’s a picture I took of an orchid, possibly Orchis tridentata:

orchid among rocks

That flower spike is probably only five or six inches tall, and it was all like that: small flowers between the rocks. The casual walker might get an impression of plentiful floweriness, but to really appreciate the richness of the environment it needed careful, patient searching.

I’d always imagined Alpine plants being kept small by cold and wind; as having a short growing season when the snow melted. In this case the opposite was true; they have a brief, early flowering season before Crete becomes bakingly hot and dry. And above all the ecosystem is maintained by goats. Give it three hundred years without any goats or sheep, and Crete, like all the Greek islands, would apparently revert to forest. It’s an interesting angle on the richness of Crete’s flora; I don’t know how long the goats have been there, but it’s a thousands rather than millions of years. Were all those Cretan endemics existing in tiny fragmentary environments beforehand, but able to take advantage of the changes the goats created? Or have they evolved in those few thousand years?

cyclamens in Crete

Either way, if you get the chance to visit Crete in April, I recommend it.

International Rock Flipping Day

Well, I had a go at International Rock Flipping Day, flipping over various convenient rocks and bits of paving in the garden. I had a bit of a bad photography day—haven’t quite got the feel for my new camera, maybe—so the only picture worth sharing is this big fat leopard slug:

leopard slug

I did also see lots of ants, a centipede, a few snails, a big spider and lots of earthworms, but you’ll have to take my word for it. Oh, and woodlice.

Moths and meteorites

With National Moth Night and the Perseids, it should have been a good weekend for night-time stuff.

I didn’t have a lot of luck on either front. Really of course you need a moth trap to count moths effectively. I had a go at treacling—spreading a mix of treacle, brown sugar and rum on tree trunks to attract the moths—but nothing came. In the end my total count was three species; Jersey Tiger, seen earlier in the day, a Marbled Beauty attracted to the porch light, and a Double-striped Pug which came into my bedroom. Still, Jersey Tiger was one of the target species for NMN this year, so that’s good.

One thing becomes apparent walking around the garden at night; lots and lots of slugs.

leopard slugs

And here’s some hot slug-on-slug action.

slug sex

I didn’t try very hard with the meteorites, I must admit. And didn’t see any. But little white flashes of light appearing in the sky because the orbit of our planet is rolling through the dust trail of a long-gone comet seems like a good enough reason to post this:

Exciting moth news!

The moth in this picture isn’t particularly exciting, it’s just a rather scruffy Pyrausta aurata, sometimes called the mint moth. Mint is one of their foodplants, but so are its relatives like the oregano (or is that marjoram?) in the picture:

mint moth

I didn’t get a picture of my exciting moth, which was a Jersey Tiger. Exciting not just because it’s a spectacular species, but because as far as I knew, in the UK it’s only confined to Devon. Which would make mine a rare vagrant. Anyway, a quick bit of Google reveals that a couple of years ago, the big news among the UK moth community was the discovery of a colony of Jersey Tigers in south London. No-one’s sure if they got here under their own steam or if someone accidentally introduced them; either way it makes my sighting slightly less remarkable. Still neat though.

Some local insects

Earlier in the season, most of the damselflies were blue ones; now they’re all blue-tailed:

This bit of south London is, slightly unexpectedly, a stronghold for the increasingly rare stag beetle. At this time of year you tend to see them flying overhead in the evening; but the weather has been so miserable that I haven’t really been outside much in the evenings. I did see one crawling across the pavement a couple of days ago, though. This, however, is not that species; it’s the more common lesser stag beetle, which is not nearly as big, and even the males don’t have antlers.

This is a hoverfly. Like most hoverflies, it’s a wasp mimic; they nearly all have black and yellow stripes, but they don’t sting. This is more spectacular than most, though; the large size and brownish colour are its attempt to look like a hornet. I think it does quite a good job, although looking at it closely like this it’s obviously a species of fly. We don’t actually have any hornets around here—I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one in the UK, although they do live here—so I don’t know how effective the mimicry is.

And here’s a holly blue. You can see the abdomen curled around on the ivy; presumably it’s laying eggs. It’s lives on the holly and the ivy, which is very Christmassy of it.


There’s a peacock butterfly flying around outside the front of the house this morning in pretty much exactly the same place it was yesterday. Buterflies tend to be used as the epitome of aimless, carefree wandering, so it might come as a surprise to a lot of people to know that they are often highly territorial. If you ever play badminton near a Large White, you’ll see it aggressively chasing the shuttlecock.

I nearly wrote ‘if you ever play badminton near a Great White’, which really would be an extreme sport.

Wildlife round-up

I was pruning back a rosemary bush to get rid of what I vaguely thought were frost damaged leaves left over from winter, so I’d have some less manky rosemary to cook with, and found these:

rosemary leaf beetles shagging

Which I immediately recognised from a photo in the London Wildlife Trust newsletter, though I couldn’t remember what they were called. It turns out they’re Chrysolina americana, the Rosemary Leaf Beetle.

Pretty, aren’t they? Something I’d be much more enthusiastic about if the little bastards weren’t eating the rosemary that I want to eat. Apparently they’re native to southern Europe and can’t fly, but have become an established pest in England, especially London, over the past ten years. No doubt they got here on rosemary and lavender plants (which they also eat) and I guess they must crawl from plant to plant, guided perhaps by their sense of smell. The suggestion is that they’ve only become established over the past decade because global warming has brought milder winters, so they’re a harbinger of doom as well as a pest. Here’s one of the grubs, and a rare shot of part of my hand:

rosemary leaf beetle grub

You can also see some of the damage, though it was a lot worse than that on other parts of the plant.

More evidence of spring, apart from the randy beetles: I’m up to four butterfly species for the year (Small White, Brimstone, Peacock and Comma). On the bird front, I saw my first summer visitors of the year last week; Chiffchaffs singing in the woods. Although according to that page, a few hundred of them now overwinter each year in southern England—probably another sign of global warming—so perhaps the ones I saw haven’t come from Africa after all.

There are ducklings and cootlings in the park, and a pair of Little Grebes—a contender for the cutest bird in Europe— haphazardly dragging around bits of weed as though they were about to build a nest. Which is exciting because it’s the first time I’ve seen them there. My sense is that they are becoming more common in London; certainly in my copy of the Atlas of Breeding Birds of the London Area from 1977, the Little Grebe map doesn’t have many orange blobs on it. That, at least, probably isn’t anything to do with climate change. More likely the grebes are adapting to city life.

First Annual Blogger Bioblitz

blogger bioblitz buttonJust a heads-up for anyone who’s interested: the First Annual Blogger Bioblitz, ‘where bloggers from across the country will choose a wild or not-so-wild area and find how many of each different species – plant, animal, fungi and anything in between – live in a certain area within a certain time’ will be run from April 21-29.

You can read the annnouncement here, and they’ve set up a discussion group on Google Groups here.

I’m thinking of participating but some kind of weird bug in Google Groups means I haven’t registered yet. I’m going to be in Crete at the time, and I’ll be taking a bird guide (obviously!) as well as a guide to the wild flowers of Crete, but I won’t be able to do any insects or fungi or anything. I’m a little intimidated by the expertise of most of the people taking part, but on the basis that it’s an exercise in mass-participation rather than a rigorous scientific study, I thought I’d do what I could.

Steinbeck on lice

Rob posting Burns’s To a Louse reminded me of this passage. It’s from a John Steinbeck letter, but I encountered it in John Carey’s brilliant anthology, The Faber Book of Science.

The Morgan Library has a very fine 11th-century Launcelot in perfect condition. I was going over it one day and turned to the rubric of the first owner dated 1221, the rubric a squiggle of very thick ink. I put a glass on it and there imbedded deep in the ink was the finest crab louse, pfithira pulus, I ever saw. He was perfectly preserved even to his little claws. I knew I would find him sooner or later because the people of that period were deeply troubled with lice and other little beasties — hence the plagues. I called the curator over and showed him my find and he let out a cry of sorrow. ‘I’ve looked at that rubric a thousand times,’ he said. ‘Why couldn’t I have found him?’

I notice, btw, that the book now has a rather gaudy cover that makes it look like a textbook, whereas my copy has a fabulous photo of ‘Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell kissing inside the frame of a tetrahedral kite’.

bird of the year 2006: best performances in a supporting role

Best Plant

All those rainforest plants were nice, and I enjoyed taking wildflower photos while I was in Spain. But, not least because it’s nice to pick a winner that I can actually identify, I’m going for the Galapagos Prickly Pear, Opuntia echios. On islands where there are giant tortoises and land iguanas, they’ve evolved woody trunks and have fierce spines; on other islands they don’t have the trunks and they have soft bendy spines. And I enjoyed taking macro pictures of them, like this bit of trunk:

Best Insect

There were some great butterflies in the jungle – notably spectacular blue morphos – and a particularly striking leaf-mimicking moth, but my winner is the Painted Locust.

Best Invertebrate (other)

The shortlist would include the tarantula I saw in the rainforest – a first for me – the Chocolate Chip Sea Star and Galapagos Slipper Lobster (curious-looking and tasty), but the undoubted star in this category was the Sally Lightfoot Crab.

Best Fish

Piranha deserves a mention, even if I didn’t see one actually in the water, and it was very gratifying to see sharks swimming long with just their fins sticking out of the water, like what they do in the movies. But I had two special fish in the Galapagos this year. For the first, we were anchored off an island at night. Lots of fish had been attracted to the boat’s lights, and they in turn had attracted sea-lions and turtles, so we were watching them splashing around in the phosphorescence. Every so often there would be a splash where one of the sea-lions was swimming and a trail of phosphorescence would shoot off, zig-zagging over the water. It took me a few occasions to realise that they were flying fish. Which was cool.

The other came when I was trying to track down something splashing in the distance — I thought it was probably a dolphin, but I kept missing it or not seeing it well enough to identify. When I finally got binoculars on it, I was stunned to realise it was a manta ray leaping clear of the water. Later on in the trip we saw them a bit closer, and it was an absolute thrill. They don’t look like the most aerodynamic beasties, and it’s extraordinary seeing them launch themselves and twist in midair before crashing back into the water. Manta ray and flying fish are both species I’ve wanted to see for a very long time, but the manta wins the award for best fish of 2006.

Best Amphibian

A teeny-weeny poison arrow frog in the rainforest.

Best Reptile

It’s all Galapagos in this category: the shortlist is Green Turtle, Land Iguana, Marine Iguana and Giant Tortoise. It’s always nice to see turtles, and especially to swim with them, but I’ve seen them before. The three Galapagos specialities are all among the most desirable reptile species in the world. The tortoises are fun, and even bigger than you expect; the land iguana is a striking-looking beast. But it’s the marine iguanas which really stand out.

The fact that they’re lizards which swim out to sea to feed would almost be enough to win them the category, but they’re one of the continual pleasures of visiting the islands; you have to be careful not to step on them, they’re so indifferent to your presence. And you see them in great scaly drifts draped all over the lava, occasionally sneezing out the excess salt or aggressively nodding their heads at each other but mainly spending their time basking in the sun like hungover English tourists. They have a rugged, rock-hewn saurian quality that makes them seem like survivors from a distant epoch, which is misleading since in fact the islands, by evolutionary standards, are relatively young.

Best Mammal

I saw squirrels and monkeys in the jungle, and in another year those might be in contention for Best Mammal. And then there was the dozens and dozens of Bottle-nosed Dolphins and False Killer Whales that turned up unexpectedly one morning and which swam around the dinghy for us to see, or the dolphins that rode the bow-wave of the ship, jumping and twisting. But there can be no doubt that the Galapagos Sea Lion is the winner this year. It’s such a treat to be able to just wander past these animals and have them pay you no attention but just get on with playing, suckling their pups (cubs?) or most often just lying around.

The babies are fantastically cute, and the males are imposing, but the general impression is big furry bolsters — until you’re snorkelling along and suddenly a sea lion swims past underneath and looks up at you, and you realise that they’re sleek, graceful, muscular, and quite large. I found having a sea lion stick it’s nose up to my snorkel mask exciting but just a little bit intimidating. I think that’s a good thing; it’s good to be reminded from time to time that animals are not toys or pets or little furry people, but something quite alien. We tend to see animals in a human context, as food, pests, entertainment, ‘endangered species’; it’s good to feel like the outsider in their environment.

Best Ecosystem

Andalusia in spring was gorgeous. The marsh itself, with nightingales and Cetti’s warblers singing in every bush, and the sun on the water; the dry scrubby stuff with Dartford Warblers and Red-legged Partridge, and possibly best of all, sandy pine woodlands, with the amazing contrast between the glare of the noon sun and the deep shade, and the noise of bees and crickets in the heat.

And the lava fields of the Galapagos are like nowhere else on earth. It’s not a gentle landscape — uneven, sunbaked rock with the occasional cactus or thornbush hanging on as best it can — but the ripples and flows of the lava are endlessly fascinating. It’s geology made ridiculously simple; you can just look at it and see how it formed. And it brings home the endless capacity of life to find a way to live in unpromising places; the cacti colonising the bare rock before soil has a chance to form, the mangroves on the beach, and sea lions, seabirds, iguanas, sea stars, crabs and fish on the little fringe where the land meets the sea. And it’s not just interesting; it has a real beauty to it. It’s dramatic and odd and textured.

But my ecosystem of the year was none of those; it was the Ecuadorian cloudforest. I mean, it’s a rainforest with spectacular mountain views: how can you go wrong? The birds are actually sometimes at eye-level, unlike the lowland forest, and the temperatures are very moderate, even chilly sometimes. The humidity is such that plants just grow everywhere; you get the feeling that if you nodded off up on the mountain, you’d wake up covered in moss. There are trees up there which are so covered in epiphytes, bromeliads, moss, ferns and creepers that you can only roughly tell where the trunk and branches are. And every so often the cloud closes in, and instead of spectacular vistas, the world shrinks right down so it’s just you and the mist and a lot of weird calls from invisible birds.

I don’t have a photo which does justice to the vegetation (my camera batteries died), but here are some mountains:


Having said that I recommend the Galapagos, I have to say that equatorial lowland rainforest may not be for everyone. With the temperature in the 30s and 80% humidity, it’s hard work just walking around. Particularly, once you do get hot, it takes for ever to cool down again because your basic thermal regulation system – sweat – just doesn’t help. The rainforest is also quite superficially boring to walk through: endless dark green foliage everywhere, rather gloomy light, and very little sign of animal life except for birdcalls and the noise of cicadas. There’s a lot of mud underfoot. When it rains, it really rains. And I am smothered in mosquito bites.

But once you get used to it, there are things to see: the most obvious being the butterflies of all colours and sizes, topped out by the morphos – huge flashing sky-blue things that flop lazily through the air. I saw a tarantula, and helicopter damselflies, and mating stick-insects. There are loads of ant, termite and wasp nests in the trees, leafcutter and army ants at your feet. If you’re sharp-eyed (or have a sharp-eyed guide), there are frogs, toads and lizards around the place. I was really pleased to see a little tiny poison arrow frog. And there was one lizard which was so well camouflaged that, even knowing where it was and being able to see its head, legs and tail, my brain still insisted it was a dead leaf. I think I saw only two mammal species, a squirrel and a monkey, but they were cool. For that matter, the foliage itself is interesting: each tree is only like a starting point in establishing the plantlife, with bromeliads, epiphytes and lianas all over the place among other green creeping things I didn’t recognise.

And of course there are lots of birds. Which isn’t to say that it’s easy birding. Most of them are neck-breakingly high in the trees and the dense foliage doesn’t make it any easier. The ones that don’t live in the canopy are generally very secretive and usually have to be located by their calls. Fortunately there was an exceptionally good local bird guide called Jose whose English was limited but included phrases like ‘Rufescent Tiger Heron’, ‘Chestnut-winged Foliage-gleaner’ and ‘in the palm leaves’. With the help of a lot of taped bird calls and a laser pointer, he managed to show those of us in the birding group about 60 species a day.

There was also a canopy tower – a 40 metre high tower to scan the canopy from. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned my fear of heights before, but you’ll appreciate that I found the tower a bit challenging. The first time I tried I only got about halfway up before having to go back down. I did manage to get all the way up the next time, by staring at the back of the person in front and trying not to think, and while I can’t say I was ever completely relaxed up there, it really is a great way of birding the rainforest; in three hours we saw four species of toucan, loads of tanagers, a trogon, parrots, several raptors etc, all at eye-level for once. And a load of sweat-drinking bees, which are irritating but harmless.

Next stop the cloudforest, which will have just as much wildlife but will hopefully be a bit more comfortable for those of us who could afford to lose a few pounds.

Modigliani at the RA

I went to see Modigliani and his models at the Royal Academy today. In a sense, there was nothing very surprising about the exhibition since Amedeo Modigliani only really seems to have painted rather stylised portaits and very pink nudes, including this one of Joan Collins from 1917:

It (she?) looked pinker in real life.

The stylised portraiture is intriguing, because although the basic characteristics were fairly consistent — long neck, rounded shoulders, elongated face — and the paintings all have the Modigliani look about them, the overall effect varied considerably. Some came across as caricature, including this one:

Others have a rather impersonal quality that suggests that the particular model is almost irrelevant, that the subject is just a generic woman. This portrait of his lover/common law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, seems to me to tend to fall into that category, although not as much as some of his other pictures of her:

To get a sense of how stylised the portraits are, this is a photo of Jeanne Hébuterne:

Many of the portraits did manage to look like portraits — like they showed a real personality rather than a caricature or a blank —but I didn’t note down any titles in the exhibition and haven’t managed to track down good pictures on the web to use in this post. Which is a bit unfair on Amedeo, but them’s the breaks. I did enjoy the exhibition; the best of the paintings have a real presence to them, and they’re never less than likeable.

The most intriguing of his stylisations is perhaps the blank eyes. Some of his portraits have irises, but most have blank eyes. I can only guess that he chose to leave the eyes blank because otherwise they were too distracting. In that sense they unbalance a portrait.

In Green Park (the nearest tube station) I was amused to see that someone had scratched out the eyes on a movie poster in what I would like to believe was a reference to Modigliani, but was probably just because they were bored. I didn’t have a camera, but here’s a reconstruction:

And finally, a bonus picutre. When googling Modigliani, I discovered Cyclommatus modigliani:

I assume the beetle is named after some other Modigliani — an entomological relative — but you never know, perhaps it was named by an art-loving beetlist.

More vespal entertainment

Sherry mentioned my wasp nest on her blog and via the comments was revealed this hand-made hornet’s nest by papermaker Gin Petty. You can read her full account of making it here.

And browsing around Flickr I found these pictures by Andrew Dill of a wasp nest built on a window:

Here’s something I learned today. ‘Hymenoptera’ (i.e. bees, wasps and ants) are not called that because of all those virgin workers, as I’d always vaguely assumed. Rather it’s

from Greek humenopteros ‘membrane-winged,’ from humēn ‘membrane’ + pteron ‘wing.’

Which perhaps I should have realised, since Hymen wasn’t god of virginity but marriage.

And here’s a good word: haplo-diploid.

Wasp nest

The plumbers found an old wasp nest in the attic. Wimbledon has had its usual effect on the weather, so the light isn’t great for photograpy, but during a break in the rain I tried taking a few pictures. The whole thing’s about 2 foot across. Here’s a close-up:

Flies, again.

A little while back I was talking about the extraordinary number of insect species just within the UK, and I said:

What I find staggering about these numbers is that it implies there are so many different evolutionary niches available for such apparently similar creatures. Even the 51 species of mayfly are slightly mind-boggling, but how can there possibly be 6900 different ways of successfully being a fly?

Well, there are 6900 separate answers to that question, but here’s just one (typical?) example. They’re found a new species of fly in Scotland. “The tiny black Christii fly measures just 2mm long and lives under the bark of dead aspen trees.” But not, presumably, living aspen trees. Or dead willow trees.

Although I guess that just begs the question “what is so specialised about their behaviour that they can only live in such a narrowly-defined habitat?”

Flies, flies and more flies.

Someone posted this photo of a scorpionfly to the Flickr group ID Please:

Schorpioenvlieg, originally uploaded by Wue.

Which reminded me of something I said a week or so ago.

I take a casual interest in insects and other invertebrates, but one thing you quickly realise is that they’re really hard. I first really appreciated this when, quite pleased with myself for recognising something as a ’scorpionfly’, I tried to look it up in a book and discovered there are something like 28 species just of scorpionflies in the UK.

Well, it turns out I was misleading you. There are only four species of scorpionfly in the UK. There are however 51 species of mayfly, 33 species of stonefly, and 189 species of caddisfly. And 158 species of thrip, 627 lice, 1709 bugs, 2400 species of butterfly or moth, 3900 beetles and 6900 true flies. Notice the numbers start getting suspiciously round for the bigger groups.

What I find staggering about these numbers (from Buglife) is that it implies there are so many different evolutionary niches available for such apparently similar creatures. Even the 51 species of mayfly are slightly mind-boggling, but how can there possibly be 6900 different ways of successfully being a fly?

I guess a lot of insects are specialised to a particular food source – for example most caterpillars only eat specific food plants and parasites usually have specific hosts, whether animal or plant. So that means every plant or animal species is in turn a potential opportunity for yet another species of insect.

I wonder how useful the lanaguge of ‘niches’ is anyway. It rather implies that each niche can only hold one species, that if two species are in direct competition for the same resources, one of them must inevitably lose out. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true; for example, if two geographically separated populations of a species evolved to look different, so that they would no longer interbreed, but kept living in essentially the same way (filling the same niche), and then the two populations mixed again, would one inevitably out-compete the other, or might they just live alongside one another?

Perhaps usually, the niches wouldn’t be quite identical anyway, and would just be heavily overlapping – the two species would be competing for some things but not others. Does that make a difference? Does it make it more likely that they would achieve a stable mixed population? I don’t know.

I assume evolutionary theorists have thought about these issues; I don’t know what conclusions they’ve reached.

Another damselfly

I didn’t manage to get a shot which was as crisp as I’d like, but for the sake of completeness, here’s a Blue-tailed Damselfly:

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