Bird of the Year 2012: best performances in a supporting role

I guess I should post this before the end of January. Not a lot of outstanding sightings to report, though.

Best Plant

I was quite tickled to see some Marsh Mallow plants down in Kent. Because, yes, they are the original stuff that marshmallows were made from.

Best Insect

IMG_1186

This Poplar Hawkmoth was a pleasing find, and my most unexpected sighting was probably a Marbled White just across the road — are they breeding somewhere nearby? was it lost? — but insect of the year might as well be Swollen-thighed Beetle, Oedemera nobilis:

IMG_1160

Because it’s a fun-looking thing, because it has a great name, and because I posted a picture of it on Twitter and the Natural History Museum popped up to tell me what it was. I took that picture when I was out birding, although I later found more of them in the garden, so its clearly a common enough critter. Fun though.

Best Reptile

I went on a twitch to see the Baillon’s Crake which was at Rainham Marshes for a few days. I didn’t see the crake, but while I sat for about three hours in a packed hide staring at the fringes of the water, I did at least see a grass snake. Which was a nice treat.

Best Mammal

There are various places I regularly go which supposedly have water voles, but you hardly ever actually see them; or if you do it’s just a brown nose swimming across a channel from one reedbed to another. But on the same abortive crake twitch, I did find a couple of voles, sitting calm as you like just about eight feet from the path, chewing away at some iris leaves.  In fact if I hadn’t stopped to watch them for a while, I might conceivably have seen the crake, which showed not long before I got there… but it was still nice to see the voles.

Best Invertebrate (other), Best Fish, Best Amphibian, Best Ecosystem

I got nothin’.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 23: Adela reaumurella

This is Adela reaumurella. Google suggests a couple of common names have been attached to it — Green Longhorn and Metallic Longhorn — but neither seems to have much traction. And actually, the fact that so many British moths have established English names is the exception rather than the rule; if you’re interested in insects, you’re going to have to tangle with Latin sooner or later.

5638441409_e0fe913c0c_o

Anyway, this is a species I saw in the local woods a couple of years ago. They’re pretty tiny, the wingspan is less than 2cm, and it would be easy to walk past without noticing them; but they are tiny peacocks. Only the males have those ludicrous antennae, and they are a direct equivalent of a peacock’s tail.

479568678_4f6bf67ceb_o

But it wasn’t the antennae that made me notice them; it was the dancing. There were perhaps a dozen in the group I saw, perched in a patch of sunlight, and they kept flying up couple of feet and then drifting back down to their leaf; and all the time they were in the air they held their antennae up above their heads in a V shape.

There’s a rather wobbly video of a much larger swarm here.

Adela_reaumurella-07

If they were birds, I would say they were lekking. A lek is where a group of males — grouse, birds of paradise, or whatever — gather in one place to perform next to each other, compete for the best display spots, and try to win the attention of females.

Seeing a longhorn moths doesn’t quite scratch my itch to go to New Guinea and see birds of paradise; but it’s still a fun thing to find.

» ‘Longhorn moth, Adela reaumurella’ is © nutmeg66 and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. ‘longhorns’ is © Nigel Jones and used under a by-nc-nd licence. ‘Adela reaumurella-07’ is © IJmuiden and used under a by-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 21: Giant Peacock Moth

This is a Giant Peacock Moth, Saturnia pyri:

22389943_9bd2b4034a_o

It’s Europe’s largest moth, but not quite as large as the photo makes it look; that is a child’s foot. But still, it can have a 6″ wingspan, which is pretty good.

I chose that picture because I think there’s something weirdly charming about the microgenre of ‘awkward photographs of people with large insects perched on part of their body’. But here’s a better picture of the moth:

Okáň hruškový (Saturnia pyri)

This is a passage from Social Life In The Insect World by the great French entomologist and writer Jean Henri Fabre (‘butterfly’ is a translation of the French ‘papillon’ which means both butterfly and moth):

On the morning of the 6th of May a female emerged from her cocoon in my presence on my laboratory table. I cloistered her immediately, all damp with the moisture of metamorphosis, in a cover of wire gauze. I had no particular intentions regarding her; I imprisoned her from mere habit; the habit of an observer always on the alert for what may happen.

I was richly rewarded. About nine o’clock that evening, when the household was going to bed, there was a sudden hubbub in the room next to mine. Little Paul, half undressed, was rushing to and fro, running, jumping, stamping, and overturning the chairs as if possessed. I heard him call me. “Come quick!” he shrieked; “come and see these butterflies! Big as birds! The room’s full of them!”

Okáň hruškový (Saturnia pyri)

This astonishing sight recalled the prisoner of the morning to my mind. “Put on your togs, kiddy!” I told my son; “put down your cage, and come with me. We shall see something worth seeing.”

We had to go downstairs to reach my study, which occupies the right wing of the house. In the kitchen we met the servant; she too was bewildered by the state of affairs. She was pursuing the huge butterflies with her apron, having taken them at first for bats.

It seemed as though the Great Peacock had taken possession of my whole house, more or less. What would it be upstairs, where the prisoner was, the cause of this invasion? Happily one of the two study windows had been left ajar; the road was open.

Okáň hruškový (Saturnia pyri)

Candle in hand, we entered the room. What we saw is unforgettable. With a soft flic-flac the great night-moths were flying round the wire-gauze cover, alighting, taking flight, returning, mounting to the ceiling, re-descending. They rushed at the candle and extinguished it with a flap of the wing; they fluttered on our shoulders, clung to our clothing, grazed our faces. My study had become a cave of a necromancer, the darkness alive with creatures of the night! Little Paul, to reassure himself, held my hand much tighter than usual.

How many were there? About twenty. To these add those which had strayed into the kitchen, the nursery, and other rooms in the house, and the total must have been nearly forty. It was a memorable sight—the Night of the Great Peacock! Come from all points of the compass, warned I know not how, here were forty lovers eager to do homage to the maiden princess that morning born in the sacred precincts of my study.

I actually remembered this story being about the Giant Peacock Moth’s slightly smaller relative, the Emperor Moth, probably because the Emperor Moth is found in Britain and the GPM isn’t (I’ve personally never seen either of them). Which is if anything even more beautifully marked.

Social Life in the Insect World is available on Project Gutenberg, long with several other books by Fabre. They are genuinely worth checking out.*

* despite the occasionally clunky translation; can ‘Put on your togs, kiddy!’ really have been good idiomatic English even in 1911?

» ‘Saturnia Pyri tximeleta erraldoia’ is © Marije, Peru eta Lili and used under a CC by-sa licence. The other three (1, 2, 3) are © Photo Nature and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 16: Elephant Hawkmoth

Probably the single most glamorous moth in the UK, this is an elephant hawkmoth:

What a stunner.

It’s like a furry stick of rock.

And as well as one of the most amazing moths in the UK, it’s also about the most amazing caterpillar:

It’s a monster! Every year I hope to find one of these in the rosebay willowherb in the garden, but no luck so far.

» ‘Elephant Hawkmoth, Deilephila elpenor’ is © Drinker Moth and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. ‘Garden mothing 2011 #18, 25 May’ is © nutmeg66 and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. ‘elephant hawkmoth 6’ is © kantc2 and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 11: Uropyia meticulodina

I know I’ve already done a couple of mimicry posts, but I just never get tired of them (check out this beetle pretending to be a fly!). And this one, which I discovered while googling for pictures of something else, is just wonderful.

It is, obviously, a moth. And there are lots of moths that look like dead leaves. But the way it creates a convincingly three-dimensional illusion of a dead leaf curled round in on itself, just by the patterning of the wing, is stunning. It may not be the best camouflage in the natural world — it’s not quite up there with the frogfish, or the octopus — but I can’t think of a comparably amazing bit of trompe l’oeil.

One more for luck:

So fab.

» The first photo is © Wei-Chun (維君) Chang (張). The second is © Shipher (士緯) Wu (吳). Both are used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 8: Death’s-head Hawkmoth

This is the Death’s-head Hawkmoth, Acherontia atropos. So called because marking on the thorax looks a bit like a skull.

It features on the poster for Silence of the Lambs although, disappointingly, they edited the image to make the skull much more obvious.

The resemblance is (presumably) pure coincidence, but along with the large size, dark colours, and habit of squeaking audibly when disturbed, it it has given the moth a particular sinister aura, reflected in its Latin name. In Greek mythology there are three Fates: Clotho, who spins the thread of life, Lachesis, who measures the thread, and Atropos who ends the life of each mortal by cutting their thread at the ordained moment.

Which is a hell of a symbolic burden to place on the shoulders of an impressive but harmless moth. [do moths have shoulders?]

They are also known for raiding the hives of honeybees. Which seems suicidal. No-one seems quite sure why they don’t get stung to death; suggestions include the fact that they are covered in hair and scales; that they may have some resistance to bee venom; and, most intriguingly, that they smell like bees.

» The first photo is © Pierangelo Zavatarelli and used under a CC by-nc licence. The second, from Wikipedia, was taken by Siga who has released it into the public domain.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 3: Lunar Hornet Moth

I can’t believe I’m already falling behind. I’m afraid I just forgot yesterday, so I’ve set myself a daily reminder.

Anyway, a quick one, this is a species I’ve wanted to see for years (still waiting!), the Lunar Hornet Moth, Sesia bembeciformis:

And yes, it is a moth. Looking closely, it’s too furry for a wasp, and the antennae are also a bit of a giveaway, but it’s a staggering bit of mimicry even so.

Just amazing.

» Both photos are by Ian Kimber of ukmoths.org.uk, used under a CC-BY-SA license. I got them from Wikipedia.

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 1: The Herald

I decided to do this at the last minute and have done no planning at all — literally fifteen mintes ago I was still trying to decide whether to do insects or buildings or maybe birds again — but I thought it would be nice to start with a picture I took myself, so here’s The Herald, Scoliopteryx libatrix, as seen in my own garden.

I think it’s rather pretty, by little brown moth standards, with those orange and white details. And while it’s not the most extraordinary example of insect camouflage ever, at the back it genuinely looks like a dead leaf.

A palate cleanser

OK, enough with the all the Murdoch-ery. Time for something a bit more wholesome.

Summer isn’t a great time for birding; you can tell when summer is well and truly here because bird bloggers start posting pictures of moths. Moths are like birdwatcher methadone.

So it seemed like a good time of year to check out a dragonfly sanctuary. 23 species have been recorded there — half the British list — although to be honest, there are a fairly limited number I would have any chance of identifying. In the event I only saw a handful of species; some small blue damselflies, plus Banded Demoiselle, Emperor Dragonfly and Brown Hawker. But Banded Demoiselle and Brown Hawker are particularly gorgeous, so it’s always nice to see them. The Brown Hawker has a bronze-brown tint to its wings which looks amazing when it catches the light: like a warm halo around the insect.

And there were lots of butterflies around, too: Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Large Heath, Small Skipper. Nothing very remarkable, but nice to see. The best butterfly was Small Tortoiseshell, a species which used to be common as muck but which is depressingly scarce in the south of England these days.

And lots of flowers. I can’t identify most of them down to the species level, and didn’t try, but for example: loosestrife, willowherb, vetch, yarrow, mallow, bedstraw, deadnettle, teasels and thistles. What fabulous names they have.

The photo, incidentally, is of cinnabar moth caterpillars and soldier beetles on ragwort flowers. One of the beetles is Rhagonycha fulva; the other looks like it has darker wingcases, in which case it’s probably Cantharis rustica. But I’m relying on a pocket guide to the insects of Britain and Western Europe, so anything I say should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Bird of the Year 2010: best performances in a supporting role

2010 wasn’t a vintage wildlife year for me. I didn’t go anywhere exotic, or even spend much time outside the M25. My longest wildlife-watching trip was to the car park of B&Q in Folkestone.

Despite that, I did manage to rack up some pretty good bird sightings, but it was pretty slim pickings for the minor categories.

Best Plant

Clearly it’s ludicrous that I can’t think of any stand-out plants for the year. After all, they’re not difficult to see. But nothing springs to mind.

Best Fungus

I don’t think I’ve had this as a category before, but this was a good year for fungi, and I saw loads of them. However I made the important discovery that actually identifying them is almost completely fucking impossible. This one at least is easy; Shaggy Inkcap:

Best Insect

It was nice to see a few seven-spot ladybirds in the garden, because it meant that the Harlequin ladybirds haven’t completely eliminated them. There was the parasitic wasp Gasteruption jaculator, which was a neat little beastie. And apart from the  the usual mix of butterflies and dragonflies, there were a couple of stand-out species. One was a very battered convolvulus hawkmoth brought in by the cat: which means that I have now seen this species exactly twice, and in both cases it was because the cat brought them in.

But the species of the year, both because it’s a dramatic-looking thing and because it was so unexpected that it turned up in the garden: Silver-washed Fritillary (in the name of full disclosure: that picture was taken by me, but not this year and not in the garden). One of Britain’s largest butterflies. And not exceptionally rare, but still a complete surprise, especially as it’s mainly a woodland species.

Best Invertebrate (other), Best Fish, Best Reptile

Best Fish and Best Reptile are often quite difficult categories, of course. But it’s a bit embarrassing that I can’t think of anything for Best Invertebrate (other), which is such a big group of organisms. Obviously I have seen various spiders and slugs and things in 2010, but none I can think of that seem worth a namecheck.

Best Amphibian

This was the year of toads in the garden (i.e. Common Toad, Bufo bufo). There have been the occasional toad before, but this year they were all over the place — commoner than frogs. Which was nice.

Best Mammal

Discounting your basic urban vermin (foxes, rats, mice, squirrels) and the remnant of hedgehog I found in the local woods, I think I saw five species of wild mammals this year.

In January when it was VERY COLD, there was a particularly active and fearless stoat at Rainham Marshes which was scurrying around near and on the pedestrian walkways. Stoats are always a pleasure to watch, bouncy manic furry wiggly critters that they are. And I saw some deer: muntjac, fallow deer, red deer and Sika — but only the muntjac counts as ‘wild’, I think, as the others were in deer parks.

And I went on a bat walk in the local park, where we saw three species of bat: Daubenton’s bat, Common Pipistrelle, and my mammal of the year for 2010 which is… Soprano Pipistrelle.

The best thing about the Soprano Pipistrelle is the brilliant name. Common and Soprano Pipistrelles were only split into separate species in 1999; there are apparently various differences of food and habitat, but they were initially split because the Soprano Pipistrelle has a higher-pitched call: 55kHz to the Common’s 45kHz.

Best Ecosystem

Because most of my birding has been in London this year, all my best sightings have been in artificial habitats: a wetland on the site of an old water-treatment plant, a marsh which was formerly an army firing range, a canal and reservoirs originally built to supply water and transport for industrial north London, Victorian suburban parks and ancient royal deer parks, all of them now managed as public amenities and for the benefit of wildlife by various conservation charities, by local councils, and by central government agencies.

Now I know that ‘nature reserve’ is not actually a distinct ecosystem. But fuck knows, if you live in a densely populated, post-industrial, intensively farmed place like southern England, and you have any interest in nature, you owe an intense debt of gratitude to the people who create and manage little pockets of land for the benefit of wildlife instead of turning them into golf courses and housing estates.

Specifically, thank you to: the RSPB, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, Southwark Council, the Royal Parks, London Wildlife Trust and anyone else who puts in the hard work to make sure these animals have somewhere to live.

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:

LATE BREAKING NEWS!!

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.

Links

Glow-worms

I have returned. Not that I went very far: my sister lured me to Hampshire with the promise of glow-worms. Wikipedia tells me that the glow worm we have in the UK is a species of firefly, but they don’t fly, or flash; the females are wingless, and sit in the grass glowing to attract the flying males. 

I suppose if you live somewhere where the fireflies are a bit more spectacular, the glow worm might seem a bit underwhelming, but they are what we have and I’ve never seen them before, so I was very pleased. This is Andrew Marvell, and one of my favourite poems:

The Mower to the Glow-worms

Ye living lamps, by whose dear light
The nightingale does sit so late,
And studying all the summer night,
Her matchless songs does meditate;

Ye county comets, that portend
No war nor prince’s funeral,
Shining unto no higher end
Than to presage the grass’s fall;

Ye glow-worms, whose officious flame
To wand’ring mowers shows the way,
That in the night have lost their aim,
And after foolish fires do stray;

Your courteous lights in vain you waste,
Since Juliana here is come,
For she my mind hath so displac’d
That I shall never find my home.

We also went for a couple of nice walks; lots of butterflies, lots of flowers, woodlark, stonechat, a pair of peregrines. And at Mottisfont Abbey, this moth, a Scarlet Tiger. So it was a very satisfactory trip all round.

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.

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.

Adela reaumurella

How did we ever get along without the internet to help us scratch those little itches of curiosity? Admittedly, most of them seem to be along the lines of “What have I seen that bloke in before? Oh, I see, he was in [embarrassingly awful sitcom I couldn’t possibly admit to watching]”, but still.

Anyway, in the woods the other day I saw a curious-looking insect, and I just got round to looking it up. Starting by googling ‘day-flying moths uk’ and going from there I came up with Adela reaumurella:

(photo from the fabulous UKMoths website and © Charles Baker)

Like a lot of insects, no-one has bothered to give it an English name, but apparently there are a couple of families of moths with these characteristic antennae, and they’re generally referred to as ‘longhorn moths’. You can see the peculiar antennae above, but the picture doesn’t give the full effect, because when I saw them they were flying all around each other in a little swarm in the sun above a hornbeam, holding their antennae up in a V shape for maximum visibility.

I’m guessing the lady moths like a male with a long horn; that it was, in fact, a moth lek. A lek is where lots of males congregate to compete for female attention, either directly (i.e. by fighting for the best spot), or indirectly (displaying their plumage) or some combination. Insert your own Essex nightclub joke here.

It’s not quite as exciting as having lekking Black Grouse, Ruff, or even hermits (check out the video!), but I was pleased.

One example of lekking behaviour is actually very familiar, although people don’t generally realise what’s happening. On a summer evening, you’ll frequently encounter a swarm of midges flying round and round above a prominent object like a bush. If you walk past them, they often follow you and swarm above your head instead. They are in fact lekking. The males find a convenient landmark and form a swarm, waiting for the females to find them. I assume that in some situations it’s just more efficient to attract the females to one place and then compete directly with other males than it is to expend the energy finding the females individually. I have no idea how the female midges decide which males are the attractive ones.

Close Menu