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Nature

Bird of the Year 2014: best performances in a supporting role

Happy New Year, everybody.

Keen followers of the Bird of the Year Awards will notice a change in the categories this year. Butterflies and moths receive a disproportionate amount of my insecty attention, so I think it makes sense to split them out into their own category. Realistically, I could just split all invertebrates into ‘butterflies and moths’ and ‘other’, but I think it’s good to sit back at the end of the year and try to think of an interesting spider or slug or sea urchin or something.

Best Plant

I went on a lovely holiday in Portugal in the spring, and I mainly chose the timing for the flowers. Everyone goes to the Mediterranean at the wrong time of year. It may not be as hot at the end of April as it is in August, but the whole countryside is full of flowers and birdsong.

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So I was walking along the Atlantic coast of Portugal, and the cliffs were covered in drifts of rockroses — pale yellow, strong yellow, white, pink — but there was also French lavender, thrift, big Spanish broom, little compact mounds of broom with pale yellow flowers, maybe eight or nine different orchids, wild gladioli, amazing vivid blue pimpernels. And sometimes I’d put my backpack down and get a great waft of wild thyme.

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But I have to pick one. Among the various orchids, I was pleased to find these plants of a tongue orchid which is normally burgundy red:

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But perhaps perversely, I’m not going to pick a flower; my plant of the year is the cork oak:

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The numbers on the bark are to keep track of when each tree’s bark was last harvested. The combination of the dark naked trunks and greyish bark sleeves is rather charming, I think.

Best Butterfly or Moth

I made an effort to tick off a few more British butterfly species this year, and had four life firsts. But they were very much butterflies for the connoisseur; by which I mean they look… unspectacular. The names give you some idea: Essex Skipper, Small Blue, Grizzled Skipper, Dingy Skipper. The Small Blue is indeed remarkably small, but it’s not very blue; the Essex Skipper is distinguished from the Small Skipper by the colour of the undersides of the antennae; and the other two skippers are grizzled and dingy.

I also saw  green hairstreak for the first time in Britain, which is a genuinely pretty butterfly, with iridescent green underwings; but I have seen them before in France. And a few attractive moths, like Clouded Buff, and this Buff Ermine, seen here on the classic habitat of a railway station toilet door:

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But the winner is again from Portugal, a kind of butterfly I have wanted to see for years because it’s an exotic-looking European species not found in the UK: a Festoon. To be exact, this is a Spanish Festoon:

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It’s rather a worn specimen, and it’s a terrible picture taken with my phone through my binoculars, but it’s my butterfly of the year.

Best Insect (other)

The most exciting non-lepidopteran insects I saw this year in the UK were ruby-tailed wasp (so shiny!) and velvet ant (actually a furry wingless wasp, dontcha know). Although the most photogenic might be this dor beetle:

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But I also saw some good beetles in Portugal, like this spotty hairy chafer which I think is probably Oxythyrea funesta (but usually when I think I’ve identified an insect and I consult an entomologist, they tell me I would need to check its genitalia under a microscope to be sure):

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And there was this grotesque mammoth which, I learned later, is an oil beetle:

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But I’m going for this spiky beetle as my best insect (other) for 2014. According to the coleopterist I consulted on Twitter, it’s probably Sepidium bidentatum:

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Best Invertebrate (other)

So I was walking along in Portugal and thought oh, what’s that pink flower the bumblebee is feeding on…

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As it turns out, the bumblebee was not the one doing the feeding. That is a pink crab spider, possibly Thomisus onustus.

But my invertebrate of the year is the wasp spider Argiope bruennichi. These have been spreading rapidly across the south of England in the last ten years, helped by a combination of global warming and, I learn from Google, new-found genetic diversity after global warming allowed previously isolated populations to interbreed. It may be a sign of the coming apocalypse, but it’s a handsome beastie which I’ve been trying to see for a couple of years:

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Best Reptile

I saw a grass snake trying to eat a frog in the woods at Bookham Common. I did take a couple of pictures of snake belly in thick grass, but they’re not worth sharing.

Best Fish

No, I’ve got nothing.

Best Amphibian

I’ve seen the usual common frogs and toads — lots of tadpoles in the pond this year — but nothing notable.

Best Mammal

An Egyptian Mongoose in Portugal. I just googled this to check, and apparently it was always assumed that these were an introduced species in Iberia — because of a lack of fossil evidence and the distance from the nearest wild African populations — but there are fossils in North Africa, and recent genetic testing suggests the Iberian mongooses are the descendants of some of those North African animals that presumably crossed over at Gibraltar in the Pleistocene, when there was no sea there.

Either way, it was a neat surprise; I didn’t know they were there.

Best Ecosystem

Obviously the Portuguese cliff-tops were great, the pine scrub was a delight, but my choice is the steppes of Alentejo, where I went with a hired bird guide for a great days birdwatching. I imagine in summer they are baked dry, but when I was there it was gently rolling green fields with flowers forming great hazy patches of colour. I only took a couple of pictures and they don’t do it justice, but here’s one I took through a telescope, admittedly with the saturation punched up a bit, that gives you some idea.

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There are actually some birds in that picture, which is why I took it; but they can wait for the main Bird of the Year 2014 post.

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Nature

Bird of the Year 2013: best performances in a supporting role

Even later than usual, but I thought I should at least get the first post out in time for the Oscars.

Best Plant

I spent quite a lot of time last year looking at flowers and butterflies. The names alone are a joy: sainfoin, silverweed, sanicle, harebell, yellow rattle, round-headed rampion, devil’s bit scabious, horseshoe vetch.

I saw at least eight orchid species: fragrant, common-spotted, pyramidal, and man orchid; twayblade, white helleborine, green-flowered helleborine (though not fully open, sadly), and tiny but charming, Autumn Lady’s Tresses:

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There were actually hundreds of them at Rye Harbour, and I tried to get a picture with a cluster, but my iPhone’s autofocus just couldn’t cope.

It was nice to see sundew for the first time in a while; there’s something deeply fascinating about carnivorous plants:

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And perhaps the instinct to choose something a bit rare or unusual is a bad one; for sheer pleasure, it’s hard to beat the green glow of the sun shining through young beech leaves, or a sweep of bright gold coconut-smelling gorse flowers.

But my stand-out plant of the year is a curious flower called Grass Vetchling, one I’d never heard of before I saw it. What’s fascinating about it is that it really does look incredibly like a piece of grass… except with a gorgeous little magenta flower on it.

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That photo is © –Tico– and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. You can get a clearer idea of just how much the plant looks like grass from the photo is this blog post (click for a larger version). It almost looks like an example of bio-mimicry, but it’s hard to imagine the evolutionary advantage of looking like grass.

Best Insect

Last summer I made a particular effort to look for butterflies, sometimes with my father, who is keen on them; specifically, I made it a bit of a project for us to see a Purple Emperor,  the UK’s most glamorous butterfly. And after a slightly miserable wet spring, the summer was properly hot and it turned out to be a particularly good year for butterflies. There were some amazing numbers of Purple Emperor being seen in a wood in Northamptonshire, so we made the pilgrimage up there, and sure enough we saw dozens in flight and several sitting on the ground flashing their purple at us.

I also got several other firsts this year: amazing iridescent Adonis Blues, in their hundredson Malling Down although, it being a cool day, all sitting on the ground; the much less spectacular Silver-studded Blue in huge numbers on Chobham Common, Brown Argus, Silver-spotted Skipper and Dark Green Fritillary, plus Grayling and Wall, which I’m sure I’ve seen before but possible not in the UK. It was also a good year for Clouded Yellow, and I saw quite a few of those fluttering around the north Kent saltmarshes. In total, I saw 35 species of butterfly in the UK last year, which is surely a personal record.

Also a few non-butterfly insects of note: the amazing iridescent green Rose Chafer beetle and its less exciting relative the Garden Chafer; a couple of longhorn beetles, Rutpela maculata and Agapanthia villosoviridescens, and a longhorn moth, Adela croesella. The striking Golden-ringed Dragonfly, and the Ruddy Darter, which I’ve no doubt seen before but now know how to distinguish from its commoner relatives. And best of all, the fabulous Beautiful Demoiselle.

It involved a long trip to a slightly dingy bit of woodland after several failed attempts elsewhere, and was therefore just a tiny bit more stressful than butterfly-hunting should be, but I think I have to award Insect Of The Year to Purple Emperor. Because it really was the fulfilment of a lifetime ambition. For me and my father.

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The photo is © Paul Ritchie and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Best Invertebrate (other)

I actually had a non-insect invertebrate as a target species last summer: the Wasp Spider. But despite several attempts, I couldn’t find one.

So the winner is the edible snail, Helix pomatia. And yes, it is the big fat one commonly eaten with garlic sauce. Known as Roman Snail, because it was introduced to the UK by the Romans — presumably as a foodstuff — and there are still a few in the south of England.

Best Reptile

I saw an adder briefly as it disappeared into a bush. So that was good.

Best Fish

Can’t think of anything for this category.

Best Amphibian

There was masses of toadspawn in the pond this year, and the toadlets were very cute, so I guess toad is the winner by default.

Best Mammal

Otters have made a comeback over the past few decades, but you never actually see them. But I was in the Lee Valley during the January cold spell, and I saw something walking over the ice, and for a moment I thought perhaps the extreme weather had forced one out into the open during the day… and of course it was an [introduced, American] mink. Still, it was an exciting moment and an attractive animal in its own right.

Best Ecosystem

Biodiversity is a marvellous concept burdened with a terrible bureaucratic name. It’s not difficult to explain intellectually, but people don’t have an instinctive emotional connection to it.

And it’s not always very obvious, even when you’re in the middle of it. Even in the most famously biodiverse habitat, tropical rainforest: a casual visitor walking through it will often be a bit disappointed, because what you mainly see is lots and lots of very similar-looking trees. The birds and butterflies and snakes and monkeys and frogs and beetles are all out there, but you often have to work a bit to find them.

But anyone can see the difference between a wildflower meadow and pasture which has been ‘improved’ by agriculture. The improved version is attractive enough: a thick pillow of lush green grass, unbroken by anything except perhaps the occasional hardy thistle. That deep vibrant green in spring is a joy to see after the grey of winter, and it seems so full of life; it has become our idea of what the English countryside should look like. But it’s all just grass. It has the ‘bio’ part — it’s producing a lot of biomass — but it’s completely lacking in diversity.

Whereas the unimproved meadow is immediately, obviously completely different. It will be covered in flowers, pink ones, white ones, yellow, blue; some hugging close to the ground, others holding their blooms up above the grass, flowers in spikes and disks and whorls. And crawling and buzzing and fluttering, there will be caterpillars, hoverflies, beetles, wasps, and most obviously, butterflies. And you don’t need to be able to identify any of them: you can see the variety. Anyone can see the stark contrast between the lush but boring improved pasture and the messy, rich, complicated wildflower meadow.

And if you do learn to identify the flowers and insects, the diversity becomes even more apparent, because the mix will vary from meadow to meadow, depending on the soil, the exposure, the amount of grazing and the time of year.

A green sweep of ‘improved’ pasture can make for a beautiful landscape, but the wildflower meadow invites you to stop and pay attention to your immediate surroundings, to take pleasure in the details. The harder you look, the more there is to see.

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Nature

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 24: Pyrops candelaria

I don’t make much attempt to theme these advent calendars around Christmas, but for the last entry I have, in the past, tried to get seasonal: the bird was a robin, the painting was a nativity.

But Christmas isn’t the insectiest time of the year up here in northern Europe, and I don’t have a ready cultural association to hand. So I picked Pyrops candelaria, a planthopper from southeast Asia, because it (sort of, if you squint a bit) looks like a Christmas tree:

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Happy Christmas everyone!

» ‘Mr Elephant’ is © Charles Lam and used under a CC by-sa licence.

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Nature

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Nature

Harry’s advent calendar of insects, day 22: Libelloides coccajus

I’ve left this rather late today, with family christmas stuff to do and the Strictly Come Dancing final to watch, so here’s a quick one. This is Libelloides coccajus, and it’s the most startling insect I’ve seen in recent years.

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Startling because when I saw it in Provence I just had no idea what it was. I mean, it looked as much like a moth or a dragonfly as anything… but not really. I only considered those because I was completely stumped.

And it’s not that difficult to stump me — I’m no expert — but to see something as large and spectacular as this in Europe, and be unable to narrow it down beyond ‘insect’; it was exciting and frustrating.

I now know it’s an ascalaphid or owlfly. They are related to antlions, lacewings, and mantidflies — which makes as much sense as anything.

» ‘Ascalaphe soufré (Libelloides coccajus)’ is © Le No and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

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Nature

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

This is a Giant Peacock Moth, Saturnia pyri:

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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!”

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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.

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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.