Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Pretty Fly for a White Guy

Yesterday it was warm. Today it was pretty flippin' hot. Tomorrow it's meant to be a complete scorcher, maybe up to nearly twenty degrees. This is Skye, we just aren't used to such tropical weather! The obvious (and rather immediate) result of the soaring temperature is the sudden appearance of flies. A couple of weeks ago I was catching hoverflies by lowering a glass tube over their lethargic bodies as they sat shivering in flowerheads. But now they are like tiny bullets whizzing around at near supersonic speeds - time for the butterfly net to be unfurled for just the second time this year. If it carries on like this I may go batshit crazy and try out my new beating tray for the very first time since buying it some seven weeks ago...

Anyway, hoverflies are now decidedly abundant. Here's a small selection for you. I have shedloads more in pots/on pins

Eristalis arbustorum
Rhingia campestris - "does my nose look big in this?"
Portevenia maculata NOT on a Ramsons leaf, by way of a change! 

Cheilosia illustrata 

Alongside the hoverflies, Green-veined Whites and moths have started to become obvious in Uig Wood. It took a bit of an effort, but finally I succeeded in taking a half decent pic of both male and female Green-veined Whites. 

Common Carpet - I almost trod on this!
Gracillaria syringella - currently swarming beneath Ash trees. I saw 100 or so beside 50 metres of path
Whilst in the woods I was on the look out for a certain rotten log. One of the guys at work had earlier described to me a "giant mushroom", by the description I figured it had to be Dryad's Saddle. A short while later and...

Dryad's Saddle - would be nice on toast, I guess
As an oddity I spied this thing growing amongst a carpet of the more usual variety

White Bluebells!

Fun Factoid: there's a local character (which is a polite way of saying 'unsupervised lunatic') who pretty much keeps himself to himself. Well, himself and his Border Collie named Mollie. (Mollie the Collie, holy crap - the penny has literally just dropped haha!) Anyway, I often see him but we've never spoken. Tonight that changed....

I could see him walking towards me. It's not a wide footpath, absolutely no avoiding Mollie and her owner. As I drew ever closer, it dawned on me that he looked drunk. Waving his stick around with gusto and slewing across the width of the path. Anyway, upshot was that he broke his silence to ask me a question.

I quote: "Excuse me, is it a state of mind or is that how you walk?"

I stopped and silently stared at him, wondering what he meant.

"I mean, you're always walking with a definite purpose. Is that how you always walk or is something always on your mind?"

I muttered something about not being the kind of guy to dawdle, he seemed happy with that, we parted company. Mollie was her usual quiet self throughout. I feel as though I've been under quiet observation this past 18 months. Not an entirely nice feeling.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

An Ich that Can be Scratched

Alongside the expected moths, my light trap often attracts a whole host of non-lepidopterous insects. These mostly consist of very small flies (which I studiously ignore) but one of the more obvious 'extras' are the Ophion wasps, a family of nocturnal parasitic ichneumonids. They're scary feckers, ain't no denying it and yes, I'm just a tad wary of being stung by one. 

Ophion wasp - generic scary bastard thing trying to escape by smashing out a window pane
However, I've finally come to the conclusion that they are not quite as inherently demonic as I've always suspected and indeed present a challenging new direction with which to test my identification skills. Or lack of. I've been in touch with a guy named Gavin Broad, he's essentially the god of all things ichneumon-related and has written various papers, keys and holds occasional workshops on their identification. He even works with them in a professional capacity. I guess somebody has to.

Anyway, Gavin has provided me with a whole suite of identification keys and this afternoon I used them on a suspected Ophion species. What follows is my attempt to walk you through the keys using images that I took down the barrel of my microscope and then added a few 'arty' arrows n' stuff. 

This is going to look awful, I just know it. 

Working my way through the keys wasn't easy. The terminology is truly bizarre. I constantly had to refer to the glossary and illustrations in order to figure out what part of the wasp I was supposed to be looking at. It took me quite a while to get my head around some of the cross-veins, but I think I managed it in the end. As an example, here's the very beginning of the key that leads to family

1a) Fore wing vein 2m-cu present, vein RS+M absent - (Ichneumonidae) 2
1b) Fore wing vein 2m-cu absent, vein RS+M usually present (absent in one genus considered here) - (Braconidae) 16 

2a) Fore wing with one rs-m cross-vein, and this distal to 2m-cu, thus discosubmarginal cell produced beyond 2m-cu; first metasomal tergite lacking glymma, spiracle far behind middle  (Ophioninae) 3
2b) Fore wing with one or two rs-m cross-veins, if one then this proximal to 2m-cu, thus discosubmarginal cell not extending beyond 2m-cu; first metasomal tergite often with glymma, spiracle at or before middle 6

and so on until it finally keyed out at Ophion...

First part of the Ophion key regards the presence (or absence) of an occipital carina and whether it is complete or broken. A what? Yeah, that's exactly what I said too. Here's a pic

I've added the red dots to highlight the position of the occipital carina
Occipital carina present and entire - check! 

Next we need to see the colour of the stemmaticum. Whatever the heck one of those is! Turns out it's the name for the area between the three ocelli on top of the wasp's head

The keys asks if the stemmaticum is testaceous or black. Looks pretty darn testaceous to me
Next we need to check the shape of the scutellum. I already know what a scutellum is, except it's in a different place than I expected it to be and doesn't look anything like any scutellum I've ever seen before. The key requires that we check to see if it's essentially square-shaped or if it narrows at all

I really struggled with this - I think I've marked it correctly
Figuring out quite where the scutellum started and finished was difficult, and I'm still not convinced I have it right. But, if I've interpreted it correctly, it seems to be broader at one end and narrower at the other and not very "squared" at all. Hence I plumped for "it narrows".

Next part of the key was a whole lot easier. Any black on the frons (fancy name for the face)? A simple yes or no, how lovely!

That'll be a resounding "no"
There's an Ophion that could key out here called Ophion minutus. As the name would suggest, it's very small. The wing length will clarify if we have O.minutus or whether we need to carry on keying through. So - wing length max 11mm or substantially larger?

Wing length quite conclusively more than 11mm, so it's not Ophion minutus!
Just to be doubly safe the key says we need to check whether fore wing vein 2r&RS distinctly thickened near junction with pterostigma

Nope, no distinct thickening at the junction with the pterostigma (the coloured cell at edge of wing)
The next couplet in the key really helps us narrow down the options, it also explains why I chose this particular specimen to run through the keys - because I already know what it is*

*though see closing remarks at end of this post.

With conspicuous pale yellow markings on the ocellar area of the head, forming stripes on the mesoscutum, and at the apex of the pterostigma, at least, usually on the mesopleurum too

Pale yellow markings very evident across the mesoscutum (the pale 'braces' on its back)
With pale yellow markings on the mesopleurum too (shoulder area in front of the wing bases)
Our next requirement is to count the antennal flagellomeres. The what then? Basically, we need to count the segments in the antenna. The first segment, the basal one next to the head, is called the scape. The second segment is called the pedicel. After that, all the other segments are the flagellomeres. These wasps tend to have quite long antennae, took a bit of counting to be sure I had the correct total

Clearly there are 66 flagellomeres on one antenna. Rather fewer in the broken one...
The couplet is in three parts, all features need to be used in conjunction with one another to come to a sensible conclusion. So yeah, the first part relates to the number of antennal flagellomeres

6a) Antenna with > 51 flagellomeres
6b) Antenna with < 50 flagellomeres

This has 66, no question about that, so that's definitely ">51 flagellomeres"

6a cont) distance between posterior ocellus and occipital carina much less than 2.0 x maximum width of first flagellomere
6b cont) distance between posterior ocellus and occipital carina c. 2.0 or more x maximum width of first flagellomere

Ok, so what does that mean?  It's not actually as tricky as it at first sounds.

Distance from rear ocellus to carina is definitely less than twice the width of the first antennal flagellomere
We're very almost there, at last! Final part of the couplet leads us directly to a species.

So, still being used in conjunction with the earlier parts of the couplet, hence saying that there are more than 51 antennal flagellomeres (and not less than 50) and that the distance between the posterior ocellus to carina is less than twice the width of the first antennal flagellomere (and not at least twice the width)....

Third metasomal segment, in lateral view, up to 3.0 x as broad apically as at base
third metasomal segment, in lateral view, not more than twice as broad apically as at base

I'd say it is definitely a good 3x broader apically than it is at the basal end
All of which finally leads us to OPHION OBSCURATUS, huzzah!

Of course, the easy way to do it is to say, "oh look, a fair sized Ophion with pale braces. That's obscuratus, nothing else like it". Aah - but is that actually true? Well, it seems not. Ophions across Europe are always single brooded, which is to say that the adults emerge once a year, fly for a short period of time (maybe two or three months) and then disappear until the following year. Ophion obscuratus bucks that trend and has several emergences throughout much of the year. Why should this be? Well, according to research being undertaken by some Swedish scientists, it transpires that 'Ophion obscuratus' appears to be several cryptic species in one. It'll be split out very soon, and presumably we in Britain have at least two or three of the 'new' species present. Oh dear, what a muddle. I'm not sure if they will prove to be 'do-able' on morphological features or if you'd need a DNA kit to tell one from the other. Presumably the time of year each species emerges will be the way to seperate one from the other. It's a case of wait and see. So my carefully keyed obscuratus may, in fact, turn out to be something else entirely...

Music. I used to love this song with a passion, seems a bit lame nowadays but I regularly sang this in my room - much to everyone else's annoyance :) Seemed suitable, seeing as we're all about wasps tonight. Enjoy!

I used to love this one too. Man, I was SO soft metal back then :( 

Monday, 14 May 2018

Sir, How Do You Hang...

Not a question I'm often asked (in fact, just once that I can recall) but it can make all the difference if you're trying to identify a small, rather nondescript moth. Here's a pic of the moth in question, seen here resting on my microscope cover after I botched trying to pot it from the ceiling

Obviously it's one of the pugs, but which one? Well, it has a particularly large discal spot and a rather lengthy abdomen, but other than that...meh, not a whole lot to go on really. I made the decision to pin it and properly identify it rather than boot it back out of the window.

One week later...

Tonight I suddenly recalled the pinned moth hiding beneath the setting strips. Wing markings really were too poorly developed for me to make much sense of them. Happily, it being a male, I decided to grab my copy of British & Irish Pug Moths and compare my moth's naughty bits to the illustrations within. Males have a heavily sclerotized plate on the underside of the eighth abdominal tergite. The shape and form of this plate differs consistently between the species, so should enable a robust ID. 

First to brush away the covering of scales from the tip of the abdomen - oops, make that from the tip of the detached abdomen. Anyway, a few minutes later and I had the exposed abdominal plate in full view, and what a view it was too!

Either my eyes have worsened or the whole thing is quite heavily skewed off to the left. Is that normal, I thought these things were meant to be symmetrical? Well, flicking through the illustrations I discovered a perfect match, happy days!

Turns out that my moth is a male Golden-rod Pug Eupithecia virgaureata, the first one I've (knowingly) seen and my 1070th species of moth in Britain, nice! And conclusive too, I suspect county moth recorders must absolutely dread receiving pug records without photographic back-up.  

The CMR commented that this was his commonest pug last year. My reply was that it was probably my commonest ignored pug last year.

It's turned quite warm up here (at last!) beginning on Saturday. I was one of about 43 folks who descended upon Uig Beach for a beach clean up event, no veggie pies which was a bit disappointing but I made up for it by quaffing extra free beers. I haven't managed to get out again since, though a quick walk to the shop and back called for a very brief detour into the woods where I found...insects! Seriously, there have been hardly any flies so far this spring so it was a pleasure to see various hovers and blowflies buzzing around the flowers and bathing on leaves/trunks. Not that I thought to bring a net with me, so no jump in the species tally yet. Did manage a few though

Notiophilus biguttatus - a springtail predator
Oiceoptoma thoracicum attending a Song Thrush nestling, presumably ragged by a Hoodie
Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale Hawthorn Shieldbug - though they prefer Rowan up here
Arse end of Dysaphis crataegi - an aphid that galls Hawthorn leaves
Like this...
Elasmucha grisea - only the third species of shieldbug I've encountered up here so far
Anthophila fabriciana Nettle-tap larva
Looking forward to getting out there for a whole day, now that it's warming up. I have a couple of things to do tomorrow morning but might see if I can take the rest of the day off. My other day off this week is on Thursday, but I'm leading a Skye Nature Group outing to Brothers Point for rock-pooling shenanigans, so will be well away from the square. The light trap is going on tonight (I had it running two nights ago but forgot to put the eggboxes back in, a small haul of six Noctuids for my efforts being the total - serves me right).

I've had these guys playing in the back of my mind whilst writing this post, hope you enjoy them too

As an aside, I think Golden-rod Pug should be renamed Goldenrod Pug. The larval foodplant is Ragwort (Senecio) and Goldenrod (Solidago). That's Goldenrod, not Golden-rod. I've checked that I have this right. Stace, the botanist's bible, says Goldenrod. Poland says Goldenrod. Rose says Goldenrod. Collins says Goldenrod. In fact, they all say Goldenrod! Interestingly, UKMoths and other moth-orientated websites say Golden-rod - which just goes to show that many moth folks need to spend a bit less time at light bulbs and a bit more time understanding the natural history of their chosen subject. 

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Why I hate social media

Usually the 'plea' ends with some crap such as "will irecord if confirmed", as though that makes it all fine and dandy. Just say, "I don't have a clue what this is, any takers please?" and add relevant details. Honestly, it's not that difficult. And by the time you've done all that, there's a slim chance that you could have come up with an ID already. Jeez, I'm SO fed up of folks not even attempting to pretend that they've made an effort. Makes me spew. Though, to be fair, this fella did actually follow through and come up with the correct ID.

And stepping off my soapbox Apologies for the rant, I'm just taking it out on a randomer coz I've had a stressy day. 

Perfect resolution to stress...and a whole album's worth at that. I may indulge myself.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Where's Wally?

You may recall that a Walrus was found doing a wee tour of Orkney and the adjacent mainland some months back. It then disappeared for quite a while, everybody presumed it had re-orientated and successfully returned northwards never to be seen again (well, I did anyway). So it was a very unexpected surprise to discover that it was seen on Harris just over a week ago, its first appearance for several weeks. You can read about the Harris sighting here. Being the BBC they just had to name it Wally the Walrus, complete twats. 

Later that same day, whilst trying to find the backstory, I discovered that a guy from British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) had been watching the Walrus right here on Skye but had decided to suppress the news for fear of disturbing it. You can probably imagine the frustration I felt after learning it had been here for three weeks!!! Gutted, to put it mildly. It may have visited Applecross on the mainland too. In a nutshell, it was somewhere at the top end of Skye for three whole weeks and hence within ten miles of me the whole damn time. Bollocks! 

Having been quite the keen bird twitcher back in the day (London to Shetland and back being my furthest twitch. And, coincidentally, my furthest dip...) I'm well aware of the perennial argument that rages back and forth regards releasing news of a rare find versus suppressing it. Obviously in certain parts of Cornwall it will always be suppressed regardless of the situation (naming no names, but it rhymes with The Wizard...) Welfare of the animal should always be first and foremost in the finder's mind, followed by issues regarding permissions, general access, disturbance to habitat/livestock, the privacy of the locals etc etc. It can be a tricky matter sometimes. In this instance the finder happens to be particularly well versed in marine animal welfare and could see that the Walrus was underweight - hence undue disturbance could very well be detrimental to its health. So he sat on it (the news, I mean, not the Walrus) until it departed. Admirable and totally commendable. And obviously we all hate him with a passion.

It now seems to have departed Harris, it was seen and video'd swimming up a channel. Who knows where it'll turn up next, if it's ever seen again. You may have to sign in to Facebook for this link to work, I'm not sure. Anyway, here's a clip of it swimming in the shallows, proper gripping stuff! 

So where am I going with all this, I hear you ask?

Yesterday I was chatting with one of the breakfast waiting staff, let's call her Lynne (it's her name anyway, so why the hell not?) and she mentioned that a lady had told her the Walrus was "back in the bay". Knowing that I'm "quite into wildlife" (well yeah, dafink?) she thought she'd mention it to me. After two or three minutes of really rather harsh interrogation casual questioning, I deduced that this really was all she knew, other than it was supposedly somewhere near Earlish. Holy crap, that's just two miles away from where I live! I quickly put out a message on a Skye-related FB group, stating that it was only "a hint of a rumour" and, within not much more than an hour or so, there were eight of us heading out the following morning in search of Wally. I went to bed ever so slightly hyped. 

Today was that day...

'Us' comprised Tom the Skipper and Dunc 'Mad Hair' Tornado in the tripper boats, Andy 'Aurora' Stables and his lady 'Skye Hen' hit the Earlish Bay area, Nick 'Moss Man Chronicles' Hodgetts had already hit Earlish early doors (it was wet apparently), whilst his son Tom 'Quirky Clay' Hodgetts hit Uig as did Chris 'International Man of Mystery' Reynolds. I tackled the stretch between Cuidrach and South Cuidrach. Between us we covered a good few miles of coastline.

The area behind the right-hand headland leads to Earlish and was checked by others

I could see Greylag Geese on these, so would definitely have seen the Walrus if it was there

Perfect undisturbed haul out beaches. If I was a Walrus, this is where I'd chill. 2000 miles from home...
However, no sign of the Walrus by myself or any other members of the search party. It doesn't mean it's not still out there though. It also doesn't mean that my 'source' was entirely accurate - there are plenty of seals out there after all. But what did impress me was the mutual coming together of various Skye naturalists keen to be a part of the search team. Pretty much in a spontaneous act too, I just Facebooked "PM me your number and we'll keep in touch" and that was it! 

Had we found the Walrus, we would have then have faced the exact same moral conflicts that the marine rescue fella did. To release the news or sit on it? Maybe release the news to a select few - or is that being rather elitist and cliquey? Definitely so (and it's exactly what they do in that certain part of Cornwall I mentioned earlier - I wouldn't want Skye to gain that type of a reputation!) So, release the news to the national information services? Skye is far more appealing to mainland-based twitchers than is Orkney or Harris, that's for sure. Well maybe, but are the local tracks designed for hordes of twitchers? No, they aren't. But then again, Skye is inundated with tourists anyway and the roads are shot as it is so, a few more surely wouldn't hurt...

My own feelings are that there are plenty of Skye-based naturalists who would jump at the chance to see a Walrus on their home turf (shore, w'eva). If I found Wally, I'd definitely want to share him with others. Of course, I'd prefer those 'others' to be local folks as opposed to rabid twitcher types, but Skye is a remote part of Britain and in all truth I doubt there would be that many make the trek up here for the chance to tick and run Walrus for their list. Chances are they'd be bird twitchers anyway (birders are absolutely the worst type, I speak from personal experience through being one!) but chances are they'd also find a shedload of decent birds whilst up here. Skye simply doesn't have enough resident naturalists to do more than scratch the surface of what's on offer. 

Talking of incidental bird sightings, I stumbled into several small groups of Whimbrel, a party of four Ringed Plovers, a fly-over Lapwing and my first ever Skye Dunlin (a flyover bird that I heard but didn't even see) whilst out Wally Hunting. 

A few of the 25 Whimbrel (and an Oyk) feeding in the meadows
Four Ringed Plovers in the grassy meadow - it's not quite the machair but it's not too bad
You know me by now. I'm a HUGE Beatles fan, have been since I nicked my mom's collection of 45's back in the day. As such there was only ever going to be one song that fitted the post. I offer you this masterful classic. Spoiler Alert - The Walrus is Paul, not John. Shocker, I know!

All together now, coo-coo ca-choo.....

Monday, 30 April 2018

This is Why I Love it Here

I'm not the greatest wordsmith, indeed I'm not any type of wordsmith at all, so I'll let a few pics from this afternoon tell the story for me. The weather was glorious, I just laid back and soaked it up

Wych Elms - just about bursting into leaf
For the first time this year, I finished work and just lay flat on my back in the middle of the hotel garden, gazing up into the Wych Elm canopy. It struck me that branches from neighbouring trees don't touch each other, there are clearly defined gaps between each. How do they know when to stop growing before touching?

I took these pics whilst laying halfway up the top lawn, sprawled out and soaking up the rays!
The boss hates the daisies and "buttercups" (Lesser Celandines) in the lawn, reckons "they make the place look like a pikey site". I've been on many a pikey site in my time and trust me - they really don't look like this! Anyway, I'm the guy who mows the lawns so...daisies and "buttercups" it is then!

View from across the bay this evening. Hell yeah, I've lived in worse places!
I've been running the light trap for about a month now. It's been great, a few mis-identifications on my part, but it's been a long while (20 odd years) since I did any trapping so it's to be expected that I'm somewhat rusty. However, there's a female Chaffinch and a Robin that have been paying way too much attention to the goings on at the trap. This is what I found this morning

Hmmm...I'm not particularly thrilled about this 
Of course, I'm being a complete hypocrite. So it's perfectly acceptable for me to kill insects, but not the birds? Pah! Talking of killing insects, I caught (and duly killed...) a small hoverfly a few days back, one that needed to be whacked under the microscope for detailed inspection of small features before I could come to an ID. This particular genus of hoverfly (Cheilosia) often exhibit strange bumps on the face, creating a rather comical profile complete with nose, mouth and chin. This one reminded me of the T-1000 Terminator from the Terminator 2 film

Cheilosia pagana aka the T-1000 Advanced Prototype Terminatorfly
Tomorrow I'm off to Armadale for a birdwatching walk followed by a general nature walk, both with the Skye Nature Group. Typically the weather is due to be fairly shite. But I don't care, I still love living up here. Skye rocks, ain't no denying it! 

So. Gardens and Terminator films, where the heck do I go with this? Aah...

And this one just because it's fkkn ace! Mmmm, I feel a GNR evening coming up....enjoy, folks! 

Friday, 20 April 2018

The not so Redpoll

It's been a miserable old day, weatherwise. No painting or mowing achieved whatsoever, though the sun has finally broken through now that I've finished work. Indeed it's a lovely evening, if still somewhat cold in the wind. As per usual, plenty of activity on the bird feeders and table including a darn fine male Reed Bunting again. No females yet, but certainly at least three different males this past month or so. I looked up from my desk and this bird caught my eye

Lesser Redpoll - presumably a female/1st year bird judging by the lack of pink
So what, you ask. Well look closer. Look at the colour above the eye... The following pics are  completely unedited, they're straight off the card. All digi-binned through the double-glazing too, which is why they're a bit naff. Just click an image to enlarge. 

Lesser Yellowpoll, nice! I did a bit of internet trawling, apparently somewhere between 10-20% of the Redpolls (presumably ssp cabaret) in NW Scotland exhibit some degree of yellow replacing red in the crown feathers. This is commonest in females (and also in captive birds, which may imply an association with diet) and there is a whole spectrum grading from standard pink through yellows, golds and oranges. It's not something I can say I've ever noticed before, but I shall be keeping my eyes open for more birds like this one. 

Chris Martin sang a song about things being all yellow, but there's not a hope in hell of me ever playing a Coldplay song on this (or any) blog. I've actually held a football that had been signed by the entire band, I should have burst it and thrown it onto a fire but it wasn't mine to destroy. Have this instead, bet you haven't heard this for a while!

Staying with Zappa and his crazy lyrics, and the yellow snow theme, have a try of this...