Thursday, 15 June 2017

When the System Works

I found a psyllid on Rosebay Willowherb last week, I've already mentioned it in passing a couple of posts back. Quite an easy one to identify and I happily nailed it as Craspedolepta nebulosa. My photo's were all crap, so please have a look at this British Bugs page to see what it looks like. The clouded areas (whence nebulosa) running along the veins near the wingtips are distinctive. 

Anyway, according to the NBN maps it was the first record for Scotland. Happy with the identity, I emailed Murdo - records collator for the Highland Biological Recording Group (HBRG). He in turn chatted with the local hemiptera expert (a professional bugger, I guess) who said that the maps were out of date and that the psyllid was widespread up here in The Highlands. Murdo's actual words were

This shows how we work up here, though.  You find something, I go and look here, find it, tell others, etc.  Works wonders!

Coupla days later and Murdo advised me to check out the HBRG's Announcements Page. Cor look, there's my name up in writing. Haha - fame, fortune and glory! 

This morning I received another email from Murdo

This is the consequence of your tip-off, Seth.  The current map of records from me and Stephen Moran. Basically, find RbWh, spend 5s looking, check with the lens, move on to the next square!  So much for ‘scarce in the north’.

Last week there were no dots at all!

I reckon my Skye dot looks a bit kinda lost and lonely out there in the west all by itself. I shall ask a couple of local naturalists if they can keep an eye out for Craspedolepta nebulosa whilst roaming Skye and the Small Isles.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Big Day - Species Round Up

It's taken me until now, Tuesday morning, to figure out why my Big Day totals didn't add up when cross-referencing the scribble in my notebook with the MasterList whereby everything is broken down into different taxonomic groups. In a nutshell I'd missed off seven species...repeatedly. Everything tallies up now, the grand total for the number of species identified on the day stands at 456. Then there's the backlog of stuff in pots/on pins still to be tackled.

Note the jump from 240 straight to 247...donut!
Alright - the numbers part, as Ali would say. I've broken the species list into the various taxonomic categories as used on the PSL website

Algae (seaweeds, terrestrial and freshwater) - 8 seaweeds, 0 terrestrial, 0 freshwater
Lichens (terrestrial and marine) - 38 terrestrial, 3 marine
Fungi - 28
Bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) - 21 mosses, 12 liverworts
Vascular Plants - 179
Cnidarians (anemones, jellyfish, corals, hydra, hydroids etc) - 1 anemone, 1 jellyfish
Molluscs (terrestrial, freshwater & marine) - 18 terrestrial, 1 freshwater, 5 marine
Bryozoans (freshwater and marine) - 1 marine
Annelids (terrestrial and marine worms) - 1 terrestrial, 1 marine
Platyhelminths (terrestrial flatworms, freshwater flatworms) - 1 terrestrial, 2 freshwater
Arachnids (spiders, mites, harvestmen etc) - 5 spiders, 4 mites, 2 harvestmen
Myriapods (centipedes and millipedes) - 2 centipedes, 5 millipedes
Crustaceans (woodlice, hoppers, crabs, barnacles etc) - 2 woodlice, 1 hopper, 1 crab, 1 barnacle
Springtails (terrestrial and marine) - 2 terrestrial, 0 marine
Bristletails - 1
Orthopteroids (grasshoppers, crickets, earwigs, sticks etc) - 1 earwig
Hemiptera (bugs, aphids, whiteflies, thrips etc) - 3 bugs, 1 adelgid
Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, sawflies, ants) - 2 bees, 1 wasp, 2 sawflies
Coleoptera (beetles) - 9
Diptera (flies) - 12
Butterflies - 1
Moths - 18
Fish (freshwater and marine) - 1 freshwater, 3 marine
Birds - 51
Mammals - 4

Breaking it down like that it's easy to see where large improvements can be made. Insects and seashore stuff! In July I think I'll also need to spend more time turning over rocks and stones, the inverts I usually find were fairly poorly represented on my Big Day. Plus I completely fkkd up the seashore stuff by completely missing the low tide (not that it was particularly low on 10th anyway). By coinciding my next Big Day with the lowest tide of the month (late July) I can massively improve on the 1 crab, 1 barnacle, 1 anemone, handful of molluscs and the 8 seaweeds that pretty much sums up what I managed last time. And warmth will bring out the insects. Warmth and dry conditions. Yeah, I think July's attempt will easily smash the 500 barrier. Especially if I get a proper bulb for my home-made moth trap.

This is the kind of weather I'll need for next time!

Sunday, 11 June 2017

24-hour Blitzing the Square!!!

So it's now the day after The Big Day. Timeline of my recent nights - 8th stay up until after 3am watching the election results coming through. Wake up after not much sleep and go to work. 9th - work until 4pm, have dinner, try and fail to sleep. 10th - blitz the square for 24 hours, finish at midnight, celebrate with three beers then defy all expectations and can't go to sleep! Still awake at 2am. 11th (today) wake up at eleven and think about apologising to the bosses. Fall asleep again. Wake up at 12:30 and figure they didn't really expect me to be on shift anyway...I'll find out tomorrow. 

The Big Day - without leaving NG3963 I began recording wildlife at midnight and continued through until the following midnight, punctuated twice by meals in the hotel and an extra twice by calling in at the house for ID bashes at the microscope. Quit the field at 9:30 to settle down for microscope work, apart from a last minute wander around the security lights for moths. 

The day began in the usual fashion, at midnight.

The 'simmer dim' whereby it never falls dark over the northern horizon, even at midnight.
My plan was to start in the laundry shed, sat by itself in the hotel grounds. The lights are on all night and the door open, hence it acts as a giant moth trap. Maybe I can get 125W MVLs fitted instead of the bulbs currently in use. Ha, can you imagine! 

As expected, species number one was Amaurobius similis which lives on the ceiling in abundance. Species number two was unexpected - holy shite, that's a Pale-shouldered Brocade on the floor!!!!!

Pale-shouldered Brocade - that's a lifer for me!
Well that was a very sweet start, three minutes into the day and a lifer already. Wandering the various security lights on site added two more Pale-shouldered Brocades amongst the expected Tachypodoiulus niger and Porcellio scaber. Tawny Owls were in brilliant voice, I even heard the extra long quavering call given! A spot of impromptu botanising beneath one light soon had me up to 18 species before I headed back indoors to grab my bag and set off. The garden added a few more including a single Common Earwig nymph on the wall - a rare find up here, I think just my third encounter in over six months. Nice, I'd need this sort of luck in order to rack up a respectable tally.

I wandered down to Uig Woods for a couple of hours before hitting the coast road at Cuil. At 0244hrs I hit 100 species, by 0310hrs it was almost light enough for me to be able to write in my notebook without needing the torch. A Song Thrush burst into song and the dawn chorus began. At 0319hrs I was back on the road and added human to the tally as a woman drove past me. I wondered if she'd ever been ticked before. Nah, probably not.

I had to hustle indoors at 0330hrs due to a rather urgent call of nature (that'll be the incredibly strong coffee I necked just before midnight...) and took the opportunity to sift through the assorted bits n bobs I'd collected thus far. My tally stood at 158 species, not too shabby seeing as it had only just started to get light. One majorly unexpected sight were the four or five Noctules whizzing over the house, I could actually hear the chip chop calls and they were big, so I assume they were Noctules. Checking online it seems there aren't many bat species known from Skye (just 7 in fact) and they're mostly small jobbies like the Pips and Daubenton's. Excellent! I waited for it to get properly light and ventured out towards the cemetery. Here's the view from a little before sunrise

Rainbow rising almost vertically over the hotel. I wonder if anybody else saw this.
Note the gloriously blue skies. Well that sure didn't last. I found my 200th species at 0538hrs (Balea perversa, the Wall Snail) and slowly began my descent across the sheep fields and into Uig Woods. At 0638hrs a Clouded Border flitted up from herbage and became species 250. Despite the liberal dousing of midge spray I was being eaten alive. Luckily I have a trick, here's one of me a couple of days beforehand. Works a treat but crap for trying to identify stuff.

If you see this man DO NOT approach, may talk wildlifey stuff at you for hours!
I decided to just quit the riverbed and head out into the open where the breeze would help clear the little bastards. After an hour of intermittent drizzle and threats, at 0715hrs it started to rain quite heavily and didn't stop. My hoodie isn't waterproof so I scrambled back to the hotel for the second time this morning, managed to grab breakfast early (a proper big solid grill and more coffee, absolutely fkkn ideal!) and retreated indoors to grab more collecting pots and a waterproof coat. 

Pausing long enough to add the naturalised Welsh Poppy and Oregon-grape to the tally at the back of the hotel, I headed back out to the highest point of NG3963 by the cemetery. I spent a while at the perimeter wall checking various lichens interspersed with turning rocks for slugs. This is the only area I've ever found Hedgehog Slug in the square, true to form I found one beneath a rock, cool. At 0907hrs I added Ramalina farinacea to the tally which bumped me up to 300 species for the day. By now I figured I was going to smash the 500 barrier, I still had fifteen hours to find 200 species. Gotta be possible! In the sheep fields I took a little time over a few sedges and somehow life-ticked Common Sedge and Heath Wood-rush amongst Toad Rush, Soft Rush, Field Wood-rush and various grasses which I essentially ignored - they aren't exactly one of my stronger points.

Wandering through Uig Woods I discovered this bad boy growing out of a rockface

Hard Shield-fern and a lifer for me - my 4th of the day!!!
Back on Cuil Road once more (there was to be a great deal of going over the same ground during the course of the 24 hour period) I stumbled into a whole mob of my next lifer, one which I'm happy to say I recognised instantly. There were at least seven or eight of them in one small area, seemingly favouring the large leaves of Marsh Marigold. Brilliant looking flies, all delicate legs, massive big bug eyes and that diagnostic black wing patch. I think these guys were probably my favourite species of the day! 

Black Snipefly Chrysopilus cristatus - such a dainty little stunner!
I like Cuil Road, it's essentially a single track road that runs maybe half a mile with grassy verges, a few houses and runs along the top of the beach. Lots of nice habitats, lots of species. I've already had a good old squint at the plants along this road, I know most of what occurs. Suddenly I stopped at a large sow-thistle. It didn't look right. With sow-thistles it's all about the auricles. I didn't have a plant book with me but I had a camera

Perennial Sow-thistle, rather surprisingly also a lifer for me!!!
I've double-checked, it really does appear to be new for me despite being rather a common plant. Overlooked in the past, I suppose. Nice addition though and my fourth new plant of the day, haha this is getting silly now! 

I spotted some galls on a nearby Salix, they proved to be of the sawfly Pontania bridgmanii, one I've not seen before. Just below them, sat all quietly on a leaf was this little beauty
 
Sallow Kitten caterpillar - I haven't seen one of these for years
At exactly midday I spotted a couple of the tiny microleps Micropterix calthella hiding in a buttercup head. Midday and species number 368, just 68 additions in three hours. Suddenly the expected target of 500 species seemed far beyond my reach. I needed the weather to improve. Massively. It didn't.

At 1406hrs I found a Marsh Thistle which was number 400 for the day. I faffed around on the beach between the rivers Conon and Rha finding a few bits but not much. Low tide at 4:20, plenty of time to amble back to the good end off Cuil Road. So it was with some horror that I realised the tide was already racing in even though it wasn't even 3pm yet. Shit, I hustled back around the bay just in time to find the best area already submerged. Fkkit, this was a serious spanner in the works. I did my best anyway finding scant reward for my efforts. Bollocks, how had I missed the low water?? One large stone saved the day for hiding beneath it were two Shore Rocklings and two Butterfish, one being the largest I've ever seen. Phew, salvaged something of worth. But no sponges, hardly any marine molluscs, nothing dug out of the sands, no starfish and only three Green Shore Crabs in the line of crustaceans. Quitting the sea I headed to the top of the beach and searched out a load of littoral species, next best thing. Within 15 minutes I'd cleared up on the usual suspects, Aepus marinus and Thinobaena vestita amongst the beetles, the centipede Strigamia maritima, the spider Halorates reprobus, the predatory mite Dissoloncha superbus and the hopper Orchestia gammarellus.

A few days back I discovered a psyllid on a patch of Rosebay Willowherb which, according to the NBN maps, was new to Scotland. I notified Murdo who went out and also found it. His hemiptera expert reckons it's now widespread in Scotland, but the maps haven't been updated for ages. He added a link to the HBRG Announcements Page (I'm now oficially famous). Nevertheless I hadn't seen it today so spent a bit of time at the Rosebay patch. No joy with the psyllid but I had a female Mompha raschkiella come down and lay an egg on a leaf right under my nose! 

Did a lot of twirling about, walked back and forth for a few minutes, then laid an egg!
The rain finally began to subside, just in time for me to quit and head back to the hotel for staff dinner and to grab yet more pots after unloading the current full ones into the fridge. I checked the tide times to see where I'd gone wrong. Ah right, 1420hrs low tide not 4:20. That was pretty stupid of me, I missed out a fat fistful of additions because of that. 

Miracle of miracles the sun came out and it grew warm! I sped off once more determined to find some insects in the massively improved conditions. I grabbed a light jumper in case it grew cooler later on and headed into Uig Woods. I had time to see a Red Admiral flit past, the sole butterfly of the day, and had an Episyrphus balteatus arrive on a buttercup flower and a distant Skylark burst into song, then it clouded over and down came the rain. Heavy, hammering rain. I hid beneath a tree with my rucksack over my head and just waited it out. Which took quite some time. Eventually it passed and I was still relatively dry. But that was the end of the good weather. More drizzle and coolness combined with a freshening breeze killed any hopes of adding much in the way of invert activity. 

By 2130hrs I was back indoors, microscope, books and laptop being put to good use. At 2245hrs I shot off to the bar, sank a very quick pint with a couple of off-duty kitchen staff, grabbed a coupla bottles for post-midnight celebrations and headed back to the microscope once more. 

At 2345hrs I returned to my tour of the security lights, frightening the shit out of one of the staff who was just heading home. And so at 2354hrs I shared my final species of the day with one very confused bartender as I pointed this beauty out to him

Map-winged Swift in the torchlight. Last species of the day.
I watched the time, midnight arrived and I departed. My Big Day was over. It had been EPIC. Back indoors I cracked the beers, found a sandwich and some chocolate in my rucksack and started to go through the list. Turned out I'd messed up my numbers (misread 240 as 246 and started again at 247. Big question is though, did I manage to smash the 500 species barrier in those dying hours? And the big answer is no. No I didn't, not even close. 

Final count up, after scrubbing off White Campion (it was a white-petalled Red Campion!) and realising that I'd written down Yellow Iris twice, stood at 456 species. Which, to be fair, is more species than I've ever seen in a 24 hour period at anytime in my life. So I'm not glum about not hitting 500. If I hadn't have messed up the tide times I still wouldn't have made it. If I had a moth trap I probably would have though. And if the weather hadn't been crap for most of the time I probably would have too. 

So my plan from here is simple. Get the electrics and bulb for a moth trap, double-check my tide times, pick a day where the weather is favourable AND DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN!!!!!

Stay tuned to find out how I get on when I do this crazy mad thing again next month. I'm not kiddin...

For July I need weather like this, ideally with Corncrakes calling from that meadow

Friday, 9 June 2017

Tonight's the Night

You might recall that I recently blogged about The Big Day that is 10th June 2017. No? Really? FFS why do I even bother... Click here to refresh your memory. 

Ok, so now you know what I'm on about. Cool. Well anyway, that means that at the stroke of midnight tonight I shall begin my 24 hour tickfest marathon. I'm pretty hyped about the whole thing, I even bought myself a brand new notebook for the occasion! I've had a chat with Graeme Lyons, voiced my concerns regards his relying on field identifications and the large risk of misidentifications that will result from that. He reckons everything will be "legit" and that he probably won't even take specimens on the day (!!!!!) Bloke's a nutter.

I shall be starting in the laundry shed, I guess. Should get me a few bits and bobs seeing as the light stays on all night and the doors are always open. Nice population of Amaurobius similis on the ceiling, usually a moth or two in the corners and possibly a Tipula maxima on the wall. It'll be a start anyway. Tachypodoiulus niger should be out and about beneath the security lights on outside walls, mayby a few Porcellio scaber too. Fingers crossed the Tawny Owls will be vocalising. A few of the live-in staff here know what I'm up to, so I might have a bit of company for the first ten or fifteen minutes. 

I have two low tides during the course of the day. The first is at 2am so I expect I'll be wandering along the beach with my torch and a bucket! It's a fairly rubbish low, just 1.12 metres. It drops to 0.58 metres nearer the end of the month, which would be a lot more interesting, but I'll still give it a damn good go. 

Sunrise is at 4:28am though it'll be getting light by not much after 3am. By 6am the weather is meant to start getting a bit rubbish with the winds increasing (helpful for keeping the midges at bay) and rain sweeping in for the rest of the day right through to mid-evening. Oh and it'll be driving rain for much of that time thanks to another increase in wind speeds.....sheesh! This will seriously hamper my eventual total, insects aren't very active in strong winds or rain.

This is what I can expect for tomorrow. Meh.
I shall be returning back to base around 10am for staff breakfast so shall post a comment below giving you my running total of identified species. Likewise I'll be back at 5pm for staff dinner and will post another comment. Please stay tuned, I'm hoping to surpass 400 species but it's entirely weather dependant. Will I just jack it all in and hit my bed? Will I stay the course and keep going until the following midnight? 

Cor, this is almost as riveting as watching the election results come dribbling in - and yeah I was up until gone 3am this morning watching Labour storming ahead of the Tory scum. Hung parliament you say? Should start with that godawful bitch in Downing Street for starters, I can even supply the rope. No charge. I'm so pleased her crafty little scam has backfired in her face and that the Bullshit Broadcasting Company and associated Tory media failed to demonise Corbyn. Has Britain's apathy finally started to run off of the populace? Let's hope so. 

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Encountering Aliens

Before we have an Orson Welles type panic, these aliens are not out to destroy humanity and take over the planet (at least I don't think they are), these are invasive alien plants. Yesterday I spotted a weird-looking plant carpeting an area of overgrown grassland and recognised it as one of the Pirri-pirri-burs. I took a scrap of it indoors with me and with a bit of help from my trusty, if rather battered, copy of Stace figured it was Bronze Pirri-pirri-bur Acaena anserinifolia, a new one for me. Cool. I emailed a pic across to BSBI Recorder Stephen Bungard who was 'noncommittal' and suggested I keyed it through with Stace... Seems that most of the Acaena around this part of the world is Acaena inermis. Ok, no worries I'd try again tomorrow. Here's the image I sent to Stephen


So today I returned and grabbed several leaflets from different plants, a couple of flower heads and a few of the spiny seedheads, just in case the sample I'd taken yesterday was atypical. I also brought my copy of Poland into play since it uses a whole different suite of features to ID a plant. Between them I'd nail this sucker! Have to say, it still looked good for anserinifolia.

Habbo shot. It's the pale-headed stuff in the long grass
Entire plant, minus the roots
From Stace - Apical pair of leaflets 1.2-2.5x as long as wide, 5-12 teeth and 3-10mm long
From Poland - silky hairy beneath, stem brown
From Poland - Silky- or patent-hairy above (inermis is hairless on upperside)
From Stace - spines on hypanthium 2-4, barbed at apex (inermis is imperfectly/not barbed)
From Stace - hypanthium with up to 4 spines
Pro-anserinifolia features are as follows:

Apical leaflets are longer than wide with 9 teeth (about as long as wide on inermis)
Up to 4 spines on hypanthium (0 to imperfectly formed on inermis)
Spines are barbed (unbarbed on inermis)
Leaf is patent-hairy on upper surface (hairless on inermis)

The only thing I'm worried about is that it looks a lot like Acaena caesiiglauca which has longer spines (mostly 3.5-6mm for anserinifolia, those on my plant are nearer 8mm) and has a blue-green glaucous colour to the upperside of the leaves. In the wild my plant appears quite glaucous, indoors not so much. Google Imaging shows that my plant isn't really blue enough for caesiiglauca though. Acaena magellanica also has long spines, but that is hairless on the upperside of the leaves, is glaucous on both sides of the leaf and has green stems (Poland). 

So...I think I have Bronze Pirri-pirri-bur. Probably.

Moving on to the next alien plant, several weeks back I found a whole patch of muddy ground next to a stream covered in strange leaves. I didn't know what they were. When Stephen Bungard visited I asked him for help and he replied "Mimulus!" (the monkeyflower family). I've waited until today for the flowers to appear. Suddenly there were dozens upon dozens on show! 


Stunningly gorgeous (and variable) flowers, I figured the colour patterning was just too unstable for this to be Blood-drop-emlets. But at the same time clearly too heavily marked for Monkeyflower. So a hybrid, bugger. These plants readily hybridise and backcross and all sorts of other weird stuff and are notoriously difficult to pin down. Oh well, let's grab a whole plant and take it back indoors. What could possibly go wrong...

...some time later

I was failing to see all features in the Stace key. Even through a microscope I couldn't discern the necessary "simple white hairs inside the calyx". Poland's key was simplicity itself and led straight to Hybrid Monkeyflower Mimulus x robertsii but Stace had me scuppered. I couldn't progress past the "upper calyx tooth distinctly longer than the lower 4"

Upper calyx tooth larger than the others beneath it - check. Now what?
Ok, so was my plant fertile or sterile? That could help rule out some of the options. Peeling back the petals revealed the anthers to be bare of pollen! Er yeah, I think it's fair to say that it's sterile. 

Not even a dusting of pollen from what I can see
I was still worrying about small white hairs in the calyx. Then I re-read the couplet for the umpteenth time and realised I was being a twat. "Small simple white hairs present on inflorescence, at least ON KEELS OF calyx" ! Oh right, I'd been cross-reading the second part of the couplet which says "0 or very few simple white hairs except INSIDE calyx" Taking a look at the calyx keels I could see a row of very short white hairs. Bloomin' 'eck Seth! So, following the key to it's conclusion it seemed that Stace agreed with Poland and my plant was indeed Hybrid Monkeyflower Mimulus x robertsii. The BSBI Map shows that it occurs over much of Skye which is reassuring. 

Next stage was internet searches, just to see that my plant matches (ie that Mimulus isn't actually a low growing alpine!) and I came across this brilliant site. Scrolling down the screen was this table

Those pesky simple white hairs running along the calyx keels differentiate robertsii from smithii, I like it when loose ends are tied up. That's not to say the plants in Uig Woods aren't backcrossed or further hybridised, but I'm happy to record them as Hybrid Monkeyflower which, along with the Bronze Pirri-pirri-bur, is also new for me and is my 1100th species of vascular plant on my PSL.

Now I just need a real botanist to read this and rip it all to shreds...

EDIT: See comment below - The man from Del Raasay he say "Yes!" And a first for VC104 too, happy days :)

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Who's the Daddy Longlegs Now?

I can fairly frequently be found sneaking around the security lights/laundry shed of the hotel complex after the hours of darkness. No, I'm not a vampire or a weirdo (actually yeah, I guess I probably am a bit of a weirdo to be fair...) it's just that lights attract insects and who knows what could be sat on a wall beneath a security light just waiting to be discovered? I usually have at least 3 or 4 small pots and a camera in my pocket. With the recent warm spell we've been experiencing up here I had high hopes of a moth-filled light trap and loads of goodies sat on the walls. Well the trap didn't attract anything (other than a few small flies, pah) but the security lights and laundry shed have been quite productive.

I've picked up a small gathering of followers on my nightly excursions. Sometimes a member of staff or two will join me on my 'rounds of the lights' which is usually pretty entertaining. "So is it true that butterflies are all female and only live for a day?" (dafuq, are you actually four years old?) "Is it true that daddy long legs are the most poisonous animal on earth?" (you mean venomous not poisonous, and no!) "Did you know a Hedgehog can kill a fox in a straight fight?" (what if they're both gay?) "LOOK at the size of that spider, can I pick it up?" (go for it, but they can bite... ) etc etc.

Anyway, the laundry shed is brilliant. It's full of Amaurobius similis which I've watched grow larger and larger and larger over the past few months. Some of the females are huge! Crappy pic, but here's one that was plucked off the ceiling by one of my followers (haha...) and passed around for close inspection before I rescued her and popped her onto a window sill before she was dropped yet again or began biting folks in retaliation

A rather large female Amaurobius similis
Also in the laundry shed were a couple of the White-headed Clothes Moth Endrosis sarcitrella, a few Common Pugs, a couple of Agonopterix heracliana and, best of all, an Agonopterix ciliella which was a lifer for me! The hindwing shows five darker lines across the width of the cilia which immediately distinguishes it from the closely related Agonopterix heracliana which only has one dark band at the base of the hindwing cilia. Other than that they're pretty damn difficult, if not impossible, to confidently tell apart from one another. It's a common moff and one I should really have recorded years ago. Anyway, it's been noted now.

The outside walls are always teeming with the black millipede Tachypodoiulus niger and, more often than not, a handful of Rough Woodlouse Porcellio scaber, a few Tree Slugs Lehmannia marginata and plenty of unidentified gnats. Oh and the midges are here. I've been waiting for this day with a mild sense of dread. So far they aren't too bad but I'm sure that'll change soon enough. 

One rather swanky looking fly caught my eye from afar. I thought I knew what it was but decided to play it safe and ask an expert for confirmation. This bad boy had a legspan of around 10cm! The patterned wings give it away.

Tipula maxima - the largest cranefly in Britain!
This is a species I've seen before though not very often, despite its widespread distribution across much of mainland Britain. I checked with Murdo MacDonald, he agrees it's Tipula maxima, which is rather pleasing when you look at its known Scottish distribution

Map for Tipula maxima - taken from the NBN Gateway
So, that's yet another 'first' for Skye that I've discovered, it's got to be approaching twenty species by now I reckon. Once I work through the backlog of stuff on pins/in the fridge I'm certain that figure will rise. 

Right, it's 10:15pm and probably about time to collect my washing from the tumble dryer. I shall be taking my pots and camera just in case. Wonder who's in there tonight....

EDIT: The following day (ie today as I type this) I received an email from Murdo MacDonald (dipterist and records collator for the Highland Biological Recording Group) informing me that Tipula maxima has already been recorded from Skye. He sent me a link to the The Provisional Atlas to the Long-palped Craneflies of Britain & Ireland and sure enough there's a dot on the map for Skye. Good ol' Murdo, ruthlessly thorough! 

From the 1992 Craneflies Atlas

Friday, 26 May 2017

Two Weeks to the BIG DAY

Earlier this year Graeme Lyons came up with a crazy mad scheme to try and see 1000 species in a single 24 hour period, invited us to join in the fun, threw us all the rules and regulations and set the date as 10th June 2017. He first went public with this idea on the PSL Facebook page, which was soon followed by this post on his blog. Note the liberal usage of the words "we", "we've" and "we're". Yeahhhh...not so much, this is Graeme's show and he's running it his way. Despite a fair few thoughts and ideas and suggestions being offered he's resolutely stuck to his guns, grudgingly accepting that sleep may be required by at least one member of the "no more than two" person team, sharing one motor vehicle, not allowed to count anything if you split up, and that food and drink may be provided by third parties should you so require it, though obviously they can't help find/identify anything etc etc etc ad nauseum. 

It's a great idea, and Graeme's spun it to make it a charity event as opposed to a full on ego massage. He's pretty confident he's gonna nail this thing, crowning himself king of his own contest. But I'm a bit of a rebellious so and so when it comes to enforced rules. Right from the start I've been keen to give this a go, but on my own terms - which is not really allowed. Oops, shit happens.

I have a few reservations about the whole thing. I've done several midnight-to-midnight bird races, both for charity and just for fun. I love challenges with clearly defined boundaries and a 24 hour PSL race is exactly the sort of thing that turns me on. I'm no stranger to lack of sleep (some nights I skip sleep entirely, insomnia is just so much fun...) so I have no doubt that I'd be able to keep active throughout the whole period. My boss has already agreed to give me the Friday evening through to Sunday afternoon off work so there's no worries there. Though maybe I should get that in writing.

But one of The Rules states that all species must be seen AND IDENTIFIED on the day. This means that a huge quantity of stuff is going to be field-identified rather than done properly at a microscope being calmly and sedately keyed through in an unrushed fashion. Graeme is an amazing field naturalist, nobody can deny that, but he's not infallible, he makes mistakes same as we all do. But he's gunning for that 1000 species target, it's probably never been done before and he wants to be the first. Hence rushed identifications (ie misidentifications) are going to be rife and then submitted. His ego won't allow him to retract numbers from the day's final tally afterwards, so duff records will be winging their way onto irecord all day long. Coz yeah, it's also meant to be "live from the field" too. Somehow. Maybe I can use smoke signals. The only way I can access the internet is via my laptop with a smashed screen which is connected via HDMI to a tv screen in my room. Smart phone, you say? Ha, what phone? I have a walkie talkie! Graeme's constructed some sort of a recording form for our use, though nobody else is allowed to see it yet. Bet it's not pen and paper though.

Another of The Rules stated that any team participating has to consist of two members and that both members need to see the species for it to be admissable on the tally. Well guess what - I live in the middle of nowhere, I have no idea where the next nearest naturalist is from here and I'm pretty sure they wouldn't want to take part in a gruelling 24 hour marathon tickfest with someone they've never even met before. Graeme's revised Rule Number 4 is a sarcastic but tough won concession to this fact.

Secondly I don't have a vehicle. My solution is simple - I'm going to do this thing on foot and I'm going to stick to my home 1km square NG3963. I made my announcement and endured some fairly condescending remarks regards needing a buddy on the day, I didn't realise how physically demanding this was going to be, I'd need a scribe blah blah blah. Tough titty mate, it's my only option so that's what I'm doing.

I'm fairly confident that I'll make it onto the podium in the "Solo, on foot and in a single 1km square Category". I have no chance whatsoever of finding 1000 species on the day. Heck, it's taken me five months just to hit 600 species! 

Anyway, I've given it a lot of thought. I decided to drop out, then I was back in, then I lost interest again. But fuckit, I'm going to give it a go. I refuse point blank to be bullied or cajouled into doing it by The Rules. So here is my own version of what will be happening here on 10th June 2017 - 

Start at midnight, on the dot. Heard-only records are fine provided that I'm certain of the identity of the species involved. I don't see any need to track down and spotlight an owl if I can hear one calling. Same with calling fox, singing Corncrake (still not back yet though...) or an invisible Skylark. 

Keep a running Master List in my notebook. I shall also have lists of everything I've previously seen in NG3963 which I shall be using as a checklist throughout the day, crossing them off as I find them. 

At some point return to my laptop and post my tally on the PSL Facebook page. I'll be heading back for breakfast, lunch and dinner (I work in a hotel and there are set times for we staff to fill our faces) so there will be at least three opportunities for me to post the running total throughout the day once I'm back on site. The hotel is inside NG3963 so I can keep on ticking in the hotel grounds whilst there for food/toilet/laptop/microscope time. 

If I decide to quit early then that's fine. To be fair, even Graeme understands that not everyone is hardcore enough to keep on ticking for a full on 24-hour bioblitz, so this isn't going against his rules. Though I think only bad weather/injury would see me quit early.

I will only submit records I am totally happy with, regardless of whether I identify them during the 24-hour period or several weeks afterwards. I'm not chasing 1000 species, my priorities are to have fun on the day, test my own skills and put good records through afterwards, in my own time. 

I'm not doing this for publicity or charity. I'm just taking the day off work and seeing what I can find.

Right, I think I'm about finished sounding off so I shall clamber down off my soapbox. Thanks for sticking with this text-filled blogpost. Here, have some plant porn, you deserve it

The awesome Globeflower, photobombed by the arse-end of a mystery stonefly

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Home Made Light Trap

It had to happen, it's that time of year when the few winter/spring-flying moth species are over and there's a sudden stampede of new and exciting species on the wing, seemingly more and more with every passing night. The Skye Moths Facebook Group has been teasing and taunting me for weeks now. I've found a few bits n bobs, mostly either microleps by day or the occasional macro beneath security lights by night, but the pace has really ramped up this past week or so with several members posting pics of some amazing moffs that they've trapped. 

Light traps, usually called moth traps (though that's a pretty blinkered phrase to be honest) are by far and away the most effective way of recording the moth species to be found in a given locality. In a nutshell they consist of a collecting box or a collecting bucket, both with a bright bulb used as the attractant. Moths are drawn to the light and end up inside the container, ready for inspection by the trapper. They can then be recorded and released essentially unharmed. It's very popular nowadays. 

Anyway, to buy a Robinson Trap (bucket design), with the electrics, will cost over 400 quid (!) and the Skinner Trap (box design) will set you back over 200 quid. Quite frankly it's preposterous, maybe even racketeering. I'm not sure, I can't chuck that sort of money around either way. But I can't keep on being gripped off by other people's moffs either. I had no choice, I had to make my own trap! 

A sheet of ply, 2 hinges, some 2x4 and a lot of screws later and it was done. My beautiful, beautiful invention

Ready for action!
Flap top lid for easy access - novel idea huh?
Obviously I'll need a few more egg trays but it's a start
Storage shed for when not in use
The light is just a standard bedside lamp with the shade removed. Clearly this isn't the best option for attracting moths or for being weatherproof. I'll make a rainguard next, but ideally I should order a proper bulb with electrics. Chatting to the folks on the Skye Moths FB Group it seems they mostly use 125W MVL, the moth-er's bulb of choice. I last ran a moth trap maybe 20 odd years ago and used this bulb with exceptional results. The problem is that they are dangerous, can explode if they get wet whilst hot and probably leak more radiation than Fukushima does. Hence they are being phased out very soon. Probably no bad thing, truth be told. 

Anyway - my first trapping session in who knows how many years is currently underway. I used to trap with Jim Porter (yes, THE Jim Porter) and we'd open the hatch of his Cavalier, sit in the boot drinking beer whilst he smoked stuff he probably shouldn't have smoked and I demolished whatever crisps and chocolate I could find beneath his seats/in the footwell. Once, at around 1:30am one night in the depths of Epsom Common, we were approached by a gentleman in a business suit and holding a case who asked us what we were doing so far into the woods at night. We amiably explained that we were recording moths and he left us to it. Looking back on that odd encounter, the obvious question should have been what the heck was HE doing in the middle of the woods at 1:30am in the morning, wearing a business suit with case! 

So, trap is built and ready for action. It's a bit misty and mizzly here at the moment. The light is on but the trap is inside the shed, just in case it starts raining later tonight. By all accounts there will be an inch of dead or angry midges in the bottom of the trap at the height of the season and one guy had his bulb fail due to the thread being clogged with their bodies!!!! Holy crap, what have I done? 

My last pre-trap moff image is this one

Micropterix calthella in a buttercup flowerhead
These tiny moths (wingspan of about 10mm) possess jaws, unlike all other families of British lepidoptera which have a proboscis. These bad boys basically stomp around chomping pollen grains from flowerheads rather than gracefully sipping nectar. This time of year they are positively abundant across much of the country, just check a buttercup near you! Larger sedges are also well worth checking. Pendulous Sedge for example, may have 20 or more moths per flowerhead, though it is very localised on Skye (recorded from just 4 tetrads according to the BSBI Maps). So far I've seen the moths on Creeping Buttercup, Lesser Celandine and Marsh Marigold. 

Right, must dash. I've a light trap on the go don't you know...

Sunday, 21 May 2017

A Cautionary Tale

I've recently been in contact with Murdo MacDonald, the records collator for the Highland Biological Recording Group (HBRG). You can check out their website by clicking here. He's been going through this blog checking for any glaring bloopers upon my part. Thankfully just six queries thus far (of over 600 species recorded) and nothing outright rejected, but this single line of text stood out like a death sentence

Microvelia reticulata -  Well off mapped range. Certain?

I had a bit of a panic at that, I'd been so sure the ID was good. Only one thing for it, trundle back and grab a few then double-check what they actually are. Problem is that the small backwater they inhabit is fast disappearing as the water level drops. Would there be any suitable habitat left at all? I had my dinner and set off to check (not much in life gets in the way of dinner...)

When the River Conon is running high there is an overspill channel that becomes filled with water. As the water level drops this channel is cut off resulting in a series of very shallow interconnected pools. These have been steadily reducing in size so that at the moment most of the channel is now completely dry. Would the Microvelia still be here or would they have died with the loss of the pools?

The overflow channel with just two tiny pools remaining
Happily I found several of the assumed Microvelia, scurrying across the surface at my approach. I scooped two into a small tube before investigating the only other body of standing water available

This pool is below the weir's overflow sluice. Note the river in the background
I was positively thrilled to see a whole horde of assumed Microvelia scatter for cover at my approach, at least 20 of them disappearing into the stony edges. Closer inspection showed them to be huddled onto pebbles, I guess the open meniscus offers no hiding places so they head straight to the shore. There are no aquatic plants in this pool, apart from tiny growths of freshwater algae on the rocks. Nothing emergent though. I potted up three of the tiny beasts, each being about 2 or 3mm in length, before heading back to check them at high magnification.

Back indoors I was a bit disappointed to discover that they were all nymphs, maybe the adults have died off after overwintering and breeding. The one I checked before was an adult, that was on 25th March. There's a piccie of it on this blogpage.

Here's what they look like through a microscope


This one, rather unfortunately, had pegged it in the tube. But at least I could get some half-decent pics of unusual angles


  

Anyway, regards Microvelia the feature to concentrate on are the tarsal segments of the hindleg. This from the key:

1st and 2nd segments of hind tarsi equal (Length apters 1.6-1.8mm, macro 1.8-2mm) - pygmaea
  
2nd segment of posterior tarsi twice as long as 1st  - couplet 2....  (between reticulata and buenoi)

The problem I had was seeing a second tarsal segment! Maybe they aren't developed yet in nymphs? Try as I might the tarsus seemed to be of just one segment. Unhelpful. Meh. There is, of course another obvious explanation but I wasn't considering this at the time...

There are three drawings in the key that show the general body shape of reticulata and buenoi, mine were a good match for reticulata being rather broader and more rounded in dorsal aspect.

I hate relying on Google Images for help, though they sometimes lead to good sites. Lots of websites later I still wasn't convinced. Mine certainly looked good but would Murdo accept them? Then I stumbled across a key for the wingless apters (and hopefully nymphs!) God bless Brian Eversham, he the man! Scroll down to the very bottom of this Key to Aquatic Bugs and read the bit about the shape of the segment behind the pronotum


That'll do for me! After all that fuss and frustration I checked the distribution of Microvelia pygmaea and M.buenoi in Scotland. And guess what - they don't occur! Microvelia reticulata is the only representative of the genus ever to have been recorded from Scotland. Sheesh.....anyway, all confirmed now. Hopefully.

I emailed Murdo with the 'good news' and he passed the details of this blog to the HBRG Hemipterist. Smug bugger that I am I could hardly wait for the verdict. This afternoon it arrived -

The pictures appear to me to show early instar nymphs of a Velia species photographed in a classic Velia habitat. 

There is a pale midline showing, the first antennal segment is comparatively long and strongly curved and the middle legs in particular are very long. There are no pale marks/white spots to the front of the pronotum (also present in nymphs). I can't see the metanotum clearly but the other characters ought to be enough. If it is a nymph that is already the adult size for Microvelia then it is likely that it will achieve a larger size as an adult.
So, I've strung the whole damn thing, fooling myself but thankfully not the expert! And, when you break it down as they have, it's pretty bloody obvious too. What do I need to take away from this (other than a red face and a big pointy hat with a 'D" on it?) Well firstly I need to run through keys from the beginning rather than from genus. The trouble with being a PSLer is that it means you know a bit about most things but aren't necessarily expert in any of them. And a bit of knowledge, as the saying goes, can be a dangerous thing. I also need to stop if something isn't fitting and start again. Keys aren't infallible but they are usually pretty good when it comes to stuff like tarsal segments.

So I got it wrong. I could beat myself up about it (in fact I already am - I can't help that) or I could say, hey - the process works. The recorder picked up on a suspect record and was proven right. It's an embarrassing episode for me, brand new recorder and I've chumped out already. But this is good, in a way. It means that I will be more stringent with future records, more rigorous with the keys and hopefully become a better recorder and naturalist for it. Yes I'd love to see 10,000 species in Britain. Yes I do try to find new species for my list. Yes I do intend to put Uig on the biological map. But not with duff records and misidentified species.

I took another look at the image of the "Microvelia" I caught in March. Curved first antennal segment and longer than expected middle legs. Pah. I need to slow it down a notch.

Right...on to the next query from Murdo *sigh*

In happier news I just added Greater Plantain to my 1000 Species in a 1KSQ tally, coming in at number 591 590. Growing at the base of the garden gate that I pass through several times a day every single day. 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Globeflower

Weather started off quite cool and cloudy before a veritable heatwave descended (for all of about fifteen minutes...) then the wind picked up and all became cool once more. Despite all this, I had a free day and intended to squarebash the heck outta NG3963 - which I did. Eleven yearticks for the 1000 Species Challenge, two of them being lifers. Plus the usual heapload of pots and tubes filled with everything from lichens to various flies and even a harvestman, all still to be investigated. 

Once again it was the plants (and the insects on them) that dominated the day. First up were a bunch of quite substantial basal leaves that had me confused until I turned them over

Melancholy Thistle - the last (and only) time I saw this was 5 years ago on LEJOG
Soft prickles around the edge of the leaf and the whitish underside are clear indicators of Melancholy Thistle. I've only ever seen this in southern Scotland whilst walking LEJOG five years back, I don't think I've seen it since. Nice to reacquaint myself with it, especially as it is known from nearby tetrads but not this one, that's one more ticked off the 'missing list'. 

I wandered down the hill to the River Conon itself. Water levels are pretty low at the moment. On one 'island' I found an unfamiliar clump of Ranunculus-type leaves. Then another clump with flowerheads just about to open. I knew what this was, it's a plant I've wanted to find for a long time! 

Huge! This is not your average buttercup!
Just look at the size of that flowerhead!
For me, this is a very exciting find and it'll look a bazillion times better next week when those huge sepals reflex backwards and the petals unfurl. This is the fantastically named Globeflower and something I've never seen before. I'm just a little bit thrilled! The last time I looked for this plant I was halfway up Ben Lawers on yet another doomed Mountain Ringlet quest and that was three years ago now. I got the butterfly eventually (on the third daytripped attempt from Southampton in less than a fortnight...just think about that for a moment...) Actually, sod thinking about it - you can read about it right here

I was pretty stoked at jamming into Globeflower, I'll doubtless be back here innumerable times throughout its flowering period so expect to see some more plant porn in the near future! Talking of plant porn, the local clumps of comfrey have begun flowering and have, as expected, proved to be Russian Comfrey Symphytum x uplandicum which occurs across various parts of Skye. It's entirely new for this tetrad though.

Russian Comfrey, the fertile hybrid between Common and Rough Comfreys
In the woods the Hawthorn is in full blossom. I gave it a good few whacks but there were only a few pollen beetles and a bunch of tiny flies to show for my efforts. I'm determined to add a new longhorn beetle to the island's paltry list (currently consisting of Rhagium mordax and Rhagium bifasciatum) and hawthorn blossom is an obvious starting place. Though not today. Also looking rather fine were the pathside verges full of Cow Parsley

Exciting habbo - there should be all sorts of beetles, bugs and flies in there!
Note the dock leaves in the foreground? Well apart from hosting several microfungi of interest they also host insect life, both on the leaves and within them

Something's been nibbling those leaves!
Gastrophysa viridula - the Green Dock Beetle - guilty on all charges!
Meanwhile, inside the leaf...

See that blemish on the leaf? That's a flymine
Same mine held up against the light - larva is at the very top of the frass pile
There are several possibilities as to species involved. It's probably a Pegomya but there are at least three species that mine in Rumex. My own thoughts are that it will be Pegomya haemorrhoum but without rearing it through that's pure supposition. Either which way it'll be new for Skye (and potentially Scotland) so I shall endeavour to persevere.

Back in the undergrowth I found lots of Nettle Tap Moths Anthophila fabriciana, presumably quite widespread here on Skye but seemingly massively under-recorded. There's a hardcore group of maybe less than 15 moffers here on Skye and only 2 or 3 of those record the micros. In fact I may be the only person day-recording the microleps on Skye! As an aside I also found five Gracillaria syringella and a few Epinotia immundana settled on vegetation. 

Admittedly this isn't the best pic of a Nettle Tap that you'll find online
I spotted a well gnawed Sycamore leaf and soon tracked down the culprit, though figuring out who it was took a bit of effort

Note the conical structures on the 11th segment - cool huh?
This is the caterpillar of Feathered Thorn Colotois pennaria, deduced after a couple of hours worth of checking online sites and asking for help on FB. I still feel it looks a bit too pale, but seemingly this falls within the given ranges, plus it's a fairy common moff here on Skye.

Staying with leaves for the moment, I couldn't fail to see these leafmines all over a young Beech sapling. I initially thought I was looking at Stigmella hemargyrella mines, before realising that these mines were quite different. It wasn't until I was back indoors and checked online that I realised what they actually were.


Coleopterous not lepidopterous!
Young mine still en route to the edge of the leaf
These mines belong to the weevil Orchestes fagi (Fagus being Beech, hence "the Orchestes to be found on Beech". Apt). I took three leaves home with me and checked the larva under a handlens. Yep, quite definitely not a Stigmella! There's a nice link to the species here. This proved to be my second lifer of the day after the awesome Globeflower.

In other news I somehow managed a half-decent shot of Clausilia bidentata


Clausilia bidentata - I don't often find these out of their shells
And beneath a log I found this stunner


Megabunus diadema - sexiest harvestman in the world? Yeah, I reckon so too
I finally managed to add Norway Maple to the tally after seeing the dropped leaves when I first came here in November of last year. This sapling is very obviously self-seeded rather than a planted tree and is also new to the tetrad.


Norway Maple - puts me on 589 species for NG3963 this year