Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The Day I Found TWO Moth Species New for Inner Hebrides

I spent a truly amazing day on Raasay with the Skye Nature Group today. I know bloggers tend to use words like 'amazing', 'incredible' and 'awesome' willy-nilly all the time, but it really was amazing, and for several good reasons. The weather was mercilessly hot and breathless, we were all sweating buckets within minutes. It was then that Stephen decided we needed to head uphill, bless his hiking socks.

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's up a hill we go...
Stephen lives on Raasay and over the years has developed an intimate knowledge of the plants and local geology across his island. We were off to explore a limestone dominated area, an unusual feature in this part of the world. Our theory was that the plants growing here would be different to those growing over much of Skye and hence the associated invert assemblage could also be different. Who knew what we might find. Who knew indeed...

I think this was the very first moth that I netted, talk about off to a flying start!

Pyrausta ostrinalis
I recognised this as one of the Pyrausta straight away, but I wasn't sure which one. It went into a pot and was passed around for all to admire before I let it go again. I'm exceptionally glad that the image above shows a good portion of the hindwing because that pale patch above the two pale bars, combined with the blackish suffusion around the edges of the big golden bar across the forewings, clinches the identity of this moth as Pyrausta ostrinalis - completely new to the Inner Hebrides!!!!!

I waved this pic across the Skye Moths FB page where it was confirmed by moth guru Nigel Richards as well as vice county moth recorder Keith Sadler. It still needs to be sent off to Mark Young for official acceptance, but there shouldn't be any issues with as distinctive a moth as this. Sweet, it's not every day you get to add a moth to the Skye List (even though we were on Raasay...) 

A few sweep/miss/swish/got-its of the net later and I bagged this fine fella

Merrifieldia leucodactyla aka the Thyme Plume - and a lifer for me! 
So, a 'new' for Inner Hebs followed by a 'new' for me. Could the moths possibly get any better, I wonder? Yes, yes they really could.

"It's an Udea, not sure which one though. Maybe lutealis" was what I said at the time.
Well it turns out that it was an Udea after all, but not lutealis. This is Udea decrepitalis, new for me AND new for Inner Hebrides too!!!!!!!! According to UK Moths - A rare and local species, believed to be restricted to the Scottish Highlands, although one was recorded in South Wales in 1978. Again, I waved the pic across the Skye Moths FB Group and Nigel came back with "looks correct to me" (and if it's good enough for Nigel then it's good enough for me) so that's TWO 'new' for Inner Hebrides moths in the space of twenty minutes - Raasay is fast becoming my favourite part of Skye, haha! 

We wandered along the clifftop path enjoying the superb scenery and mirror-like calm of the sea far below. I casually asked if there were any endemic Sorbus on Raasay and Stephen surprised me by stating that there was a rare Sorbus just ahead, growing both above and below the path we were on. And sure enough, within another ten minutes or so, he pointed across a hillside and there stood my first ever Rock Whitebeam Sorbus rupicola. It was several hundred metres away yet I knew I had to get a record shot of it. This was a significant day for several reasons, not least because my PSL stood at 4997 species plus whatever I added whilst on Raasay. I knew the plume was 'new' for me, I didn't think the Udea was (though it certainly was) which meant that my 5000th British species was this magnificent beast

Sorbus rupicola - the mighty Rock Whitebeam
Happily, Stephen has been out to this tree to confirm the identity and it really is a Rock Whitebeam. I learned that beam is the old word for tree. I questioned whether it was the same word as used in, for example, roof beam. Colin chipped in that builders sometimes use the phrase ceiling tree when describing a ceiling beam, so I guess that answers that. My 5000th British species, a white ceiling beam...coolness.

Next we clambered up a very steep slope, admiring a profusion of flowering Early Purple Orchids (euphemism for catching our breath) and finding Yellow Saxifrage and lots of Alchemilla. A bit of impromptu scrutinising of the Alchemilla revealed a hairy stem (so definitely not glabra), leaves were sparsely covered in long hairs along the tops of the leaf folds and edges on the upperside and quite hairy on the underside too. I found a flowering head which had very hairy capitula

Hairy capitulum = Alchemilla filicaulis ssp vestita (Hairy Lady's Mantle)
To my mind this was my 5000th species, though the Udea moth later proved me wrong. Stephen was on a mission to drag us into a specific geological feature, though he couldn't recall the correct name. "Like a crack in the rock" he announced. I cleverly suggested gryke, seeing as we were on limestone. Too small, apparently. Ok, so then I suggested 'canyon'. Too large, by all accounts. Sheesh, but this guy was fussy. Oh, and it started with the letter F. Luckily for everyone, Rob immediately sussed it and suggested 'fissure', which was the correct term. The great news was that it was uphill some more.

Larger than a gryke yet smaller than a canyon....must be a fissure, yay!
Sadly, we failed to find the Holly Fern that once occurred on the fissure walls. We carefully descended, worried about starting a rockfall onto those still below us (at least I did). At the bottom of the geological feature that is larger than a gryke yet smaller than a canyon, Stephen very casually waved his arm at some rocks and muttered "Brittle Bladder-fern" - whaaaat?!?! I've never even seen Brittle Bladder-fern before, it's a lifer! I duly took some pics

Brittle Bladder-fern - quite a distinctive jizz to this plant. Very nice indeed. Awesome, in fact.
We then spied Beech FernHart's-tongueWall RueLemon-scented FernGolden Scaly Male-fernGreen and Black SpleenwortsHard Shield-ferns - I figured I was getting my eye in on fern ID before I completely blew it by pointing out a Lady-fern frond that was actually Bracken - duh! Stephen quite rightly threw a bit of it at my head for being so very dense.

Stephen - oblivious/completely unconcerned about the huge fall beneath him
By far the commonest insect we encountered was Rhagio scolopaceus, the Downlooker Snipefly, I can't ever recall seeing as many as we found today. They seemed perfectly content to land on our arms, rucksacks or hats as we meandered along the paths. I'm just glad they don't bite, I imagine that a non-naturalist could quite easily panic if one landed on their face/arm/shoulder!

Rhagio scolopaceus - Downlooker Snipefly
And then we turned a corner, crested a rise, and saw this

Magical waterfall, spilling straight into the sea! Incredible :) 
I'm not sure I can imagine a more tranquil spot, apart from being hassled by bastard midges that is. 

We walked onwards, down into a wooded ravine, across a shallow stream, up the other side again and came out at the site of an ancient village, long since abandoned. Upslope of the village were several deep ravines. Stephen said that they used to tether the children to stop them falling in (!) whilst Deirdre told us that goats were outlawed on certain crofts because the sheep would follow them onto cliffs and fall off. Harsh! All I know is that I loved it here, even more so when Stephen called us over to admire a solitary plant of Hairy Rock-cress Arabis hirsuta - yet another new one for me

Worst pic ever of Hairy Rock-cress, but at least you can (maybe) see the seedpods
Eventually we turned around to head back once more, we had a ferry to catch. Across the sea, somewhere above Kyleakin, we could distantly see a fire raging across a hillside

This comes hot on the heels of a large fire that rapidly spread across the hills above Sligachan just a couple of days ago, started by two careless tourists having a BBQ outside their campervan. Plus several more fires on other parts of Skye that same day, this heatwave has turned parts of the island "dust dry", as the locals say. Discarded cigarettes and disposable BBQs may seem innocuous enough, but in these conditions.... 

Back at the cars we just about had time for freshly baked pancakes and home made jams at Stephen's home before rushing off to the ferry and homewards once more. 

But not before Stephen showed me a couple of rather tasty invasive alien plants that were both 'new' to me

Spineless Acaena (Acaena inermis) growing in a verge of short grasses - tick! 
American Speedwell (Veronica peregrina) as a persistent weed in the veg plot!
So, from 'new to Inner Hebrides' moths to alien weeds in the cabbage patch, today has been just awesome. Lovely people, truly amazing scenery, moderately severe sunburn and a fat fistful of lifers. What more could a boy ask for in life? 

Hell yeah he has! 

Tuesday, 29 May 2018


1:30pm this afternoon: I'd just finished mowing and strimming the back lawns and had started heaving the leaf-blower onto my back when I suddenly thought to check my phone for missed calls. Three, all from my boss. O-oh, that's never a good thing... I called him back, wondering what emergency I was about to be hurled into this time. "There's a swan on the sea just outside my house, it's still here right now". Oh! "Has it got a yellow and black bill or an orange and black bill?" "Dunno, can't tell". "Ok, so is the neck curved or straight? " "Um kinda straight. Or curved. Not sure". "Fuckit, I'm driving down, I'll be there in two minutes....

Two minutes later and...

The crazy damn bird was casually swimming up and down just 50 metres offshore, presumably wondering where all of its pals were (clue - they arrived back in Iceland 5 or 6 weeks ago) and probably feeling slightly out of place in the 23C heatwave Skye is currently enjoying. As an aside, a pair of Common Terns were flitting across the bay slightly further out, brand new for my square and for my Skye List too. Double whammy, sweet! 

Well within the boundaries of NG3963 :)
I phoned local birder Martin Lumb who immediately put the news out on my behalf. I later told my boss that it was on the Skye Birds website with my initials after it. "But I found it not you, why isn't MY name on the website?" Haha, he can be so delightfully churlish at times.

The light trap has been working wonders this week. Still small numbers of moths, 20 individuals being a large haul, but today I added THREE macro-leps to my Pan-species List. Must be years and years since that last happened. 

The Lychnis
Broom Moth 
Dark Brocade
Other odds and sods in the trap these past few days include this bunch, amongst others

White Ermine
Clouded Silver (and not Silver Cloud as I keep calling it - that's a very different moth indeed!)
Dark Twin-spotted Carpet
Barred Umber
Small Angle Shades
The most gorgeously velvety Ruby Tiger ever!
Scalloped Hazel
Coxcomb Prominent
Narrow-winged Pug
Almost forgot to mention - last night was the start of the midge season here. I managed to avoid being bitten but they were becoming bothersome. Today I added three midge bites to my left forearm. Damn, let's see how long the season lasts this year...

I've YouTubed my way through various Midge Ure tracks whilst writing this post and have come to the conclusion that I really don't rate his stuff (Live Aid aside). Apart from the obvious one that everyone loves. If this means nothing to you.... 

And for no other reason than YouTube autoplayed straight into this....

I need to watch Lost Boys again sometime soon. I've only seen it about sixteen times so far...........

And then THIS happened. Man, I so love autoplay!

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 :(