Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Hunting Aliens

If there's one aspect of biological surveying that I actively enjoy, it's getting in a car and square-bashing on a grand scale. Today's assault of the squares was devoted to the genus Crocosmia and was entirely inspired by Stephen Bungard's latest blogpost.

Montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora) is a widespread plant up here, well-naturalised across many suitable areas. At this time of year great clumps of the stuff can be seen gleaming pale orange in roadside verges and near habitation, where it has usually managed to escape from a garden or two. A couple of years back, a visiting BSBI county recorder informed me that not all Montbretia up here is the hybrid, some of it is one of the parent plants, Potts' Montbretia (Crocosmia pottsii). He had one of the latter in his grasp and explained the differences. Obviously something stuck because to this day I keep an eye out for Potts' amongst the hybrid. Clearly, it is by far the less common of the two (hybrid swarms do kinda tend to...well, swarm) but there are a couple of clumps of Potts' Montbretia close to where I live, so I can keep my eye tuned in to the differences. 

Anyhow, today I decided to square-bash the entire north end of Skye in an attempt to discover which monads hold what montbretias. I took the coast road clockwise around the entire Trotternish peninsular but decided to forgo the Quiraing road; firstly because it's pretty inhospitable moorland and unlikely to be populated by any Montbretia, and secondly because I just couldn't stomach enduring the campervan mayhem that is The Quiraing in August. 

This is the BSBI map for Montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora) on The Trotternish (data as of yesterday)

Dark red squares are recent (2010 onwards) records
As you can see, it's a fairly common plant up here. The interior of the Trotternish is mostly high moorland or mountains, with no roads going east to west (apart from the Quiraing road) hence inhospitable to Crocosmia in general. 

And here's the dots where I found Montbretia today. Some are duplications of those already recorded on the BSBI map, but others are new (or at least I hope they are). I deliberately ignored all Montbretia that were growing in gardens or immediately adjacent to gardens, only naturalised plants were counted. Admittedly, some of these may have been planted at some stage in the past, or more likely chucked out as garden waste but, by and large, Montbretia is a well-established plant across much of Skye and is probably only going to become more common in the future.

Dots are all at monad level (1km square)
I also found a few clumps of Potts' Montbretia (Crocosmia pottsii) in the general vicinity of habitation, often close to gardens. However, bucking that trend are the roadside verges at Staffin which are full of properly naturalised plants spreading along maybe a two mile stretch of the A855. Clearly it isn't anywhere near as widespread as Montbretia (yet!) but it is holding its own decidedly well in the grassy verges at Staffin. 

Here is yesterday's BSBI map for Potts' Montbretia in The Trotternish

The two upper squares are my records
And here's the map of today's sightings of Potts' Montbretia

Dots are all at monad level (1km square)
To my mind, there's a bit of urgency regards getting this genus mapped. Whilst flowering they are relatively simple to tell apart from one another (and to spot from a moving car!) But in another month or so these plants will lose their flowers and return into obscurity, yet more greenery in a sea of green. So we really at the last chance saloon for recording Crocosmia on Skye if we want to get it into the forthcoming Atlas 2020. Should there be a future national plant atlas, and I hope there will be, it probably won't be until about 2050. By then I suspect drones and DNA sniffers will be doing almost all of the fieldwork, plus I'll be an old fart, if not dead already, by then. Hence I need to make the most of this Atlas 2020 square-bashing project while I can. Pity I've come to it so late. Anyway, that's several more dots on the map for pottsii.   

There is just one other Crocosmia that has been recorded from Skye, one I've only ever seen growing planted in gardens. This is Aunt-Eliza (Crocosmia paniculata), which is the second parent of Montbretia (Potts' Montbretia being the other parent plant). Today, I spotted a few gardens that had Aunt-Eliza growing as feature plants either in large pots or in flowerbeds, maybe a dozen gardens in all. But then, as I was driving along the minor road through Achachork, I did a double-take, hit the brakes and backed up a bit. Fuckaduck - a great big healthy patch of Aunt-Eliza growing maybe fifteen feet back into an overgrown verge! Hell yeah, that's a lifer for me and a damn decent find too!  

Ok, it's a crap image. But you get the general idea! 
I thwacked my way closer to the plants and took a few more pics, before ripping up one whole plant to take back and key through properly. Despite looking as though this is the middle of nowhere, there are several big houses with well maintained gardens just the other side of this narrow road. Within another few hundred feet I'd spotted Montbretia and Potts' Montbretia in the verge and in gardens, plus several clumps of Aunt-Eliza a few hundred metres further up the road (in a garden). Almost certainly, this verge clump would have been dumped as garden waste at some point in the past, although I couldn't immediately see any other obvious garden plants in the ditch. However, it seems unlikely that somebody would have deliberately planted it outside of a garden, and in such an extensive stand, without introducing other species and then tending to them afterwards. It appears to be spreading by itself, vegetatively I presume. 

Huge, wide, heavily ribbed and pleated leaf blades

You can see which parent plant Montbretia gets it's zigzagging flowering stem from!
Oh! Note the stamens slightly protruding from the corolla mouth. That's not right...
I now find myself in a bit of a quandary. The material I took home with me appears to differ slightly from the material in the last two images. Right at this very moment, I feel I may need to change my initial identification. Purely from looking at these two images, despite checking what I physically have on my desk in front of me. How so, I hear you ask? Well...

I used Stace 4 and Poland to key through my specimen. Poland doesn't go by flower characters, Stace does. Between them I thought I had this nailed as Aunt-Eliza. Here's a pic of the plant I brought back

Using Stace 4 (features of the flower)
  • Perianth-lobes c 1/2 as long as tube or less, erecto-patent; stamens shorter than perianth > paniculata
  • Perianth-lobes c. as long as tube, widely spreading; stamens slightly exceeding perianth > masoniorum

Clearly, going by the flower in the above image, the perianth is a lot shorter than the tube, it's laying over on its side and there's no sign of any projecting stamens > paniculata (Aunt-Eliza)


looking at the images I took in the field, some of the lobes look to be quite long in comparison with the tube, and some of the perianths are spreading. And I can definitely see stamens poking from the end of the perianth too. But not all. So it somewhat fits Aunt-Eliza, but not perfectly. 

Well guess what, there are other options. There's a thing called Giant Montbretia (Crocosmia masoniorum) which I had never heard of before this evening. Intriguingly, it has been recorded from several parts of the adjacent mainland. So is that what I have? Well, Stace's key would suggest so. But Poland has this to say regards the actual leaf blades themselves - tough > paniculata. Tender > masoniorum. Well, I have to say it's a comparative thing, and I have nothing to compare it with, making it a somewhat tricky thing to decide for sure. But after quite a bit of pulling, twisting and yanking, the leaf blade stayed intact, so I'll have to go with 'tough' over 'tender'. Which puts me back at an Aunt-Eliza that isn't quite right. 

Luckily (perhaps), the final option is one put forward by Stace himself. "C.paniculata x pottsii is probably the identity of most plants of so-called C.paniculata grown in gardens, and therefore of those naturalised". Which was the exact point that Stephen Bungard queried with me several hours ago. He's good that fella.

So it seems that I may have been a bit rash in claiming Aunt-Eliza, it may be a hybrid Aunt-Eliza. An Aunt-Potts' in fact. Well whatever it is, it will still be there tomorrow. And the next day. But I do need to get back to it before it stops flowering. Stephen will want a definitive answer one way or the other. As do I.

Best not get me started on the agrimony I spotted whilst square-bashing, it seems a bit kind of inbetweeny too. Must be something in the water up here.

Lowest spines spreading horizontally or ascending (ie not reflexed) > Agrimonia eupatoria

Some of the petals are definitely notched > Agrimonia procera

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Numbers - Just for Fun

During an idle moment late last night, I found myself wondering just how many insect species I've ever seen. Insects in the true sense of the word, if I were to expand it to include other 'creepy crawlies' such as spiders, millipedes, woodlice etc I'd have to categorise them as arthropods. Insects are just one subphyla in the huge entity that is Arthropoda. I'm on fairly safe ground so far, I understand what an insect is. I know what an arthropod is too. 

But then I got to wondering about whether or not I could include algae in with the plants. Surely freshwater algae, of which I see plenty up here, count as primitive plants. Don't they? Yeah, must do. But what about seaweeds? I know that marine algae, as they are properly called, are divided into red, green and brown categories. And I know that one of them is very different to the other two, only very distantly related, in fact. I thought probably the browns. Or perhaps the reds. Anyway, could I include any of them in with my plant tally?  

Eventually I clambered out of bed to check whether any algae, freshwater or otherwise, were classed as plants. They aren't. Cool, so what are they classed as then? Well...an hour or so later, and with about 50 tabs open on the laptop, I came to the conclusion that I should have just stayed in bed. 2am is for sleeping, not sitting in the dark, failing to comprehend what I'm reading on a small screen whilst being eaten by midges. 

Anyway, this evening I cranked open the laptop and tried again. There are a surprisingly large number of versions describing how life is categorised on this planet. Essentially, nobody knows, that's the simple reason. Going back to the arthropods as an example, see if you can wrap your head around the following short paragraph (and this is only from Wikipedia, it gets a whole lot more complex the deeper you dig!) 

"The phylogeny of the major extant arthropod groups has been an area of considerable interest and dispute. Recent studies strongly suggest that Crustacea, as traditionally defined, is paraphyletic, with Hexapoda having evolved from within it, so that Crustacea and Hexapoda form a clade, Pancrustacae. The position of Myriapoda, Chelicerata and Pancrustacea remains unclear as of April 2012. In some studies, Myriapoda is grouped with Chelicerata (forming Myriochelata); in other studies, Myriapoda is grouped with Pancrustacea (forming Mandibulata), or Myriapoda may be sister to Chelicerata plus Pancrustacea." 

Hope we're all crystal clear on that, at least? By the way, I'm loving that word Pancrustacea. I haven't quite figured how to casually drop it into everyday conversation yet, but I will. Somehow.

And so, after much head scratching and jiggling around with various unrelated phyla, I have come up with the following breakdown for my British PSL
  • Protista (all algae, slime moulds and protists) - 111 species. 
  • Fungi (encompassing both true fungi and lichens) - 562 species.
  • Plants (bryophytes and vascular plants combined) - 1486 species.
  • Molluscs (your typical slugs and snails plus squid, bivalves, chitons etc) - 138 species.

Now for the ever-so-slightly iffy bits...
"Selected Seashore Stuff" (ie randomers that don't really work elsewhere). I've thrown all sorts into here, including the tunicates which really should be elsewhere, plus the catch all that is "Worms". Ho hum.
  • Selected Seashore Stuff (Sponges, Comb-jellies, Cnidarians, Bryozoans, Echinoderms and Tunicates) - 62 species.
  • Worms (including true annelids, leeches, peanut, platyhelminth and nemertean worms) - 46 species.
OK, and now we're back into the not-quite-so-iffy bits
  • Arthropods excluding insects (sea spiders, arachnids, myriapods, crustaceans, springtails etc) - 299 species
  • Insects only - 2345 species
  • Vertebrates - 576 species. 

Well that was fun, and it all correctly tallies up to 5624 species. So just another 376 to go in order to attain another nice round number. I'm probably not gonna manage that this year, not at this rate anyway (248 so far this year). Should make it sometime during 2020 though. 

So what, if anything, has this wee exercise accomplished? Nothing really, nothing at all. Thanks for reading.



Well actually, it does provide me with some extra impetus to hit a few nicely rounded numbers. 299 species of arthropods (excluding insects) is an exceptionally niggling number, just one more will put me at a far happier number. And those 1486 plants? 1500 must be easily attainable, so there's another target number to aim for. 

Now then, what about those 576 vertebrates. Hmmm, yes I do like that one. I need 24 more to hit a pleasing 600 species, but finding new vertebrates doesn't come so easily nowadays.  In fact, since January 2016 I've added 13 fish, 1 bird and 2 mammals to my PSL vertebrate tally - that's just 16 in the last three and a half years! I can stake out the odd bat roost (Greater Horseshoe is an 'easy' one) and I could always twitch the Loch Lomond wallabies or the reintroduced beavers. To be utterly honest though, neither of the latter two species appeal in the slightest. Harvest Mouse, Yellow-necked Mouse, Hazel Dormouse, rare birds and fish - now they appeal! Oh, and there's a fistful of amphibians that are all perfectly gettable too: Natterjack Toad, Pool and Perez' Water Frogs, Alpine Newt and Midwife Toad all beckon. Just a case of my being several hundred miles too far north for all of them. Well, I can add fish from here, but not the rest. 

Pancrustacea just doesn't come much better than this! And yes, that's my hand in the pic :) 

I'll end this silly post with a suitably silly song. It'll all be back to normal again soon....

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Telfer the Tonking Terror!

Continuing on from yesterday's post, I'd joined The Telfers on an overnighter into Speyside for some seriously hardcore beetling, the likes of which I've never experienced before or since. Time spent in the field with Mark is always pretty damned hardcore, but also extraordinarily rewarding. Watching a master coleopterist in action is something to behold. Trust me, I learned more in a day than I ever would in a year by myself. It also showed me just how poor I am at natural history. Still, I did manage to find a couple of things for myself. Just a couple mind you...

30th May - Skye to Speyside
We arrived in Aviemore mid-afternoon. Jo and Bradley set up basecamp whilst Mark and I hit the forest in search of...well, anything really! First up was an extensive tract of woodland a few miles east of Loch Garten where we ambled along a snaking trail beneath lichen bedecked pines, pressing ever onwards through knee high Bilberry and Cowberry until we came across an area with some very special plants indeed

I'd spotted several of these small plants but didn't know what they were. I knew what I hoped they were, but stupidly I'd left all my plant ID guides back on Skye. Luckily Mark found a few slightly more developed plants which confirmed our suspicions

Note the paired buds at the tip of the stem
Yes! This was none other than Twinflower, or 'Twinbud' as it was quickly dubbed. It should look glorious in a fortnight or so. Sadly I was only here until tomorrow, but a Twinbud is better than no bud at all. Not too far away we found more unfamiliar plants

These are the basal leaves of Creeping Lady's-tresses
We did find a couple of Creeping Lady's-tresses that were starting to push up a flower spike, but my pics of those are blurry - low light levels were clearly to blame rather than any incompetence on my part. Yup.

Bryoria fuscescens, or horsehair lichen as I named it
A snakefly was perched out in the open, only the third or fourth I've ever encountered and always a thrill, they are such bizarre looking beasts!

Female Atlantoraphida maculicollis. Pure monster.
Back at the car, Mark wandered off down a rough track and told me to drive along behind him. I cautiously followed, wondering just how rough the track might get. I was borrowing a colleague's car and I was pretty sure he'd want it back undamaged. Soon enough though, I drove into a large clearing, the site of a disused sawmill. For many years now, I've wanted to sneak around an old sawmill, hidden deep in an ancient forest. In my mind's eye I've envisioned a high-roofed wooden mill with huge stacks of logs outside, all crawling with Giant Wood-wasps and Timbermen (both of which are very high on my Wish List) with just the calls of Parrot Crossbill and maybe a furtive Pine Marten for company. Sadly, what greeted us was a big old pile of sawdust with a few discarded offcuts and planks laying on top, all sat in the middle of maybe an acre of open space. Still, it's gotta be better than nothing and we soon set to overturning anything big enough to harbour potential goodies. Mark was muttering about it being a shadow of its former self, a tragedy, a real loss etc etc. I spotted ants under a plank - whoop. But Mark has keen eyes, he soon noticed that this ant colony comprised small black ants and larger wood ants, all mixed in together. Clearly this was a species of slavemaker ant with its slaves, and the only slavemaking wood ants in Britain are Formica sanguinea. In this instance, the slaves were the far smaller Formica lemani. Formica sanguinea typically rush around biting things in defence of their colony. Here's a slightly blurry pic of one doing just that

Blurred due to some impressive high speed running around by the ant 
Check out those mandibles, I'm glad none of them managed to latch onto us! Meanwhile, Mark was busily extracting a beetle carcass from beneath a plank of wood. He was pretty crestfallen that it was dead. Here's the pic. I'd be crestfallen too...

Cantharis obscura - not a very common beetle. Not very tickable either.
We very briefly called in to a site for Deschampsia setacea (far too early really, just a recce so I could see the site) where I spotted a bunch of what I initially thought were click beetles in grasses. A closer look revealed them to be winged males of Formica lugubris - absolutely huge, they positively dwarf the workers! Quitting the forest we detoured to a shallow sandy bay on the edge of Loch Garten itself where Mark did a bit of water beetle sampling. Happily, I spotted an elmid beetle, absolutely tiny and hence massively appealing to the mighty Telfer (the law of decreasing size equating to increasing interest levels clearly applies) and I also proffered the correct suggestion of Oreodytes for another small water beetle, one which seemingly I have as much experience of as does Mark (they aren't common in his part of the world, I have them in the local river). 

After an ever so slight misunderstanding regards that evening's dinner arrangements, we skulked off to the local takeaway for grub before quickly returned to basecamp. I think I added about 300 species to my PSL that afternoon.

Mark promised me that tomorrow was going to be awesome (though today was hardly dross). I kipped soundly and awoke with a sense of anticipation. And a need to pee.

31st May - Glenmore Forest - hell yeah!
I had the car, Mark was leaving his campervan in the prison campsite, so I drove off and parked up at the end of a long loop through the hills and walked back to the campsite where the Telfers were just about ready for a day on the trail. Mark had a hand axe. He looked as though he meant business. He also had beating tray, pooter, pots, pockets bulging full of kit. I had a butterfly net and 15 pots. Epic fail. To make things worse, my camera battery died. Thankfully Mark had a spare battery, what a guy. 

We began by heading up the wrong track. Happily Jo, at least, knew the correct way. Mark mumbled something about us not being lost already, secret shortcuts, etc etc before falling into line with the rest of us. Bradley was an absolute star, pointing out the coloured posts we were meant to be following (takes after his mom, that boy) and never once flagging on the upward yomp into the trees. 

It wasn't long before Mark started pointing out beetles. Weevils on the birches (various Phyllobius, all new for me), Pine Weevils on fence posts and fallen logs. One large felled pine held a couple of smart longhorns

Loads of Phyllobius weevils, all new for me (didn't have the book last time I encountered them)

Rhagium bifasciatum - a very smart beast indeed
Beneath the loose bark we found pupal chambers of Rhagium inquisitor, though sadly not the beast itself. 

The 'palisade' edging is apparently diagnostic of Rhagium inquisitor
We then had a fun twenty minutes or so wheedling bark from a huge fallen pine. My fault, in a way, because I spotted this

See that pile of fresh frass poking out from beneath the bark...
Mark suddenly unlimbered his axe and put it to work ever so carefully slicing away at a piece of bark in a determined effort to find the beetle below. It looked quite easy, but I think I would have lost at least one finger if I'd tried it. A short while later and we had one in a tube (the beetle, I mean - not one of my fingers), soon followed by two others (again, beetles...)

Tomicus sp. - 3mm of sheer excitement!
Mark wasn't sure, but felt that we may have stumbled across Tomicus minor. He then quietly announced that he wasn't aware of any living coleopterist that had seen this species in Britain. Shit a brick, pass me that tube! (Sadly, so to speak, they were later determined as Tomicus piniperda). Still, can't say I've ever witnessed a 3mm long beetle being extracted (still intact) with an axe!

We'd temporarily lost Jo and Bradley, but we could hear Bradley somewhere up ahead. We caught them up and took a lunch stop beneath a particularly awesome, craggy old Scots Pine. Several broken boughs were dead, dead and within reach of Mark's axe... "Have you ever tonked a tree before, Seth?" he casually asked. I briefly worried that I'd been lured into the back end of nowhere to perform some weird sexual perversions upon a tree, thankfully (for the tree) I was mistaken. Here's Mark 'tonking' a tree with the blunt end of his axe. Turn the volume up, or better still listen with headphones. Definitely a decent "tonk" going on there! 

A multitude of tiny brown bodies littered the beating tray, the larger measuring maybe 3mm. All disappeared up the spout of Mark's pooter. In some areas the tree bark had fallen away, revealing many distinctive feeding galleries. Each gallery originated from a very shallow Y-shape and immediately branching out horizontally (circumferentially as Mark said it) across the diameter of the branch. Paralleling these linear galleries were a series of holes. All in all a highly distinctive mine! And, without a doubt, belonging to the near-mythical Tomicus minor that I mentioned earlier. The obvious snag being, by the time one finds the galleries the beetle has long departed. Randomised bark removal of very freshly damaged boughs may be the best bet of finding this beetle in the flesh, certainly it is here!  

You can clearly see the shallow Y-shape in the centre of one gallery (2nd from right)
Typical size of some of the stuff Mark was pootering up. I was a bit flabbergasted at the time, but have since successfully carded these myself. 2mm of perfection, more or less. 

One that I took away and successfully carded. And this is one of the larger ones....
I pulled back a bit of loose bark and found myself eyeballing a small, elongate weevil. "Mark, I've got a weevil, looks like a short, fat Euophryum confine but with a blunter rostrum" I threw at him. "That'll be Rhyncolus ater, I ticked it here last year" was the immediate response. And it was too, impressive recognition or impressive description? I suspect the former. 

Rhyncolus ater, exactly like an obese Euophryum confine. Though much scarcer
Bradley was busily telling off some fast disappearing cyclists (we were on a no cycling trail) when Mark and I found a freshly fallen pine bough. The scent of resin was heavy in the air and incoming saproxylic beetles could be seen winging their way through the tree trunks! I had an Otiorhynchus scaber land on a trunk beside me and other beetles quickly disappeared into the freshly fallen branches. We started potting up specimens, more arriving as we did so. Our timing was perfect, the beetles were assembling before our very eyes, species after species was called out and identified, I've never experienced anything like it before. Mark dubbed it the tree that kept on giving, and indeed as soon as we thought we were done something else would crash land into the branches and another species would be added to the tally. A small selection: Polydrusus pilosus (landed on me), Otiorhynchus singularis, Otiorhynchus scaber (several), Strophosoma melanogrammum, Rhizophagus depressus, Quedionuchus plagiatus, Oulema melanopus, Ampedus nigrinus, Meligethes aeneus ("like finding a rat turd in your packet of chocolate buttons"!), Gastrophysa viridula, Magdalis duplicata and Magdalis phlegmatica. Plus other, commoner stuff we'd already seen. A Juniper Pug larva was noted, there was also a dogshit moment that is probably best not talked about. I was commended on my ability to keep a straight face and not take the piss. First time for everything.

Eventually we caught up with Jo and Bradley by a blue lochan. Starting our return towards the car we entered a heathy area. Mark was soon pointing out a foraging Bilberry Bumblebee, one I've not seen before. Somehow he tempted it onto his hand for photo opportunities

And this from a man who reacts badly to bee stings! 
By now we were almost out of the forest and back to the car. Last stop though was a large Scots Pine in an open area of grass and scrub. A couple of years back, a rare beetle was found here. Word obviously spread because some dolt had recently been here ahead of us and ragged the shit out of all the loose bark, There were great piles of it beneath the branches. I can't say that I blame Mark for being dismayed when we discovered this, not because it meant we now had little chance of finding the beetle for ourselves, but because the rare beetle's habitat had been utterly trashed.

I guess if you've travelled a long way to see something, you really don't want to leave until you've seen it. Leave no stone unturned, or loose bark unpeeled in this particular instance. But surely common sense would tell you that enough is enough at some point (ie before you run out of loose bark to peel away)? Obviously not. I can sympathise, and I hope the chap did get his beetle, but he's still a fucktard whichever way you look at it.

However, this is an exceptional area of Caledonian pinewood and a bit of peeled away bark could not lessen that. We managed several really decent species from this one pine including my only arachnid lifer of the day (well, that I could identify).

Salticus cingulatus - cousin of the more familiar Zebra Spider
Plus a selection of beetles typical of this part of the world. Almost all lifers for me, obviously.

Cimberis attelaboides - ignore the antennae, it really is a weevil! 

Anthonomus phyllocola - pretending to be a seed head perhaps?
And I almost forgot to include this bad boy from near the start of the trail, the spectacular Ant Beetle trying to take a large chunk out of Mark's finger

Thanasimus formicarius - gorgeous but with a bit of an attitude problem
I needed to hustle my way back to Skye for work in the morning, so had to quit Speyside early. A short detour to Carrbridge allowed me to claw back Fairy Foxglove from myself. Let me explain - I'd last visited Carrbridge maybe 15 years back, which was long before I knew about the existence of a thing called Fairy Foxglove. I went in the summertime, so there's no way I would have missed seeing this exotic plant (it's all over the bridge!) yet I have no actual recollection of seeing it. So a return unblocking visit was required. I just took a long time doing so. But I have now, and a lovely wee flower it is too.

I can't recall what time I eventually fell into bed that evening, but I'm pretty certain my dreams were filled with beetles, the smell of resin and the sound of an axe tonking into tree trunks. Many, many thanks to Mark for showing me just how exciting beetling in a prime Caledonian pinewood can be. Cheers buddy, you're one heck of a guy.

Monday, 29 July 2019

The Missing Months - Part 1

Aah. It appears that two months have passed since I last blogged. Oops, that was rather careless. 

So where was I, what was I doing, why the apparent loss of momentum? 

Well, I was busy for some of the time. I was sat hunched over the microscope for quite a bit of the time. I pinned/carded a lot of specimens, identifying some and passing over others. I finally put my storeboxes into a rough semblance of order, I now have two dedicated to Diptera! I managed to clear a good chunk of specimens from the backlog box (then filled it again to overflowing and had to start a second backlog box...) I nipped across to Speyside and then North Uist with PSL buddies, then spent an away day in the hills of Lochalsh searching for White-faced Darters. I drank far too much alcohol and demolished maybe half my body weight in Pringles. Now and then I did a bit of work, just to appease the bosses.

What I didn't do was blog, and for that I apologise. There's no way I can do justice to everything that has happened these past nine and a half weeks in a single blogpost, so I'll break it down into several instalments. Both you and I would quickly lose the will to live if I tried to fit it all into one lengthy post! I'll start with the nature walk I led.

But folks nowadays like images, not words. Attention span of a flea, apparently. Hmmm, I'm not very good at being brief. Here you go then, have some pics before you leap off elsewhere

Mouse without wings - cute! 
Mouse with wings - even more cute! 
My first Skye reptile - three years in the waiting!!!

29th May - Uig Wood SNG Walk
A big day for me, I was leading a Skye Nature Group walk through the local woods with a few fellow PSLers thrown in for good measure. Kev and Debs Rylands were up from Devon with a day to kill before catching the Uig to Lochmaddy ferry across to North Uist. Happily, they'd planned it perfectly to join the SNG walk! As if that wasn't exciting enough in itself, Mark, Jo and Bradley Telfer were in Scotland and, despite Mark suddenly becoming quite ill (pooting rare beetles from carcasses, I reckon), they managed to limp their way across from Speyside to Uig in time to join the tail end of my walk - how amazing is that!?!?  Piccies below courtesy of Debs xx

Me spouting sheer nonsense, judging by the look on Stephen's face

Mark Telfer becoming the first person from Bedfordshire to tick Mitella ovalis!

Bradley sees a wall and scampers off to investigate whilst the grown-ups play in puddles....
It was a good walk, Kev and Debs (and possibly Mark too?) all saw their first ever protist, the utterly enchanting Plasmopara nivea, a downy mildew on Cow Parsley leaves. Neil was casually papping pics of hoverflies on flowerheads including one which I didn't see. In fact, it's one I've never seen. Ever. And I still haven't. It's not the first time Neil's done this to me, the next time I see him pointing his camera at a flowerhead I'm just gonna throw a rock at it...

The plan was that we (me, the Rylands and the Telfers) would have a meal at the hotel that evening and meet up again in the morning. Mark had invited me to do an overnighter in Speyside where we would be beetling in the Caledonian forests. I was guaranteed at least 400 lifers, or so I told the bosses, and happily they were understanding enough to let me disappear and "look at insects with your friends" for a couple of days. Game on! The next instalment centres around Glenmore Forest and the Pass of Rohan, or whatever it was really called. 

I've been exploring some new music since I last blogged. See what you think of this, personally I think it is utterly sublime. Hope you like it!

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Turns out that pigs do fly

Yesterday was spent out and about in the woods, swishing my net at anything that looked promising or interesting. By contrast, today I've sat at my desk for several hours, working through the specimens collected, running them through the keys and have slowly racked up a few more additions to my PSL. It was all going quite well, no real issues with any of them - and then I picked up a small hoverfly. Suddenly everything went pear-shaped.

Fairly innocuous looking chap, shouldn't prove too tricky to ID
I didn't recognise the family, but that's not very surprising seeing as I'm pretty poor when it comes to hoverfly ID. I ran it through the family key and went wrong. Ok, so I'll just flick through the pictures shall I? That enlarged hind femur looks pretty darn distinctive...

I stuck with the keys and this time dropped out at Neoascia. Obvious once you know it, I mean just look at those right-angled veins in the wing membrane! Turns out there are only six species of Neoascia in Britain, this was going to be a doddle. Or so I thought. An hour came and went, I still hadn't nailed the bugger to species. 

There are a whole bunch of features to help get you to species in this small genus, loads in fact. But no matter which route I took through the keys, I couldn't get a conclusive ID, one that ticked all the right couplets in the key.

So...let's do this together. Maybe you can see where/if I'm going wrong.

Firstly, two subgenera have been proposed, separated by the presence or absence of a band of chitin  running side to side across the underside of the body, just behind the rear legs. Two species have this complete band, 4 have a broken band with a membrane present along the midline of the abdomen. It's a complete arse to view and all but impossible to photograph - but here's my effort

Paler membrane separating the two dark plates of chitin

These are the two options, pics taken from the key. The black area is the chitinous band, the white the membrane. The pair of curved shapes at the top of the black patches are the hindmost coxa

Continuous band of chitin running side to side just behind the rear legs

The band of chitin doesn't meet in the middle - wide membrane running in between

So the six species of Neoascia in Britain are geniculata, interrupta, meticulosa, obliqua, podagrica and tenur. Two of these, podagrica and tenur (proposed subgenus Neoascia) have a continuous band of chitin, so we can lose those two straight away. The remaining four (proposed subgenus Neoasciella) shouldn't take too much effort. He said.

To the key, at last (abridged version)

1 - upper and lower marginal cross-veins infuscated (darkened) - 2
These veins clear - 5

They were clear (first pic) So I went to 5.

5 - Face projection blunt. Front and mid femora and tibia extensively yellow - [N.annexa]*
Face conical, apex pointed. Front/mid femora often dark, or at least dark shading in the middle - 6
* - not yet known from Britain but included in the key as a likely coloniser in the future

Conical face with a pointed apex, bit of dark shading visible on front/mid femora - go to 6
6 - Third antennal segment scarcely longer than wide - N.geniculata
Third antennal segment more elongate, almost twice as long as wide - 7

Clearly the third antennal segment (the big, oval part) is about twice as long as wide, so on to 7.

7 - Hind femur narrowly yellow at tip - N.meticulosa
Hind femur entirely black at tip - N.tenur

Quite definitely entirely black at tip
So there we have it, Neoascia tenur, I turned to the species account and read "The chitin bridge across the hind coxa is always well-developed" and that it occurs in "marshes, fens, is particularly abundant beside eutrophic lakes on southern heaths...frequently associated with beds of bulrush and common reed". Arse, well that sure ain't right! 

I'm very glad I checked the presence/absence of the chitin bridge, it's not taken into account in the main key, just mentioned beforehand and in the species accounts themselves. So, where had I gone wrong?

Back to the start of the key

1 - darkened cross-veins or clear? At this point I notice some further text warning that the common N.podagrica may have these darker areas faint. I looked at the wing again - yeah! Faint darkening along the cross-veins! I'd missed that the first time around, this must be Neoascia podagrica - I turned to the species account which said, "The infuscated outer cross-veins are normally apparent but could be overlooked in pale specimens. Thus it should be noted that the third antennal segment is elongate (at least twice as long as wide) and the male normally has bands on tergites 2 and 3" - aah, that makes a lot more sense, I had a pale specimen is all. Furthermore, "whilst it can occur at marshes, compared with other Neoascia it is perhaps more typical of hedgerows, wood edges and even gardens". Perfect, mine was in open woodland.

Then I recalled that N.podagrica has that unbroken band of chitin behind the rear coxa. Oh FFS! Arse, what the heck is wrong with me tonight??? HOW do I keep messing up this damn fly?

Back to the start. Again.

1 - veins darkened or clear? Ok, vaguely darkened. More dark than clear. Go to 2.
2 - third antennal segment short or elongate? Elongate, definitely elongate. Go to 3.
3 - Tergite 2 black or with pale marking? It has markings. Go to 4 (new ground...ooh!)
4 - Tergite 2 with transverse yellow band. Tergite 2 little more than twice as long as wide, alula particularly narrow (narrower than longest fringe hairs) - N.podagrica
- Tergite 2 with oblique yellow bars. Tergite 2 three times longer than wide. Alula not as narrow (width wider than longest fringe hairs) - N.obliqua

Alright, so there's a few more options for us to check through. Tergite two - does it exhibit a transverse band or oblique bars?

Oblique bars, no two ways about that!
So that in itself should make it Neoascia obliqua. Let's continue checking the other features though.

Alula particularly narrow or not as narrow? Here's a pic of the fly's alula, which I've highlighted in red dots

That's a very narrow profile for an alula!
But is it wider than the length of fringe hairs? No, it really isn't. Well that's just bloody great, that puts us right back at Neoascia podagrica - which it can't be because of that bloody chitin bridge behind the rear legs. Arse!!!

Oh, and tergite 2 is approximately twice as long as it is wide, which also makes it Neoascia podagrica

In desperation, I whupped its nads out in case there was a determining spine or curve or teeth or anything. I was reaching desperation point!

Neoascia nads. Marvellous.
I was seemingly going around in circles. Maybe the key was wrong (yeah right, what do Stubbs and Falk know about flies...) I needed more literature. Happily, I found some online which threw more spanners in the works. 

I managed to access a paper by Martin Speight entitled Neoascia podagrica in Ireland, with a Key to Distinguish it from Related European Species. Well, that was handy. It readily informed me that the mighty, trusty, weighty British Hoverflies (Stubbs and Falk) wasn't actually giving all the facts regards variation in abdominal markings and the chitin bridge. There are exceptions which display the wrong set of characteristics, leading, the author insists, to commonplace misidentifications! 

Variation in T2 markings - obliqua 1st row, podagrica 2nd row
It also states that N.podagrica occasionally has the chitin bridge interrupted, in which case the membrane width is less than the width of the base of the rear femur. N.obliqua always has the membrane present and it's always far greater than the width of the base of the hind femur. Looking at the image of the chitin bridge in my specimen, I'm undecided - seems to fall somewhere between the two options. 

Likewise the patterning on T2 doesn't quite match the options in the key or any of the variations noted in the online paper. 

Maybe it's new to Britain. To top it all, I knocked it's head clean off whilst manipulating the fly in an attempt to photograph some part or another. I didn't see where the head went. Hopefully I won't need to rely on frons dusting to clinch that new to Britain. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

"Get away from her, you bitch!!!"

After yesterday's high jinks and shenanigans finding Black Fern Aphid in the wild (not something that's supposed to happen in Britain), I simply had to go back and do a full survey of all the Hart's-tongue Ferns I could reach. Coz yeah, quite a few of them grow halfway up wet cliff faces and are simply beyond my abilities to reach. Plus I had that nagging memory of seeing a cluster of pale aphids on a frond, potentially being the second species known to occur on Aspleniums. I had to check. 

First up though, I spent a pleasant couple of hours sweep-netting through the undergrowth in Shore Woods, interspersed with staring at the sunlit trunk of a large Silver Fir - a veritable magnet for sunbathing flies. Still several Gymnocheta viridis very much in evidence, though looking decidedly brassy-coloured rather than fresh green. It was whilst staring at the tree trunk that I spotted movement

Loensia fasciata - a magnificently patterned psocid (or barkfly, if you prefer)
Well that was a nice start, I've not seen Loensia fasciata before, it's a huge brute of a beast too. I swept a number of empid flies that were either dancing in midair (males) or sitting on fenceposts (females). I'm looking forward to keying them through; they're a new family for me, whatever they are. Brilliant looking things up close. I probably should have taken a few pics, ho hum. 

What I did take a pic of was the arse-end of a lacewing that I netted and then keyed through today. It keyed through like a dream, the confirmatory feature in males (this was a male) being what the text describes as "cat's claws" on the underside of the final abdominal segment. I think I actually grinned when I saw them for myself - poor pic below. Look like cat's claws to you?

Micromus paganus - maybe the Devil's Claws rather than a cat's?
I also netted a second Micromus paganus, which almost caught me out by exhibiting one wing with just four (instead of five) branches on the radial vein. That would lead to Micromus angulatus, a species that doesn't occur in Scotland. Lacewings are well-known for having 'missing' veins, so it's always a good idea to check all four wings when keying them through. This second individual was female, hence lacking the diagnostic cat's claws of the male. I had to divide the length of the wing by its width and take into account the roundedness of the wing apex to convince myself that it really was an aberrant M.paganus rather than an out-of-range M.angulatus. This too was a lifer for me. 

I spotted my first Rhagio scolopaceus of the year, a common and distinctive fly around here with a habit of resting head-down on vertical surfaces. Usually a tree trunk or fencepost, but also my legs from time to time. Shy they ain't!

A sure sign that summertime is about to begin
After yesterday's Beris chalybata, a small but perfectly formed species of soldierfly, I was pleasantly surprised to find several more sitting on leaves in the dappled shade beneath the large Wych Elms that grow here. Best of all, I even found a pair in cop!

Beris chalybata - female (small eyes, wide frons) on left, male (huge eyes) on right
I quickly returned to the hotel to disgorge various tubes and pots from my pockets, did a quick bit of pinning/carding and, after lunch, headed straight back out to survey the Hart's-tongues for aphids. Within fifteen minutes, I was clambering over rocks in the river to reach the area in question. Five minutes later and I found aphids - pale ones!

Stunning, right...?
Here's a wider angle showing the plant in situ on the rockface. If you look very closely, you can see the aphids sitting on the upperside of a frond. Of note, maybe, the Black Fern Aphids were on the underside of a frond.

I've certainly seen healthier bits of Hart's-tongue, it has to be said
A quick scan of surrounding ferns revealed these pale aphids to be present at low frequency throughout the ravine. I took a few home with me and managed a series of awful images/vid clips. Believe it or not, these are the 'good' ones...

This is an adult on the leaf surface
Whilst this one was wandering around the pot I popped it into
Very obviously, these are a different species to yesterday's oval black jobbies with rows of white hairs across the body. These are Amphorophora ampullata, which I hereby dub the Pale Fern Aphid as opposed to yesterday's Black Fern Aphid (a name already in usage). Also seemingly new to Scotland, at least there are no records on NBN. For what that's worth. But they are at least known to occur outdoors in Britain, unlike the Black Fern Aphid. My RES Handbook to Aphids states that the species is widespread in Britain, but that "populations occurring on Lady-fern have a different chromosome number (2n = 10 as opposed to 2n = 12 on other ferns) and hence are probably a biologically distinct but morphologically very similar taxon." One to look out for!

Buoyed with success at finding the second fern-feeding aphid, though this being somewhat tempered by the fact that I utterly failed to find any new Black Fern Aphids, I ascended the south face of The Chasm of Doom, didn't fall to my death, and tried to ID some lichens for when The Telf and The Rylands arrive next week. Ooof, you know I was mentioning the lack of rain for the past few weeks? Well, everything has reduced to crisp patches on trunks. I tried to string a patch of Pannaria rubiginosa for Protopannaria pezizoides, but had to admit it was merely desiccated and unhappy rather than being a lifer

Pannaria rubiginosa enjoying the "rainforest" habitat. Not.
I have a cheap mist spray bottle that I picked up in Boots a couple of years back. It's very useful for bringing dried up bryophytes back to life in the warmer summer months. I could try it on the lichens too, I guess. Then again, if it continues like this for much longer, I think a K√§rcher pressure-washer might be more appropriate.

You may be wondering why the blog title. You remember that scene from Aliens, the one near the end of the film where the queen alien has snuck aboard the shuttle craft and is now in the main spaceship, gleefully chasing the little girl around the hangar? Well today I netted a queen wasp, a huge booger. I'm fully aware that this means I've deprived an entire colony from even starting, but I saw others in the woods - they aren't exactly uncommon up here. At lunchtime I gave it the ethyl acetate treatment, pinned it and labelled it all up. This afternoon I noticed it had moved diagonally across its plastazote strip, she was still alive. I popped her back in the killing jar for a second dose of death. Tonight she came back to life yet again! So now she is back in the killing jar (for her third time today!) and she's staying there overnight. If she's still alive in the morning, I swear I'm gonna jettison her out the airlock a la Ripley style!

Edit - the wasp, Vespula rufa, stayed dead third time around. No face-huggers seen either, all good.