Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Wintry weather - at last!

Today was glorious, truly beautiful - clear blue skies, hardly a breath of wind and overnight there had been a snowfall. Snow! Only a light dusting, maybe an inch or so, but wow - what a stunner of a day. Although, seeing as I'd been looking forward to sieving moss for inverts come my next day off, it did scupper my plans just a tad. So, I changed plans and hit the river instead, at least that wouldn't be covered in snow...

The woods were alive with birds, a party of Long-tailed Tits noisily spluttered their way through the understorey, a couple of Treecreepers trilled as they clambered moss-laden tree trunks, a group of Icelandic Redwings worked their way across the woodland floor and a flock of Siskins let me slowly approach to within about twenty feet as they fed on Alder cones, no more than eight feet above the footpath I was ambling along - magical. Ravens 'prrukk-ed' low overhead and a Mistle Thrush passed over, heard but unseen, a good bird in these parts. 

Just a few days back the river had been a rushing torrent, testament to all the rain we've enjoyed of late. Today however, it was strangely quiet and tranquil

I fancied that I could cross and explore the far bank for the first time this year. Unfortunately, the fallen tree I ordinarily use as a bridge has washed away and that seemingly gentle river is still two feet deep in the rock-strewn shallows. One for another time, methinks. 

However, below the weir is a quiet, shallow backwater which looked to be well worth exploring. This is where I find most of my freshwater flatworms, River Limpets, stonefly and mayfly larvae. Maybe I'd find some water beetles too? 

This was a raging torrent last week,  it's quite amazing just how tough a plant Luzula sylvatica is! 
 But what did I find in the waters? Well, I found water beetles - an adult and two larvae

It wiggled and I saw it - whatever it is! 

Answers on a post card, please
A quick look at water beetle larvae led me to Elmis, but I'm not wholly convinced that's what I have here. I took two home with me for further investigation. I'm boldly assuming they are beetle larvae! 

Definitely not the Water Louse Asellus aquaticus that I thought I'd found! 
I'll have to see if I can suss out the species, either that or try to rear it through. I could buy a tiny glass tank and aerate it, I guess? Could be fun!

EDIT: The 4-segmented legs, tipped with a single claw, combined with the flattened, heavily sclerotised body segments narrow it down to a workable number of families. However, the real breakthrough came when I checked the antennae, which comprise two basal segments and then approximately 20 tiny, bead-like segments. The sole family to exhibit antennae comprising more than 11 segments (and usually approx. 20) is Scirtidae. There are 20 species in Britain across various genera, though a few can be struck off due to their distribution range. Not sure how far I can go with the larvae, but I'll see what I can manage. 

Here's a nice one for you, one you probably don't know. Listen to the lyrics, let me know your thoughts on the river he can't cross. My own take is that it's a song about death and the after life.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Neo, run! The weevil is an Agent

I scooped a medium-sized weevil off a wall a few days back, this afternoon I got around to checking it. As suspected, it was Otiorhynchus sulcatus, the Vine Weevil. Not an uncommon species up here, typically found sitting halfway up a whitewashed wall, as indeed this one was.

I figured I better just double-check I had the ID right. The key makes mention of the relative lengths and widths of various antennomeres so I needed to take a close look at the antennae. Easy, I'll take a quick photo and zoom in to check.

Little did I know that I was dealing with an Agent!

Bullet dodging antennomeres!
Well, that was unexpected. Had I, in fact, discovered the greater of two weevils, I wondered? Either way, this is my tenth species of beetle for the year. Don't worry, it'll pick up soon, I know it will.

Here's the original bullet dodging scene, if you aren't familiar with The Matrix I suggest you set aside a couple of hours tonight and remedy that straight away. Don't bother wasting your life watching the sequels though.

Hint: always aim for the legs

Sunday, 6 January 2019

It's a Fly-Eat-Fly World out there...

Firstly, I have to apologise for today's large cross-over in content between this blog and that of my Skye Inverts Blog. If you follow Skye Inverts you'll probably recognise most of these images and names. Sorry 'bout that. But this isn't a feeble cop out, pan-species listing encompasses the beetles, flies and bugs that the other blog is wholly devoted to. There's bound to be a bit of overlap. However, today was special (for me) so you get two versions of the same events. I'll try not to let it happen again too often, honest guv. 

Today was just great! I went out and undertook a deliberate search for something that I've only very casually encountered beforehand, something that I have very little understanding or knowledge of, something that I have, quite literally, been walking all over for years - yep, you've guessed it in one, free-living, winter-active fly larvae. Well done you! Note that I don't call them 'maggots', in fact that's the only time I shall be using that word in this blog. There's a reason for that. 

So two days ago I stumbled across the snazzily named UK Hoverflies Larval Group's Facebook page and immediately asked to join. They let me in - huzzah! I spent the next 15mins scrolling up and down the screen, familiarising myself with what the various winter-active hoverfly larvae look like, and today I set off into them thar hills to find me some maggots dipterous larvae.

I started by finding lots of these small, semi-transparent worms on the underside of wet leaves

One of the Pot Worms (family Enchytraeidae)
I tried to do a little research into these, but it very quickly became overly technical and scary. I think there are probably quite a few of them and that you'd need a scanning electron microscope and an advanced DNA kit to progress very far. They're pretty common between wet leaves that are stuck together, go check for yourself. 

The next commonest beast I found amongst the leaf litter were these things

A Tipulid larva (cranefly family)
I found these sometimes two or three to a leaf, all about 8-10mm long, all brown and all having possibly the best feature on any animal out there!

LOOK! It's got a funny face for a bum!!!!!!!
I couldn't believe it when I first noticed this, and in real life it's just so much better! I'm going to go back and grab a whole bunch of them, bring them back indoors and photograph their bums properly. I might end up making a calendar of cranefly bum characters and sell it off to Pixar or Marvel for a bomb. This time next year, Rodney, we'll be millionaires!  

Despite having far too much childish fun with the anal spiracles of cranefly larvae, I hadn't yet found what I'd come out looking for. Happily, that soon changed. 

A hoverfly larva from the genus Melanostoma 
What a distinctive beast that is!
As far as I can tell, this represents the first ever example of my targeting a free-living (as opposed to leaf-mining) fly larva and actually finding it. I've stumbled across hoverfly larvae before, but only occasionally and only by accident. Never planned, never searched for. I was pretty damned chuffed! But there was more...

It's a fish! No, a crustacean! It's an isopod! Trilobite? The heck is it???
I find these tiny (2-4mm) "things" quite infrequently. Today I found maybe ten of them. Which is probably as many as I've ever seen before. I knew it was a fly larva, I've Googled them before, but I couldn't remember the family. Turns out to be a lonchopterid in the genus Lonchoptera. There are only six species in Britain and Ireland but you need to rear them through to adulthood in order to identify them. Personally I reckon they must be doable as larvae too, but I haven't found that key yet. 

Lonchoptera larvae are snack-sized prey items for Melanostoma larvae, which flip them on their back and stab them through the belly before sucking out the body fluids. Nice... However, Melanostoma isn't quite the king of the jungle around here, for this Bad Boy will happily devour any Melanostoma it encounters

Phaonia sp (Muscidae) - the Great White Shark of this blogpost
The Lonchoptera larva above was about 3mm in length. The Melanostoma larva was about 8mm. This larval Phaonia was about 10mm. Again, it needs to be reared to adulthood before being identifiable to species, but it was still great to find and observe - prowling its way across wet leaf tissue, ready to tear into anything small enough to get in its way. Geoff Wilkinson on the FB Group identified this beast for me, he also warned me to keep it away from anything else I wanted to rear through as it would simply devour them. 

However, I didn't retain any of these larvae to rear through. It's an awful long way until springtime happens up here, probably at least another four months. There's no way I could keep these incredible beasts alive and well for all of that time. 

Today's enjoyment has been discovering what was, for me, a hidden world. Hidden in full view, as it happens. Searching for, and successfully finding, these fly larvae buried away from casual sight deep in wet leaf litter has been a real eye-opener for me. A small peep through the curtain into a very different world. Quietly feeding, hunting and being hunted - pick axed apart by voracious, unfeeling predators, innards mashed up and body cavity sucked dry, the survivors transforming into those familiar buzzing insects we are so used to seeing in flowerheads or sunning on tree trunks and brick walls. Little have I thought about, or appreciated, the lifestyles some of these flies lead before becoming adults. I'm starting to see them in a different light, starting to understand their lifestyles, fleshing out the bald names with colourful information. 

I was never really sure how I'd progress with flies. I find the anatomy of the adults quite fascinating, the sexual dimorphisms, the awesome body musculature, the vast array of bristles (why, what purpose do they serve?) but now I'm seeing the larval stages as entities in their own rights too. I doubt I'll ever be more than a half-baked dipterist at best, but in truth that's already an entire level beyond what I thought I'd ever achieve at the start of this year. Flies, I have discovered, are very bloody cool. And they may be slowly snaring me...

Damn, but this is an excellent tune! 

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Barn Owl Tourists

Yesterday I confirmed the continuing presence of the Uig Wood Barn Owl, soon followed by a text from the Skye bird recorder asking if I'd mind showing it to him and his visiting friend. We agreed to meet at the cemetery car park this morning. Today was beautiful, clear blue skies and no wind although it was pretty damn chilly. Bob and Andy duly arrived a little after 11am and the owl behaved very well, allowing obscured but close views. Bob was chuffed, that's the main thing. In return, he piled me into his van and we all drove up to Kilmuir where he soon found the remnant wintering flock of Greenland White-fronted Geese grazing about half a mile out across croft land. One youngster was good to see, in recent years this flock has dwindled from 40 individuals down to the current seven and low breeding success appears to be the main reason for the decline. This is the first time I've seen Greenland White-fronts on Skye (these birds are the only ones that winter here) and is the 127th species of bird I've seen here during the 25 months that I've lived here. It'd be a lot more if I had a car! Bob is on a quite ridiculous 209 species for Skye, but he's been here a good while longer and is retired. Plus he has a car.

Bob dropped me back down in Uig and I immediately hit the Rubble Pile in search of beetles for my Challenge 2019. Here's a piccie of the pile, it may look rubbish but it's heaving with invert life

I reckon I've turned all of these at some time whilst in search of goodies
If anybody reading this has a burning desire to see Slug Mite then this is the spot. Lots of Tandonia budapestensis beneath these stones and they're positively crawling with 'em!

Anyway, the pile didn't let me down

This red and black beast is Othius punctulatus, one of the staphylinid (rove) beetles
This big carabid is the snail-eating Cychrus caraboides - it puffs and squeaks when handled!
Leaving the Rubble Pile behind I bumped into a noisy gaggle of folks blocking the path. Usually I hate it when this happens, but today it was Judy with her dog, Martin and Joy Lumb who I know well and Neil Roberts of Skye Nature Group fame with his wife Debbie who I'd not met before. Martin looked a tad dismayed that I'd taken others to see the Barn Owl after our failed attempt a couple of weeks back, I'll take him up there for another look soon though, I'd hate for him to miss out again.

So we all stood there blocking the path until I mentioned the Cychrus caraboides to Neil. His mouth fell open, his eyes glazed over, his hands started to tremble and he appeared to enter some sort of a trance. "I haven't seen one of those thingmies for thirty years..." he mumbled to nobody in particular. "Oh. Well it's just over there, I can show you if you like?" was my response. Needless to say it didn't take too much to persuade him to join me back by the Rubble Pile! Two minutes later and he was on his hands and knees, papping away with his camera and asking why they prey on snails but not slugs. It's a good question, I can only assume it's because a slug might crawl away or that there's just too much body area to tackle at once, whereas a snail retreats into its shell, thus sealing it's fate. I just don't know! 

I had a quick look out into the bay, 10 Wigeon, a dozen Mergs and a raft of about 30 Eider would have all been yearticks had I been yearlisting. But I'm not - 2019 is all about beetles, flies and bugs. Slow going so far (5 beetles, 1 fly, no bugs...) but it is the middle of winter, after all. 

Heading back to the hotel I noticed a small patch of Red Dead-nettles in flower. It's a good plant up here on Skye, to have one flowering at this time of year is especially delightful

That's my two days off done now, back to work tomorrow. Ripping out carpets with the boss and checking for beetles the central heating pipes beneath the floorboards, by all accounts. I'll let you know what we find.

Song time again, hmmm...ah!

Don't forget to check out my brand new Challenge 2019 blog at https://skyeinverts.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Start as you mean to go on

Happy New Year everyone! 

Right, down to business. I excitedly bundled my way into the hotel grounds a little after midnight and began my Challenge 2019 in true style by almost falling down a flight of concrete steps. Luckily I only suffered a cut thumb and not a broken leg, daft bugger. I decided I needed more illumination so quickly headed across the lawn towards the laundry shed, which has interior and exterior lights that are almost always switched on. Good move, after duly saying hello to the hordes of Amaurobius similis that live there, I noticed a small beetle sitting on the ceiling. I stared at it for a few moments, figured I had no idea what it was, took a pic and popped it into a pot. 

It's not exactly National Geographic standards, I know...
Anyway, turns out this is a female Ptinus fur which is a lifer for me and seemingly new to the Inner Hebrides. My very first beetle of the year and it's a nice double whammy - result!

Later on (i.e. during daylight hours) I headed out for an amble towards Uig Wood. First off, I wanted to see if the Barn Owl was back at its roost.

Yep! See the wingtip poking out from beneath the Luzula hangs?
I texted the local bird recorder that it was back in place and he asked if I could show it to him tomorrow morning (I think he's probably Skye yearlisting again). Fair play to him, fingers crossed it's still there when he arrives. I also booted up four Woodcock, two of which burst up within about 8ft of me - which is probably the closest I've ever been to one. Just wish I'd have been scanning ahead before they flushed. 

But 2019 is all about Beetles, Flies and Bugs. It was really difficult for me to essentially ignore all the other stuff I found whilst searching for my quarry. The 1st of January is traditionally A Big Day whereby I slam around trying to amass a huge great tally for my newborn PSL yearlist. But not this year. Man, it feels weird. I glanced at some vegetative plants, the identity of which was eluding me, then just walked away rather than attempt to figure out what they were. I unearthed lots of small millipedes and a few centipedes but didn't check a single one under the handlens. I deliberately left my binoculars indoors and I haven't even seen or heard a Robin today!

*Impromptu rambling warning, folks*

I have a small worry that I'll have forgotten my plants, lichens, seashore stuff, birds (ok, maybe not birds), myriapods, etc by the time this year is over. But I really do feel I'm at a stage where I need to focus down somewhere in my PSLing. It's an ugly truth that a fair proportion of my PSL comprises of species that were shown to me by somebody else and I'd struggle to recognise another one if shown it again. This is something that has been quietly but incessantly bothering me for years, probably ever since I started hanging out with other pan-species listers instead of wall to wall finding and identifying stuff by myself. 

It's great to have a huge species tally, but does that automatically imply that you're a good naturalist? 'Pan-species tourism' is a phrase I've read a couple of times. It's easy to draw comparisons with bird twitching whereby you don't need any finely honed skills or talent to amass a huge life-list, you just need spare time and enough money to keep the car running. Binoculars are almost an optional extra and fieldcraft basically went out the window decades ago. So am I a charlatan poncing ticks off other people's expertise, or am I a naturalist? How good a naturalist? How finely honed are my skills? Well, I hope for them to be improved by the end of this year. Obviously, just how far improved is entirely up to me.

OK, well I didn't foresee that little confession happening, but it's off my chest now. Moving along....

Beetles, flies and bugs - that's what I'm after this year. Numerically I did see quite a few flies this afternoon, small things whirring up and down in sheltered spots, a few tiny ones scurrying around the underside of overturned logs, one larger gnat (small cranefly?) clinging to moss on the edge of a waterfall. But none of them were identified, or even attempted in fact. 

However, I did manage to identify one dipteran to species level

Empty mine of Chromatomyia primulae on a Primrose leaf

With puparium down near the base of the petiole! 
I was pretty stoked when I spotted the puparium, I can't recall seeing this before for this species. It's not easily discernible, but there are two long black spiracles projecting through the leaf tissue. I've brought it home in an attempt to rear it through. Be a pleasant change for me to submit an adult agromyzid to The National Agromyzidae Recording Scheme rather than just larvae in mines. 

I found a mystery hopper nymph beneath a log. I usually find them beneath deeply embedded rocks, and they normally have a curly tuft of whitish hairs on their bum. Anyway, this is the one I found today, sans hairy bum

No idea, I took the pic and rolled the log over again
There's this book that deals with hopper nymphs. It's quite ridiculously expensive, but I have a sneaky suspicion that I'll eventually succumb and order it anyway. Probably late at night after a couple of beers too many. But if anybody out there can do them from poor pics like this, please do let me know!

Other than that it was a rather quiet walk. The only other beetle seen was Silpha atrata, one overwintering in a fallen log that I was teasing apart. 

Edit - seemingly this beetle is now named Phosphuga atrata. Gotta love those taxonomists...

Silpha atrata - four raised lines on each elytron and a rounded pronotum. Easy

Oh, and I found the perfect moss-covered, waterfall-splashed rockface for Dianous coerulescens hunting later in the year. Must remember to wear my wellies next time though!

My plan for tonight is to card the Ptinus fur. It's by far the smallest insect I've ever attempted to card, so the results should be a giggle...