Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Glenarm Bioblitz 2014

The Bioblitz was organised in four locations in Ireland, and the recording was centralised via the internet, so we could see the live scores from the other sites. I was invited to assist with the recording at the Northern Ireland site at Glenarm Estate, which is situated more or less along both sides of a river.

The weather was dull and overcast when I arrived, so I decided to work a few woodland paths, looking at plants, fungi, leaf-miners, etc.: all the things that are still visible when the light is bad and there's no heat. I hoped that the weather would warm up in the afternoon and I could find and record more insects then.

I quickly filled a couple of recording sheets and made a loop back to base camp to hand them in. A quick glance at the 11am scores had us comfortably in the lead by around 150 species, but I wasn't feeling over-confident, since although I had travelled a few miles in the morning, the habitat didn't vary much along the way. I helped with a couple of identifications of some collected specimens and had a spot of lunch.

Just as we were getting ready to cross the river for the first afternoon run, the sun came out and suddenly insects were flying everywhere. Although the woodland on the south of the river looked much the same as the area we had covered in the morning, there were more clearings and the paths were closer to the river, so the variety of plants and insects that we encountered was encouraging.

My first notable find for the day was the excellent hoverfly Portevinia maculata:

The hoverfly Portevinia maculata (male)
Portevinia maculata is tightly associated with Ramsons, since the larvae live underground inside the bulb. The specimen shown is a male: the females are rarely seen, as they spend most of their time deep under the leaves. I had noticed in the morning that Ramson patches in the woodland were very extensive, sometimes extending to 50m or more, and I had high hopes of finding this hoverfly.

I photographed a few more hoverflies and other insects, and then someone pointed out the flowers of Greater Woodrush, which also went into the list. As a matter of habit (rather than expectation!), I examined the leaves of the Woodrush to check for the extremely rare leafmining fly Cerodontha silvatica, which I found in Donegal in 2005, making a first Irish record. Imagine my astonishment when I actually found it after 9 years of unsuccessful searching:

The mine of Cerodontha silvatica in Greater Woodrush
I first recorded Cerodontha silvatica in Drumboe in 2005, but that population was wiped out by over-enthusiastic council workers who strimmed the woodrush down to the ground, and I have looked for it ever since. The number of records for this miner is extremely low, and I can assure you that it's not for a lack of looking: many dipterists and leaf-miner specialists have sought this species for up to 40 years without any success, so it is truly rare. I suppose it must have some particular habitat requirements, and I noted that the two locations were very similar, with deep shade and with ferns and lying water in ditches also very close. 

Puparium in the mine
This is a first record for Northern Ireland and the second for Ireland.

I carefully carried my specimen leaf back to the recording centre and proudly showed it to everyone who would look.

After that, things were a bit of an anticlimax and I submitted another couple of recording sheets with perhaps five new species for my personal list.

One of the new species for me was the leaf gall of Eriophyes similis on Blackthorn:

The gall of Eriophyes similis on Blackthorn
I also recorded Soft Brome for the first time:

Soft Brome
At 5pm, the recording was closed and we waited 15 minutes for the final tally to be announced. Loud cheers went up when it was announced that we had recorded a total of 1116 species, over 200 more than the second-placed total, and the title was retained in Northern Ireland.

A massive amount of organisation is required for these events, with recorders, base camp, data-entry, social media stations, microscopy and reference sections to set up. Many thanks to all who helped make this such an enjoyable event.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Bioblitz 2014!

Saturday is the Bioblitz 2014. I love those days, and consider them to be amongst the best days of the year. Getting to meet new recorders, learning new identification tricks, finding new species, making new friends, meeting old ones, sharing knowledge, encouraging new learners. 200 mile round trip? No problem. Hope the weather holds up.

One of my favourite (and most visited locations for wildlife) is the hedgerow on Craigs Road. I know every inch of it, and know where to go to see hoverflies, bees, wasps, butterflies, etc. This is how it looks at this time of year:

Hedgerow looking East.

But this is how it looks after the council has shredded every bit of it down to the ground:

Mown verges
Keep in mind that this is at least a mile out of town. Can anyone tell me why this was done?

Tidiness? Obsessive/compulsive disorder? Job creation?

It is illegal in Ireland to cut any vegetation that is not currently under cultivation between March and September. But the council continues to decimate our wildlife habitats. This is illegal and irresponsible. Ironically, our local heritage (biodiversity) officer writes to remind people of the legislation, but his employers, the council, continue to do this every year, and at the worst possible time of year. Now I'm going to have to find somewhere else to photograph for the rest of this season.

The day before the cutting, I photographed this Cixiid:

Tachycixius pilosus

Tachycixius pilosus

It is identified by the three slightly diagonal dark marks at the edge of the wing, and is about 5mm long.

New to my species list. (and now homeless)

One area that escaped the cutting was the central verge, and tonight we spotted this tiny crucifer:


It keys out to Wintercress - Barbarea vulgaris. Buds are hairless, lower leaves end in a large lobe.

New to my species list.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Update on the Green-veined White butterfly

In the previous post I showed a photograph of a Green-veined White butterfly and wondered if it was a gynandromorph. This is the image:

Gynandromorph Green-veined White butterfly
My first thought was that the butterfly was entirely female, but the right wing had been rubbed or damaged in some way, removing some of the scales and hence the pattern. But then I realised that the pattern on the right wing looked exactly like the pattern on some male wings. I then noticed that the abdomen is 'kinked' rather than straight, which is a feature that I have seen in other gynandromorph images, though admittedly of different species. I suppose that if the internal organs are male on one side and female on the other, then the inconsistent internal structure will be reflected in some way in the outer surface.

I showed the image to a number of people and it has now been confirmed as a very rare bilateral gynandromorph.

Bilateral gynandromorphs are female in one half and male in the other, and arise from incorrect cell division at some very early stage in the development. They are very rare and I have been unable to find any other images of this particular gynandromorph anywhere in the literature or on the internet.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Moving on

Over the past few years, I have added fewer and fewer new species to my list each year. The main reason for this is my modus operandi, whereby I search for things that I can photograph and identify specimens mainly from those photographs. This process has limitations: many species need microscopic analysis before they can be identified accurately. Since I don't capture specimens there are many species that I see that I cannot identify. This is a lost opportunity in a number of ways:

  • Potential records are not being added to the national database, so the overall picture of what is where is wrong.
  • I research the natural history of the species that I identify, and if I don't know what something is, I can't find out what it does.
  • All species have loose or tight associations with other species and their habitat(s). I am missing opportunities to find out these associations, and hence my ability to add to our knowledge is reduced.

Basically, I am limiting my knowledge and I am limiting my ability to add to the greater knowledge. So I have decided to start sampling specimens. This will enable me to identify specimens beyond "a tachinid" or "a lesser cranefly". It's a logical progression, and hopefully it will add to your knowledge as well as mine.

On Friday I attended a beginner's course on spider identification. Spiders are an area that I have largely ignored for a number of reasons, and I think it's time to embrace them and begin to record them properly. The literature isn't cheap, but there are hundreds of species out there, and I'm sure I can make some progress in this very under-recorded group.

During the fieldwork we found this harvestman:

The harvestman Platybunus triangularis
Platybunus triangularis is one of the few harvestmen that can be found as an adult at this time of year. The pose with one leg held out as a trigger is typical of harvestmen, since they don't make webs, but pounce on passing insects.

New to my species list.

This Green-veined White butterfly is rather interesting:
Green-veined White butterfly
The obvious oddity is the fact that the patterns on the two wings are different. The left wing is clearly a female wing (it has plenty of dark spots), but the right wing has only a faint, single spot. The wings of male Green-veined White can vary a little, but I have seen identically-marked males. So the question is: is this a gynandromorph (half female, half male)? Another thing to notice is that the abdomen is not straight: it has a distinct kink in it. This is a feature I have seen on images of confirmed gynandromorph specimens. The jury is out, but I'll report back later.

My first collected specimen is a Water-measurer - Hydrometra stagnorum:
Water-measurer - Hydrometra stagnorum
Hydrometra stagnorum is a water-walking bug that can be seen in the company of other water-walking species, but it's a lot smaller (12 mm.) One notable feature is the very long head: this is thought to be used to reach food below the water surface.

New to my species list.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Playing catch-up

The unexpectedly long period of warm weather in April brought everything on very quickly, so we're having what I can only describe as an early and 'strong' spring and early summer. I'm already seeing species that I would not expect until the end of May or start of June, and the Orange Tip butterflies have already laid their eggs:

Orange-Tip butterfly egg
The female lays a single egg (the larvae are cannibals) at the rear of the flower where the seedpod will form. The larva will feed on the seedpods as its sole food until it pupates.

The males are already sedate enough to stop for a photograph: normally they are far too flighty most of the way through May.

Male Orange Tip butterfly
Towards the end of the season - probably around 3 weeks' time - females run out of empty flowers and 'dump' their eggs on plants which already have eggs (or even larvae) in situ. These are doomed to be eaten, but the desperate females rely on the remote chance that their eggs will survive. This shows the importance of synchronisation with the sole foodplant: too early and there will be nowhere to lay; too late and all the suitable flowers will already be occupied.

Fungal rusts are also wasting no time:

Uromyces dactylidis on Creeping Buttercup
In common with most other rusts, Uromyces dactylidis requires an alternate host to live on while the primary vegetation is missing. In this case it's a range of grasses. I always find it intriguing that alternate hosts are rarely closely related to the primary host.

I'm currently working with a number of schools in the Heritage in Schools programme run by the Heritage Council in Ireland. This enables schools to book visits by heritage experts at a lower price than they would normally pay. I'm covering Natural Heritage, and this shot was taken at a visit to a school last week:

Common Frog
During a six-week period, we will count the species in a number of local habitats and draw up a biodiversity map for the local area. This will enable us to determine factors that encourage or inhibit biodiversity.

One early species found last week was the bumblebee-mimicking hoverfly Eristalis intricarius. During the early years of my local survey, this species confined to one small local area, but in recent years I have found it in more and more locations. It must be finding something that is beneficial.

The bumblebee-mimicking hoverfly Eristalis intricarius