Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Sunflower (part two)

The Sunflower continues to attract butterflies. This Red Admiral is the third species I have seen nectaring after the Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock last week. A passing Speckled Wood didn't seem so interested. I have seen  this butterfly on the flower for three consecutive days, now.

Red Admiral on the Sunflower
Red Admirals have two generations each year. The first generation is migrant from France (or perhaps even further south) in springtime, and their offspring feed on nettles, emerging from late August to October and then heading south. In recent years, however, adults have been found overwintering in the south of Ireland (and England), So, as warming takes hold, we're seeing a transition from solely migrant to partially resident populations.

Phenology has also changed in some moths. Some species were described by their flying (or emerging) dates. So we have August Thorn, September Thorn, Winter Moth, November Moth, December Moth, etc. But in the couple of hundred years since they were named, weather patterns have changed, and their names are not so accurate nowadays. This August Thorn is a new species for my list, and can be separated from the September Thorn by the kink in the rear band of the forewing (arrowed).

August Thorn moth
This is a locally common moth, feeding on larger broad-leaved trees.

I suppose it's worth pointing out that the season for September Moth often starts earlier than the August Moth! Of course, it isn't just moths that are altering emergence and migration patterns. Birds like the Redstart and Fieldfare that used to arrive as winter visitors have become very scarce nowadays, since they stay in situ and overwinter further north. Flowering plants are also extending their flowering season. Have a look in plant books from a few decades ago, and their 'flowering seasons' will surprise you.

Friday, 2 October 2015


Our summer has been one long stream of anticyclones coming in over the Atlantic, bringing high winds and rain for almost four months. As a result, flying insects have been far less frequent than usual, with hedgerows and verges almost deserted for much of the year. Flowering plants don't seem to suffer quite as much, but perhaps the number of blossoms is down.

Late September and early October have seen the arrival of a high-pressure system that has 'stuck' in place over the UK and Ireland, bringing dry days and colder nights. The circulating wind has brought warm southerly air to Ireland, leading to an influx of European species to supplement the meagre numbers of locals. At one point last week I had 7 specimens of Silver Y moth in my greenhouse.

By a strange coincidence, this is the time of year for the second generation some of our native butterflies to emerge and prepare for hibernation. A large Sunflower which I grew this year has been very attractive to Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock butterflies:

Small Tortoiseshell

These will hibernate until March or April next year, when they will emerge to lay eggs, and the first 2016 generation will start. Both of these species use Nettles as their sole foodplant.

This is the first year for my new greenhouse and I tried different plants to see how they got on. I noticed after a while that pollination was largely being performed by a single male Episyrphus balteatus hoverfly:

Male Episyrphus balteatus
He was seen most days for perhaps 3 weeks, and made no attempt to escape through open vents or doors. Seems he was content to have a monopoly of the tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and melons.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Tattynure bioblitz

A return trip to one of my favourite locations. The land is being very sympathetically 'encouraged' for support of wildlife, and it's showing. The site is yielding either first Irish, first Northern Irish or scarce species in good numbers, and I always expect to find something new.

One particular area is very good for leaf miners. I found the micromoth Stigmella magdalenae, which is the second NI record, and the first since 1995:

Mine of the micromoth Stigmella magdalenae on Rowan

On the same tree I also found Stigmella nyrandriella:
Mine of Stigmella nyrandriella on Rowan

The main difference between these two species is the frass pattern: very narrow in magdalenae and more dispersed in nyrandriella.

Both new to my Species Index.

Some leaves on Bog Myrtle are very small, but I noticed mines on even the smallest leaves. It's Stigmella salicis, which mines Willows and Bog Myrtle:

Mine of Stigmella salicis on Bog Myrtle
I deliberately left my fingers in the shot for scale: the mine is around 15 mm. from left to right, and the adult moth is 4-6 mm. wingspan.

Also new to my  Species Index.

Another stunner is the parasitic fly Tachina grossa. This fly is one of the largest flies in Europe, and is larger than most queen bumblebees. These parasitise larger moth larvae: the host must be large enough to support multiple larvae of this huge insect.

The parasitoid fly Tachina grossa
Also new to my  Species Index.

I'm not quite sure if the epithet 'grossa' refers to its size or its appearance.

As an aside, I'll mention that the fungal season has well and truly started in Northern Ireland. We found several mature fungi in good condition.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

More from Murlough

Bioblitz at Murlough:

I had set people the task of bringing back any leaf galls that they found, and my workbench was soon loaded down with specimens.

The first specimen brought in was Aceria pseudoplatani made by a gall mite on Sycamore:

Aceria pseudoplatani on Sycamore
The gall is on the underside of the leaf, but is visible from the top as a yellow depression which makes it quite obvious. There is one previous record from Dublin last year. Murlough is also on the east coast, so I suspect it might just be newly colonising from the UK.

This Phanacis hypochoeridis (wasp) gall on Catsear was locally very common: I saw it in a couple of separate locations and almost every plant seemed to be galled. It's described as rare, so it must be very local. First Irish record was submitted last week after I identified the specimen! Each gall is a series of chambers, each one containing a yellow larva.
Phanacis hypochoeridis on Catsear 
New to my Species List
Bombus lapidarius - Red-tailed Bumblebee isn't rare, but I have never seen it on my patch. Here it is gathering pollen on a new flower for me: Restharrow

Bombus lapidarius on Restharrow

Both new to my Species list

This Yellow Shell moth flew over my shoulder and hid under a stile step. So this shot is taken with me lying on my back facing upwards at the underside of the step. Flash used. 
Yellow Shell moth
New to my Species List (which is badly in need of an update now!)

I'm getting lots of reports of the excellent hoverfly Volucella pellucens at the moment:

This was also taken at Murlough:

The hoverfly Volucella pellucens

This Cixiid landed on my recording sheet and I managed to get a couple of shots rattled off before it flew. It isn't the much more common Cixius nervosus, and seems to match Cixius cunicularius very closely.

Cixius cf. cuniculariu

Cixius cf. cunicularius
I can't find any previous records for this local species in Ireland.

I think my personal species tally for Murlogh was around 200, with 2-3 new records for NI and perhaps one new species for Ireland. I'm awaiting confirmation of id's before I report fully.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015


I participated in a coastal Bioblitz at Murlough in Northern Ireland at the weekend. This SSSI has a wonderful mix of coastal habitats as well as some woodland just inshore. There is also a patch of saltmarsh, which is a habitat type that I haven't encountered before and yielded many species that were new to me. Every step seemed to contain a plant, insect or some other invert that I didn't know existed.

The most obvious species in the saltmarsh were the plants, many of which were succulent (and tasted strongly of salt: I tasted them). We were lucky enough to find two Sea-Spurreys side by side: Greater Sea Spurrey:
Greater Sea-Spurrey - Spergularia media

And Lesser Sea-Spurrey:

Lesser Sea Spurrey - Spergularia marina

I have tried to crop the images so that the relative sizes of the flowers are maintained. Notice the thick, succulent leaves, especially on the Lesser.

Both new to my species list.

Also new is Lax-flowered Sea-lavender:

Lax-flowered Sea-lavender - Limonium humile
This is apparently quite scarce.

New to my Species List.

Sea Arrowgrass was growing just on the slightly dryer upper edges of the saltmarsh, almost under the trees:

Sea Arrowgrass - Triglochin maritima
Individual flowers are between 2 and 3 mm diameter.

Yet another new plant was Portland Spurge - Euphorbia portlandica:

Portland Spurge - Euphorbia portlandica
Identification was made mostly from the double horn-shape of the yellow petals.

New to my Species List.

Other plant species included Samphire and Sea Beet.

I'll add leaf-miners, galls and other inverts to the next post.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Butterfly day at Sheskinmore

The annual Donegal Butterfly Day was led by Bob Aldwell, co-author (with Frank Smyth) of "The butterflies of Donegal":

This excellent new book has species descriptions and images of all of the Donegal butterflies plus habitat descriptions. It also includes aberrations. It also includes several of my images.

The day started off dull and cold and the first hour yielded no butterflies, but I did find a Cinnabar moth:

Cinnabar moth
And a new gall on Blackthorn - Taphrina pruni:

Taphrina pruni on Blackthorn
This fungal gall infects the fruit, converting its growth pattern to maximise the area for spore dispersal.

New to my Species List.

There were also many specimens of Northern Marsh Orchid and the more scarce Early Marsh Orchid - Dactylorhiza incarnata, which appears in many colours:

Early Marsh Orchid
Just as we arrived at a known hot spot for butterflies, the clouds parted and we found ourselves surrounded by Marsh Fritillaries, Small Blues, Small Copper, Speckled Wood and Dingy Skippers. The Marsh Fritillary is under severe pressure in Europe due to extensive harvesting of peat bogs, and Ireland is really the last hope for this wonderful species:

Marsh Fritillary
This is a female currently in cop (you can just see the male at the bottom of the image).

Bioblitz workshop in Merlin Woods

On Tuesday, I ran a workshop on Bioblitzing in Merlin Woods, Galway. A dozen or so of us surveyed two areas of woodland and associated meadows, recording plants, insects, birds and lichens. The woodland is clearly ancient, and sits on limestone with areas of limestone pavement, leading to a wide biodiversity.

The workshop was arranged by the Friends of Merlin Woods, who are working very hard to reverse years of encroachment, and are preserving this wonderful resource for the future.

My personal list for the day reached around 200 species and this post shows some of the highlights.

I entrusted my net to two lads who were happy to chase down particular specimens on request, and we were able to photograph two specimens of the 4-spotted Chaser:

4-spotted Chaser

Since the woodland is on limestone and is a good deal further south than the area I usually survey, I had hoped to find species new to my list. One welcome addition is the Gorse Shieldbug. These are rather skittish and quickly run out of sight. You really need to wait until they think you're gone in order to get a decent shot:

Gorse Shieldbug. On Gorse.
New to my species list.

Oak trees are host to hundreds of species of insect and fungi, so are always worth a look. I spotted a new miner, which has now been identified and confirmed as the micromoth Acrocercops brongniardella which is rather scarce with just a handful of records in the country:
Mines of the micromoth Acrocercops brongniardella on oak
New to my species list.

At first I thought this was the common jumping spider Salticus scenicus, but when the images were blown up I realised that it was quite different. The dayglow yellow palps and striped legs leads us to Heliophana cupreus. About 6mm long.
The jumping Spider Heliophanus cupreus
New to my species list.

A dark area of woodland contained countless specimens of Birds-nest Orchid:

Birds Nest Orchid
New to my species list.

The woodland has some unusual trees, with interesting specimens cropping up in unexpected places. One Whitebeam had leaf galls which immediately attracted my attention, since the tree is scarce and galls are largely overlooked. It keys straight to the mite Eriophyes arianus, and I can find no previous records for Ireland.

Eriophyes arianus, top view

Eriophyes arianus, underside
New to my species list, and probably first Irish record.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015


Spring is very late this year. I currently have Lesser Celandine, Barren Strawberry and Wood Sorrel in flower, but little else apart from Daisy and Dandelion, which are in flower here all year round. Willow catkins have just opened and I have seen a few queen bumblebees foraging for pollen to start their nests. First hoverfly was a female Eristalis tenax, as is usual every year.

February and March were very cold, with waves of snow and rain for around 6 weeks non-stop, and the wind is still very cold, so very few insects are around outside.

Inside, however, we have plenty of spiders. This is a female Amaurobius sp., probably A similis due to location, but there's a slight possibility of A. fenestralis:

Female Amaurobius c.f. similis

Those jaws are fearsome. Amaurobius species are called Lace-web spiders, since they make a lattice web with a central tunnel where the spider lurks. Females are larger than the males, reaching some 16mm. in body length, and can readily be identified by the narrow ends to the palps and their larger abdomen.

New to my species list.

Another new species was a bit of a surprise. The micromoth Diurnea fagella is very common, but it's around the 250th moth species that I have recorded. The larvae feed on a wide range of broadleaf trees, so I should have seen it long before this.

Pretty beast, anyway, and about 15 mm. long.

The micromoth Diurnea fagella
The specimen in the photograph is a male, since it has fully-developed wings. The female has smaller, stunted wings, which makes me think it's heading towards the flightless females of many other winter/spring species.

New to my species list.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The story so far

It is now 12 years since I started blogging about the wildlife in my local patch, and I think it would be worthwhile to summarise the findings to date.

I started off in 2003 with my first digital camera, a Fuji 2800z, and began to photograph and identify the local plants on a particular hedgerow here:

My first discoveries were:

  • that there were more plants than I anticipated (around 90 species).
  • what I had previously thought was a single species was sometimes actually 2, 3, or more different species.
So in the first year, I discovered that I had a rich local environment but also that I had much to learn.

In the second year, I began to look at the insects as well as the plants, and I took notice of some of the larger fungi as well. I also began to extend the area of survey to include mixed woodland and a river system. I also got my second camera, a Fuji s7000, which enabled me to get much more detailed images of insects.

This extended geographic area is documented in and this blog ran until 2008, when I switched to the current format on blogspot.

My main discoveries during this time were:
  • different habitats contain different species
  • species interact in many different ways
  • there is a lot we don't know about our wildlife
  • wildlife is important for our survival
  • documentation to assist with identifications can be out of date, incomplete or hard to find
  • there is some uncertainty about the identity of some species
  • things are changing over time
  • soil type governs which species can be found in a particular place
  • it's complex out there
  • I could, and did, add species to the Irish list
Some of this all seems so trivial now, but during this time I was building up an understanding of the complex network of species that go to make up our wildlife. I also learned that this complexity is not widely understood, and that this lack of understanding is a serious problem for the survival of our wildlife, and ultimately for us as a species.

As a generalist recorder, I try to identify everything that I find. I was constantly told by specialists that I must find my niche and focus on particular groups, since nobody can do it all. But I find everything interesting, and if I ignore a particular group, then I'm leaving gaps in my knowledge. It is true that specialisation is the key to gaining full understanding of a group, but I like the fact that I can delve into flowering plants or wasps or fungi or spiders or whatever group as and when I like. I thrive on variety and switching my focus keeps things fresh for me. An additional benefit of my 'pan-group' recording is the overview that I get: specialists have a detailed view of their own group, but can be quite unaware of related events in others.

At first, I published my blogs as an information resource to show what was out there (a kind of scrapbook), but I quickly realised (or was forced to realise) that formal recording is important: we need to know what's out there. So I began to join various recording schemes and I submit data to these. (I am still creating retrospective formal records from the days before I started to make them, so older records will continue to surface as time permits). But I began to realise that my information was also being used as an educational resource, and I switched the emphasis of much of my text away from formal fact towards a more educational and instructive format.

The internet has been vital in a number of ways. First of all, it's a place to store my text and images in a place where anyone has access to them. Secondly, there are many on-line forums where experts gather together to discuss various groups. So it is relatively easy to find experts and get help with identifications. Thirdly, I can email images to people anywhere at the press of a button. Communication has never been easier. Central databases of national records are also available, and this lets us see distribution maps for species. This can be helpful in determining whether a potential identification is reasonable, or if further work (validation) needs to be done before a record would be acceptable.

Records are maintained in a single, central, database per country (I submit records to both Ireland and Northern Ireland) and submitted records need to be validated before being added to the reference database and being made publicly available. Validators are people who can assess the likelihood of a submitted record being correct, or whether further evidence (photograph or perhaps a specimen) is required. Validators tend to specialise in one or more groups, such as flies, fungi, bryophytes, flowering plants, spiders or beetles and basically act as filters to increase the reliability of data. On a couple of occasions, I have contacted data centres to ask who the validator is for a particular group only to be told "actually, that would be you". It is almost frightening to realise that some of the top-level expertise is held by absolute amateurs like myself, but this is actually a reflection of the lack of investment (actually, reduction in investment) by governments in professionals to hold positions where this expertise would naturally reside. This short-sightedness is another indicator that the importance of our wildlife is not understood.

I suppose one of the most surprising discoveries that I have made over the years is that there is still a degree of uncertainty no matter in which direction you choose to look.  The vast majority of specimens can be readily identified from reasonably easy to obtain reference books, but I have found that when it comes to identification of  some specimens I inevitably end up looking for an obscure paper from some journal or other. Once the paper has been secured, and I look for further advice or expertise, I can find that the number of people who can assist me further can be counted on the fingers of one hand. This is alarming, and might sound like a complaint, but it simply shows that we are walking a tightrope: our wildlife is complex and we don't have sufficient interest or resources to be competent enough to understand that complexity. Sometimes, we are left with 'opinions': an identification depends on who you decide to follow or believe.

So why the worry? Putting it simply, we are constantly making decisions about whether to build houses and businesses on green-field sites, brown-field sites, woodland, sites of special scientific interest, bog and so on and we are basing these decisions on incomplete information. We don't know enough about our wildlife, and we are certainly not competent enough to know that we are making the correct decisions. Pressure from industry, agriculture, building development and lack of understanding (or even basic interest) by politicians is putting us in a place that fills me with dread.

The simple fact is that our wildlife species interact with each other in complex, critical and fascinating ways. In turn, our wildlife interacts with us in complex and vital ways: we are just one species in the web. Until we fully understand our dependency on wildlife, we will continue to blunder down a badly-lit path towards something that frightens me.

So what can we do?

I intend to continue my research into the relationships between organisms: this is the area that interests me most. So I will continue to look at parasitica, fungi, leaf-miners and galls in particular. These are all good examples of species interactions, and are all areas which need further study.

I have very much enjoyed participating in the Heritage Council's Heritage in Schools program, which brings heritage experts into schools, exposing pupils to a wider range of information and, hopefully, stimulating long-term interest and involvement.

My intention is to share as much of my work as possible (budget and equipment permitting) and I aim to participate in as many field trips as I can squeeze into the workable part of the year. The winter months will be used for research and 'back-office' work whilst our wildlife is hiding away.

I had no idea where I was going when I started to write this piece. But it seems this is where I ended up. Please keep looking in.