Beetles, birds, general natural history. Britain, Ireland and abroad.

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Schoolboy errors

Common mistakes of the newbie naturalist, and how to avoid them! Test yourself: there are six common mistakes listed here. How many did you already know about?

1. This is a scientific name: Homo sapiens. Loads of people would call it a “Latin name” and many scientific names are derived from Latin. However, because scientific names may be derived from other languages both ancient (Greek, Sanskrit) and modern, then you are showing your ignorance by calling them Latin names.

2. A scientific name has two words, e.g. Pterostichus madidus. The first word is the name of the genus, Pterostichus in this case, and the second word is the specific name, madidus in this case. The generic name is always spelt with an initial capital letter, and the specific name is never spelt with a capital letter. Ok, so the rules were different a long time ago but specific names are never spelt with a capital letter nowadays. Journalists, for some unfathomable reason, will routinely capitalise all the specific names in any article!

3. If you are the sort of person who likes to insert foreign words into your writing, to add a certain je ne sais quoi, then you may be familiar with the convention of italicising foreign-language words. When writing names, only names of genus rank and below are considered to be foreign-language words and italicised: thus Amniota, Diapsida, Archosauromorpha, Archosauria, Dinosauria, Theropoda, Coelurosauria, Tyrannosauroidea, Tyrannosauridae, Tyrannosaurinae: Tyrannosaurus rex. Italicising names other than genus, subgenus, species, subspecies (and other infraspecific taxa like varieties) is probably the single best way to get the experts to snigger at you!

4. The names of taxonomic groups of genus-level rank and above should be given an initial capital letter. So one of the commonest British beetles is Amischa analis,&hellip ... read the rest

Weevil-thigh Lice

What on earth are these invertebrates?!? I haven’t got a clue – a situation which is exciting and frustrating in equal measures!

mystery invertebrate (in DMHF)

mystery invertebrate in situ on the right hind-femur of the weevil Sitona lepidus

I found four specimens on Wednesday from a wetland site on the edge of Pevensey Levels, East Sussex. I didn’t see any in the field but started noticing them as I was identifying my beetle specimens. The first was loose in a tube with two Datonychus melanostictus and I assumed it was bycatch, rather than a parasite of the weevils. But I then found one attached by its mouthparts to the mid-femur of a Protapion fulvipes, and two more attached to the hind femur of a Sitona lepidus.

I don’t think these things can be common or I’d have noticed them before. Maybe I’ve seen them before with eyes blinkered to all but beetles and just disregarded them? For the time being I will call them Weevil-thigh Lice. I would dearly like to give them a scientific name and unlock whatever knowledge exists about them. But the only way I can think to go about identifying them is to stick the photos up here and ask – do you know what they are?

Isn’t this a … ?

I don’t know if anyone’s heard this story before, but I once uttered the line “Isn’t this a White Prominent?” beside a moth trap in Co. Kerry, which was followed by a great deal of shouting, swearing, hugging, back-slapping and general euphoria. The answer to my question was yes – the first since 1938. I was able to hit the Bucks moth-ers with the line “Isn’t this Oxyptila pilosellae?” on Tuesday night, as I happened to be the first to spot one. It was on the sheet while I was crawling over it pooting beetles, and was the first of three that came to light. With no British record of the Downland Plume O. pilosellae since 1964, Colin Hart wrote that it “may now be extinct” in his 2011 monograph on the plumes. But the Bradenham area in Bucks has produced two singletons in more recent years and now three in one night. Colin himself was there to witness it. The foodplant of the Downland Plume is Mouse-ear Hawkweed Pilosella officinarum, growing on chalk or limestone grassland.

Downland Plume Oxyptila pilosellae at Bradenham by Peter Hall

I focused on beetles rather than moths (though I still saw 8 new moths!) and recorded 33 species, including the whirligig Gyrinus paykulli and the saproxylic species Euglenes oculatus. I had been hoping to see the scarab Odonteus armiger, especially a male with its rhino horn, but it was not to be. This beetle is a familiar sight to the Bucks moth-ers when they’re light-trapping on chalk grassland and seems to be extremely difficult to find by any other means.

More pleasing than any of the beetles was this fly, pooted out of the bottom of one of the traps: the chloropid Camarota curvipennis. Jeremy Richardson&hellip ... read the rest

Tales of the unexpected

Jeremy Richardson found a very striking longhorn beetle on Hackney Marsh on Wednesday and identified it as Stictoleptura cordigera, apparently new to Britain. Jeremy emailed me his photos and I was able to offer my agreement with his identification the next morning. I suggested it might make a good day out for Bradley and I on Monday and we arranged to meet up. News came in from Max Barclay at the Natural History Museum that a single S. cordigera had been recorded in “July 2007, collected by Les Wilson on thistles in Hackney Wick”. What had looked like a one-off imported individual at the time, now looks more like the fore-runner of an established population.

Stictoleptura cordigera at Hackney Marsh

Bradley pointed at it and said "Beetle", becoming the fourth person to see S. cordigera in Britain.

I hadn’t given us more than a 50:50 chance of seeing S. cordigera, so I was delighted to lay eyes on it, especially after a long and gruelling journey backpacking Bradley into London on the train. In the end we saw at least four, probably six. But as if that wasn’t enough, the same thistle patch yielded another totally unfamiliar longhorn beetle, which Jeremy instantly recognised as Paracorymbia fulva!

Paracorymbia fulva from Hackney Marsh

Another of Jeremy’s discoveries at this site is the stunning fly Myennis octopunctata. I’d drooled over his photos in Dipterist’s Digest last year so when Jeremy said he could show me some on a nearby stack of poplar logs, I was buzzing. And there they were! In life, they almost seem to be mimicking Salticus jumping-spiders. I had three more ticks on the same pile of logs: the groundbug Rhyparochromus vulgaris, the&hellip ... read the rest

A Night at the Achopera

I will be lurking around the Cassiobury Park entrance at ten thirty. I will be able to stay until midnight which should be plenty of time.
Dave.

I had never met Dave Murray of the Watford Coleoptera Group before. He has been working Cassiobury Park and Whippendell Woods for beetles for several years and, as I found out on Friday night, knows the place and its beetles like the back of his hand. After meeting up at the appointed lurking place, Dave took me straight to a lime snag in the Park, I flicked my headtorch on and there was Uloma culinaris!

Uloma culinaris in Cassiobury Park

Uloma is a smart, polished mahogany beetle that the WCG discovered and is still only known from Watford, and from an old record by G.B. Alexander: “Bushy Hall, in rotton wood, 20.vii.1950″. We saw at least six individuals, all on this one trunk, along with a few other saproxylic beetles: loads of Endomychus coccineus (Endomychidae), 1 Triplax aenea, 1 Dacne bipustulata (both Erotylidae) and a few Lesser Stags Dorcus parallelepipedus (Lucanidae). Uloma culinaris is not regarded as a native species, at least not by Alexander et al. (2014). I can’t really disagree, except that it would be nice to think that Uloma has been lurking in the darkness on Watford’s ancient trees since way back, until Dave and co. shone a light on it.

Achopera alternata is another startling discovery by the WCG. It’s an Australian weevil, certainly not native to Britain that was first found at Erddig in Wales by John Bratton (see Beetle News of May 2012). Rowan Alder made an online discovery of a second Welsh locality (apparently photographed somewhere near Llangollen). But the place to see this&hellip ... read the rest

Zombie grasshopper

Entomophaga grylli infecting a Field Grasshopper

This grasshopper has climbed to the top of a Wild Carrot stem, then hugged it tight with all six legs and waited to die. Grasshoppers never normally do that but this one was zombified by a fungus: Entomophaga grylli. Once infected, the fungus somehow made it climb and cling before killing it in a nice high spot from which it could disperse its spores. The fungus fruits from between the segments of the insect and in this photo, the fruiting is over and the fungus isn’t very obvious. But the position and pose of the grasshopper is diagnostic. And as far as I know, E. grylli is the only entomophagous fungus that infects British Orthoptera.

I saw this a lot when I was doing my PhD on Chorthippus brunneus so I’m pretty sure this is a common fungus. However, officially there are only 5 British records but I think it is just massively under-recorded: http://www.fieldmycology.net/FRDBI/FRDBIrecord.asp?intGBNum=47709

I still think this is one of the most fascinating biological interactions I’ve ever heard of. How does the fungus get the grasshopper to do that, when it is not even something in the normal behavioural repertoire of grasshoppers? Imagine if there were human infections which could change our behaviour like that …

Mediterranea and Victoriana

A miscellany from the last couple of days. Firstly a female Southern Oak Bush-cricket Meconema meridionale from south London today, one of many seen. These bush-crickets were discovered in Britain in 2001 having spread north from the Mediterranean. This is an adult, and the wings are tiny, so it clearly didn’t arrive in Britain by flight. But bush-crickets are sometimes found on parked vehicles and are amazingly good at clinging on at speed. It’s conceivable that it made it to London by just clinging on to some cross-channel traffic.

Southern Oak Bush-cricket female

I don’t normally pay much attention to spiders when I’m on a survey but this big girl certainly grabbed my attention: 13 mm long and looking like the sort of thing you’d see imported in a bunch of bananas, not under a log in London. It turns out to be Steatoda nobilis, and true enough this species “has been repeatedly introduced from the Canary Islands and Madeira with bananas”! In the Harvey, Nellist and Telfer (2002) Atlas it only has four dots in Britain but a look at the latest map from the Spider Recording Scheme shows that it has made itself firmly at home in southern England in the last decade. It is obligatory to mention that this is a species which can inflict a painful bite if suitably provoked.

Steatoda nobilis female

Finally, a beetle I could reasonably have expected never to see my whole life long: Oxytelus piceus. It lives in cow-pats and would not have been an unexpected sight to a Victorian coleopterist living in southern Britain. But the progress of the 20th century was tough on many dung-feeding beetles and by 1994 Hyman and Parsons were only aware&hellip ... read the rest

Micro-birding: 9 years working my patch

I almost never go birding any more but I can’t bear to let myself become a non-birder. So for the last 9 years I have been diligently working my local patch on an almost daily basis: my garden. It’s basically a bog-standard garden in bog-standard countryside but it’s been incredibly rewarding over the 9 years we’ve lived here. I’ll tell you why.

From the start, in August 2004, I’ve followed Graham Hirons’ advice and kept a list for each and every month. It gives me the impetus each month to record all the common species and means that I’ve always got my eyes peeled and my ears tuned. I don’t actually make a special effort to go birding other than to take my coffee-breaks in the garden, with my bins, and always to look out of the window while I’m on the phone in the office, again with my bins handy.

I was woken at a cruel hour this morning by the junior member of the household, so we sat out in the garden together while I drank a couple of pots of coffee. I added 6 birds to the August 2013 list: Bullfinch heard, Raven heard, Herring Gull over, Goldcrest, Chiff-chaff and best of all my second Tree Pipit heard going south. That takes this month’s list to 48, though there’s still a long way to go to match my best ever August tally of 57 in 2009.

Bird totals by month, cumulative over 9 years

The downside of choosing my garden as a patch is that nobody else is really that interested in what I see. Find a Slavonian Grebe at Tring Reservoirs and loads of people will go out of their way to see it. Find a Treecreeper in my garden and&hellip ... read the rest

Extinct no longer

The oldest book I own was published in 1839, and in it James Francis Stephens describes the distribution of Rhyssemus germanus with a few words: “Sandy coasts: near Bristol”. When the Canon Fowler wrote about it in 1890 he was able to add that it was “said by Curtis [who was active up until the mid-1850s] to have been taken near Swansea” but added that “I know of no recent captures”. This beetle was also recorded from South Lancashire in the 1800s but I don’t have any more detail on that record.

Rhyssemus germanus. The bumpy ridges on the elytra are the most striking difference from Psammodius asper.

The structure of the hind tarsi and hind-tibial spurs is a key distinction from other psammodiines.

It was a massive shock to identify a single specimen of Rhyssemus germanus from a nocturnal torching session at Dungeness RSPB Reserve on 15-16 June this year! There is a similar species of dung beetle which I have seen a few times before at Dungeness (Psammodius asper) and I had little doubt that this specimen would turn out to be another of those. But when, on Thursday, I lined this year’s specimen up against my reference specimens of P. asper, I got a shock. Definitely something else, and I pulled out the RES Handbook and had soon keyed it out to R. germanus!

Unfortunately, the thrill of rediscovering a long extinct beetle in Britain was fairly short-lived. Once I’d got in touch with Darren Mann, he told me that R. germanus was discovered elsewhere in south-eastern England a few years ago. The discoverer has yet to publish his find so I won’t steal any more of his thunder here.

R. germanus is a dung-beetle in name&hellip ... read the rest

My Ero

I caught a spider on the bedroom ceiling on Saturday and was about to chuck it out of the window when I noticed it had four pointy tubercles on its abdomen. There aren’t many spiders with abdominal tubercles so I thought I’d have a go at identifying it. Lucky I did as it turns out to be one of the pirate spiders Ero aphana – only the third record for Bedfordshire!

Ero aphana

The Atlas of British spiders (Harvey, Nellist and Telfer, 2002) lists about 11 sites for this species, all on the heathlands of Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey. It is still a Vulnerable (Red Data Book 2) species but since the turn of the millennium it has ceased to be dependent on heathland and has been turning up in a wide variety of mostly dry habitats (houses, gardens, brownfield sites, etc.) and spreading as far north as Nottinghamshire. Map and further info on the Spider Recording Scheme webpage.

Many thanks to Ian Dawson for helping to identify this spider and for information on its status in Beds.