19 Mar 2017

This is the weather

Steel Heath, Wednesday 15 March 2017

As I start this brief report on our trip to Steel Heath I had as some background music a song by John Ireland and the words "this is the weather" stood out. What better title for this trip which turned out to be as much about enjoying a day out and about in unexpectedly glorious warm sunshine in cloudless skies as finding fauna and flora of interest.



Seven of us met up at the unmade track that serves as the car park. After assembling our kit, donning suitable footwear and, as it turned out, unsuitable outer clothing we set off into the woodland that now dominates what a couple of the group remembered as open heath.


A damp hollow covered in leaf litter was our first area for investigation and the vacuum sampler affectionately known as Moth Vac was brought into action. Whilst its "catch" was checked a Brimstone flew by. It was clearly interested in what we were doing on its patch as it came back. It was netted for its trouble. Needless to say it was not too happy at this treatment and refused to pose for a photograph. So some safe gentle handling was needed.


We were surprised to find a leech.




We moved on. This was not easy as there were no paths. Eventually a track was found and followed. This led past a further damp hollow that may have been a pool in the past and then through some denser woodland where a 10-spot ladybird was observed and photographed.


The path led to a clearing. But access was tricky as it seemed to be guarded by bramble and wild rose. Having picked the least painful way through the thorns we then had to negotiate very uneven ground caused by ant hills and tussocky grass.

The clearing had a few clumps of mature heather and some small gorse bushes. These became the centre of attention for a while. Careful looking found a Gorse shieldbug sunning itself. Nearby a pair of spiders attracted the attention of the camera.


Whilst some of us spent our time in the clearing others investigated the surrounding birch dominated woodland. Unfortunately not a lot was found but our springtail hunter did find Neanura muscorum on a piece of damp wood.


This species does not have the ability to spring but is still pretty nifty and can disappear from view quite quickly.

Time for lunch - a working lunch - over a fresh tray of Moth Vac material.


Throughout our time in the clearing there were a few butterflies enjoying the weather, occasionally meeting and spiralling into the sky. A comma rested long enough to be photographed.


Time to move on, but not before one final beat of the gorse bush! This produced a male common earwig and a few springtails - Entomobrya nivalis.


We decided to end the day at Prees Heath, which was just a mile or so away from Steel Heath. Here we spent most of the time just looking and enjoying the weather. We paid attention to a few willows that were bearing flowers in the hope of spotting some early season hoverflies then wandered over to the pool.

At the pool we were greeted by the wonderful sight of toads passing the time of day sitting on the bottom of the pool. I am told that they were males awaiting the arrival of a female. Every now and again there would be some activity as one swam to the surface or walked across the vegetation covering the pool bed. Moving around the pool we found a couple of mating balls where a female had been ambushed by several males as they competed with each other to mate. Unfortunately this is dangerous for the female as she can be killed by all this attention.

It was tempting to spend the rest of the day sitting by the pool but we dragged ourselves away and made our way back to the cars via the main sandy, heather strewn area of the site. Here the wolf spider Alopecosa barbipes was found wandering about.



What an excellent day. This really was the weather to be out and about enjoying what nature has to offer.

My thanks to Shropshire County Council for permission to visit Steel Heath and to David Williams, Jim Cresswell and Bob Kemp for providing the excellent photographs.


3 Mar 2017

Our peaceful countryside

"Bagbatch" All Stretton - Wednesday 1st February 2017

As a result of a lunchtime conversation at the Shropshire Entomology Day we were invited to visit this delightful Local Wildlife Site in All Stretton. The site consists of 12 acres of semi and unimproved grassland, hawthorn scrub and open woodland with some mature oak, ash and sycamore and dingle woodland. 

We met on site and immediately set about investigating a huge garden shed, the home, no doubt, of many spiders. An early find was the remains of a green shieldbug in a spider's web. Still it was a record - state:"deceased"!

We left the shed behind and out host took us on a tour of the site. Well at least that was the intention, no sooner had we gone through the gate of the first meadow than we came across a broom, bramble and a fence. 

I made for the broom, the harbinger of many bugs, and was rewarded with the broom psyllid Arytaina genistae which is known by the local name "Broom Psyllid" which is confusing as there is another broom psyllid "Arytainilla spartiophila"!

Another of the group insisted on vacuum sampling the bramble and surrounding vegetation. His catch kept him and a couple of others entertained for ages. 

And a third inspected the fence for springtails; he is the youngest of the group so his eyes are far better at spotting these tiny bouncy insects (I exaggerate, not all the species have the ability to spring and lead a more sedentary life).

We wandered on and reached, by a circular route that drifted upwards through a wooded area, a second meadow. There a fallen branch and gnarled tree trunks provided a focus for investigation both of the wood and our lunch boxes.


Our circumnavigation continued. Someone spotted the lichen Ramalina fraxinea.


The fungus Jelly Ear was abundant on another tree.


From holly and ivy I captured two specimens of a rather attractive barkfly. As I could not identify it I had to take it home. 

It was not in the key to British species!


After much head-scratching and rechecking of keys, I looked at pictures on the Barfly Recording Scheme website and found a likeness. The website stated that it had only recently been found for the first time in Ireland. There was no mention of its arrival onto the British Isles. Excitement - was this a species new to Britain? Alas no. The National Recorder who confirmed my identification also informed me that it had been turning up all over the place. Ah well!

The species is Chilenocaecilius ornatipennis, and is normally found in Argentina and Chile. It must like our climate as it seems to have decided to stay.

We moved on, passing a group of overwintering Orange ladybirds tucked under a branch.


Time was passing and we drew to the end of our circuit of this excellent site. In all we gathered records for about 90 species, which I think, is very impressive for this time of year. My thanks to our host for the invitation, the guided tour and especially the refreshments at the end.

However, it was not all plain sailing, two mysteries remain. The first is a mite with "Popeye" arms. (It may be a member of the genus Pergamasus.)


The second a parasitic wasp with delightful body sculpturing which is clearly visible in this excellent montage. It makes you wonder why so few people tackle these attractive insects. (You should be able to click on the image to see an enlarged version.)



Whixall Moss - Wednesday 15th February 2017

Where better place to go in mid-February than Whixall Moss? I'll leave you to answer that question. 

There was a target species for the day - Gyphesis cottonae - a tiny money-spider. It is about 1mm in size, black, with short legs and lives in sphagnum moss. Now if there is one thing that Whixall has it is a lot a sphagnum. And looking for something not much bigger than a full stop with legs - to quote a colleague "What could possibly go wrong?"

The meeting point was the Morris Bridge car park on a surprisingly mild but greyish day. The first sound that greeted us was not birdsong or other sounds of the countryside but the wailing of a hedge as it was flailed by the team maintaining the margins of the canal.

We walked purposefully up the entrance track and onto the moss and started to look for sphagnum that was accessible without having to take undue risk, being careful where to put our feet in case there was some hidden ditch underneath.



The green patch in the middle of the pool in the photograph is sphagnum moss, out of reach unless you want an early bath. We looked in many of the pits and they were just like this. The sphagnum was teasing us. Eventually we found one that allowed us to extract some sphagnum on the end of a walking pole without danger. It was dumped in a tray and painstakingly examined. Nothing was found - sorry, lots of things were found but not our target species. We resorted to the vacuum sampler.



Yes, we had seats with us and a table for the tray. Bending over a tray on the ground for long periods is hard work. Please do not begrudge us a minor luxury.

In the meantime, if we had a collective noun for excellent wildlife photographers I would have to use it here, as they gathered to discus f-stops, ISOs, lenses, diffusers ... But, they do produce brilliant photographs and they are always willing for me to use the results of their labours in these reports.



Then we heard it.

Bang
Bang
Bang

It was coming from the direction of the scrapyard so we assumed, quite wrongly, that work was being done there following its acquisition by Shropshire Wildlife Trust.

Bang
Bang
You get the picture. On and on, then a pause - had it stopped - no - Bang etc.

A passing walker told us that the noise was from the canal maintenance team.

One relief was that there were no helicopters, the usual plague of this area. And then one flew over. Or at least we heard it, we could not see it. Thankfully that was the only one.

Back to the search. A small sample of very wet sphagnum had been separated and there was excitement that a candidate for the target species had been spotted. A photographer moved in to record the event and it promptly disappeared. No amount of searching could find it. As it had probably not left the sphagnum the sample was put in a tube for checking later.

We did find a Whixall speciality, the raft spider Dolomedes fimbriatus.

 

And a Tibellus sp.



We lunched then moved back towards the entrance to a patch of heath in amongst very tussocky wet grass. This was quite a sheltered spot and it proved to be easier to find things of interest. (The banging continued.)

A springtail with a purple stripe down its abdomen was referred to the European expert and identified as Isotomurus plumosus



Cladonia lichens were in flower



Some caterpillars were found. This one is the larva of the Dingy footman moth



There was even an adult moth flying about - a Beautiful plume



The clouds grew more threatening and there was rain in the air so we made our way, slowly, back to the cars and then home.

Later the sphagnum was examined under a microscope and it did contain the target species - a male Glyphesis cottonae; mission accomplished. I do not have a photograph, but here is a photograph of the other animals there were in the sample.

 


My thanks Natural England for granting us access to the site and to Bob Kemp, David Williams, Jim Cresswell, Mags Cousins, Nigel Cane-Honeysett and Stephen Barlow for providing most of the photographs.



24 Jan 2017

Happy New Year

Brook Vessons SWT Reserve - Wednesday 18 January 2017

I know it is a bit late but may I wish you all a "Happy New Year".

Our first outing of 2017 was to the Shropshire Wildlife Trust reserve at Brook Vessons. A few of us met at the car park by the village hall in Snailbeach then made our way to the car park for The Hollies by Lordshill Chapel. Here we met a member of the Trust who was to be our guide.

From Lordshill Chapel we made our way to the target site giving The Hollies only a glance as we sped to the far corner of this reserve where a couple of stiles gained us entrance to Brook Vessons.

The area we found ourselves in was very wet and dominated by dead bracken, but we noticed a broken post or stump that had become a lichen forest.



We set up camp and searched for things of interest amongst the dead bracken, mosses and grasses. A number of species were identified, the highlight being a money spider Lepthyphantes angulatus which could well be the first time it has been recorded in the county.
According to the Spider and Harvestman Recording Scheme website this is a spider that is usually found on high ground. Adults occur in late summer, autumn and winter and it is widespread on high ground in North Wales, northern England and Scotland. 

Time to move on but a wall was getting a close inspection.



What was the attraction, a spider, a flower, .... no it was a lichen. Was it commonplace or a rarity? 


After much deliberation it was identified as Parmeliopsis ambigua which is common and pollution tolerant.



Whilst some of us were puzzling over the lichen a cry of alarm arose from a little further on. Our advance scout who was checking the path had got stuck in the mud. Fortunately he managed to extricate himself with his boots still on and returned to us. We followed a different route eventually emerging on firmer grassland.

Time for lunch. Either in the open:



Or besides a tree with a rather complex trunk:



Unfortunately none of us had brought out winter tree identification crib sheets with us so our best guess was that it was a rowan.

Nearby was a rock with its own Cladonia and moss garden:


Lunch over we had a lesson from our guide on how to determine the presence of dormice from nibbled hazel nuts. The way the dormouse creates the hole in the nut to get at the kernel is very distinctive - the holes have a smooth inner rim with tooth marks at an angle to the hole on the nut surface. Dormice are known to reside in Brook Vessons but we did not find any evidence of them on this trip. Still, more knowledge for future trips.

In a woodpile a strange fungus was discovered. Fortunately our fungus/lichen/and much more besides expert recognised what it was and carefully extracted it.


This is the rather sinister Cordyceps militaris, a parasitic fungus that grows on a buried insect larva or pupa such as a caterpillar. You can just about make out the unfortunate insect at the very bottom of the fungus stem. After a successful attack the fungus' mycelium take over the insect keeping it alive long enough for the fungus to fruit when the mushroom erupts from the host.

It was now starting to get distinctly parky so we returned to our cars and home after a very enjoyable day. What a good start to the year.