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. 

2 Nov 2016

The Great Atypus Hunt

Pontesbury Crag, Wednesday 12th October 2016 

So - (have you noticed everyone interviewed on TV for whatever reason always starts replies to questions with “So” e.g.  “What brings you to this remote spot in Outer Mongolia, Dorothy ?” “So my greatuncle, when he was ..... blah blah blah” !) - anyway So there we were assembling in the Earl’s Hill car park about to embark on the Great Atypus Hunt when a party of schoolchildren emerged noisily from their  school bus all attired in climbing gear (the children not the bus).  As they passed by I asked one of their teachers where they were climbing as we were looking for a spider which, lives in cracks and fissures in the rockface at Pontesbury Crag. “That’s where we’re climbing”, he said, and added pensively, “I tell the kids to stick their fingers in the cracks and fissures to obtain a handhold !”.  I went a bit pensive at that point !

Following a quick H&S briefing – “the rocks are high, the ground is hard and the acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 metres per second per second  - give or take a bit” and a briefing on what we were looking for

we set off up the track and avoided being led down the wrong path again (like last time) by the tried and tested scientific method of shouting.

We trudged uphill and downhill and uphill again and a little bit more downhill and then – well you get the picture. Remarkably we moved at a near Staffordshire Invertebrate Group pace and only stopped a couple of times to hit things with sticks and peer myopically into white trays. Cries of “Are we there yet ?” and “Why is it all uphill now ?” were met with the unsympathetic answer “We haven’t even started – wait till we get to the scree slope !” Clearly this was a man with a mission !

We eventually straggled up to the bottom of the scree slope and after a few “Yes really. Yes up the slope. Yes that one there.” we ascended to the base of the rockface.

Remembering that there might be sundry young persons clambering around on the rockface sticking their fingers where it might not be advisable, we circumnavigated the climbing area and made our way further upward.

After finding nothing at a sensible height, our brave and fearless County Spider Recorder (oh alright it was me !)  scrambled up the face of the rock whilst another member of the gallant band held the rockface steady with a stick.

And Lo it came to pass that we found what we’d been looking for:-

Yes that small vertical dirty sock/dog poo stuck to the rock with a silk attachment at the top -impressive eh?

Not to be outdone the youngest member of our gallant band sprung like a mountain gazelle to greater heights and found a sizeable colony of tubes.

It seems now that we must record three dimensional gridrefs.  Forget “Shropshire Firsts” – the new challenge is to obtain the highest record in the County (without the use of long poles or other artificial aids e.g. stilts, oversized prosthetic limbs etc.).

We now had our collective eye in and began to find tubes at a more sensible level.

All told we must have found in excess of 30 individual tubes so sat and had our lunch at various different heights due to the inclination or otherwise to risk necks etc. climbing up rocks. The only slight disappointment was that we did not see any actual spiders wandering about.

We then meandered slowly back to the car park – oh and we found some other stuff on the way !

Thanks to those who supplied photos of this epic adventure.

1 Oct 2016

Up periscope

The Hem, Telford - Wednesday 28th September 2016

Eleven of us made our way to The Hem on the edge of the Halesfield Industrial Estate in Telford. 

The Hem is a remnant of ancient woodland that has somehow escaped obliteration as Telford has developed. After years of neglect it is now managed by Mark Eccleston (website) who is into the fifth year of a 7 year coppicing cycle. His activities have allowed the ground flora to flourish. Bluebells, wood sorrel, marsh marigold and many other plants cover the woodland floor in the late spring and these give way to various grasses later in the year. 

In the past we have timed our visit to coincide with the spring flowers but this year we have visited the site later in the year to see what was there and hopefully find species that would not be present earlier in the year.

One pleasure of visiting this site is the facilities that Mark has provided essentially to help in the course of his work but greatly appreciated by this group, such as a shelter, seats and tables.

 But what is this lurking in the undergrowth, a subterranean beast raising its periscope to take a quick look around?

All will be revealed.

The members of the group scattered throughout the site. The leaf litter on one of the tables was a draw to one member.

One of the other tables, however, proved to be more of a magnet.

This became the centre of operations for the day as spider-minded folk and recent attendees at a Harvestman course jostled to find, identify and photograph arachnids. 

Every now and then one of them would disappear wielding the M-vac (a garden leaf-blower converted to suck, owned by the Shropshire Moth Group but kindly lent to this group), disturb the peace for a few minutes then return to disgorge its contents into a tray on the table.

As the contents were being examined by a large number of the group our spider recorder extracted one in a tube, looked at it and was almost rendered speechless. "I've always wanted to see one of these" was a rough approximation of what he uttered. He passed it on to his colleague who took one look at it and his eyes almost popped out of his head in delight.

Well, not being a spider person, I had no idea what they we so excited.

It was Walckenaeria acuminata, a spider whose male has a long extension on the top of its head on which its eyes are placed. Why? I have no idea. The female is not so adorned (very sensible).

More samples were collected using the M-vac. One turned up the harvestman Lophopilio palpinalis.

A longhorn beetle was also collected - Pogonocherus hispidus.

Whilst all this table top activity was going on others were out and about using the traditional methods of sight, net and tray. An early find was a witches egg from which erupts the stinkhorn fungus.

The egg was cut open and you can make out the form of the stinkhorn.

Another interesting find was a piece of wood on which green elf cups were growing.

Time for a spot of lunch and to enjoy the site's facilities.

Lunch over and the sun still shining we explored further.

Yet another curiosity was discovered. A hitch-hiking pseudoscropion.

The psuedoscorpion is possibly Pselaphochernes scorpioides, a long name for a tiny beast. This species is phoretic; it attaches itself to a suitable host as a method of getting about. It does not harm the host (in this case the cranefly Achyrolimonia decemmaculata.

Another interesting observation was this:

A slime-mould, as yet unidentified.

A large cranefly was captured - Tipula fulvipennis.

This is one of the largest craneflies we have in the county. Yes she only has three legs. I confess to being responsible for two of the missing ones. I have no idea what happened to the third, but she seems to be managing ok with what are left.

I have mentioned the dancing black slug in previous reports. Well, we found another, but rather than bore you with a repeat, here are two other slugs that were found at the Hem. First the Leopard slug:

And the ashy-black slug:

Time was marching on. Just one one last use of M-vac! It found nothing of significance but the logs around the table proved irresistible to a hoverfly. Despite our close presence and continual movement it stayed at its post on the logs only distracted by passing insects which it challenged. So persistent was it that it had to be photographed.

What is it? Xylota sylvarum.

We went home.

Thank you to Mark Eccleston for allowing us to visit the site and do what we enjoy doing; to SECAL for letting us to use their car park and to the supreme photographers David Williams, Bob Kemp and Jim Cresswell for providing most of the photographs.

Dothill LNR - Friday 30th September 2016

Five of us went to Dothill for our final visit of the series that we have made this year. The sun was shining but the wind had a cold autumnal edge.

Whilst waiting for everyone to arrive we found a ladybird emerging from its pupal case.

Where are its spots? 

The elytra will colour up and the spots emerge over time.

As we walked around we found some insects taking advantage of the early sun. A common carder bee:

And lots of dock bugs, two of which I photographed.

Social wasps do not normally get a mention as they all look the same to me but today we had a knowledgeable person with us who was able to identify and photograph a German wasp.

The inset shows the pattern on the face which distinguishes this particular species.

Later a spider was found - and what was its lunch - a wasp!

Some indulged in a coffee break.

We continued on our merry way. Close inspection of a nettle revealed a cluster of nymphs and adults of the ground bug Heterogaster urticae.

This is a common bug associated with nettles. Despite its "common" status I do not see it very often, but they were abundant at Dothill.

A bench was located so lunch was taken. As you may remember from earlier reports of our visits to Dothill I have mentioned issues with dogs. Well today there was only one dog that stuck its nose into our feast, fortunately when we had just about finished.

I looked at the sky. The patches of blue were rapidly turning grey. Time to start back, not too quickly, towards the cars. We passed through some woodland. The lack of ground flora begs for some TLC to thin the trees and scallop the paths. But who will do it?

Out of the woodland and into rough grassland we found plenty of Himalyan balsam whose flowers were a source of food for insects especially bees, a few stands of ragwort but the rest had taken on an autumnal hue. 

There was a hoverfly Helophilus pendulus on one of the ragwort plants.

And a late tap of a thistle disturbed an Angle shades moth.

Home we went.

Thank you to David Williams for providing additional photographs.


So another season of wildlife walks comes to a close. I would like to thank all the land owners and managers for allowing us access to their sites; all the photographers who have supplemented my efforts in these reports; the readers of these reports for your interest and occasional feedback but most importantly all those who have joined me for making these trips so enjoyable. 

Walks continue once a month until we start again, all being well, on a weekly basis next April.