29 Aug 2014

Common as muck! By Keith Fowler

Wednesday 20th August 2014
We travelled south to the Wyre Forest to join members of Invertebrate Challenge in a search for Long-horned beetles and bugs (and anything else that took our fancy). Nine of us made the trip, easily outnumbering the members of Invertebrate Challenge. We are not crowing; it was a team effort.

Not wishing to keep you in suspense we did find two long-horned beetles. Unfortunately both were the same species Rutpela maculata; the first insect was found feeding on an umbellifer, I am not sure where the second was observed. 

That is one of our target groups ticked off, what about bugs? In all we found seven species of shieldbugs and their allies and a reasonable selection of hoppers and other bugs. The star of the day (for me) was the Tortoise bug Eurygaster testudinaria. It is not a shieldbug I have seen before. Fortunately, we had a couple of the Wyre Forest group with us who were able to confirm that they are present in the forest. 

I found two adult and one nymph. The Great Spider Catcher, who had forsaken his mega-pooter (or “Spider-Vac” as he prefers to call it) in favour of a voluminous sweep-net, then proceeded to collect several more. Later as we lunched one of the Invertebrate Challengers found a rather fetching orangey-pink teneral nymph (which nicely matched her rainproof). This species of bug is clearly as common as muck in this area. 

Another interesting find was the Wood Dor Beetle Anoplotrupes stercorosus. We stumbled across these quite frequently as they bimbled about on the short grass and bare earth of the rides. We were treated to a demonstration of how to listen to a beetle “rasping” but many of us refused to have a go fearing the beetle would find the warmth and darkness of our ears too attractive to resist.

As we lunched, in the company of a Silver-washed fritillary, a curious looking beetle was netted. It was soon identified as a member of the Silphidae which are “burying” beetles. However our beetle was a “non-burying” member of the family Oiceoptoma thoracicum which is usually found in woodland attracted by dung, carcasses and rotting fungi – clearly our sandwiches were not as fresh as we thought. 

After lunch we continued to wander about and spotted a collection of Buff-tip Phalera bucephala caterpillars on a birch. According to the UK Moths website “the yellow-and-black caterpillars live gregariously and feed on a number of different deciduous trees, sometimes defoliating entire branches.” They were certainly making short work of this unfortunate tree.

Birch shieldbugs Elasmostethus interstinctus were also in the “common as muck” category. They were all over the place - on oak, bracken, heather and just about every plant and, yes, birch. I found one birch leaf, which you must concede is quite small, supporting a group of seven late instars and adults. Unfortunately my photograph of this leaf and its supporting cast was not in focus so you will have to imagine the scene.

Our final significant find was neither a beetle nor a bug but a Golden-ringed dragonfly Cordulegaster boltonii resting on Bracken that had grown up alongside a fallen Silver birch. It seemed quite content for us to look at it and patiently posed for photographs even ignoring a slight jolt that I gave it when I got too close with the camera. 

During the day the Great Shieldbug Finder took my photograph. Thank you; it will redress the balance for all my photographs of others within the group. Here it is:

We returned to the cars (uphill most of the way) in good spirits.

What a good day.

Friday 22nd August 2014
The second trip of the week was a day out in the south west of the county in the wilds to the west of Clun. I did warn drivers that they needed a good map as it is easy to go astray on the narrow twisting and frequently un-signposted roads of this area ... and so it proved as both drivers managed to take at least one wrong turn during the journey to Lower Shortditch Turbary.

Four of us assembled at the lay-by opposite the Shropshire Wildlife Trust’s site. The weather was dry and sunny with a few fluffy clouds scudding across the sky in the stiff breeze that felt as though it came direct from the Artic. This forced the Arranger to don every layer of clothing he could find in the back of his car. 

The site looked a picture with the heather in full bloom, surrounded on two sides by conifers. Photographs never capture the true impact of such landscapes but here is my effort. Please use your imagination to enhance the image to realise its true impact.

We set off across the heather and wet grassland. The ground was very well vegetated hiding very uneven wet ground underneath. It was a struggle to keep upright. The first thing I spotted was dog poo. What is the point of bringing your dog all the way to here and then just leave its waste products behind? Soon my mood was lightened as we found, in very quick succession, a Hieroglyphic ladybird and what, after considerable fumbling through guides and discussion, we decided was an instar of the Heather shieldbug (this identification will need to be confirmed by the National Recorder).

A path was found and we followed it. Unfortunately this soon disappeared but the ground was dryer and more even making progress less hazardous. Common heather was the dominant plant but, if memory serves me correctly, Bell heather and Cross-leaved Heath were also present (but don’t quote me on that, I am not a Botanist!). Bilberry was abundant and there were some Gorse and Broom bushes. The only trees I saw were Rowan and these were youngsters that seemed to be struggling to survive.

A track was found so we had a coffee break that continued into lunch. Lunching with our backs to the wind we did not notice the dark clouds gathering behind us. After lunch it started to rain, annoying but not threatening. We carried on assuming it was a passing shower and found a Painted Lady butterfly. 

And the shower did pass. To be replaced by a downpour. A tactical retreat to the cars was accomplished rapidly.

After a while the rain stopped and we drove to Rhos Fiddle. Unfortunately we did not have long there so saw very little of the site which did not do it justice. All being well if these “walks” continue next year I will try to schedule a return visit in late spring or early summer. 

Keith Fowler

23 Aug 2014

“Isn’t she a beauty” by Keith Fowler

Wednesday, 6th August 2014

Welcome to the wilderness that is the Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve, or at least the Whixall part of it. Thanks to Natural England we had permission to visit the site as a group and collect a small number of insects for identification purposes.

In the days leading up to the trip I paid great attention to the weather forecast as the moss is not a place to be if it is raining. You get very wet very quickly. On Sunday the prospects for Wednesday were very poor, solid rain. On Monday the dire forecast had eased a little and on Tuesday it was rain early moving east followed by brighter periods and showers. My pessimism of Sunday had changed to determination by Tuesday. As it turned out the weather was wonderful, breezy but that kept the temperature reasonable in almost unbroken sunshine. What a waste of time packing my waterproof and carrying it around all day!

Eight of us met at the National Nature Reserve (NNR) Base where ample car parking and toilets were available. Actually seven of us met there and one met no-one else at the Morris’s Bridge car park. I do not want to embarrass him (too much) but he received two calendar reminders, a group email and an acknowledgement from me all pointing out where we were meeting. Ah well, we all make mistakes and he joined us a little late. He was pleased with the two fungi that were given to him – wait a minute, didn’t he lose one of those, oops.

It is a fair walk from the NNR Base to the entrance to Whixall Moss and we managed it in record time. Clearly the potential delights of the moss outweighed our desires to explore every umbellifer, nettle bed, cypress, oak tree, etc. on the way.

We plunged off the main path into one of the compartments. [A compartment is a small numbered section of the moss and consists of a mixture of water filled ditches, damp ditches, heath, grassland, scrub and firmer ground on which you can walk safely.] The Shropshire Arachnologist had never seen the raft spider Dolomedes fimbriatus, so I beat a bit of the grassland and found one for him.

In fact just about everyone in the group found the spider within minutes of starting to look. They were everywhere! But they were all juveniles and not fully grown – not the real deal for an arachnologist. However he was so busy confirming our finds that he did not have time to look for one himself. We shall return to this spider later.

Another sweep turned up a lovely caterpillar that was later identified as the aptly named Beautiful Yellow Underwing Anarta myrtilli.

We returned to the main path and some decided to take a coffee break while others decided to have lunch, then those who decided to have a coffee break decided to also have lunch.

It was not quite that clear cut as while some sat down for the break of their choice two others were about 100 yards away peering at the ground. A toad had caught their attention. It showed no intention of moving and even posed for photographs.

All the while that this was happening the Shropshire Arachnologist had disappeared into another compartment.

Soon whoops of joy were heard as he came bursting back through the bracken with mega spy-pot in hand. [Note: the garden vac, or “Spider-vac” as it is known, that crops up occasionally in these ramblings is now recognised as a valuable piece of entomological equipment and is known within the community as a “Mega-pooter”. I thought you would be interested!] 

“A fly went down my boot, I tried to remove it before it bit me, and there on the heather in front of me was this. Isn’t she a beauty!!!!” Well beauty is in the eye of the beholder but she was quite attractive (for a spider) and very large, the sort of spider you have nightmares about if you suffer from nightmares about spiders. The Shropshire Arachnologist was very pleased. An adult Dolomedes fimbriatus.

We wandered on after lunch and were treated to sights of various damsel and dragonflies, shieldbugs and other insects of interest. 

Our senior member demonstrated for most of the afternoon how to attract the extremely attractive horsefly Chrysops relictus

The netting of a Southern hawker allowed me to demonstrate my newly acquired skill of how to handle a dragonfly. Regrettably the dragonfly did not co-operate and flew off. 

And finally, as we are helping to compile records for the Shropshire Long-horned beetle atlas, we even managed to record one of this family: Leptura quadrifasciata.

Our final “discovery” was a couple of extensive patches of the Round-leaved sundew Drosera rotundifolia. I never fail to be amazed by how small these plants are. Mindful of the permission condition we did not try to feed the sundew with any insects.

This brought to an end a very pleasant day in the wilderness. My thanks go to Natural England for allowing us to visit the site and do what we do.

Keith Fowler

8 Aug 2014

Sun, sea, sand and ... insects by Keith Fowler

Sunday 27th June

We went to Harlech to explore the dunes and foreshore in the company of Invertebrate Challenge. 

The weather forecast, which had caused the earlier postponement of this trip, was not great but acceptable, bright but cooler, showers in the afternoon, rain later. So, two of us set off very early from Telford. The plan was to breakfast on the way. The traffic was light and good progress made and breakfast in Barmouth seemed a good idea. Unfortunately Barmouth was shut as was Llanaber, Tal-y-bont, Llanbedr and every other settlement in between until Harlech.

A minor misinterpretation of a road sign took us through Harlech and out the other side. We took the scenic route back to the car park, which was by the Dunes and the Royal St. David’s Golf Course. We walked into (lower) Harlech. Nothing was open. We walked at great pace, driven on by hunger, UP to (higher) Harlech where we found a coffee shop (but no breakfast) selling poor coffee but an excellent Eccles cake (rated later at 9/10). The shop did direct us to another that was open and doing food. Sated by an excellent bacon and egg bap and drink we returned to the car park to meet five other members of the Invertebrate Challenge project.

In defiance of the weather forecast the sun was shining and it was very warm. In fact the sun shone for most of the day with no hint of a shower, who’d be a weather forecaster? It was not long before we were peering into alien habitats looking for insects that we do not usually find locally. And we were soon rewarded by the discovery of a sandy coloured shieldbug nymph. This elicited great excitement but on very close inspection turned out to be a Hairy/Sloe shieldbug.

This was followed soon afterwards by several sightings of the Rhopalid bug Corizus hyoscyami in both its adult and nymphal forms.

We wandered deeper into the dunes and further off the beaten track. One of the most common insects we found was the Bishop’s Mitre shieldbug. 

Amongst the Restharrow we found the rather bizarre looking stiltbug Gampsocoris punctipes and the mirid bug Dicyphus annulatus. The photograph is G. punctipes, not the best, but does show why it is called a stiltbug.

We lunched, rested, talked, then searched some more. Amongst the finds were 11-spot ladybird, the cranefly Nephrotoma scurra and the huge fly Tachina grossa

As some of the group wandered off to return home we lingered. As we wandered along the Great Stick Finder saw movement, after a bit of searching by binocular and eye he found a well (but not too well) camouflaged Grayling resting up in the vegetation. 

We made for the beach. We came across Sea spurge. Beating of several stands of this plant eventually yielded a nymph of the spurge bug Dicranocephalus agilis, which is associated with Sea spurge and Portland spurge.

Satisfied with our day’s exploring we returned to the car park, had a cup of tea, did not have an ice-cream and then made our way home.

Wednesday 30th July
Eight of us gathered by the ex-Nedge Tavern which has re-emerged as the Boscobel Tavern to explore the southern reaches of Randlay Valley. A request by the Chairman of the Friends of Hollinswood and Randlay Valley to the landlord to allow us to use its car park was met by a negative response so we parked on the roadside next to the newly erected (and disputed) fence.

Unfortunately bad health prevented the Chair of the Friends from joining us but he did suggest a route, which we followed.

We started out on the bridle path than passes through woodland. We had early success finding three shieldbugs in the first 100 yards or so. We also found stands of Hogweed which are always worth checking for the fauna they support, especially hoverflies. In this instance I found a white butterfly which seemed to be glued to the plant as it allowed me to get very close.

Apart from a few open areas the path was a bit gloomy but where the sun got through there were rewards. One example was the large black and yellow soldier fly Stratiomys potamida which has been allocated the strange common name of “Banded General”. 

Many of the soldier flies have been given militaristic common names. One of my favourites is Beris chalybata which is known as the “Murky-legged Black Legionnaire” Other members of the Stratiomys genus are known as the “Clubbed General”, “Long-horned General” and “Flecked General”. Amongst the names of other flies in the family are “Ornate Brigadier”, “Round-spotted Major”, “Delicate Soldier” and “Iridescent Centurion”.

I do not know what plans the Friends have for managing or improving the site but opening up this bridle path to allow more light in and encourage a lower layer of vegetation may be an option.

The bridle path led to a meadow. Earlier in the year this meadow is awash with orchids. At this time of year there is still evidence of the orchids but grasses and knapweed are the dominant plants. And this mixture combined with the surrounding trees and taller vegetation such as Hogweed and Willowherb yielded a rich collection of invertebrates for us to study and identify. This area is a gem. 

A seat is located next to this meadow so this naturally became our base camp for morning coffee, lunch, sorting and identifying the “catch” and catching up on the latest gossip.

With reluctance we left this meadow and followed the tarmacked path back towards the cars. On the way we passed another excellent stand of hogweed then an area of grassland. 

We paused in both these areas to see what we could see but the lure of the cars and home was getting stronger and eventually overcame our desire to stay and explore.

Thank you to the Friends for arranging the visit and Telford and Wrekin for giving us permission to do what we do. We will reward the Friends with 107 invertebrate records for the day.

Get well soon Graham.

Keith Fowler

2 Aug 2014

Fritillaries flitter by - Keith Fowler

Wednesday 23rd July

I start with a question. What do you think I was trying to photograph?

Thanks to dustbin lorries, tractors and a rather tentative driver in a white car on roads where overtaking was unwise I arrived in the company of the Grate Stick Finder at the Wyre Forest a quarter of an hour late. Fortunately it was just in time to stop the others who were less tardy from beginning to panic about whether they had gone to the correct car park.

The car park was in Worcestershire so we quickly departed and made our way back to Shropshire. Unfortunately I mistook a bridge over a stream for the county boundary only to have to apologise to my colleagues when we crossed the next bridge which was the county boundary. Amazingly as we walked along the dirt track the Great Butterfly Catcher spotted a dark shieldbug nymph, this turned out to be a Bronze shieldbug.

We were heading for the meadow of the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust’s Knowles Coppice Reserve which happens to be in Shropshire. The weather was hot but the path to the meadow meandered alongside Dowles Brook in the shade of the trees at the edge of the wood making it very pleasant. We did stop periodically to examine the flora and fauna of the brook’s banks and were rewarded with a couple of Silver-washed fritillary, one of which the Great Whistler managed to net so we could all get a good look at it.

We found Cow-wheat but no Cow-wheat shieldbugs but I did find the rather curious Assassin bug Empicoris vagabundus which lurks on Enchanter’s nightshade.

We made it to the meadow just in time for lunch.

Refreshed we set about exploring the area.

We looked....

we peered....

 we celebrated successful nettings and pottings ...

and were rewarded with Essex skipper, Small skipper, White admiral, Small copper, a blue, many Silver-washed fritillaries, Gatekeepers, Meadow browns, Comma, Ringlets, Peacocks, Brown hawker, flies, bugs, moths and caterpillars. 

Yes, you did see Essex skipper in the list. Until recently this was not regarded as a Shropshire butterfly but several sightings, confirmed by the County Recorder, have established that it has arrived. And we are beginning to see it regularly, in some areas in greater profusion than Small skipper. We saw both today. The following photographs are not very good but do show the Essex skipper with black tips to the antennae and Small skipper with brown-orange tips. 

    Essex skipper

    Small skipper

The next stunning insect to cross our paths was an Alder moth larva

Now the answer to my question. It was a Speckled bush-cricket which I netted and potted in order to identify. Once released it was very reluctant to leave. It clambered over my fingers, clothes and cameras. As it was so “friendly” a couple of us took photographs. It allowed us to get very close but as soon as the extremely long antennae detected the lens it climbed onto the camera. This went on for several minutes causing great amusement. We returned it to a thistle where it continued to pose for more photographs.

Time was pressing so we made our way to the end of the meadow. On the way we came across this fly, Tachina fera, intent on feeding and not at all bothered by our presence.

We crossed the footbridge back into Worcestershire at Knowles Mill. Here we came across a couple of volunteers from the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust who were doing a bit of maintenance and tidying up around the mill. 

One of the volunteers very kindly gave us a guided tour of the Mill and answered our questions about its history and mechanism.

From the Mill we ascended the hill to the rather well maintained cycle which led back to the car park. 

We paused for a quick drink on a rather ornately carved bench then made our return to the cars helped along by frequent sightings of fritillaries and other butterflies.

Keith Fowler