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.

11 Sep 2016

Difficult journeys

Catherton Common - Wednesday 7th September

I have a choice of two main routes to Catherton Common. The first is to pick up the A49 heading south then turn left at Ludlow to Doddington; the second is via Bridgnorth and Cleobury Mortimer. Both should take just over the hour. So why when I set off only a couple of minutes late should I arrive at the meet point over 20 minutes late with everyone waiting (thankfully) for me, including a couple who sent me a message to say that they had been delayed. Yes my mobile phone was on and accessible!

A choice had to be made. I chose the A49 - straighter roads, less junctions etc.

What a bad choice.

All was well until I got to the A49 when I was stuck behind a road tanker.

Obviously it was not this one as I was driving and not in a position to take photographs so this and all those that follow are examples taken from clip art to illustrate the tale. The one I was following was white.

But this vehicle had to slow down as we came up behind a tractor and trailer.

The tractor and trailer carried on its merry way between 20 and 30mph for many a mile before finally pulling over. After that I was happy to trail the road tanker until we came across a horse box.

The driver was being very careful not to jostle his charges so again the tanker had to slow down with me behind it. The horse box turned right, we went straight on. Hooray.

I celebrated too soon as the tanker soon caught up with a recreational vehicle. This was proceeding more slowly than the horse box. Thank goodness I am retired and can be relaxed about hold-ups!!

I think one of the occupants must have been making a cup of tea so slowly did it proceed. Fortunately it was not long before it called in at a garage, possibly to buy some milk.

The open road at last until we caught up just before the Onnibury level crossing not one, not two, but three tractors in convoy.


These tractors did not yield (*) and it was not until I had to turn left at Ludlow whilst, with huge relief, the tractors went straight on, that I was rid of them. A clear road to Catherton Common, almost, but over twenty minutes late.

* Highway Code Rule 169 - "Do not hold up a long queue of traffic, especially if you are driving a large or slow-moving vehicle. Check your mirrors frequently, and if necessary, pull in where it is safe and let traffic pass."

Time to get ready to explore but tales of the trip had to be told in order to attempt to extract some sympathy. None was given.

We crossed the road from the parked cars and set about looking for things of interest in the heathland. 

This was dominated by heather and low growing gorse whose intermingling of purple and yellow flowers was very pleasing on the eye.

Rocks were uncovered and inspected for lichens

An early find was a fox moth caterpiller.

We wandered on.

One advantage of arriving late is that there is a shorter time to wait for lunch. We found a spot under an old birch where the ground was sculptured providing places to sit. 

After lunch some of us inspected the tree to see what delights it held whilst others created a piece of art out of a brown birch bolete, a brown roll rim and a rabbit skull.

A couple of birch shieldbug nymphs were found in the birch.

And a couple of Small heath butterflies were observed.

We moved on from our lunch spot towards a marshy area. We passed several small bell-pits, signs of earlier exploitation of the common. Many had collected water and had nurtured sphagnum moss. Unfortunately someone had used at least one of them to dump some gorse brash. A fungus was spotted on the sphagnum and one intrepid member of the group tentatatively tried to reach it without getting too wet, whilst other looked on amused. 

The attempt failed.

However we did find a Pine ladybird in a neighbouring gorse bush.

A change in the flora announced that we had arrived in the marshy area as the gorse, heather and bracken gave way to swathes of rushes and grasses. A few clumps of Sneezewort were found.

Until this point we had been following well-used paths. Now the Dr. Livingstone of the group decided to follow a small path that skirted the marshy area and we followed, foolishly.

After a hundred yards or so the path gave out and we had to forge our own trail. Dr. Livingstone was delighted - "just like the old days" he was heard to say. The clumps of grass and rush made the ground uneven and a foot in the wrong place found water. We pressed on.

The flora changed to gorse and heather again as the area became drier but this was followed by more wet conditions and then a ditch that was just too wide to step across. Eventually we found a place to cross and were delighted to come across a colony of Bog asphodel displaying their orange seed heads in the sun.

From here it was uphill all the way to the road on drier but still uneven ground covered in heather and gorse. Progress was slow and hard but we made it. What a work-out - who needs to go to the gym? After a rest we made our way sedately back to the cars and set off home.

In case you are wondering ... the homeward journey reflected the day ... excellent.

My thanks to Shropshire Wildlife Trust for giving us permisiion to do what we enjoy doing; to Peter Hodgkinson for providing some of the photographs and to the anonymous photographers who contributed the clip art.