Monday, 12 June 2017

One day... one thousand species?

Out in the wilds of the Lizard peninsula, the near-full moon was visible past the old windmill.  A brisk wind was whipping the grasses back and forth as the final seconds until midnight ticked away.  As the clock struck 12, the generator died, and the light of the moth-trap went out.  Seconds later, the loose connection in moth trap no. 2 played up and it too went dark.  In the distance, the third remaining trap blew over, and it began to rain.  Clearly it was going to be one of those days...

But the story actually begins several months previously.  Graeme Lyons, ecologist at the Sussex Wildlife Trust and fellow Pan-Species Lister, had suggested a challenge: was it possible to find and identify a full one thousand species in just the 24 hours of one calendar day in the UK?  With a few rules (2 people who must stick together as a team, one vehicle, no outside help) and a set date (10th June 2017), the gauntlet was laid down...

My team would be myself and Sally, a friend and fellow PSL-er based just outside Penzance in Cornwall, so Friday evening saw me piloting a van laden with caffeine, ID guides, site species lists and a sleeping dog down the ever-smaller Cornish lanes en route to our first destination, Windmill Farm.  Having to use both the windscreen wipers and the heater didn't bode well, but the site was a Cornwall Wildlife Trust & Cornwall Birdwatching & Preservation Trust Reserve covered with species-rich pools, heathland, mires, trees and grassland, plus a Red-footed Falcon hanging around for the past week - must be good!
Moth trapping at Windmill Farm
Unfortunately, mains power was out: fortunately, the warden Dougy Wright had given us permission to borrow the reserve's generator (thanks Dougy!).  We set up my MV trap in as sheltered a place as we could find, put out a couple of small battery-powered traps, test-ran the generator, and then waited for midnight... without the most auspicious start!

A bit of tweaking and I eventually got the generator running properly, sorted out the dodgy wiring, and moved the other trap to the shelter of the windmill.  A couple of hours torchlit searching and moth trap checking and we were up to 95 species - needing 42 new species an hour we were up on the deal!  With the wind howling, rain falling, temperature dropping to single figures and both of us shattered from election-watching the previous evening, we decided to get a couple of hours sleep.
4am is not a time the dog would like to be awake on Saturday mornings. Can't say I blame him!
At 4am, with the dog snoring next to me and the sun, if not breaking through then at least vaguely illuminating things, it was time to get going again.  We checked the moth traps (a March-like 13 species in all, though three Eyed Hawks were great to see) and had a good poke around the derelict farm buildings (Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell pupae, banded snails, a very fat toad) before heading out across the heathland.  One of the ponds on the farm, Ruan Pool, had loads of high-quality freshwater wildlife as well as rare plants by the bucketload in the trackways leading to it - just the thing to really get our total rocketing.

After about 45 minutes walking, sweep-netting and tree-beating, it was becoming very clear that we were going to need the aquatics: everything else had buried itself deep down in the undergrowth, away from the ever-more-insistent rain pelting against us.  We reached the edge of the Ruan Pool field to find... a large number of large cattle, all very interested in the dog.  We beat a hasty retreat and walked over to the dragonfly ponds on the other side of the reserve.  A couple of stunned-looking damselflies awaited (Common Blue and Blue-tailed), but there was little sign of life otherwise.

The Windmill Farm records
We sought sanctuary in the activity centre with coffee to ID some galls and work out our next move.  With about 300 species spotted we were badly behind, and as the weather was even worse on the coast, the exposed clifftops at Lizard Point and Kynance Cove were out.  Instead we went round the corner to the more sheltered Predannack Wollas, spotting new species from the van as we went (neither of us had ever been so excited to see a horse-chestnut tree!).  A valley pathway out of the wind gave us brief respite with some cold-dazed hoverflies and micromoths added to the tally, but before long we were out on the open grasslands again.  On a warm day the fields are alive with dung beetles, butterflies, choughs and rare clovers, but today the mist was closing in, the wind was buffeting, and there was nothing airborne to be seen except raindrops.  The route to the clovers was fogbound, wet, slippery and wind-beaten a hundred feet above the pounding sea... so we turned tail and headed back to Sally's for lunch, drying out, and a bit of indoors ID time.
The view from Predannack Wollas
We'd only just about managed to scrape together 400 species and it was already 2pm - we knew from Facebook that Graeme had blown past that at about 4am!  With rockpooling looking a bad idea even though the rain had (temporarily) slowed, we headed back outside to do Sally's local patch.  The first stop was a nicely-untidy garden behind the village hall... but the pub next door had annexed it for the occasion, and the garden's ant nests and assorted other creatures were buried beneath a giant white marquee.

We headed back up the hill into the intensifying rain.  Both of us wear glasses and it wasn't long before neither of us could see much of anything, peering Magoo-like at leaf mines and aphids sheltering beneath leaves.  My boots had reached the fully-saturated stage where they actually worked like tiny wetsuits, and I was regretting not bringing my waterproof notebook.  The only way I was managing to record things now was by hunching over my phone to put records directly into the iRecord app: my notebook was long-saturated.

Waiting for the rain to clear slightly
Another indoor spell to ID specimens, dry out and eat tea beckoned before, about 8.30 pm, the rain finally took the hint and sodded off.  We piled back into the van and headed for Marazion: ponds, sand dunes and coast!  Getting there, we pulled over and scanned the ponds for wildfowl... one mute swan.  We parked properly and scanned the sea for birdlife... a mixed flock of Dunlin and Sanderling scuttled around by the waves, but everything else had gone to bed for the night.  Closer at hand, Sally spotted Mullein plants - a bit of poking around and Mullein moth caterpillars were added to the list.  Across the car park (Mossy Stonecrop) and into the dunes, where everything seemed to begin with 'Sea-' - we added Sea-holly, Sea-beet, Sea-bindweed, Sea-rocket, Sea-spurge and the mighty Sea-daffodil in a matter of minutes.

Running out of things prefixed by the word 'sea', we headed back to the van and onwards to the north coast and Upton Towans, another Cornwall Wildlife Trust reserve.  It was beyond dimpsey by the time we arrived, needing some 450 species in the final two hours of the day.  The Towans were clearly a brilliant site: we quickly stumbled across Soapwort, Portland Spurge, Brown Chafers by the bucketload, a Garden Tiger caterpillar.  Further into the dunes, dozens of Amara ground beetles criss-crossed the path with tiny ants, and we cursed the lack of time for microscopy.

The species kept coming - Thyme broomrape, Devil's Coach-horse beetles, galls of the mite Aceria thomasi on wild Thyme - but it was clearly going to be too little, too late.  The sand of time were trickling away too fast, and when a Tawny owl hooted in the trees by the van it proved to be our final species of the day: number 657.
Final scores
So we failed by 343 species in the end, though we were both pretty pleased with the score given the conditions.  A bit of sunshine and I reckon we'd have picked up enough insect life to get there or thereabouts (we finished on 50 moth species (13 of them in the traps), 3 butterflies (all caterpillars/pupae), 38 true bugs, 32 beetles and 1 grasshopper).  I saw more bee species when walking the dog for 25 minutes the next morning in sunshine than in the full 24 hours!  Add in a bit of rockpooling and a few more birds (our 25 bird species didn't include a single blue tit, great tit, starling, black-headed gull, or many others) and a few more plants from the exposed sites, and we'd have reached the target.  After all, in sunshine up the coast in Sussex, Graeme had reached the magic 1k by 7.30pm, so it was definitely possible!

Dog on his way home, channelling both of us
If you fancy sponsoring us, please visit our JustGiving page - all donations go to Cornwall Wildlife Trust to help them maintain the sites we squelched round

Sunday, 2 October 2016

A while in the making

My last blog seems a very long time ago now - and that's because it was, almost 20 months ago!  That particular blog was all about a trip to Worcestershire Wildlife Trust's Knapp and Papermill reserve, where we mostly looked at fungi, and I was reminded of it (and the heinous gap between blog posts) as this afternoon has been spent on a fungal foray at that very same reserve.

I never actually meant to stop blogging - life just happened to get slightly in the way!  In the time between my last blog post and writing this one we've moved house again - this time to a house we actually own!  I'm still not entirely sure how we managed to buy, but we now live on the Malvern Hills, and can be out onto the hillside in minutes from our new front door.  The lack of a landlord also means we're finally allowed pets, and so in June we adopted a dog from the local animal rescue centre... and now I have even more excuses for wandering the hills on a daily basis!
Our view, out across the valley to the Cotswolds
Dog, enjoying camping
We moved in April, interrupted only by a quick trip north to take part in Sally-Ann Spence's brilliant EntoSci event - spending the day talking insects and fieldwork misadventures with Andy Salisbury (RHS), Darren Mann (OUMNH), Simon Leather (Harper-Adams), George McGavin (TV), and Max Barclay & Erica McAlister (both NHM) to (try to) inspire the 300 attending school children into taking up entomology as a career.  Seemed to go over well on the day at least!
Before: a stria of coleopterists drinking coffee
Caught in the act
Not long after, the year's travel began in earnest with a week on Jersey.  Visiting the Channel Islands has been on my to-do list for a very long time, so when Paul Chambers of the Jersey Government invited me over to talk at their recording conference, I leapt at the opportunity!  The weather wasn't ideal for bees but it was great to meet up with some of the amazing local entomologists and recorders.  As well as Paul, several others - notably Simon Robson, Tim Ransom, Roger Long & Richard Perchard - all gave up their time to show me around and were great company!
Jersey, shortly before the snow started...
The Jersey (and Continental European) subspecies of the Buff-tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris terrestris
Work has taken over much of both the summers since I last wrote, but we did manage a week away in June.  Starting with my brother's wedding in south Wales, we drove up to Ardnamurchan in the far west of Scotland for a week or two's walking.  Unfortunately, in the evening of our first full day in Kilchoan, I managed to empty an entire kettle of boiling water over my left foot.  Consequently, we spent much of our week sitting in the van or the tent, looking out at the rain.  Far from all bad - we saw sea eagles and dolphins, red deer by the hundred, and a couple of new gall species - but with the scald and a couple of other minor disasters the holiday has now been christened 'A Series of Unfortunate Events'.
Campervanning it in Kilchoan
Our previous holiday, to the New Forest in November, hadn't featured any injuries but was enlivened by the sight of the beginnings of an alien invasion, with hundreds of foul-smelling tentacles hatching from pale, gelatinous eggs on the ground.
Mysterious eggs in the grass
Don't look directly into it! 
This one had narrowly missed grabbing someone's face
Luckily it turned out that they were the fungus Clathrus archeri, Devil's Fingers, and they're from Australia rather than outer space (accidentally imported with Australian troops during WW2). I'm told they're yet to cause any mysterious disappearances. Thanks to Dan Hoare for the location!

My other main activity over the past winter was writing a book!  Over the past few years, Bloomsbury have teamed up with the RSPB to produce a series of 'Spotlight Guide to...'.  These are relatively short (c. 115 pages) but informative, fun and with plenty of pictures.  Having published the Spotlight Guide to... Robins, Foxes, Otters and Puffins, Bloomsbury offered me (and I accepted) the chance to write the 'Spotlight Guide to Bumblebees'.  This will be the first in the series to cover an insect, and the first to cover a group rather than an individual species, and it will hit the shelves in spring next year - can't wait to see it!

Saturday, 14 February 2015

A month in Malvern

Six weeks into the new year, and things have finally calmed down enough to go for a wander around our new local area. Having moved to Malvern on the 10th January, the time since the Christmas break has been a whirlwind of packing, unpacking, and flat-pack furniture construction. Now, though, the boxes have (almost) gone, the birds are singing in the front garden, and we've been adopted by a neighbourhood cat with a Hitler moustache.

More or less the first thing we did once we'd unpacked was join the local Wildlife Trust, so with the Malvern Hills themselves blanketed in fog, we had a flick through the membership pack and found that there was a 'flagship reserve' just round the corner - Knapp and Papermill Nature Reserve.

The reserve is set in a valley, bordering the Leigh Brook, a small river bolstered by yesterday's inch of rain.  The information boards promised kingfishers (Alcedo atthis) and occasional otters (Lutra lutra), but neither was in evidence today, and invertebrates were in short supply too - just a few woodlice (Oniscus asellus & Trichoniscus pusillus agg.) and centipedes (Lithobius forficatus & a smaller Lithobius sp.) in the log piles.

It was clear that spring has nearly sprung, however - hazel (Corylus avellana) and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) were in full flower throughout the reserve, and in the hedges and on the banks daffodils, ramsons (Allium ursinum) and cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum) were showing strongly, bright green patches against the dead-leaf background. Winter was still hanging on, primarily in the form of fungi - Kate found a good crop of candlesnuff (Xylaria hypoxylon) on a tree stump, black witches-butter (Exidia glandulosa) was smeared across a few trees by the riverside, and hairy bracket (Stereum hirsutum) was on pretty much every dead log we looked at.

Probably the most interesting fungus of the day, however, were the neon-pink blobs I found on a lichen-encrusted twig. These were Illosporiopsis christiansenii - a tiny fungus which parasitises the lichens Physcia tenella and Xanthoria parietina. Certainly the brightest thing we found all afternoon!

Definitely somewhere worth revisiting...

Candlesnuff fungus (this and all photos below by Kate Ashbrook)
Illosporiopsis christiansenii parasitising a Physcia lichen. Much brighter in real life!
Hairy bracket
Not sure what this is yet
Young jews-ear fungus from below

Monday, 22 December 2014

The End

Way back at Christmas 2013, I decided on a couple of wildlife challenges for the forthcoming year. Being a pan-species lister interested in the amazing variety of wildlife to be found in gardens (check out the Garden Bioblitz!), the obvious starting point was Andy Musgrove's 1000 species in a 1km square challenge. As the name suggests, this was an attempt to find one thousand different wild species (plants, fungi, invertebrates - even the tiny handful of vertebrates that call Britain home can contribute) - in a single square kilometre. As a further challenge, I wanted to see if I could reach the magic four figures just in my own rented house and garden - 971 square metres of landlord-controlled standard suburbanity in rural Oxfordshire.
Species #273: The pseudoscorpion Chernes cimicoides from January
Fast-forward a year to now, and that's pretty much it for 2014. As I write, it's the evening of the 20th December, and the newly-decorated Christmas tree is twinkling gently in the corner of the room. The year panned out a bit differently to how I envisioned it back in 2013: primarily, I spent a lot less time at home! Partly because work was a lot busier than planned: more importantly, I met a girl and so began spending a lot of my spare time in Bath.

But the species list continued to grow whenever I was back in Oxfordshire.  The warm summer meant the moth trap was particularly productive - not just moths, but plenty of beetles, flies, woodlice and more. The drought wasn't entirely helpful though - it was noticeable how few invertebrates were to be found beneath rocks and logs, having dispersed to find damper microhabitats.
The year's final wander around my local patch was Thursday, and having gone back to my parents for Christmas, it's time to tot up the final scores...
December Moth on 15/12/2014 - one of the last species of the year, but what number was it?
The most ambitious first: the garden list fell short in the end, with 756 species. This actually ended up lower than last year (796 species identified in 2013), mainly because I did a lot less summer moth-trapping in 2014. It was enough to push the all-time garden list into four figures though, ending on 1185, so half a point there...

For my local 1km square as a whole, the target was reached - species number 1000 for the year (the Batman hoverfly Myathropa florea) turned up in mid-August, and although effort slackened somewhat in the autumn, a few days' work with the microscope dealt with most of the specimen backlog.  The final count: 1,422 species!

Unsurprisingly, insects dominated the final count - 830 species were recorded in total, with a respectable showing for plants (295 species). Breaking down the insect score, moths were the single largest contributor (343 species), followed by the beetles (173 species, including the last additions to the list - two individuals of the dung beetle Aphodius obliteratus which turned up in the moth trap on the 19th December).
Breakdown of the species groups found in my Sutton Courtenay 1km square during 2014
Breakdown of the insects in my 1km square
I've been recording as I go along, so it's easy to see the area covered.  My two main walks - round the lakes in the centre and up to the river and across the weirs - show up well, with a few different excursions.  The only real gaps are the housing estates in the north-east and south-west, and the rank flood meadows in the north-east.
Recorded squares, 2014
Taxonomically, what's been really striking is how much more there is to find! The 1422 species I found includes barely any mosses (1100-ish potential species), lichens (1300 species), flies (8500 species), spiders (650 species), or hymenoptera other than bumblebees (8000 species), not because they're not there, but purely because of my taxonomic limitations!

But I won't get the chance to find out what the upper limit for this particular square is. In January, I'm moving to Malvern in Worcestershire, on the edge of the Malvern Hills AONB. Lots of exploring to do!

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Bees on the balcony

Bees are getting a lot of press at the moment, much of it focused on the decline of the honeybee and the various reasons behind it.  But there's a lot more to bees than the honeybee - around 270 species are recorded in Britain, 1 honeybee, 27 bumblebees (3 of them extinct, although one is currently being reintroduced), and the rest are all solitary bees (currently 225 surviving species).

Recently (yesterday as I type this, in fact), Defra, guided by several wildlife organisations, have launched a 'Call to Action' highlighting ways for the general public to help bees as part of the National Pollinator Strategy. While several of these suggestions (particularly 'leave patches of land to grow wild', 'think carefully about whether to use pesticides', and 'cut grass less often') should perhaps be aimed more at national and local government as per my last blog, they're aimed at the rest of us and the entire call to action can be boiled down to one sentence: bees need food and a home.

I work for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT), one of the main organisations guiding Defra on the NPS, so I'd known the content of the Call to Action for quite a while. It was evident that several of the suggestions were aimed at people with land to spare (particularly 'leave patches of land to grow wild' and 'grow more trees'!), but there are plenty of us for whom owning any land is just a distant dream. My garden is actually my landlady's garden: I can get away with rummaging in the plants for interesting invertebrates but tree-planting would see me out on my ear in short order!  My girlfriend lives in a first-floor flat with no garden, in an urban area of Bath - what could we do there to make things bee-friendly?
The Bath 'garden': before...
Well, as the picture shows, you get to the flat up some exterior stairs with a small landing at the top - space for a few pot-plants and a windowbox! Helpfully, BBCT have an advice tool called BeeKind which gives your garden a bee-friendliness score, and suggests extra flower species based on what you've already got, to fill in the gaps of flowering times and flower shapes (bees need nectar throughout their March-October flight season & different species visit some different flowers). We knew that lavender would be one of the plants - it's Kate's favourite flower as well as being brilliant for bees - and were guided by the BeeKind tool for (most!) of the rest.  We ended up with a French lavender in a pot, along with red clover, coriander, and an ox-eye daisy, recently replaced by a flowering thistle, while the windowbox was stocked with a strawberry, meadow clary, sweet pea and an Osteospermum, topped off with a scattering of 'seeds for bees' which have germinated but remain as yet unidentified.
...and after! Windowbox as first planted
Pot plants, directly beneath the windowbox (note photobombing strawberry!)
That little lot gave us a BeeKind score of 457 - not far off the 500 given as 'excellent' on the website, even without laying claim to the great swathes of yellow corydalis growing from the base of the house wall, or the poppies, hedge mustard, dandelion and buddleia (since cut down - grrr!) growing from the concrete just outside. That was the food sorted - what about the home?  Well, there's no room for a hive of honeybees, or mouse burrows for bumblebees, but solitary bees are a lot easier! We hung a 'bee hotel' (basically a bundle of canes stuffed into a tube) beneath the windowbox, and left it for the bees to find.

And find it they did! Less than 24 hours later a bumblebee had arrived: within a week three species of bumblebee had been seen on the flowers (common carder Bombus pascuorum, buff-tailed B. terrestris, white-tailed B. lucorum), as well as a tiny Lasioglossum solitary bee and several hoverflies (the marmalade hoverfly Episyrphus balteatus and a couple of Syrphus species).  More recently a tree bumblebee (B. hypnorum) had circled without settling and a couple of spiders (the garden spider Araneus diadematus and the jumping spider Salticus scenicus) had made the windowbox home, while an tortrix micro-moth caterpillar of some sort had munched its way through several of the lavender flowerheads (just this weekend Kate found the hatched pupa sticking out of the stitched-together flowerheads so it will remain, alas, unidentified). Sadly none of June's impressive hatch of scarlet tiger moths could be persuaded to land on the flowers!

Most exciting of all, the 'bee hotel' was colonised almost instantaneously by red mason bees (Osmia bicornis (=O. rufa)), so next spring the garden will be able to supply its own home-grown wildlife.  Food and a home - it's really not that hard to help the bees...
The bee hotel in position
Tree bumblebee on Osteospermum. After several flypasts, this one finally settled!
The female red mason bee constructing her nest
The completed mud nest of the red mason bee, ready to sit out the winter

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Just leave it alone!

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” 
Aldo Leopold

A few months ago I wrote about the pseudoscorpions that lived beneath the bark of a dead tree in my village. Having only seen them immobile in winter, and finally having a bit of free time, I decided on an early-evening wander round the village, to catch up with my pincered friends and see what else was about now summer's here.  Rounding the corner I stopped in my tracks: 
Yesterday: habitat.  Today: firewood
 The tree - a branchless Eucalyptus tower - had been reduced to a stump less than a foot high, the rest laid on the floor and taken away the next day.  The tree had been sound enough, had no branches to drop off or catch the wind, and was tucked well out of the way down a quiet dead end in a small rural village, so what had possessed someone to chop it down - to destroy an entire ecosystem of pseudoscorpions and wood-boring beetles, springtails and spiders?  As far as I can tell, it's just because the tree was dead, and obviously so - it made the place look 'untidy', so down it had to come.
Lesser stag beetle, Dorcus parallelepipedus: a dead-wood species that's just lost its home
My village is far from being alone in this fetish for tidiness: for treating the outdoors as an extension of the living room, somewhere that should be neat and clean and hygienic. Just today a friend was evicted from his Landshare garden for the crime of letting parts of it 'grow wild' (aka leaving some weeds as flowers for pollinators and cover for pest-munching ground beetles).  Another friend turned her tiny front lawn into a miniature wildflower meadow: she arrived home one day to find a neighbour 'helpfully' mowing it.

A month ago some friends and I ran the national Garden BioBlitz, which saw hundreds of people up and down the country go out and connect with the wildlife that can be found in virtually any garden.  Amongst them were Andrew and his 11-yr-old son Jacob from Hull, whose 50+ species saw Jacob mentioned on Springwatch. Unfortunately it drew the wrong kind of attention as well, and the next week the council delivered a warning: there had been a complaint about 'the presence of weeds and overgrown vegetation on the land' and as 'the tackling of land causing defacement, adversely affecting neighbourhoods, or causing a nuisance' was 'a key priority', the wildlife had to go within 10 days or  legal action would be taken.
The offending garden (photo Andrew Jackson /
This kind of small-minded pettiness is also a major reason why many verges and parks are mown to within an inch of their lives all summer: despite the obvious wild life benefits and cost savings of mowing less frequently, councils receive too many ill-informed letters of complaint whenever wildflowers dare rear their heads in public.  There are other reasons, sure - unrealistic health and safety concerns are a standard, for instance - but it all seems to come from the same root cause - the feeling that the outside should be a mere extension of the inside; controllable, tamed, idiotproofed, with wildlife safely confined to nature reserves.

This ignorance is symptomatic of the disconnect between people and nature: a country where the management of one of the best sites in the country for rare wood-boring insects can encourage people to take dead branches home for firewood (aka the 'burn our endangered insects initiative'); where universities mow down bee orchids to have undisturbed green lawns; where magnificent stag beetles are stamped on in the street.  

This excessive 'tidying' is a significant part of the decline of British wildlife over the past century. Our wildlife is dying the death by a thousand cuts: they can't survive without those scruffy areas - the brownfield sites, meandering hedges, riverbanks, patches of scrub - are where they live, their highways through the landscape, bridges between eating and sleeping sites, where they take refuge.

Don't be a part of it.  Leave the mower in the shed for a change: congratulate the council when they do the same, or complain when they do decide everything would be better as a half-inch stump.  Publicise the wildlife on your university campus - make it a feature, not something to be buried at the back of the world's driest 'environmental strategy' document! Take a bit of time to open your eyes to the wildlife that can be present in even the tiniest of spaces and soon you'll learn to appreciate it and - like me last week - get angry when it's taken away from you.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

The first bioblitz of the year!

Last weekend was a busy one.  Saturday was the first ever Shotover Conference, celebrating almost 200 years of biological recording at Shotover Country Park, a fantastic SSSI to the northeast of Oxford (and the setting for a previous blog post!).  Then it was over to south Northamptonshire for my first BioBlitz of the year, an invitation-only event at Halse Copse, run by the Northamptonshire Biological Records Centre.  For those who haven't yet encountered a BioBlitz, the best way to think of it is like Time Team for wildlife - the aim is to find as many species as possible in (roughly) 24 hours, and generally showing the general public just what natural riches can be found on their doorstep.

There was a reason we were at Halse Copse in particular: the two patches of ancient woodland and associated meadows are right in the path of the projected route of HS2.  Historically under-studied, the record centre held records for just 171 species in the Local Wildlife Sites, making them (apparently) much less biodiverse than my garden - which just goes to show the value of surveying thoroughly!  The BioBlitz was an attempt to get a better picture of the diversity in line to be destroyed.
Hard at work adding to the insect numbers...
Once we got to the site, it was immediately clear that the 171 species so far were a massive understatement.  A couple of hours (before lunch!) surveying the first meadow generated 105 species records in my notebook, plus a good number of beetles and bugs as yet unidentified.  Being slightly biased, my favourite was the inconspicuous ladybird Scymnus haemorhoidalis, swept from the grassland by my girlfriend Kate. We also found a rather pretty wood-boring beetle (Hedobia imperialis) in the woodworm family, and the first Small Copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaeas) ever recorded on site!
Scymnus haemorhoidalis, a 2mm hairy ladybird (pic Jo Bogaert)
The first Small Copper ever recorded at Halse Copse!
After a quick lunch consisting mainly of cake and tea (the essential food groups for any naturalist in the field!), we decided to try our luck in the more southerly of the two woodlands (which had contributed just 68 species to the grand total pre-BioBlitz, and just 3 insects).  The woodland was definitely less diverse (or at least the wildlife more elusive) than the meadow, but in a few hours surveying we had a list of 71 species identified there and then, with another series of beetles and bugs that needed checking under the microscope.  The afternoon highlights included several Brown Hares (Lepus europaeus) lounging around just outside the wood, and a beautiful orange-striped millipede, Ommatoiulus sabulosus, which were the first of their respective groups to be found at the site.  Also present in large numbers was another new species to me, the stripy brown click beetle Agriotes linearis, present in big numbers on hazel leaves.  This group of beetles has an impressive trick: when threatened, they first tuck in all their legs and appendages to look like a seed; then, if that doesn't work, they use a special joint between the thorax and abdomen to fire themselves skywards and out of reach.  The effect, particularly on a hard surface, can be quite impressive!
Ommatoiulus sabulosus, beaten from gorse
The click beetle Agriotes linearis, here in walking mode rather than catapulting itself through the air
 As we stopped off in the meadow for one last look, a rather special hoverfly presented itself.  Recognisable from the dark abdominal stripe and the huge snout, this was the hoverfly Rhingia campestris (also known as the Heineken fly, because it can reach the parts other flies can't reach (if you don't remember beer adverts from days gone by, that probably won't make any sense...)).  This species, by virtue of mounting its tongue on the end of a very elongated face, can reach deeper into flowers than most other fly species and consequently can feed on complex flowers that are otherwise mostly reliant on long-tongued bumblebee species for pollination,
The Heineken Fly, busy reaching further
 Waiting for me to finish poking around in the heap of dead wood, Kate had wandered off to photograph areas containing fewer spiders, when photography of a vetch flower was interrupted by the red ants (Myrmeca sp.) running up and down the stems. On closer inspection the ants were raiding the extra-floral nectaries (glands on non-flower bits of the plant which secrete nectar) and passing the nectar to each other.  Most plants produce nectar as a sweet treat to entice pollinating insects to visit their flowers: these extra-floral nectaries, by contrast, are nothing to do with pollination, but are instead a sneaky way for the plant to avoid being eaten - they ensure a good supply of ants across the plant, ready to evict or eat any small herbivores like caterpillars, while even big herbivores like rabbits aren't keen on a faceful of biting, stinging ants at every mouthful!
A red ant nose-deep in an extra-floral nectary
In a single afternoon, we at least doubled, if not trebled, the number of species known to occur in Halse Coppice: with a variety of other excellent naturalists also present, the site should be well on its way to 1000 species. Just goes to show the value of recording!