Sunday, 30 March 2014

Moth-mugged by a Robin and a Box Bug

I put the MV out in the garden last night and had a modest, but welcome catch: Early Thorn (1), Red-green Carpet (1), March Moth (1), Double-striped Pug (5), Hebrew Character (3), Oak Beauty (2), Common Quaker (5), Early Grey (2), Oak Nycteoline (1), Emmelina monodactyla (3) and Acleris literana (1).

One of the Oak Beauties was, as the name suggests, a beauty, so I couldn't pass up the chance to get a decent photograph of it. I placed the moth on the trunk of a tree and waited for it to settle. As I was doing so, I felt something land on my head. I was then was aware of something hovering an inch in front of my nose. And finally registered the Robin as it picked off the Oak Beauty and landed on the lawn not ten feet away where it proceeded to have a late breakfast.

If I ever catch a scarce moth in the garden I take my pictures in an enclosed porch, mainly to insure against them flying off into the distance. I will now do so to stop Robins from mugging me.

Shortly after that little episode, I was pleased to find this Box Bug on the garage wall, a species that has broken away from its former range of 'Box Hill' and is coming to a garden near you soon (if it hasn't already). This was my first.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Wheatear Trophy Winner 2014

The North Downs and beyond Wheatear Trophy is up there in kudos with an Academy Award Oscar or the Nobel Peace Prize. Grown men have been known to cheat, steal and commit acts of violence to try and get their hands on it. The rules are simple  - which blog has unashamedly posted gratuitous images of Wheatears as the delightful little white-arses arrive on our shores. But there can only be one winner...

The 2014 NDB Wheatear Trophy is awarded to.....


This morning, at a lavish ceremony held at the Dungeness lifeboat station, last years winner (Gavin Haig), presented the trophy to Martin, who, as you can see from the photograph above, came dressed-up as his favourite species of bird. Two other blogs are worthy of mention in this years competition - Plover's Blog (Barney and the Bedford Plover) and Wanstead Birder (Jono Lethbridge) - both are to be commended on plastering their blogs with plenty of Wheatear action. They were beaten by a more driven (and some might say more 'desperate' man). So, the Wheatear flame has been passed from Devon to Kent. Can Essex wrest it from Kent's hold in 2015? And does anyone care?

Thursday, 27 March 2014

It was twenty years ago today...

If you were to be asked what you were doing twenty years ago to this very day, most of you wouldn't have a bloody clue. I, on the other hand, not only have a photographic memory (although this ceases to work beyond 1994) but also field notebooks that go back into those glorious days of the slightly grubby 1970s. So, what was I doing on March 27th 1994. Here's a clue:

A bit of detective work is needed to identify where, in the world, I was. The dendrologists among you will no doubt have clocked the Dipterocarpaceae and may even be able to point out individual meranti, chengal and keruing trees. Others will look at the forest floor and at once place the rich reddish-brown soil and creeping tree roots as indicative of south-east Asia. And you'd be correct. This is a forest trail at Taman Negara in Malaysia... if you listen carefully, you might just be able to hear the Banded Pitta calling off to the right.

And here are my fellow birders of twenty years ago - Janice and Mark Hollingworth. We spent three weeks in Peninsular Malaysia, dividing our time between Taman Negara, Kuala Selangor and Fraser's Hill. Each site had its own suite of birds and in our twenty days birding saw at least 280 species without really trying too hard. There were many highlights, including Banded, Hooded and Blue-winged Pittas (plus Mangrove Pitta heard), Masked Finfoot, Great Argus, Bathawk, Cutia, Brown Bullfinch, Blue Nuthatch and the two Malaysian endemics - Malaysian Whistling Thrush and Mountain Peacock Pheasant (a rare double for birders staying but a short while).

And here I am. I haven't aged a bit, have I ......... Both of the photographs above were taken at High Pines at Fraser's Hill. But, being a slave to accuracy, twenty years ago today we were stalking the trails of Taman Negara, and thankfully I wrote a very full account of the trip on our return, so can share with you one of the highlights from that very day. It was the moment that Janice finally caught up with the spectacular Great Argus on the slopes of the Jenut Muda trail.

"This time there could be no mistakes - we both sprinted up the slope towards the calling bird, hearts beating, making sure J was always ahead so that she could clearly see the Argus. At the top we were greeted by a male in all its finery. Standing off the path to our left, on our appearance it slowly walked across the track in front of us, as if an exotic float in a carnival procession. Magestic. It took its time to do so, giving us ample opportunity to feast our eyes on this almost ghostly presence - it made not a sound as it moved. My previous impressions of this species were justified, as once again I was awestruck. Our private showing ended as the long tail edged off the path and back into the vegetation. The bird had been so large that at no time had the whole of it been in view."

That may well have been twenty years ago, but I still get goosebumps thinking about that Argus. If you don't know what they look like, seek an image out. As big as a Peacock. Just much, much, shyer.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

To kill or not to kill? The Facebook group response

  • For those of you who do not have a Facebook account. I placed a link to yesterday's post on the 'Pan-species Listers' Facebook Group and asked for members opinions to collecting and killing specimens. There were many replies, and here are just a few... 

      • Chris Raper Depends entirely on personal preference AND on how much you want to know the name of something (as opposed to having a rough idea what it might be). Obviously many distinctive species are easy to ID in the field or alive in a net/tube but more are impossible to identify without taking a specimen. Digital photography can only go so far because often the bits you need to see are not shown in a photo (genitalia etc) or the insect flew off before you could get that all-important shot of the middle leg. Where I get a bit hot under the collar is when (rarely) someone who doesn't want to take specimens starts to send in records for things that can only be identified to a sufficient level with a specimen (guesses aren't good enough for serious biodiversity recording). But if non-specimen takers know their limitations and only submit records for the things that really, genuinely are field-identifiable then there is no problem 

      • Chris Raper PS: also, of course, a specimen is the only way that someone else later on down the line can redetermine what you saw. I recently found a few specimens here in the NHM for a fairly rare fly that were determined by a very eminent Dipterist but which were clearly wrong. Now if we didn't have those specimens then we wouldn't be able to improve the data we hold on that species.

      • Robert Jaques Would some form of compromise be the best course of action? If you are killing specimens for identification then try to make every thing about the process publicly available, through the means of blogs and websites. Take efforts to take quality pictures which other people can use and attempt to find means of identification that wouldn't require the death of a specimen, whether it's an environmental, habitat or physiological feature.

      • Natalie Windsor Owing to the severe decline of many UK species (as shown in The State of Nature Report, etc), common sense dictates that killing should only be done when absolutely necessary. And definitely not if the species is endangered (Red Listed).

        Need to refer to the Entomologists' Code of Practice here:

        Information on the publications of the Amateur Entomologists' Society (AES). A code of conduct for collecting insects and other invertebrates
      • Richard Comont My stance is basically the same as Graeme's comment on the blog - killing to ID is fine, as long as that data is used - submitted to the LRC/Recording scheme/etc. It's probably also worth mentioning that the records of species that require gen det are likely to be (subjectively) more valuable as so few people will do them. It's fine to stay as part of that larger group, but that does mean that you're restricted to those groups ehich are field-identifiable

      • Mark Skevington It's often harder for those getting into inverts after many years birding to get their head around taking specimens, but I note a recent increase in 'feathers lost during ringing' for DNA analysis and wonder how long before odd vagrants start having heart-attacks during the process allowing the skin to be preserved .....

      • Mark Skevington The box that I really can't square is those getting into moths who run traps but won't take specimens for gen det. You kill more moths inadvertently by running a trap in the first place (eg creating predation opportunities, walking around the trap, moth under finger picking out egg trays, overnight rain). Not to mention the 1000s inverts you kill driving home overnight from a day out in the field!

      • Chris Raper Natalie - actually there is a huge problem with not enough taxonomists studying most insect groups that require the taking of specimens. Some families of Diptera & Hymenoptera are just starting to get the attention they deserve but there are still huge numbers of species that have one (or no) people able to survey them seriously and we have the whole country to try to survey. For this reason the government tasked the Linnaean Society with the job of investigating how to encourage more people to take up under-studied groups on a national and international basis. Projects like BioFells and a few upcoming projects will try to make under-studied groups more accessible but it is a huge uphill struggle. This is exacerbated by the fact that there is so little money to actually pay people to do the work - there are very few professional taxonomists doing taxonomy. I'd say that the vast majority of serious taxonomists now are amateurs (many retired) and if taxonomists are in employment they jobs actually don't involve a lot of taxonomy and even less field surveying. If I see a person in the countryside with a net then I am pleasantly surprised ... it has only happened a few times, outside the usual field-trips by entomological groups. :S

      • Chris Raper Sorry for the huge posts but also I should add that Natalie hits the nail on the head when she says that wildlife is in decline ... but it isn't because people are taking specimens - far from it. The problems are bad/destructive land-use that destroys habitats and wipes out whole populations and ecosystems in one sweep. There have been many very good, scientific studies on insect population dynamics and the effect of taking specimens and it basically boils do to the fact that a person with a net, collecting responsibly, has an absurdly negligible effect ... next to nothing. If a collector took a specimen that then resulted in a population dying out then it was almost certainly going to die out of its own accord - due to the far more significant effects of natural predation, habitat decline, climate change or any number of other natural causes. 

      • Seth Gibson I recently stuck my neck out on the UK Hoverflies FB page. A guy showed a pic of a pinned hoverfly and was immediately 'attacked' for killing it. He defended himself very admirably and came away fairly unscathed with a few more folks having a better understanding of why he'd pinned it in the first place. 
        I mentioned that I kill and pin hoverflies because I'm far too inept at field recognition of 99% of them and don't intend to put duff records through to the Hoverfly Recording Scheme. Roger Morris has all of my recent hoverfly records via email. 
        I then went on to say that at this time of year I see a lot of queen bees and wasps which I'm unable to confidently ID. But I refuse to take (ie kill and pin) any of these despite now having the literature. If I remove a queen then I remove a colony, and I'm not about to do that. That is where I personally draw my line at collecting.

      • Andy Musgrove I've killed my share of insects recently for ID purposes. However, I'm particularly pleased when, given my experience gained by doing so, I can subsequently identify with confidence in the field. Clearly not always possible, but I was chuffed to find Pterostichus madidus the other day under a log, give it a quick check in a pot through the "back of the bins", then let it scurry off on its beetly way. I agree with most of the comments here - no-one gains great pleasure from killing (except bluebottles that buzz me when I'm going to sleep - sorry, will admit to that one - and I do identify them as Calliphora vicina!), but I don't have a concern it has an effect on populations. I'm fairly happy that I can do more good through raising the profile of previously obscure creatures than the harm caused. My twopenneth anyway.

        Andy Musgrove
         Bombus tend to be big enough to cool down a bit in the fridge then look at the features on the live insect before releasing. For most anyway. Andrena is quite another matter!

      • Chris Raper Andy - that's a good point. I think sometimes people get a false idea of how easy it is for an expert to identify in the field or from photos. It's only after very intensive study of a group (usually by taking specimens and building a reference collection) that an expert can get a broad enough feel for the range of variation and the 'jizz' of a species. After this level of study we all get better at spotting certain species in the field but it would be very dangerous for the novice to make assumptions that they knew what something looked like without the backing of experience backed up by close study.
      • Chris Raper I had another nice example of why we take specimens today. I was given a Pollenia to ID and it keyed to Pollenia griseotomentosa, a fairly unusual calliphorid. So I pulled a tray of reference material in the NHM collection to check my ID ... but a block of Fonseca's specimens didn't match mine. After showing Nigel Wyatt he agreed with me (they were way wrong) and has redetermined the Fonseca specimens as another species. We all have off-days (and Fonseca had quite a few) but because he took specimens to get his 'tick' we can correct his errors and improve our knowledge of rare species. 

      • Martin Harvey There's loads of natural history you can do without killing specimens, and there's loads you can't do unless you kill specimens. As long as you're within the law it's a personal choice depending on what you're trying to achieve and what your own moral sense says. Entomologists are pretty inefficient predators compared to everything that likes to eat insects - the total population of Blue Tits in Britain are estimated to kill 35 billion caterpillars every single year.

      • Alison Fure There is a paper on voucher's in this years London Naturalist 92 by James Wearn from Kew. Summed up- Morphological, phenological, biochemical, genetic and distribution data from vouchers are critically important to assessments of taxonomic, phylogenetic and evolutionary placement of organisms and to elucidate changing body patterns etc etc.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Should you kill to tick?

Chequered Skipper - the only one that I have seen. NOT collected

A museum glass cabinet that displays stuffed birds is an object that at once shows its age. When the naturalists of the 18th and 19th centuries went out to catalogue the natural world, they went armed with guns, cat gut and sawdust. The provenance of a bird was down to the production of its skin - the old saying of 'what's hit is history, what's missed is mystery' was very true indeed - if you didn't have the body then the record was unproven.

There cannot be many people who would not baulk at the idea of netting birds, wringing their necks and then displaying them at home, stuffed and wired to a perch within a case. But what about butterflies? Moths? Beetles?

I have recently had an email correspondence on the rights and wrongs of collecting with two fellow naturalists. I think it fair to say that one is pro and one against. I find myself sitting somewhere in the middle. It got me thinking about the subject, which has not done anything to push me off the fence.

In the UK we can safely assume that, bar rare scientific study, nobody collects birds in this day and age.   In botanical circles plant material is commonly collected for identification purposes, but this does not need the whole plant to be dug up, rather the taking of a seed head, a leaf or the cutting of a stem. Lepidopterists are largely shunning the practice of collecting a specimen to pin it to a board, largely due to very good field guides being available plus the rise in compact digital cameras with which to obtain great images. However, some of the 'old school' still retain voucher specimens. Many invertebrates are unidentifiable unless you examine them closely. This often needs the insect in question to be sedated or killed.

So, is it alright to kill a living creature? Does it make it OK to do so if you are undertaking a survey? Is it permissible if you are furthering our knowledge of the species (or related species)? But the question from our correspondence that hit home with me was:

Is it OK to collect a specimen and kill it to purely gain a tick on you life list?

Hmmm... good question. I find the collecting of butterflies and moths archaic and needless, although there are many micros (and a few macros) that need genitalia examination to be carried out to be able to positively identify them. They therefore need to be killed (in most cases). Should we leave these alone, leave them unidentified, and only let the professionals undertaking research to kill them if need be? And why do I not baulk at the collecting of beetles, flies, wasps etc? Is it because they are not so cute and colourful? A few are. Or is it because, from small children, we have watched our elders chase after them with sprays and swats and exterminate them with extreme prejudice as soon as they entered the house?

There are contradictions. I won't collect moths but know that by switching the moth trap on a very small number of them will get damaged in the process. And if I don't get to the trap early on, then the local birds will come down and have a free feast on those moths resting on nearby walls.

The previous generations of naturalist were collectors. They were eggers. They carried out taxidermy. Today we are largely not. But when you explore nature in all of its many guises, there are some areas that are still at the 'textbook and collection' stage. To not collect would mean to not further our knowledge of them. Killing here is simply what is needed to be done.

My current outlook is this. If I need to kill a creature to identify it, I don't. This means that there is plenty out there that I will not be able to identify. That's fine. I struggle enough with what I can identify without killing it as it is!