It must be spring

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Maybe it’s the time of year: during the next few weeks Buckinghamshire is bursting with meetings, conferences and general sociability for anyone interested in recording and conserving wildlife in the county.

The first ever BIG newsletter included a rotifer illustrated by Eric Hollowday, and Eric has entertained us with rotifer stories ever since.

The first ever BIG newsletter included a rotifer illustrated by Eric Hollowday, and Eric has entertained us with rotifer stories ever since.

First up is the spring indoor meeting for the Buckinghamshire Invertebrate Group, on Saturday 14 March, 10am to 1pm, at Wendover. Anyone with an interest in insects and other invertebrates in Bucks is welcome to join the (free) mailing list for the group, which produces an excellent annual Bulletin and organises a range of field and indoor meetings. This year is BIG’s 25th anniversary, which will be celebrated at the Recorders’ Seminar (see below). Our indoor meeting is a chance to catch up with friends, help plan the year’s field meetings and hear all the latest bug-related news. To join and get the meeting details contact BIG.

branch_logoOn Saturday 28th March there is another insect-focused day: the Conservation Review Day organised by Upper Thames Branch (UTB) of Butterfly Conservation. This is being held in Berkshire, at Dinton Pastures near Reading, but UTB covers Bucks as well as Berks and Oxon, and the day’s events include talks by Martin Albertini and Tony Gillie on Striped Lychnis moth in Bucks, and by Ched George on Duke of Burgundy butterfly in the Chilterns, as well as more general presentations that will be of interest to anyone involved with the conservation of butterflies and moths in the region. Please come prepared to join in the discussions.

Every year BMERC (the local environmental records centre for Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes) organises a splendid Wildlife Recorders’ Seminar, held as Green Park near Aston Clinton. This year’s programme (Word document download, includes booking form) is in part a celebration of the 25th anniversary of BIG, but also has John Sawyer outlining new developments for the National Biodiversity Network, as well as presentations on freshwater life and water quality from the Environment Agency, and on using DNA for environmental monitoring. BIG then takes centre stage with a series of short presentations from members of the group, and the day concludes with Buglife‘s Sarah Henshall focusing on the invertebrate paradise that brownfield sites can provide. Thoroughly recommended – I should warn you that I’m also down to speak, twice, but both of these are for short periods 🙂

Plant survey at Downley Common during a training course I ran for the Chiltern Commons Project (photo by Rachel Sanderson)

Plant survey at Downley Common during a training course I ran for the Chiltern Commons Project (photo by Rachel Sanderson)

Finally, on Thursday 23 April (and once again at Green Park) there is a fascinating conference with the intriguing title of “Local Spaces : Open Minds” (click for details and booking form). Organised by the Chiltern Commons Project, this day explores what role the Chiltern Commons could play in the environment of the future – how can they best play a part in conserving species, providing outdoor space for healthy living, and contributing to landscape and heritage? You may not realise it, but there are around 200 commons in the Chilterns, many of which have considerable biodiversity and historical interest, as well as playing a role in the wider landscape-scale conservation issues relevant to us all.

Sadly I can’t be at all these events but each looks like it will be worthwhile and enjoyable – join in if you can.

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Adding a bit of structure: moth monitoring and the Garden Moth Scheme

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Last Sunday I attended the excellent annual conference of the Garden Moth Scheme, which was well-attended, informative and enjoyable. And most importantly it showed how valuable it can be to record in a slightly more standardised way that we might otherwise do. Read on for more on the benefits of structured recording, and how you can join in with GMS.

Lots of people record moths and send their records in to their county moth recorder, which is an excellent way of finding out which species are where and contributing to the National Moth Recording Scheme. However, using this data for monitoring purposes is not straightforward, as there are so many variations in how, where and when people record their moths. To get good data on population trends for moths a more structured approach is needed.

Mean annual catches of the longest running RIS trap (Barnfield), in 3 year categories, compared with average values for RIS arable and grassland sites.

Mean annual catches of the longest running RIS trap (Barnfield), in 3 year categories, compared with average values for RIS arable and grassland sites.

The largest-scale example of structured moth recording is the Rothamsted Insect Survey (RIS), which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014. One of the RIS projects gathers data from Rothamsted moth traps positioned around Britain and Ireland. The first of these traps was used in the 1930s and 1940s, and following a gap in the 1950s an extensive network has been developed since the 1960s. This has provided an unparalleled set of long-term monitoring data for moths, and unfortunately what the data tell us is not very good news: the one trap that was running before the second world war was producing a lot more moths than traps have done subsequently, suggesting that there was a major decline in moth abundance in the 1950s (see graph on right). And the declines have continued: Rothamsted data was used in a joint project with Butterfly Conservation to assess the State of Britain’s moths over the last 40 years, from which the headline news was that two-thirds of widespread moths have undergone a significant decline, especially in southern Britain.

The Rothamsted moth traps are run by a network of volunteers, and new volunteers are welcome, but it is quite a big commitment. You have to have space to install the trap, and you have to commit to running it every night of the year for at least five years. Many of the Rothamsted traps are situated in places such as Field Studies Centres or research institutes.

GmsBut there is another moth monitoring scheme that you can join in with much more easily. The Garden Moth Scheme asks its participants to run a moth trap once a week (on the same night each week if at all possible) and to record the numbers of a suite of common species (you can of course record all the species you see if you wish, but the GMS focuses on a main list of around 220 species). Even if the weather is unpromising it’s still important to run your trap, and if you have a night where you record no moths that is still useful data! It is this regular pattern of recording once a week whatever the weather that helps give this survey its structured data, and allows for robust analysis of the results.

The GMS is an entirely volunteer-led project that has been running nationally since 2007, and the data it has collected is building up into a major resource. A recently published paper uses GMS data to show that gardens containing more diverse habitats have more moths, gardens near the coast have more on average than inland gardens, and gardens in urban areas have fewer moths on average than non-urban areas. These results are not perhaps very surprising, but the GMS data allows the trends to be quantified and investigated further. The full paper is open-access, see: Bates, A.J., et al. 2014. Garden and Landscape-Scale Correlates of Moths of Differing Conservation Status: Significant Effects of Urbanization and Habitat Diversity. PLoS ONE 9(1): e86925. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0086925.

A previous paper looked at the effects of different designs of moth trap and different bulb types to compare the catches of each (Bates, A.J., et al. 2013. Assessing the value of the Garden Moth Scheme citizen science dataset: how does light trap type affect catch?. Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata, 146: 386–397. doi: 10.1111/eea.12038 – unfortunately this one isn’t open-access), and members of the GMS are busy looking at the data in various ways to pick out trends and report back to the participants via regular newsletters and annual reports. Over time the data will become ever more useful and will allow for further research.

Moth trap in my former garden in Berkshire, and the best garden I've ever had for moths - sadly, where I live now is much less good!

Moth trap in my former garden in Berkshire – sadly, where I live now is much less productive for moths!

All in all the GMS is an excellent way for moth recorders to add an element of structured monitoring to their recording, without doing anything other than running a moth-trap in the garden, the sort of thing that moth-recorders love to do anyway! If you want to join in for the 2015 you need to be quick – recording is due to start this coming Friday 6 March (although at a push you can start a week or two later if you miss that first deadline), so head straight over to the GMS Getting involved page. I’m going to give it a go this year, and I look forward to seeing how my results fit in with everyone else’s.

If you do take part in GMS, please remember to copy your results (along with all your non-GMS moth records) to your county moth recorder as well.

Extreme entomology at The Hollies

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Having travelled to Shrewsbury last weekend to speak at the excellent Darwin Festival, organised by Shropshire Wildlife Trust and partners, I took the opportunity to do some extreme entomology. Okay, so The Hollies (next door to The Stiperstones, near Shrewsbury) is a bit higher than where I live, 350 metres as opposed to 100 m, but the altitude can’t be said to be extreme. And although a cold, gloves-on February day might not be the usual choice for bug-hunting – the temperature records claim it was 7-8 °C, but with a biting wind it felt a good deal colder – that wasn’t really extreme either, although it did make it hard to keep the beating tray steady. No, the extreme thing here was the trees I was searching for signs of insect life: a range of ancient Holly trees, some believed to be about 400 years old.

The Holly trees at The Hollies are an extraordinary range of shapes. Many are individual isolated trees that have been sculpted by wind and time into gnarled shapes that stretch and lean. There is precious little shelter to be had, either for the trees themselves, or any insects that might live in or on them, or indeed for the visiting entomologist. This must be one of the few Holly populations anywhere in Britain where the Holly Leaf-miner fly (Phytomyza ilicis) struggles to gain a foothold – I found just a few mines on one of the slightly less exposed trees.

Pogonocherus hispidus on Holly bark at The Hollies

But a lot of insects clearly do make their home here, as testified by the peppering of beetle exit holes in the trunks and limbs of the trees. And in fact the first insect to fall out of a Holly and onto my beating tray was the Lesser Thorn-tipped Longhorn Beetle (Pogonocherus hispidus). Larvae of this small (5mm) but attractive beetle develop in the small branches of a range of trees including Holly. Do have a look at these two great close-ups by John Hallmén on Flickr.

An hour or so of beating and grubbing around the trunks of the the trees produced a small list of other species:

A modest list, but not bad for a very cold February afternoon, especially as all but two (Porcellio scaber and Anthocoris nemorum) of these invertebrates are new records for the Stiperstones area, according to the useful list compiled by Pete Boardman in 2010. I find it comforting that these many of these species have probably been happily living at The Hollies for many generations, over the centuries since the current hollies started growing.
The Hollies is a Shropshire Wildlife Trust reserve and SSSI, so thankfully its special character has been recognised and is being looked after. It’s a shame that so many of the hollies have had to be fenced off, making it look rather like a tree zoo – presumably this is to prevent the trees being damaged by grazing stock. But the ancient hollies still work their magic, redolent of centuries of human interaction with the landscape. There’s more about the history of The Hollies on Sara Bellis’s blog, where she comments that in the past small boys would have been sent up the trees to collect the higher, less prickly leaves, as livestock feed. Since I was accompanied on my visit by a small boy in the shape of Kitenet jnr it’s a shame I didn’t think to put him to gainful employment for once …

Links for Oxfordshire recorders’ day

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[These links were originally compiled for a workshop in Oxfordshire in Feb 2012, 
but may be of interest more widely.]

These are links to the various sites looked at during the online resources workshop at the Oxfordshire recorders’ day, organised by TVERC on 25 February 2012. Quite a few of these have appeared in the blog before (e.g. citizen science, online identification), but they’re all useful sites so no harm in repeating them.

Photos for identifying wildlife
Following discussion of the pros and cons of using digital photos for wildlife identification we spent some time exploring iSpot (you will be unsurprised to hear!), and what the site does to encourage proper documentation of photo-records and their identification. We also looked in on the iSpot identification keys.

Online recording
Next up was online recording, focusing on Indicia and Birdtrack. Like iSpot, Indicia is one of the projects from OPAL, and it provides a toolkit for adding online recording to an existing website. There are an increasing number of effective recording systems being set up with Indicia, including for the British Dragonfly Society and the BBC’s version of the UK Ladybird Survey.

Birdtrack has been around for a while now, developed by the British Trust for Ornithology and partners, and it really is a superb way of making bird records useful both to you as recorder, and to the conservation organisations that can make use of your data. I’ve only recently started adding my bird records to the site (I’m not much of a birder, so it’s not been a great loss to them!), and am really impressed with the way that Birdtrack handles a range of different types of recording, and provides excellent feedback.

Twitter, Facebook, Google+, blogs: time well-spent, or time, well, just spent?
We looked at just a few examples here including:

The Square Metre at TQ 78286 18846

As for Twitter, just leap in and have a go. I’m @kitenet if you want to follow me. I haven’t found how to make the most of Google+ yet, but I’m on there too.
Other resources
Finally, a mixed bag of other stuff:
  • lots of mapping links on my Kitenet website – grid refs, gazetteers, GIS and other gadgets
  • Nature Societies Online at the Natural History Museum – you’ll be amazed how many wildlife-related groups there are in your county
  • Biodiversity Heritage Library – great library of mostly older natural history and biodiversity science publications, mostly quite old, not only available as good quality scans but also searchable
  • Instant Wild, a well-designed and fun citizen science project that asks you to identify mammals caught on camera from around the world – addictive and useful

Spot spotted, or not spotted?

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The spot in question is Lempke’s Gold Spot, a rather lovely moth named after the Dutch lepidopterist, B.J. Lempke, who I believe was the first to discover this species in Europe (it had long been known in the USA). In Britain it’s mostly found in the northern half of the country, but there are a few records for the south.

© Jim Vargo at Moth Photographers Group via EoL

Earlier today, Roy Leverton (author of the excellent Enjoying Moths) contacted me, in my capacity as Berkshire county moth recorder, regarding a potential Berkshire record of Lempke’s Gold Spot. This was published in a note by R.F. Bretherton, in the Entomologist’s Record for 1966 (available via the Biodiversity Heritage Library). In the note Bretherton refers to discovering that a specimen from his garden in Cumnor Hill, near Oxford, in 1940 had turned out to be Lempke’s Gold Spot, a species that had only recently been recognised as European at the time of the note.

I had no record for Lempke’s Gold Spot on the Berkshire database, and the species is not included in Brian Baker’s book on the county’s moths either, so this could have constituted a new species, the 638th, for the county list – always an enticing prospect! However, the question arises why Baker did not include the record in his book; many of Bretherton’s records were included, and Bretherton’s moth collection went to Reading Museum on his death, the museum for which Baker was natural history curator for many years, and retained an active interest in after his retirement. 
So I am left wondering whether Baker saw the Lempke’s Gold Spot record or specimen and rejected it, or whether it didn’t get into his book because he was simply unaware of it. The ‘normal’ Gold Spot is very similar to Lempke’s Gold Spot (sometimes needing dissection to distinguish the two), and in Bretherton’s article he states that the specimen was of a worn individual, so there is an element of doubt.
What all this adds up to is that, unfortunately, the verdict has to be “not proven”, and the idea of Lempke’s Gold Spot being a Berkshire moth must remain an intriguing possibility. If only we could travel back to 1940 and have a look round at the habitats then available.

Wildlife, citizens, science – Darwin Festival Feb 2012

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Here are some links to do with citizen science and (mostly) wildlife recording, compiled to support a ‘Café Science’ event I’m presenting at the Darwin Festival in Shrewsbury, 17 February 2012.

Citizen Science (CS) projects, entirely online:

  • Herbaria at Home – museums and BSBI in an effective partnership to recruit help with digitising data from plant specimens (UK)
  • Cornell bird identification – innovative project to get people to ‘train’ an online identification system (USA)
  • WhaleFM – help categorise whale songs (international)
  • Instant Wild – help identify mammals recorded on-camera (international)
  • Zooniverse – collection of astronomical CS projects (universal)
  • Mappiness – uses apps to get people to record how happy they are at particular times, intends to look at whether being out in green space improves happiness [of course it does!], among other aims (UK)
Real-world projects with clever online elements:
Thanks to XKCD
  • Evolution Megalab from The Open University – main project has finished but you can still use and contribute to the website
  • Nature’s Calendar – you can contribute records of wildlife seasonal change, and also explore the records already online via some ingenious interactive maps (UK)
  • OPAL surveys – well-designed environmental surveys with online data entry and analysis (UK)
  • Your Wild Life – fun projects looking at wildlife (some of it at micro-organism level) in our homes and on our bodies – armpit biodiversity anyone? (USA)
CS record-breakers:
Wildlife survey CS projects mentioned in the talk:
Other:

Putting wildlife on the map

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Last week I had the pleasure of teaching my first course for the fantastic Field Studies Council, at their Epping Forest centre. The day seemed to go well, and for me it was great to be out talking about wildlife-watching among the venerable old trees of the Forest.

I’ve added some of the materials from the course to a new biological recording section of my website, including information on recording, tips for photography and using keys, suggested surveys to try out, links to further resources and some field exercise sheets (downloadable). As ever, feedback welcome to improve what’s there and fill in any gaps I’ve missed.
While reading up for the course I went back to the late Oliver Gilbert‘s very enjoyable book The Lichen Hunters. Despite not being any sort of lichenologist myself I loved reading about the exploits of Dr Gilbert and his colleagues in tracking down unusual lichens in a range of habitats, from pristine rocks high in the Cairngorms to the ‘ancient tarmac’ of abandoned WWII airfields. Finding lichens in mountainous habitats requires impressive feats of physical endurance – anyone want to start a campaign for lichen-hunting as an olympic sport?
The book contains one of my favourite biological recording quotes, capturing some of the emotions that come from close contact with wildlife and wild places:
“You go to look for lichens and find in addition familiarity, beauty, companionship, laughter and the warmth of friends.”