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.”

New atlas of bees, wasps and ants

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The latest atlas in the set being published by BWARS arrived a week or two ago:
Edwards, R., and Roy, H. (eds) 2009. Provisional atlas of aculeate Hymenoptera of Britain and Ireland Part 7. Wallingford: Biological Records Centre.

Part 7 of this atlas includes maps for a further 58 species, with brief species accounts summarising the distribution, ecology and conservation status. Following the BWARS plan, part 7 contains a mix of ants, wasps and bees, including nine of the small (and hard to identify) parasitic jewel wasps in genus Chrysis, seven of the solitary wasps in genus Crossocerus, a range of solitary bees and six bumblebees (genus Bombus).

The latter group includes an account of Bombus cullumanus, last recorded in Britain in 1941, in Berkshire, and now considered extinct following recent surveys of all the sites from which it was previously known. By contrast, the map for Bombus hypnorum shows how far this species has spread since it colonised Britain in 2001.

There is a useful summary of the problems of distinguishing workers of Bombus terrestris from those of Bombus lucorum (queens and males can be separated relatively easily, although for queens the situation is becoming more difficult as colonies of the continental, white-tailed, race of Bombus terrestris have been imported for commercial use); and of the status of Bombus lucorum itself, which has been shown to be an aggregate of three very similar species: B. lucorum sensu stricto, B. magnus and B. cryptarum.

The dot maps in part 7 show the most recent records as black dots for the period 1970 to 2007 (or so it says on page 9, but I think at least some of the maps include records after 2007 – certainly that for Bombus hypnorum does). While this maintains consistency with the maps in the previous parts of the atlas, it does not enable more recent changes in distribution to be shown. For example, it would have been good to see the recent expansion of range in species such as the parasitic bee Sphecodes niger shown more clearly on the maps.

One reason for producing atlases, and one of the reasons why mambers of BWARS work so hard to collate the records, is to monitor changes in species and look out for any worrying declines, and in part 7 there several examples of just this. For instance, the closely related solitary bees Andrena rosae and A. stragulata have not previously been listed as scarce or declining, but these maps show that there is cause for concern with few recent records.

The BWARS data for these species (but not the species accounts) can be seen on the NBN Gateway – for example, here is the map for Specodes niger.

New key to plants

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The long-awaited new “Vegetative Key to the British Flora” (by John Poland and Eric Clement) is nearing completion. BSBI are now advertising a pre-publication offer: if you order before the 17th April it will cost £20 inclusive, whereafter it will cost £25 plus p&p.

You can download a flyer for the book from the BSBI website (see the top-right-hand corner of the site).

The authors claim that (with experience) you’ll be able to identify most plants within 60 seconds! (personally I’d be happy if I could get somewhere near identifying most plants within 60 hours …)

new books

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Had an enjoyable day at the AES Exhibition last weekend, great to catch up with loads of people I haven’t seen for ages. Some new books out too, including:

  • The latest (vol. 5 part 17c) in Mike Morris’s series of weevil keys for the Royal Ent Soc. These keys are becoming much more nicely laid-out and user-friendly since the Field Studies Council started producing them for the RES, and this new key is a great improvement over the keys in Joy, which is probably all most of us have had access to up till now. However, they’re still a challenging group, and not for the first time in this set of keys I hit a problem with a specimen that didn’t really fit the keys. Maybe it’s me getting it wrong of course, but I’ll need to check it next time I’m near a museum.
  • And also the latest in the series of Surrey wildlife atlases, this time on bees, by David Baldock. This covers all the solitary and social bees recorded in the county, and as well as the usual dot maps there are informative species accounts, a very welcome new key to bee genera (by Graham Collins), and a set of 48 superb colour plates. Highly recommended, available from Surrey Wildlife Trust.
  • A new AES book on the larger water beetles, by Peter Sutton. Nicely written text full of anecdotes and clearly showing the author’s enthusiasm for this group of beetles. Keys to the larger species and lots of background information.