Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Late April field notes

Moon near Venus
Mackerel sky
Thank goodness that the weather's been so nice during the Covid-19 lockdown. Things could have been much less relaxed. This is the first year I remember in which the first four weeks of the transect-walking season (otherwise known as the one hour daily exercise period) have been 100% sunshine. The perfect weather we've enjoyed since around mid-March is appreciated all the more because of the fresh memory of the miserable, wet winter we endured and because of the eventual break in the weather that we all know would eventually come; just as the beauty of the night sky is appreciated more by the memory of an overcast sky.

Knowing that the good weather was due to break on Monday night, I made a point of enjoying the last good evening for a while by taking a late walk when I was hopeful I would have the Bishopstone downs to myself. I did. The previous evening the sky was clear and the crescent moon, three days old, was near Venus. It was a stunning sight; one I could never tire of. Monday evening had a mackerel sky which faded to salmon pink as the sun sank; the Moon and Venus flashed in and out through the gaps. The air was still and the scent of flowers hung in the air, thick and sweet. I think people experience smells slightly differently from each other, in the same way we seem to see colours in slightly different hues. With cow parsley I sense a slight camphor odour, not as strongly as I do with Alexanders earlier in the season, but it is there faintly. As I walked along the silent paths in the gloaming, alternate smells of camphor and sickly sweet hawthorn overwhelmed the senses.

We walked up to the top of Mount Pleasant and via Norton Hill and Rookery Hill to the road at Bishopstone. I hoped to see the barn owl or a tawny owl, but the silhouettes were mostly crows and rooks. A cuckoo flashed out of the woodland edge at the top of Bishopstone Wood, my first of the season. I had heard it call a few minutes before and the dogs must have flashed it up. A little further on I saw what I thought might be a roe deer – not the first I have seen in the area – but it was too dim to make an ID with any degree of confidence. Whatever is was disappeared along a well-worn track and into the trees. I'll check it for droppings when I'm next over there in the daylight.

In the gloaming I'm struck by how things which are pale in colour tend to glow. Umbellifers and hawthorn blossom framed the fields and, amongst the grass, thousands of dandelion clocks lit up dimly like tiny lamps. I wouldn't have appreciated their number during the daylight and I love it that they became more obvious in the in-between light of the dusk. I learnt the other day that our word dandelion is taken from the French dents de lion, or lion's teeth, a description of the leaves. I wonder if the Normans brought the name over with them? 

Sunday afternoon allowed a long, leisurely ramble over the downs between South Heighton and Beddingham. The lockdown doesn't allow such long walks as I'd like, but I was able to make the most of the sun and light breeze. I climbed the hill above Page's Barn with the hope of finding some oak eggar caterpillars on the bramble between the path and fenceline, but none were seen. I counted 64 along the same stretch in 2014, but annual searches since have turned up nothing, which is disappointing. I did see my first painted lady of the season and possibly also my first small heath, but this disppeared before I could tell for certain. A little further along at Snap Hill I saw another red kite, bringing my 2020 tally to five – all in the Newhaven area.

The garden continues to delight. I noticed a number of yellow-backed clothes moth (Monopis obviella), carrion moth (Monopis weaverella), white-shouldered house-moth (Endrosis sarcitrella) and narrow-winged grey (Eudonia angustea) flying around the compost heap in the still air on Monday evening. I've found the Monopis species and sarcitrella to be associated with dried grass clippings in the past. More firsts have turned up in the moth trap: I have now recorded eleven species this month which I had never previously seen in April and newly-emergent species are appearing for the first time this year most nights now. The good weather has undoubtedly brought forward many emergence times, but the general trend of climate change must also be at play.

With a couple of days and nights still left in the month it is clear that this April has been one of the best for butterflies and moths. I've recorded 88 species and 1011 individuals so far. Only April 2014 has been better. Many species have been above both my five year and ten year average. I'll try and find time to write it up in more detail after the month end.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) - my first for the season
Wall (Lasiommata megera) have been seen in good numbers this April
Path through Denton Wood
Wych Elms in flower and a gap in the canopy
Page's Barn and the path to Beddingham
Grey Pug (Eupithecia subfusca)
Turnip (Agrotis segetum) - fresh but missing an antenna
Yellow-backed Clothes-moth (Monopis obviella)

The June Chafer (Rhizotrogus aestivus) - first UK record?

Rhizotrogus aestivus - recorded first in Newhaven?

Things at home have become very interesting. It seems that I recorded a beetle that is new to the UK – or perhaps not. It is Rhizotrogus aestivus or the June Chafer. I've found it in my moth trap on three occasions recently: the 20th, 25th and 27th. I'm ashamed to admit that I've been wrongly assuming it was summer chafer (Amphimallon solstitiale) for at least two years, possibly longer, and not taking that much notice of it. A friend from the Friends of Castle Hill LNR photographed one at Fort Road on 30th April last year and, when asked if I knew what it was, I wrongly said it was summer chafer again. I didn't photograph any of those found in my moth trap. It was only after the first of this year's turned up that I began to question myself. The summer chafer flies from July, which made it far too early. This was the individual I described in a recent blog post that escaped. It was only when the second individual turned up on 25th that I was able to take a closer look and realise that it was Rhizotrogus aestivus.

A quick search of the NBN Atlas suggested there were no UK records and I began to feel some excitement. I wrote to Bob Foreman at the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre, who confirmed there are no Sussex records. Bob wrote to Peter Hodge, who was sceptical (quite right too). I wrote to Graeme Lyons, who forwarded the details to Darren Mann, the national specialist. This was getting quite serious. Darren advised that he would need to see a male to confirm the ID, but he seemed confident from the photo that it was the right ID and a beetle that is new to the UK fauna. The trouble is that I had released the chafer after making the ID [yes, I know, I'm a rubbish entomologist], so I had to wait and see if another turned up, which it did on 27th. I'm now waiting for further instruction. 

Another exciting aspect of this discovery is that, assuming it is accepted as correct, when the record makes its way into the national coleopterists' consciousness, further records could be turned up and people can get out to search for it. I find it fascinating though that new records often turn up at ports such as Newhaven. The Mediterranean Oil Beetle is another local example, along with amongst other speceis the elegant topshell Trochoidea elegans and the wasp spider Argiope bruennichi.

As a postscript, because I didn't do a proper job of recording the chafer in the past, the first sighting that we can make a proper record from is the one that my friend Sue photographed on 30th April last year. Hopefully I can include my name in the record as the determiner, but it is a cautionary tale and a lesson learned.

I'll add further details as things develop.

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Sociable Distance and other inspirations

Still the perfect weather helps to relieve the stresses of the lockdown confinement, slightly warmer and less breezy today with a lighter wind from the south instead of the easterly which has been dominating in recent weeks like a hair-dryer set to cool. Interestingly, the easterly breeze we often get, which can last for several days unabated, a bit like the Mistral, always seems to blow at a steady pace and without the blustery nature of the prevailing south-westerlies. This effect is especially felt along the ridge at the top of Mount Pleasant overlooking the waterworks at Poverty Bottom.

Red Admiral and Holly Blue sightings have been growing in number at home in the garden. Large Whites blouse their way across from garden to garden and Small Whites flutter through in decent numbers. Brimstones and Small Tortoiseshells seem scarce, although most of my Brimstones are usually seen abroad north of the downs along Wealden tracks that I'm not visiting so often this year.

The first, anticipated, sight of Cetonia aurata (Rose Chafer) has now been made in the garden, the metallic green elytra being quite conspicuous on the white Choisya blossoms. There were two today on it. It was a treat to see one a few years ago (perhaps less so for gardeners), but they seem to have established themselves so well in our area in recent years that they are a daily occurrence these days. The Choisya itself has spread a fair amount since last year when I thought it was a little stunted. The scent of the flowers is delicious and fills the garden, having taken over from the Daphne as if they had rehearsed it. Amanda wants to cut it back. Not on my watch.

Cetonia aurata - the long anticipated Rose Chafer
I made a couple of bee hotels from baked bean tins for the garden before breakfast. Funny how one expects an instant uptake by bees – I've been hovering expectantly at times throughout the day without noticing any interest. Jack-by-the-hedge was found growing by the pond; I think this is a first record for the garden. Ash leaves are now unfurling on the big tree, some way behind in progress from the expanding palms of sycamore. The ash has a lot of trunks, all with a filigree of climbing ivy. The tree must have been coppiced on several occasions before being left long enough to outgrow the gardener's saw. My moth trap lights it up at night like a feature tree.

Recent nights with the moth trap have seen the first appearance of Green Carpet and only my second ever April record of Coxcomb Prominent, which plays dead in the hand like a flake of wood. Brimstone Moth, Muslin, Angle Shades and Shuttle-shaped Dart are becoming slightly more numerous; Brindled Beauty and the Orthosias are dwindling slowly, but after an above-average season. Overall numbers are quite low, but should begin increasing again soon.

Coxcomb Prominent (Ptilodon capucina)
I did my transect walk at lunchtime today, with the dogs. I had high hopes, which came to little. Of the 52 butterflies seen, 39 were Small White which were loitering with intent around the oilseed rape, with a nice male Orange-tip, two Large Whites, seven Peacock, only a single Small Tortoiseshell,and two Nettle-tap moths making up the numbers on what was otherwise a quiet and disappointing day. The day had a siesta feel to it in the sun and slack winds; perhaps I should do the walk earlier or later?

The daily walk is a valuable distraction and I'd struggle through the lock-down without it, but each day I look across to Castle Hill LNR on the far side of the river valley and miss it more. I've been thinking of different ruses to help justify visiting and I think I've come up with a solution: a grass-roots walking movement designed to encourage people out for guided daily exercise (walks though – none of that pseudo-army boot camp business) at local nature reserves for one hour each day, walking two or more metres apart from the next person. Participants could bring two metre sticks with them, with or without sharpened points, to help keep other folk at bay. I have even come up with a snazzy name for it: Sociable Distance. The name might be better than the idea itself. Potential sticking points include:
  • engaging in an activity which might not fall within the spirit of the lock-down restrictions;
  • persuading Lewes District Council to consent to the use of the open space for an activity which might not fall within the spirit of the lock-down restrictions;
  • persuading my employer to agree to the time off work.
  • There are probably more sticking point to discover during this uniquely mendicant time.
Having the idea in the first place suggested to me that even I am beginning to crave social interaction with other humans. The spring moth lull must be getting to me.

Another lockdown-inspired idea occurred to me shortly afterwards, which would involve using pegs and string to mark out 2m squares at open spaces for people to enjoy wildlife whilst social distancing. The World Between us doesn't sound as snappy a title as Sociable Distance, so more work might be required and I am open to suggestions – and any suggestions received would demonstrate that I'm not the only person who reads this blog! A sticking point: would the Council agree to encourage people out to its nature reserves at the moment? I'm not sure I would.
Where the east wind blows - the ridge above Poverty Bottom

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

More lockdown delights

It's incredible how the natural world is just carrying on amidst all this Covid-19 lockdown business. A swarm of flies has been ignoring the two metre social distancing thingy, dancing around in the air above our rosemary in the back garden. There seemed to be more there today, so word is obviously getting around. I think they're lesser house flies, which must mean they are preparing an onslaught on the District's poultry houses.

Moths seem to be in their Spring lull since the Orthosias declined to a handful a night, but we did get a nice Powdered Quaker in the trap last night and I found a bonus Angle Shades on a nettle during my morning stroll around the garden, mug of tea in hand. I also found in the trap this morning a nice little chafer which I think was a summer chafer, but it seems far too early for this (it is named solstitiale after all) and was perhaps less hairy than the images in my book. It might be something else. It fell on the grass and melted away before I could photograph it, so I will have to hope for another before attempting an ID. Still no Rose Chafers seen in the garden, despite the Choisya being in near full bloom. I had hoped they might appear slightly earlier due to the good weather.

We took a lunchtime walk. The stockpiled brash on Norton Hill, where we heard a hedgehog at dusk a couple of days ago, today had a swarm of bees enjoying the shelter it afforded from the strong easterly breeze. They were too busy and quick to be identified, but I think they were a Lasioglossum species of some sort. To the south we looked longingly at Castle Hill LNR, which is mostly out of bounds during the present lockdown.

The butterfly season appears suddenly to have moved on and looks promising for the next six weeks or so, providing the weather stays good. We saw our first Small Copper yesterday; today there was a fair amount of activity in the sheltered places. We saw Large Whites (2), Small Whites (9), Red Admirals (4), Small Tortoiseshells (2), Commas (2), a Holly Blue, some Nettle-tap moths which were fizzing around the herbage, quite a few Dock Bugs (30), Gooden's Nomad Bee and our first dragonfly of the season: a female Large Red Damselfly, which I managed to take a shaky snap of. 

Swallows seem to be arriving in greater numbers. We've been seeing odd ones for about a month, but a small group of five were swooping around the hedge line on our way back home. Plenty of humans were out and about too – far more than usual since the lockdown was imposed but, unlike the flies, they were at least maintaining an appropriate distance.

Castle Hill LNR from Norton Hill

Female Large Red Damselfy (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) at Rookery Hill

Monday, 20 April 2020

Lockdown Delights 3/3

Extra domum

The lockdown must have played havoc with my naturalist friends’ fieldwork and surveys. Again, I have been untouched by this and am fortunate that my regular weekly butterfly transect starts around the corner from home. I’ve been able to incorporate the first few weeks of the transect walking season into my daily exercise. Orange-tip, Large and  Small Whites, Brimstone, Speckled Wood, Wall, Red Admiral, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma and Holly Blue have been seen, as well as an Emperor Moth, a Hummingbird Hawk-moth, a few dark-edged bee-fly (Bombylius major) and the best numbers to date of dotted bee-fly (Bombylius discolour). 

Sunset from Norton Hill
Evening walks have been especially well rewarded because almost everyone is at home. The wet meadows by the woodland edge at Bishopstone have been silent and empty. I snuck in a couple of nights ago as quietly as possible to see if a barn owl I have seen locally a couple of times might be roosting there. Sure enough, as I neared the beech trees along Duke’s Walk, a barn owl emerged from the tree line, silently. My dog Leo and I sat perfectly still and watched until it flew out of sight. 

Slipping out of the wet meadow and into the wood at dusk, we walked beneath the rookery without being noticed by the rooks and jackdaws above. The ground, strewn with dropped nesting material, was softened by rain during Friday night's thunderstorm. Being able to walk more or less silently up the woodland path allowed me to listen into a wider range of the rooks' and jackdaws' vocabulary: confiding clicks, whines and screeches instead of the usual alarm calls. The woodland path has ramsoms growing out of a patch of winter heliotrope at the bottom of the path, a small patch of native bluebell halfway up and, near the top, a hybrid native and Spanish bluebell.

After emerging from the wood onto the hill above Norton the familiar grunts and snuffles of a hedgehog were heard from a pile of vegetation which was stockpiled last June by the farmer. Earlier in the Spring I watched a Peacock emerge from its hibernaculum in the same pile.

This is a bizarre, unique time we find ourselves living through; a time in which love and respect have taken on new meaning and how the way we conduct ourselves around others makes the difference between health and illness, life and death. Our responsibility to loved ones and to people we might never even meet is critically important. The pace of life has slowed, our worlds have become smaller, but the bandwidth of our experience has widened. Our awareness of surroundings, including the natural world, as we slow down and tune into it, have become more vital. Despite the lockdown, nature has continued in its irrepressible way. Every day spent as a reprieve from the reality of modern life will be cherished however possible.
Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus vicaria), Denton Wood
Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus vicaria), Denton Wood
The author wishes to apologise for any Latin shortcomings.

Lockdown Delights 2/3

Et in horto domus

The urge to watch and record the nature around me has continued unabated, albeit rather more introspectively than usual. Whether working in the garden or sitting, transported back to Roman Britain with my book, much has been seen. Red Kites, Buzzards, a Peregrine and Kestrels have been seen circling above the garden. The burgeoning House Sparrow clan have become more relaxed with our presence, arguing amongst themselves and feeding as if we weren’t within inches of them. The Herring Gull pair is nesting as usual on a neighbouring roof and swoop to my delight across the garden. The winter flocks of tits and finches are less frequent now that they have retreated back in to the countryside, but can still be heard. Dusk and dawn sees the usual pipistrelles snatching moths en route to my moth trap.

Chamomile Shark (Cucullia chamomillae)

The moth trap itself has produced earliest records for a few species, including Waved Umber, Muslin Moth and Chamomile Shark; otherwise it has been more-or-less average. The Orthosia species seem to be nearing the end of their season, suggesting they were not too delayed by the poor weather in February and early March.
This year I have left the duckweed on the pond surface. It means that I haven’t seen the smooth newts or frogs, but I did find some frogspawn and occasional ripples as adults push their heads above the surface. I also heard some males calling at night until a few weeks ago.
New plants are flowering: a carpet of ground-ivy has been seen for the first time in the wild corner by the compost heap, Herb Robert has become more established, goosegrass and bedstraws proliferate and the red dead-nettle that I left to bloom has attracted Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes). The blossom on the weeping cherry has passed, but was sheltered from the recent easterly breezes this year and so for longer than usual this spring it delighted all who passed, including several species of bee.

In recent days I have seen in the garden Orange-tips, Large and Small Whites, a Speckled Wood, Wall, Red Admiral, Peacock, Comma and, for the first time today, a pair of Holly Blues. The weeping cherry has Box Bugs (Gonocerus acuteangulatus) basking on its fresh, delicate leaves and I have seen Green Shieldbugs (Palomena prasina), Dock Bugs (Coreus marginatus) and Ant Damsel Bugs (Himacerus mirmicoides) elsewhere in the garden. A patch of stinging nettles I left now has some tents stitched roughly together, but I think these might be Mother of Pearl rather than the hoped-for butterfly larvae. It's not a complaint. Common Carder-bees (Bombus pascuorum) have visited briefly, while both Dark-edged (Bombylius major) and Dotted Bee-flies (B. discolor) have been resident.
The vixen has been her usual furtive self, understandable behaviour considering she is feeding her litter of cubs who are not yet venturing beyond their earth in an overgrown neighbouring garden. A hedgehog was seen at the front of the house a couple of nights ago.

Box Bug (Gonocerus acuteangulatus)

Waved Umber (Menophra abruptaria)

Herb-Robert (Geranium robertianum)
Ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea)
Red Dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum)

Lockdown Delights 1/3

The pace of life has slowed, our worlds have become smaller, but the bandwidth of our experience has widened.

The Covid-19 lockdown, despite its inconveniences, distresses and tragedies, has provided a unique opportunity for peaceful reflection. Newhaven is, under normal circumstances, a week-round frenzy of industry, commerce and traffic, a hive which radiates far and wide its organoleptic bouquet and soundscape of fumes and white noise. That has mostly fallen silent to reveal sounds and smells which have not been enjoyed for decades and certainly not in my own memory.

The absence of aircraft and road traffic has given way to birdsong and wind whispering through the bare branches of the big ash tree – a singleton, ivy-clad tree which has so far avoided the ravages of its own Chalara health crisis. The natural soundscape is punctuated by occasional sounds of lawnmowers, barking dogs, the cross-channel ferry, trains, farm machinery, a braying donkey and, during calm nights, the incinerator and migrating birds. The unfamiliar yet welcome sound of a blackbird calling at the front of our house has even awoken us some mornings. The woodpigeons’ rooftop calls seem more boastful than usual. The reek of industrial and traffic exhausts has not been suffered for weeks and instead, our open windows are filled with the sweet garland of flowering shrubs and garden bonfires. The world feels as if it has become lost in a sort of perpetual bank holiday. There is a rare beauty in this.

The world as we knew it shrunk for most of us when the lockdown was announced in March, but for some the term ‘lockdown’ is off beam. The Covid-19 restrictions have been a release from the stifling weight of modern society. Being rather introverted by nature (and not wishing to trivialise the C-19 crisis’s terrible impacts upon others), I have taken to the ‘new normal’ better than most. Empty roads and skies, country walks virtually free of human activity (when timed well), days spent at home and in the garden, a changed emphasis on staying in touch with family and friends; this has in some senses been the stuff of fantasy. A weight has been lifted. Consequently, I have found it easy to find joy in the positive aspects of the crisis and I have resolved to do just this. I have even found that my creative juices are flowing again (for whatever that is worth). I have even taken the plunge with reading a long history of Roman Britain that felt too much of a challenge before the crisis. How different the lockdown might have been if the weather had not been so kind. How fortunate Amanda and I consider ourselves to be to have a nice garden and a view of the Ouse estuary and sea.