My highest ever total of field identified invertebrates was at Hoyle Farm, West Sussex in August

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Wednesday, 9 August 2023 19:51

For the last few years, I have been keeping a daily total of all the invertebrates I have identified in the field (field dets) on any given day's surveying on a single site. Every day I do this and weirdly, I seem to be able to remember each day, within one or two species. So why bother? There is a very good reason; gamification. By constantly competing against  myself, I get better and better at identifying in the field. This serves a number of important functions:

1) I have to kill fewer invertebrates to identify them. They are very happy about this.

2) Which further saves me time in the winter at the microscope.

3) I become a more effective naturalist, by understanding what I am seeing in the field as I see it, which benefits my understanding of autecology. Identifying all specimens at home feels a very detached way to record to me.

4) It helps to push the boundaries of what is considered identifiable material, something that is particularly relevant with spider recording.

5) It allows me to frame how good the day's surveying has been based on the other totals I have been recording that year. Anything over 200 always feels like a good day and 250 is exceptional, for example.

6) It keeps my energy levels up and is fun!

This shot was taken by the owner of the site, Bianca Pitt. It's been great that Bianca was able to come out with me not just once but on every visit. So much so that I could see Bianca learning her plants over the summer but also, it's a great way to learn about habitat management, grazing, surveying etc etc and the two way flow of information makes it easier for me to write my report and tailor the recommendations. And I enjoyed having the company, as it's rare that someone is so keen to come out. I wish all my clients would do this at least once. So many people who work in land management find themselves too busy to spend time in the field, learning about wildlife and understanding the sites they are managing. How can this be right?

I digress, back to the field identifications! If I am not sure, I still take the specimen and 'ground truth' it back home, this being an important 'bridging' technique towards being comfortable at making a call in the field, however some species will never be field identifiable and you will always have to take them to ID them correctly. It's important to state that you can't fast-track this process; you can only confidently identify in the field after spending years identifying things at the microscope. You need to know exactly how and in what position to hold the invertebrate, where to point the hand lens and what to look for and do this efficiently. You also need to be able to hold identification guides, keys and spider genitalia images in your head. Again, something that comes from a great deal of repetition. It's peak entomology!

Late May/early June has always seemed like the time that I would get the biggest lists. Last year, I got two sites in the 270s in this time period, with the record for the total number after microscopic identifications being 355. Prior to this my record was at Ken Hill in 2019, again in May/June. So, I was not expecting to blow this out of the water in early August! Especially, as to the untrained eye, it might seem like a bad year for invertebrates; it really is not though. There is a LOT out there at the moment, with some very high species-counts to be made.

The site was Hoyle Farm in West Sussex. It has a number of features that make it perfect for a large day list:

1) It's in the West Weald. This part of Sussex is a fantastic landscape for invertebrates.

2) It's on the edge of the Green Sand, so has some magic soils and associated vegetation but this moves to heavier soils in places, adding to the diversity. There is some woodland with glades too, that is also very rich in invertebrate life.

3) It's a medium-sized site at c100 ha, that's compact and easy to get around, so I could spend six hours solid recording without lots of time moving between compartments.

4) The site is sympathetically managed. Chiefly, the grassland is not over or under-grazed and significant parts of the woodland have an open structure. The site has a great deal of nectar sources, bare ground, some old growth oak, plenty of shelter shelter and structural heterogeneity - perfect conditions for invertebrates.

The method was my standard farm 'bioblitz' method for recording on farms. Split the site into six roughly similar blocks and spend an hour in each. I record as many invertebrates, plants, birds, mammals etc as I can. I was pretty surprised therefore, that this methodology (and not just an invertebrate survey) would be the one to beat my record and it wasn't until I finished the first hour that I thought I stood a good chance of beating that record. I was on 101 species and had recorded the sandiest, most open compartment first. In this 101, I think I had had about 10 species with conservation status. So, I decided to go for the record. Five hours later, I was on 298 field identifications. I fast-tracked the microscope work, adding a further 69 species. This ended up being 367 species in all (with a whopping 32 of these having conservation status). A total of 789 records were made on the day. Rewarding but exhausting work

This is an amazing site. I can honestly say it's the nicest acid-grassland I have seen in Sussex and some of the best I have seen anywhere away from the coast or the Brecks. It has some amazing plants that I could write a blog about alone (including several I have not seen in Sussex before), including; Hoary Cinquefoil, Mossy Stonecrop, Smooth Cat's-ear, Knotted Clover, Subterranean Clover, Common Cudweed, Corn Spurrey and more Common Stork's-bill (below in May) than I have seen before! The first bird I heard as I got out of the car on my first visit was a Woodlark.

So here are some of the goodies from 2rd August (I have included a full species list of the 367 species found on the day below). One of my all time favourites, the Hornet Beetle Leptura aurulenta, a Nationally Scarce longhorn beetle and THE beetle that got me into beetles, after I went looking for it in 2009 at Ebernoe on a hunch, and found it! Fourteen years later, I have seen 1653 species of beetle in the UK.

Beating this Lichen Running-spider Philodromus margaritatus  from Ash was a real surprise! After Graffham Common and Lavington Common, this is only the 3rd known site for this charismatic spider in Sussex. Nationally Rare, Near Threatened and Section 41.

And I had a trio of lifers too.

The hopper Aguriahana stellulata, which I have long coveted.

The Nationally scarce a weevil that feeds on Dark Mullein, Cionus nigritarsis, was a long overdue lifer too.

And a striking cranefly swept from the woods (with yellow wings and legs) turned out to be the Nationally notable Tipula livida. Here is the female's paraphernalia under the microscope. 

Other highlights included Woodland Grasshopper (Nationally Scarce).

And Attactagenus plumbeus, a Nb weevil I see on acid-grassland occasionally.

This was taken earlier in the year, but the much smaller spiderlings of Alopecosa cuneata are still field identifiable now and are much more widespread. Another benefit to learning the early stages of species.

Probably the rarest thing though was a species I had new to Sussex at the neighbouring farm in 2020 (c500 m away from this record). The pRDB1 Scythris potentillella (no photo I am afraid). Scythris are small micro moths that I encounter (possibly more than any moth-er in Sussex does) by using my suction sampler, which is a great way to record this whole genus - almost all of which are classed as scarce or rarer. This one feeds on Sheep's Sorrel. Targeting Sheep's Sorrel for Dalman's Leatherbug is therefore the way to find this rare moth (as on both occasions, that's what I was looking for). I also found the Nationally Rare rhopalid bug Rhoaplus rufus.

I run the day's data through Pantheon (the Biological Record Centre's online database for analysing lists of invertebrates) and the SQI (a measure of site quality based on the proportion and weighting of the rarities present) came out at 137, this is really high for one of my surveys (my average is 123.9). The true SQI is likely to drop a little when the the three dates are combined but this was a really interesting exercise. A total of 32 species for the day (at least 50 for the whole survey) is quite remarkable. My average for all surveys (ranging from three to six days - not just one visit!) is 34.5 species with status. Showing this has both quantity and quality. Here is the sward in August, full of nectar and rare invertebrates.

We discussed habitat management at length and it's great that many of the changes required to make this site even better are tweaks rather than radical changes in direction. This is an important, low nutrient, low pH site, with an invertebrate assemblage closer to a nature reserve than a farm and I am glad it's in safe hands. I can't wait to go back in a few years and see how it has changed! Now, here is the entire species list, starting with the field identifications. Species with status highlight in bold and conservation statuses in brackets are thought to be out of date. NS = Nationally Scarce, NR = Nationally Rare, Nb = Nationally scarce b, Na = Nationally scarce a, NT = Near Threatened, S.41 = Section 41, Nn = Nationally notable, etc.

And then a further 69 species identified at the microscope, which I fast-tracked so I could write this blog.

We found a spider new to the UK on Brighton Beach!

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Sunday, 11 June 2023 16:44

Last year, I started monitoring the plants and invertebrates of a shingle translocation and creation project at Black Rock, Brighton carried out by Brighton & Hove City Council. Today, Karen and I were suction sampling an area having just found Pseudeuophrys lanigera (which I thought had to be obseleta but it wasn't). Buzzing off this high, Karen pointed to a jumping spider in the tray and asked "what's that?" There were three individuals in the tray from one suction sample. It was clearly a Heliophanus but not one I recognised. For a start, it had very obvious and striking black legs covered in white dots, as well as white-spotted black palps. I said it had to be Heliophanus auratus, a rare shingle species, as that was the only option (or so I thought). Which would have been a county first and a lifer. I was specifically suction-sampling the bases of large clumps of Yellow Horned-poppy. Here are some more shots of this incredible-looking little jumping spider.

I rushed home to look at one, only to find I had only collected females from two different areas but several were adult (actually, I didn't see any males). Two of these were hard to see as the epigynes were blocked but one was very clear. It was not auratus. I dissected the epigyne (below) and then it struck me - this must be a species new to the UK!!! I mean, it's obvious from just the general look of it. The palps aren't yellow for a start! I said at the time, the legs looked like nothing I had seen on a UK Heliophanus.

I jumped into the excellent website, Spiders of Europe (have a look here for a relevant species account) and closed in on species that were present just over the Channel but not yet in the UK. There it was, Heliophanus kochii. There is some more info here that helped, which stated it's a species that likes warm places. Another species moving north due to climate change then and looking at the European distribution, it likes warm and dry places, rather than being a shingle/coastal specialist. So, expect this to be spreading through the UK soon.

The patterns on the abdomen & the cephalothorax, the palps, the legs and the epigyne, especially the ducts, all added up. As did the dense covering of hairs on the abdomen missing from the very rear behind the last two white spots. I rang Richard Gallon and he was in broad agreement it was this species after seeing the shots. Now it might be prudent to wait until we have run it passed a European spider expert before calling it but I have never been the most patient of people. So I am calling it as my first (well joint first with Karen) spider new to the UK and my 2nd UK first! What a result. It's also my 526th UK spider.

Here is the habitat shot from the first encounter. One area of shingle created several years ago just west of the sauna place (I assume by the Council) but we found three more in area B (including an adult female) that was definitely created by the Council about 100 m behind where this photo was taken.

Now, any questions along the likes of "is it dangerous?" can get in the sea. It's about 5mm long maximum and is about as dangerous as our other 40 or so jumping spiders. It mostly likely ballooned across the Channel and colonised naturally, given the location. How cool is that? Very happy indeed to have found this.

Twin Peaks

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Thursday, 1 June 2023 16:53

What do you do, when you are walking 50 miles a week for work and buy yourself a long weekend off at the end of May? Climb two mountains back to back looking for rare spiders and walk nearly 35 miles in three days of course! But before we get to Snowdon (photo) and Cadair Idris though, I'll start with my first ever visit to the Great Orme...

Apologies, I seemed to have some water on my lens for a few photos here. It's amazing how dry everything is after such a wet spring. And the grassland here on the south side of the Orme is distinctly arid and Mediterranean-like. A huge thanks to Richard Gallon for being my guide and putting up with me for three days! The sward here is dominated by Hoary Rock-rose. I have only seen this once before in the Burren. We had three target spiders here and we got two of them. There were large patches of Nottingham Catchfly and Bloody Crane's-bill here too.

We found several Drassyllus praeficus (spider no. 519) under rocks in this area but it was incredibly dry here. It also did not take long to find the weevil known only from this area that feeds on rock-rose, Helianthemapion aciculare. Liocranum rupicola (520) took some more finding though, and it was pretty much under the last rock I could handle lifting. In fact, it was just the thought of having to come out at night after being up since 4.00 am  to find this spider that was keeping me going and then, there it was! It was only a small immature but under the same rock was also an Atypus affinis web, and another Drassyllus praeficus! What a rock.

And these freshly emerged Silver-studded Blues were quite something. And endemic subspecies too! We had also seen the endemic subspecies of Grayling earlier.

But the Thin White Duke had spotted a big spider in the mountains, so the next day we headed off to Cadair Idris.

Day 2. Richard and his colleague Thom Dallimore were working under contract surveying the inverts on the mountain, I was tagging along to see Pardosa trailli. A big old alpine wolfy.

I was worried by knee would play up, the last time I climbed a mountain in 2016, it really did on the way down but it held. The best thing I learned from Richard was that the good stuff happens over 750 m. And it did just that!

I spotted my first Pardosa trailli (521) myself, a smart looking male. But this dust covered male was the only decent shot I got of one. This means there is only one Pardosa I am yet to see in the UK.

Here is the female, quite a striking and well-marked spider with very long, tapering legs. I only had my phone for this one though.

We didn't get a huge number of other invertebrates, but I was pleased to see my first Carabus arvensis in 10 years! We did see some odd things up high though, most likely blown there. I found a female Tanyptera atrata, Rhagium bifasciatum and Thanatophilus rugosus all over 700 m!

Oh and Ctenicera cuprea were everywhere, something I have not seen for about 20 years as I do so little up north!

Alpine plants were limited on Cadair but this Stiff Sedge stuck out. Look at those glumes! That was about 12.4 miles to ascend to 880 m and we didn't get back until nearly 10.00 pm. What a day.

Day 3. Just me and Richard today. And about a 1000 other people. Who climbs Snowdon on a Bank Holiday Weekend?! We were heading to that dome on the horizon, about 1000 m, just shy of the top (which we proudly didn't go to). It's 13 years since I last went up here, and coincidentally my first ever blog was from here. How things have changed in that time. Lots more idiots with portable speakers and drones for a start. 

Such an amazing landscape. 

And plants that I have not seen for some 15 years were very welcome. Such as Mossy Saxifrage.

We fought our way past the hordes to the frost-shattered rocky landscape of the near summit and began flippin'. I got three alpine spiders, all being lifers. The first and probably my favourite of them all was this Oreonetides vaginatus. In this area we also found Agyneta gulosa and Piniphantes pincola. A massive thanks to Richard for getting me to 524 species of spider. Wheatears, Choughs and a male Ring Ouzel provided the soundtrack.

And now, we headed to see Snowdon Lilly, a species I have wanted to see for years. But before that. Some mountain plant madness. Dwarf Willow near the top.

Starry Saxifrage.

Mossy Campion.

Roseroot. Phwoar!!!

Green Spleenwort. A lifer for me.

No idea what this stuff is.

Meadow Saxifrage. Think this is my favourite of the three saxifrages featured here. 

And a real surprise, as I don't remember clocking it at the time. There are a lot of similar white plants on mountains. This looks good for Spring Sandwort. Another one I have seen but not for decades.

Two for one here with Common Butterwort and Alpine Meadow-rue. I have not seen many of these plants since I went up Glenn Feshie in 2004! Half a life time ago.

Beech Fern.

Two very odd looking bryophytes.

And a lichen very like a Cladonia but I think it must be something else.

It's been a while. I think this must be Dioecious Sedge.

Closer now. Only the second time I have seen Northern Rock-cress.

Then, there it was! The enigmatic Snowdon Lilly! What a beaty!

What an amazing trip, and a massive thanks to Breeze B&B in Llandudno for being such great hosts and a HUGE thanks to Richard for being such a great guide. We walked 15.6 miles that day, the most I have walked in years. And the day after another mountain, I was surprised how quickly I recovered (apart from some awful lurgy I picked up). Anyways, that leaves me one last spider on the way home...

Day 4. A quick nip in to a site to spot Rugathodes bellicosa. My 525th UK spider. I think that means, for the time being at least, I have seen more spiders than anyone else in the UK. But I would love to be proven wrong!

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