Dungeness Monsters

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Monday 24 August 2020 15:43

So, how DID I find myself staring at LARGE CONEHEADS at 10.30 pm at Dungeness last night? (this updated to include Dave Walker's amazing photo of the first animal we actually got a proper view of that he's kindly allowed me to use as you'll see my rubbish efforts below).

Rewind. I was meant to be in Wales this week but we had to reschedule due to awful weather. This meant I had a proper weekend off. Last week, chatting to Jake Everrit, I was reminded about the Sickle-bearing Bush-crickets etc at Dungeness, I had it in my mind to pop down but wasn't sure if and when. I had a great morning yesterday rock-pooling at Holywell (that's another story) and after a chilled out lunch, we said goodbye to Libby and Shaun Pryor and I headed to Dungeness to look for the new shieldbug that Dave Walker found last year...

After about an hour of searching I found two immatures, a dead one and then Shaun spotted an adult. Result! Geotomus petiti, indistinguishable externally from the rare Geotomus punctulatus. I love the demonic red eyes! Thanks to Dave and Tristan Bantock for the gen.

We had a few other nice things while searching, such as an immature Phlegra fasciata. And this lovely Grey Bush-cricket.

Shaun had to head off (we had been at it for nine hours by this stage and well done for him for spending that much time with me, something even I try to avoid!). However, it may have been the worst mistake of his life. I had a few hours to kill until dark and meeting up with Dave Walker to see the Sickle-bearers and Tree Crickets, so I did a bit of recording around the obs. I had barely started when Dave and Sam Perfect came over stating "we have a problem". Sam had photographed what he thought was Sickle-bearing Bush-cricket near the obs, in a new area, at about 1.00 pm (it was now about 6.30 pm), it was however a Large Conehead! We searched for an hour in the area he saw it but found nothing, we will come back to this spot after dark. I carried on poking around. Dungeness must be the only place where you can find Pellenes tripunctatus without looking for it.

This bug was a lifer for me. Ortholomus punctipennis. A really smart ground bug that I think was feeding here on Mouse-ear Hawkweed.

And then 8.00 pm came round and Dave took me out to look for the crickets. We had another look where the Large Conehead was spotted and nothing. It didn't take long before we were listening to thousands of Tree Crickets, a really magical sound! These are really odd looking crickets and hearing so many together was mind blowing. I heard the single animal on the edge of Brighton two years ago but didn't see it. This was an incredible experience.

Dave then carried on to the Sickle-bearing Bush-cricket area and soon found them. I didn't find a single one of the eight that we saw. A really leggy and long cricket that often reaches deep down into flower heads pushing the wings high up into the air or at a jaunty angle relative to the legs and/or line of the body.

This is a stunning cricket, really unlike any of our other crickets. Well, unless you count Large Conehead that is. I was convinced I could just about hear the Sickle-bearers but after listening to sound recordings I am not sure if that was what I was hearing. Here is a male with lots of Tree Crickets singing in the background.

Then ANOTHER orthopteroid lifer. Dave showed me several of the Ectobius montanus that he found new to Britain a few years ago and got to species earlier this year. A smart little cockroach, smaller than Tawny and Dusky but larger than Lesser. EDIT: Everything looks different in the light of a torch, I am pretty sure we got our wires crossed that night thanks to a comment on this post, I am pretty sure that all the roaches we saw that night were actually Lesser Cockroach Ectobius panzeri. I did think they were small, having saw some in daylight a few hours earlier, I should of looked more closely.

Wow, what a night! We were heading back to a new area that Sam had thought he had Sickle-bearings in earlier this week. He had an actinic out near there, and as we approached the trap, I did think it was odd that nearby was some kind of crackling battery, as mine is silent. It dawned on me that this was a cricket and nothing to do with the trap. As we rushed over it got even weirder. Imagine a really loud Roesel's Bush-cricket, at night, coming from scrub and you are nearly there. It was, however, so much louder and when I was close to this thing, it actually hurt my ears. The only other time I have experienced this was with cicadas in Oz. You can't hear it at all on my sound recordings though and Dave wasn't picking it up at all. It did a few little zips that Roesel's doesn't do too but was mostly just like Roesel's in terms of being just one long continuous note. I always think Roesel's sounds like a tattoo gun. This was more like a crackling pylon! It stopped and we couldn't locate it, then eventually, there was a big green cricket sitting on an upright stem, parallel to the stem and with a big pointy head. It was so hard to see in the scrub but we both got a definitive view but no photos, when I bungled an attempt to get it into a pot! Disaster! We walked a few more yards and I heard another, this time coming from utterly impenetrable bramble and while I was trying to record this, Dave found a female nearby in the grass!!! So that's two males, one female and the first one that Sam recorded. Four in all. Incredible. Here is my best shot but they all came out badly. LARGE CONEHEAD!

A massive thanks to Dave and Sam for the best evening of natural history of the year! It was so exciting, with just the right amount of dipping, followed by finding, to be a perfect roller coaster. And I was so fortuitous to be there that night for so many different reasons. I am definitely going to spend more time at Dunge. It's 19 years since I was a volunteer at the RSPB but this helped me remember just how much I love it there. I am going to become a friend of the Obs and start getting out there more often! 

2nd UK record for Sciocoris homalonotus at Chipstead Downs!

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Sunday 16 August 2020 11:32

This is the 2nd UK record for Sciocoris homalonotus, that I suction sampled from chalk-grassland at Chipstead Downs on 31st July 2020. That's the short version. Here's the long version.

To really get why it's took me 15 days to figure out that I had the closest you can get to a first for Britain without getting a first for Britain on the 31st July 2020, we really need to go back to this time last year for some background. I was researching the tachinid Gymnosoma nitens, the host of which is Sandrunner Sciocoris cursitans. It's amazing that there are more records for the fly in the North Downs on the NBN than there are the host! I guess it's a lot easier to see. Anyway, I noticed that there was a record for Sciocoris cursitans on the Sussex coast. It was from Gayles Farm by Andy Foster in 2014. A shieldbug I didn't know we had in Sussex. Given that Sciocoris sideritis had been recorded in 2018 in Essex, and given where this record was on the south coast, I thought it well worth Andy checking his specimen. He kindly did just that and it turned out to be just Sciocoris cursitans after all. I still believe this has colonised from the Continent though and not from the north. I went down and had a look last September but had no joy there.

Fast forward to summer 2020. I have been commissioned by Andy Keay to survey invertebrates of Chipstead Downs and (to a lesser extent) Banstead Woods in Surrey, on behalf of the local authority. On the 31st July, I completed my third visit and Laurie Jackson also came with me. I suction sampled what I assumed was Sciocoris cursitans from a steep, east facing patch of tightly grazed chalk-grassland with broken turf. I vaguely remember thinking it was large at the time but given that the North Downs is the known stronghold for this species, and that there is a dot on the map for Chisptead, I recklessly took some photos with TinyRecorder and published them as the Sandrunner! Will have to go back and edit that post after this! If you haven't discovered TinyRecorder yet, he's a miniature loser that started following me around at the start of lockdown (or is that the other way around?) https://www.facebook.com/TinyRecorder. This does hugely show the importance of taking specimens, even when you think you know what you've found!

That brings me to yesterday. Rained off from a survey on the Downs I had a slow morning and decided to go and look for Myrmarachne formicaria at the Crumbles. I also met up with my old friend Oli Froom and his son Thomas, I kid you not this 2.5 year old was able to identify Yellow Horned-poppy, Viper's-bugloss, evening primrose, Great Willowherb and Rosebay Willowherb on sight! To hear a toddler asking if he was going to see a Bee Orchid was magical! Anyway, I got a male Myrmarachne really quickly, then also found Neon pictus, Oonops pulcher, Malacoroeris nidicolens and best of all, a new site for Pseudeuophrys obseleta. This puts me on 334 spiders for the year. I said goodbye to Oli and soon after found a Sciocoris that I was convinced was something exciting. They were just so small, narrow, dark and variegated compared to the one that was fresh in my mind from Chipstead. There were lots of them too, in fact I found more dead ones than live ones, here is an example. After some confusing messaging back and forth to Tristan Bantock, it soon became clear that these were simply Sciocoris cursitans but I was left with that undeniable gut feeling that I had found something good. This is a new 10 km square for the site and only the second East Sussex record, not seen since 2014 either. So not too shabby.

Here is the specific habitat. Very brownfield and quite different to the chalk-grassland where the Chipstead specimen was collected.

So driving home, it started dawning on me. Maybe I have this all 'arse about tit'? Maybe these aren't small but my specimen from Chipstead was actually huge. The Sciocoris cursitans from the Crumbles were all about 4.8 mm. I rushed home and got the specimen out of vinegar and measured it, 7.9 mm! How did I miss this! Here they are side by side.

I messaged Tristan again with this photo and got back "!!!". I knew I was on to something at this point He emailed me a paper he co-authored and it slowly became clear that this was actually Sciocoris homalonotus. First recorded in Kent in 2016 by Harry Kenward on the 7th June. As Tristan told me, this is a big complicated genus in Europe. So we now have three species of Sciocoris in the UK! It's well worth looking through any you might find for the more interesting ones. Larger with pedunculate eyes being features of homalonotus. I have ordered 'Les Punaises Pentatomoidea de France' after getting in this pickle. So this is a new record for Surrey. There was me thinking I'd found something to close the gap on Surrey (East Sussex has the 4th highest species list, Surrey the 1st). 

A massive thanks to Tristan for putting up with my confusion and to Andy Keay for the work!

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