The Beast of Brighton

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Tuesday 29 September 2020 15:55

Zoropsis spinimana first turned up in Brighton as far back as 2014 but it's taken me until now to see one. A huge thanks to Ali Risby for connecting me with this absolutely huge and gorgeous spider. There is so much to look at! It's so much bigger than I thought it would be, rivalling a Dolomedes in size nearly, it's also REALLY fast. Given that this comes into houses, I can totally see it not being popular with some people, it was even making me jump when it would suddenly start running after a long period of sitting motionless. It's also good at climbing the sides of the tank it's in and is also known to be able to climb glass easily (thanks Gemma). That said, I would happily have these living in the house, so any moronic 'kill it with fire' comments are most unwelcome, I would rather have these in my house than muppets who come out with that sort of rubbish. It's a non-native that has spread rapidly through London over the last decade, but outside of London, Brighton seems to be the best place to see it. Here are some more shots of this BEAST of a spider.

You can read more about it on the BAS website here and the recording scheme page for it, is here.

I have mapped the current known locations of the spider in Brighton and Hove (the larger square is simply where the record's resolution was lower). It seems to have started off in an area just south of Seven Dials and that is probably your best chance of seeing it. This year it has been found in Kemtpown too, the records covering some 6 or 7 km, meaning that it could be anywhere in the city now! The most western record is likely one that was moved when a friend moved house, given that he also had it in his previous garden, this is too much of a coincidence. Now seems a good time to see the adults too, If you see it, please send me a photo and I'll add it to the records. That's 353 spiders for me in just under nine months in the UK. 

I've seen half of the UK's spiders this year, two months earlier than last year!

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Sunday 13 September 2020 16:38

It dawned on me yesterday that I had passed a milestone earlier this week, that last year I didn't reach until 22nd November, that's half of the UK's spiders in under 8.5 months. I am pretty chuffed with this considering what kind of year we have had and that I have not left Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and Kent. Oh and actually Wiltshire too, but just in the very south east corner. No, that's a lie, I also went to Bedfordshire earlier in the year! I think about 90% of this list has so far been work too, this year being easier than last year. 

Anyway, yesterday's addition to my list was also a county first! I suction sampled Cryptachaea blattea. I really wasn't expecting that yesterday but there it is. We found it by doing a survey of Mark Colvin's woodland in West Sussex and this was right next to his house. This is my 347th spider this year. With still over 3.5 months to play with, can I beat last year's 391 and can I keep my lead above Tylan? The former all depends on one thing, whether we have another lockdown or not. Before, I was working all during lockdown doing surveys but I wouldn't feel comfortable travelling for 'fun recording' if it starts again. Who knows about the latter. There's all to play for. I didn't lose interest from July to September like I did last year, that's the hardest window for spidering. It's all about to get very 'liny' though. I can't wait!

Also this week, I was surprised to find I was in Wiltshire. I thought I was in Hampshire, not realising that a chunk of the New Forest was in Wiltshire! I was less than 50 m from the border when I found this, while looking for saproxylic beetles. I beat this tiny spiderling of Hyptiotes paradoxus off a low oak branch in dense woodland. This is the third time I have seen this and never when I've been looking for it. This appears to be a new county record too. I also had Sibianor aurocinctus apparently new to Wiltshire.

Now, I might not have a two week trip to Staffs planned at Christmas but I am hoping to start targeting some more distant sites/spiders, I might go on a quick roadshow too. I do think 400 is definitely possible.

Large Conehead in Ashdown Forest!!!

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Friday 11 September 2020 18:51

How  exactly did I end up in a bog with a chap kneeling at my feet shouting "get your little man out" just as two strangers walked passed and gave us disapproving looks? Well first off, I should say he meant TinyRecorder. That 'he' was Ray Gabriel. Ray, Danni Sherwood and I met up to go spidering at one of my favourite spidering sites, Old Lodge. It was a slow and steady on the spider front but we had seen many of the site specialities by this point. Having introduced Ray to my little public engagement project earlier when we found a big Dolomedes, we moved on to another mire when I heard Ray shout "I've got something big! A cricket" or something like that. I thought to myself as I rushed over, it can't be ANOTHER Large Conehead can it? It only bloody was! It's only 19 days since I saw them at Dungeness on the day they were discovered, here I am on a Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve in the middle of the Ashdown Forest a long way from the coast! In fact the nearest Sussex coast is just under 20 miles away. Clearly, Ray realised that this was a 'TinyRecorder moment' but his choice of words was just hilarious. This isn't the first Sussex record though, as there has been one in a garden in Bexhill since the start of August.

If an en entomologist can encounter these twice in less than three weeks, then there are far more around than you perhaps realise. It's going to be common here very soon I think. They are big and obvious in the day and very noisy at night, so I would think you might have a chance at finding them anywhere in the county now. Absolutely incredible! So nice to see in daylight too though. Enjoy the photos! I thought their eyes were black bu they are really not.

Spiders new for the year were Floronia bucculenta and remarkably, Drapetisca socialis, putting me on 345 spiders for 2020. Here is Drapetisca. Common as muck this one but it's my first of the year. We recorded at least 51 species of spider today but this really did eclipsed for me by that huge cricket. So unexpected!

New for the site was Ozytpila sancturia swept by Danni and Cnephalocotes obscurus by myself. It's not easy to get a new spider for Old Lodge so nice one Danni! The site has now had 172 species of spider recorded on it. Also new for the site, and only the second ever Sussex record was the ground bug Lamproplax picea that I sieved from Sphagnum. The only other Sussex record was Flatropers in 1696! Over 50 years ago. What an awesome day! A big thanks to Danni and Ray for a really enjoyable day.

Looking after your mental health as an entomologist

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Wednesday 9 September 2020 08:36

Recently I had a great day in the field with Steve Gale, last time I met up with him was 6.5 years ago (you can read about that here). Things have really changed for me in the intervening time and it was great to spend a full day with Steve on one of my surveys, that happened to be near his house. It's that time of year where I am wrapping up my surveys for the year, it's always a relief to get to this point, especially after this year. Burn out is always a possibility by late summer but in recent years, I haven't really had it as much as I used to. I think I've started to figure out how to avoid it by 'balancing' my time spent in the field. That is, there are some events that can be considered 'yin' and some 'yang'. Some events with a narrow focus and little time to stop and think, some with a wider scope with more time to gain perspective. Now for many people, they balance out this sort of thing by doing something completely different in their lives but I live a life of natural history and in the summer months particularly, I don't want to do much else other than be out in nature. Everything else is for winter!

The problem is, learning to tell the difference. Learning to know when you've had too much of the former particularly. For an entomologist, much of your work falls into this category. That's not to say I don't find it mindful and enjoyable, the days fly by when I am working alone in the field, recording against the clock. I always do my inverts surveys using timed sessions where possible and this does come at a slight cost. I started to notice this last year at Ken Hill. During the bird surveys I was aware how content I was, while during the invert surveys, I wasn't aware at all, I was just recording inverts. If I had stopped to think, I would have actually found I was also quite content but the issue here is I didn't stop. From a vagus nerve point of view, this is really key. If you are doing this kind of exercise all the time, you are in pure survival mode. It's not sustainable. 

In the first three months of the year I hardly saw a person but from July, I have been making an effort to meet up with people on site. They come on my surveys and get some tuition and I get company and some more balance. The harsh contrast between the two halves of the year has been really telling and is ultimately the stimulus for writing this post.

So I have recently started trying to think about how to bring this balance into my natural history life. Now I have been lucky enough to have had a great therapist over the last ten years who has really helped me understand this stuff in quite a technical way.

Tasks that can stimulate survival mode, fight or flight or the sympathetic nervous system

Now I am absolutely NOT saying that these are BAD things. This is about balance.

  • Twitching. Having a target and the possibility of failure is exciting but too much of this can leave you feeling exhausted. You can't get much of a narrower focus than this, if you don't pull up to a twitch with your heart beating out of your chest, you are probably a psychopath.
  • Targeted recording. Going to a site to look for a specific species, say like an orchid or a rare invert. It doesn't have quite the stress of a twitch (as orchids tend to not fly away suddenly) but it still has a specific focus and a possibility of failure.
  • Too much time on your own, in your own head. The focus narrows again. But too much time with large groups of people also falls into this category for me. Much more than four people at once I often find really stressful these days, although I used to love it!
  • Too much time being the most experienced naturalist. If the flow of knowledge is only in one direction, this can also be exhausting.
  • Taking on too much but particularly the side effect of this, rushing. I hate rushing.
  • Wasted days indoors due to rubbish weather forecasts!
  • Dare I say it here. And pot calling kettle black. Too much time on social media! The natural history groups seem to have blossomed in the last five years but it can still suck the life out of you if you're on social media too much.

Tasks that stimulate the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system

  • Recording. Going to an area and just recording what you find without specific targets is extremely rewarding as the best things you find are a surprise and there is no chance of failure. 
  • Birding without too many targets. There is an irony here for me. I have recently started to get back into birding but the problem is, it really hurts my back. A gentle walk around a site where I am upright for an hour or two and my slipped disc will be in agony. A 30 min drive home though, and I'll be right as rain (?!). A day spent bending down all day to look through nets and suction samples and I will not get this. 
  • Spending time with people, but people who don't stress you out! I know the latter part of this might sound obvious but I don't always find it that easy to tell. It's much easier as a freelancer to be selective on who you spend time in the field with but it's also really easy to fall into the trap of being on your own all the time!
  • Spending time in the field with people who know more than you so you can absorb it. You know that feeling when you go on a course? You can drink up someone else's knowledge and this can feel very expansive. That's vagus nerve stimulation. Either that or the copious amount of horrible instant coffee I usually drink.
  • Taking the time to enjoy what you're doing. I hate rushing to site, so I would rather go to bed really early and have a long morning sorting out admin and having a big breakfast. There is nothing worse than the stress of feeling like you are running out of time. This is a big reason I don't get on with moth trapping and nocturnal work so well as it ruins the next day (or more) for me. I really don't know how people do night work.
  • Borderline weather. Always go for it, there is nothing worse than sitting indoors on a sunny day for no reason. 
  • When you  are properly rained off though, don't resist! There is NOTHING you can do about it. These unplanned days off from fieldwork are your best friend. Embrace them. Look out the window not in frustration but happy that you are dry and able to process some specimens/records/field notes etc.

If you follow the analogy of the yin yang philosophy, the whole is always stronger and more balanced when the two are mixed. So timed counts of invertebrates on a site with an old friend who you really enjoy the company of, balanced at the end of the day with a very short drive to find a rare beetle. I reckon that just about comes out as the perfect balance. I have recently started planning my time to think about this sort of thing a bit more and I have to say, it's really working. 

So last Sunday, Steve and I had a cracking day, some 166 field dets and a total of 200 species by the time I had processed the spiders, bees and flies etc. I nicked the above photo from Steve's blog, I am sure he won't mind. The only thing I got from the father I never met was a lot of hair, which seems to be taking over again, I only had it cut last October! You can read Steve's account of the field work here and also his account of the pan-species listing element here. I managed to help Steve out with 114 lifers! A jump of two places on the rankings and a place in the top 40. We got lots of nice records but I took very few photos. We headed down the road to see this rare beetle...

Steve found the first one. A massive baguette-sized weevil, Lixus iridis. We found a couple more in the same place but then something really interesting happened. Steve lost his glasses. Wearing glasses at home only, I could feel Steve's stress, I get stressed even though I know they're in the house when I lose them. I found my back started to get bad really quickly but in the 15 minutes or so that this happened, my ability to find Lixus went through the roof. I found four just like that. We were now both in survival mode and it wasn't looking good for a while. Then I spotted the glasses and everything was OK. I am glad we didn't give up. It really shows how much we are effected by what we are doing and learning to read your body is a great way to know what's stressing you out, what doesn't and how to manipulate the two to get the best outcomes for both your mental well being AND your functionality. To reiterate, I wouldn't find half of what I find without activating the fight or flight mode, it's not inherently bad. It just needs balancing.

Back when we could go to pubs, whenever I met up with friends in the summer in beer gardens, they would sometimes comment on how my eyes would be darting everywhere. It's because it takes a while to decompress out of that mind state, I was looking for danger/invertebrates. Saying that, it makes me realise that even though I don't really drink anymore, those sessions were a great way to decompress. Probably more so regarding just switching off for a while rather than the booze but that is something very much missing from 2020.

I digress. Additionally, I tried sweeping Nettle and Hedge Bindweed nearby and picked up a shield bug nymph I didn't recognise. This had to be the Striped Shieldbug Graphosoma italicum. I knew it was found here by Tristan Bantock but it really wasn't on my radar to see, so was a total surprise. Turns out it's most likely the first nymph recorded on the mainland. Not that it was a lifer, as I ticked this on Jersey a few year ago but it was probably the highlight of the day for me.

So if you live a life of natural history and like me, occasionally find yourself getting wound up for reasons that are not immediately obvious, it might be worth thinking about things in terms of the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems.

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