Breaking News: Boy Backs Burgeoning Butterfly Benevolence, Lazy Lad Learns to Love Lepidoptera

Last week, accompanied by a small group of novice lepidopterists (me being very very novice!), I attended a ‘Butterfly Study Day’, hosted by Dave Warburton, Sutton’s senior biodiversity officer, in Carshalton.

comma2

Comma – Polygonum c-album

I’ll be honest, I have had a hard time finding butterflies massively interesting in the past, and found it frustrating out on task days when Dave had shouted out the name of some kind of winged beast, only for a blur of brown and wingbeats to flutter out of my field of vision before I could get a decent look.
This was the majority of my interactions with butterflies until recently. Whenever one was nicely perched on a leaf, it would flit off as soon as I got any closer. To be fair, I’m not known for my nimble grace and stealth. Something to work on, perhaps.

In the butterfly season this year though something changed. It could have been to do with Dave taking me under his wing (hah!) for a few butterfly transects at Roundshaw Downs, or a general want for more knowledge about the natural world but for the first time since childhood, butterflies piqued my interest. Fortunately for me, Dave had his yearly butterfly identification course already planned. Coincidence or divine intervention? Coincidence, of course. The Great Butterfly God (All hail his most venerable proboscis!) cares not for the trifling concerns of humans…

P1000073

Common Blue –  Polyommatus icarus

To kick off the course we all introduced ourselves and briefly mentioned how much we already knew about butterflies. It was a relief to know that we were all at pretty much the same level, so my own lepidopteral ignorance wasn’t going to stick out like a sore thumb. We knew a handful of the more common species, and wanted to learn more.

And learn more we did! Dave started with the basics, going through butterfly biology and ecology from life cycle to food plants to habitat types. A lot of this I already knew, but a few surprising facts came to light.
One that interested me was that there is no scientific distinction between butterflies and moths. There are many rules of thumb which for the most part ring true, but fall apart when scrutinised, like moths only flying at night (what about all those day flying moths?) and moths being fluffy/furry (see the Marbled White below and tell me you wouldn’t give it a little cuddle!).

Marble

Marbled whites – Melanargia galathea

The most reliable – but hard to see in the field – rule to differentiate a moth and a butterfly is the way the wings are coupled, allowing hind and fore wing to move as one. Moths have Frenulo-retinacular couplings, where a small hook or lobe on the hind wing is hooked to the forewing, whereas butterflies have Amplexiform coupling, where the wings overlap sufficiently so they don’t need this hook to move as one. Of course, there are still exceptions to the rule, there is a species of Skipper which is considered a butterfly and yet has a hooked wing.
I’m not going to lie, I don’t fancy pulling the wings off every butterfly I see, so for now I’ll live by ‘if it doesn’t look like anything in my guide book, it’s probably a moth’. It’s a fairly safe bet, too, as there are only 59 species of butterfly in the UK. There are around 2,500 moths. I’ll try and master our butterflies first methinks.

Before heading out on a field trip we had a run down of ID tips, including which Blues are actually brown, which Whites are actually pretty yellow and which species like ‘puddling’ – a somewhat euphemistic term for a practice of certain types of butterflies who seem to enjoy various bodily excretions… I won’t go into too much detail but suffice to say it made me a little less excited to see a Purple Emperor.

After a spot of lunch we headed out to Roundshaw Downs armed with nets and a ‘butterfly pavillion’ (that’s a big mesh cage to you and I, hardly the Ritz is it?) to test out our newly learned skills.  The final skill to master was the ancient and mystical martial art of butterfly catching. Initially, I was rubbish. While everyone else was rounding up Essex Skippers, Meadow Browns and Marbled Whites galore, I was flailing, running, swearing and sweating trying to catch the blighters. As I may have mentioned earlier, I’m not known for my grace.

P1000075

A slightly moody and beaten up Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus) at Sutton Ecology Centre

On bagging my first Ringlet, a really fresh and lively specimen, showing off the line of rings (it was far fresher than the more tattered bloke I found at the ecology centre, above), I felt that addictive, life-affirming pang of accomplishment. I was hooked!

We spent the next few hours in the meadows, scrapes, scrub islands and woodlands of roundshaw downs chasing butterflies of all shapes and sizes – releasing them all shortly after, of course. Fly free my pretties!

The number of species we caught in such a short time was astounding to be honest, and seeing them captured and up close is a surefire way to cement the IDs in our minds. For instance while the Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) has a flash of orange on the forewing, it can often look just… browny, rather like a Ringlet (Aphantophus hyperantus – above), depending on the light and how beaten up the poor little fellow is. Up close and personal, however, you can clearly see the lack of a ringlet’s rings, and the light brown to orange patch on the forewing.

Essex skipper

Essex Skipper – Thymelicus lineola

Then there’s the Small and Essex skippers, apparently often called ‘Smessex’ when on the wing because they are almost impossible to distinguish without looking incredibly closely at differences in the sex brands (small area of pheromone-laced scales on the wings) on the males, and a tiny blotch of black on the tip of the antennae of Essex Skippers. We decided that all of our skippers were of the Essex variety (Thymelicus lineola), bearing that jet black antennae tip.

We also caught Large and Small whites, Commas, Small Tortoiseshells, Green Veined Whites, and a host of moths – some of which were just as beautiful as the butterflies. We also had a few species just beyond our grasp, with Holly Blue and Speckled Woods fluttering around but evading capture.

All in all the Butterfly Study Day was a great success and a massively fun outing.

gatekeeper

Gatekeeper – Pyronia tithonus

I have been out almost every day since spotting and counting butterflies, and even managed to get some family and friends involved! On a walk the other day, my girlfriend wasn’t too pleased with my newfound lepidopteral knowitall-ism, me pointing out a new critter off in the bushes every few feet, stopping to note it down and take a picture. Yet like any burgeoning addiction, she was pointing them out quicker than my eyes could follow within ten minutes.

It was a slippery slope but I think I’ve found my new vice. All hail the Great Butterfly God!

For more information on butterfly identification and ecology, visit Butterfly Conservation
For more information on our upcoming study days and other events, visit our Events Page and book using the instructions on that page.

Thanks for reading!
-Adam

 

Advertisements

Newt Survey Log #4 – The final hurdle! Finally!

Common_Newt.jpg

Smooth Newt (Triturus vulgaris) – from Wikipedia

The week before last, joined by a third torch in the form of Mary, Sutton’s Biodiversity Education officer, we finally did the last of our 4 week set of newt surveys at the Sutton Ecology Center ponds.
Unfortunately bad weather had got in our way for the last few weeks and stopped us from undertaking the final survey sooner, meaning we didn’t quite cover the breeding season as accurately as we hoped!

Newt breeding season in the UK tends to start in March, continue through April and into May – but as we entered late May it seemed the newt’s body clocks were ticking, as there were far fewer numbers to be seen around the SEC ponds. Even with an extra pair of hands and eyes to help spot the little blighters!

We started with the small pond by the allotments, with a 3 torch strong beam only reaching disappointingly close to the surface of the murky water. We got a measly 4 newts (along with a common frog and a toad, to be fair), half as many as we found on our first survey. The pool was hardly brimming with newts. It was, however, absolutely teeming with mosquito larvae.
Something to look forward to on any shirts and shorts summer forays at the Ecology Center, I suppose. I certainly managed to get bitten a lot that night, by the weekend my hand was so swollen it looked like a comedy foam finger!

We moved on towards the two small ponds and the newt count was still conspicuously low. I saw nothing bar a few aquatic insects in the first of the two. There was a small movement somewhere in the depths which we counted as a questionable newt, but alas my eyes weren’t sharp enough to see it. I’ll take the others’ word for it, one newt is better than none!
The other of the small ponds also only had a single newt (at least this one stuck around to be seen), a common frog and a common toad. With nothing else to be seen we moved on to the smaller pond by the pond shed.

I was getting ready to be disappointed. This pond had been a hotbed of activity during the first few surveys, turning up a whopping 31 newts in the second. Given the low counts of the night, though, I was expecting a similarly low number. I was pleasantly surprised. Slightly better than the smaller ponds we had already visited, we got 10 newts, a toad and a frog.
This wasn’t the reason for my surprise though. Above the surface of the water, hanging from the reeds were two large, pulsing dragonflies moulting their larval skin. With flashes of bright green popping out of the brown exuviae (that’s the dead skin to you and I), they were most likely Southern Hawkers (Aeschna cyanea). I had seen exuviae still stuck to the vegetation in that pond in previous years but never seen the process happen in front of me. Seeing this moulting happening also means we know the identity of the monster dragonfly nymph we had seen stalking the depths of the pond!

Moving on to the main pond we were struck by how much the vegetation had grown in the preceding weeks, making newt spotting tough. Even despite the additional cover, I was a little dissapointed by the count, giving us only 30 smooth newts. This may sound quite a lot but given that we counted 42 on the second survey and a massive 75 on the third, I was a little let down. I suppose that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

The newts have evidently had their fun during the mating season and are moving on.
I’ll miss these regular nighttime visits to the ponds. I look forward to keeping an eye out for the delicately folded leaves of subaquatic vegetation where the females have laid their precious eggs, and then finding the larvae and efts later in the year.

Overall, I can safely say that we have a good, healthy population of smooth newts (Triturus vulgaris) at the Sutton Ecology Center. The Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus) didn’t turn up in our surveys. While this isn’t great news for the great crested newt, it probably is good news for our pond. Last year a possible Great Crested Newt larva was pulled from the main pond during a school pond dipping session. These rare newts are heavily protected, meaning that our normal methods of pond maintenance would have had to have stopped had we found evidence of Great Crested Newt breeding.

So good luck to all the new mummy and daddy newts from our ponds. They’re probably off finding foraging areas and places to hide in the surrounding woodland or further afield. Hopefully in the next few weeks we will be finding larvae and efts from successful eggs, another generation in the great circle of life!

 

Newt survey log #3

IMG_20170503_215311231

Intense brightness! Blind those newts! 

After a few shadowy, eye-strainy outings with sup-par lamps (detailed in my previous newt survey logs #1 and #2) we finally received our shiny new batteries – and they really did shine! With the extra firepower we were able to more thoroughly survey the ponds, enabling us to see deeper into the murky waters, more accurately gauge the sex of the newts and pick up sightings further from the perimeter.

Last week we picked up 42 newts in the main pond, which I had thought was a huge amount. With the great power of Edison in our mitts and the crystal clear waters of the pond we scored a whopping 75 smooth newts this time – being able to discern the presence or absence of the many of the male’s showy back crests. In all, we had 33 females and 20 males, and 22 androgynous ‘couldn’t tell’s.
Often while surveying a newt will be caught in the light and just float there, seemingly basking in the rays, giving us a fantastic view allowing us to accurately inspect it.
However, there are others that don’t want to be seen, so you’ll catch a glimpse of something darting off into the shadows in a telltale newty fashion, but not quite see it well enough to make a judgement. Such is the life of a newt-spotter.

The pond next to the pond shed was less busy than previous surveys, with only 6 each of definite males and females, and one which we weren’t sure of. However, there was some interest to be seen in the form of a few case caddis larvae crawling around the pond vegetation with their armoured stone shells.
There was also an enormous dragonfly nymph, which must have been a good two inches in length, stalking through the sub aquatic undergrowth. I am in no way qualified to identify dragonflies (Maybe I need to go on Dave’s Dragonfly and Damselfly study day on 5th August) , but looking online at body shape and length, I think it was probably a type of hawker (Aeschna sp.) as the large, thick, torpedo shaped nymph seems to match that species, and we have found hawker exuviae (discarded skin) clinging to the vegetation of that pond in the past.

With our lamps still blazing bright, we moved on to the two smaller ponds, hoping to illuminate the depths and find a plethora of newts, frogs and other beasties. Even with our most dazzling and penetrating lamps, we had fairly little visibility in these ponds as the water was very churned up and cloudy, so we only picked up 7 ‘unsexed’ newts between both ponds. Disappointing! It was unfortunately the same story for the small pond by the allotment, only turning up 4 newts – unable to accurately tell if they were male or female.

Tomorrow we return to the ecology center ponds for a further survey, with an extra torch and an extra pair of hands! Hopefully our added firepower will answer some mysteries surrounding the newts.

Can we more reliably tell the sex of the newts? Have the newts been getting jiggy with it? Have they moved from the smaller ponds to the main pond? (We have yet to see a terrestrial newt on our surveys) Will one of us finally fall in?- all this and more in the next exciting installment of…. Newt Survey Log!

Newt survey log #2

smooth_newt2

Common or Smooth newt (Triturus vulgaris) – pic taken from Froglife

Following up the first, dimly lit newt survey on the 18th April , we returned to the Ecology center ponds last week with newly bought batteries in tow that would hold their charge all night and dazzle and bamboozle any unwary amphibians!

…only we didn’t have the batteries, because they hadn’t arrived yet. Dang.

Unperturbed, we forged on with our intrepid expedition into the darkness, slightly unimpressive spotlights searching through the gloom. (If I’m honest, it was a perfectly pleasant and mild evening, but what’s the point in writing this stuff down if I can’t use a little poetic embellishment?)

We decided to start with the main pond this time, as we didn’t manage to thoroughly survey it last time due to the lamps flickering and dying. Even just as we started counting, we were aware that the newt’s crests were noticeably larger and more obvious than the previous week, growing as we get further into the breeding season. we planned to keep track of the number of males and females on our next outing.

It was good to return to the main pond with our lamps at full brightness this time, as we actually found a whopping 42 smooth newts (Triturus vulgaris) and a common toad (Bufo bufo) on our walk around the pond perimeter. With this many easily visible, there seems to be a large and healthy population in the pond, many flashing us with their orange tummies and conspicuous ridged crests as we slowly scanned over the water.

In regards to newts (and ridiculously fat leeches) per square meter, though, the smaller pool next to the pond shed took the cake. We found 20, nearly half as many again, in this small pool which can only be a tenth of the size of the main pond, if that. Perhaps this small pool is where the truly hip newts hang out. Sure, they’ll have to share their space with leeches, but they know they won’t be bothered by the lame old square newts of the main pond… or more likely, something about the botanical make up of the pond or adundance of food favours newt breeding. For instance they may use the leaves of the Brooklime (Veronica beccabunga) growing there to protect their eggs. I suppose that with further surveying and monitoring we can find out if this pool really is the hip hang out that I think it is.

Unfortunately, once again the lamps were flickering and failing us after this, and the smaller, shallower ponds seemed to have been more churned up by the small amount of rain earlier in the day. Despite that, a quick squizz at the various remaining ponds at the Ecology Center did turn up a few more newts wriggling into the cloud of silt before the torches completely died. (If the torches had tiny little torch hands I think they would have been holding a few rude fingers up at us. But torches don’t have hands, so it wasn’t really a problem in the end.)

Fortunately, we’re off out again tonight, and Alex assures me the lamps are fully charged, rearing to go with lovely fresh batteries that won’t leave a newt unseen!
Time will tell…

Newt survey log #1

smooth_newt

Common or Smooth newt (Triturus vulgaris) – pic taken from Froglife

Last night Alex and I braved the darkness to peer into the depths of the various pools and ponds around Sutton Ecology Center. Armed with some huge, ominous looking survey flashlights we strode into the mild evening,  hoping to find and blind (joking!) as many newts as possible. Any toads, frogs and other beasties would be a nice bonus.
After a larva was found last year, we were really looking to find Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus) – arguably the ‘point’ of undertaking these surveys.
The Great Crested Newt (referred to by those in the know as GCN)  is protected by law as it is under threat by, and has greatly declined due to, habitat destruction

We started, lamps blazing, in the small pond to the east of the allotments. Despite only being a meter or so square, and not having much by way of subaquatic vegetation, we found 9 or 10 smooth or common newts (Triturus vulgaris), apparently quite happy floating about in the otherwise seemingly barren pool.

Next up were the two small raised ponds to the south of the main pond. Strangely, in the first we found no newts at all, despite what looked like perfect conditions. A pair of common toads (Bufo bufo) were something to look at, at least, although lack of spawn or tadpoles suggested that they weren’t a breeding pair.  Hopefully our by now slightly dimmer mood lighting will have done something to encourage a bit of Bufo rumpy-pumpy.

The second small pond held a bit more life, with another common toad and 5 or so more common newts hiding in the shadows of the foliage. A damselfly larva also made an appearance, thrashing wildly through the water towards the lamp light (probably not the best idea when you’re in a pond full of potential predators). We left our damsel in distress to whatever grisly end may have befallen it…

Onto the main act of the show and our lamps were unfortunately already beginning to cough and splutter a bit. We started with the small pool by the pond shed and counted a bumper 16 common newts, some flashing their vibrant orange bellies as we scanned through the depths, the males showing off their wavy crests that they grow during the breeding season. We also spotted a couple of large freshwater leeches stretching themselves out of the water onto dry land – behaviour I was previously unaware of!

Unfortunately, by the time we got to the main pond, the torches were really suffering. We managed to spot another 10 or so smooth newts by the pond dipping platform before our lamps flickered and spluttered and died. Switching to a far less effective LED torch we managed to pick up a couple more ‘maybes’ on our way around the perimeter, but ultimately couldn’t properly survey the main pond.

Despite that disappointment, it was an interesting way to spend an evening, and something I can’t wait to repeat.  Assuming we can source some more reliable torches, stay tuned for a (hopefully more successful!) Newt Survey log #2 in the near future!

Thanks for reading,
Adam

Marvel at Mosses – a learning opportunity!

Marvel_mosses

Have you ever wondered about the carpet of spongy, wet greenery on the woodland floor, or strange, small cushions poking out of cracks in walls and pavements?

Called Bryophytes (incorporating Mosses, Liverworts and Hornworts), these tiny, insignificant looking plants can be easy to overlook and hard to identify, but their importance cannot be overstated – Bryophytes are the closest modern relatives of the pioneering ancestral plants that first escaped the sea and colonised land.

Their role in the environment remains highly important. Bryophytes are often the first plants to colonise recently disturbed land, allowing other plants to follow, and retain water, acting as mini-flood defences and also affording a supply of water to other organisms during dry spells.

If these wonderful plants sound interesting to you,  why not come along to a free beginner’s session perfect for budding bryophiles? 29th April, 10am-4pm at Stonecourt classroom in Carshalton.

An introduction to the marvellous world of mosses and liverworts.
The day will involve an indoor study session looking at the field characters and life cycles of these fascinating plants, followed by an outdoor session looking at the common species found in the local area. The tutor for the day will be bryologist, Peter Howarth.

To book, please visit: http://37.188.117.158/suttonecology/
For more information please click the google calendar button below, or visit our events page.