Monday 29 June 2020

Beetles - magical blustery tour

There was a bit of an ID mystery hanging over last week's beach and clifftop walk, the leaf beetle found in a buttercup flower. I thought it might be worthwhile going back for another look to see if I could find another one to help with the identification of the species. Our Lass was just keen to be out in the fresh air. And, by heck, was it fresh. Rather than a westerly, the wind was now more of an easterly, coming straight off the sea and gusting across the clifftops. Only the Fulmars seemed pleased with this arrangement, as they performed ludicrous aerial manoeuvres and hung in the blustery air, trying to score maximum points from the judges. Posers.

You will probably remember the route: a mile of sand and surf, a gentle climb to the clifftops, seabird colonies, moorland and a disused quarry.

A clump of Oysterplant

A feather trying to look inconspicuous amongst the Sea Sandwort

Oysterplant close-up
From the southern end of the beach, we walked through swathes of buttercups, but although they were teeming with hoverflies and this sawfly, there was nary a beetle to be seen.

By the shore, a family of Shelduck took to the water. These four ducklings are quite well-grown now and have lost their humbug stripes.

Because of the blustery wind, we were rather glad of any shelter the disused quarry could provide. One small corner in particular seemed to be in occasional sunshine and be sufficiently protected from the weather. And, inevitably, this was where all the insects were hanging out. 

A Five-banded Potter Wasp

Eyebright sp.

Eyebright close-up

One of two female Blue-tailed Damselflies

Common Blue butterfly being incognito

Common Blue butterfly

Blue-tailed Damsel and friend
Back out on the moor, the only caterpillars we could find were still those of the Emperor Moth, but these were of an even later instar, and were now sporting the more familiar green livery with black stripes and yellow spots.

And right at the end of the walk, as we climbed through the dunes to leave the beach, some Yarrow was just coming into flower. I had not previously looked this closely at a head of Yarrow, they are rather pretty.

Sunday 28 June 2020

All life is here

During the course of my wildlife blogging, I quite often, and rather blithely, refer to 'local gurus' and 'experts on social media' who help me out with identifying all manner of flora and fauna. Not wanting to give the impression that this is a facility exclusively for Old Tense, perhaps I should explain a bit more.

The UK has a long history of biological recording, think of all those 18th Century parson-naturalists like the Reverend Gilbert White, and these days there is a well-established network of county recorders for most lifeforms, from birds and mammals to fungi and slime moulds. The UK is divided up into Vice Counties, a system devised in 1852 by H C Watson. Most national recording schemes will have a vice county recorder to cover the area where you are. As well as individual schemes for the various groups of organisms, there are local biological record centres, and all these organisations feed into the National Biodiversity Network (recently split into four covering England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), and this in turn feeds into the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. All of this data is useful for monitoring populations, identifying trends and informing decisions about conservation. As an example, I am a recorder for dragonflies and damselflies in Orkney. I feed records into the local records centre (housed in the Library and Archive in Kirkwall) and also online into iRecord for the British Dragonfly Society (and hence onto the NBN). Each small record at local level is a vital piece in the larger global jigsaw.

Sadly, the whole system is not as joined up as it could be, with data flow not always guaranteed in both directions, which is why I send info in two directions, locally and nationally, just to ensure as much transparency as possible.

Orkney is Vice County 111 (which may explain why there's not much cricket played here), and the Orkney Field Club, effectively the local natural history society, has a network of experts covering as many taxa as possible. Many, but not all, of these experts are based locally, and willingly volunteer their time to educate and enthuse the rest of us. So if I have an ID conundrum, I know there's likely to be someone I can ask.

Orkney is a very community-spirited place (some would say too community-spirited i.e. nosy!), and this has translated into a whole host of dedicated pages and groups on Facebook, where folk can share information and generally help each other. Natural History is no exception. I regularly visit pages for birds, insects, spiders, cetaceans, wildflowers, fungi and, obviously, dragonflies. The latter is a site run by myself, so that folk can easily let me know of their sightings or ask me ID questions. I know social media comes in for a fair bit of criticism, some of it warranted, but there is also a beneficial side to it.

This morning I took the plunge and also joined the UK Hoverflies Facebook group, where I can post photographs of an unidentified species of hoverfly and someone will likely know what it is. If I include the date and a grid reference, the group admins will generate a record for the national database.

I guess what I am saying is that if you have a reasonable photograph of a critter or a flower, it should always be possible to have it identified. Maybe not to species, but likely to Genus.

Have a go at working out the Vice County number for where you live and then see if you can find a local recorder for the wildlife that is most important to you, whether it be birds, butterflies, bats or bryophytes. Perhaps then you could submit a record of a sighting and contribute to the global knowledge of life on Earth. There's more info on the Biological Record Centre page.

Saturday 27 June 2020

Flowers and wee beasties

We are very fortunate, Our Lass and I, to be locked down on an island. OK, we're a bit limited in immediate destinations during normal circumstances, the weather might be horrendous at times, and we miss visiting family, but... but when we do go to the coast, we really struggle to meet anyone else. Jings, the scenes on the news are simply mind-boggling.

A few days ago, I was invited to help Eagle-eyed M with a recce for a couple of clients who are hoping that travel restrictions will be lifted by August. It was a route that I haven't walked for several years, so I didn't need much persuading.

We met up in the car park for one of Orkney's many wee shoreside kirks and set off along the beach, a mile of golden sand and turquoise seas, edged with Sea Sandwort, Oysterplant and Sea Rocket. Sand Martins hawked across the vegetation, Red Admirals flitted from flower to flower and Shelducklings bobbed in the shallows with their parents. There were fewer than half a dozen other folk present, all at the car park end of the bay, and our passage was safely negotiated.

We clambered up a gentle slope which gradually wound its way up onto the clifftops further south. The path was rather overgrown due to lack of footfall, but it was neatly delineated by buttercups, a yellow line to guide us through the verdant undergrowth. As we climbed away from the beach and through different habitats, there were more and more wild flowers to appreciate.

Tufted Vetch


Soon, we experienced the sights and sounds of several seabird colonies, an aural and olfactory sensation which was kinder on the ear than the nose. Guillemot, Razorbill, Shag, Kittiwake and Fulmar were all busy raising the next generation. Great Skuas and Great Black-backed Gulls patrolled the cliffs, ever alert for an easy meal, and on the clifftop path we came across several eggshells robbed from the ledges below. 

The sunshine had now disappeared, which made the wind seem cooler, so we took the opportunity to shelter in a small quarry and have lunch. There were flowers aplenty here too, but also a clear pool with newts (I didn't know we had those in Orkney), leeches and Great Diving Beetles. At one end of this pool were a few patches of Broad-leaved Pondweed, and as several folk had seen damselflies here in recent years, I thought that they would be worth investigating.

Yup, several flower stalks were hosting recently-emerged damselflies, complete with their exuviae, the shed larval skins.

As the exuviae were all in the 'head down' position, I knew that these were Blue-tailed Damselflies, even though the new adults were still to fresh to have much colour. However, there was plenty of colour around and about.


Kidney Vetch
It began to rain, but we pressed on south for a while longer. M spotted some tiny black caterpillars, about 10mm long, feeding on Crowberry plants, which I photographed in case they could be identified later.

All along the route, there had been Meadow Pipits flitting all around us, adults busy feeding hungry young beaks, so by this point we were a bit blase about small brown speckled birds. However, one of them didn't look quite pipit-y as it flew off and, through our bins, we realised that it was a Crossbill. It too was feeding on Crowberry, and our original flummoxedness at its identity was in part due to the fact that it wasn't at the top of a pine tree!

With the wind and the rain, most insects were sheltering from the weather, and I was fortunate to spot this Red Admiral butterfly tucked away on a patch of bare earth in a small depression.

On the return trip, we popped into the quarry again to see how the emerging damsels were doing. With the cloud and cool temperatures, the answer was not much. However, I did find a few larvae, sat on pondweed leaves, presumably having converted to air-breathing after a year of an aquatic lifestyle.

M's sharp eyes spotted another recently-emerged adult and its exuvia at the water's edge, so I was able to take some close ups of both.

Heading north, M found more caterpillars, larger than the wee black ones. These were about 35mm long, strikingly marked and feeding on Meadowsweet.

Later, after a discussion with a local expert, we learnt that both caterpillars were different stages (instars) of Emperor Moth larvae, which will end up as a large green caterpillars with black hoops and yellow spots.

M pointed out some Yellow Vetchling which was just coming into flower and I noticed a small insect crawling across it. Looking closer, this turned out to be a potter wasp, a different species from the one I'd seen a week or so ago. As I took photographs of it, I realised that it was robbing nectar from the Vetchling through holes bitten in the base of the flowers. What we couldn't be sure of was whether the wasp had done this or it was merely taking advantage of holes made by bumblebees.

Just before we returned to the shore, I noticed a tiny beetle in a Buttercup flower. Again, I had no idea what it was, but I contacted the local beetle recorder later, who couldn't be absolutely sure from a photograph, but thought it likely to be a leaf beetle, Hydrothassa marginella. As there's few records for this species in Orkney, I may have to return to find it again!

The sun was shining once more as we made our way back along the beach. Several broods of tiny Eider chicks were braving the gently-breaking waves by the rocky shore and Oystercatchers kept a wary eye on our progress. In a foraging spirit, I was encouraged to try some Sea Rocket leaves, which in taste were... peapod-y... peapod-y... peap... !!!... MUSTARD!

Friday 26 June 2020

Lockdown parenting

The other morning, in a fit of lockdown boredom, I began cleaning the windows. Well, not the glass, that's just too humdrum. No, I launched into cleaning the frames and hinges of the opening ones. A word to the wise, I now know that there's lots of sufficiently sharp edges involved in this endeavour, if one is not paying enough attention to where one whizzes a damp cloth. My fingers and knuckles were covered in a myriad of small cuts, and I had to be careful not to leak all over the white window frames.

During the task, I kept hearing finches, yup, definitely finches, maybe even Linnets? My record on drab-looking finches isn't great, I admit. But by the time I had stepped off the ladder, or dried my hands, or most infuriatingly, managed to grab my camera, the birds had vanished from sight and sound. Gah!

Eventually, however (so dogged persistence, rather than excellent fieldcraft), I managed to spot the little loves as they flitted to and fro, sometimes perched on a fence, other times hidden in the long grass of the neighbouring pasture.

It was a male Linnet, looking about as resplendent as a brown bird with a rosy wash can, and three of a brood of fledglings. Hungry fledglings, at that. Crivens, the guy was run ragged, collecting food and sharing it out between his offspring. 

After a while, even I began to feel sorry for him!

Eventually, I let out a little supportive cheer of shared parenthood when he managed to have a few seconds' peace. He had earned it.

Thursday 25 June 2020

Stuff On My Phone (31)

Other blog series have taken more of a central role on Imperfect and Tense during the pandemic lockdown, but I haven't forgotten Stuff On My Phone.

Today's offering is a Bruce Hornsby and the Range track, The Way It Is, released in September 1986 and from the album of the same name.

Way back in the Autumn of 1986, Our Lass and I were living in Germany (well, West Germany, as it was then), and about to discover that we were going to be a family. So, what with one thing and another, music wasn't necessarily on my radar at the time.

I was aware of this song though, primarily for the piano solos (yes, plural, there's two), but as I wasn't an avid collector of singles, that's about as far as my interest went.

Fast forward to recent times, and the ability to download individual tracks, and the memory resurfaced just how much I enjoyed this tune. After adding it to the playlist on my phone, I listened to the words properly for the first time, which gave me a whole new reason to love the song. Bruce Hornsby was writing about wealth inequality, racial segregation and lack of civil rights, highlighting that things do not have to be that way, and yet, on recent evidence, we have actually gone backwards when perhaps we could've reasonably expected to have made much more progress on these societal issues.

A video of the band performing the song can be viewed here.

The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby

Standing in line, marking time
Waiting for the welfare dime
'Cause they can't buy a job
The man in the silk suit hurries by
As he catches the poor old ladies' eyes
Just for fun he says, "get a job"
That's just the way it is
Some things will never change
That's just the way it is
Ah, but don't you believe them
Said, hey little boy you can't go where the others go
'Cause you don't look like they do
Said, hey old man how can you stand
To think that way
Did you really think about it
Before you made the rules?
He said, "son
That's just the way it is
Some things will never change
That's just the way it is
Ah, but don't you believe them"
Oh yeah
well, they passed a law in '64
To give those who ain't got a little more
But it only goes so far
Because the law don't change another's mind
When all it sees at the hiring time
Is the line on the color bar, no, no
That's just the way it is
And some things will never change
That's just the way it is
That's just the way it is, it is, it is, it is

The song has since been covered and sampled by other musicians, most notably E-40, 2Pac and Undercover. Meantime, just enjoy the harmony of a piano's ebony and ivory keys.

Wednesday 24 June 2020

Cleared for take-off

Due to a combination of lockdown restrictions and poor weather, I hadn't seen much in the way of Odonata activity so far this flight season. That all changed on Midsummer's Day, perhaps rather appropriately, when Our Lass and I visited Russadale in the parish of Stenness, to explore the pools in an old quarry.

It is a gentle climb up the dale, with a burn occasionally visible in the valley bottom, heather on the higher ground and all manner of low growing shrubs and trees between path and burn.

Birdsong was much in evidence: Stonechat, Robin, Blackbird, Wren, Willow Warbler, Redpoll, Dunnock, Cuckoo, Raven and Sedge Warbler all calling.

Up at the quarry, the water level in the pools was quite low, a result of a dry Spring, but bees, butterflies, moths and loads of small flies were on the wing.

Our Lass and I got to work, scouring the vegetation in and around the pools for any signs of damselflies. Initially, this was quite a tough assignment, as with a bit of cloud cover, the insects were not at all keen to be airborne, favouring being hunkered down on plant stems. Here's an incredibly blurry photo, at maximum zoom of my little camera, showing four adult Blue-tailed Damselflies and an old larval skin (three damselflies and the skin on one stem, with a fourth damselfly off to the left by the skin).

Using our binoculars, we were able to find many larval skins (exuvia), showing that plenty of damselflies had emerged recently. Most of the exuvia were positioned head down, which is a diagnostic feature of Blue-tailed Damselflies. Virtually all of the exuvia were on this species of grass, at this height above the water.

As well as several dozen Blue-tails, there were also ten or so Large Red Damselflies. When the sun put in an appearance, all these insects livened up considerably, the Large Red males being particularly annoying to the Blue-tails as they searched for females to mate with.

A male Large Red Damselfly

An immature male Blue-tailed Damselfly

A female Blue-tailed Damselfly

Large Reds in tandem, a prelude to mating

Here, the Large Red is devouring a small fly it has caught

Large Reds ovipositing in tandem
Redpolls were flying overhead, but not close enough for a decent photo. Here's a bonny male, with his red cap and pink-flushed chest.

In the drier parts of the quarry, there were plenty of wild flowers blooming. This is possibly Heath Speedwell, but I have no idea of the identity of the spider.