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Species of the month

Every month it is our aim to highlight a species that is “in-season” and, although not necessarily rare or difficult to identify, has been highlighted by our local recording groups as being somewhat under-recorded and for which new records would therefore be welcomed.

If you or your recording group are aware of species such as this then please contact Bob Foreman.
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October: Crataerina pallida - The Swift Flat Fly

Crataerina pallida on Swift - Darren E. Nicholls

Crataerina pallida on Swift
Photo: © Darren E. Nicholls, 2020

Crataerina pallida - Denise Wawman

Crataerina pallida
Photo: © Denise Wawman, 2021

Crataerina pallida emerging from puparia - Denise Wawman

Crataerina pallida emerging from puparia
Photo: © Denise Wawman, 2021

Crataerina pallida is one of a group of blood-sucking parasitic flies found on found on birds in the UK. Together with keds, flat flies (also known as louse flies) belong to the family of Diptera called the Hippoboscidae.

They are perfectly adapted to the role of parasites. They can move sideways like a crab to escape birds and have feet specially adapted to cling on. Their flattened body shape allows them to hide in feathers and to move close to the skin making it more difficult for a bird to remove them while preening. In the species which can fly, fast, silent flight allows them to approach a host undetected.

Flat flies can only survive for a few days away from their hosts and most feed daily, so they are rarely seen away from their hosts. Most bird ringers and people working in wildlife rehabilitation will be familiar with this group of flies, as they will often leave their hosts when these are handled. They are sometimes seen on walls under birds’ nests but are otherwise rarely encountered. Do they bite humans? No, although they have been forced to under extreme experimental conditions.

Flat flies have an unusual life cycle. The female fly doesn’t lay her eggs but raises one larva at a time inside her uterus, feeding it a secretion from a “milk gland”. When it is mature, she releases it and it immediately starts to pupate, falling off the bird, to metamorphose, emerge and find a new host.

Most Crataerina pallida are found on Swift nestlings, an ideal strategy any puparia will be deposited into the Swift’s nest and will be waiting, ready for the adult fly to emerge, when the Swifts return to their nest sites the following year.

In most cases they do not harm to their hosts, and even in heavily infested broods, the adult Swifts can compensate by increasing the amount that they feed their chicks if weather conditions are good.

Compared to other species of flies, flat flies are a long-lived species. Flat flies can live for three to six months. Death usually occurs either with the death of their host or because the host eats them. Those which narrowly escape often have damaged wings.

You are very unlikely to see this species in the UK at this time of year. Its main host, the Common Swift, has departed to Africa and although it has been recorded occasionally from Swallow, most these have also left the UK, but the shiny, round, black, puparia may be found in old Swift nests.

Other species of flat flies may be encountered in the UK at this time of year. Looking similar to Crataerina pallida, but with longer narrower wings, Stenepteryx hirundinis (also known as Crataerina hirundinis) is a parasite of House Martins and sometimes Swallows and Sand Martins. Flies of the genus Ornithomya may be seen as late in the year as December. The smaller flies in this genus are more complicated to identify, and currently DNA testing is helping to redefine the species, but currently the best guide to the UK species is that by Tony Hutson (Hutson, A. M. (1984) ‘Keds, Flat-flies and Bat-Flies: Diptera, Hippoboscidae and Nycteribiidae’, Handbooks for the Identification of British Insects, 10(7)).

Species records can be entered via iRecord, ideally with clear photographs showing the main ID features of the fly for verification, and a record of the host species in the comments section. In time, a new field for host species will be available if you navigate to iRecord from the recording scheme webpage, https://www.dipterists.org.uk/hippoboscidae-scheme/home. If you have a lot of records to enter, I can upload them from a spreadsheet. I can be contacted, with records or for help with identification, via the link on the recording scheme webpage.

Denise Wawman

 


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September: Harvest Mouse, Micromys minutus

Harvest Mouse Matt Binstead

Harvest Mouse
Photo:Matt Binstead

Harvest Mouse nest

Harvest Mouse nest
 

The Mammal Society’s
National Harvest Mouse Survey

What is the Harvest Mouse?

The Harvest Mouse (Micromys minutus) is Britain’s smallest rodent and is an iconic character in the countryside. Once they become an adult, harvest mice could live for 12 to 18 months, but many only survive a single winter through to the following breeding season. They weigh only 5-8g and can be very difficult to spot. Fortunately for wildlife enthusiasts and conservation organisations, they build characteristic above-ground nests which are used for shelter and breeding. The number of nests in an area could indicate the size of the local population although further studies are needed on this.

Why are we planning a National Survey Project?

Harvest mice occupy a wide range of habitats, mainly as the name suggests related to cereal crops. They can also be found in undisturbed grassland such as road verges, hedgerows, field margins and ditches. Favoured foraging and nesting in the summer takes place in tall grass or reed vegetation, moving to ground level as the winter approaches. The UK has undergone increasing industrialisation of farming, with harvests tending to occur more frequently throughout the year, different crop types being grown and the removal of boundary features. These changes to the habitat and habitat fragmentation have been associated with a decline in numbers, although good data on this is not yet available. However, numbers appear to fluctuate greatly both during a year and from year to year. Currently they are placed on the Red List of British Mammals as Near Threatened in Wales, Critically Endangered in Scotland, and Least Concern in England.

What are we planning to do?

Mammal Mapper App

Here at The Mammal Society, we consider the lack of information of this species as unacceptable, so we are taking matters into our own hands and calling on volunteers to help us. This Autumn (2021) will be the beginning of our National Harvest Mouse Survey! We will be asking volunteers, with guidance, to identify suitable survey sites (roughly 200m2 in area) and to spend time looking for nests in that site area. It is up to the volunteer how long they search for, but it is essential we receive information on the site location, survey date, duration of search, number of surveyors, predominant habitat of the site and the number of nests recorded. Additional data such as the name of the site and evidence of site management would also be useful for us to receive. Photographs of the site and nests would be particularly welcome. Previous studies did not take into account the effort volunteers put into surveying, nor did they account for the absence of nests. Therefore, it is very helpful to hear from you if you did not find any nests - the absence of nests is just as important data to us as the presence of a nest. To make the survey easier for volunteers and for our analysis, we recommend volunteers use the Mammal Mapper app - this records much of the information we need automatically and connects directly to our database. However, we recognise that some will want to stick with pencil and paper and therefore, we provide a printable recording sheet to download so you can still participate. ANYONE can take part in this project - we will be providing training material so you are fully prepared to join in with this exciting survey and we are happy to answer any questions that you might have - be it about the training, dates, app or identification.

What is in it for us?

The Mammal Society is a national charity that is dedicated to supporting populations of all mammals - large and small - in Great Britain. We rely on funding, donations and items that our volunteers and customers buy from us so we can perform our work. However, the harvest mouse survey is a wonderful opportunity for us to engage with volunteers from all over the country and we really do need your help to learn more about this iconic British mammal. You will also be contributing toward scientific research that will help inform local councils and national government on how land is managed to conserve this and other species. Who says you need a PhD to contribute to important research?

About and further information

The Mammal Society
If you are interested in becoming involved with the project, please visit The Mammal Society Website where you will find further information on who to contact, how to prepare, and what to do. We hope that you do take part in this national survey - every record or lack of one counts, so please do get involved!

Dan Bowen
surveys@themammalsociety.org

 


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August: Ashy Button, Acleris sparsana

Acleris sparsana - Photo: Tony Davis

Acleris sparsana
“Typical” form.
Photo: Tony Davis

Acleris sparsana - Photo: Derek Lee

Acleris sparsana
“Extreme” form.
Photo: Derek Lee

Distribution of Acleris sparsana in Sussex

Distribution of Acleris sparsana in Sussex
Source: SxBRC/Sussex Moth Group

Acleris sparsana ([Denis & Schiffermüller],1775) - Flight Times and Voltinism Re-examined

I began recording moths in our Bracklesham, West Sussex garden when we moved there in 2010. The garden is situated about 1 km from the coast in a rural setting surrounded by farmland and paddock with a good variety of mature trees and hedgerows.

I am fortunate to be able to run two Robinson-type 125W mercury vapour traps in the garden and do so whenever the weather is suitable and to date I have a garden list of just over 1000 lepidoptera species.

Amongst all of these species one which is of particular interest is the Tortricid Acleris sparsana.

The UK Moths website describes Acleris sparsana as follows:
‘Wingspan 18-22 mm. A variable species, sometimes with a distinctive triangular marking on the upperwing, but often with a greyish ground colour, obscurely marked with specks of darker and lighter.’ The photos above demonstrate the variability of the species.

In the literature the moth is generally described as being ‘single brooded, August to January, but has been found in February and March’.

For Sussex in particular Colin Pratt in his Complete History of the Butterflies and Moths of Sussex, 2011 remarked that reported sightings outside the flight period of September to January were likely to be erroneous. In his revised edition (2015) Pratt made reference to the change in circumstance brought about in particular by my Bracklesham sightings.

In Europe, reference to Razowski, 2002, this species is reported as being single brooded from August to April with a diapause during that period (10).

Over ten years have now elapsed since I began mothing here and as can be seen from Table 1 Acleris sparsana has continued to be recorded in my garden in two distinct appearances - the first from late June through to July or early August and the second from late August through to December. It can be seen that in the majority of years there is a gap of at least four weeks between the appearances.

Table 1: Acleris sparsana recorded at Clayton Lane Bracklesham - SZ808974 analysed by date of capture

Early emergenceLater emergence
Yearearliestlatestmaxtotalearliestlatestmaxtotal
201009-Jul01-Aug3417-Aug08-Nov416
201102-Jul03-Aug2528-Sep03-Dec234
201213-Jul01-Aug2606-Sep16-Nov522
201323-Jul14-Aug62321-Aug12-Dec335
201407-Jul11-Jul1227-Sep22-Nov425
2015Not recorded 0003-Sep13-Jan322
201617-Aug17-Aug1125-Sep26-Nov723
201703-Jul06-Aug2809-Sep26-Nov633
201824-Jun22-Jul82911-Sep05-Dec933
201929-Jun06-Aug63929-Sep28-Nov620
202023-Jun16-Aug43228-Sep22-Dec755

The table shows the maximum numbers recorded on a single night (“max”) together with the total individuals recorded in the year. I have over the years carried out genitalia determinations of a sample of the early emergence in order to satisfy myself that I was not mis-identifying another similar species.

With this in mind I decided to investigate whether my experience of this species was unique or whether it might be more widespread. To this end an initial database was obtained from the National Moth Recording Scheme. It quickly became clear that as yet the Scheme’s records are incomplete or missing for some Vice-counties and thanks to contributions from a number of sources I was able to add in records from several of those that were missing ending with a database of more than 9,000 dated records for analysis featuring a total of almost 14,000 individuals. The vast majority of the records are from the 21st century with 60% arising within the last decade.

The subsequent analysis of the data showed that nationally the vast majority of appearances occur within the “normal” published flight times.

There have however been a not insignificant number of records in June and July. Then additionally, looking specifically at the records for August I found that approximately one-third were dated in the first half of the month, again before the accepted flight period was due to begin. In fact adding together the records for June through to mid-August there are over 500 recorded instances or 4% of the total.

I then focused my research on to those case where for any particular site there might have been a regular instance of an early emergence equivalent to my experience at Bracklesham.

Here the evidence is much less telling although I did find a small number of sites which had reported a regular early emergence followed by a later emergence in the autumn - the RSPB reserve at Pagham Harbour in West Sussex only a few miles from my own reported similar behaviour from 2010 through to 2016 while sites in East Kent and South Hampshire had similar results.

The remaining records could be summarized as rather sporadic and isolated occurrences from a considerable number of sites throughout the UK.

Conclusions from this study can be drawn as follows:

  1. In general Acleris sparsana does follow the flight times as published - emerging in late August and flying though to December then re-emerging in the spring finally disappearing by May although it is very rarely recorded after March.
  2. There are exceptions to the flight time recorded throughout the UK with sporadic isolated reports of sightings from late June onwards and recorders should be aware of these exceptions to the accepted flight times.
  3. In the south of England there have been a few cases where two distinct emergences have become a more regular feature.

Please submit any records of Acleris sparsana (with photos) to iRecord or email them to bobforeman@sussexwt.org.uk with the full details (these will also be passed to the County Recorder for Moths and Butterflies, Colin Pratt).

Derek Lee

References:
Pratt C.R., (2011), Complete History of the Butterflies and Moths of Sussex, Volume 1. Self published.
Pratt C.R., (2015), Complete History of the Butterflies and Moths of Sussex, Volume 4. Self published.
Razowski J., (2002), Tortricidae of Europe. Vol. 1: Tortricinae and Chlidanotinae, Slamka

This article is an adaptation of an article by the author published in The Entomologist’s Record and Journal of Variation (available in Hard copy only)

 


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July: Monkey Orchid, Orchis simia

Monkey Orchid by Natasha Clark

Monkey Orchid Orchis simia in situ
Photo:Natasha Clark

Monkey Orchid by Natasha Clark

Orchis simia close-up of inflorescence
Photo:Natasha Clark

Monkey Orchid by Natasha Clark

Orchis simia basal rosette
Photo:Natasha Clark

Monkey Orchid Orchis simia is, without doubt, no ordinary “species of the month” (‘Botanical event of the century so far!’ In the words of Nevil Hutchinson from the Sussex Botanical Recording Society) as it really doesn’t in any way conform to the usual criteria for one of our species of the month; it is only just “in season” (whatever that means in this case), it is most definitely rare, fairly tricky to identify, and it can in no way be described as under-recorded in light of the fact that to the best of our knowledge, every specimen of this species in Sussex is known and recorded in meticulous detail. There is only one.

The SxBRC was first made aware of a rumour that the remarkable discovery of a single specimen of this O. simia had been made in late May and shortly afterwards this was confirmed by an email from the discoverer, Natasha Clark who very kindly passed to us the full details which we now hold (confidentially) in our database. In order that the presence of the species is not ignored by those that need to know, we also hold a copy of the record at tetrad (2km) resolution which is available to our reporting systems.

Natasha blogged about her discovery and we have reproduced the story of her amazing discovery in full:

Of Golden Cows and Pixie-Primates ~ the Discovery of the Loneliest Orchid in the Dukedom

This weekend I went to check on a local colony of Cowslips. However, I could never have imagined that my visit to my local bunch of this country favourite, whose alternative colloquial names aptly include; 'Keys of Heaven', and 'Bunch of Keys'; after the formation of their pale-yellow flowerheads, would also be the key to an even more significant discovery...

Each Spring, I look forward to welcoming the taller cousins of the humble Primrose nodding their dainty butter-yellow heads across a sunlight meadow. As their Latin name, Primula veris, translates, these ‘first roses of Spring', are harbingers of vernal joy. They favour the calcareous grasslands of my Sussex homeland, but, as with so many of our iconic native species, their numbers are in decline. A few are scattered here and there along the ancient hedgerows and woodland edges, but visions as they once appeared, in bobbing swathes cloaking the hillside, are few and far between.

Fortunately, I know a secret vale a walk away from my peaceful West Sussex homestead where Cowslips still mass in a glorious petalled herd. I trekked over to see them, more purposefully than on previous occasions as this year, the wild plant conservation charity, Plantlife is running a Cowslip survey to assess the status of this native flora so entwined with our rural folklore and traditions.

Once I reached my destination, which, for reasons which will soon become clear has to remain undisclosed, I gazed across a wonderful collection of shin-high blooms. The Cowslips were flowering in profusion. More than I had seen before and amid the green grass of the chalk hill meadow they formed an elliptical golden island.

Speckled hither and thither between them were blue and lilac spires of Bugle, the odd Oxslip, a few rogue Bluebells, leaf rosettes of Common Spotted-orchids and several stalks of Common Twayblades; an inconspicuous species of native Orchid called Neottia ovata who bear clusters of little lime-green men clinging to the central stem. To avoid disturbing them all, I remained at the periphery and began taking photographs and recording the differences in the numbers of male and female Cowslip flowers as per the survey's area of study.

I looked across the golden haze that emanated like sunshine from the Primula herd, and saw a lone pink figure holding its head aloft. Only marginally taller than the scores of Cowslips that surrounded it stood a solitary orchid. From a distance it looked like a malformed Common Spotted-orchid, only it was much too early. Curious, I edged deeper into the island, moving forwards for a closer look.

Stepping very carefully and checking each footfall before placing my boot down, to avoid inadvertently crushing emerging Twayblades or other precious flora, I gingerly made my way towards the solitary bloom. Once above it, I immediately saw it was not a Common Spotted-orchid. In fact, it was unlike any orchid I ever laid eyes on before.

I have encountered several rare species of native Orchid in my local environs; such as Bee, Frog, Lesser Butterfly and Fly orchids, and found Bee, Pyramidal, and Common Spotted in this very location. But, being restricted to species that occur in my surrounding habitats, and seldom travelling further afield where other species can be located, I found myself staring at an orchid I’d never encountered. Nor, in hindsight, dreamt I’d ever see. I must confess, I did not know exactly what species it was, or if it was a hybrid I was unaware of. Orchid aficionados would immediately have recognised the identity of this lone beauty, but I initially didn’t. I just sensed and knew in my bones, it was very special.

It looked like an enchanted fae rattle: A cluster of hooded pixies waving their pink-sleeved arms and dancing in the air on their skinny pink-socked legs. As with all orchids, it was uniquely beautiful and quirky.

The head carried a score of cerise-pink and white flowers. The upper petals were white, veined with pink and the central petals touched at the tips to form a hood. The lower lip was also white but freckled with pink spots and it was divided into five secondary lobes which formed the curly ‘limbs’. Each flower even had a tiny ‘tail’ dangling between the lobes’ legs.

Three silvery-green basal leaves clasped the foot of its stem and a further leaf tightly cradled the upper portion. It was aesthetically very pleasing on the eye, and the aroma test rewarded my olfactory senses with the warm sweet fragrance of vanilla mixed with candied violets. Oh, what was this intriguing inflorescence?

Orchidologists would instantly identify it as Orchis simia, but the uninitiated and layman would more likely come to know it; as I did after consulting my field guides when I returned home, by its common name, the aptly described, Monkey Orchid.

Orchis simia, aka the Monkey Orchid, is one of the UK’s rarest native orchids. Classified as an Amber species, it is regarded as vulnerable and near-threatened. Named after the flower’s loose resemblance to dancing monkeys, the scientific specific epithet, ‘simia’, comes from the Latin name Carl Linnaeus gave to the primate genus.

It has only been recorded in three locations; one site in Oxfordshire, and two in Kent. It has never been recorded in Sussex. Thus, my discovery of this lone specimen is a first record for the county and a very significant find. It is, without doubt, the rarest plant I have met and potentially the most important record I will ever categorise.

Historically, there is a fascinating mystery about Monkey Orchids in Sussex. In his book, the “Flora of Sussex”, written in 1937, Anthony Hurt Wolley-Dod includes an entry for Monkey Orchids which reads “Petworth 1801”. This raised questions, as Petworth, which is only a few miles away, was deemed as not having a suitable habitat to support Orchis simia. Subsequently, research conducted to verify the account unearthed that the material used as a reference for the record was inaccurate. The drawing cited in the reference for the 1801 sighting was of Orchis simia, however, upon inspection, the inscription read;

“O. longicruris link. Mr Sokot from Petworth, Sussex, 4th June 1801”.

The inscription referred to Mr Thomas Sockett (later Reverend Sockett) who did indeed come from Petworth, but it was felt it was extremely unlikely that either Orchis simia or Orchis longicuris (the Naked Man/Italian Orchid) ever did, so the account has been disregarded as an error. That West Sussex record is therefore classed as erroneous and as it has never been recorded in East Sussex, it is believed never to have existed in the County of Sussex.

Until now.

In a small way, my find is of historical importance to the biodiversity of Sussex, and this time, there is, hopefully, no error.

Like many native Orchids, the Monkey Orchid is very particular and specialised. It flowers in late May and early June, favouring grassland, scrub and open woodland, mainly on limestone soils. It prefers south-facing slopes with full sun to mid-shade and does best on well-drained calcareous ground. It is a shortish species, growing between 15-30cm tall, but is often nearer the lower end of the height scale. It usually has 4-6 pale greenish-white basal leaves with several smaller leaves clasping the upper portion of the stem. At the top of the stem is a clustered inflorescence carrying between 15-55 flowers, which, contrary to most other orchid species open from the top downwards.

The upper petals and sepals are white, veined with deep pink and form a hood over the lip of the flower. The lip is three-lobed, white and marked with pink dots. The lip further splits into secondary lobes which are curly and protrude, therefore forming the ‘limbs of the monkey'.

As with many other Orchid species, the Monkey Orchid hybridises with other native species including the Military Orchid. Hybrids with Lady Orchids are seen in Oxfordshire at Hartslock Nature Reserve. They first appeared there in 2006 and the population is swelling considerably as their numbers multiply.

Whether in fact, there were Orchis simia in Sussex 200 years ago as the 1937 account for 1801 implied, and whether my pixie-sized floral primate is a descendant from another long-standing, but previously undetected ‘troop’ of Monkey Orchids, one will never know. But it is an intriguing thought.

Alternatively, perhaps it is a new arrival attempting to forge a new colony? One cannot be certain on either matter. What I do know, is that I have walked and explored this hidden vale for almost 20 years and never happened upon them before.

But, on the other hand, I have also discovered several other rare ancient undisturbed meadowland plants in the same location; such as the minute Adder’s Tongues fern, so the habitat is conducive and it is entirely possible that a colony once thrived here but due to the nature of the location, they have remained secret for many a time.

Its discovery certainly does beg the question, are there more Monkeys in Sussex we do not know about?

What is also certain, is that, at present, it is the only one in this location. I scoured the entire site hoping to find another, but alas not. My beautiful pixie-primate is a solitary monkey. The only one of its kind, and thus, is perhaps, the loneliest Orchid in the Dukedom.

Natasha Clark, May 2021

While we don’t expect you to find any more specimens of Orchis simia on your forays into the Sussex countryside this story really does go to show what’s still out there waiting to be recorded. The most important thing is to make sure that you get your records into iRecord but if what you are recording is particularly sensitive and you wish to “blur” the details please email bobforeman@sussexwt.org.uk with the full details.

 


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June: Monkey Orchid, Orchis simia

Monkey Orchid by Natasha Clark

Monkey Orchid Orchis simia in situ
Photo:Natasha Clark

Monkey Orchid by Natasha Clark

Orchis simia close-up of inflorescence
Photo:Natasha Clark

Monkey Orchid by Natasha Clar

Orchis simia basal rosette
Photo:Natasha Clark

Monkey Orchid Orchis simia is, without doubt, no ordinary “species of the month” (‘Botanical event of the century so far!’ In the words of Nevil Hutchinson from the Sussex Botanical Recording Society) as it really doesn’t in any way conform to the usual criteria for one of our species of the month; it is only just “in season” (whatever that means in this case), it is most definitely rare, fairly tricky to identify, and it can in no way be described as under-recorded in light of the fact that to the best of our knowledge, every specimen of this species in Sussex is known and recorded in meticulous detail. There is only one.

The SxBRC was first made aware of a rumour that the remarkable discovery of a single specimen of this O. simia had been made in late May and shortly afterwards this was confirmed by an email from the discoverer, Natasha Clark who very kindly passed to us the full details which we now hold (confidentially) in our database. In order that the presence of the species is not ignored by those that need to know, we also hold a copy of the record at tetrad (2km) resolution which is available to our reporting systems.

Natasha blogged about her discovery and we have reproduced the story of her amazing discovery in full:

Of Golden Cows and Pixie-Primates ~ the Discovery of the Loneliest Orchid in the Dukedom

This weekend I went to check on a local colony of Cowslips. However, I could never have imagined that my visit to my local bunch of this country favourite, whose alternative colloquial names aptly include; 'Keys of Heaven', and 'Bunch of Keys'; after the formation of their pale-yellow flowerheads, would also be the key to an even more significant discovery...

Each Spring, I look forward to welcoming the taller cousins of the humble Primrose nodding their dainty butter-yellow heads across a sunlight meadow. As their Latin name, Primula veris, translates, these ‘first roses of Spring', are harbingers of vernal joy. They favour the calcareous grasslands of my Sussex homeland, but, as with so many of our iconic native species, their numbers are in decline. A few are scattered here and there along the ancient hedgerows and woodland edges, but visions as they once appeared, in bobbing swathes cloaking the hillside, are few and far between.

Fortunately, I know a secret vale a walk away from my peaceful West Sussex homestead where Cowslips still mass in a glorious petalled herd. I trekked over to see them, more purposefully than on previous occasions as this year, the wild plant conservation charity, Plantlife is running a Cowslip survey to assess the status of this native flora so entwined with our rural folklore and traditions.

Once I reached my destination, which, for reasons which will soon become clear has to remain undisclosed, I gazed across a wonderful collection of shin-high blooms. The Cowslips were flowering in profusion. More than I had seen before and amid the green grass of the chalk hill meadow they formed an elliptical golden island.

Speckled hither and thither between them were blue and lilac spires of Bugle, the odd Oxslip, a few rogue Bluebells, leaf rosettes of Common Spotted-orchids and several stalks of Common Twayblades; an inconspicuous species of native Orchid called Neottia ovata who bear clusters of little lime-green men clinging to the central stem. To avoid disturbing them all, I remained at the periphery and began taking photographs and recording the differences in the numbers of male and female Cowslip flowers as per the survey's area of study.

I looked across the golden haze that emanated like sunshine from the Primula herd, and saw a lone pink figure holding its head aloft. Only marginally taller than the scores of Cowslips that surrounded it stood a solitary orchid. From a distance it looked like a malformed Common Spotted-orchid, only it was much too early. Curious, I edged deeper into the island, moving forwards for a closer look.

Stepping very carefully and checking each footfall before placing my boot down, to avoid inadvertently crushing emerging Twayblades or other precious flora, I gingerly made my way towards the solitary bloom. Once above it, I immediately saw it was not a Common Spotted-orchid. In fact, it was unlike any orchid I ever laid eyes on before.

I have encountered several rare species of native Orchid in my local environs; such as Bee, Frog, Lesser Butterfly and Fly orchids, and found Bee, Pyramidal, and Common Spotted in this very location. But, being restricted to species that occur in my surrounding habitats, and seldom travelling further afield where other species can be located, I found myself staring at an orchid I’d never encountered. Nor, in hindsight, dreamt I’d ever see. I must confess, I did not know exactly what species it was, or if it was a hybrid I was unaware of. Orchid aficionados would immediately have recognised the identity of this lone beauty, but I initially didn’t. I just sensed and knew in my bones, it was very special.

It looked like an enchanted fae rattle: A cluster of hooded pixies waving their pink-sleeved arms and dancing in the air on their skinny pink-socked legs. As with all orchids, it was uniquely beautiful and quirky.

The head carried a score of cerise-pink and white flowers. The upper petals were white, veined with pink and the central petals touched at the tips to form a hood. The lower lip was also white but freckled with pink spots and it was divided into five secondary lobes which formed the curly ‘limbs’. Each flower even had a tiny ‘tail’ dangling between the lobes’ legs.

Three silvery-green basal leaves clasped the foot of its stem and a further leaf tightly cradled the upper portion. It was aesthetically very pleasing on the eye, and the aroma test rewarded my olfactory senses with the warm sweet fragrance of vanilla mixed with candied violets. Oh, what was this intriguing inflorescence?

Orchidologists would instantly identify it as Orchis simia, but the uninitiated and layman would more likely come to know it; as I did after consulting my field guides when I returned home, by its common name, the aptly described, Monkey Orchid.

Orchis simia, aka the Monkey Orchid, is one of the UK’s rarest native orchids. Classified as an Amber species, it is regarded as vulnerable and near-threatened. Named after the flower’s loose resemblance to dancing monkeys, the scientific specific epithet, ‘simia’, comes from the Latin name Carl Linnaeus gave to the primate genus.

It has only been recorded in three locations; one site in Oxfordshire, and two in Kent. It has never been recorded in Sussex. Thus, my discovery of this lone specimen is a first record for the county and a very significant find. It is, without doubt, the rarest plant I have met and potentially the most important record I will ever categorise.

Historically, there is a fascinating mystery about Monkey Orchids in Sussex. In his book, the “Flora of Sussex”, written in 1937, Anthony Hurt Wolley-Dod includes an entry for Monkey Orchids which reads “Petworth 1801”. This raised questions, as Petworth, which is only a few miles away, was deemed as not having a suitable habitat to support Orchis simia. Subsequently, research conducted to verify the account unearthed that the material used as a reference for the record was inaccurate. The drawing cited in the reference for the 1801 sighting was of Orchis simia, however, upon inspection, the inscription read;

“O. longicruris link. Mr Sokot from Petworth, Sussex, 4th June 1801”.

The inscription referred to Mr Thomas Sockett (later Reverend Sockett) who did indeed come from Petworth, but it was felt it was extremely unlikely that either Orchis simia or Orchis longicuris (the Naked Man/Italian Orchid) ever did, so the account has been disregarded as an error. That West Sussex record is therefore classed as erroneous and as it has never been recorded in East Sussex, it is believed never to have existed in the County of Sussex.

Until now.

In a small way, my find is of historical importance to the biodiversity of Sussex, and this time, there is, hopefully, no error.

Like many native Orchids, the Monkey Orchid is very particular and specialised. It flowers in late May and early June, favouring grassland, scrub and open woodland, mainly on limestone soils. It prefers south-facing slopes with full sun to mid-shade and does best on well-drained calcareous ground. It is a shortish species, growing between 15-30cm tall, but is often nearer the lower end of the height scale. It usually has 4-6 pale greenish-white basal leaves with several smaller leaves clasping the upper portion of the stem. At the top of the stem is a clustered inflorescence carrying between 15-55 flowers, which, contrary to most other orchid species open from the top downwards.

The upper petals and sepals are white, veined with deep pink and form a hood over the lip of the flower. The lip is three-lobed, white and marked with pink dots. The lip further splits into secondary lobes which are curly and protrude, therefore forming the ‘limbs of the monkey'.

As with many other Orchid species, the Monkey Orchid hybridises with other native species including the Military Orchid. Hybrids with Lady Orchids are seen in Oxfordshire at Hartslock Nature Reserve. They first appeared there in 2006 and the population is swelling considerably as their numbers multiply.

Whether in fact, there were Orchis simia in Sussex 200 years ago as the 1937 account for 1801 implied, and whether my pixie-sized floral primate is a descendant from another long-standing, but previously undetected ‘troop’ of Monkey Orchids, one will never know. But it is an intriguing thought.

Alternatively, perhaps it is a new arrival attempting to forge a new colony? One cannot be certain on either matter. What I do know, is that I have walked and explored this hidden vale for almost 20 years and never happened upon them before.

But, on the other hand, I have also discovered several other rare ancient undisturbed meadowland plants in the same location; such as the minute Adder’s Tongues fern, so the habitat is conducive and it is entirely possible that a colony once thrived here but due to the nature of the location, they have remained secret for many a time.

Its discovery certainly does beg the question, are there more Monkeys in Sussex we do not know about?

What is also certain, is that, at present, it is the only one in this location. I scoured the entire site hoping to find another, but alas not. My beautiful pixie-primate is a solitary monkey. The only one of its kind, and thus, is perhaps, the loneliest Orchid in the Dukedom.

Natasha Clark, May 2021

While we don’t expect you to find any more specimens of Orchis simia on your forays into the Sussex countryside this story really does go to show what’s still out there waiting to be recorded. The most important thing is to make sure that you get your records into iRecord but if what you are recording is particularly sensitive and you wish to “blur” the details please email bobforeman@sussexwt.org.uk with the full details.

 


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May: Fringe-horned Mason Bee Osmia pilicornis

Osmia pilicornis Map

Map showing the locations of the few records of Osmia pilicornis that are in the SxBRC database

Osmia pilicornis habitat - Neil Hulme

Potential Osmia pilicornis habitat - a rotationally coppiced scallop with an abundance of Bugle in the foreground
Photo: Neil Hulme

Male Osmia pilicornis Photo-Rosie Bleet

Male Osmia pilicornis
Photo: Rosie Bleet

Female Osmia pilicornis Photo-Rosie Bleet

Female Osmia pilicornis on Ajuga reptans
Photo: Rosie Bleet

May is the peak of the flight-season for Pearl-bordered Fritillary Boloria euphrosyne, one of Sussex’s rarest butterflies (see: Species of the Month, May 2019). In Sussex, this butterfly inhabits a small number of actively managed coppiced ancient woodlands and this is one of the habitats in which Fringe-horned Mason Bee Osmia pilicornis may also be found, it is also known to use areas of newly clearfelled woodland. Because of its requirement for these early successional woodland habitats, O. pilicornis is, like the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, a declining and threatened species.

Rare in Sussex, O. pilicornis has only been recorded 50 times in the two counties and only nine times this century, the most recent record being from 2017.

Osmia pilicornis adults fly in a single brood from April through to the end of June and can be found visiting a number of springtime woodland flowers such as Ground-ivy Glechoma hederacea and violets Viola spp. but most frequently it is to be seen on Bugle Ajuga reptans. The bee makes its nest in existing holes in fallen or standing deadwood such as coppice stools, fallen branches or tree-stumps. The females construct cells within the burrows from chewed-up pieces of leaf. Once constructed, the cell is provisioned with nectar and pollen and a single egg is laid. When the larva hatches it consumes these supplies and overwinters as an adult within the cell.

The adult bee is about 8mm long and the females are characterised by the thick reddish hairs on the back of their thorax and the first part of the abdomen, underneath and on the face the hairs are black. A key distinction is the presence of hooked black bristles on their moth parts which are used for collecting pollen from the anthers of the tubular flowers that they visit. The males are less distinctive than the females and are paler greyish or silvery in colour but can be distinguished from the similar males of the closely related Red-tailed Mason Bee O. bicolor by the long hairs on the trailing edge of the antennae. There are 13 Osmia species in the UK, eight of which have been recorded in Sussex and despite the subtlety of the characteristics that distinguish this species from other Osmia species it is possible to identify it in the field using a good hand-lens.

There has been a significant amount of work undertaken in Sussex in recent years to restore habitats suitable for Pearl-bordered Fritillary and so it would be very welcome to find that this bee is benefitting from this work too. Please send the details of any sightings either directly to bobforeman@sussexwt.org.uk at the SxBRC or enter them on iRecord.

References
BWARS website
Falk, S. 2015. Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland. Bloomsbury

 


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April: Lesser Whitethroat Curruca curruca

Lesser Whitethroat - Photo: Gary Faulkner

Lesser Whitethroat, Pulborough Brooks, 28 April 2019.
Photo: Gary Faulkner

blythi Lesser Whitethroat - Photo: Laurence Pitcher

blythi’ Lesser Whitethroat, Birling Gap, 28 October 2019.
Photo: Laurence Pitcher

Lesser Whitethroat map

Lesser Whitethroat,
Sussex Bird Atlas, 2008-11

The Lesser Whitethroat is a summer visitor to Sussex, but is easily overlooked, so unless you are a keen birdwatcher, you may not have seen one. It is smaller, scarcer and less obtrusive than the Common Whitethroat Curruca communis. One reason why it is harder to see in Sussex is that it prefers tall hedgerows and scrub within farmland, a much less widespread habitat than the low farm hedges preferred by Common Whitethroats. Indeed, the 2008-11 breeding distribution atlas for Sussex shows large gaps in the Lesser Whitethroat’s range.

The species is rather plain in colour, lacking the rich rusty-brown in the wing of the Common Whitethroat, another reason why they are easy to miss. The sexes look the same: earth-brown above with a grey head sharply set off from the white throat and greyish-white underparts. Some individuals have pale ‘spectacles’. The males tend to sing from within cover, so will often be overlooked unless the observer is familiar with the quite loud, but repetitive rattle, which is preceded by a short quieter and scratchy warble. Because of these behavioural, plumage and habitat traits, the species is probably under-recorded in our county. During local walks in the spring 2020 lockdown, I found singing males at a new site less than two miles from my home in Haywards Heath, where I had never suspected their presence. The local farmer had carefully managed the hedges so that they were unusually tall and vigorous, which made all the difference.

Compared to other warblers that are summer visitors to Britain, Lesser Whitethroats have a very different migration route. They arrive here in April having flown from north-east Africa and by August the return migration is underway, the birds heading back south-east, not taking the more southerly route to Africa adopted by other warbler species.

Occasionally, a Lesser Whitethroat will appear very late in the autumn in Sussex, or even take up residence in a garden in winter. It is probable that these individuals are vagrants of one of the eastern races that breed in Siberia and usually winter in South Asia. Indeed, two birds of the Siberian race ‘blythi’ have been detected using DNA analysis, one at Pett Level on 8th November 2018 and another at Birling Gap between 27th October and 6th November 2019. Such eastern birds are very hard and sometimes impossible to identify in the field.

If you put fat and sunflowers hearts in your garden next autumn and winter to attract wintering Blackcaps Sylvia atricapilla, keep and eye out for one of these rarer warblers. Ahead of that, listen to a recording of the Lesser Whitethroat’s song, easily found online, for example at https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Sylvia-curruca and search this spring for this hard to see but characterful little bird, making sure that the habitat looks suitable.

Mark Mallalieu
mallalieum@gmail.com

 


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March: Lesser Whitethroat Curruca curruca

Lesser Whitethroat - Photo: Gary Faulkner

Lesser Whitethroat, Pulborough Brooks, 28 April 2019.
Photo: Gary Faulkner

blythi Lesser Whitethroat - Photo: Laurence Pitcher

‘blythi’ Lesser Whitethroat, Birling Gap, 28 October 2019.
Photo: Laurence Pitcher

Lesser Whitethroat map

Lesser Whitethroat, Sussex Bird Atlas, 2008-11

The Lesser Whitethroat is a summer visitor to Sussex, but is easily overlooked, so unless you are a keen birdwatcher, you may not have seen one. It is smaller, scarcer and less obtrusive than the Common Whitethroat Curruca communis. One reason why it is harder to see in Sussex is that it prefers tall hedgerows and scrub within farmland, a much less widespread habitat than the low farm hedges preferred by Common Whitethroats. Indeed, the 2008-11 breeding distribution atlas for Sussex shows large gaps in the Lesser Whitethroat’s range.

The species is rather plain in colour, lacking the rich rusty-brown in the wing of the Common Whitethroat, another reason why they are easy to miss. The sexes look the same: earth-brown above with a grey head sharply set off from the white throat and greyish-white underparts. Some individuals have pale ‘spectacles’. The males tend to sing from within cover, so will often be overlooked unless the observer is familiar with the quite loud, but repetitive rattle, which is preceded by a short quieter and scratchy warble. Because of these behavioural, plumage and habitat traits, the species is probably under-recorded in our county. During local walks in the spring 2020 lockdown, I found singing males at a new site less than two miles from my home in Haywards Heath, where I had never suspected their presence. The local farmer had carefully managed the hedges so that they were unusually tall and vigorous, which made all the difference.

Compared to other warblers that are summer visitors to Britain, Lesser Whitethroats have a very different migration route. They arrive here in April having flown from north-east Africa and by August the return migration is underway, the birds heading back south-east, not taking the more southerly route to Africa adopted by other warbler species.

Occasionally, a Lesser Whitethroat will appear very late in the autumn in Sussex, or even take up residence in a garden in winter. It is probable that these individuals are vagrants of one of the eastern races that breed in Siberia and usually winter in South Asia. Indeed, two birds of the Siberian race ‘blythi’ have been detected using DNA analysis, one at Pett Level on 8th November 2018 and another at Birling Gap between 27th October and 6th November 2019. Such eastern birds are very hard and sometimes impossible to identify in the field.

If you put fat and sunflowers hearts in your garden next autumn and winter to attract wintering Blackcaps Sylvia atricapilla, keep and eye out for one of these rarer warblers. Ahead of that, listen to a recording of the Lesser Whitethroat’s song, easily found online, for example at https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Sylvia-curruca and search this spring for this hard to see but characterful little bird, making sure that the habitat looks suitable.

Mark Mallalieu
mallalieum@gmail.com

 


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February: Peniophora laeta

Peniophora laeta

Peniophora laeta, a collection from Worth Park, Crawley
Photo: Nick Aplin

Peniophora laeta close-up

Peniophora laeta, detail showing hyphal ‘pegs’ peeling away the outer bark
Photo: Nick Aplin

Peniophora laeta scetch

Peniophora laeta, sketch of microscopic anatomy. Top: Basidiospores, Bottom hymenium with crystal-encrusted metuloid cystidia, gloeocystidia containing oil droplets and basidia with four sterigmata
Sketch: Nick Aplin

Peniophora laeta map

Tetrad distribution of records of Peniophora laeta and Hornbeam Carpinus betulus in Sussex
Source: SxBRC

Peniophora laeta is a distinctive looking fungus with quite a lot going on. Surprising then, that it remains so seldom recorded…

Like many other members of the genus Peniophora, it likes to live up off the ground, often on branches still attached to trees. British records strongly suggest that the species is host-specific here, only living on Hornbeam Carpinus betulus branches, where it gets all up in the tree’s cambium before slowly prizing off the outer bark (from the inside!) with its creepy hyphal ‘fingers’. The plan is to get the bark out of the way so that it can have a party, flinging its spores all around to land on neighbouring branches.

Peniophora laeta can be found throughout the year, but in dry weather it looks a bit dull, shrivelled and inconspicuous. Things are different after a nice bit of rain however, when this species is more active (is that the right word for something that barely moves?) and easier to find. Next time you’re sheltering from the rain under a Hornbeam in your local park, why don’t you take a look above you - I bet you’ll find it!

Under the microscope P. laeta has gently curved, cylindrical spores, and several types of hymenial cells including those filled with oil drops and others reminding me of those science toy Christmas trees that grow crystals. What these cells actually do, nobody really knows. Probably they’re something to do with moisture control (it can dry up there in the Hornbeam canopy!). Here are some other difficult questions that I can’t answer about this species:
    • Since there are so many Hornbeam trees in Sussex, why are they so few Peniophora laeta records?
    • Why hasn’t this species got a common name? Shall we make one up? Hornbeam Peeler is my favourite…

Observations of this lovely species can be inputted to iRecord for verification by your friendly County Basidiomycete Recorder, Martin Allison.

Nick Aplin (your friendly County Ascomycete Recorder)

 


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January: Two common garden liverworts

Marchantia polymorpha distribution map

Map showing distribution of Marchantia polymorpha records in Sussex

Lunularia cruciata distribution map

Map showing distribution of Lunularia cruciata records in Sussex

Marchantia polymorpha

Marchantia polymorpha
Photo: Brad Scott

Lunularia cruciata

Lunularia cruciata
Photo: Brad Scott

Marchantia polymorpha

Marchantia polymorpha
Photo: Brad Scott

As the compass of our natural history worlds shrinks in the Covid universe, there is always the garden to explore, or even the pavements on the walk to the shops. In the shady damp corners and cracks you can often find two of our common thallose liverworts. And, as is always the case with bryophytes, they are remarkably under-recorded throughout the county, as can be seen from the distribution maps.

Often found as ‘weeds’ on soil in gardens and greenhouses (often in plant pots), these two plants look quite similar at first glance, but are in reality very easy to tell apart. They don’t need much soil, either, and can be found as pavement plants, in those small, damp and protected gaps between paving stones.

They are both made up of a tough-looking green thallus on the ground, rarely more than a centimetre across, though you can find large areas covered in them, carpetting the ground.

Lunularia cruciata has the English name Crescent-cup Liverwort, and that exactly captures what you need to look for; it has crescent-shaped cups on its surface containing gemmae, small balls of cells that can be dispersed, typically by the rain, and enable the plant to reproduce vegetatively.

Marchantia polymorpha (Common Liverwort) looks very similar, but its gemmae receptacles are fully cup-shaped and the thallus of the common subspecies (ruderalis) has an irregular thin black median line. They can frequently be found with mature reproductive structures, borne on little stalks sticking up from the surface of the plants; the males have flat-topped receptables with rounded lobes, and those of the females look like a miniature forest of palm trees.

We want to see how many records we can receive by the end of February, and especially how many new tetrad records there will be, so please have a look in your local area. Please submit any records with some photos to iRecord, or with location, grid reference and date to @Trichocolea on Twitter, or by email to sue@rubinstein.plus.com.

There are (normally) regular field meetings recording the mosses and liverworts of the area organised by the South-East Group of the British Bryological Society, to which all are welcome, and you are encouraged to sign up to our email list. You can also follow the bryophyte recording activity in the county on our blog: https://sussexbryophytes.wordpress.com/bbs-se-group/.

Brad Scott

 


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