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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.

 

October: Pink Waxcap Porpolomopsis calyptriformis

Pink Waxcap distribution

Map showing wealden distribution of Pink Waxcap Porpolomopsis calyptriformis records in Sussex

Pink Waxcap Stages

Young Pink Waxcaps pushing their way up through the sward. Note the distinctive cap shape.
Photos: Clare Blencowe

Older Pink Waxcap

Older Pink Waxcaps in the classic ballerina pose.
Photo: Clare Blencowe

Parrot Waxcap Gliophorus psittacina

Possible confusion species: Parrot Waxcap Gliophorus psittacina, which can turn pink after a frost.
Photo: Clare Blencowe

Gliophorus reginae

Possible confusion species: Jubilee Waxcap Gliophorus reginae, which can have a purplish cap and whitish stem.
Image: © Rob Foster [CC-BY-NC]
via Fungi and Lichens of Great Britain and Ireland

Rosy Bonnet

Possible confusion species: Rosy Bonnet Mycena rosea (although this is a woodland species).
Photo: Clare Blencowe

You may know the Pink Waxcap Porpolomopsis calyptriformis by its other common name: ‘the ballerina’. It is classified as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List with a decreasing population trend. The UK is a relative stronghold for this species, which is found only in Europe, and we are lucky to have a number of known sites for it in Sussex. But, in common with many waxcap species, Pink Waxcap Porpolomopsis calyptriformis is vulnerable here too: threatened by habitat loss and inappropriate management. Having up to date records is therefore vital to help protect our remaining waxcap grasslands and inform the management of sites where waxcaps occur.

Waxcaps (Hygrocybe sensu lato) are the “H” in the special group of CHEGD fungi which are mainly found in unimproved, semi-natural grassland with long continuity in management (typically grazing or mowing) which keeps the sward short. You can find a list of CHEGD fungi in the recently published JNCC Guidelines for the Selection of Biological SSSIs: Chapter 14, Non-lichenised Fungi.

Waxcaps can be recognised by their relatively widely spaced, thick and waxy gills. Many species are brightly coloured in red, orange or yellow; but waxcaps also come in various shades of white, grey and brown. They were at one time all grouped together in the genus Hygrocybe. However, modern molecular research is changing our understanding of many fungal species and this is certainly the case with waxcaps which are now placed in a range of different genera. The Pink Waxcap, which you’ll still find listed in many reference texts as Hygrocybe calyptriformis, now has a preferred scientific name of Porpolomopsis calyptriformis.

The new generic name is a somewhat esoteric reference to this species’ acutely conical cap - a distinctive feature which sets it apart from most other waxcaps. Catch this species when it’s just starting to fruit and you’ll find it thrusting up through the sward like a spear. Later the cap will expand in the classic ballerina pose, flashing its pinkish-white gills and whitish stem. The finely radially fibrillose cap usually splits as the cap expands.

Pink Waxcap Porpolomopsis calyptriformis is a pretty unmistakeable species, once you get your eye in, and can be readily identified from field characteristics. Look for it in churchyards where the grass gets regularly mown. Like other waxcaps, it favours a lush mossy sward. It can be found also in traditionally managed grasslands, where nutrient inputs are low and regular grazing keeps the sward short.

It’s worth being aware there are a couple of other waxcap species that can take pink forms.

Parrot Waxcap Gliophorus psittacina, after a frost, can turn a pinkish colour. But you can easily separate out this species by its slimy cap and the green tones that should persist on the stem.

The recently described Jubilee Waxcap Gliophorus reginae (a relative of the Parrot Waxcap) could possibly be a source of confusion, as it can appear with a pink cap and white stem. But remember the distinctive conical cap of Pink Waxcap Porpolomopsis calyptriformis and you shouldn’t go wrong. Worth mentioning also that Jubilee Waxcap Gliophorus reginae has not previously been recorded in Sussex, so it’s not a species you’re very likely to meet. Please get in touch if you think you have found it!

One other species which isn’t a waxcap, but which can look superficially similar, is the Rosy Bonnet Mycena rosea. This is a woodland species but you might find it popping up in grassland at the edge of woodland. Again, this one lacks the distinctive conical cap shape. And it smells strongly of radishes!

In the JNCC Guidelines mentioned above, Pink Waxcap Porpolomopsis calyptriformis is identified as a ‘high diversity indicator’. So if you find it, keep your eyes peeled for other waxcap species.

Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre is hosting a new online ‘grassland waxcap identification support tool’, produced by Clare Blencowe as a hobby project, which is available now for field testing. It covers all the British grassland waxcaps, so why not make a trip to a churchyard or unimproved grassland near you this Autumn, find yourself some waxcaps, and give it a try: https://sxbrc.org.uk/recording/keys/waxcaps/ If you do come across the Pink Waxcap Porpolomopsis calyptriformis please record the details of your sighting (ideally with photographs) on iRecord.

 

 

September: Hawfinch, Coccothraustes coccothraustes

Hawfinch Photo Lee Fuller

Male Hawfinch drinking
Photo: Lee Fuller

Hawfinch Photo Mark Mallalieu

Hawfinch extracting Hornbeam seed from bract
Photo: Mark Mallalieu

The Hawfinch is one of the most difficult birds to see in Sussex. In the breeding season, it is so sparsely distributed and cryptic in its behaviour that very few are observed each year. Between 1998 and 2018, there were no instances of confirmed breeding. Indeed, they were recorded in the breeding season in only six tetrads in the county Bird Atlas 2007-11. The UK range and population has reduced sharply in recent decades and fewer than 1000 pairs may now breed.

In most years, there is only a slightly higher chance of finding Hawfinches between autumn and early spring, with Westdean Woods being the site favoured by birdwatchers. However, the 2017/18 winter saw an extraordinary influx of thousands of Hawfinches from northern and eastern Europe, probably driven to the UK by a combination of food shortages and freak weather. Large numbers were found in Sussex, giving a once in a lifetime opportunity to see flocks of this remarkable bird.

Hawfinches are large, short-tailed finches, overlapping in weight with Redwing Turdus iliacus and twice as heavy as a Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs. They have massive bills as well as big heads and necks that hold the muscles needed to crack the seeds and stones of their favourite foods. The plumage is a mix of lovely honey-browns, chestnut, pinkish-browns, black, white and blue-purple gloss on some of the flight feathers.

Males are somewhat brighter in appearance than females with richer tones on the head. Females have ash-grey panels on the secondaries. The bill is blueish in the breeding season and pale off-white in winter. In the field their size, shape and the white bars on the wings make Hawfinches relatively easy to identify given reasonable views. The hard “tzik” call is also a good clue, once learned.

The 2017/18 influx provided an opportunity to study Hawfinch behaviour and food preferences in Sussex. From October to early or mid-January, the food of choice was Hornbeam Carpinus betulus seed. My (incomplete) searches suggest that Hornbeam is most common in the east Sussex Weald, especially northwest and northeast of Battle and to some extent west to Burgess Hill and Lindfield as well as in the north of the county around Faygate to Ifold. It is certainly less common in much of the west of Sussex as shown by the map in the Sussex Flora. In addition, Field Maple Acer campestre fruits are sought after and I observed Hawfinches alternating between the two foods when both trees were growing together. The seeds of Yew Taxus baccata are also taken and in the 2017/18 influx, Hawfinches were found in Yew woodland, e.g. at Sherwood Rough near Arundel, from the start of the influx. Most Field Maple seed was exhausted by the end of 2017 and Hornbeam seed soon after. By March 2018, the large concentrations were in Yew woods, with Kingley Vale holding a remarkable 400 birds.

Some large roosts were found in the late winter and early spring, most containing over 100 individuals. All were in conifers such as spruce, mixed with a few broadleaves. Pines were not used. Birds left the roosts in flocks in the few minutes before and after sunrise, but arrived back over a much longer period in the afternoon in smaller groups typically in the 2-3 hours before sunset. Perhaps the most remarkable finding was that hardly any Hawfinches were ever seen within 100km2 of the large roosts, suggesting that there is much still to learn about feeding strategies. In particular, the stones of Cherry trees are much favoured by Hawfinches and Wild Cherry Prunus avium is a widespread tree in Sussex, so it is very likely that Hawfinches sought out these trees. Hawfinches take a wide range of other food including mast from Beech Fagus sylvatica and seeds of Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna, from which they get their name.

The studies during the 2017/18 influx led to the discovery of a new site where Hawfinches can be found in winter, along Penhurst Lane near Netherfield where up to 32 were recorded last winter. Even more exciting, fieldwork this year inspired by learning during the influx confirmed that Hawfinches are present in summer at all the three best winter sites: Westdean Woods, Arundel, and Penhurst Lane and juveniles were seen at the last two, so confirming breeding after a gap of 20 years.

If you would like to find Hawfinches, I recommend searching fruiting Hornbeams in autumn and early winter and Yews throughout the winter, including in Churchyards that have ancient female trees (Slaugham and Fletching Churches were good sites in 2017/18, for example). Look out for birds perching conspicuously on treetops or flying fast overhead. Early morning and mid-afternoon are the times to find Hawfinches gathering at or leaving roosts. If you would like to learn more, a paper on the 2017/18 influx will appear in the 2019 Sussex Bird Report, and please contact me if you would like to help with fieldwork or know where the nearest potentially suitable sites are to where you live.

Mark Mallalieu
Recorder@sos.org.uk

 

 

August: Bastard Toadflax, Thesium humifusum

Thesium humifusum - Nick Sturt

Thesium humifusum, Arundel Photo: Nick Sturt

Thesium humifusum map

Map of Thesium humifusum records in Sussex, distribution being entirely restricted to downland chalk.
Source: The Flora of Sussex

In Sussex, this species is confined to short chalk grassland and is always a sign of quality. In other counties it can also occur in limestone areas and very occasionally on sand dunes. There can never be enough records, for although the map in The Flora of Sussex (2018) indicates a reasonably healthy situation, its restricted preference for well-grazed, good quality chalk turf and the vulnerability of that habitat in the long run, mean that the more sites we know about, and the more information we have about population sizes, the better. It would also be good to find more sites in West Sussex, where it seems genuinely to be a lot rarer.

Given its prostrate habit, slender stems and narrow leaves (as little as 8mm long by 1mm wide), realistically, this is a plant you are only likely to spot when it is in flower - any time from June to August, probably peaking in July. The flowers are bisexual with a width of 2 to 4mm; the five white triangular ‘petals’ are actually petaloid sepals (sepal-green on the outside), and the three ‘sepals’ at the base of each flower are actually bracts. The leaves are somewhat toadflax (Linaria)-like, if you use your imagination, and this undoubtedly accounts for the plant’s unflattering English name. Like many diminutive herbs with reduced leaves occurring on nutrient-poor chalk turf, Thesium obtains some of its sustenance by parasitising the root systems of other chalk grass plant species.

Molecular studies require that the dioecious mistletoe (Viscum album) join Thesium in the Family Santalaceae. While this might seem surprising, at certain times and from certain angles, Thesium can look almost twiggy, and the narrow, alternate, yellow-green leaves arising from the stem at right angles can look slightly leathery and resemble those of the very familiar and much larger semi-parasite of woody plants to a surprising degree.

I hope you have the pleasure of finding this delightful plant for yourself and as a possible bonus, when you do, there is a good chance that it will be in a new site. All records should be sent to m.berry15100@btinternet.com.

 

While you’re at it...

Canthophorus impressus nymphs Graeme Lyons

The distinctive red and black nymphs of Canthophorus impressus that should be looked out for on Bastard Toadflax
Photo: Graeme Lyons

If you do find Bastard Toadflax it’s well worth checking the plant and its vicinity for the distinctive, red and black nymphs of the nationally scarce Bastard-Toadflax Bug (Canthophorus impressus) that might be feeding on it. The adults are about 6-7mm in length and deep blue with a white border to the pronotum and connexivum but are active in the spring and autumn. If you look at the Atlas of Sussex Shieldbugs you will see that there are very few records of the species in Sussex with most of the recent ones being from Southerham. However, wherever this rare plant is found C. impressus will possibly be present too and records of the species would be particularly welcome - if you do find it please record the details of your sighting (ideally with photographs) on iRecord.

 

 

July: Large Scabious Mining Bee Andrena hattorfiana

Andrena hattorfiana Female Red form. Photo Jeremy Early

Female Andrena hattorfiana (red form)
Photo: Jeremy Early

Andrena hattorfiana Female Red form. Photo Jeremy Early

Female Andrena hattorfiana (red form)
Photo: Jeremy Early

Andrena hattorfiana Female Normal form. Photo Jeremy Early

Female Andrena hattorfiana (normal form), with distinctive pollen attached
Photo: Jeremy Early

Andrena hattorfiana Male. Photo Jeremy Early

Male Andrena hattorfiana
Photo: Jeremy Early

Andrena hattorfiana Map

Map showing distribution of Andrena hattorfiana records in Sussex. Although predominantly on chalk grassland other dry grassland sites are used.

Fully laden with a bright pink pollen load and sat atop a scabious flower, the females of this scarce mining bee shouldn’t be hard to miss - the combination of a pale blue flower and a large bee with pink pollen sitting on top is pretty striking!

Except that there are fewer than 60 records for this species in Sussex - at best, just a handful of sightings are reported either to the Bees Wasps and Ants Recording Society or to the Records Centre in any one year. Most of these are concentrated on the Downs between Woodingdean in the west and Beachy Head in the east, although odd sightings have been recorded as far afield as Petworth and Rye Harbour. The earliest record for Sussex is from 1904.

In Britain, it’s a southern species, its range extending from the north Norfolk coast in a south westerly band to the north Cornwall coast. Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire supports what is probably the most substantial population in the country. In Sussex, it is a species principally of chalk grassland although across its range dry, sandy grasslands are also used. There’s even a good sized colony in a cemetery in Norwich.

It nests in the ground, in areas that are hidden by low vegetation. Unlike many of the other species of mining bee, this species doesn’t generally form large nesting aggregations - its nests tend to occur singly or in small thinly scattered groups, adding to the challenge of locating it.

Each chamber within the burrow is provisioned with a small ball of pollen, on which an egg is laid. The females forage for pollen almost exclusively from Field Scabious Knautia arvensis and Small Scabious Scabiosa columbaria flowers although Knapweeds Centaurea spp. are also used - it’s the Field Scabious pollen that gives females their striking pink colouration.

It shares this close relationship with scabious flowers with one other species of mining bee, Andrena marginata. This species has also become scarce across Britain and Europe in recent decades, in both cases largely because of the loss of scabious-rich chalk grasslands. Field Scabious, for example, is not very tolerant of grazing and tends to thrive in ungrazed scrubby margins, areas that can readily disappear under a thicket of scrub.

With scabious plants now flowering across the Downs, this is the perfect time of year to search for this rare and elusive bee - just check each scabious flower head that you come across for a bee. If you find one in residence and it’s slightly larger than a honeybee, has a shining black abdomen (sometimes with some red banding) and bright orange hairs at the tip, then you’ve probably located a female Andrena hattorfiana, especially if she’s also laden with bright pink pollen.

Alternatively, if it’s a little smaller, has a white face, but is otherwise as above (shiny black abdomen - but sometimes red-marked - and with orange hairs at the tip), you’ve found a male.

Anywhere with a Field or Small Scabious in flower is worth a look, and a record supported by a photograph will help confirm identification. Good luck!

Please send the details of any sightings of Large Scabious Mining Bee either directly to bobforeman@sussexwt.org.uk at the SxBRC or enter them on iRecord.

James Power, Sussex Bees and Wasps Recording Group

 

 

June: Bird’s-foot Clover, Trifolium ornithopodioides

Trifolium ornithopodioides - Evan Jones

Trifolium ornithopodioides at Normans Bay
Photo: Evan Jones

Trifolium ornithopodioides - Evan Jones

Trifolium ornithopodioides at Normans Bay
Photo: Evan Jones

Trifolium ornithopodioides map

Map of Trifolium ornithopodioides records in Sussex showing predominantly coastal distribution.
Source The Flora of Sussex

It might not start flowering in June (modern reference books, such as Sterry (2006) & Harrap (2013), giving its flowering period as May to October and May to July respectively), but that is as good a month as any to look for Trifolium ornithopodioides (Bird’s-foot Clover), a plant which is never obvious. A small, hairless annual which inhabits open dry ground and grassy places in coastal areas, it is very much a hands-and-knees species, often noticed only when the botanist stoops to pay closer attention to another low-growing if somewhat showier annual clover species, but rather charming in its tiny unobtrusive way, especially when viewed through a lens.

When it comes to summing up its jizz I can do no better than McClintock & Fitter (1955) who describe it as being rather like a hairless T.subterraneum (Subterranean Clover), and its flowers as resembling “teeth upright in the turf”, though “milk teeth” or “fairy teeth” one would have to add! To be a little more technical, it is a prostrate plant with an inflorescence of 1-5 flowers (1-3 is more usual) which are white, often pale pink-suffused and 6-8mm long. They are carried on a stalk which is not as long as the trifoliate leaves. The leaflets are more or less wedge-shaped, rather coarsely serrated at the tips and 3-10mm long. The leaf stalk (petiole) can be up to 5cm long. It often occurs in small numbers (sometimes as single isolated plants), but last year I did see hundreds on a well-trodden track, and the tiny white flowers were the only things that stood out once you got your eye in. In grassier places the plant can lift off the ground slightly and look relatively “leggy” with the flowers very sparse on the delicate stem, which can grow to 20cm in length but is typically much shorter. The flowers go over quickly, especially in dry summers, to be replaced by fruits which unusually for a Trifolium are much longer than the calyx - a reminder that this species was once not classified as a Trifolium at all, but as a Trigonella.

I concur with the account in The Flora of Sussex (2018) which indicates that it might have been under-recorded in the past. Its true extent won’t be revealed by serendipity of the sort already described, but by targeted searches, and June would be a good month to make them! As well as the dry, stony, gravelly ground and trodden tracks already mentioned, it can also occur on the well-mown, lower nutrient turf of road verges, bowling greens, playing fields, golf courses and in the worn, vacated turf of the touring sections of caravan sites. Although mainly on the coast, it is by no means strictly confined to it, being known for example on some of the heathy commons which lie to the north of the South Downs escarpment in West Sussex.

New records of this species would be gratefully received and should be sent to me at m.berry15100@btinternet.com, along with any images requiring confirmation. Good luck!

 

 

May: The Spring Fritillaries (Boloria sp.)

Pearl-bordered Fritillary

Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne)
Upper-wings
Photo: Neil Hulme

Pearl-bordered Fritillary

Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne)
Under side
Photo: Neil Hulme

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene)
Upper-wings
Photo: Neil Hulme

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene)
Under side
Photo: Neil Hulme

Sussex is currently blessed with approximately 50 species of butterfly, some of these are only occasionally observed scarce migrants, others are from well-established breeding populations. Among these species is a small group of predominantly woodland-dwelling nymphalids, the fritillaries. The Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia) as a familiar sight in late summer when it is likely to be encountered flying at speed along the rides of most "good" woodlands. Slightly smaller than the Silver-washed is the Dark Green Fritillary (Argynnis aglaja), a species that can also be common in Sussex and although it will be seen in woodlands is more likely to be found flying in the flower-rich chalk grasslands of the South Downs during mid-summer. However, there are two species which are far less frequently seen; the Pearl-bordered (Boloria euphrosyne) and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries (Boloria selene). All four of these fritillaries have similarly patterned upperwings, deep orange with an array of black spots and stripes, their larvae all feed on violets too. Differentiating the latter two species is somewhat trickier though.

The Pearl-bordered Fritillary is a medium sized butterfly with blocky black spots distributed evenly over its orange-brown upper-sides. The underside of the hind-wing is reminiscent of a stained glass window, being divided into numerous polygonal cells, and edged with a string of seven silvery white ‘pearls’. In all these respects it is very similar to the marginally smaller Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary.

The underside of the hind-wing in the Pearl-bordered Fritillary has a warmer look to it than that of its close relative, being a mix of earthy yellow and orange-brown. There are two silvery white polygonal cells in contact with the inner-central pentagon, which contains a small black spot.

The underside of the hind-wing in the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary shows greater contrast, being a mix of cream and deeper red-brown. There are at least half-a-dozen silvery white polygonal cells in contact with the inner-central pentagon, which contains a significantly larger black spot. Also, the black lines which outline each polygonal cell are bolder in this species, and there are black spots situated inside the seven marginal ‘pearls’, adding to the greater contrast and generally darker appearance.

The most marked difference between these two species and their commoner relatives is the almost catastrophic collapse in their populations that has taken place in the south east of England in recent years. Of the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Colin Pratt wrote the following in his 2011 county history: "For well over a 100 years, up until the mid 1970’s, this butterfly could be found in most suitable woods from one end of the county to the other - approaching 150 colonies had been discovered". Throughout much of its long history here, it was more numerous than the Pearl-bordered Fritillary. The last Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary of Sussex descent ever to fly in the county was seen on 29 June 2013. At some point during the first week of July that year the species went extinct, both locally and regionally.

The Pearl-bordered Fritillary or the ‘Woodman’s Friend’, as it was once affectionately known, was common in the days when many woodlands were actively worked for coppice products and charcoal. The butterfly would follow the woodman, as he moved around creating open areas in which the Common Dog-violet would flourish, until the canopy began to close again. In Colin Pratt’s words: "Up until around the middle of the 20th century this Fritillary occurred in numbers undreamed of by modern butterfly enthusiasts; it could often literally be seen in hundreds and occasionally even in thousands". Butterfly Conservation’s ‘The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2015’, produced by Richard Fox and colleagues, points to a 95% drop in this species’ national occurrence index (1km square occupancy) between 1976 and 2014.

As elsewhere, the population of Pearl-bordered Fritillary in Sussex has collapsed, and its geographical range contracted to just a few refuges. In recent years it has become restricted to just two strong population centres, at Rewell Wood in West Sussex, and Abbot’s Wood in East Sussex, following a successful re-introduction.

Despite it becoming extinct in 2013 in south east England, the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary is again flourishing in its last stronghold of Park Corner Heath and Rowland Wood thanks to a captive breeding and reintroduction programme carried out under the auspices of the ‘Fritillaries for the Future’ project led by Neil Hulme and involving a small group of dedicated volunteers. The breeding stock for this came from Bentley Wood on the Hampshire-Wiltshire border.

Although both of these species are known as woodland inhabitants, the Pearl-bordered Fritillary was once also to be found in more open habitats; heathland and more scrubby parts of the Downs. Compared to the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary it has a definite preference for the warm, dry clearings created in coppiced of woodland. The Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary’s habitat preference is for much damper woodlands with areas of standing water or permanently damp rushy rides. It is this preference that is thought to be a major factor in the species’ decline in Sussex as Climate Change dies out our once damp woodlands.

Both of these species fly earlier in the year than their larger relatives, the Pearl-bordered being the first to appear, usually in late April through to early June, in the early part of the 20th Century there was occasionally a partial second brood in late summer. The Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary’s flight period is about three weeks late than Pearl-bordered from mid-May through to the End of June, again with occasional partial second broods in August.

All records of these butterflies are particularly welcome and if you are luck enough to encounter either species please send the details either directly to bobforeman@sussexwt.org.uk at the SxBRC or enter them on iRecord.

 

 

April: Tapered Drone Fly, Eristalis pertinax

Male Eristalis pertinax - photo: Steven Falk

Male Eristalis pertinax Beachy Head, East Sussex. Note that pronounced bulge in one of the wing’s veins which identifies it as one of the Eristalini hoverflies.
Photo: Steven Falk

Female Eristalis pertinax - photo: Mike Mullis

Female Eristalis pertinax Herstmonceux, East Sussex
Photo: Mike Mullis


Male Eristalis pertinax - Photo: Mike Mullis

Male Eristalis pertinax Herstmonceux, East Sussex. Note the yellow tarsi (‘feet’) on the front and middle legs compared to the dark tarsi of the hind leg.
Photo: Mike Mullis

Eristalis pertinax distribution

Map showing scattered distribution of Eristalis pertinax records in Sussex. The apparent coastal and downland bias may well be a result of recording effort rather than a true reflection of distribution.

Everyone loves bees don’t they? The recent revelations that our bees are in decline has prompted protests and petitions and have highlighted the vital service these buzzing pollinators provide to our planet. Yet many other pollinators which provide the same service don’t get the same level of public support. So in April I’m raising my banner for the hoverflies.

There are almost 300 species of hoverfly in the UK and one of the first to appear each year is Eristalis pertinax - the Tapered Drone Fly.

At first glance you may mistake this hoverfly for a honeybee but that’s exactly what Eristalis pertinax wants you to think. This isn’t an attempt to jump on the bee bandwagon to win some attention - it’s all a cunning strategy called Batesian mimicry. The UK’s hoverflies come in many shapes, colours and sizes but most of them sport yellow/orange markings and black stripes making them easily confused for wasps, bees, hornets and bumblebees. But unlike bees and wasps hoverflies are harmless. They don’t sting and can’t bite. But they have discovered you don’t have to actually be dangerous to deter predators - you just have to look like something that’s dangerous. It’s a strategy you can try for yourself. To avoid unwanted attention simply strap on a fake bomb and a wear a big hat with TERRORIST in big letters across it and I guarantee nobody will want to talk to you. Except maybe the police.

Some hoverflies are so much like bees and wasps that only their mother could tell them apart (check out my favourite - the furry bumblebee mimic Eristalis intricarius) yet their devious mimicry isn’t the most incredible feature about them. Their wings are the things. Hoverflies (like all flies) have just two wings (half as many wings as bees and wasps). The looped wing venation is a way to identify the Eristalini and Eristalis pertinax has that noticeably tapered abdomen and the front and middle tarsi (the end section of the leg) are yellow.

Whereas other flies keep their wings straight hoverflies have the inclination to incline their wings and an angled downward stroke at a remarkable rate of 120 beats per second allows them to fly to a most amazing place: nowhere. Hoverflies have become the motionless masters of mid-air. In April you’ll spot Eristalis pertinax doing just that - hovering around sunny woodland rides defending its territory.

The looped venation on their wings is a way to identify the Eristalini and Eristalis pertinax males have that noticeably tapered abdomen and in both sexes the front and middle tarsi (the end section of the leg) are yellow.

It’s not all sitting around in the sky though. During their few days of life hoverflies fight, fornicate and feed. While busy collecting energy-giving nectar and protein-rich pollen they inadvertently provide that vital pollination service to our flowers and crops. And hoverflies have earned the title of ‘The Gardeners Friend’. About 40% of them have a larval stage which is basically a tiny crawling stomach that roams around your flowerbed eating pesky aphids. Pollination, pest control - next thing you know these beneficial little insects will be mowing the front lawn for us too.

Eristalis pertinax larvae however are, like many other species, aquatic and filter feed on the tiny organisms found in decaying matter in ponds. These type of hoverfly larvae breathe through a long tube and have earned the name ‘rat-tailed maggot’ a phrase I find pleasing to mention under my breath each time Nigel Farage appears on TV.

If you’re interested in recording hoverflies I’d recommend the excellent identification guide ‘Britain’s Hoverflies’ by Stuart Ball and Roger Morris. Steven Falk has an impressive catalogue of hoverfly photos on his Flickr site. To become more involved with fly recording in Sussex join the Sussex Fly Group who organise field trips and indoor identification sessions throughout the year.

Michael Blencowe, Sussex Fly Group

 

 

March: Brown Hare Lepus europaeus

Brown Hare photo Damian Waters

Amber eyes and ears with black tips: Hare
Photo: © Damian Waters/Sussex Wildlife Trust

Brown Hare photo Bob Eade

The sit tight philosophy.
Photo: © Bob Eade/Sussex Wildlife Trust

Map of Brown Hare records in Sussex

Map showing where Brown Hares have been seen in Sussex but also large areas without any records

When we muse upon all things March, the mad hare has got to be up there. The Brown Hare is the most widespread of the two UK species, and the only one you’ll spot in Sussex. They are creatures of open country. Vegetarian grazers, occasionally indulging in a spot of browsing saplings. With a home range of some 50 hectares, their movement patterns track availability of fresh plant growth. Hares thrive in areas that provide grassland alongside arable land that incorporates cereals, leys, margins and winter stubbles; meeting their appetite for seasonal food.

Hares are naturalised mammals, and who introduced them is still disputed. Usually the Romans are implicated, although there are those that maintain their introduction pre-dates this, and they instead arrived some time during the Iron Age. Whenever they got here, I always get a thrill seeing a hare blazing its zigzag trail across the South Downs, nothing but chalk dust in its wake. If you’re still clarifying the difference between rabbits and hares in your mind. Did the ears have black tips? Hare. Did those amber eyes fix you with a slightly unnerving stare? Hare. Was there big air as it bounded away, propelled by long hind limbs? Hare!

Hares often specialise in the sit tight philosophy. I saw one a couple of weeks back, a just visible lump of primed muscle, long ears flat along its back. Waiting for me to get close enough. Adrift in the middle of a field, which on first appearance seemed stupidly conspicuous, this fitted with hares’ often used predator avoidance strategy. No danger of being sneaked up on here (unless Luna the Eagle Owl makes another bid for freedom). When you do reach their flight zone, hares often hold their tail downwards, concealing the white flag of its underside, as they beat their 45 mph retreat.

And the boxing? Two males sparring for attention? No. This is a female, telling an overly-amorous male to back off, as she approaches oestrus. Hares aren’t renowned for their parenting skills. A female can expect to give birth around 40 days after mating, with the first leverets usually arriving during February. As soon as they are born, the female leaves her young, indulging them with just a few minutes of her time each day, for just over a month until they are weaned.

A new threat has recently entered the hares’ world. Myxomatosis is already known to make the leap from their rabbit cousins, with the first confirmed UK mortality of a hare from Somerset in 2014. It now seems that another virus, RHD2, can also kill hares, being recently linked to deaths in Essex and Dorset. Anyone finding a sick or dead hare is asked to send a photograph of it to Dr Diana Bell at the University of East Anglia https://www.uea.ac.uk/about/-/uea-researchers-to-investigate-mysterious-hare-deaths who is researching hare die-off across the UK. The map above shows some of Sussex’s hare hotspots - the South Downs, as well as areas of grazing marsh, but highlights large areas with no records. If you spot a hare in Sussex please report your sighting to SxBRC, to make sure they contribute to Sussex Mammal Group’s new online mammal map https://sxbrc.org.uk/mammals/mapping.html#.

Laurie Jackson, Sussex Mammal Group

 

 

February: Common Toad Bufo bufo

Common Toad

Common Toad Bufo bufo at Knepp
Photo: Ryan Greaves

Common Toad heat map

Heat map of Common Toad records in Sussex, the red squares show where most records have been collected.

The Common Toad (Bufo bufo) is a solitary creature, spending the majority of its life on land buried in leaf litter, under tree roots, in log piles and in vegetable patches. Basically anywhere slightly damp where there is an abundance of invertebrate prey. However like all our native amphibians, Common Toad must return to water in spring to breed, sometimes travelling over 2km to get to their preferred pond.

Common Toad has dry warty skin and brilliant golden-bronze eyes with dark horizontal pupils. They are generally described as brown to olive brown, but colour can widely vary with some very dark or very red individuals. Additionally, a key identification feature are the large paratoid glands that stick up behind the eyes. These glands produce bufotoxin, an alkaloid neurotoxin that helps to defend against predation.

Common Toad have much shorter legs than Common Frog and tend to crawl or hop, rather than make large jumps. They also differ in their choice of breeding pond, generally preferring much deeper, larger bodies of water compared to the shallow pools where frogspawn can often be found. Common Toad-spawn is also very distinctive, being formed of long strings of a double row of eggs draped around submerged vegetation like a pearl necklace.

At this time of year Common Toad may be seen migrating back to their ancestral breeding pond, often disregarding any barriers that have appeared, including busy roads and deep drains. They tend to travel at dusk, most commonly emerging from their overwintering site after a spell of damp, warmish weather (air temp of 7-8°C). Unfortunately this can often coincide with peak car commuting times and scores of Common Toad can be killed as they try to cross roads.

Whilst, Common Toad is widespread in Britain, populations have declined dramatically over the last century and it is now listed as a Priority Species of Conservation Concern. Declines are largely due to habitat fragmentation and a huge loss of breeding ponds. However, the species is also generally under-recorded, so any sighting, especially of migrating or breeding Common Toad, is desirable. The map above shows where Common Toads have been recorded but also highlights the large areas of Sussex from which we do not have any records.

Please report any sightings of Common Toads either to iRecord, or by email to bobforeman@sussexwt.org.uk with details of location, grid reference and date found.

 

 

January: Hemp-agrimony Plume, Adaina microdactyla

Adaina monodactyla

Adult Hemp-agrimony Plume Adaina monodactyla, Rewell Wood
Photo: Colin Knight

Adaina monodactyla larva

Larva of Adaina monodactyla, in stem of Hemp-agrimony
Photo: Colin Hart

Adaina monodactyla gall

Hole produced by Adaina monodactyla larva in gall formed in stem of Hemp-agrimony
Photo: Colin Hart

Adaina monodactyla distribution

Distribution of records of Adaina monodactyla in Sussex
Map from Sussex Moth Group website

There are 44 members of the Pterophoridae or plume moth family that occur in the UK of which 30 have been recorded in Sussex. The smallest of these, with a wingspan of around 15 mm, is the Hemp-agrimony Plume Adaina microdactyla, although not rare it isn’t a commonly recorded species but is one that, according to County Recorder, Colin Pratt, is believed to be on the increase in Sussex.

The plumes are all small moths, with a wingspan of no more than about 30 mm. Their wings are deeply cleft or lobed into feathery "plumes", the forewing being divided into two and hindwing into three lobes. They have a distinctive resting posture, standing high up on their legs with their narrow wings overlapping or rolled up and held at about 90° to the body forming a "T-shaped" profile. Species such as Common Plume Emmelina monodactyla and White Plume Moth Pterophorus pentadactyla will be familiar to many, being relatively common and widely distributed species.

Adaina microdactyla is double-brooded, the adults, which when newly emerged are a pale greenish-yellow colour, can be seen flying from mid May to mid June and again from mid July to late August. It hibernates as a fully-grown larva in the dead, grey-coloured stem of the foodplant, Hemp-agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum, on damp riverbanks and places on the downs, and can be found throughout the winter and early spring. The larva feeds in the upper half of the stem often at or near a leaf or stem node. It eats the living pith during August and September often causing the flowers above the feeding point to abort. In thick stems there is little sign of feeding, but thinner stems form a swelling or gall. When fully grown the larva may overwinter in situ, or move down the stem and form a new gall as a hibernaculum. The overwintering gall will have a 1.5 mm hole in the side partly plugged with a pointed pellet of silk. To confirm the species split open the stem with a thumbnail or knife and the larva will be sitting in a flimsy cocoon across the width of the stem and slightly higher than the hole. The larva is creamy-white with a brown head 6-7 mm long and cigar-shaped. There is a broad but faint dorsal band of dark brownish grey becoming wider towards the head and tail. Keep the stems with larvae in an outhouse, slightly damp, and the larva will pupate when the weather warms up in April and emerge about a month later.

If you find any stands of Hemp-agrimony (maybe when you are out looking for Brown Hairstreak eggs?) spend a bit of time examining the stems for these tell-tale larval feeding signs. If you find anything, please submit the details with some photos to iRecord, or by email to bobforeman@sussexwt.org.uk with details of location, grid reference and date found.