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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.
The Smooth Snake is Britain’s rarest and most secretive reptile, now found naturally on heathlands in Dorset, Hampshire and only a very few sites in Surrey. Many of the sites on which it occurs are also inhabited by the sand lizard.
The Smooth Snake is dependent on well managed heathland, where it is mainly found in mature vegetation that provides good cover. On these sites it can use a range of habitats, from dry slopes to humid and wet heath areas. The Smooth Snake shares the Slow-worm’s habit of hiding under stones, logs and other debris exposed to the sun, rarely basking in the open.
This species is very difficult to detect, so a site for reintroduction has to be surveyed for several years before its absence can be proven beyond reasonable doubt.
Reintroductions are done by translocations of wild animals from other sites. This has meant that far fewer re-introductions have been done than with the Sand Lizard which can be bred in captivity successfully. To date, Smooth Snakes have been reintroduced to sites in Surrey, West Sussex and Devon.
The West Sussex population was reintroduced in 1997 to a site which had been part of a population on the larger well connected heathlands of the past.
I am pleased to report that from the original thirteen individuals translocated from Dorset 21 years ago over thirty individuals during recent surveys have been identified including neonates (juveniles) in most years. They have also crossed a minor road to populate another adjacent heathland.
Smooth Snakes are smaller and more slender than other snakes, usually only growing to 60-70cm in length. They are generally grey or a dull brown colour with black markings arranged in bars or two rows of dots down the back. Smooth Snakes nearly always possess a heart-shaped “crown” marking, which covers the top of the head. An eye stripe is usually present, extending from the eyes along the side of the head. The Smooth Snake’s name comes from the fact that its scales are flat and smooth, unlike those of the Grass Snake and Adder which have a ridge (or ’keel’) down the middle.
Smooth Snakes usually emerge from hibernation in April-early May. They are non-venomous and feed mainly on Common Lizards, Slow-worms and small mammals (especially shrews and nestling rodents), which are captured and constricted in the coils of its body. Live young, which look very similar to the adults, are born in September. Smooth Snakes are long-lived and females tend not to breed every year. The Smooth Snake is a secretive animal and when it basks in the sun it does so entwined amongst the stems of heather plants, where it is superbly camouflaged.
Due to its rarity, the Smooth Snake is strictly protected by British and European law which makes it an offence to kill, injure, capture or disturb them; damage or destroy their habitat; or to possess or trade in them. A licence is required for some activities involving this species.
Any snake sightings are much welcomed as all our snakes seem to be struggling in the wider countryside. Pictures of them are appreciated and especially for ID of Smooth Snake. Either enter your records on the iRecord website or send them directly to Bob Foreman at the SxBRC.
Paul Stevens Reserve Manager, Arundel WWT
Of the 25 species of dragonfly that have been recorded in Sussex in the 21st Century, probably the commonest (and certainly the most recorded) is the Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum). In total the SxBRC has 7500 records for this species, 4502 of which have been gathered since the year 2000. The Common Darter though is just one of seven Sympetrum species that have been recorded in the UK, all but one of which have been recorded in Sussex.
All except the Black Darter (S. danae) are superficially similar in appearance and a little bit of care is needed in order to correctly identify them. Black Darter however, is our smallest dragonfly and mature males are almost completely black, the females are easily recognised by their distinctive half and half abdomen - yellow on top and black below. It is a species that is mostly restricted to ponds in our heathland sites and not likely to be encountered in the wider countryside. The remaining species however are less distinctive and possibly for that reason, somewhat less recorded.
The most frequently encountered of these are Common Darters (S. striolatum) which have black legs with a yellow strip along their length, a brown thorax and eyes that are brown on top and yellowy-green below. The males, when mature, have a bright red abdomen and the females yellow-brown.
The thorax and abdomen of male Ruddy Darter (S. sanguineum) is, as its Latin name suggests, blood-red in colour, and it can easily be distinguished from a male Common Darter by the club-shaped abdomen, entirely black legs and an orange-yellow coloration at the base of its wings. Although the Common Darter is generally more abundant both of these two species are often found together around well vegetated, shallow water bodies or further afield, often in woodland rides.
The remaining Sympetrum species recorded in Sussex are migrants and much less frequently recorded. Being migrants they can appear almost anywhere but are more likely to be found, like the other darters, around shallow ponds and ditches with plenty of emergent vegetation. Red-veined Darter (S. fonscolombii) is the most often seen, with 38 records so far this century. The mature males have bright red bodies with a red veination to their wings, particularly along the leading edges. The females, like other Sympetrum are yellow-brown, but both sexes have two-colour eyes, red on top and blue-grey below. There are only three recent records of Yellow-winged Darter (S. flaveolum) in the SxBRC database. Slightly smaller than the other similar Sympetrum species, Yellow-winged Darters of both sexes have black markings along the sides of their abdomen and wings with a marked yellow coloration close to the body. The final Sussex Sympetrum is S. vulgatum or Vagrant Darter, this species has only been recorded twice in Sussex both times during the 1960s. Very similar to Common Darter, the males can be distinguished by the presence of a row of tiny yellow-ringed black dots along the abdomen and no yellow markings on the side of the thorax. The females have a small spur that points downward from the ninth abdominal segment.
All the Sympetrum can be seen flying between June and October or even November in warmer autumns with August being around the peak of the flight period. When the weather is warm with southerly airflows from mainland Europe, as it is this year, there is a strong possibility of migrants arriving along the coast of Sussex so it is well worth having a closer look at these dragonflies, especially if seen in coastal locations. As can be seen from the maps there are plenty of places in Sussex for which we have no records so, If you do see a Sympetrum species (or any other dragonfly, for that matter), please record it on the iRecord website, ideally with a photograph that shows any of the distinctive features mentioned above. Or if you prefer, send your records directly to Bob Foreman at the SxBRC and they will be passed to both the Sussex and British Dragonfly Societies.
Nudibranchs are commonly known as sea slugs, although they are not closely related to their terrestrial name-sake. They do, however share some physiological traits, leading to them sharing a name: notably they both generally lack the hard shell which is commonly associated with molluscs. The word ‘nudibranch’ literally means ‘naked gill’, being made up of the Latin word, ‘nudus’ (naked) and the Greek word, ‘branchia’ (gill) - referring to their having no protective cover on their gills.
Nudibranchs can be found all over the world, mostly in shallow waters. This means that if you look closely enough you may even find them in a rock pool. Here in Sussex, we occasionally find them on our Shoresearch intertidal surveys, which is always a real treat!
These creatures come in a huge variety of colours and forms. Most commonly on Sussex shores, we spot Sea Lemons, Archidoris pseudoargus, and Grey Sea Slugs, Aeolidia papillosa. However other recent finds include the Orange-clubbed Sea Slug, Limacia clavigera, and Facelina bostoniensis.
Aeolid species such as the Grey Sea Slug have cerata, which are the long projections extending from the mantle. These are used to store stinging cells which the nudibranch obtains through eating cnidarian prey, such as anemones and hydroids. These stinging cells will be discharged into the face of predators if they are threatened - a form of defence which more than makes up for their lack of protective shells!
On the shore, we don’t always see nudibranchs in the flesh, but will find a clue that they are nearby: their eggs. Nudibranch eggs vary in colour and form, from coiled flat ribbons to tiny, delicate little pearls. Nudibranchs are hermaphrodites, possessing both male and female reproductive organs; however they cannot self-fertilise so a pair is required to reproduce. When they mate, double copulation often occurs, meaning that both individuals donate and receive sperm. This reproductive tactic is advantageous as a nudibranch can encounter any mature individual of the same species and they will be a potential mate!
Spring and summer is a great time of year to look for nudibranchs and their eggs; the next time you’re out rock pooling do keep an eye out for these fascinating creatures! And, if you’re lucky enough to find one please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the details of where and when you found it (ideally with a photo too).
Sarah Ward Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Living Seas Officer
We Heart Moths!The Heart Moth has only been recorded in Sussex three times this century, but have we been looking for it?
Heart Moth is a UK Red Data Book species (RDB3) and also UK BAP (Section 41 in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006). It is one of the 30 top priority moth species for conservation action in South East England based upon Butterfly Conservation’s Regional Action Plan 2016-2025, and it is top 10 priority in Sussex.
The required habitat is described the habitat as “lightly wooded commons and parkland with widely spaced Pedunculate Oaks, usually with other lower vegetation” (Waring and Townsend). Openly spaced trees on woodland rides or edges are also used. The only known UK strongholds are Windsor Great Park and Ashtead Common, near Epsom. However, we seem to have plenty of the required habitat in Sussex, especially in the Weald.
The Heart Moth recorded in Sussex in recent years (all as singles, and all in the north of the county) have all be at garden moth traps (Broadbridge, Sharpthorne and Crawley Down). The moth is known to be rather sedentary, not flying far from its habitat, so these garden sightings suggest there might be hitherto unidentified resident colonies nearby.
The core flight period is late June and early July. The moth is attracted to light and occasionally to sugar, although generally flies very late at night (after 1am).
Please let the SxBRC know if you would like to look for this moth and certainly let us know if you find it.
There are three species of cardinal beetle in the UK but only two that occur in Sussex. The Red-headed Cardinal Pyrochroa serraticornis and the Black-headed Cardinal Pyrochroa coccinea. Although the two species are similar, the Black-headed is slightly bigger on average, has a black head and is a slightly more vibrant red.
Both species are found in or near woodland, the larvae develop in the layer beneath the loose bark of dead and decaying trees where they are a predator of other smaller saproxylic invertebrates. They are very flat in order to inhabit this space and, with care, can be identified to species relitively easily.
Along with many soldier and long horn beetles they are only on the wing for a short period of time in May and June but unlike them they are rarely encountered on flowers. Since 2014, neither species is considered to be scarce and you are equally as likely to encounter either species in suitable habitat.
Despite the two species bieng common and easy to identify there are surprisingly few records in the SxBRC database. We have 407 records of P. srraticornis and only 304 of P. coccinea. If you see either of these beetles in the next few weeks please enter you sighting, ideally with a photo, into iRecord.
Spring time heralds in one of Britain’s cutest insects, the Dark-edged Bee-fly (Bombylius major). They are often mistaken for bumblebees, in what is suspected to be a case of Batesian mimicry (where a harmless organism has evolved to look like a potentially harmful organism, in this case the stinging bumblebee). Unlike bumblebees however, they have no sting, a single pair of wings (unlike the bees, which have two pairs) and don’t live in colonies. They do, however, spend much of their time buzzing around acting as jolly good pollinators, using their long proboscis to collect nectar from flowers. This proboscis has been known to alarm some who are unfamiliar with the species, causing concern that the fly is a type of mosquito or other biting fly capable of inflicting harm. There is no reason to worry though, the long mouthparts are used only for feeding and act much like the mouth of a butterfly, allowing them to reach into the deep nectar stores of flowers. The larvae of the bee flies are nest parasites of various solitary bee species. The adult female will collect small amounts of sand on the tip of her abdomen, which will be used to coat her soft, light eggs. She will then find a nest hole and ‘flick’ the sand-weighted egg into the nest, where the larva will hatch and feed upon the larvae of pupae of the solitary bee.
The Dark-edged Bee-fly is the most common of the two Bombylius bee flies in Sussex, with the other species, the Dotted Bee-fly (Bombylius discolor) being less common and with more limited distribution. Dark-edged Bee-flies normally start to become active around March each year, with the first recorded sighting coming in on March 15th this year (later than the March 2nd record from last year!) They can often be seen in gardens or parks and are especially common in areas with ground-nesting solitary bee populations. Both are great species to go out looking for, especially the slightly rarer dotted Bee-fly!
Since 2016 the recording scheme has run an annual Bee-fly Watch, encouraging people to look out for any of the spring bee-flies and send their records in. The project has been very successful in increasing the number of records - before 2016 the scheme received about 200 bee-fly records per year, but with a small amount of promotion via Facebook and Twitter we had over 800 records in 2016 and nearly 1,300 in 2017.
This year records have been thin on the ground so far, with the cold weather in March, but bee-flies will be out and about as soon as it warms up a little. If you see one please do add the record to iRecord - last year there were quite a lot of records that were new for their 10km-square, and some signs of range expansion in Scotland, so there are still new discoveries to be made.
Alex Dye and Martin Harvey, Soldierflies and Allies Recording Scheme
There are only four members of the genus Bombylius native to the British Isles and of the two that are recorded in Sussex; the Dark-edged Bee-fly (B. major) is the commoner and more widely distributed of the two whereas B. discolor is be more coastally distributed and restricted to the far east of the county and the eastern Downs. One thing is certain we don’t have many Sussex records of either species, only 205 for B. discolor and 910 for B. major.
Not only does the Soldierflies and Allies Recording Scheme , the organisers of “Bee-fly Watch” want your records, the SxBRC would also be very keen to have them too. In order for both the SxBRC and Soldierflies and Allies Recording Scheme to get them, please submit any sightings of Bee-flies (ideally with a photo) via the iRecord website or mobile app.
Habitat and distribution
Sarcoscypha austriaca or Scarlet Elfcup is a widespread species that likes damp woodland with Salix and Alnus and is often found on moss-covered logs of these species near standing water. Unlike many of the other larger more colourful fungi, this species starts to appear at the beginning of the year and tends to reach full maturity in late February to March.
There are several very similar species in the genus which can only be separated with microscopy:
21 Shetland Close
Now is the perfect time to search Blackthorn hedges for Brown Hairstreak eggs. We have more records of the eggs of this rare and elusive species in our database than we have for adults. They’re quite easy to spot once you get your eye-in, brilliant white and pin-point size, they look like microscopic sea urchins when seen through a hand lens.The female butterfly lays her eggs singly in the axil of the thorn and stem on scrubby Blackthorn bushes. They will usually be found no more than 1.5 m above the ground. It would seem that the butterflies are only interested in plants growing on Wealden Clay soils and to a lesser extent the Upper Greensand and Chalk formations. This geological preference limits the eastern extent of its distribution, Plumpton station being its most easterly outpost in Sussex.