19 October 2012

iSpot going mobile

The iSpot app
(preview of the
forthcoming upgrade)
With mobile devices (smart phones, tablets, pads and pods) becoming increasingly widespread, more and more people are accessing digital resources via apps and mobile-optimised websites. To explore this trend in the natural history context, the Communicate conference ran a session entitled "Apps for Engagement" (Wednesday 24 October 2012), at which I gave a brief presentation on iSpot's approach to engaging with its mobile audience. Here are some links relating to that presentation.
To find out more and get updates on iSpot developments follow iSpot on Twitter or contact iSpot direct.

Credits: the development of the iSpot app has been led by Will Woods and Richard Greenwood, of the Institute of Educational Technology at The Open University, with input from other members of the iSpot team, and valuable feedback from people who have tested the app in its early stages. The iSpot keys project has been led by Jon Rosewell, of The Faculty of Mathematics, Computing and Technology at The Open University.

24 February 2012

Extreme entomology at The Hollies

Having travelled to Shrewsbury last weekend to speak at the excellent Darwin Festival, organised by Shropshire Wildlife Trust and partners, I took the opportunity to do some extreme entomology. Okay, so The Hollies (next door to The Stiperstones, near Shrewsbury) is a bit higher than where I live, 350 metres as opposed to 100 m, but the altitude can't be said to be extreme. And although a cold, gloves-on February day might not be the usual choice for bug-hunting - the temperature records claim it was 7-8 °C, but with a biting wind it felt a good deal colder - that wasn't really extreme either, although it did make it hard to keep the beating tray steady. No, the extreme thing here was the trees I was searching for signs of insect life: a range of ancient Holly trees, some believed to be about 400 years old.


The Holly trees at The Hollies are an extraordinary range of shapes. Many are individual isolated trees that have been sculpted by wind and time into gnarled shapes that stretch and lean. There is precious little shelter to be had, either for the trees themselves, or any insects that might live in or on them, or indeed for the visiting entomologist. This must be one of the few Holly populations anywhere in Britain where the Holly Leaf-miner fly (Phytomyza ilicis) struggles to gain a foothold - I found just a few mines on one of the slightly less exposed trees.

Pogonocherus hispidus on Holly bark at The Hollies
But a lot of insects clearly do make their home here, as testified by the peppering of beetle exit holes in the trunks and limbs of the trees. And in fact the first insect to fall out of a Holly and onto my beating tray was the Lesser Thorn-tipped Longhorn Beetle (Pogonocherus hispidus). Larvae of this small (5mm) but attractive beetle develop in the small branches of a range of trees including Holly. Do have a look at these two great close-ups by John Hallmén on Flickr.

An hour or so of beating and grubbing around the trunks of the the trees produced a small list of other species:



A modest list, but not bad for a very cold February afternoon, especially as all but two (Porcellio scaber and Anthocoris nemorum) of these invertebrates are new records for the Stiperstones area, according to the useful list compiled by Pete Boardman in 2010. I find it comforting that these many of these species have probably been happily living at The Hollies for many generations, over the centuries since the current hollies started growing.

The Hollies is a Shropshire Wildlife Trust reserve and SSSI, so thankfully its special character has been recognised and is being looked after. It's a shame that so many of the hollies have had to be fenced off, making it look rather like a tree zoo - presumably this is to prevent the trees being damaged by grazing stock. But the ancient hollies still work their magic, redolent of centuries of human interaction with the landscape. There's more about the history of The Hollies on Sara Bellis's blog, where she comments that in the past small boys would have been sent up the trees to collect the higher, less prickly leaves, as livestock feed. Since I was accompanied on my visit by a small boy in the shape of Kitenet jnr it's a shame I didn't think to put him to gainful employment for once ...

23 February 2012

Links for Oxfordshire recorders' day

[These links were originally compiled for a workshop in Oxfordshire in Feb 2012, 
but may be of interest more widely.]

These are links to the various sites looked at during the online resources workshop at the Oxfordshire recorders' day, organised by TVERC on 25 February 2012. Quite a few of these have appeared in the blog before (e.g. citizen science, online identification), but they're all useful sites so no harm in repeating them.

Photos for identifying wildlife
Following discussion of the pros and cons of using digital photos for wildlife identification we spent some time exploring iSpot (you will be unsurprised to hear!), and what the site does to encourage proper documentation of photo-records and their identification. We also looked in on the iSpot identification keys.

Online recording
Next up was online recording, focusing on Indicia and Birdtrack. Like iSpot, Indicia is one of the projects from OPAL, and it provides a toolkit for adding online recording to an existing website. There are an increasing number of effective recording systems being set up with Indicia, including for the British Dragonfly Society and the BBC's version of the UK Ladybird Survey.

Birdtrack has been around for a while now, developed by the British Trust for Ornithology and partners, and it really is a superb way of making bird records useful both to you as recorder, and to the conservation organisations that can make use of your data. I've only recently started adding my bird records to the site (I'm not much of a birder, so it's not been a great loss to them!), and am really impressed with the way that Birdtrack handles a range of different types of recording, and provides excellent feedback.

Twitter, Facebook, Google+, blogs: time well-spent, or time, well, just spent?
We looked at just a few examples here including:

The Square Metre at TQ 78286 18846

As for Twitter, just leap in and have a go. I'm @kitenet if you want to follow me. I haven't found how to make the most of Google+ yet, but I'm on there too.

Other resources
Finally, a mixed bag of other stuff:
  • lots of mapping links on my Kitenet website - grid refs, gazetteers, GIS and other gadgets
  • Nature Societies Online at the Natural History Museum - you'll be amazed how many wildlife-related groups there are in your county
  • Biodiversity Heritage Library - great library of mostly older natural history and biodiversity science publications, mostly quite old, not only available as good quality scans but also searchable
  • Instant Wild, a well-designed and fun citizen science project that asks you to identify mammals caught on camera from around the world - addictive and useful

Spot spotted, or not spotted?

The spot in question is Lempke's Gold Spot, a rather lovely moth named after the Dutch lepidopterist, B.J. Lempke, who I believe was the first to discover this species in Europe (it had long been known in the USA). In Britain it's mostly found in the northern half of the country, but there are a few records for the south.
© Jim Vargo at Moth Photographers Group via EoL

Earlier today, Roy Leverton (author of the excellent Enjoying Moths) contacted me, in my capacity as Berkshire county moth recorder, regarding a potential Berkshire record of Lempke's Gold Spot. This was published in a note by R.F. Bretherton, in the Entomologist's Record for 1966 (available via the Biodiversity Heritage Library). In the note Bretherton refers to discovering that a specimen from his garden in Cumnor Hill, near Oxford, in 1940 had turned out to be Lempke's Gold Spot, a species that had only recently been recognised as European at the time of the note.

I had no record for Lempke's Gold Spot on the Berkshire database, and the species is not included in Brian Baker's book on the county's moths either, so this could have constituted a new species, the 638th, for the county list - always an enticing prospect! However, the question arises why Baker did not include the record in his book; many of Bretherton's records were included, and Bretherton's moth collection went to Reading Museum on his death, the museum for which Baker was natural history curator for many years, and retained an active interest in after his retirement. 

So I am left wondering whether Baker saw the Lempke's Gold Spot record or specimen and rejected it, or whether it didn't get into his book because he was simply unaware of it. The 'normal' Gold Spot is very similar to Lempke's Gold Spot (sometimes needing dissection to distinguish the two), and in Bretherton's article he states that the specimen was of a worn individual, so there is an element of doubt.

What all this adds up to is that, unfortunately, the verdict has to be "not proven", and the idea of Lempke's Gold Spot being a Berkshire moth must remain an intriguing possibility. If only we could travel back to 1940 and have a look round at the habitats then available.

15 February 2012

Wildlife, citizens, science - Darwin Festival Feb 2012

Here are some links to do with citizen science and (mostly) wildlife recording, compiled to support a 'Café Science' event I'm presenting at the Darwin Festival in Shrewsbury, 17 February 2012.

Citizen Science (CS) projects, entirely online:

  • Herbaria at Home - museums and BSBI in an effective partnership to recruit help with digitising data from plant specimens (UK)
  • Cornell bird identification - innovative project to get people to 'train' an online identification system (USA)
  • WhaleFM - help categorise whale songs (international)
  • Instant Wild - help identify mammals recorded on-camera (international)
  • Zooniverse - collection of astronomical CS projects (universal)
  • Mappiness - uses apps to get people to record how happy they are at particular times, intends to look at whether being out in green space improves happiness [of course it does!], among other aims (UK)
Real-world projects with clever online elements:
Thanks to XKCD
  • Evolution Megalab from The Open University - main project has finished but you can still use and contribute to the website
  • Nature's Calendar - you can contribute records of wildlife seasonal change, and also explore the records already online via some ingenious interactive maps (UK)
  • OPAL surveys - well-designed environmental surveys with online data entry and analysis (UK)
  • Your Wild Life - fun projects looking at wildlife (some of it at micro-organism level) in our homes and on our bodies - armpit biodiversity anyone? (USA)
CS record-breakers:
Wildlife survey CS projects mentioned in the talk:
Other:

10 November 2011

Ragwort: what a fantastic plant for bees

Ragwort was in the news again earlier this year. I got interviewed on local radio about its value for moths (not a very rewarding experience, since the presenter seemed unable to get past his amusement at the idea of anyone actually being interested in moths). And environment minister Richard Benyon attracted a bit of attention with some ill-conceived Facebook comments about his hatred of Ragwort. Shortly after that episode, I happened upon this clump of Ragwort in full flower in the middle of one of my local SSSIs:

How many bees can you see on the flowers?


There were at least 50, which I've carefully highlighted in the second version of this photo, and they were having a fine old time necking nectar and perusing pollen:

On this occasion I didn't capture any to check the species; there were several involved, but I'm pretty sure that many of them were the solitary ground-nesting bee Lasioglossum calceatum (this one, with its long antennae, looks like a male): 

Now, Ragwort can cause problems, being toxic to grazing mammals when consumed in large quantities, and where it poses a genuine risk to these animals it needs to be controlled. But in areas where grazing animals aren't an issue, Ragwort provides a valuable resource for many, many insects, including at least 30 insects and 14 fungi that are entirely dependent on the plant, plus the huge numbers of insects that visit the flowers for pollen and nectar, as shown above.

The controversy over the rights and wrongs of ragwort has raged for years now, and the claims for its harmful effects have often been widely exaggerated. There's plenty of good information about Ragwort available nowadays, not least in DEFRA's own Code of Conduct, so there's not really any excuse for continuing to demonise the plant. Like most entomologists, I remain pleased to see Ragwort in all non-grazing-mammal contexts, and hope to see many more plants covered in the buzzing of contented bees, flies, beetles and butterflies - the sheer exuberance of the bees in the photos above were one of my year's wildlife highlights.

Good sense on Ragwort is available from:


synonymy

This blog used to be called "sweepnet", a title I was never happy with. Having had a good long break from even attempting to be a blogger, I'm going for a fresh start using another title that I'm not entirely happy with, but irregardless of that am giving it a try. Let's have a prolonged intake of breath for ...

pooter

Various hilarious puns on the subject of sucking suggest themselves, but we're all going to resist, aren't we.