13 October 2009

iSpot features moth new to Britain

The OPAL iSpot project (see previous post) has had an exciting few days - a moth, found by six-year-old Katie Dobbins in Berkshire, was posted on iSpot, and has turned out to be a species not recorded in Britain before: Pryeria sinica, the Euonymus Leaf-notcher. This is native to Asia but has been found in a couple of places in the States since 2001.

Further details and more photos are on the Berkshire Moth Group website.

Thanks to Katie Dobbins for getting her dad to report the moth, and to Martin Honey of the Natural History Museum for his help in confirming its identity. Full details will be published as soon as possible, and the specimen is being passed on to the NHM.

This may well be just a one-off importation with plants or packaging, but it's emerged via the Back Garden Moths forum that the Euonymus Leaf-notcher was also seen in Spain last June, the only other record for Europe that we've heard of (so far!).

The Open University press office have made good use of the story and so far it's been picked up by the Express, Mail and Mirror. As usual the papers have their own perspective on this, and according to taste the moth is either the "UK's rarest moth" or the next major pest outbreak.

All good fun, and hopefully Katie has enjoyed her encounters with biodiversity and the media!

New atlas of bees, wasps and ants

The latest atlas in the set being published by BWARS arrived a week or two ago:
Edwards, R., and Roy, H. (eds) 2009. Provisional atlas of aculeate Hymenoptera of Britain and Ireland Part 7. Wallingford: Biological Records Centre.

Part 7 of this atlas includes maps for a further 58 species, with brief species accounts summarising the distribution, ecology and conservation status. Following the BWARS plan, part 7 contains a mix of ants, wasps and bees, including nine of the small (and hard to identify) parasitic jewel wasps in genus Chrysis, seven of the solitary wasps in genus Crossocerus, a range of solitary bees and six bumblebees (genus Bombus).

The latter group includes an account of Bombus cullumanus, last recorded in Britain in 1941, in Berkshire, and now considered extinct following recent surveys of all the sites from which it was previously known. By contrast, the map for Bombus hypnorum shows how far this species has spread since it colonised Britain in 2001.

There is a useful summary of the problems of distinguishing workers of Bombus terrestris from those of Bombus lucorum (queens and males can be separated relatively easily, although for queens the situation is becoming more difficult as colonies of the continental, white-tailed, race of Bombus terrestris have been imported for commercial use); and of the status of Bombus lucorum itself, which has been shown to be an aggregate of three very similar species: B. lucorum sensu stricto, B. magnus and B. cryptarum.

The dot maps in part 7 show the most recent records as black dots for the period 1970 to 2007 (or so it says on page 9, but I think at least some of the maps include records after 2007 - certainly that for Bombus hypnorum does). While this maintains consistency with the maps in the previous parts of the atlas, it does not enable more recent changes in distribution to be shown. For example, it would have been good to see the recent expansion of range in species such as the parasitic bee Sphecodes niger shown more clearly on the maps.

One reason for producing atlases, and one of the reasons why mambers of BWARS work so hard to collate the records, is to monitor changes in species and look out for any worrying declines, and in part 7 there several examples of just this. For instance, the closely related solitary bees Andrena rosae and A. stragulata have not previously been listed as scarce or declining, but these maps show that there is cause for concern with few recent records.

The BWARS data for these species (but not the species accounts) can be seen on the NBN Gateway - for example, here is the map for Specodes niger.

10 October 2009

iSpot - helping people learn about wildlife

iSpot was launched last summer: "iSpot is the place to learn more about wildlife and to share your interest with a friendly community. Take a look at the latest spots, start your own album of observations, join a group and get help identifying what you have seen."

iSpot has been developed by the Open University as part of the Open Air Laboratories project (OPAL), with funding from the Big Lottery Fund. I've been part of the team working on it for the last year or so.

Here's an introduction to what iSpot is all about:

So far we have over 1,000 registered users on the site, including a healthy mix of beginners and more experienced naturalists, all busy helping each other identify what they've seen. One thing we're trying to encourage on the site is for people to explain why a species is that particular species, not just give its name. Of course, not all species can be identified from photos or descriptions, and the site allows this to be shown clearly where necessary.

Several national and local recording schemes have representatives active on the site, and they are being 'badged' with a logo next to their user name so that every time they are active on the site a link is given back to their society's website. If you're involved with a recording scheme or society and would like to find out more about this please do contact iSpot.

9 August 2009

MapMate: new user queries available

For MapMate users, I've added a few new queries to my MapMate resources page (see the SQL for user queries heading on that page):
  • Information on creating queries that combine synonyms into the latest version of the name
  • Query to update the date in a block of records
  • Query to export data from MapMate in the format required to send it to the NBN Gateway (thanks to Graham French for help with this one)

6 June 2009

more moths and media

The Moths and Media talk (see below and below) gets another outing on Monday 8 June, 7,45pm, for Wycombe Wildlife Group - all welcome if you're within reach of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Details are here.

19 May 2009

links from Moths and the Media talk

Here are the links to many of the websites referred to in the "Moths and the Media" talk I gave in Newbury on 19 May 2009, for Butterfly Conservation and BBOWT, and again for Moths Count at the South Wales Moth Recorders’ Gathering, September 2009.

Many of the links, including most of the 'serious' mothing identification sites and online resources for moth recorders, have already been listed in my previous post on this subject and aren't repeated here. The ones that are new:

Additional mothing sites

Online mapping and grid references
  • Where's the path - OS maps and Google aerial photos side-by-side (this site has recently moved URL)
  • Grab a grid reference - excellent innovation from Keith Balmer for Bedfordshire Natural History Society, displays grid reference squares at various resolutions over Google maps and aerials (works throughout UK)

Moth-related blogs (a small and fairly random selection from among many)

Moth miscellany

funding for work experience with invertebrates and mammals

The People's Trust for Endangered Species is awarding funding for students/recent graduates who wish to gain experience by taking up an internship with conservation or research organisations - details available here.

For work with invertebrates, two internships are available this year, deadline for applications is 15 June 2009. Mammal internships have been allocated for 2009 but will be available again in 2010 (I see that there are seven mammal internships available, which is a bit unbalanced given the relative number of species to choose from, but far be it from me to criticise funding for worthwhile causes!).

(I'm indebted to the Amateur Entomologists' Society for information on these awards, via the AES Twitter feed.)

14 May 2009

Award for David Lonsdale

I'm delighted to hear that David Lonsdale has been awarded this year's Marsh Award for Insect Conservation. Many years ago I volunteered as Conservation Officer for the Amateur Entomologists' Society, under David's guidance, and have fond memories of his friendly supervision, his expert and detailed knowledge, and his untiring dedication to the cause of conserving invertebrates. Strong memories also of his beady eye for any deviations from good English and scientific accuracy!

David is still active within the AES, editing their Invertebrate Conservation News among other activities, and also supports the Ancient Tree Forum and Buglife, among others. He (along with Reg Fry) was instrumental in getting the first book published on insect conservation in the UK, the AES's "Habitat Conservation for Invertebrates - A Neglected Green Issue" (1991).

This award for David is thoroughly well-deserved, congratulations, and long may his inspiring work continue.

11 May 2009

moths and ... contemporary music

In a former life I spent ten years as a professional musician (trombonist and composer), specialising in the further outreaches of contemporary classical music. The kind of stuff that gets dismissed as "squeeky-gate". It's what I've enjoyed listening to since I was a teenager.

My 'favourite composer' all this time has been Harrison Birtwistle, who writes music that is joyously, gratuitously dissonant and beautiful. As well as performing his music whenever I got the chance, I was a full-on fan, collecting his printed music and getting him to sign it for me.

There is definitely an elemental feel to his music, some of which is explicitly based around the idea of landscapes (Silbury Air being a prime example), and it has always felt in keeping with my love for the natural world. But I didn't realise until I read it in last Saturday's Guardian that I share another interest with Birtwistle, namely a fascination with moths. Apparently, Birtwistle has collected moths since he was 13:
Moths are magical - you can never see them until you trap them. I have an idea to write a requiem for all the species of moth that are extinct, using their Latin names.
From almost anyone else that would sound an unpromising idea for a piece of music, but I bet Birtwistle could make something of it. Can't wait to find out what.

[Photograph of Silbury Hill by Greg O'Beirne]

30 March 2009

Evolving snails: launch of Evolution Megalab

Continuing today's snail theme, today is the official launch of the Evolution Megalab, a project being run by the Open University where people can contribute to evolution research by surveying the Brown-lipped Banded Snail Cepaea nemoralis. There's been quite a lot of publicity about it today, and it is part of the OU's celebration of Darwin 200.

Anyone can take part in the survey, and the Megalab site has full instructions, along with associated videos (see below) and an identification quiz you can take to rate yourself as a Cepaea identifier. Cepaea snails have a long history as evolutionary study subjects, and the Megalab gives you the chance to add to this body of work. You can also see what historical records are held for your area.

For those with mixed feelings about snails, there is no need to hate Cepaea snails! They prefer dead or decaying vegetation and although they can be common in gardens they don't do much if any damage.

Snail identification: new edition of FSC key

Robert Cameron's excellent Key for the identification of Land Snails in the British Isles was published by the Field Studies Council in 2003, and a new edition came out towards the end of 2008. I was unable to resist getting the new one, despite being an infrequent recorder of snails who was quite happy with the old one! Was it worth it?

The new edition is not very different (e.g. 84 pages as opposed to the original's 82, and this has only changed due to the inclusion of a few new references), but it does contain four additional species, some corrections and some updates to the nomenclature (scientific names), quite a few of which have changed. The four new species are:
  • Myosotella denticulata. This is very similar to M. myosotis, and they are both species of tidal standlines and edges of saltmarshes. Both key out at the same place, and Cameron doesn't attempt to distinguish the two fully. Further information on separating these species is available in Roy Anderson's 2008 checklist of UK non-marine Mollusca, which can be downloaded from the Conchological Society.
  • Balea heydeni. This has been split from the similar B. perversa, and it seems that the 'new' species B. heydeni is actually the commoner of the two in Britain and Ireland, so previous records of B. perversa will have to be classed as an aggregate of the two species unless they can be checked. Balea spp. can be found on trees and rocks (the first edition of the key rather intriguingly says that B. perversa [agg.] is often found in places with few other snails, but this descriptive text has been sacrificed for lack of space in the second edition).
  • Papillifera bidens. A Mediterranean species that has been introduced into Britain; the only confirmed records so far are from a National Trust property in Buckinghamshire. Superficially similar to other clausiliid snails but with a distinctive dark band and white spots running round the shell.
  • Cernuella aginnica. Another introduced species that has so far been found only in Kent, and is not thought to be widespread. It is very similar to the common C. virgata, and requires dissection to confirm (features described but not illustrated in the key).
The only one of these that people living away from the coast are likely to encounter is Balea heydeni, so if you already have the first edition you should be quite safe to continue using it. But if you're keen to watch out for the latest introductions then the second edition is essential.

And if you don't have the key at all I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in snails - it is a thorough and careful key, but very well laid out and easy for a beginner to get to grips with. I particularly like Robert Cameron's introduction to using the key, which starts:
"Experience has shown that there are two extremes in reactions to keys. One is the expectation that a good key should lead simply to the right answer, even in the hands of a beginner. The other, sometimes expressed by experts, is that keys never work well, and that only face-to-face tuition by an expert works properly. The first view leads to frustration, or even despar. The second can have the effect of making identification an arcance professional preserve."
Robert goes on to chart a middle course between these extremes, providing guidance on how to get the best out of using a key, and what limitations have to be borne in mind. He demonstrates this advice well in his own key.

5 March 2009

OPAL soil and earthworm survey

The work I'm currently doing at the Open University's Biodiversity Observatory is part of a much bigger project called Open Air Laboratories (OPAL). The aim is to encourage more people to find out about their environment, get involved with the science associated with environmental issues, and learn more about wildlife and conservation.

One of the (many!) activities that OPAL is promoting is a series of public participation surveys, and the first of these is now up and running. It is devoted to soils and earthworms. The survey asks you to select a suitable site, do some simple tests to assess the nature of the soil, and find and identify a range of common earthworm species. You'll need to do a small amount of digging! The results are posted online and can then be seen on the survey map (some are appearing already).

In terms of biological recording, earthworms have been rather neglected in this country, perhaps surprisingly given our penchant for recording other rather obscure invertebrate groups, and at the moment there is no recording scheme nor published atlas for earthworms. The OPAL survey provides a well-illustrated Field Studies Council key to 12 common species of earthworm (download from the OPAL links given above), but if you want to take things further and look at the full range of species the Natural History Museum is seeking volunteers to undertake full surveys of worms in natural habitats. Training in the use of the full key by Sims and Gerard (1999, Synopses of the British Fauna, [currently out of print] UPDATE: now back in print) will be given. For further details of this, contact:
Dr David Jones, Soil Biodiversity Research Group, Department of Entomology, Natural History Museum, London, SW7 5BD. 020 7942 5706 or dtj [AT] nhm.ac.uk

While we're on the subject, there's a lot of good information on earthworms at the UCLAN Earthworm Research Group, and some fun video footage of Lumbricus terrestris at ARKive.

25 February 2009

invertebrate recording schemes - call for atlas records

Three national recording schemes are currently collating records for their forthcoming national atlases, and have deadlines fast approaching. I managed to get myself sufficiently organised today to send off my records, so am feeling smug, and if anyone else has data to contribute I'm sure it would be very welcome.
Geophilus carpophagus

19 February 2009

analysing county moth datasets

County moth datasets tend to be large and 'messy' affairs - messy in the sense that they are large aggregations of data from a variety of sources, collected using a variety of methods. Some people will run a mercury vapour trap all night long in their garden, several times a week; others will run an occasional actinic trap for a few hours on a nature reserve; others will just send in a few sightings of moths they've found by day. Is it possible to draw any overall conclusions about which moths are increasing or decreasing from this mass/mess of data?

In an attempt to look at this for the Berkshire moth database, I've set up some user queries for use in MapMate that compare numbers of records and of individuals of particular species against total numbers for the year. Full details and a download of the queries are here on my kitenet website. Here are the resulting graphs for Mottled Rustic, currently doing very poorly in Berkshire:

11 February 2009

moths on the web - news update

Positioned somewhere on the sublime–ridiculous scale ...
Not being too familiar with Killer Moth I consulted this review, "What is there to say about Killer Moth? He’s probably second only to Kite-Man as Batman’s goofiest foe ... Killer Moth is a fairly standard figure, but his wings push his rating up a little higher."

9 February 2009

MapMate: Reset Sync option

For MapMate users: just added "What to do if you have a problem syncing records" to my website. This explains how to use the "Reset Sync" option so that you resend all your records in order to ensure that none have been missed, e.g. if a sync file has got lost or corrupted.

(Won't mean much to you if you don't use MapMate!)

6 February 2009

Ask your MP to support Butterfly Conservation

Butterfly Conservation are asking for help to ensure all MPs are aware of an Early Day Motion highlighting butterfly declines:

Members of Parliament have registered their alarm at the decline in butterfly numbers and said a big thank you to all the volunteers who participate in UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme.

More than 50 MPs have signed an Early Day Motion tabled by the MP Bob Russell, who represents Colchester and is a long-time Butterfly Conservation member.

It states that:

"This House registers its deep concern at the decline in the butterfly population, with numbers reported by the charity Butterfly Conservation to be at their lowest for 25 years, with the small tortoiseshell showing the biggest decline of 81 per cent; congratulates the thousands of volunteers who each year provide information for the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme operated by Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology; welcomes the comments of Sir David Attenborough, President of Butterfly Conservation, who is promoting an appeal to raise funds for the charity's Stop Extinction Appeal; and calls on the Government to promote cross-departmental policies to assist in safeguarding Britain's butterflies"

If you think this EDM should be supported, please check Early Day Motion 8 to see if your MP has signed, and if they haven't ask them to do so.

A sample letter to MPs can be found via Upper Thames Branch of Butterfly Conservation

Find out who your MP is here

2 February 2009

New key to plants

The long-awaited new "Vegetative Key to the British Flora" (by John Poland and Eric Clement) is nearing completion. BSBI are now advertising a pre-publication offer: if you order before the 17th April it will cost £20 inclusive, whereafter it will cost £25 plus p&p.

You can download a flyer for the book from the BSBI website (see the top-right-hand corner of the site).

The authors claim that (with experience) you'll be able to identify most plants within 60 seconds! (personally I'd be happy if I could get somewhere near identifying most plants within 60 hours ...)

1 February 2009

revised MapMate user queries

Ages ago I circulated a set of MapMate user queries to extend the standard "Browse all records" query with extra details, including determiner, national status for rare species, some higher taxon classifications, etc.

I was recently asked to revise these queries, updating and slightly extending them. The revised versions can be downloaded here.

(see the fourth bullet point "SQL text (.txt file) for custom User Queries to browse records with additional details")

30 January 2009

web resources for moth recorders

I've been invited by Moths Count to give a presentation at the English moth recorders conference (Birmingham, 31 January 2009) on how moth recorders are using the web. The presentation itself (with audio now available again) can be seen below, and below that are links to the sites mentioned in the presentation. This is by no means a complete set of useful moth websites, but it does pick out some that I think are really good examples, and especially useful to moth recorders (and if you want more here's my full list of Lepidoptera-related links.)

Information and photos
Perhaps the most familiar site for information and photos of adult moths is UKmoths. For early stages, UKleps has an astonishing set of photos, covering the full life cycle for many species. British leafminers gives comprehensive information on that group of moths (and see also British insect miners, which covers non-Lepidopterous leaf-mines as well). For those moths that need dissection to be identified see the Lepidoptera dissection group.

Egroups and forums
The best-known and longest established egroups are on Yahoo: UKmoths, UKmicromoths, the migrant recorders network and UKleps. There are an increasing number of web-based wildlife discussion forums as well, many of which include moths. One of the most popular of these is Wild About Britain, with over 25,000 registered members. You can also discuss moths on Facebook via Moths aren't scary they rock!!

Making identification easier
Ideas for improving identification resources on the web include making it easy to compare similar species; making it possible to annotate images online; and encouraging better labelling of photos and of the 'determinations' (identifications) associated with them (e.g. documenting who has identified them and when).

The Suffolk Moth Group has an excellent feature on its species pages, which allows you to compare similar species - you can compare photos, flight periods, habitats etc. (example species account). Kuvia ja havaintoja perhosista (moths in Finland) covers some moth species in detail (including carpets and pugs), and has a great feature where you can click on the moth photos and each opens up in its own window, making it easy to arrange and compare them side-by-side.

One of my current jobs is with the iSpot website, part of the OPAL project at the Open University. iSpot aims to connect beginner naturalists with a supportive community of experts and fellow enthusiasts. If you're knowledgeable about moths or wildlife, can you spare some time to help others learn about what they've seen? And if you're involved with a recording scheme or society then get in touch to find out how you can be 'badged' on iSpot, with links through to your own website.

Other resources
For maps and grid references (including 1940s maps and aerial photos) try the superb Where's the Path (but you may need to catch it early in the morning as Ordnance Survey restrict the number of map views per day). The BSBI's Herbaria at Home project has a tool for checking which vice-county a grid reference of place name falls in.

For researching associations between plants and moths (and other insects) the Biological Records Centre has put its Database of Insects and their Foodplants online. And try the Suffolk Moth Group again for the Field Tips - month-by-month info on what moths (especially caterpillars) can be found where.

Predictive mothing
Several county websites have set up a "what's flying tonight" feature, using the county records to show which species are most likely to be seen (as adults) on any date. See versions for Norfolk, Suffolk and Somerset (I find they are useful even if you live a long way from these counties).

New developments
One of the most innovative moth websites is Norfolk Moths. Species info, distribution maps, online recording and many other features, including Mobile Moths, which reformats all this mass of data so that it can be accessed via mobile devices such as iPhones and Blackberries. You can also follow Norfolk Moths on Twitter.

Don't forget to turn the computer off and do some mothing sometimes as well!