Spooning in Stiffkey

Mrs Sciencebase and I visited our peripatetic holiday house* to High Sands Creek campsite in Stiffkey, Norfolk, this weekend, turned out to be the hottest weekend of the year so far. Lots and lots of rather worn looking Painted Lady butterflies during the day and Silver Y pollinating the wildflowers at dusk.

A long, hot walk to Wells-next-the-Sea from the campsite was peppered with the usual seabird suspects of summer in this area – Oystercatcher, Curlew, Red Shank – and quite a few warblers in the trees along the footpath. It’s quite a hike from the east end of Wells to the pine-backed beaches of golden sand and beach huts to the west. The aroma of the pine and the heat of the day might make the somnambulant visitor imagine dreamily that they are on a Mediterranean island. It is quite beautiful and one of the many reasons we make return visits to this part of the world and have done so for almost thirty years.

Anyway, we had at various points along the hike seen what we thought were large, odd-looking herons overhead. It was only on seeing one wading and feeding along the shore of the inlet, East Fleet, that we realised that what we had been watching were Spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia).

There are a few of the birds at Holkham, further west around the coast, perhaps one might describe it as a breeding colony and ironically enough they were spotted at Stiffkey Fen a couple of days before our arrival. The “spoon” shaped bill of this bird, Mrs Sciencebase remarked is quite something, but perhaps a more apt name would The Spatula-billed Heron.

Sadly, this species is of European conservation concern and is actually only a rare breeding bird in the UK. It is thought there are only up to 4 breeding pairs in the UK. That said, on a fairly recent visit to RSPB Minsmere we caught a glimpse of around 30 Spoonbills (out of breeding season some of them arrive here to over-winter). I’ve seen two previously at RSPB North Warren on the northern outskirts of Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

But, on this more recent coastal trip to North Norfolk we may have seen a total of half a dozen, with one or two spotted in flight at different times over the weekend and the individual above I photographed in Wells-next-the-Sea.

Amazingly, only one other person in the town walking along the East Fleet seemed to notice the bird, he ran down to get a photo with his phone shouting about it being a “dessert spoonbill” to his friends and, of course, he spooked it and it took flight…which did give me an opportunity to snap it in flight much closer.

*Our tent.

A hint of flint

The Lepidoptera, the scaly-winged insects we know as moths and butterflies, have become something of a citizen science preoccupation for me over the last year or so, hopefully at least a few of you noticed.

I’ve talked about how many of these insects are perhaps dowdy and drab but there is such huge variety in their form, shape, patterns, and behaviour and so many are brighter and more colourful and intriguing than the moths we call butterflies in English. With more than 2500 species in the British Isles, what’s an amateur naturalist going to do, but study, photograph, and write about them?

Yesterday one of my colleagues on the Facebook group “UK Moths Flying Tonight” posted a photo of a moth known as Buff Arches, Habrosyne pyritoides (Hufnagel, 1766). I was envious and hoping to see one today, and there here we are, there was one in the trap, hence my photos. The UK Moths site says of Buff Arches:

The combination of smooth grey, white and russet-brown make this delicately-marked moth one of the prettiest, especially when observed at close range.

Now, many Lepidoptera are patterned and colourful. Often the markings help camouflage the insect making it look like a leaf or a piece of twig. Buff Arches is particularly well marked and intricate and, at first, I couldn’t see through its disguise.

My expert lep friend Leonard Cooper pointed out that it’s not trying to look like a leaf or a twig, it actually resembles a shard of flint. Buff Arches, in other words, has evolved a disguise that makes it look like a piece of naturally napped stone. It is common in wooded areas of the southern half of Britain but is absent from Scotland. There’s a clue in the species’ scientific name as to what the people who named it thought it looked like – Habrosyne pyritoides, that term “pyritoides” literally means resembling pyrite (the mineral iron pyrite, iron sulfide*). And, if you didn’t picture it as a sherd of flint, then thinking of it as a lump of mineral might fool you.

Incidentally, The Cinnabar is so-called for another mineral connection, the red of its wings is very same hue as mercury sulfide, commonly known as cinnabar.

Meanwhile, that Citizen Science stuff I mentioned, well it’s basically about recording what turns up in the garden, I’ve had at least a couple of Cambridgeshire rarities – Light-feathered Rustic and The Spinach – so those have been logged with the County Recorder. You can keep up to date with all the other leps in my logbook here.

Birds of the Fen Edge Festival

The biannual Fen Edge Festival took place midsummer weekend 21-23rd June 2019. As ever, exciting but exhausting with lots of music and other events, stalls, etc. I side-stepped being an official photographer this year in favour of doing a bit more “musical” performance, but I still managed to get a few photos of the birds that The Raptor Foundation had brought along.

Happy and red-faced Bataleur Eagle
Happy and red-faced Bataleur Eagle

The Bataleur Eagle (Terathopius ecaudatus) is one of Africa’s snake-eating eagles. It’s a medium-sized eagle but up close and personal looks quite huge. Mainly black with distinctive white on the underside of its enormour wings. More distinctive still are its red face and feet. These are brightest when the bird is comfortable and happy, but it can withdraw the blood from these parts of its body when agitated leaving the face and feet yellow.

The Bataleur that the team brought to FEF19 was a female called Captain Scarlet. The bird has a foreshortened tail which is an adaptation that allows it to walk backwards on the ground. This it does when hunting snakes. A snake will perceive another animal backing away as being vulnerable and likely prey.

The eagle backs away enticing in the snake and by this time it will have withdrawn the blood from its face and feet. It will strike the snake with its talons but if the snake tries to retaliate by biting the bird before its demise, there is no blood in the vulnerable extremities to carry the snake’s venom into the bird’s system. Once it has dispatched, the snake, the bird will eat it and in the meantime, the blood will flood back into its face and feet pushing out any venom through the puncture wounds!

European Eagle Owl
Klunk, the European Eagle Owl

The Raptor Foundation also brought along a European Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo) called Klunk. Its scientific name is one of those tautonyms I keep mentioning. The double of the scientific name like this means this species is the archetype, the type, of the family.

Southern White-faced Owl
Southern White-faced Owl

They brought with them a tiny Southern White-faced Owl (Ptilopsis granti) from Southern Africa, called, ironically, Goliath. Mrs Sciencebase and myself certainly heard this species in Botswana many years ago, but at the time they were known as White-faced Scops Owls.

Tawny Owl
Tawny Owl

There was a Barn Owl (Tyto Alba), and a Tawny Owl (Strix aluco). The female of this species is the one that calls out to the males “Too-wit” and the male replies “Two-woo”. You can usually then know if there are at least two Tawny owls, a male and a female around. Except, of course, confusingly the females also sometimes make the call back to themselves.

Pondlife Part VI – Adding more plants

UPDATE: 20 May 2020 – One night later in May saw five frogs roosting around the pond.

UPDATE: 4 May 2020 – Seen and heard two frogs for quite a few weeks after dark. Possibly two males, however, so no spawn. Mimulus in bloom as of ~1 May and a flag iris about to erupt too. The aquatic snails are thriving, we have dozens and dozens of both kinds now.

UPDATE 30 Jun 2019 – A frog made an appearance. Sat on the gravel pot while I went to get a camera and then promptly hopped back in the water on my return.

It’s almost two months since I dug and refilled our resurrected pond. It has a couple of deep oxygenating plants, some reeds, and a margin plant or two. We’ve seen two or three frogs but also lots of mosquitoes and their swimming larvae. There are diving beetles and whirligigs, and similar in the garden. We see an occasional bird having a drink. It’s new, it’s settling.

Macro closeup of a Mimulus flower in the margin of our pond.

The water feature (basically some rocks, a hosepipe and an electric pump in the bottom of the pond) is keeping the pondweed and algae at bay and after several construction attempts makes a nice natural sound now rather than splashing on to the butyl rubber.

Added two new plant species a water lily, Odorate sulphurea, and a Mimulus luteus with the variant name Queen’s Prize. The water lily isn’t much to look at but will hopefully spread its pads and provide summer shade for the submerged amphibia. The Mimulus has lovely blood red and custard yellow flowers. Also, just acquired some Common Water Snails (Limnoea stagnalis) and some Great Ramshorn Snails (Planorbarius corneus) from a friend along with a spiky pond plant, Water Soldier, which are now in place.

The pond surroundings also now have some wildflowers – Red Campion, Foxglove, St John’s Wort, Wild Basil, and others as well as the unkempt and weedy patch of grass behind and plenty of nijer and sunflower seedlings growing from birdfeeder spillage beneath the apple tree. It’s not quite idyllic yet, but it’s getting there…

A green moth that’s almost white

The Light Emerald, is a geometer moth (its larvae are inchworms, measuring the earth). It is a delicate green, but not always, sometimes the green is stronger, sometimes it’s almost not green at all, but you can still tell that it is Campaea margaritaria. I had a very pale specimen to the scientific moth trap in June 2019 and posted a photo along with other interesting moths that were drawn to the actinic light.

Strongly pigmented Light Emerald

A colleague, Martin Honey, on the Moths UK Flying Tonight Facebook group commented that he was aware of chemical research into the green pigment in this species and how it is known to be a less stable compound than any of the green pigments in an entirely different group of moths that sometimes have green, the noctuids, also known as the owlets.

An almost white Light Emerald, it’s green pigment has degraded

The paper is from 1994 and explains the chemistry of the Light Emerald green: The chemistry and systematic importance of the green wing pigment in emerald moths (Lepidopera: Geometridae, Geometrinae). You can read about the research here. It’s definitely something I might have written about back in the day when I was doing weekly chemistry news for New Scientist magazine and others.

The green pigment in question is called geoverdin and it is the only green pigment the moth needs. Chemically speaking it was once thought to be a bile pigment, but it turns out to actually be a derivative of the green pigment from photosynthesising plants, chlorophyll, consumed during the moth’s larval (caterpillar) stage. The researchers in the paper cited used good-old thin-layer chromatography to give the elusive moth pigment a little TLC and discern its characteristics.

Unfortunately, the team does not show the structure in their paper and a search for any other reference turns up nothing. However, I did find reference to the original PhD thesis from which the research paper was derived wherein it suggests that geoverdin is derived from neither bile pigments nor chlorophyll. I’ve contacted one of the team to find out more and will hopefully be able to update this post soon.

Scientific binomials in biology

I’ve talked about scientific binomial nomenclature here before especially in the context of tautonyms, where each part of the binomial (or trinomial even) is the same word e.g Carduelis carduelis, Bufo bufo, Gorilla gorilla gorilla. The repetition lets you know the species in question is the “type of the family.

People often call these scientific names, the Latin name for a plant or animal. However, they’re rarely Latin, they are Latinised, made to look like Latin words, but they’re often derived from proper Latin, assimilated from Greek or simply faked. Heteropoda davidbowie is a good example of why these aren’t really Latin names.

Anyway, a point that I’d overlooked in recent years is that the scientific name for an organism has to be qualified by the name of the person that named/discovered the organism and the year that was first recorded. So, for example, the full name of the spider with the orange mullet should be as follows: Heteropoda davidbowie, [Jäger, 2008]. In printed works, the binomial should be in italic lettering and the name and year in brackets.

Now, that I’ve remembered this point, I’ve made a start updating the lists associated with my bio photo galleries at Imaging Storm: Lepidoptera, Birds, and other Wildlife to include the discoverer/namer and year. It’s going to take me a while so please just in enjoy scrolling through my photos for now.


Four Elephants on the Bottom Lime

Scientific moth trap haul was much improved during a wet but balmy June night: 105+ moths of 31+ species. My hunch had been right based on the activity I’d seen around the actinic light after midnight. Despite the drizzle, it was almost balmy.

Never thought I’d see so many HMs at once: 4 Elephant Hawk-moths and a Lime Hawk-moth. Also, had my first Ghost Moth (M), first Light Arches (2x), first Mottled Beauty.
Four Elephant Hawk-moths and a Lime
Male Ghost Moth (Hepialus humuli, Linnaeus, 1758)

Light Arches (Apamea lithoxylaea, [Denis & Schiffermüller], 1775)

Light Feathered Rustic, Agrotis cinerea

This is one of those moths that most readers will just think, “ah, yes, typical moth – boring, grey, brown, ewww”. And superficially, yes, it is not a lot to look at. But, it’s a bit of a rarity and it was drawn to my scientific trap on the night of 31st July 2018 and photographed in the trap the next morning. It’s only recently that my mothing and birding friend Ian was scanning through my Mothematics Gallery and noticed I’d labelled this as queried and not confirmed an ID.

Light Feathered Rustic (Agrotis cinerea)
Light Feathered Rustic (Agrotis cinerea)

I have now confirmed it as Light Feathered Rustic (Agrotis cinerea, Denis & Schiffermüller], 1775). Indicators are that line about 1/3rd of the way down and also the finger-like projections towards the termen. However, August is well outside the moth’s usual May to June flying season. But, it is suspected of having a second partial brood later in the summer. Moreover, this is a rarity in VC29 (Cambridgeshire) and East Anglia in general.

I spoke to Bill Mansfield the County Recorder, he and others have said it’s definitely A. cinerea. Astonishingly, Bill’s last record for Cambridgeshire was in 1991. He also points out that the only time it was recorded in Huntingdonshire was 1951 and Northamptonshire has no record of it since 2004. He is checking with Bedfordshire.

The species is one of the family Noctuidae, colloquially known as owlets, little owls (Noctua is Latin for little owl). They’re generally night-flying species and their larvae (caterpillars) known as  “armyworms” and “cutworms” are plant pests – they form destructive garrisons of larvae and cut the stems of plants. There are almost 12000 species of owlet moths around the world.

The Fenland Pearl – a local moth for local people

No spectacular Hawk-moths today, nothing even particularly brightly coloured or intriguing at all…except for this little creamy white one with two distinctive black spots and lots of speckles.

Fenland Pearl, Anania perlucidalis (Hübner, [1809])
The Fenland Pearl, (Anania perlucidalis, Hübner 1809)
I couldn’t ID it so turned to Twitter and got an identification from lep expert Sean Foote within minutes – Anania perlucidalis (Hübner, 1809) and about the same time by Chris Knott on the Facebook group “Moths UK Flying Tonight“. The species only has an official scientific name, the modern common name is Fenland Pearl, and is not necessarily in the books. In fact, it’s not in my book at all under either name, which is perhaps why I struggled to find it.

According to the UK Moths site, it was first seen in the British Isles on a Huntingdonshire fen, just up the road from us here in Cambridgeshire. It’s a localised species, lives on fenland and coastal parts of East Anglia and the South East of England. The site says little is known about the lifecycle of this species although it is thought that the larvae feed on Cirsium and Carduus thistles. The Wikipedia is very terse but corroborates it as a June-July and August flyer depending on location and that the larvae feed on Cirsium.

I keep a log of all the moths drawn to the scientific trap as well as posting species new for me (NFM) or new for the year (NFY) in my Mothematics Gallery.