Sunday, 14 June 2015

Butterfly day at Sheskinmore

The annual Donegal Butterfly Day was led by Bob Aldwell, co-author (with Frank Smyth) of "The butterflies of Donegal":

This excellent new book has species descriptions and images of all of the Donegal butterflies plus habitat descriptions. It also includes aberrations. It also includes several of my images.

The day started off dull and cold and the first hour yielded no butterflies, but I did find a Cinnabar moth:

Cinnabar moth
And a new gall on Blackthorn - Taphrina pruni:

Taphrina pruni on Blackthorn
This fungal gall infects the fruit, converting its growth pattern to maximise the area for spore dispersal.

New to my Species List.

There were also many specimens of Northern Marsh Orchid and the more scarce Early Marsh Orchid - Dactylorhiza incarnata, which appears in many colours:

Early Marsh Orchid
Just as we arrived at a known hot spot for butterflies, the clouds parted and we found ourselves surrounded by Marsh Fritillaries, Small Blues, Small Copper, Speckled Wood and Dingy Skippers. The Marsh Fritillary is under severe pressure in Europe due to extensive harvesting of peat bogs, and Ireland is really the last hope for this wonderful species:

Marsh Fritillary
This is a female currently in cop (you can just see the male at the bottom of the image).

Bioblitz workshop in Merlin Woods

On Tuesday, I ran a workshop on Bioblitzing in Merlin Woods, Galway. A dozen or so of us surveyed two areas of woodland and associated meadows, recording plants, insects, birds and lichens. The woodland is clearly ancient, and sits on limestone with areas of limestone pavement, leading to a wide biodiversity.

The workshop was arranged by the Friends of Merlin Woods, who are working very hard to reverse years of encroachment, and are preserving this wonderful resource for the future.

My personal list for the day reached around 200 species and this post shows some of the highlights.

I entrusted my net to two lads who were happy to chase down particular specimens on request, and we were able to photograph two specimens of the 4-spotted Chaser:

4-spotted Chaser

Since the woodland is on limestone and is a good deal further south than the area I usually survey, I had hoped to find species new to my list. One welcome addition is the Gorse Shieldbug. These are rather skittish and quickly run out of sight. You really need to wait until they think you're gone in order to get a decent shot:

Gorse Shieldbug. On Gorse.
New to my species list.

Oak trees are host to hundreds of species of insect and fungi, so are always worth a look. I spotted a new miner, which has now been identified and confirmed as the micromoth Acrocercops brongniardella which is rather scarce with just a handful of records in the country:
Mines of the micromoth Acrocercops brongniardella on oak
New to my species list.

At first I thought this was the common jumping spider Salticus scenicus, but when the images were blown up I realised that it was quite different. The dayglow yellow palps and striped legs leads us to Heliophana cupreus. About 6mm long.
The jumping Spider Heliophanus cupreus
New to my species list.

A dark area of woodland contained countless specimens of Birds-nest Orchid:

Birds Nest Orchid
New to my species list.

The woodland has some unusual trees, with interesting specimens cropping up in unexpected places. One Whitebeam had leaf galls which immediately attracted my attention, since the tree is scarce and galls are largely overlooked. It keys straight to the mite Eriophyes arianus, and I can find no previous records for Ireland.

Eriophyes arianus, top view

Eriophyes arianus, underside
New to my species list, and probably first Irish record.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015


Spring is very late this year. I currently have Lesser Celandine, Barren Strawberry and Wood Sorrel in flower, but little else apart from Daisy and Dandelion, which are in flower here all year round. Willow catkins have just opened and I have seen a few queen bumblebees foraging for pollen to start their nests. First hoverfly was a female Eristalis tenax, as is usual every year.

February and March were very cold, with waves of snow and rain for around 6 weeks non-stop, and the wind is still very cold, so very few insects are around outside.

Inside, however, we have plenty of spiders. This is a female Amaurobius sp., probably A similis due to location, but there's a slight possibility of A. fenestralis:

Female Amaurobius c.f. similis

Those jaws are fearsome. Amaurobius species are called Lace-web spiders, since they make a lattice web with a central tunnel where the spider lurks. Females are larger than the males, reaching some 16mm. in body length, and can readily be identified by the narrow ends to the palps and their larger abdomen.

New to my species list.

Another new species was a bit of a surprise. The micromoth Diurnea fagella is very common, but it's around the 250th moth species that I have recorded. The larvae feed on a wide range of broadleaf trees, so I should have seen it long before this.

Pretty beast, anyway, and about 15 mm. long.

The micromoth Diurnea fagella
The specimen in the photograph is a male, since it has fully-developed wings. The female has smaller, stunted wings, which makes me think it's heading towards the flightless females of many other winter/spring species.

New to my species list.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The story so far

It is now 12 years since I started blogging about the wildlife in my local patch, and I think it would be worthwhile to summarise the findings to date.

I started off in 2003 with my first digital camera, a Fuji 2800z, and began to photograph and identify the local plants on a particular hedgerow here:

My first discoveries were:

  • that there were more plants than I anticipated (around 90 species).
  • what I had previously thought was a single species was sometimes actually 2, 3, or more different species.
So in the first year, I discovered that I had a rich local environment but also that I had much to learn.

In the second year, I began to look at the insects as well as the plants, and I took notice of some of the larger fungi as well. I also began to extend the area of survey to include mixed woodland and a river system. I also got my second camera, a Fuji s7000, which enabled me to get much more detailed images of insects.

This extended geographic area is documented in and this blog ran until 2008, when I switched to the current format on blogspot.

My main discoveries during this time were:
  • different habitats contain different species
  • species interact in many different ways
  • there is a lot we don't know about our wildlife
  • wildlife is important for our survival
  • documentation to assist with identifications can be out of date, incomplete or hard to find
  • there is some uncertainty about the identity of some species
  • things are changing over time
  • soil type governs which species can be found in a particular place
  • it's complex out there
  • I could, and did, add species to the Irish list
Some of this all seems so trivial now, but during this time I was building up an understanding of the complex network of species that go to make up our wildlife. I also learned that this complexity is not widely understood, and that this lack of understanding is a serious problem for the survival of our wildlife, and ultimately for us as a species.

As a generalist recorder, I try to identify everything that I find. I was constantly told by specialists that I must find my niche and focus on particular groups, since nobody can do it all. But I find everything interesting, and if I ignore a particular group, then I'm leaving gaps in my knowledge. It is true that specialisation is the key to gaining full understanding of a group, but I like the fact that I can delve into flowering plants or wasps or fungi or spiders or whatever group as and when I like. I thrive on variety and switching my focus keeps things fresh for me. An additional benefit of my 'pan-group' recording is the overview that I get: specialists have a detailed view of their own group, but can be quite unaware of related events in others.

At first, I published my blogs as an information resource to show what was out there (a kind of scrapbook), but I quickly realised (or was forced to realise) that formal recording is important: we need to know what's out there. So I began to join various recording schemes and I submit data to these. (I am still creating retrospective formal records from the days before I started to make them, so older records will continue to surface as time permits). But I began to realise that my information was also being used as an educational resource, and I switched the emphasis of much of my text away from formal fact towards a more educational and instructive format.

The internet has been vital in a number of ways. First of all, it's a place to store my text and images in a place where anyone has access to them. Secondly, there are many on-line forums where experts gather together to discuss various groups. So it is relatively easy to find experts and get help with identifications. Thirdly, I can email images to people anywhere at the press of a button. Communication has never been easier. Central databases of national records are also available, and this lets us see distribution maps for species. This can be helpful in determining whether a potential identification is reasonable, or if further work (validation) needs to be done before a record would be acceptable.

Records are maintained in a single, central, database per country (I submit records to both Ireland and Northern Ireland) and submitted records need to be validated before being added to the reference database and being made publicly available. Validators are people who can assess the likelihood of a submitted record being correct, or whether further evidence (photograph or perhaps a specimen) is required. Validators tend to specialise in one or more groups, such as flies, fungi, bryophytes, flowering plants, spiders or beetles and basically act as filters to increase the reliability of data. On a couple of occasions, I have contacted data centres to ask who the validator is for a particular group only to be told "actually, that would be you". It is almost frightening to realise that some of the top-level expertise is held by absolute amateurs like myself, but this is actually a reflection of the lack of investment (actually, reduction in investment) by governments in professionals to hold positions where this expertise would naturally reside. This short-sightedness is another indicator that the importance of our wildlife is not understood.

I suppose one of the most surprising discoveries that I have made over the years is that there is still a degree of uncertainty no matter in which direction you choose to look.  The vast majority of specimens can be readily identified from reasonably easy to obtain reference books, but I have found that when it comes to identification of  some specimens I inevitably end up looking for an obscure paper from some journal or other. Once the paper has been secured, and I look for further advice or expertise, I can find that the number of people who can assist me further can be counted on the fingers of one hand. This is alarming, and might sound like a complaint, but it simply shows that we are walking a tightrope: our wildlife is complex and we don't have sufficient interest or resources to be competent enough to understand that complexity. Sometimes, we are left with 'opinions': an identification depends on who you decide to follow or believe.

So why the worry? Putting it simply, we are constantly making decisions about whether to build houses and businesses on green-field sites, brown-field sites, woodland, sites of special scientific interest, bog and so on and we are basing these decisions on incomplete information. We don't know enough about our wildlife, and we are certainly not competent enough to know that we are making the correct decisions. Pressure from industry, agriculture, building development and lack of understanding (or even basic interest) by politicians is putting us in a place that fills me with dread.

The simple fact is that our wildlife species interact with each other in complex, critical and fascinating ways. In turn, our wildlife interacts with us in complex and vital ways: we are just one species in the web. Until we fully understand our dependency on wildlife, we will continue to blunder down a badly-lit path towards something that frightens me.

So what can we do?

I intend to continue my research into the relationships between organisms: this is the area that interests me most. So I will continue to look at parasitica, fungi, leaf-miners and galls in particular. These are all good examples of species interactions, and are all areas which need further study.

I have very much enjoyed participating in the Heritage Council's Heritage in Schools program, which brings heritage experts into schools, exposing pupils to a wider range of information and, hopefully, stimulating long-term interest and involvement.

My intention is to share as much of my work as possible (budget and equipment permitting) and I aim to participate in as many field trips as I can squeeze into the workable part of the year. The winter months will be used for research and 'back-office' work whilst our wildlife is hiding away.

I had no idea where I was going when I started to write this piece. But it seems this is where I ended up. Please keep looking in.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Another trip to Ards

A prolonged period of heavy rain suggested that a final trip to Ards for 2014 would be productive, so we went along to see what was around. It was suggested that we try an area that we hadn't visited before (Ards is huge!), so we chose a direction at random and set forth. The first part of the loop passed through an area that had fairly recently been disturbed due to clear-felling of Spruce (yay!), so that was rather unproductive, but we soon arrived at a high area that was undisturbed ancient Oak and Beech, with Birch at the fringes. It is clear that this area is not one that is visited by mushroom hunters, since we found a good number of very large Ceps (Boletus edulis) that had been left to decay:

Cep - Boletus edulis
And another specimen:

Cep - Boletus edulis

In the more well-trodden areas of the forest, these would have been gathered long before they reached this stage. Sadly, they were just too far gone to accompany our dinner that evening. I'd say there was possibly a kilo of Cep in those two.

Nearby we also found quite a few specimens of the Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria:

A very fresh Amanita muscaria
The books always say that these are associated exclusively with Birch, and there was plenty of Birch in this area, but I have found specimens where no Birch has existed for decades. Perhaps they can survive on very old buried roots, etc., since it is well known that other Amanita species can be found in the middle of ploughed fields or meadows and indicate the previous existence of woodland at those locations.

A definite Birch associate is the Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus):

Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus)
The upper surface of these is brown, with a white porous underside that produces the spores. But this bizarre specimen has an extra fruit-body growing upside-down on its top surface. Most odd. Odd shapes like this are usually caused by the substrate (in this case dead Birch) being moved, but this tree was still upright in situ. Maybe it got damaged in an early part of its development, and this could effectively be scar tissue.

Another area had been cleared some time ago and was a mixture of young Birch with heath. There was plenty of Greater Woodrush still around, so we thought we might as well try for the extremely rare leaf-miner Cerodontha silvatica, and it was found almost immediately. This is the third location in all of Ireland and the first Donegal record since 2005:

Cerodontha silvatica
There was a very small area almost covered with this Saxifrage of some kind. I'll have to go back next summer when it's in flower to find out what species it is.
Saxifrage 'x'
I spotted this minute (3-4 mm.) leaf-hopper on Hazel as I was checking for leaf-mines:

It's probably Edwardsiana rosae, but these cannot be done to species without a specimen under a microscope.

There were plenty of galls of Hartigola annulipes on fallen Beech leaves:

Hartigola annulipes on Beech

This is the first time I have noticed that they seem to create 'green islands' in the same way as Ectoedemia micromoths do on Oak. I can't see a definite benefit from the chlorophyll, since the midges feed on the interior of the gall. Maybe it's an accidental by-product of their gall creation process.

Towards the end of the walk we found a few specimens of this spindle-shaped fungus growing under Beech:

Macrotyphula fistulosa var. fistulosa
There are quite a few records from Northern Ireland, but this appears to be a first Irish record. About 8 cm. tall. New to my species list.

Thursday, 20 November 2014


I have been promising myself that I would do some image stacking to see how I get on with it. Image stacking is a technique that is used to produce a macro image where everything is in focus. With macro photography, the depth of field of a single shot is tiny, often less than 1mm. This means that anything over 1mm. wide will have some parts out of focus. Here's an example:

That shot isn't bad, but although the front-to-middle part of the shot is sharp, the rear part of the image is out of focus and blurred.

With image stacking, we take a number of shots from the same position, but with the focus point moved slightly further back each time. In order to get the stability required, we need to use a tripod and use manual focussing. The depth of the subject above is around 5mm., so I took 5 shots, each focussing around 1mm further away. The images are then fed into software which fine-tunes the positioning of each image to make sure they overlap precisely, and then it corrects for slight differences in perspective due to the refocussing. Finally, the software selects the sharp parts from each image and creates a single image which is sharp from front to back:

The entire procedure from shot-taking to final image took perhaps 30 minutes, but I'll be faster next time. I suspect it could all be done in perhaps 15 minutes.

"So what's the image?" I hear you ask.

It's a moth which has been killed by the parasitic fungus Cordyceps tuberculata, which is an extremely rare species, on the RDB list as Vulnerable D2. This specimen was found in Co. Cork and is the first Irish record. There are only 23 other records in the Fungal Records database and they are mostly from the east of England. I rather suspect this is a continental species, since most records are coastal, and it's possible that the victims were migrants. This is, however, pure speculation on my part.

The specimen has been sent to Kew for analysis, since they would like to eliminate the possibility that it's something even rarer.

Acknowledgements to Clare Heardman for finding the specimen and sending it to me for analysis.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Dry weather continues

I postponed my proposed trip to Ards since the dry weather continued and there wasn't much sign of fungal activity. But the 'lure of the west' called me and since I had also agreed to make a radio piece about foraying, the trip eventually went ahead.

As I have mentioned before, Ards peninsula is a rocky outcrop jutting into the Atlantic, so it is a unique environment with ancient forest inland, surrounded by sea, dunes and grassland at its boundaries. This wide range of habitats in such close proximity leads to a biodiversity which never ceases to produce something new on every trip.

As expected, the overall number of fungal bodies was very low, but there was still the usual great variety of species.

We decided to start the trip with a walk around part of the coastal boundary to see what grassland species we could find, and found Hygrocybe pratensis - the field waxcap - in the usual places, but little else of a fungal nature.

Several specimens of this snail were found:

Helicella itala

Keying it out was fairly straightforward: Low spire>large umbilicus>no keel>no lip. It is described as a dune species, so that seems fine.

New to my Species List.

We also found many specimens of the very handsome caterpillar of the Fox Moth:

Larva of Fox Moth - Macrothylacia rubi
Fox Moth larvae are being found in huge numbers all over Ireland this year, and I rather suspect that the very warm summer we had last year is at least partly the reason.

One further grassland fungus was found. This is Clavulinopsis fusiformis, identified by the acute tips to the fruitbodies: 

Clavulinopsis fusiformis
Surprisingly, new to my Species List.

We passed the location where I found Thyme Broomrape a few years ago, but none was seen. Not to be outdone, however, as we reached the boundary of the forest, I saw this specimen in the undergrowth:

Ivy Broomrape
It was surrounded by many plant species, so it was quite impossible to determine its host, and it is beyond recognition from the flowers. Based purely on the surrounding vegetation I will make a stab at Common Broomrape and will have to visit it again next summer when the flowers will be fresh. No Thyme was found nearby (and the habitat was wrong).

Update: our local botany recorder has just informed me that this is a known location for Ivy Broomrape.

Back inside the forest, we found the Blackening Waxcap, Hygrocybe nigricans, doing what it does best: going black.

The Blackening Waxcap, Hygrocybe nigricans
A grass verge had quite a few species, including Helvella crispa and the closely-related Helvella lacunosa:

Helvella lacunosa
We found a few fresh specimens of the Tawny Funnel Cap, Lepista inversa:

Tawny Funnel Cap, Lepista inversa
Other species found: Destroying Angel (again), Birch Polypore, Beechwood Sickener, Chanterelle, and two specimens of what I'm sure was the Miller (which is edible and delicious), but couldn't trust myself to take home due to its similarity to Clitocybe dealbata (which is deadly poisonous).