Sunday, 7 September 2014

Staring Down the Pan-species Abyss

I have a confession to make: over the summer when the birding has been boring I've been looking elsewhere. Now you all know that I already do moths, butterflies and dragons/damsels but I've been finding that it's not enough to keep me satisfied. Whilst the butterflies and dragonflies were all very well, I do find that the problem with them is that there just aren't that many of them and whilst it's fun to go on trips to add them to your list there are only so many times that I'm going to want to see that same species over and over again. Moths I like: there are several thousand species to learn about and I've been trapping away for several years now and in recently I quietly passed a landmark when my moth list total surpassed my bird list. Neither of these is particularly high and especially for a moth total it's rather poor but I've discovered that my garden and trap combination doesn't result in that many moths compared to others so it's going to be a slow process building up my list. However, despite the pleasure I get in mothing, it's not been enough to satisfy me over the summer months, not least because it's not really a day time activity.

Mompha epilobiella - the moth that put my moth total past my bird one
It all started on the failed twitch to see the Short-toed Eagle in Ashdown Forest where I came across a plant that I didn't know. I photographed it and posted it on iSpot and people there were all too eager to tell me that it was a Bog Asphodel. Then, whilst doing some Googling about flowers in general I came across a great little web-site Nature Spot Wildflowers which lists all the wildflower species that there are to be found in Leicestershire, which as another inland county not a million miles from here should be fairly similar to Oxon. I realised at this point that there were lots of plants that I didn't know anything about so with a web-site to look them up on I set myself a challenge over the summer of learning about the plants and flowers on my local Patch of Port Meadow, sadly all dried up and birdless at present. This would at least give me something to go out hunting for on a daily basis and I'd learn new identification skills. So this is what I've been doing. Each day I'll go out and photograph some plant and then try and work out what it is when I get back. If I can't figure it out from the Nature Spot site then I post it to iSpot and I usually quickly get an answer. Slowly I've built up my flower list to getting on for two hundred over the course of a couple of months mostly just on the Patch though also partly in Cornwall on my recent trip.

With my new found interest in plants recently I was lucky enough to tag along on the annual Port Meadow survey for Creeping Marshwort which as many of you will know is now only found on this site and one other in Oxon. The present and the former species guardian from the Oxford Rare Plant Group were counting the colonies of Apium repens and they were tolerant enough to answer my newby questions as I struggled to keep up. I'll report in more detail on what they found on my sister blog Port Meadow Birding once their report document is finished but suffice to say we found plenty of Creeping Marshwort so it's doing well.

Creeping Marshwort in various sizes from new germinations through to mature flowering plants
It was really interesting learning about the ecology behind Creeping Marshwort. It turns out that it requires heavily grazed flood meadows to survive as the combination of the grazing and the flooding makes it hard for competing plants to survive. Creeping Marshwort has evolved strategies for surviving specifically in such conditions, ensuring that it can out-compete the other plants. However even it can't survive prolonged periods of flooding if it doesn't dry up in the summer. Thankfully the seeds do survive and the constant churning (or "poaching" to give it its proper name) by the feet of the grazing animals ensures that these are picked up and moved to new areas where they can germinate and keep the population going. With the two recent years when the floods stayed all year on the Meadow (they were classic years for birding the Meadow) there were some worries about the population though thankfully it seems to be doing well presently.

The thing that I really appreciated was having someone on hand who could immediately tell me what any given plant was. Whereas it was taking me hours to photograph something and then go back home and look it up or wait for an iSpot ID answer, here I had instant answers and I kept distracting the two experts from their counting mission with my constant "what's this one?" questions.

Golden Dock - the only site in Oxon that has this species. Docks are a right pain to ID as you have to examine the seed head in minute detail to be certain but fortunately I was in the company of experts
Common Toad Rush - another small plant to be found on the Meadow

Mudwort - a minute rare marsh plant with its distinctive paddle-shaped leaves that my
two companions were very excited to find alive and well on the Meadow

So now it appears that I do flowers as well as birds, moths, butterflies and dragonflies. That's what the summer doldrums will do to you.

However, there's one more twist to this tale and readers of a sensitive disposition might want to look away now. I discovered that the Nature Spot web-site wasn't just a wild flower site. No indeed, they also seemed to list all sorts of other species down the side and when I innocently clicked on them I found that they had photos too and in fact they listed all the species of literally every living thing to be found in Leicestershire - all four thousand plus of them! Somehow, innocently, I'd stumbled on a pan-species listing site. For those who don't know, pan-species listers will list any species of any living thing - top listers have totals of over 10,000 and will go and twitch things like a Slime Mould. I had already innocently added up the total of my birds, moths, butterflies and dragonflies and it came to nine hundred plus. What would it take I asked myself to get it over one thousand? It wasn't long before I'd totted up all the mammals, amphibians, reptiles, trees etc that I reckoned that I'd seen over the years in the UK and hey presto a 1000+ list. But I wasn't a real pan-species lister, I kept telling myself, I was just curious. Then there was an article on RBA or Bird Guides or somewhere about a new pan-species listing site and out of curiosity (no more I assure you) I signed up and posted my paltry totals there. I then found myself photographing beetles that I came across and Caddis Flies in the moth trap and getting them ID'd on iSpot. It was the ticks you know: I was getting several a day, every day. Imagine that, day after day of wonderful new species to tick. My god, what was happening to me? Was there no hope for me at all?

Violet Ground Beetle

Then something happened that, for now at least, pulled me back from the brink of the abyss. I'd come across a fly on my daily walk on Port Meadow which of course I'd photographed and tried to ID. I looked it up on the Nature Spot site but couldn't tell what it was so I turned to iSpot but apart from telling me that it was a Robber Fly of some kind they couldn't ID it to species level. In the end I tried posting on the Pan-species Listers Facebook site which (and don't read anything into this) I just happen to be a member of. Someone there got it down to a probable Kite-tailed Robberfly (Machimus atricapillus) though he couldn't rule out the rarer M. cingulatus from the photo. What's more someone else said that flies aren't easily do-able from photos. What, I cried? But how am I going to ID all the buzzing things in my garden? I've got to list them all, think of all those lovely ticks to be had!

Kite-tailed Robberfly (probably)
And that's when I pulled back. If you can't even ID them from a decent photograph then I'm not going to be interested. I did dabble with Hoverflies last summer but had the same problems. It turns out flies are really tricky to do so I'm not going to bother with them. And anyway, I'm finding that it just takes up so much time trying to work out what everything is. Even just with the plants, as a beginner I have no idea what most of them are and often feel overwhelmed at the thought of getting to grips with them all. I've already got a backlog of photos to work through that's going to take me at least a month to sort out and I'm adding to them on a daily basis faster than I can sort through them. It was all too much! Anyway, autumn is here now and there are lots of decent birds about again. I think that I'll tone down all this pan-species listing malarkey and just concentrate on the birds and the garden moths. And if you should ever catch me twitching a Slime Mould then please just shoot me!

Aphodius rufipes - a species of dung beetle that I get in the moth trap regularly

1 comment:

Badger said...

Phone me...
we need to talk...