12 for 2012

12 for 2012

With 2013 already galloping along – it’s the 6th already! – it feels almost too late to be posting more year-in-review style pieces. But there are two reasons why I’m not ready to forget about 2012 yet. One is that I haven’t actually finished compiling last year’s ‘Biolist’ and thus can’t, with great fanfare, announce exactly how many species I think I saw (that’s considering everything, not just birds). The second is that amongst the things I already know I saw are many, many wonderful creatures worth celebrating, and whilst some of the species that follow might be familiar to regular readers I think some will be entirely new to this blog. So without further to-do, I present ’12 for 2012’: 12 species I’ve chosen to represent the small but enlightening cross section of the world’s biodiversity which passed before my eyes over the last twelve months. Since this was the year I’ll particularly remember as being one in which I finally started to get to grips with insects, something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, it seems fitting to begin with them.

A Year of Insects

IMG_0395My records and memory of last January are shamefully hazy, so as far as I know my insect year began in the second month, with a tiny unidentified psocid sheltering on a fallen spindle berry. From there it moved slowly through a few attractive housemates in the shape of wintering harlequin ladybirds and lacewings, and some tiny red and black mites during a winter volunteering session. March, the month in which things really kicked off in the insect world, was brought in by a ghostly dotted border moth, tapping at the kitchen window late on the first evening of the month. Which leads neatly to the first insect order to fall under today’s microscope, the Lepidoptera.

IMG_1266In layman’s terms, Lepidoptera are the moths and butterflies. Between them they offer to the eager observer both one realistically complete-able set, our 50-some species of butterfly, and enough diversity to last a lifetime in the form of 2400+ species of moth. Though it was a poor year for butterfly numbers in the UK due in no small part to 2012 having been the second wettest year on record nationwide, and the wettest for England, there are enough species out there I haven’t seen that I still managed a view firsts, notably several fritillaries. I was charmed on various days by the pearl-bordered fritillary, small pearl-bordered fritillary, duke of burgundy, and the heath fritillary. But it was the moths which provided the best surprises of the year. Whilst I was lucky to witness some spectacular specimens emerging from light traps, the unexpected and often bizarre micro moth species cropping up all over the place during my spring in the woods best sum up my mothing year. From among them comes the first of my 12, the underwhelmingly named Common Tubic. Isn’t it deserving of a more fittingly effusive epithet? I’ll be looking for this little marvel again this coming spring.

IMG_1409Another hugely diverse group, famously beloved by Darwin, is the beetles. I don’t know if I could say I have an ‘inordinate fondness’ for them as yet, as Haldane quipped of God, but it’s fair to say there are some pretty special ones out there which provide near endless opportunities for discovery. Longhorns and flower beetles hanging around on summer blooms caught my eye many times in 2012, for example the comically named (and equipped) thick-kneed flower beetle, and I was also very pleased to catch up with a male stag beetle in Reading. But for brightening up a rainy day – a thundery day in fact – the prize of a top 12 entry goes to this splendid cardinal beetle, Pyrochroa serraticornis.

IMG_2554As many birders have already realised, it occurred to me in July and August that dragonflies and damselflies – the odonata – make excellent surrogate birds. The biggest, the emperor, is about the size of our smallest bird, the goldcrest (and to my eyes looks bigger when it roars past like an Apache attack helicopter), most species are painted in an eye-watering ,diverse palette of metallic sheens, and they can be identified by looking at pretty pictures in a field guide, rather than trawling through keys. Visit the right pond or lake in summer on a warm, still day, and you are rewarded by a most impressive display of controlled flight from these fiercest of the insects. Odonata were one of the highlights of the Windmill Farm Bioblitz in July, especially the rare red-veined darter (right) and jewel-like beautiful demoiselle. I’ll stick with the all-conquering emperor dragonfly for a spot on the list, though. Especially as we saw one catch and behead another dragonfly (common darter, probably).  Which is definitely cool, even if I didn’t get a very good picture of the event.

I don’t want to witter on about insects for much longer, even though I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I’ve seen in the last twelve months, let alone what one could potentially see just on these small, temperate islands. Contemplating global insect diversity makes my head spin, and I must admit I’m kind of glad to live in a country with almost manageable numbers of species and nothing too poisonous or alarmingly large. A few more honourable mentions – bees delighted and frustrated in equal measure (hard to identify when they don’t stay still…) especially the handsomely marked Nomada genus, many a tiny metallic unidentified wasp or sawfly passed my way, and finally I must give thanks to the songsters of summer, the crickets and grasshoppers. Whilst dragonflies replace birds visually during the late summer months, stridulating orthoptera make up for the lack of bird song with a chorus of sweet soothing buzzes and reels. Again, it was supposedly a poor summer for crickets and grasshoppers, but the road verges of Kent seemed to be alive with the sound of singing Roesel’s bush crickets, and they therefore earn themselves the last of today’s spots on my list of twelve. Four down, eight to go.

Below: spot the long-winged conehead! (A cricket, again, pictures of Roesel’s were hard to come by)

IMG_3056-001

Coming soon – four plants. I bet you can hardly contain your excitement!

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