British spring flowers, cuckoos coming


This video says about itself:

Solitary bee foraging on Crocus tomasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’

1 March 2015

See how the small bee is moving around the anthers to collect pollen as well as diving its head down the base for nectar. Honeybees differ in that they will only collect either pollen or nectar. The bee was on the flower for a much longer time than a honeybee would have been.

From daily The Independent in Britain:

From carpets of crocuses to cuckoos on the move, spring is truly springing

Michael McCarthy

Monday 2 March 2015

Well it’s been a long wait, but spring is here now, at least by the Met Office definition, which classifies the new season as consisting of March, April and May (the older, astronomical definition has it beginning from the vernal equinox, which this year is 20 March, but we tend to go with the Met Office these days). And with Sunday being the first day of it, I went out to look for signs, and was not disappointed.

In Kew Gardens at the moment you can see what must be one of the most vivid springtime displays in the whole country: millions of blooms of early crocuses which are forming vast mauve sheets over the ground. The flower is Crocus tomasinianus, originally from eastern Europe, and in English sometimes called Whitewell purple. From a distance, the massed ranks of the blooms seem to glow, to shine like pale-purple light in the grass. It’s an astonishing spectacle.

The rest of Kew is still a bit bare, but the snowdrops are proudly out in the bluebell wood and there are subtler signs of the new season: the black-headed gulls on the lake are resplendent in their shiny new chocolate-brown headgear (which in winter shrinks to just a dark dot behind the eye), and the dunnocks, those nondescript but subtly attractive birds which we used to call hedge sparrows, are everywhere reeling out their song, which some people say is like the sound of a squeaking shopping trolley: streedly-streedly-streedly-stree.

Yet the most interesting sign of spring greeted me when I got back and switched on the computer: it was an email from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) giving the latest details of the BTO cuckoos in Africa. Since 2011, Britain’s leading bird research organisation has been satellite-tracking cuckoos on their mammoth migratory journeys from Britain to their African wintering grounds, and the project has revealed a wonderful wealth of hitherto unknown information: where wintering British cuckoos end up (the Congo rainforest), how they get there (some via Italy, some via Spain) and how they return (all of them via West Africa).

The journeys are arduous and full of risk, and sometimes the birds don’t make it: Indy, the cuckoo sponsored by The Independent, died in Cameroon in 2012. Currently 13 cuckoos are being tracked in Africa, including Chris (named after the naturalist Chris Packham) who has been going strong since 2011, and is thus being tracked on his fourth successive Africa trip; and what the BTO email told me was the heartening news that all of the birds are now on their way back, and heading northwards. There’s our spring down in Africa, flying steadily towards us.

They’ll be here in about six weeks, and when they arrive, their two-note musical call is the most instantly recognisable of all our springtime sounds. But the cuckoo, of course, has a double identity: it is not just the supreme spring-announcer, it is a notorious cheat, laying its eggs in the nests of other birds, (the technical term is a brood parasite).

Have you ever wondered how it does it? I mean, how it manages to get its single egg into the nests of its host species, such as reed warblers, meadow pipits and pied wagtails, where the cuckoo chick throws out the other eggs or nestlings and ends up as a monstrous intruder many times the size of the hapless foster-parents who are straining to feed it?

A new book tells in mesmerising detail how the host birds are first outwitted by the female cuckoo, and then by the cuckoo chick. Cuckoo – Cheating By Nature (Bloomsbury, £16.99) is by Nick Davies, the world expert on Cuculus canorus, the Eurasian cuckoo, our bird. He gives a riveting account not only of how the cuckoo evolves deceptive stratagems, such as eggs which mimic the eggs of the host, but also of how the host birds evolve defences, such as learning to reject any eggs which seems slightly different from their own.

This is in effect an “evolutionary arms race” and its complexities are elucidated with exemplary clarity and humour by Professor Davies, who is Professor of Behavioural Ecology at Cambridge and has spent the past 30 years studying cuckoos and discovering their tricks, at Wicken Fen to the north of the city. (He also, for good measure, discovered, through studies in the Cambridge Botanical Garden, that the humble and unglamorous dunnock, mentioned above, has the raciest sex life of any small songbird, everywhere looking for lurve).

His new cuckoo study, which is published next week, is an even more fascinating take on curious behaviour. I’ve just read it, and it’s a terrific read.

Papua damselfly named after wildlife Internet site administrator


Metagrion hueberae, photo: © Kelompok Entomologi Papua

Translated from the newsletter of Waarneming.nl in the Netherlands:

March 2, 2015

Metagrion hueberae was caught in 2009 in the Bird’s Head (Papua, Indonesia) by J. Kaize of Kelompok Entomologi Papua. He is a student at the University of Jayapura trained by volunteers of the Papua Insect Foundation. The genus Metagrion is endemic to New Guinea and adjacent islands and limited to streams and rivers in tropical rainforests. The official description of this species will be published in a scientific journal later this year.

The new species was named after Ms Anne Hueber, administrator for damselflies and dragonflies at Waarmeming.nl.

Millions of Dutch butterflies counted


This is a Dutch video about butterflies.

25 years ago, in the Netherlands, the Nederlandse Vlindermeetnet was founded, an organisation for butterfly research.

Millions of butterflies have been counted in those years. Including meadow brown, the most often seen species: 954,959 individuals.

Since 25 years ago, 18 species have increased, 9 species are stable, 24 species have declined.

Speckled wood have increased, especially since 2000, both at places where they already lived and at new places.

Arctic skippers have increased too, but only at places were the species already occurred.

Among the butterfly species which have declined most are large chequered skipper and tree grayling; both with a decline of over 90%.

Wildlife news, not war news, from Iraq


This video is about a chuckar partridge (the national bird of Kurdistan; and of Pakistan).

From daily The Independent in Britain:

Sunday 22 February 2015

How butterflies are harbingers of hope in war-torn Iraq

A conservation group dedicated to preserving biodiversity offers a hope of fledgling renewal for this war-shattered land

Nature Iraq: not an oxymoron, but the name of the country’s leading conservation group.

Since it was founded in 2004, it has set up a series of projects to understand and protect the wildlife of Iraq. Now it is able to reflect on three years of effective work which has brought great benefits, both to humans and to wildlife.

You might think that compared with other problems being faced by people in Iraq, those that concern the distribution of butterflies are pretty insignificant. But you’d be wrong. Butterflies matter to the world: and perhaps they matter more to Iraq than to any other nation on earth.

That’s because conservation is one of the arts of peace. Preserving wildlife is important at all times and in all places; but when it comes to the healing of a shattered and broken country, a butterfly has a significance that towers above the trivialities. So here are a few examples of what Nature Iraq has been getting up to.

For a start, it has been running a study and education programme in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the north-east of the country. The group is supported by the Darwin Initiative, funded by the UK government; by the Centre for Middle Eastern Plants, based in Edinburgh; and by Birdlife International, with headquarters in Cambridge. So it’s a business that rises above local troubles. It has a global input and a global significance: wildlife conservation in one place is possible only through the efforts of people in many other places.

Nature Iraq has established an on-line course on biodiversity and conservation, in partnership with the University of Sulaimani in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. It’s been running for three years and 60 students have now completed the course. Another 60 have just signed up.

Then there’s a nationwide citizen science project on the distribution of butterflies and dragonflies. Thanks to the widespread use of smartphones, photographs of these insects are now flooding in to Nature Iraq, which has already identified four species new to the country. The organisation has set up a team of experts across the world, so that every species can be properly identified and mapped. …

The mountain of Peramagroon, which covers an area of 100 sq km, is a spectacular spot that’s home to Egyptian vultures and a flycatcher called the Kurdistan wheatear. It has a species of wild goat and a good population of spur-thighed tortoises. A survey of the area’s plants revealed 650 species, more than twice the number previously known from the area; among them were several species new to science.

A study of land use on Peramagroon will enable Nature Iraq to establish a proper conservation action plan. A series of school visits have been made to the area, and children have been setting up nest boxes as a result. Nature Iraq is also field-testing a phone app that will help to identify birds in Peramagroon; it contains details of 130 species. The long-term aim is to develop this and similar apps for use across the Middle East.

When it is more important to identify a saker falcon than a Black Hawk helicopter, you know that an important step towards peace has been taken. Bwar Khalid of Nature Iraq said: “I hope we can do more projects and activities in the future, especially in our country where there has been nothing except war and destruction.”

Butterflies and dragonflies matter. People looking for butterflies and dragonflies matter. Unknown species of mountain plants matter. Children setting up nest boxes matter. The fact that a Kurdistan wheatear is different from an eastern black-eared wheatear matters. All these things matter if you wish to turn a country deeply harmed by war into a place where life is worth living. …

Such projects have the vividness of a New Year’s resolution: a new start, one in which better things will surely be possible. Hope comes in a butterfly; in an eastern rock nuthatch; in the flora of a mountain; in people dedicated to looking after them all.

What southern European spiders eat


This video says about itself:

Arachnid Anatomy (Orb-weaving spider)

23 November 2012

A new spin on the usual anatomy video: field biology! Basic external anatomy of an orb-weaving spider, using a live, wild specimen. This is a Cat-faced Spider (Araneus gemmoides), a common species found near/on buildings in North America. I’ve used this as a model although typically the Garden Spider (Argiope sp.) is used in zoology labs.

Also: I let a giant spider walk on my hand. Ha! But it’s OK, they don’t bite.

This video was produced by C. Ernst, a Teaching Assistant.

From Wildlife Extra:

Southern European Spiders prefer a Harvester meal (Harvester Ant, that is)

The southern European spider, Euryopis episinoides, has a distinct preference for Harvester ants, researchers have discovered, and identify them without the benefit of guidance from their parents.

The young spiderlings innately have a nose for these ants, report Stano Pekár and Manuel Cárdenas of the Masaryk University in the Czech Republic in an article in Springer’s journal The Science of Nature – Naturwissenschaften.

Euryopis episinoides is a tiny, 3mm long spider that only catches ants – in particular members of the Messor group of which there are more than 100 species.

The female conveniently lays her egg sacks close to such ant nests but this is about as much parental care as she gives to her offspring.

Once hatched, the spiderlings fend for themselves and this includes recognising and catching prey, all on their own.

The Czech researchers wanted to find out if the Euryopis episinoides spiderlings’ hunting activities were driven by convenience or truly by an innate preference for Harvester Ants.

They tested how newly hatched spiderlings that had not yet gone on the hunt reacted to the chemical cues left by three types of prey: Harvester Ants, fruit flies and Nylander Ants.

In just under half the instances, the inexperienced spiderlings assumed a hunting position in front of a paper strip carrying the smell of Harvester Ants – even though they had never before had the slightest whiff of this type of ant.

The researchers also tested the reaction of more experienced spiderlings that had been raised on only one type of prey: again either Harvester Ants, fruit flies or Nylander Ants.

They found that food imprinting changed the spiderlings’ innate food preference. This was because the spiderlings more often than not chose the type of prey on which they were raised rather than Harvester Ants.

In another twist, the spiders used in the experiment fared better healthwise when they ate ants rather than fruit flies.

“Our findings suggest that prey preference is genetically based but also affected by the experience with the first meal,” says Pekár. “Such an innate preference enables Euryopis episinoides spiderlings to rapidly gain information about prey and to successfully locate their preferred prey on their own.”

“Innate preference is beneficial as it increases efficiency in prey capture,” adds Cárdenas. “It is, however, important that spiderlings hatch near to a place of high ant occurrence, such as ant paths.”

Hong Kong butterflies decline


This video says about itself:

Hong Kong Wetland Park spotlights butterflies

30 April 2013

With their fantastic colors and fanciful wings, butterflies are one of nature’s most enticing creatures for photographers and insect lovers. “The Flying Beauties” exhibition is now open at Hong Kong Wetland Park, featuring the most common butterfly species in Hong Kong and specimens from around the world. Visitors can learn more about butterfly anatomy, life cycle, survival strategies and courtship behaviour.

The park will host related activities, aimed at enhancing awareness of butterfly conservation. Wetland Park Manager (Education & Community Services) Josephine Cheng said Wetland Park’s Butterfly Garden offers an ideal habitat for butterflies and is a great spot for butterfly watching. The park has abundant nectar and larval food plants, and recorded 157 species — about 60% of the total number of butterfly species in Hong Kong.

Showcases also offer visitors a rare opportunity to get close-up and observe caterpillars feeding on young leaves. Survival strategies – More than 500 specimens help illustrate a butterfly’s life cycle in the park’s scenic models, including living, eating and mating habits. To avoid predators such as birds, butterflies have special strategies. “Some butterflies can pretend to be some similar but poisonous species, with colorful patterns on their wings, to avoid having their predators eat them, while some other species pretend to be a leaf so that they can hide themselves in the natural environment,” Miss Cheng said.

Special events – Wetland Park is presenting the exhibition from April to October 28. Butterfly specialists will share their knowledge and tips, including techniques for identifying and photographing them, in lectures to be held during the exhibition period. Speakers will also share worldwide hotspots for butterfly watching and the importance of butterfly conservation. Guided tours will teach participants about common species in Hong Kong. The park is also organising a photo collection activity, playgroups and a butterfly cotton bag-making class.

From the South China Morning Post:

Butterfly numbers dip at key Tuen Mun site in Hong Kong

Ernest Kao

Thursday, 12 February, 2015, 12:35am

The number of butterflies spending the winter at a key Tuen Mun site fell to a six-year low this season, possibly due to a changing climate and disruptions to migratory patterns, a study has found.

According to environmental group Green Power, which conducted the study between November and last month, the number of danaidae butterflies at Siu Lang Shui – a wooded former landfill site near Butterfly Beach – dropped over 80 per cent this winter.

From the 230 recorded in 2013-14, the number fell to just 41 this winter, the lowest since the green group’s first survey in the winter of 2009-10.

Danaidae, or milkweed butterflies, are a common subspecies [rather, a family, or subfamily]. They include the crow, tiger and monarch butterflies.

The group’s senior environmental affairs manager, Matthew Sin Kar-wah, said numbers fluctuated from year to year. They hit a high of 5,469 in 2012-13, before dropping again this winter.

It is not known what caused the sudden surge in 2012, nor the reasons for this winter’s drop.

“When everyone was disappointed about the low numbers, it suddenly jumped back up in 2012 and we all thought it was a recovery,” said Sin. “That is why we can’t say for sure whether [this year’s] drop indicates a good or bad trend.”

Two other major sites – Deep Water Bay on Hong Kong Island and Fan Lau on Lantau Island – also saw major drops.

The group suspects two factors are at play. One was a relatively warmer climate in East Asia, which may have deterred the butterflies from flying further to escape harsh winters.

Another possible reason was a change in the environment of stopover points along migratory routes. Rapid urban development on the southern mainland may have altered or even destroyed natural habitats, disrupting migratory patterns, Sin said.