Friday, 20 November 2020

Book review: The Birds of Cuba. An Annotated Checklist

The Birds of Cuba. An Annotated Checklist. BOC Checklist Series: 26

Arturo Kirkconnell, Guy M. Kirwan, Orlando H. Garrido, Andy D. Mitchell & James W. Wiley
British Ornithologists’ Club | 2020
472 pp. | 15.4 x 24.5 cm
Paperback | £44.99 = $ 61 | ISBN: 9780952288671

My first visits to Cuba were in 1995 and 1996, as a consultant to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre and United Nations Development Programme respectively, to work with Miguel Vales and a team of Cuban scientists at the Centro Nacional de Biodiversidad (CeNBio-IES) on the national Biodiversity Country Study, one of the first requirements of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. This was during the período especial, the 'Special Period' of adverse economic conditions triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and it was a real eye-opener for me. Even though everything from toilet paper to fuel, and beef to coffee had disappeared from daily life, and despite our conservation work being frustrated by the US embargo on the country (Nairobi funds were routed through Washington were frozen, while California-based Esri were threatened with fines for attempting to supply the GIS package Arc Info), I found Cubans remarkably hospitable, making me feel most welcome, sharing their extremely limited resources unselfishly and even going out of their way to find a vehicle to take me birding outside La Habana in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve. One of my most poignant memories was being shown one lunchtime a Gundlach specimen of the extinct Cuban Macaw Ara tricolor—the sole example held in Cuba—that (I learned from this new checklist) has subsequently been lost, probably stolen. At that time, few foreign birders visited Cuba, the majority of them Canadians or Europeans. The embargo was a disincentive to US tourism, but some birders and ornithologists from that country nevertheless succeeded in visiting the island.

Since then, I have been back several times, and particularly since 2014, tourism flourished as US-imposed restrictions were relaxed, a welcome policy that culminated in the restoration of direct flights in 2016. Although there has been a reversal of political rhetoric under the retrograde policies of the Trump regime, I am hopeful that a more pragmatic future awaits. At any rate, there seems no better time to publish a revision of the Cuban avifauna, something that had not been attempted—leaving aside the more summary treatment in Garrido and Kirkconnell’s field guides to the birds of Cuba (2000, 2011)—since Garrido and García’s Catálogo de las aves de Cuba published in 1975. I was honoured to be asked to review the new checklist for the next issue of the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club.


TEXT TO FOLLOW AFTER PUBLICATION. 

 

For more information on birds and birding in Cuba, you could do worse than read Seeing Cuba’s endemic birds and other specialities.

 


Friday, 30 October 2020

Europe's Dragonflies: A field guide to the damselflies and dragonflies

Europe's Dragonflies: A field guide to the damselflies and dragonflies 

 
Dave Smallshire & Andy Swash
Princeton University Press WILDGuides | 2020
360 pp. | 15 x 21 cm 
Paperback | £25 / $ 29.95 | ISBN: 9780691168951
 
Few groups illustrate as clearly as dragonflies the enormous advances in field guide technology over the past few decades. I became interested in the Odonata at a local nature reserve at age 11, and having read the school library’s copy of Collins New Naturalist Dragonflies from cover to cover I soon needed something to help me identify the species I encountered. At that time, the only identification guide available to me —and in a new edition on sale in the coveted natural history corner of Austicks Bookshop— was the slim, A4-sized volume by Harley Books. At £16.95 it was fabulously expensive, but my 1984 school Physics prize put it within reach and I spent the next few weeks bubbling with the anticipation of actually receiving it from the headmaster. As I carefully scrutinised its pages over and over again, it did not seem as if identification literature could ever get better than its sumptuous super-life-size full-colour plates, technical keys to both adults and larvae, and impressive 10 km square National Grid maps. The excitement was tempered slightly by the fact that I could now see starkly that I was apparently never going to be able to find many more species this far north in Yorkshire: most British dragonflies were limited to the balmy climes south of the Humber. 

The evolution of dragonfly guides...
I still have enormous affection for that identification guide, and great respect for its author, who —like so many great naturalists— was not a professional, but a north London schoolmaster, and I still take it off the shelves to learn its insight into the species that I find. But times have changed for those wishing to identify dragonflies. On one hand the number of potential species has increased as dragonflies expand their ranges, moving northwards to colonise the British Isles, and on the other the identification literature has vastly improved to more than keep pace with new challenges. The illustrations of Richard Lewington have greatly facilitated the amateur identification of several once arcane insect groups and collaborations with Steve Brooks in 1997 and Klaas-Douwe Dijkstra in 2006 produced ground-breaking guides to British and European dragonflies respectively. Both are a pleasure to use. The former has run to three editions while a second edition of the latter is in press as I write. On a different tack, the WILDGuides team employed their trademark photographic approach to produce a complementary guide to Britain’s dragonflies in 2004; the 2014 third edition is excellent, a resource that I use alongside Brooks & Lewington. So it is perhaps no surprise that WILDGuides have taken the logical step to publishing a photographic guide to the wider region of Europe. There has been no better time to get out and explore the European dragonfly fauna.

The new guide has all the hallmarks we have come to expect from WILDGuides publications. It is portable, robust, oriented at field identification by amateurs as well as professionals, visually intuitive, and makes use of the highest quality photographic images skilfully manipulated by design wizard Rob Still. As with other titles in the series, it also includes introductions to the identification of particular subgroups and plenty of comparative plates and text to facilitate correct identification, thus guiding the user in the process of identification. This use of ‘visual keys’ is one of the strengths of the book, and the series as a whole.

This guide covers all 140 of Europe’s species. Apart from the keys and comparative plates, each species receives a full double-spread account comprising three to ten or more photographs and facing text set against the background image of a typical habitat. There are 1400 photographs in all. The text is concise and very easy to navigate. Abundance and seasonality data are placed adjacent to range maps to facilitate the rapid narrowing-down of options, while the main body of text focuses on identification, behaviour and breeding habitat. A short list of similar species (with respective page numbers) is shown at the bottom left of each species account.

Distribution maps are based on the 2015 Atlas of the European dragonflies and damselflies. Each is printed at a scale (43 x 34 mm) that allows just sufficient resolution to determine whether or not the species is likely to be encountered at a given location. Interestingly, since I received my school prize field guide a dozen new (mostly) continental species have been recorded in the UK, half of them (Chalcolestes viridis, Lestes barbarus, Coenagrion scitulum [recolonising], Erythromma viridulum, Anax parthenope, A. ephippiger) becoming established, having bred or at least recorded egg-laying. Others, like Aeshna mixta, was, as its name Migrant Hawker suggests, largely an immigrant only just beginning to breed in the UK, but is now a common resident throughout most of England. The still more southerly A. affinis, a rare vagrant when I was at school, has subsequently expanded its European range several hundred kilometres polewards and has now also bred in the UK, something that will make its English name of Southern Migrant Hawker redundant. In fact, many species have expanded their range north and westwards in response to a warming climate. And one thought to be extirpated in my school days, Lestes dryas, has been rediscovered, within a few kilometres of my current home.

As ever with WILDGuides publications, the book has been issued in association with a relevant conservation organisation, in this case the British Dragonfly Society, and there is a strong emphasis on conservation throughout, including details of IUCN Red List status for each species in a handy checklist located at the end of the book.

This book is almost self-recommending. Anyone with an interest in the dragonflies of the region will want a copy. Even for those who limit their travels to the UK —virtually all of us at present— this guide will provide vital context and also some handy identification tips. I am very glad to have this book on my shelves and wish a copy had been available to help me with the challenges of exploring the Iberian Odonata. At the same time, I look forward to the publication of the second edition of Dijkstra & Lewington’s wonderful guide. The two should complement each other perfectly.
 
___________________
  


Accessible, easy-to-understand introductory material.



A wealth of information packed into concise, image-rich content in a careful layout designed to provide the most helpful cues along the quickest and easiest route to identification.









'Visual keys' to the trickiest groups making full use of painstakingly selected images supplemented with identification pointers.







One of several critical comparison plates.

Detail of a particularly useful comparison plate depicting lateral views of flying Aeshna males. 





Checklist of European Odonata.














 
 
References 
 
Askew, R.R. (2004) The dragonflies of Europe. 2nd edition. Harley, Colchester. 
 
Brooks, S. & Lewington, R. (1997) Field guide to the dragonflies and damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland. British Wildlife Publishing, Dorset. 
 
Corbet, P.S., Longfield, C. & Moore, N.W. (1960) Dragonflies. Collins (New Naturalist No. 41), London. 
 
Dijkstra, K-D.B. & Lewington, R. (2006) Field guide to the dragonflies of Britain and Europe. British Wildlife Publishing, Dorset. 
 
Galliani, C., Scherini, R. & Piglia, A. (2017) Dragonflies and damselflies of Europe. A scientific approach to the identification of European Odonata without capture. World Biodiversity Association (WBA Handbooks No. 7), Verona. 
 
Hammond, C.O. & Merritt, R. (1983) The dragonflies of Great Britain and Ireland. 2nd edition. Harley, Colchester. 
 
Kalkman, V.J. & Boudot, J-P. (2015) Atlas of the European dragonflies and damselflies. KNNV, Netherlands. 
 
Smallshire, D. & Swash, A. (2014) Britain’s dragonflies: A field guide to the damselflies and dragonflies of Britain and Ireland. 3rd edition. Princeton WILDGuides, Hampshire.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Britain's Ferns: A field guide to the clubmosses, quillworts, horsetails and ferns of Great Britain and Ireland

Britain's Ferns: A field guide to the clubmosses, quillworts, horsetails and ferns of Great Britain and Ireland


James Merryweather
Princeton University Press WILDGuides | 2020
280 pp. | 15 x 21 cm
Paperback | £20 / $ 23.95 | ISBN: 9780691180397

Ferns are – at least to this novice – a rather daunting identification prospect, notwithstanding the manageably low diversity compared with more popular taxonomic groups. My first attempt to get to grips with ferns was in the early 1980s, enthused by the newly published Grasses, ferns, mosses and lichens of Great Britain and Ireland, one of several ground-breaking Roger Phillips guides published by Pan (of which his Mushrooms has best stood the test of time). This was quickly supplemented by the Collins guide to the grasses, sedges, rushes and ferns of Britain and Northern Europe, from another proven field guide pedigree. As I take them off the shelf now, these pioneering aids look decidedly dated, and perhaps I can be pardoned for blaming my lack of expertise to some extent on deficiencies in the literature. In the intervening period (while I lived outside the UK), Page’s excellent The ferns of Britain and Ireland, has become the standard work, although since it is seemingly never to be found second hand for less than £60 I am not in a position to have acquired it. So I lay out my cards as an interested – and probably not very persevering – novice, and my assessment of the current guide should be taken as such.

But there’s no excuse for not tackling this group now. James Merryweather’s new field guide should put British fern identification within the reach of the most botanically (and economically) challenged. It is small, portable, clear and up-to-date. All 60 native ferns, 6 clubmosses, 3 quillworts and 9 horsetails are treated in this new photographic guide, in a format that will be very familiar to aficionados of the growing WILDGuides series.


Like most WILDGuides books, the aim is not merely teach the user the characters of each species, but primarily to inculcate an identification process that can be applied to any specimen encountered. As with companion guides, the introductory sections – a full 97 pages – comprise identification procedures, extremely detailed keys, and a guide to families. Those allergic to keys should not be put off, since this highly visual resource bears little resemblance to the dry dichotomous texts of yore. Here text, photographs, diagrams and clever design are married to produce a tool that the least technically proficient will be able to use. So the recommended way to use the guide is to work through the keys to find a suggested identification, which then directs the user to a full species description.


The species descriptions each cover a double-page spread, with most of the text, a map and a full-plant photograph appearing on the left, complemented by large photographs of fronds, sporangia and further detail on the right. These are very straightforward to peruse. Additional tables are provided to aid critical identification of the tricky British male-ferns. The closing pages are largely devoted to guidance as to when and where to encounter ferns and to further resources for study and recording. The skill of designer Rob Still is everywhere apparent, making the material supremely accessible.

The text itself is remarkably free from technical terms, so can be used with ease by the complete beginner. Indeed, the warm, accessible, occasionally whimsical style, is ideally suited to the task. However, the amount of information provided will make it just as handy for experienced botanists or professional ecologists. The author has decades of experience in the field and has already produced a previous illustrated key in the popular Field Studies Council AIDGAP series.

This is yet another ground-breaking WILDGuides initiative: as the first portable photographic field guide to British ferns, it really plugs a gap in the British identification literature. As usual, I can find little to fault here, and no reason why any keen naturalist would not want to get hold of a copy. I would expect to see interest in this group increase in response, as has occurred with the emergence of previous novel guides, to the benefit of national recording schemes. This can only be good for conservation, which is one of the major aims of the WILDGuides founders. Grasses next?

References

Fitter, A., Fitter, R. & Farrer, A. (1984) Collins guide to the grasses, sedges, rushes and ferns of Britain and Northern Europe. Collins, London.

Merryweather, J. (2007) The fern guide. 3rd edition. Field Studies Council, Shrewsbury.

Page, C.N. (1997) The ferns of Britain and Ireland. 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press.

Phillips, R. (1980) Grasses, ferns, mosses and lichens of Great Britain and Ireland. Pan, London.

Phillips, R. (1981) Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain and Europe. Pan, London.

Rose, F. (1989) Colour identification guide to the grasses, sedges, rushes and ferns of the British Isles and north-western Europe. Viking, London.



Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Book review: Britain’s Birds. An Identification Guide to the Birds of Great Britain and Ireland. Second Edition

Britain’s Birds. An Identification Guide to the Birds of Great Britain and Ireland. Second Edition, fully revised and updated

Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash, Hugh Harrop & David Tipling
Princeton University Press WILDGuides | 2020
576 pp. | 15 x 21 cm
Paperback | £20 / $ 35 | ISBN: 9780691199795


Despite commencing birding at a time when painted plates in field guides left quite a lot to be desired, I have been slow to entirely embrace photographic guides. My first was the Collins Bird Guide, “a revolutionary field guide” to the birds of Britain and Europe, and it provided a welcome additional source of visual material at a time when good quality photographs of birds were not readily available, but I certainly never pressed it into action as a field guide. The first publishers that seemed to be dealing with the limitations of photographic material in order to take full advantage of growing photographic libraries were WILDGuides in the UK and Kenn Kaufmann in the USA. Both were skilfully manipulating selected images in order to compensate for different light conditions, standardise postures and eliminate artefacts of the photographic process. Both publishers now have a long list of titles covering a wide range of taxonomic groups, some of which have were sorely lacking in identification literature, and many of these guides are now standard identification works. However, the United Kingdom’s avifauna is very well covered by a dizzying number of field guides, some of them amongst the best guides to any avifauna in the world. A new guide launched onto this crowded field has to be very good indeed if it is to make any significant contribution. And Britain’s Birds, published in 2016, is, and it has.

I have had the first edition by my bedside since that time. I typically pick it up at the end of the day to resolve queries arising from the day’s encounters, and one consultation generally leads on to another. After 40+ years of birding, I still get puzzled or excited by something every day, and this book helps me resolve doubts. It seems fitting that the first author, Rob Hume, has been a familiar name from YOC/RSPB magazines since I began birding. Rob’s co-authors together have truly formidable experience, not only on this topic, but in photography, design and the production of field guides. So the user is in very safe hands indeed.

Britain’s Birds is a large, comprehensive field guide, approaching the size of many of the standard Neotropical guides that cover avifaunas several times as large. At 1.44 kg and nearly 600 pages, it could be reasonably argued that this is not a field guide at all – indeed, my first edition has never seen sun, shower or the shady inside of a backpack – but then again, British birders of my generation were schooled to leave all references at home, but rather to take detailed field notes, something that I dutifully abide by to this day; and indeed, being of a similar vintage, this is the process suggested by the authors.For those who feel daunted by such a tome, or really do want a portable guide to take into the field, watch out for my review of the companion British Birds, A Pocket guide.

Why so large? The authors cover all 631 species on the British and Irish lists as of the end of 2019, using BOU/IRBC taxonomy which is in turn adopted from the IOC World Bird List (note that, as Nigel Collar has pointed out, IOC denotes the “international ornithological community”, not International Ornithological Congress). Another 33 species are also covered. So a page per species is about what one would expect for a visual guide to birds.

A typical species account
What about content? All regularly occurring species are typically treated by a page of coverage which includes text, photographs and a map. Birds are presented in their habitat, giving an additional clue to their characteristics. Scarcer species receive less space, while problematic groups, such as gulls, enjoy expanded comparative sections. All plumages are included, depicted with 3,591 photographs.

Maps are derived from current BirdLife International base maps, which were originally compiled by BirdLife International and Handbook of the Birds of the World (the latter now defunct). They are a generous size that is easy on the eye and permits high resolution. Arrows indicate broad migration routes. Status, seasonality and population data appear above the map, and habitat information below, allowing the user to determine almost at a glance the chances that a particular species has been seen.

Text is concise and, for me, achieves that tricky balance between providing enough description to clinch identification and avoiding extraneous detail. The team’s field experience is much in evidence, with expert insight being employed to craft succinct accounts that incorporate much distilled identification knowledge. Capitals, bold text and italics help navigate the sections.

Any downside? Having written field guides myself, I have renewed respect for those who take on such a task, and am now strangely reluctant to pick holes in the work of others. The production of a work like this is a massive undertaking, and all field guides contain errors, many of them spotted the day after the galleys go to press. However, I would be hard pressed to find much to complain about with this field guide, and remarkably uncharitable to draw attention to anything I found. I had already consulted the first edition on a daily basis, and – barring one unfortunate but conspicuous photo mix-up in my first printing – errors were few and far between, and the overall utility of the guide simply swamps any gripes. This edition has corrected the few oversights I had found and has improved the already high overall quality in every respect. Doubtless Chris Batty’s role as an identification consultant will have eased the burden of verification (he kindly gave me the benefit of his formidable knowledge on one of my own field guides). As far as field guides to the British avifauna are concerned, Svensson et al.’s Collins field guide and this current volume have, for me, become the two standard works the I reach for first, and their very different approaches complement each other nicely. If I need to delve beyond them, I reach for Witherby, BWP, van Duivendijk, Beaman and Madge, Harris et al. or the relevant standard monograph.

Given that I view this as a must-have for anyone with an interest in identifying the birds of the UK, whatever their level of expertise, the question then becomes, “Should owners of the first edition replace it with the second?”. That’s a hard question to answer, and depends as much on the strength of one’s bookcase shelves and the tolerance of one’s cohabitants as any technical factors. The current edition incorporates 800+ new photos, layout has been improved in key places and the entire production looks to have been revised with a fine tooth comb. And, of course, the list of taxa covered is bang up to date, reflecting the February 51st BOURC Report. So American ‘Taiga’ Merlin (columbarius) and Shorelark (alpestris group) are covered, as are other splits and additions over the past four years.

This is yet another ground-breaking field guide from the WILDGuides imprint, and an outstanding guide to Britain's birds for observers of all levels. At a retail price of £20, this is an absolute bargain. The authors and all contributors are to be heartily congratulated.

___________________



A typical double-spread species account, in this case for Dunlin Calidris alpina, showing the major plumages encountered in Britain and Ireland, along with subspecific variation. This is a variable species, and a standard, common 'yardstick' shorebird, so the coverage will be useful for beginners as well as those who want try to determine which subspecies they are seeing. Note the map indicating migration routes, and table showing the months during which different subspecies may be encountered. All relevant information can be taken in at a glance.


The double-spread devoted to the White/Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba complex has been completely overhauled in this edition. I still find alba hard to clinch, despite having read and re-read all of the literature, coupled with hours spent staring in monochrome at borderline individuals, so have already interrogated these pages several times. Photographs have been selected to help people like me. Note the inclusion of personata, new to Britain since the book's first edition.


Ducks in flight: handy double-spread guide to fieldmarks. The images are first class, and the spread has been slightly improved since the first edition, with subtle eye-guiding lines linking images of the same species. Similar comparison spreads are provided for other groups that requite critical flight identification, for example gulls, shorebirds, raptors – even larks.



Particularly tricky identification challenges are sometimes addressed by means of an extra page or two, in this case examining the similar Apricaria golden plovers. Not quite as much has been made of differences in leg length/proportion and head pattern as I might have suggested, but nevertheless the key identification characters are well covered.










Saturday, 23 November 2019

Book review: two new guides to the birds of Colombia


Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia
Miles McMullan
Rey Naranjo (Bogotá) | 2018
432 pp. | >5,000 colour figures, maps.
Softback | £49.99 / $65 / $115,000 COP | ISBN 978-9588969626

Guía ilustrada de la avifauna colombiana
Fernando Ayerbe Quiñones
Wildlife Conservation Society (Bogotá) | 2018
410 pp. | 212 colour plates, 1,932 maps.
Softback | $120,000 COP (apparently unavailable outside Colombia) | ISBN 978-9585461031




Just finished my review of two exciting new guides to the birds of Colombia, to be published in Neotropical Birding 26...

TEXT TO FOLLOW ONE YEAR AFTER PUBLICATION.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Orchids on Chapel Green wildflower meadow, Rocklands

Flower-rich meadow with orchids, Chapel Green, 12 June 2019
After an apparent absence of several years⁠—though these things can be notoriously elusive!⁠—Bee Ophrys apifera and Common Spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii are coming into flower on Chapel Green. In previous years the best area for these orchids has been the southern edge of the meadow adjoining the road, the spot that is driest and has lowest fertility thanks to years of removal of hay. This year, the orchids are close to the pond margin in a much wetter, more fertile area (see photo) that we have been managing precisely to increase floral diversity. This morning there was one flowering spike of Bee and two of Common Spotted-orchid.



Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera


Common Spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii




Update 30 June 2019

Today's count 1 Bee and 7 Common Spotted-orchids.

Update 7 July 2019

Today's count 1 Bee and 9 Common Spotted-orchids.


 

Monday, 10 June 2019

Ghost Moth lek on Rocklands' Chapel Green

Ghost Moths Hepialus humuli are one of the few British moths that have entered popular culture and are—or used to be—generally known to the non-specialist.  In earlier times, when insects were more abundant, meadows more commonplace, street lighting less widespread, and people abroad in the gloaming, an encounter with this species would have been a frequent early summer occurrence. Frequent but nevertheless remarkable. The memorable sight of a dozen or more large white moths hovering over the grass tops as if tethered to a thread in the fading light doubtless gave rise to their name.

Today this sight is considerably less familiar. In fact, unless they make a special effort, even moth-ers have rarely seen it. So when keen moth-man and wildlife writer James Lowen asked if anyone in East Anglia knew of a lek to cover in his forthcoming book, I racked my brains and suggested the two places that I had seen male moths in recent years: Old Buckenham village green and Chapel Green, Rocklands. This latter is a tiny plot of wildlife meadow that was restored by Rocklands Parish Council two decades ago through a Millenium Meadows grant, and financial support from Norfolk Rural Community Council, Norfolk County Council and guidance from Norfolk Wildlife Trust. It is a tiny (c. 0·015 ha) fragment of managed habitat that holds a surprisingly diverse and interesting flora and fauna, amongst which is a lek of Ghost Moths. I say lek, but when I checked back through my records I saw that I had only seen single males in June 2014, and (twice) in July 2016.

On D-Day, Thursday 6 June, despite a cool and windy evening, at 9.45 p.m.. I decided that I could no longer put off checking whether this year would produce an improvement on the singles that my memory had embellished into a weaving and bobbing troupe. I was fully prepared to tell James that the promised lek had not materialised and may have been unreliable in any case. What a relief to find two, then four, then finally a dozen male Ghost Moths "pendeculating" – Kettlewell's neologism for South's "swaying themselves to and fro without making progress".



The following evening, James was able to visit Chapel Green, arriving at 9.20 p.m. on his way back from another mothing assignment at Dungeness with moth expert Will Soar. For the first 20 minutes we enjoyed the meadow's wildflower display, twitching at passing Straw Dots Rivula sericealis and Common Swifts Korscheltellus lupulina (the latter a close relative of Ghost Moth) identified by Will. It was not until 9.40 p.m. that the first of our glowing white targets appeared, immediately followed by another, and another... Soon a group of six males were swaying and weaving on one side of the meadow, with another couple on the other. Our neighbour Carolyn, who coordinates the Chapel Green Management Committee, came out to enjoy the spectacle. We wondered if we might be lucky enough to see females, and shortly afterwards a dull yellowish brown female did indeed appear, immediately to mate with her chosen male. We found two pairs of mating moths, both on tall grass spikes, as well as a bloated female that was surely about to deposit her eggs. By 10.00 p.m. the display was over, and only these five Ghost Moths remained, clinging to their respective stems. The entire show had lasted exactly 20 minutes.



What is going on? A lek is an aggregation of male animals that come together, usually at a traditional site, to display together in order to compete for access to females. The phenomenon is especially well-documented in birds (particularly grouse and manakins) but not so widely-known in insects. In the case of Ghost Moths, the males hover over the grass, fanning their wings in order to release from scent brushes on the tarsus of the rear pair of legs a pheromone that attracts the females. The latter enter the lek briefly, select a mate, copulate on a grass stem and then fly off to drop their eggs over suitable grassy areas. The process was diligently observed and described by Mallet in his 1984 paper.

Formerly common, Ghost Moth is now a UK Biodiversity Action Plan species, listed because its populations are declining markedly. Conservation of this and a suite of other disappearing grassland plants and animals species is precisely the reason that Rocklands Parish Council manage this small area as a wildflower meadow.


More information?

Ghost Moth on NorfolkMoths here.

Rocklands Parish Council Chapel Green wildflower meadow page here.

Previous posts about management of Chapel Green wildflower meadow here.

James Lowen's blog here.


References

Kettlewell, H.B.D. (1973) The evolution of melanism. Clarendon Press: Oxford. 423 pp.

Mallet, J. (1984) Sex roles in the ghost moth Hepialus humuli (L.) and a review of mating in the Hepialidae (Lepidoptera). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 80(1): 67–82. PDF.

South, R. (1908) The moths of the British Isles, second series. Frederick Warne & Co.: London. 388 pp.


Updates

James Lowen's wonderfully illustrated account of tonight's display here.

On the evening of 11 June, despite cool temperatures (10°C), moderate drizzle and a damp SE 2–3 breeze, we counted at least 14 males lekking for exactly 20 minutes 2149–2209. The females are more difficult to spot, but we did see two come in and mate with males. The mild (15°C) evening of 17 June was even more active, with a high count for this year of at least 32 males and 4+ females between 2155 and 2215 (and perhaps later, as I left while it was still in full swing). A quick visit at 2210–2220 on the cool (14°C), evening of 22 June showed 24 males lekking, along with 1 female, though did not have time to check thoroughly.