Friday 10th August 2018

UK HOLIDAY - part 2 : KENT & ESSEX

We left Box Hill just in time because, as we drove down the wooded valley, the rain appeared. We were heading east towards our hotel in Kent and as we reached the M25 the heavens literally opened. I cannot remember driving in such difficult conditions for many years and it just had to be whilst driving round one of the busiest motorways in Britain! There was a thick sheet of water constantly in front of the car and the spray from the other vehicles made it feel like Cobo coast road on a big high tide. It then started to hail and the glass of the sunroof sounded like it was to smash at any moment. I am surprised the steering wheel didn't deform I was gripping it so tightly. We decided that a stop at Clacket Lane Services was in order to grab a breather and some grub.

Back on the motorway, the next wave of storm-clouds hit us and it was almost as bad as before. We eventually reached our Travelodge at the M2 Medway services at around 10-ish and literally had to wade through the flooded car park to get inside. Of course, most sane people would have decided that, after a busy day, it was probably time to have a beer and go to sleep. However, we were not at this location by accident. We needed to head out again into the soggy Kentish night. We were about to embark on a 'Pan-listing' pilgrimage. A rite of passage for all multi-taxon listers. We were off to search for Scorpions! 

We drove the short drive across the giant bridge that leads to the Isle of Sheppey in the mouth of the Thames Estuary. Stuffed into the corner of this island is the port of Sheerness and the scorpions can be found in and around the old dockyards. Apparently they have been there for a couple of hundred years, first arriving with Italian masonry shipments from the Med. There have been sightings at a couple of other locations in southern England but this is the only properly established colony in the UK with thousands of individuals and so this is a famous pan-listing spot. Although many of the scorpions will be in the docks themselves, there is an old wall where everyone goes to see them, which is where we were heading.

I had looked up where to go at home beforehand on Google maps and it seemed very, very obvious, so clearly I didn't need to write it down.... Oh dear. We arrived in Sheerness town centre and drove round the streets for ages and ages with me constantly saying "this doesn't look right!" We got out and walked around a bit and didn't see anything that resembled the bloney wall! We eventually realised that we had gone too far and it was over the other side water we had crossed. [So a tip to anyone else who wants to go looking, turn north/left when you see the sign to "BLUETOWN" (which oddly was never mentioned in the info I looked up), and the wall is very obvious in front of you just up that road]

It was now at least half-eleven and we were a little concerned that the wet weather and not-so-hot temperatures might make them difficult to find. Of course, other reasons that they might be difficult to find is that they are small, hide a lot and it was dark! Thankfully, as well as my normal torch, Andy had borrowed a special UV torch since scorpions are supposed to glow under UV waves. We wandered along the wall and looked for any bright spot that the torch might pick up. After a couple of false alarms with bits of fluff or bird poo, we were coming up blank until Andy shouted me to have a look at something. Unlike the slightly whitish-bluish colour of the false alarms, the torch had picked up a little blob of something that was beaming and bright blue and like a tiny neon light stuck into the brickwork. Although it didn't look like anything at first, closer inspection revealed it was indeed, a tiny, few cm long Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Success!

 Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

 Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

 Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

I took the torch so I could find one myself and further down the wall I managed to spotlight a larger one right out in the open. It quickly scurried between two bricks. Like the last one, it was difficult to take photos as they were both a little too high on the wall to make it easy and also because it was dark, most of the time it was just point and shoot in the right direction. As this was about twice the size of the first one we could see it better and even the sting. I don't think scientists are too sure why the scorpions are so fluorescent but its weird if its just an accident. The pics below give some idea of the size as it is walking between two bricks in the wall, where the mortar has worn away.

 Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

 Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

 Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

 Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

 Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

Yellow-tailed Scorpion - Sheerness, Kent, 9 Aug 18

We looked for a little while longer and found two more scorpions which were much bigger than the ones we had seen. Unfortunately these were both tucked right behind bricks and all you could see was the claws sticking out and the top of the head. Relieved with our success on such a damp night we crawled our way back to the Travelodge as it was now well past midnight.

 The famous wall at Sheerness Docks

The famous wall at Sheerness Docks


The next morning we didn't exactly get up at the crack of dawn but we knew we had to make the most of the first few hours because another rain band was moving up from the south. As we had been too late for the Silver-spotted Skippers at Box Hill yesterday, we thought that there may be another site for them somewhere near us in Kent as we were still on the line of the North Downs. A bit of googling later and we were very surprised to see that there was a SSS site less than a mile from where we were sitting! Queendown Warren was a nature reserve just down the back lane from the services and we were there in just a few minutes.

Just as we emerged from the car, the sun broke through the clouds and we enjoyed bright sunshine. As soon as we went through the gate we could see that there were some excellent wild flower meadows dominated by Marjoram, and even though it was quite early in the morning, the butterflies had started to take flight. It didn't take us too long to see some skippers skipping across the flower tops, and we quickly picked out some Silver-spotted Skippers, which seemed to be in the majority. This was a new species for both of us.

 Silver-spotted Skipper - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

Silver-spotted Skipper - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

 Silver-spotted Skipper - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

Silver-spotted Skipper - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

 Silver-spotted Skippers - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

Silver-spotted Skippers - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

 The wild flower meadows at Queendown Common, Kent

The wild flower meadows at Queendown Common, Kent

There were so many other insects here, including many Common Blue and Brown Argus butterflies, Rufous Grasshopper, Short-winged Conehead (both new species for me) and many types of diptera and hymenoptera.

 Common Blue - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

Common Blue - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

 Brown Argus - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

Brown Argus - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

 Rufous Grasshopper - we initially assumed these were Mottled Grasshoppers like at Thursley as they had the clubbed antennae, but Andy has reidentified them as the chalk specialist Rufous Grasshopper - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

Rufous Grasshopper - we initially assumed these were Mottled Grasshoppers like at Thursley as they had the clubbed antennae, but Andy has reidentified them as the chalk specialist Rufous Grasshopper - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

Further along the path, the trees opened out to south-facing, short-turfed downland and there was a sudden change in butterfly species with both Adonis Blue and Chalkhill Blue flying commonly low over the slopes. I had seen Adonis once before, over 20 years ago but Chalkhill was a new species for me. You think a Common Blue is pretty bright until you see Adonis shouting its blueness at you, and I really liked the subtle Chalkhills which flew around like Common Blues that had been dipped in milk.

 Queendown Warren, Kent

Queendown Warren, Kent

 Adonis Blue - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

Adonis Blue - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

 Chalkhill Blue - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

Chalkhill Blue - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

 Chalkhill Blue - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

Chalkhill Blue - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

Other new species for me in the vicinity were the pyralid moth Sitochroa verticalis, the high-pitched Roesel's Bush-cricket crawling a stem, Quaking Grass and Burnet Saxifrage. Heading back into the sheltered meadows and trees, the temperatures had warmed up and there were thousands of insects buzzing about - wonderful stuff. In amongst these - thanks to Andy's identifications - I had 3 new flies, a new bug, a new sawfly, and a new dragonfly, with 2 or 3 Southern Hawkers hunting in the lee of the bushes.

 Roesel's Bush-cricket - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

Roesel's Bush-cricket - Queendown, Kent, 10 Aug 18

We could have stayed at Queendown for a much longer time but we were aware of the impending rain and thought we'd better try and cross the Thames and try for a few things in Essex. The queue for the Dartford tunnel was very annoying and as we headed East into Essex the rain had caught us up. Our main target here was on Canvey Island where one of the ditches had hosted lots of Southern Migrant Hawkers all summer. We made the most of a dry spell and hopped over the stile towards the ditch. Very quickly we saw a hawker dragonfly and it seemed to have blue spots and blue eyes and we convinced ourselves that this might well be one. However, when the rain started again and we looked at the photos in the car it was only a normal Migrant Hawker - gutted!

We then drove off to find some breakfast but another break in the rain suddenly appeared which prompted us to U-turn and give it another go. We walked much further down the ditch and we did see lots more Migrant Hawkers, but none of them could be turned into Southerns. Perhaps we'd arrived a little late at this site and the species had 'gone over' here, but its something to go for next time I guess. Another species which was common here was Ruddy Darter, a dragonfly we do not get in Guernsey.

 Migrant Hawker - Canvey Island, 10 Aug 18

Migrant Hawker - Canvey Island, 10 Aug 18

 Ruddy Darter - Canvey Island, 10 Aug 18

Ruddy Darter - Canvey Island, 10 Aug 18

It then started raining yet again and, looking out to the south and west, it did not at all look like it was going to break. So we cut our losses and went for an excellent fried breakfast in Benfleet, at a café run by the most Essex old man you're likely to meet. We slowly made our way north towards Norwich but even a quick drinks stop at Beacon Hill Services near Ipswich gave me two plant ticks - Grass-leaved Orache and Wild Liquorice.

It was a shame the weather put paid to us cleaning up in the heaths and downs of the south, but with at least 50 ticks for me in less than two days, I had to be pleased.

Thursday 9th August 2018

UK HOLIDAY - part 1 : SURREY

We had a holiday cottage booked in rural Norfolk between 11th and 18th August, our first full week away as a family for ages. The rest of the family were flying to Stansted on Saturday, but I took the car on the ferry the Wednesday before. This may seem a bit odd travelling separately, but taking into account savings on car hire and the extra cost of hold luggage on the plane nowadays, it wasn't very much more expensive, and squashing all five of us into the car for a potentially long drive was not ideal either. It also meant that if I went up a few days early then I could meet up with Andy for a couple of days looking for wildlife first. What an excellent plan!

So I caught the ferry in the afternoon of Wednesday 8th August, the first time I had crossed by sea for quite a while. With it being late summer, I was of course expecting to see lots of rare seabirds en route but even though I spent all my time on deck looking out, I saw nothing once Alderney disappeared. It is always nice to pass the Gannet colony though and I did see a flock of 5 Balearic Shearwaters take flight off the water nearby. There were no delays and I stayed at the slightly shabby Travelodge at Ringwood for the night.

 Ortac Gannet colony

Ortac Gannet colony

 Gannet - near Alderney, 8 Aug 18

Gannet - near Alderney, 8 Aug 18

 Gannet - near Alderney, 8 Aug 18

Gannet - near Alderney, 8 Aug 18

The plan was to pick up Andy from Godalming train station and we were to search the Surrey heaths for ticks aplenty. Our number one target was Sand Lizard, but also I wanted especially to improve my terrible dragonfly list, and there were about 7 or 8 species here I could get, plus I was expecting a lot of plant ticks of common species which do not grow in Guernsey. Also there were many other specialist invertebrates which live on the warm, sandy heaths that we could see. However, a massive spanner was thrown into the plan when, after weeks and weeks of baking hot sunshine, I arrived into Surrey to be greeted by miserable rain! We pulled into the car park at the famous Thursley Common and were hugely disappointed by the wet weather - we had literally zero chance of Sand Lizard in these conditions. 

 Massive raindrops peppering the Moat pond at Thursley Common, 9 Aug 18

Massive raindrops peppering the Moat pond at Thursley Common, 9 Aug 18

Of course, we couldn't just sit there in the car so we got out anyway and concentrated on the Moat lake by the car park as we could shelter under the trees at least. This lake is meant to be terrific for many species of dragonfly but all we saw was a bedraggled Emerald Damselfly hanging off a tree. This wasn't one of the species I needed. Andy had a bash around with his sweep net and soon discovered an 18-spot Ladybird, a Scots Pine specialist, which was my first tick of the trip. The small black caddisfly Mystacides azurea was resting on the waterside vegetation and a had a flash of a tiny Common Lizards run through the grass.

 Emerald Damselfly - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

Emerald Damselfly - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

 18-spot Ladybird - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

18-spot Ladybird - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

It got a little bit brighter and we ventured out onto the sandy heath a little way. In amongst the Heather were small patches of Dwarf Gorse which were in flower, unlike their larger relative. The floor was covered in a patchwork of lichens, including two distinctive species, the carpet of "Reindeer Moss" Cladonia portentosa and the little red-tipped matchsticks of Cladonia floerkeana. We started seeing a few hoverflies and bees and things were looking better for insects. The small grasshoppers we were flushing were Mottled Grasshoppers which could be identified by their clubbed antennae. With Andy being able to point out these common but new species for me, it saved a lot of time not having to constantly search through ID guides. After a short time the rain returned and we started getting properly wet and we returned to the car to regroup.

 Cladonia floerkeana - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

Cladonia floerkeana - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

We retired to a café in the nearby village for a late breakfast and discussed what to do. The rain was really piddling down now and we couldn't really do much at the moment. We even considered knocking this area on the head and going to do some birding near our booked hotel in Kent for the rest of the day and returning in the morning. We felt that this was too much wasted driving time however and resolved to give it another go.

After the rain slowed a bit we drove to the Frensham Pond area as we had been told that it was another good Sand Lizard area - you never know we might be very lucky. We had a stomp through the woods here first of all as it was raining quite heavily on and off, but we found little that was new to me. As we left the trees and wandered back down the slope towards the road the sun started to poke through the clouds and we started seeing a few more things of interest. A common little moth here feeding on the heather was Aristotelia ericinella, a new species for me. We found a few bits and bats which may be identifiable later and were in quite good spirits as the weather was now pretty dry. There wasn't a great deal of variety on these acid heaths and we kept seeing the same things. No sign of any reptiles.

 Surrey heathland at Frensham

Surrey heathland at Frensham

Our next spot was Hankley Golf Course, another lizard location where we didn't see any. We had a similar selection of species and Andy netted the pretty pink spider Thomisus onustus which is one of the flower-living crab spiders and is quite a range-restricted species. I saw and heard a few Crossbills here distantly flying over the pines. We had a really good look here and found a few more interesting inverts.

Although it was very cloudy and dull we thought that we could get a few more dragonflies at Thursley Common now that is wasn't raining and we returned there about 4-ish to try again. This time we strode straight out to the marshland and boardwalks where there were regular small pools and ditches we could check. There were many common species of plants here that I had never or rarely seen. New species for me were White Beak-sedge, Bog Pondweed, Marsh Pennywort, Cottongrass and Bogbean. I really love the sundews and there were lots here on the mud. As well as the regular Round-leaved Sundew, we saw plenty of the less common Oblong-leaved Sundew. There were gigantic clumps of Black Bog-rush, very different to the tiny single plant I saw in Guernsey earlier in the summer.

 Black Bog-rush - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

Black Bog-rush - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

 Oblong-leaved Sundew - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

Oblong-leaved Sundew - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

Despite all these ponds and ditches, we didn't see any dragonflies at all. A Green Sandpiper dropped into one of the larger ponds and couple of young Dartford Warblers gave us an uncharacteristically prolonged view perched up on a small birch. Finally, beside one of the last pools along the loop, we got a few dragonflies including two new ones for me. A single female Black Darter was seen perched up on sedges but didn't give close views. Better views were had though of the single dark Small Red Damselfly right by the path.

 young Dartford Warbler - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

young Dartford Warbler - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

 Dartford Warblers - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

Dartford Warblers - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

 female Black Darter - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

female Black Darter - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

 parasitized Fox Moth larva - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

parasitized Fox Moth larva - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

With this dragonfly success, we headed back to the Moat lake again to see if there were any more species out and about. The sun was now appearing every now and then and we actually got a few periods of hot weather. We quickly found some more damselflies in the poolside vegetation along the eastern edge of the lake. They were not hugely active but this meant that we could take some decent photos including some terrific bright red Small Red Damselflies which I could even use the macro lens on. A bit more sweeping from Andy revealed a few Raft Spiders Dolomedes fimbriatus with their distinctive white stripes. This species is another range-restricted species in the UK and was an excellent one to see and since I've already seen the even rarer Fen Raft Spider a few years ago in Norfolk, I've cleaned up on the genus!

 Small Red Damselfly - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

Small Red Damselfly - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

 Small Red Damselfly - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

Small Red Damselfly - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

 Emerald Damselfly - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

Emerald Damselfly - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

 Raft Spider - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

Raft Spider - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

We walked round to the area of lily pads as this is typically where Red-eyed Damselflies hang out and it didn't take us too long to spot a couple resting on the pads. We couldn't get very close to them but this was another new species for me, with its deep red, bulging eyes. It seems that the weather was only good enough for the smaller species of dragonflies to be active.

 Red-eyed Damselfly - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

Red-eyed Damselfly - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

 Red-eyed Damselfly - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

Red-eyed Damselfly - Thursley, 9 Aug 18

It was now well into the evening and we had the great idea of driving to Box Hill to search for Silver-spotted Skipper. Really it was very late in the day to look for butterflies, especially as it was after 7 pm when we got there. Nevertheless we went for a walk and as we left the car park I looked down and was shocked by an absolutely huge, massive snail! Of course, we'd temporarily forgotten that this was also a site for Roman Snail. I knew they were bigger than garden snails but I wasn't prepared for just how much bigger. They were all at least 2 inches in diameter and with milky white flesh, you can see how they are "poached" for restaurants. They were originally brought to the UK by the Romans and only live on a few chalk downland sites in southern England.

 Box Hill, Surrey

Box Hill, Surrey

 Roman Snail - Box Hill, 9 Aug 18

Roman Snail - Box Hill, 9 Aug 18

We walked the path up the south-facing grassy slope but didn't see any skippers, and very few other butterflies. We had a few moths but nothing that I hadn't seen before. I did have plenty of new plant ticks here - Upright Hedge-parsley, Ploughman's Spikenard, Great Lettuce, Wild Privet, Mistletoe, Hoary Ragwort, Black Bryony and Alder Buckthorn. It was almost 8 pm when we made our way back down, and with some ominous dark clouds assembling to the south and some ominous youths shouting obscenities at us from their speeding car, we thought it was time to call it a night.

 Six-spot Burnet - Box Hill, 9 Aug 18

Six-spot Burnet - Box Hill, 9 Aug 18