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28th/29th August 2017 - Moth Event

The evening of August Bank Monday was mild, windless and there was a clear sky. This was almost perfect for running moth traps and Steven Teale had set up three on Seaford Head Nature Reserve just to the east of the Seaford Head Golf Course. The mercury vapour trap and the two actinic traps were distributed across open grassland and the edges of bracken and scrub in the hope of attracting moths from these different habitats. By the start time of 9.00pm it was almost dark and a good few moths were already being attracted to the lights. About 20 members and guests spent a couple of hours catching, examining and trying to identify the moths that came to the traps.

The following morning about 26 of us met again to examine the moths that had come into the traps overnight and it is estimated that several hundred moths were attracted by the lights. Forty-three species were identified during the evening and the following morning took the count up to 59. A list of the species identified can be found here.

At the time of writing it is thought that 35 of the species identified are new records for Seaford Head Nature Reserve. The moth of the night was the Portland Ribbon Wave (Idaea degeneraria), that until recently has been mainly found in Dorset and is deemed to be uncommon; this is thought to be a first sighting in Seaford. The most commonly seen moth was probably the Setaceous Hebrew Character (Xestia c-nigrum ) which was gratifyingly easy to identify with its distinctive marking, and a close second was the Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba), a large brown or fawn moth with striking yellow hindwings. The distinctive and unusually shaped Angle Shades moth (Phlogophora meticulosa) was also common. Photographs of some of these moths can be seen on the Society’s facebook page.

There was much of interest, including the Spectacle Moth (Abrostola tripartita), who on close examination appears to have rings round its eyes that make it look as if it is wearing goggles; the Garden Tiger moth (Arctia caja) – one of our larger and brighter moths; and the pretty Brimstone Moth (Opisthograptis luteolata) with its bright yellow wings. We also saw the Spindle Knot-Horn moth (Nephopterix angustella) that is designated as scarce, and an uncommon migrant from Africa called the Scarce Bordered Straw moth (Helicoverpa armigera). The traps not only attracted moths but also several species of flies, ladybirds and wasps. At about 05.30hrs a large swarm of wasps (Vespula vulgaris) was attracted to the traps, stinging Steven Teale several times and causing a certain level of anxiety when the traps were opened later in the morning.

Steven Teale not only identified moths but also provided information about their lifestyles and of particular interest was the Parsnip Moth (Depressaria radiella). The caterpillar of this moth is easy to find because it lives on hog weed and wild parsnip where it weaves a conspicuous silken web around the flowers that are its major food source. It later pupates within the stem of the plant.

It was generally agreed that the Moth Event had been successful and it is planned to run another one in June of next year.

Marion Trew

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11th September 2017 – Birding Walk: Seaford Head

10 members of the Society attended the first walk commencing at 7am on a fine but blustery day. We were soon rewarded with excellent views of an immature whinchat and northern wheatear at the aptly named ‘dung heap’. Unfortunately we could not locate the calling yellow wagtail nearby so moved on to the path heading down to Hope Gap. As the sun hit the slopes bird activity started to pick up. As we slowly walked downhill checking the bushes either side we had around 50+ blackcap, 20+ common whitethroat, a single reed warbler, 2 willow warbler, 5+ chiffchaff, a goldcrest and a very flighty female common redstart. A pair of fly-over ravens are now a common sight in the area but always lovely to see.

As we approached the bottom of Hope Gap there was a large family group of stonechats. Whilst watching the stonechats two birds popped up on the opposite side of the valley and turned out to be a pair of tree sparrows, a rarity not only in this area but throughout the County. At this time we also had a fly-by from an adult hobby.

Oystercatcher, little egret and fulmar were added to the day list as we headed back up hill and circled back round to our starting point at the car park. An immature sparrowhawk, from size a female, was seen a couple of times but a probable lesser whitethroat was very elusive and remained unconfirmed. We also saw a single wall butterfly on the return leg.

11 members of the Society had assembled for the next walk which we commenced at 10am walking the same route as earlier this morning. The ‘dung heap’ now had 5 northern wheatear which showed really well and 10+ meadow pipit. Yet again a yellow wagtail was heard but alas not seen.

Bird activity on the slopes above Hope Gap was slow but we did find 5+ blackcap, 2 common whitethroat and 5+ chiffchaff. The rising temperature meant that butterflies had warmed up and were now on the wing. There were many common blue, large and small white, small heath (or little Teds as I like to call them), meadow brown, red admiral and peacock. The highlight was the sheer number of small copper with at least 30+ seen, obviously a really good year for this species in the area, certainly compared to last year.

The immature female sparrowhawk was seen again and the stonechat family were in some sort of territorial dispute with a rogue female. A large flock of finches was nice to see and included a high percentage of immature goldfinch and linnet.

It is so lovely to have participants with such a broad interest in natural history on these walks which makes them so enjoyable. Everyone appreciated the rare moon carrot and autumn gentian pointed out to us by the flora experts within our group.

Back at the top of the hill we scanned across the Cuckmere Valley finding little egret, common buzzard and a large group of around 30 curlew. As we returned to the car park a single clouded yellow butterfly was seen briefly.

Our total number of bird species for both walks combined was a credible 54 and butterfly species numbered 10. I would like to thank all those who attended both walks for their company and enthusiasm. It is a great pleasure spending time with you all and I hope to join you again next Spring.

Derek Barber

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26th September 2017- Fungus Foray

From colourful gems glistening in the meadows to the downright weird on the heath, the fungi were out to impress. Eleven of us met with Martin Allison, the County Recorder for Fungi, at Chailey Common. Rain during the week had given good conditions for fungi, but the weather on the day was warm and dry, if rather hazy.

One edge of the sports field adjacent to the car park had large numbers of colourful Waxcaps – red, yellow, orange, cream; even the Blackening Waxcap (Hygrocybe conica var conica) – so-called because it goes black when bruised or with age – was impressive. The number of Waxcap species found is a good indicator of the quality of unimproved grassland – the 6 species we found indicates that this field is indeed of high quality. One of the most colourful of the Waxcaps we found was the Spangle Waxcap (Hygrocybe insipida), whose Latin name definitely does not do justice to its appearance – a two-tone orange and yellow cap and orange stipe.

We also discovered two specimens of Magic Mushroom (Psilocybe semilanceata), which has hallucinogenic properties and is legally restricted. We decided not to investigate this further!

Leaving the sports field, we walked over to the Nature Reserve entrance and very quickly started to find more species, both along the grassy ride and in the adjoining heathland. A large, isolated birch tree yielded several interesting species, including the Ochre Brittlelegill (Russula ochroleuca) and Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus). The latter is parasitic on birch trees and a major cause of death for its host. It was used for sharpening blades (hence its alternative name – the Razorstrop Fungus), lighting fires and for its medicinal properties. “Otzi” the mummified iceman found in the Alps in 1991 had a sample of this fungus amongst his belongings – Swiss Army Fungus!

Also in this area was the Powdery Brittlegill (Russula parazurea). Brittlegills are so called because when you run a fingernail across the gills, they easily break up. Many have brightly coloured caps, but the colour is water-soluble and so quickly fades with rain. Most also react to iron salts giving different colours, so that it is possible to distinguish between similar-looking species by the colour reaction to an iron salt crystal, as Martin demonstrated for us (P. parazurea gave a salmon-pink reaction).

During the morning we found three different species of Bolete. These are toadstools with pores instead of gills. One of these was the Cep (Boletus edulis), sold as Porcini in upmarket places. The other two looked very similar to each other: Martin pointed out the paler cap colour and blue at the base of the stem when cut which distinguished Leccinium cyaneobasileucum from the commoner Brown Birch Bolete (L. scabrum).

Near to the Boletes, we also found Birch Milkcap (Lactarius tabidus). Milkcaps are usually distinguished by droplets of white or yellow liquid found on the gills. In the case of L. tabidus, they are white but turn yellow on a handkerchief, as Martin again demonstrated.

We then found a couple of very fine examples of The Blusher (Amanita rubescens). As the name suggests, it has a reddish tinge, but is quite subdued compared to its much louder relative, the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), which we found a little later. The genus Amanita includes some of the most poisonous British toadstools, including the well-named Death Cap and Avenging Angel.

The “pièce de résistance” for our morning was finding a perfect specimen of Devil's Fingers (Clathrus archeri), looking like a bright red Sea Anemone emerging out of the short grass! Not only does it look dramatic but it also smells revolting – it attracts flies in order to disperse its spores. This species is a native of Australasia and arrived in the UK (Cornwall) after the First World War, probably accidentally carried as spores with wartime supplies. It remains quite rare and localised but is spreading. Definitely the dramatic highlight of the morning.

Returning via a woodland track, a completely different fungal community was found. Highlights included Birch Knight (Tricholoma fulvum), which has yellowish gills and smells of cucumbers, Frosty Webcap (Cortinarius hemitrichus) and Coconut Milkcap (Lactarius glyciosmus) – yes, it does smell of coconuts!

Many species of fungi cannot be reliably identified in the field as they require microscopic examination. Martin took quite a large number of samples away with him in order to work on this. Altogether, approximately 40 species of fungi were spotted and a full list of identified species is available here. Martin's expert leadership of the group ensured everyone had both an enjoyable and informative morning.

Janet and Jim Howell

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3rd October 2017 - Amphibians and Reptiles with a Sussex Flavour

Jim Howell welcomed Chris Drewery from the Sussex Amphibian and Reptile Group, the first County Group of its kind, dating back to 1896. Chris’ talk outlined the evolution of amphibians and reptiles, highlighted the differences between them, reviewed local survey work from Weir Wood Reservoir and Seaford Head Local Nature Reserve, and concluded with some unusual and spectacular images of these animals from the Sussex region.

Chris acknowledged the generally negative image people have of snakes and lizards. One dictionary defines a snake as a treacherous and deceitful person, going back perhaps to the biblical Adam and Eve. In contrast, at Iona Monastery in Scotland, there is a copy of a Celtic cross with 12 serpents, suggesting that snakes were seen as a sign of rebirth because they shed their skins. But their cryptic lifestyle means that they are rarely seen and so relatively little known. The audience certainly knew more by the time Chris had finished!

Native amphibians include common frog and toad, natterjack toad, palmate, smooth and great crested newts and pool frog. Native reptiles include grass snake, adder, smooth snake, common lizard and slow worm. In zoological terms amphibians and reptiles are Tetrapods (vertebrates with four limbs). Their evolutionary beginning can be traced back to lobe-finned fish in the Devonian Period, 390m years ago. Their fins contained a bone structure similar to present-day tetrapods, such as humans!

The differences between amphibians and reptiles can be summarised thus:

AmphibiansReptiles
Permeable skin to assist respiration More efficient resp. so scaly skin
Flat swimming tail Thinner tail for balance
Must return to water to breed
Eggs laid in water by frogs and toads Snake eggs on land in June/July e.g. in compost heap
Single egg on leaf by newt
Frogs and toads born as spawn, then grow legs and body Young reptiles look like adults

Chris then briefly illustrated the common local reptiles, adder which may be up to 60cm in length, grass snake which usually grows to 1m but exceptionally to 3m in length, common lizards which are usually patterned brown but can be black if excessive melanin is present, and the slow worm (also a lizard) which has eyelids. Reptiles are cold-blooded, a characteristic influencing their metabolism. Remarkably grass snakes may eat only three good meals in a year! They operate best at 25-35oC, well above normal temperature, and reach their desired temperature by basking and muscular effort. Refuges warm in the sunshine so are good to use on a cold day. Chris illustrated an exceptional mixture of six reptiles, snakes and slow worms, all in the same place.

Finally, before the refreshment break, Chris outlined the two surveys in which he is involved, one at Weir Wood reservoir and the other, closer to home, on Seaford Head LNR.

The attraction of the Weir Wood site is its prime grass snake habitat – meadowland providing great cover, an area closed to humans and dogs by Southern Water, and a series of ponds and streams with abundant food. 10 reptile refuges per hectare were laid out. There were no sightings until the end of April, possibly due to excessive precipitation during the preceding winter. After a slow start in May numbers peaked in June and maintained a good level through to the end of September. The distribution of sightings suggested that the snakes retreated to drier areas for winter hibernation before returning.

The Seaford Head LNR survey began in 2017, with the aid of several SNHS members, when about 50 refuges were laid out, mostly in the Hope Bottom area (see map below) where scrub offers cover, old rabbit holes provide potential hibernation sites, and adders had already been observed.

Seaford Head Reptiles

The lines and letters indicate the general zones of distribution of the refugia. They are used in the following table by Chris, to review the results for adder. Note that the number of visits varies from month to month:

AreaMarchAprilMayJuneJulyAugSeptOctTotal
A0 0 0 01 0 10 0 2 10 0101 007
B0 0 0 01 0 10 1 2 10 0321 0012
C0 0 0 00 0 00 0 0 00 0001 102
D0 0 0 01 1 10 1 1 30 0320 1014
E0 0 0 00 0 00 1 1 20 0210 018
F0 0 0 00 0 00 0 1 10 1210 006
Others0 0 0 00 1 00 1 0 00 0101 116
Total0 0 0 03 2 30 4 7 80 11264 3255

[Note: October has been added by the author since Chris’ talk.]

Chris commented that this suggests that the adders were lying up in gaps in the dense scrub in March and gradually emerged at the edge of the scrub and beyond in April and May before peaking in July and decreasing thereafter. The dip in June remains a puzzle. Marilyn Binning and Colin Whiteman, running the last survey before Chris’ talk, were fortunate to record all four of the expected reptiles, adder, grass snake, slow worm and lizard, for the first time since the start of the survey.

Chris concluded his talk with a discussion of a few rarities in the region and some stunning photographs of reptiles in a range of situations. Smooth snakes are very rare. Twelve were translocated from a Bournemouth development site to Amersham Common near Midhurst 20 years ago and still only number 30 after surviving a fire. As a burrowing snake they require a sandy heath habitat, as does the sand lizard. Adders were shown in various situations and poses - climbing up a tree in Ashdown Forest, flattening the body in pregnancy to increase the area exposed to the sun to incubate eggs, and appearing alongside a grass snake under one of the SHLNR refuges. A striking black (melanistic) adder may warm up more readily, but, of course, be less well camouflaged. Finally, only the third reported British short-toed (snake) eagle, Circaetus gallicus, was seen over Ashdown Forest in 2017 with a snake dangling from its talons.

Colin Whiteman proposed a vote of thanks to Chris for his stimulating and informative presentation, which was generally acclaimed by the appreciative audience.

Colin Whiteman

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page updated 28th October 2017