Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Looking at Wildlife Species Worldwide. Tying it in.

It was 1990. The darkness was just beginning to brighten outside. My window was open, and a pleasant, cool breeze redolent with tropical perfumes tantalised my nostrils. It must have been about half past five in the morning, though my body probably registered as much later as I had passed through several time zones in the previous twenty four hours. This was the start of my first day ever in Costa Rica and I was in a hotel room in the capital, San José. A bird began to twitter starting the dawn chorus.

“That has to be a species I have never seen before,” I told myself and in a flash, I was out of bed, and dressed. Soon I was out in the streets that surrounded the hotel. They contained suburban houses with fine gardens ablaze with Bougainvillea and other tropical flowers.

Eyelash Viper - Costa Rica
I tracked down approaching the source of the song of that first bird of the day. It was a Rufous-collared Sparrow, a species that would fill the niche of the house sparrow, if house sparrows were not probably the most cosmopolitan of all birds. I had just made the acquaintance of the Rufous-collared Sparrow or Rufie as they are called by birders in tropical America, when a dark flash passed me like an arrow. Soon, it was stationary, hovering close to the flowers of a Bougainvillea, its wings a greenish blur. This was my first hummingbird. It had an orange brown tail and went onto my lists as a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. Soon, I was enjoying a tiny owl. This was a Ferruginous Pigmy Owl sitting on a telegraph wire.  Two American warblers joined in, and these were Tennessee and Yellow Warblers. I saw fifteen new birds before breakfast and one of the most amazing was a Blue-crowned Motmot that swung its amazing tail feathers backwards and forwards like the pendulum of a clock.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Pan Listing – Why looking at all species matters…

Epipogium aphyllum, Buckinghamshire August 1971
It has been a privilege, and a joy, that my professional life has allowed me to indulge fully a fascination with the incredible variety of life forms that live on our planet.

Having taught biology briefly, and developed a passion for Lepidoptera, I was appointed a student assistant at Leicester Museum at the beginning of my career. A biological curator in a regional museum is responsible for looking after study collections in all groups of organism. This gives the opportunity to work on that all important vocabulary that I believe is so necessary in evaluating and understand the ecology of our environment.

Leicester museum concentrated on collections of British specimens. These ranged from stuffed animals to the parasites that live in association with these animals. The museum had an active taxidermy department, and I well remember the disgust of a member of the public who had donated a dead hedgehog to the museum, when, in the museum’s acknowledgement of her presentation, it was described as a ‘fine collection of fleas and other parasites’ which had been added to a large spirit collection of small invertebrates all carefully labelled, preserved in alcohol  and stored in jars. The hedgehog itself was not required for the mammal collection. The specimens had to be identified accurately before they were catalogued. What a fantastic beginning this training was for the dedicated pan lister.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Inspiration through Ecology

Simon Davey studying lichens in Jersey
Life on Earth is a near infinite mix of species with complex inter relationships. It is quite incredible how every group of animals and plants has evolved in a way that also gives the naturalist a perfect avenue of study and development of knowledge. Take birds, for instance. An embryo birder would have little difficulty in distinguishing a robin, a blue tit and a blackbird in the garden. As his experience develops, challenges such as leaf warblers and waders present themselves to give a puzzle equal to any Times crossword.

Lichenologists in a Dutch churchyard
Personally, one of my greatest interests is in lichens. I suppose many would be put off lichens believing them to be far too complicated to get into. However, the ecological value of lichens makes them a challenge that is so worthwhile. Anyone with experience of suburban areas, and with even the slightest observation of the natural world, cannot fail to have noticed the scrambled egg like crusts growing on asbestos garage roofs, walls, or the enriched dog-pee zone at the base of trees in urban parks.
Xanthoria parietina

This is the lichen Xanthoria parietina. With something like 1800 species in Britain, lichens present a challenge that could keep any naturalist inspired and occupied for a lifetime. As with birds, some are easily identified, while the identification procedures to name others require a series of complex processes involving chemicals, high power microscopes and the accurate measurement of structures such as spores.  Lichens are probably the fussiest group about the environment in which they can survive. The presence or absence of many allows an ecologist to make a rapid initial evaluation of the health and ecological importance of a site. It is well known that lichens cannot tolerate acid rain. It was probably lichens that caused environmentalists to take seriously the problems, to us all, of industrial air pollution more than anything else. A few groups of species, and especially lichens, beetles and hoverflies indicate by their presence or absence the ecological continuity and lack of negative disturbance in the places in which they live.