Once again I have given up the blog to a worthy lady who is also a volunteer for me - Jasmin Perera. Here is her account of our recent trip to the Isles of Scilly - Cornwall's detachable toes!
Isles of Scilly 2013
Greetings! I am one of the many volunteers at the Museum working for Erica McAlister in the diptera section, and recently I got a fantastic opportunity to travel along with her and some of the other curators to the Isles of Scilly! (p.s Thank you Erica for involving me in this project)
The aim of the trip was to gather up-to-date information on the flora and fauna populating the islands by collecting as many specimens as possible. This information will be useful in so many ways and will hopefully provide us with a better understanding of how the environment around us is changing.
I was not just working alongside the dipterists but also with lepidopterists, botanists and hymenopterists, to name but a few. And so in the process I learnt about many different methods of collecting.
Day 1 – Settling in
Disembarking the ferry at St Mary’s Island we were greeted by Mark Spencer (a Museum botanist specialising in British Flora) who had arrived a couple days before us. He was the main organiser for the trip and with much excitement he led us to our unusual home for the week.
Home sweet home – The Woolpack.
Residents of the Woolpack included this baby swallow.
Wonderful cup-of-tea views from the top of the bunker. Needless to say, lots of teas were made!
We had the privilege of staying in a world war bunker, named the Woolpack. Built in the early 1900s the bunker has had many residents from soldiers to vagrants, but is currently in the care of the Scilly Isles Wildlife Trust. And for one week it was home to a group of keen Museum staff and volunteers!
Day 2 – An early Christmas and majestic elms
On the first morning Martin Honey (lepidopterist) retrieved his light trap which he had placed outside of the Woolpack on the previous evening. The light trap consisted of a large round container filled with carefully arranged empty egg cartons and a very bright light bulb on top. A couple of us huddled around him as he revealed what treasures were hidden in the crevices of the cartons. It felt like unwrapping presents at Christmas!
Image of a very unfocused Ruby Tiger, Phragmatobia fuliginosa. In the background is the light trap, Martin’s leg and a male Four Spotted Footman, Lithosia quadra (in egg carton).
Martin was able to identify many of the specimens on site and explained that he follows a code while collecting; He will only collect what is needed for scientific purpose and the remaining moths that can be readily identified are set free in dense vegetation near their place of capture. The last bit is especially important as it gives them a fighting chance (to not become a birds breakfast!).
Diverting off the footpath and into the elm wilderness - Holy Vale Nature Trail.
Now it was my turn - armed with my net and pooter, I went along with a fellow dipterist Zoe Adams and a Hymenopterist, Natalie Dale-Skey, to find some insects! We spent our first day exploring on St Mary’s Island, the main island. St Mary’s is one of the few places left in the UK where you can find mature elm trees after the devastating Dutch elm disease in the late 20th century wiped out most of the mainland UK population.
I felt very fortunate to be amongst these majestic trees whilst collecting on the Holy Vale Nature Trail. And more excitingly there were plenty of hoverflies in areas where the sun had broken through the trees’ high canopy, and crane flies in the lower vegetation. I also managed to catch a few Ichnumonids along the way.
Day 3 – Pelistry Bay
During the morning I wandered with Erica along Pelistry Bay, also on St Mary’s, to get some sweep samples by the coast.
Pelistry Bay – Bladderrack kingdom.
Walking on rocks covered in slippery bladderwrack seaweed, I soon realised my balance needed to be in sync with my sweeping and pootering action.
Day 4 – The Eastern Isles
Today we were very lucky as a few of us had the opportunity to visit the uninhabited Eastern Isles. Accompanied by the warden for the Wildlife Trust we sailed to Ganilly Island, which is filled with curious bees and beautiful landscapes. Trying to sweep proved tricky on the grassy areas due to the hundreds of solitary bees buzzing around my legs. I wish I had taken a picture of them as several sat sleepily inside the net refusing to leave.
View from Ganilly Island.
Erica and I ended up on a rocky shore hunting for Asilids to the chorus of singing seals. Asilids are speedy little predators but Erica was a font of helpful tips when it came to catching these stealthy mini beasts: In order to catch one, you require a lot of patience!
Asilidae caught from West Porth Beach, Great Ganilly.
Erica in a Fern jungle! On our way to Nornour island (in the background).
Seals welcomed us to the Eastern Isles.
And so the waiting game began. Whilst being entertained by the song of a distant seal, Erica and I sat quite still on opposite rocks. Asilids wait for a fair while on a rock until a potential prey appears. Once one was spotted, we held our nets close to the ground, and crept towards it. When the Asilid is within ‘net range’, we lunged at the flies thrusting the net down over the individual. To my dismay, I need more practise but it was great watching Erica at work!
Day 5 – Ruby Cow Dung
On an overcast day we decided to stay close to bay and seek out the beautiful Ruby Cows that are being bred on St Mary’s island. The ‘Scilly’ cows are curious creatures and they watched and followed us swooping our nets and pootering flies within their enclosure.
However, it was not the cows we were interested in but their poo! We huddled around a fresh piece and watched male sepsid flies fluttering their wings in hope of attracting a mate. We were also hoping to see some Scathophagid flies mate. This is a far more barbaric ordeal compared to the Sepsidae as the female often gets ripped to shreds from a bombardment of eager males.
Erica capturing the moment.
Each day ended around the dinner table, where people took turns to cook. We used a lot of local produce and any edible plants growing nearby like Rock Samphire (as sourced by Mark). It was a perfect time to find out what everyone had been up to and wind down for the night. One of the rooms in the bunker was converted temporarily into a lab and the ping-pong table in there did a good job as an insect pinning area!
Behold: pinning area. I spent the evenings here perfecting the art of spreading out the wings and legs of tiny flies.
In summary this was a valuable and enjoyable fieldtrip in the most amazing location. With my specimens pinned I left feeling inspired and raring to go on another one! (hint, hint, Erica!)
Our field trip was even documented by a film crew!
Watch the Isles of Scilly fieldwork video to see more of our trip.