Preston Montford February 2024

The Darwin classroom with everyone hard at work

This year we were invited by the Dipterist’s Forum to give another 2-day Tachinid Identification Course at the Field Studies Council’s Preston Montford centre. This is the second time we have done the course and I think it’s the third time the society has run tachinid ID courses, because I was on the first one, run by Robert Belshaw back around 2000! We had the highest number of attendees (25) of any of our previous workshops – showing that tachinids really are a group people want to study.

The Wenlock classroom with my drawers all along the left side and on the table in front

We split across 2 classrooms, which made it fun for Matt & I to run between classes, but we had access to the BENHS teaching collection (8 drawers of tachinids) in the “Darwin” class and I brought my European collection (30 drawers) which we put in the “Wenlock” class because it had the most layout space. This worked really well because both rooms had space for everyone to work easily and the least attractive class space had the best collection, which meant everyone had to mingle and get involved.

A view from Darwin class across to the main FSC offices and canteen – Wenlock class is on the right behind the pond

We arrived on the Friday afternoon and most of the time was taken setting up the classes and getting our accomodation sorted out. Then we had a welcome briefing and dinner, followed by a short presentation by myself & Matt to set the scene and go through the basics of tachinid ID. Then people either started some work on specimens or went to the on-site bar for a drink and a chat.

The Darwin block where the first class worked

Saturday is the main day and Matt did his usual role of helping get the novices started while I fielded requests to check specimens and to help people with some of the finer details of difficult IDs. It was pretty much non-stop and I didn’t move much from the microscope from breakfast to dinner time, but it was great to help so many people and to see more tachinids. I don’t actually do a lot of specimen work most of the time and I have to admit to being a bit worried at the start that I’d be terribly rusty but it all came back and by the end I felt that I’d improved my understanding also of a few areas of the key. These workshops are a great way for the tutors to learn too!

Steve Falk gave a really nice presentation on the tachinid pages of his Flicker site – something he has put a lot of time into in the last year. He then spent the rest of the day photographing a lot of rarities in my collection that he hadn’t got examples of himself, finally leaving at gone 10pm! It was really heartening to me to see everyone using my personal collection because it had been quite a big job to bring it and obviously all travel risks damage to the specimens but I balanced that with the benefits it would bring – because collections exist to be used and referred to!

A nice Zaira cinerea showing an interesting arrangement of median discal bristles.

We also ended the weekend on Sunday with a root through some specimens that had been donated to the FSC from the collection of Dr Lewis Davies, University of Durham. Much of the material was unprotected and had suffered from heavy Anthrenus damage but a few of the shoeboxes contained quite valuable specimens which we took away to donate to Max Barclay at the NHM, London – particularly a series of beetles collected on Île de la Possession, in the Crozet Archipelago – a very rarely studied area in the southern Indian Ocean. I took away all the UK tachinids that had good data but the whole lot will have to go into the NHM’s freezers for a week to make sure that they are pest free! I expect that the majority of Dr Davies’ collection was donated to a museum but somehow these random shoeboxes were forgotten so it’s good to think that the best material will be saved for posterity.

A few of the group had to leave around lunchtime to get trains and flights back home but we packed up about 2pm and headed home – tired but very happy to have met so many great entomologists and been able to show them some really exciting flies!

This is how much we managed to pack in to a 1.3L Yaris (minus Matt’s bags) – thankfully the back seats fold down flat!

Some of the tachinid highlights for me were:

  • Seeing Opesia cana, caught by Colin Le Boutillier – quite a tricky fly to split from Opesia grandis but we both agreed by the end on cana
  • The new Gymnocheta spp. from Scotland – both magna (coll: John Martin, Torlundy, and lucida (coll: Rob Walton, Skye & S.Uist, June 2013). The identification of these can be really quite fiddly but Steve Falk had some really lovely photos of each species and he had some tips to the ID that aren’t in the current keys so I will try to revise the key and make it a bit easier than it is at the moment!
  • The discussion on Friday with Dave Basham around the Tachina fera group species and how we might make the key work better. Currently we have Tachina fera and magnicornis which key very easily but if we ever get a confirmed record for tetramera then it will make things much more difficult because it’s a species that seems to sit betwee the 2 existing species.
  • Seeing a Siphona (Ceranthia) abdominalis brought in by Ryan Mitchell from Ireland.

Lastly, we’d both like to thank Zoe Adams for organised the event from the Dipterist’s Forum end; Liz Wilcox and her team at the FSC for providing local support and sorting out all the facilities; and Marc Taylor who provided much needed help with the BENHS collection and practical help across the weekend. I had been suffering from a heavy cold for a week and the help was very much appreciated!

Here are the downloads we distributed for the course: Download files here