34. Rhagionidae – naming

I knew this one would turn up in the garden eventually – Rhagio notatus, or the Large fleck-winged snipe fly. A beauty! But what’s in a name?

Rhagio – the genus was named by the Fabricius in 1775. According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, this is derived from the Greek ῥάγιον (rhagion), meaning spider, possibly because of their long legs, though I wouldn’t say the similarity was obvious. According to Harold Oldroyd’s 1969 Royal Entomological Society key to the family, Fabricius changed the genus name in 1805 to Leptis (possibly from the Greek λεπτός meaning “thin”) to avoid confusion with a genus of longhorn beetles called Rhagium. However, later authorities reverted the genus name of the flies to Rhagio, and the family name followed. The species name notatus comes from Meigen in 1820, a Latin word meaning “having been marked” – I am guessing that this refers to the strongly marked stigma of the wing, although there are nice markings on the abdomen too. Another species name, heyshami, was proposed by Curtis in 1838, presumably after the town Heysham in Lancashire, but Meigen got in first and so notatus it is.

Snipe fly – the only source I can find (Collins dictionary) says that this name arises because the flight of flies in this family is like that of the snipe. Now, is that the zig-zag flight of the bird when it is flushed, the characteristics of which allow you to distinguish snipe from jack snipe, or is it the eerie twilight plummeting of the male that makes its tail feathers thrum? That sound takes me back many years to the island of St Kilda when, to avoid the multiple snorers of the men’s dormitory and various nocturnal comings and goings, I took my sleeping bag halfway up Conachair above the village and slept out in my bivvie bag among the sheep fanks, falling asleep to the restless snipe’s headlong eerie throbbing. A painting, torn from its book, was given to me in honour of my eccentric nights out by Susannah, an art student who was camping out in the village, having somehow blagged her way onto the island. Village bay is at the top left and the circular stone walls of the fanks are in the centre, the perspective precipitous, like St Kilda itself. A scrawl on the back tells me to have a happy life, and which way up the drawing should go (though I think that was a joke), and two kisses, which would have been nice if delivered.

Another name reputedly associated with the family is “down-looker fly”, this being from the habit of the species R. scolopaceus perching vertically on trees and posts with its head facing downward. However, the fly I caught was enjoying the sunshine perfectly horizontally upon a redcurrant leaf, and Harold Oldroyd in his 1969 key doubts whether anyone uses that name. The same is probably true of “large fleck-winged snipe fly” which describes the fly but in a characterless way. I need to follow this one around and come up with something more fitting.

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