Thursday, 3 May 2018

Thank you Ray Woods and BBC Radio 4

With the long cold spell in this part of the UK the village pond was about half thawed by the end of March having been frozen since the end of December, so it must have been difficult going for the first frogs getting together and finding unfrozen pools around the place.  My first frog spawn was found on 25 March, with more a couple of days later.  Firwood also had a first, but we both missed it/them – 
1st frogspawn after a frosty winter
2 red kites over the house reported second-hand via Simon about an hour after his friend had seen them.  One was also seen over the single-track road to Dorback just a few days earlier so perhaps, at long last, birds might be starting to breed in the area.  These sightings follow on from the three birds I photographed on the farmer’s round bales near Boat of Garten back in September 2017, and I did wonder then whether one of the birds might have been a youngster.  Fingers crossed.  Our feeders also had a visit from a greenfinch, a rare event this winter.  Despite lots of evidence of its presence it wasn’t until the 1st that we actually managed to see it – the visiting badger, thanks to Janet’s set-up where she can see the on-ground bird feeders whilst relaxing on the sofa.  It was 11pm when the shout came through to me in my front ‘office’, “badger!”.  So I quickly grabbed the camera and 
carefully made by way to the doors that open out on to the decking.  The first few shots were taken as a photographic record and when I realised the badger didn’t react to the little light on the front of the camera to aid focusing in dark conditions, I popped up the flash and took a photo.  No reaction, though you can see from the badger’s eye in the photo, that it was aware something was on the go.  A couple more flash photos through the glass and the badger was left to finish its evening meal.  Peta and Richard will be please to hear the news following their sighting a few weeks earlier.  Tracks in the snow and across the veg patch let us know it was still around during the rest of the month, but this was our only sighting.

The folk from various organisations came together for a meeting of the Cairngorms National Parks aspen project on the 5th and at the meeting John passed over 60 tree shelters for me to install at some of the Tulloch sites.  I’m still hoping that fences will be modified to keep out deer (red and roe) at a couple of these sites but in the meantime, the mesh shelters should allow at least a few trees to 
Slowly forward, a few aspen suckers protected
become established.  The shelters were installed over healthy suckers (the growth from established aspen roots) but it was quite sad when checking for these just how many were either dead or quite thick-stemmed, showing just how often they had been eaten back.  This is something I see at many of the aspen woods I visit.  Over a couple of visits all the shelters were installed so only time will tell if we manage to get new trees established.  How different this was to a wood near Kingussie that I 
Masses of young aspens and what a difference a stock fence can
sometimes make - see left of fence
visited a couple of times to check aspens for lichens.  Fencing, stock exclusion and possible effective deer control had allowed new young aspens to become established across much of the woodland with young trees ranging from a metre in height to 3-4 metres ensuring a healthy future for the wood and the various species it supports which are dependent on both young and old trees.  The best site I have ever seen for new growth and a real joy and honour to be allowed to visit it.  The first day recording lichens didn’t turn up too many of the unusual species though Fuscopannaria mediterranea was a 
Fuscopannaria mediterranea in centre top photo and
aspen gall with cream-spot ladybird bottom
nice find.  With so many young trees I wasn’t too surprised when I found a few trees with the mite supporting gall Aceria populi.  As I photographed one gall an orange speck in the gall caught my eye and on checking I realised it was a ladybird – the cream-spot ladybird (Calvia quattuordecimguttata) last recorded in that area in 1903!  Whether alive or dead I don’t know as it was left in-situ and undisturbed.  The second visit started to find more of the unusual lichens associated with mature aspens and, being early in the month it was nice to hear the calls and display of many farmland waders as they were arriving back to breed. 

There was a very worrying few days mid-month when Janet developed a severe ear infection requiring a visit from the local doctor to help me get her to bed.  This was followed up by an ambulance crew visit later in the evening to confirm that the ‘everything spinning’ symptoms were caused by something called Labyrinthitis.  A couple of injections followed by a course of tablets helped but the dizziness came and went for over a week and even by the end of March she still hadn’t felt well enough to venture out.  (At the time of typing Janet is much better and getting out and about again – phew!).  A couple of days before going down with the infection we had had a very chilly 
Yours for less than £1 millon, Castle Grant
walk out towards Castle Grant in Grantown, an impressive property which is currently for sale.  Making our way along the track towards the castle we commented on this probably being the main ‘avenue’ to the castle when built due to the number of ancient limes and beech trees lining the route.  One huge beech had a couple of bracket fungi growing from it but at a height that didn’t allow a close inspection, so photos taken for checking once home.  The size and shape of the bracket lead me towards it being one of two Ganoderma species, brackets which can grow to 50cm across and can 
The Southern bracket fungus on beech tree and showing
the section removed for checking
The annual growth growth layers showing it had been growing
on the tree for 8 years.  The spores are shown in the photo below
grow for many years, increasing in depth as well as width.  In growing like this the bracket develops ‘tiers’, a new layer being produced each year, a little bit like rings within a growing tree.  However, without a small sample it wouldn’t be possible to know which one of the two species I was dealing with, so a return visit would be needed, complete with step ladder and hand saw!  This was done a couple of days later and, using the saw, a small section of the bracket was removed for checking at home. Thankfully no one came along the track to ask what the heck I was doing!  Cutting the bracket allowed the annual growth layers to be seen and by brushing the round spore holding pores, I was 
able to get enough spores to check under the microscope.  The general appearance of the bracket and the spore sizes led me to the name Ganoderma australe, the southern bracket, a tree heart-rotting species regularly found on beech, lime, sycamore and horse chestnut all tree species found along the track to the castle.  The southern bracket has a close relative known as the Artists bracket (Ganoderma applanatum) with an underside which is creamy white and can be scratched with a sharp point to leave brown marks and so produce artistic images - hence the common name.  See web-link below for details.

Through February and March BBC Radio 4 had been repeating past editions of the natural history programme The Living World and waking a bit early one Sunday morning I was listening to the radio when a repeat from 2011 was broadcast involving Ray Woods and the Celtic Rain Forest in Wales.  You can hear the programme via the web-link below.  In the programme Ray talks about a lone tree and its populations of rare lichens but also mentions the two tiny ferns Wilson’s and Tunbridge filmy-ferns.  That got me wondering if I had ever seen either of these ferns the only possibility being when we lived on the Isle of Rum where one of them was highlighted on the south-side nature trail.  Searching the BSBI maps this turned out to be Wilson’s filmy-fern (Hymenophyllum wilsonii), but with little idea of what it looked like or the typical habitat where it was likely to be found.  Checking the BSBI maps informed me that a small population of this fern had been found recently (2007) in 
Inshriach Forest just down the road and a long way from it main stronghold in the west of Scotland, so this seemed a good place to start finding out a little bit more about it.  Janet’s recovery was progressing well enough for her to allow me to disappear for an afternoon, so off I set.  Leaving the car I was in an area of the forest where I had been involved in the study of the wee solitary bee Osmia uncinate several years ago, but was soon in unfamiliar woodland as I headed up towards some rocky outcrops.  A trackside pool had more frogspawn and, with the sun shining, hairy wood ants were starting to swarm on the top of their nest.  Soon I was into the boulder scree with mainly Scots pines and a few broadleaved species. The going was a bit dangerous and care was needed not to disappear into vegetation-covered holes between rocks.  The GSP though eventually did its job and guided me to the general area where the fern had been found previously.  I was though, a little confused because most books say the fern likes damp rocks, as on Rum, but the area I had been led to was mainly large, fairly dry rocks, but with good coverings of mosses, lichens and polypody ferns.  However, the most important feature was that the location was north facing so avoiding direct daytime sun.  Slowly, each rock/boulder was checked until I noticed a small unusual grey/green leafy growth, quite a bit, 
The distinctive grey/green fronds of the fern in left and top of boulder
popping out from the moss on the top of a rock.  Hand lens out and I could see the plant had very dark veins and lower stems and the ‘leaves’ had marginal teeth.  All doubts were then dispelled when on the tips of some of the ‘leaves/fronds’ I could see the distinctive spore bearing sori.  A search around the location found the fern growing on about seven mossy rocks with many showing lots of sori on the ferns fronds.  Brilliant, and certainly a fern I couldn’t remember seeing since our days on Rum in the early 1970s.  Nearby was a small population of interrupted clubmoss and also creeping lady’s tresses.  With the sun out and the area generally having had a spell of fairly dry weather heather burning could be seen all around from my slightly elevated location with four distinct 
Wilson's filmy-fern and showing distinctive sori on fronds
shown in close up below
columns of smoke rising high.  Time to head back to the car, but the last test of the day was yet to come.  Having made my way up the hill via a couple of obvious forest tracks, then several timber extraction routes, I eventually reached one of the tracks I wasn’t exactly sure which one I had emerged on.  My guess was to turn left but I then remembered one of the tracks was circular and may have taken me the wrong way, possibly adding quite a distance on to my walk back to the car.  Time to phone Janet.  Over a few minutes on the phone I manged to talk Janet through passwords, Google sites, and, using the grid reference where I was, managed to get the grid reference of where my car was!  Yep, it was turn left and the lesson learnt was always note the grid ref of the car’s location before setting off!  Passing on my details to BSBI man Andy he informed me that there were a couple of other locations in the wider area where the fern had only been recorded once and that was in the early 1970s.  Was it still there?  Something to follow up into April.

At the end of March we had booked local tree surgeon Alban to come and trim back the cherry and apple trees and also take the top off one of the very tall birches in the wood behind the chalet.  Over the years, the old three storey nest box in the birch tree had fallen apart so whilst we had tree climbing experts on site this was a chance to replace it.  I was also keen to trial a few swift nest boxes in the adjacent trees so set about making up the boxes ahead of Alban’s visit.  A sheet of external ply was cut into sections in the local builders merchants yard and once home cut to the right sizes with the Dewalt table saw which we retained after building the house.  The plan was to have four of these, two in obvious view to try and attract the swifts and two in a more shady location further into the 
wood.  The swift box plan was one found in the internet.  With the car breaking down on the day I went to get the wood, time was a bit limited to get everything finished ahead of Alban’s arrival, and the last screws went into the three-storey box as the trees were being worked on.  With everything ready all that needed to be decided was how these biggish boxes would be attached to the trees and this was solved as locations were chosen and pieces of wood cut to fit the uprights of the tree trunks.  This was certainly not a task I would have managed from a ladder no matter how tall it extended to.  A bit of nest material (feathers and dead grass stems) had been put into the swift boxes as the roofs were secured and all that needed to happen at the time of fixing was to tip the boxes up to ensure the material was at the opposite end to the entrance hole.  A job well done by Alban and colleague so its fingers crossed time as we get into May and the declining population of Nethy Bridge swifts return to breed.  Another couple of boxes were installed as a trial to see if we can get treecreepers to breed in the wood at the back of the chalet, not the usual wedge-shaped ones but small, narrow boxes with a typical narrow slit as an entrance.  Treecreepers have been heard in the wood but I’ve not checked the boxes yet to see if any are in use though recent chalet guests did photograph a bird on top of one of them.

I got a bit carried away looking for evidence of badgers in the RSPB reserve woodland just over our fence and wandered way out and across the Speyside Way track.  This took me into stump lichen (Cladonia botrytes) territory so of course I had to see if they were still present on the subtly marked stumps.  On the first stump I checked the lichen had disappeared, but I was pleasantly surprised to 
Stump lichen (centre) from a new location
find in on another stump close by.  It was still present at two other original sites and I made my way back towards the house via the original stump where I had first found the lichen.  The lichen was still present but looking the worse for wear so much so that I don’t think I would have found it if it had looked like this a couple of years ago, particularly being inexperienced in finding it.  However, there was another surprise, it is now growing on the next stump a couple of metres away, a little bit of new information about this amazing wee lichen.

My blog in December 2014 covered the part the little green shield moss (a protected species) played in having a planning application for housing in School Wood in the village turned down.  However, as the blog reminds me, the Cairngorm National Park planning folk said they would work with the developer regarding any new application.  After this year (2018), the area of ancient woodland under threat from new houses will be removed from “possible development site” to “none development site” in the new CNP Local Development Plan but currently remains under threat.  Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group have a feeling that something is currently happening about this site and that a final planning application might be in the offing.  BSCG, myself and several other locals 
Plectania melastoma top and with spores hard to find I had to rely on
wetting a section of fungus with diluted Potassium Hydroxide (KOH)
to get the red reaction
are very worried about how CNP planners will react to a new application having a very poor track record in turning down applications regarding development of other locally important conservation sites.  So, once again we are having to spend time visiting the site, recording species, and building up a picture again of the importance of the site.  If it is not suitable for development in the new Local Plan, why should it be suitable now?  A visit to see what is where compared to 2014 started late in the month and there was a very pleasant surprise at one location.  Whether the green shield moss (Buxbaumia viridis) is still present will await any planning application but an unusual cup-shaped 
Brown shield moss capsules
red-brown fungus got me quite excited.  Photos were taken and a single specimen removed to allow the spores to be checked and once this had been done I confirmed that this was just the third Scottish record for Plectania melastoma, a fungus growing from buried deadwood.  The last Scottish record on the FRDBI website was way back in April 2012 and was from yours truly!  A close relative of the green shield moss was also still present, the brown shield moss (Buxbaumia aphylla), with twenty capsules found at one of two sites. 

The bird feeders in the garden have been well used recently, sunflower hearts keeping siskins, chaffinches and the occasional brambling happy.  Fatballs have also proved popular with the great spotted woodpecker and members of the tit family, a gang of tails of long-tailed tits hanging from the fatballs making a wonderful sight.  A male and female sparrowhawk have also sped through the 
Great spotted woodpecker
garden in the hope of picking up a meal and in doing so we have noticed some very unusual behaviour, mainly from the male bird.  When either bird visits, the smaller birds often panic and occasionally we hear the bang of one hitting one of our windows despite them having black silhouettes of birds stuck on them.  Mostly, the birds hitting the windows end up on the ground slightly stunned and if left alone most recovered and flew off.  Our utility room window was one regularly hit and, after a bang one day I went out to see if the bird was okay.  Turning the corner of 
The male and female sparrowhawks visiting the garden
the house I was surprised to see the male sparrowhawk had found the chaffinch and was in the process of squeezing the life out of it.  When the occasional collision had been fatal before this, the dead bird was often just left on the ground and probably picked up by a night-time pine marten or a local cat and not the sparrowhawk.  However, both myself and Janet noticed that the sparrowhawk started to whizz through the garden and then double back through the honeysuckle arch possibly checking out if there was a stunned bird below the window.  This seemed highly likely because on a second occasion I disturbed the sparrowhawk again, on the ground, with the window collision casualty.  Over time we were fairly certain that the flight pattern of the sparrowhawk was aimed at trying to panic birds towards this particular window in the hope of one of them stunning itself.  One to check with the British Trust for Ornithology to see if this behaviour has been reported before.

Enjoy the read.

Stewart and Janet
Plectania melastoma fungus
BBC R4 The Living World – The Celtic Rain Forest
Ganoderma applanatum  Artists bracket – to see the artwork
Firwood blog December 2014 re School Wood
Strathspey Weather
Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group
Mapmate recording database
Fungal Records Database of Britain and Ireland (FRDBI)
BSBI – Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland

One-flowered wintergreen in the snow
A slightly worn dotted border moth on an aspen
The pine marten checking the patio repairs!
Photos © Stewart Taylor

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Who’s been digging in our garden?

Janet was still in Lancashire visiting her mum when our chalet guests reported that the pink berry-flavour suet cake I’d left out on the ground had disappeared overnight.  Neighbour Rita had been given two packs of these suet cakes and, like me, didn’t have the wire framed holder to put them in to hang from a tree branch, so had been putting one out occasionally on the ground for the blackbirds and members of the tit family to feast on.  Rita kindly let me have one of the packs and the birds had been enjoying them over many days. For some reason I had left the pink one on the lawn in front of 
Badger tracks in snow after visit
the chalet.  Next morning the whole cake had gone, probably too big for the visiting pine martens to carry away and not really something the visiting cats would feast on.  Last winter there was evidence that badgers might have been visiting the wood at the back of the chalet, so the finger pointed at this being he likely culprit.  A couple of nights later at about 9pm I just happened to check the outside temperature on the Oregon wireless weather station and was surprised to see two people with torches in the garden!  Our chalet guests had been watching the dish of raisins and peanuts just outside the chalet window in the hope of seeing a pine marten but instead had seen a badger wander past probably looking for more suet cakes or having a drink from the birds’ water dish.  After it had disappeared into the beech hedge they quietly ventured out to try and catch another glimpse which is when I just happened to be checking the temperature!  Right at the end of February I heard what I 
Welcome back Janet
thought was mice in the house cavity wall at 4.30 in the morning and got up to investigate.  When I got downstairs I was just in time to see a badger wandering about on the lawn looking for any left-over bird food, probably apple stumps thrown out for the blackbirds, but before I could get the camera out it disappeared off into the wood.  So, quite a nice addition to the garden list but I do get the feeling that it, or they, are not regular visitors.  On the 3rd Janet arrived back home on the Virgin train from York to Inverness just in time to say cheerio the next day to our chalet guests who, despite lots of dedicated watching failed to catch up with a pine marten, but did add a new species to our 
garden list, thank you.  The same day saw us experience a slightly warmer day (+40C) and this produced quite a bit of bird song from mainly robins, coal and great tits.  It didn’t last and a couple of days later the snow returned and the temperature plummeted to -70C.  Overall the Strathspey Weather website gave the following information for February: average minimum and maximum temperature were -3.10C and 4.40C respectively, so once again another month with a frost just about every night.

My work on the modified fence for a new aspen wood ran through to mid-month with eight visits needed to add the wires, droppers and join up some of the broken/damaged wires.  Fencers Davie and Danny were kind enough to let me buy, at a reduced price, some surplus wood they had to make up the droppers (additional thinner pieces of wood) which would be used to provide support for wires in 
between the deer height posts they had installed.  In a couple of places new posts that were a bit loose had to be moved and re-installed where there was a bit of support from the original stock fence.  This involved a bit of fun whilst balancing on a set of step ladders.  The last job was to make a small gate and install it to allow pedestrian access for the folk planting and tending to the young trees, though I still await delivery and installation of 300 pieces of lightweight wood to make the fence visible to flying birds, particularly black grouse and possible capercaillie, the woodland grouse.  This new aspen wood is hugely important at this location because an existing small stand of old aspens close by on the RSPB Abernethy Reserve is rapidly dying out as a wood as the old trees continue to fall over.  With regular snow and frosts few birds have been heard whilst working, probably linked to the site being 370m (1214') asl.  The main reason for increasing the height of this fence is to exclude red and roe deer, both species making light work of hopping over the stock height fence, and the reason why no young trees have become established in the last ten or so years since it was installed.  Even with most of my wires rolled out and loosely attached to the posts there were red deer tracks in the snow inside the plot one day.

At the time the fence was completed I made another trip to “The amazing River Findhorn” from the last blog.  The aspen stand on this visit was quite a way from the others visited and, when surveyed by the expert bryologist, didn’t have either of the two rare Orthotrichum mosses.  Having left my car by a minor road I headed down towards the river via a couple of fields and just below the second field I could see the top of a single, old aspen.  This tree took me away from the route I had thought would get me to the riverside aspens which was just as well because it was growing at the top of a very steep and rocky slope.  Inadvertently it was also heading me towards one of the most important 
Lobaria amplissima, dry top and wet below
lichen finds in this general area.  I carefully worked my way around the aspen, taking care not to slide off down the slope, recording some of the regular lichens like Degelia plumbea, Lobaria pulmonaria, Nephroma laevigata, a local rarity Fuscopannaria mediterranea, one of the crustose species, and an almost white one which had me puzzled for a while.  As I found more a major clue was found that allowed me to provide the name Lobaria amplissima a lichen given the vernacular name of parchment lichen.  The clue came via the dark brown to blackish coralloid growths, known as cephalodia, on the thallus of the lichen.  Once I saw these I knew I was looking at a species very rare in our area, Lobaria amplissima a species I had only seen at two sites previously.  When dry this lichen is almost white but when wet it changes to green and to enjoy this change I nipped over to a small burn, filled one of my collecting boxes and returned to pour the water over the lichen, watching the colour change develop.  However, this was just the start.  As I looked around from the aspen I could see a fence running down the steep slope and, on my side of the fence I could see lots of very old hazels so I had found a safe way down and with what looked like some interesting hazels to check along the way.  As I visited each tree interesting was obviously the wrong description, phenomenal 
Fertile Lobaria amplissima (orange 'cups')
A rare group of lichens, Lobaria amplissima (top), Lobaria pulmonaria (bottom)
and Pannaria rubiginosa (dark blue middle).
would be much better as many of the trees had small to huge populations of the Lobaria amplissima some of which were fertile.  Link these to the big populations of Lobaria pulmonaria (lungwort) and many of the other lichens found on the nearby aspens turns these trees into something of national importance.  Populations of this group of lichens (the Lobarian) are much commoner as you head west and the size of the L. amplissima population at this location might be the biggest yet found away from the west of Scotland.  Eventually I dropped down to the river and the aspens but found that many of these were growing from rocky ground and were mostly inaccessible without a bit of risky 
Black spleenwort, shiny upper surface top and
sori on underside of fern bottom
scrambling.  The rocks though held populations of black and maidenhair spleenwort ferns (Asplenium adiantum-nigrum and Asplenium trichomanes respectively) the latter having a population of aphids which might be Aphis fabae, the black bean aphid.  Looking back up the slope towards the hazels a small, bright green bush caught my eye and, worryingly, looked like rhododendron! AAGGHHH!  Having seen the huge amount of damage this plant has done by invading a few woods locally but more so further west, it is not one of my favourites.  ”But it has nice flowers” doesn’t really wash with me, and once established, is a very difficult plant to get rid of and at huge cost.  One to 
Aphid on underside of maidenhair spleenwort leaf
investigate and knowing going up a steep slope is easier than going down it, I made my way towards the bright green plant/bush.  From just below it I could see that it was a well-established patch of ivy and whilst not as big a worry as rhododendron, with so many trees locally carrying important lichen and moss populations, its appearance at this site was very worrying.  On a few adjacent birches I could see the ivy was starting to spread and if this continued as seen in a few woods locally, this could be the end of the lichens.  Without ropes and at least another person present I wouldn’t be able to do anything to remove the threat on this visit but as I pass on details of my finds I will also raise the issue that this is a threat that needs removing.

Between this visit and the earlier one to aspens further down the River Findhorn I just had the feeling that there might be more hidden away around some of the bends so another visit was planned a few days later.  Starting off in the aspens down river I worked my way towards the hazels/aspens about a mile away.  Initially, I made my way through a positive bit of management by the estate where dense sitka spruce had been cleared back from the river as now recommended by the Forestry Commission to lessen the possibility of acidification of river waters.  Native woodland though can be encouraged along riverbanks as a way of creating natural shade for fish and invertebrates and reducing the possibility of bank erosion.  As I checked out some river rocks for plants and lichens round the corner I could see the tell-tale ‘punk’ hairstyles of another group of aspens, so my hunch had been right and 
Leptogium saturninum
the work for the next few hours would be working my way through the trees checking as many as possible for lichens and mosses.  This was a mixed age aspen stand and though not as heavily populated as the down-river trees, some of the regular lichens were present and, once again, a lichen not found in the other stands started to appear quite regularly - Leptogium saturninum, with the wonderful common name - bearded jelly-skin lichen.  The common name reflects the way the lichen reacts to wet and dry weather conditions, dark and grey when dry and swelling a little and slightly shiny when wet.  The bearded part of the name is probably linked to the white “tomentose” hair-like underside of the leaf-like growths.  On one aspen trunk I spotted quite a large moth resting and though I thought I knew its name I took a few photos to confirm once home that I had found a pale brindled beauty (Phigalia pilosaria) a moth that in 1974 when living on the Isle of Rum, got me into moth recording when we found one in our house one evening.  This is an early emerging moth with 
Pale brindled beauty (Phigalia pilosaria)
dates across the UK ranging from January to March.  The moth photographed had to be a male because the females are wingless and the males hunt around on the trees to find the flightless females to mate with.  A species found typically in deciduous woodland where the caterpillars feed on a variety of tree species.  A big hole in the ground had me wondering if I had found a fox or badger hole so both were listed in my notebook but a few hundred metres further on I was able to cross out fox and record that there were quite a few active badger setts with fresh diggings and possible dragging in bedding material.  The badger setts lead me into an area of ancient hazels but with time running out I decided to head back to the car and leave these trees for another visit, just in case they needed lots of time to search just like the others mentioned earlier.

An outing to Aberlour for a light lunch and walk along the River Spey produced a couple of nice surprises.  In the cafĂ© a group of people from another table mentioned to the lady on the till that they were off to try and find some unusual species of snowdrops and this made me ask the man with the maps if he had received a recent email from Ian Green the BSBI Vice County recorder for Moray, to which he replied ‘Yes’.  As these are some of the earliest splashes of colour we see locally as winter eases a little, Ian had asked for any records to be forwarded to him, particularly of the more unusual species which may have escaped from gardens into the wider countryside.  Alan, the man with the map was off to look for species that hadn’t been found recently in a few local locations, and one of 
Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) single top double below
Snowflake (Leucojum vernum)
the reasons for our visit to Aberlour was to do something similar but just recording any snowdrops we managed to come across.  Walking down to the river all the snowdrops we saw were the common species Galanthus nivalis with both single and double flowered types and this remained the case by the path along the Spey.  There were keen fishermen fly-fishing in the Spey and hazels and alder were showing lots of catkins.  We walked towards Craigellachie along the Speyside Way (ex-railway line) until we reached a short tunnel and with rain showers looking imminent we turned back towards Aberlour.  It was brief, but I said to Janet that I was sure I had heard a kingfisher, a rare bird in these parts, and as we looked down towards the river we saw the distinctive shape and colour of a bird 
Aberlour kingfisher
zoom along a small burn running towards the Spey (Lobin’s Pool).  Once again, I had forgotten my binoculars so had to rely on the camera’s zoom to home in on the spot where the bird had landed and when I zoomed into the photo on the cameras screen, there was the kingfisher perched on a branch by the Pool.  Knowing where it was I wandered along the path to get a bit closer and by carefully popping my head above the embankment, I was able to get a couple of distant, but better photos of the bird.  As we reached the first houses we left the path to make our way onto the main road through the town and by the track a larger type of snowdrop caught our eye “That’s a snowflake flower (Leucojum vernum) not a snowdrop” came the ‘expert’ advice from Janet – which was spot on.

Quite a bit of time was spent putting the information together on the importance of the Flowerfield orchid site as mentioned last month but by mid-February I’d done as much as I could, and the finished article was sent off to the head of conservation at the Cairngorms National Park.  As I knew before I started this exercise, there is nothing to compare with its importance in the UK from the information available so hopefully CNPA will ensure it remains safe from any development proposals close by that might pose problems.  Time to make a start with the waxcap paper, which wouldn’t be quite as simple to prepare but with some amazing information collected by fungus expert Liz way 
Lesser butterfly orchid
back in 2010, I was able to list several important sites.  Between 2007 and 2010 CNP paid an ecologist to visit many agricultural ‘in-bye’ grasslands (mostly rough grasslands used for winter grazing) throughout a large part of the strath from Newtonmore in the south-west to just north-east of Grantown on Spey.  This was a very basic survey that, as far as I can get any survey information, entailed visiting fields and ticking boxes to indicate the condition of the fields and whether orchids and fungi etc were present.  No doubt more data was collected but so far CNP have failed to find the reports or the specific data files which makes you wonder why the survey was undertaken in the first place.  If a few positive actions had been initiated after the survey perhaps local landowners and farmers would have been made aware of important fields and asked to try and manage them with important species in mind.  As with the loss of the important ex Boy’s Brigade field in Carrbridge covered in the October 2017 blog, other potentially important sites will also have been lost due to agricultural intensification where bits of old fashioned rough grazing areas will have been ploughed 
Earth tongue top and Hygrocybe punicea below
and fertilised to create yet more grass or even cereal crops.  Using some of the CNP survey information, mainly numbered fields from survey maps, Liz made walk-over visits to the 35 selected fields during the important October waxcap growing season, making some important finds.  Across all the sites Liz found 6 species of Clavariaceae - Fairy Clubs, 21 species of Hygrocybe – Waxcaps, 3 species of Entoloma - Pink Gills and 3 species of Geoglossaceae - Earth Tongues.  14 of the sites had 10 or more species present, making them important in UK terms when linked to a single walk-over type survey.  Sadly, somewhere along the way, this information wasn’t passed on to the Park, mainly because the survey was planned and paid for by another organisation, whether it would have been acted upon – who knows.  In addition to this I extracted all the waxcap data from my copy of Mapmate and added this to the paper with location details, numbers of fruiting bodies etc. and early in March this was sent off to CNP with the suggestion that, as a minimum, the fields surveyed by Liz should be re-surveyed to see how many survive and how many have been lost.  Another very interesting bit of information was also extracted via this exercise, and this involves a large National Nature Reserve!  During the visits by UK waxcap and fungus expert Peter Orton to Loch Garten initially, and then the larger RSPB Abernethy NNR (1982 to 2002), 26 species of Waxcaps and 12 species of Fairy Clubs were recorded, many being found on grasslands close to the River Nethy.  When these areas were in the land purchased by RSPB in 1988, deer numbers were very high and 
Hygrocybe ovina a rare waxcap 'lost' from Abernethy
there were even possibly sheep visiting the sites, maintaining heavy grazing on the grassland areas.  Sheep were removed and deer numbers heavily reduced after 1990 to help natural tree regeneration become established and, with time, the two main grasslands became rank and overgrown, making conditions near impossible for these important fungi to grow.  So, sites can be lost to ploughing (probably for ever or a very long time) and also to a lack of grazing, where the grass needs to be kept short to allow the fungi to fruit, something the old rough grazing areas were perfectly managed to achieve.  If seasonal grazing could be re-established the waxcaps will return so this data has been passed on to RSPB for information.

On a frosty but brilliantly sunny day I popped into the infamous Curr Wood to see if any more damaging felling looked like it was being planned (no) and also to check a few more Scots pine stumps for the wee stump lichen (Cladonia botrytes).  Looking up, the tops of the Scots pines looked quite stunning against the deep blue sky though there remained lack of crossbills, birds that I’ve heard little of during the winter months.  Stumps by the track covered with lichens failed to provide any records of the stump lichen so I wandered off track to check stumps in the more open areas of woodland.  Quite a lot of work has been undertaken in this wood, creating chainsawed holes in stumps of felled pines and one or two that remained free of ice but held a lot of water tempted me to 
Calicera rufa larva with distinct 'eyebrows' bottom
check them for hoverfly larvae.  The old pines will provide natural breeding sites for the rarest of our hoverflies, the pine hoverfly (Blera fallax), the adult females seeking out trees that look healthy but have the heart-rot fungus developing within them.  The hoverfly manages to find access to this damp, rotting habitat possibly via broken branches or natural cracks to lay its eggs and this is where the larvae will live for one to three years, living on the algae and bacteria created by the water and rotting wood inside the trees.  Creating holes in the stumps of felled trees, and filling them with small woodchips mimics the natural fungus processes as the holes fill with rainwater, and the female 
Blera fallax without 'eyebrows'
hoverflies are happy to lay their eggs in some of the holes.  Carefully lifting out a handful of woodchips I was able to see if there were any larvae present, and sure enough one was found in the first stump I checked.  Under my hand-lens this looked like the less rare hoverfly Calicera rufa with distinct eyebrow-like growths on the front of its head and a short breathing tube at the rear.  A good record but not the species I was hoping for.  Close by another prepared stump was well filled with water and in this one a different larva was found. This time I was fairly happy that this was Blera, no ‘eyebrows’ and with a distinct breathing tube about the same length as its body.  Photos taken it was returned to the water-filled hole and I continued looking for the stump lichen but without success.  However, a new location was found for a tiny patch of twinflower so overall, a very worthwhile visit.

Through the latter part of February a new phrase came into being and after days of dire warning it delivered exactly what it inferred – “The beast from the east”.  On the 26th February we had a pleasant day by the River Nairn, walking from Nairn to Howford Bridge and back.  As I was checking the species of snowdrops Janet saw a honeybee visiting others, the first in 2018.  My 
notebook says calm, bright and sunny for the day, 00C at 8am and 5-60C during our walk.  On the 27th we awoke to about 2” of snow but when the sun came out most of it melted.  During the night 27-28th the temperature dropped to -60C and there was light snow falling at 8am and by 4pm there was about 6” resulting in the first serious snow clearing of the winter.  By 11pm the temperature was down at -100C which ensured very little additional snow.  It was the days that followed that lived up to the new phrase but in this part of the UK we got off lightly when compared to the snowy south.

Enjoy the read.

Stewart and Janet

Pale brindled beauty information
Firwood blog October 2017
Strathspey Weather
Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group
Mapmate recording database
Fungal Records Database of Britain and Ireland (FRDBI)
BSBI – Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland
A spiders egg sac
Snowy Cairngorms
Oystercatcher arrival - thank goodness
Photos © Stewart Taylor