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
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