Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Beautiful pyramidal orchids galore beaten by the highest heath cudweed count ever!

As the last blog period ended we were already on our way to North Uist for our annual holiday and for the first time we decided to take the more northerly route to Skye forsaking the Loch Ness/Glen Moriston scenery for whatever the Inverness/Garve/Strathcarran route had to offer.  Away from Loch Ness there was the promise of much less traffic, though there was a section of single-track road to negotiate between Stathcarran and Kyle.  Passing through Garve brought back memories of a couple of nights spent camping there by Janet and myself, en route to an interview in Ullapool for a job on Isle Martin.  The journey from the Isle of Rum, where we lived at
Isle Martin & Ullapool
the time, involved a ferry run from the island to Kyle of Lochalsh, a train journey to Garve and then a hitched lift to Ullapool.  The then owner of the island had arranged a lift between Ullapool by car and boat to the island.  The interview went well before the reverse trip was made back to Rum, staying once again for the night in Garve.  The outcome of this trip had life-changing implications.  I was offered the job of estate worker/warden of Isle Martin and we had to think long and hard about whether the 400 acre island, a couple of miles from Ullapool, would be big enough to satisfy our long-term needs and in the end we turned down the opportunity to move.  I then applied for a job with the RSPB at Loch Garten – and thereby hangs a tale!  Interestingly, Isle Martin became an RSPB reserve for a number of years and my only return visit to the island was to help RSPB staff complete the removal of their equipment from the island as the ownership was passed on to a local trust.

Back to our holiday.  We set off with plenty of time to spare with the ferry not due to leave Uig on Skye until 5pm.  As we drove I spotted something that looked familiar through a gap in the roadside trees, possibly an osprey’s nest.  We turned round and found a suitable pull-off spot
Osprey nest on power pylon
and I carefully crept back along the road towards the gap in the trees.  As I walked I heard a well know sound, the tchup, tchup of an alarming osprey!  The nest was on the top of an electricity pylon and, being close to the road, the bird was used to seeing cars and possibly people close by and though uttering alarm calls, the adult bird remained on the nest but kept a close eye on whether I was getting too close.  In my hand I also had something that was going to be tested out for the first time – a new compact camera, the Panasonic DMC-TZ60, as proved to be a
The new camera
pretty good bit of kit by daughter Laura.  Macro close up to x30 zoom, and from a distance the adult osprey was happy with (no alarm calls) I wound up the zoom and pressed the button a couple of times before leaving the osprey in peace.  What a brilliant use of an intrusive metal structure in the remote countryside.  Not satisfied with me spotting the osprey nest, a few miles further along the road Janet spotted another osprey fishing in one of the roadside lochs.  Yet another link to our stay in Garve all those years ago, from a couple of dozen breeding ospreys
Greater butterfly orchid
in Britain when we moved to Loch Garten in 1976, the birds are now well established in Scotland and with birds also breeding in the Lake District and in Wales.  What a brilliant start to our holiday.  With good progress made we stopped for lunch in Plockton before pushing on to Uig to make yet another visit to the thyme broomrape site to see if, by visiting the site a month earlier than in the past, it would be in full bloom.  On the way, a white orchid popping in the roadside vegetation warranted a closer look and this paid dividends: the divergent pollinia
Thyme broomrape
within the flowers confirming that we had found a greater butterfly orchid.  A check of rock outcrops on our way to the broomrape site found a new location for the plant and at the regular site 17 flower spikes were found.  Unbelievably, even this early in the season, most of the flowers were past their best, perhaps the long days of sunny weather and lack of rain had something to do with it.

The ferry trip from Uig to Lochmaddy was uneventful with the usual gannets, puffins and guillemots and the occasional great skua.  A couple of large mammals were seen but not for long enough to be identified though minke whale was the consensus for one of them.  Our stay this year was on Grimsay with amazing views across to Eaval, a very prominent “hill” from the
The view of Eaval from holiday accommodation
ferry and surrounding countryside despite only being 350m high.  Sunny weather greeted us and on our first outing we re-visited the Paibeil area of North Uist where a short circuit covered loch, marsh and agricultural lands, having popped into the Kallin shell-food shop along the way for some fresh crab for our “posh” butties.  Masses of colourful flowers, big blue sky with developing cumulus cloud, butterflies and bees everywhere – it was good to be back!  The
Lesser water plantain
track by the loch produced our first puzzle of the trip – lesser water plantain (Alisma ranunculoides), and we had lots of meadow brown butterflies and large red damselflies rising from the track-side vegetation.  The swans on the loch all appeared to be mutes but eventually in the distance four whooper swans could be seen.  As the track re-joined the road our first corn bunting was singing on the overhead wires and as we wandered back towards the car at least five corncrakes were heard calling.  Not a bad start but with Eaval disappearing under a layer
of cloud late in the evening a weather change was in the making.  4am the gales started and by 9am we also had heavy rain. By lunch-time we were back to sun and cloud, just time to visit the beach and dunes near Benbecula airport.  A small group of food-carrying arctic terns indicated chick feeding was taking place somewhere nearby and while checking out a mating pair of six-spot burnet moths in the sand dunes I noticed several black weevils on the stems and flowers of
The black marram beetle
sea rocket (Cakile maritime).  On our first visit to the Uists many years ago I was asked by our beetle friend John Owen, to look for a rare weevil found on this plant so began to wonder if this might be it.  Photos taken, I was able to forward them to expert Richard to advise, but was informed by return that what I had found was a common weevil called Otiorhynchus atroapterus the black marram weevil, but was given ten out of ten for remembering to look!  I took the opportunity to do a bit of botanising close to the holiday flat in the evening, carrying on a little
Bar-tailed godwits
with the BSBI commitment made back at home.  During the night the rain returned with a vengeance and, trying to make the most of a break in the rain the following day, we ventured up to Berneray but ended up with our only wet walk of the holiday as the rain returned just as we left the car.  A summer plumaged bar-tailed godwit, with others already in winter garb though was a nice find.

One area we always like to visit is the southern island of Eriskay and as the weather improved we headed south on the next sunny day.  We had lunch looking across to Barra from the Pollachar Inn road and the usual wander with sandwich in hand lead me to a large spiky sedge growing from a roadside ditch.  It reminded me of a giant star sedge (Carex echinata) but the size of all the plants told me that this was something different so photos and sample taken to check once back at the flat.  The sedge turned out to be the false fox sedge (Carex otrubae)
Carex otrubae - false fox sedge
something I thought would be new to this part of the world but no, there turned out to be 73 records from the Uists and 3 of them from almost the same grid reference.  Obviously the Pollachar Inn is a popular spot with botanists!  We enjoyed our walk along the incredibly shell-rich beach and after debating the name of a plant growing in a wee runnel of water by the path running up to the road with a passing couple (it turned out to be gypsywort or Lycopus europaeus) we made our way up to the path through the dunes taking us back to the car.  This
Pyramidal orchid and 6-spot guest
path is also the one that takes you through the area where the pyramidal orchids grow and when I saw the first ones by the path I couldn’t help myself from wandering back and forth counting all the plants on either side of the path.  The counts started off quite normally with 1, 20, 10, 82, 237, in each count area, but as we got nearer to the road Janet said there were lots of them in the grasslands either side of the road where the site counts ended with 115, 86, 420 and 530!  The minimum total count was 2034 flowering spikes a huge increase on our count in 2012 of 770.  A return visit later in the week to Berneray saw us wander through the dunes to the beach and managing to re-find the two pyramidal orchid sites from 2010 with 27 and 12 flowering spikes compared to 13 and 2 on the last visit.  Amazingly, the last plant record to go into my notebook as we waited for the ferry back to Skye was a single spike of the same orchid growing right by the pedestrian path running along the side of the car parking lanes, and possibly the first time the plant had been seen in North Uist (BSBI database).

The amazing woodland, mostly planted by one man on the side of Loch Aineort, also required another visit following “finding” the woodland last year.  The owner has been at it again with several hundred metres of track being re-laid at the start of the walk.  Pale butterwort was a
Pale butterwort
new find for this area for us and it was nice to hear a couple of chaffinches singing, a rare species on the islands.  Wrens and willow warblers were seen and heard and there was again evidence (broken egg shells) that herons had attempted to nest in one of the small conifer plantations.  Janet suggested we explore one of the tracks heading up the hill-side to where we could see a tempting seat just where the track turned to follow the hillside contour and off we set.  The seat provided a wonderful view-point out over the sea loch and to the hills on the
opposite side and we watched a small yacht making its way carefully out to the open sea via the narrow sea-loch entrance.  We also scanned the hills in vain for any signs of eagles with both golden and white-tailed known to be in the area.  As we made our way back down to the lower path something on the leaf of a young aspen tree caught my eye, quite a large caterpillar with a very distinctive “head” and rear-end protrusions leading me to think about it being the
Puss moth caterpillar on aspen
larval stage of the puss moth.  A second one was also found on another aspen leaf, quite an amazing find of a species I find at home mainly as vacated cocoons.  Janet managed to name a plant growing by the owner’s hand-built pier as common skullcap (Scutellaria galericulata) the larger relative of the single lesser skullcap (Scutellaria minor) plant we found nearby the year before.  On the way back to the car we passed the huge rock table and seat installed to mark the 2000 millennium and as we sipped our coffee I spotted a few gulls getting annoyed with something quite a way off by the shore.  A very brief view of an otter was seen as it disappeared into the rocks.  At about the same time more gulls were heading off in a fairly aggressive way over the sea and I was just in time to see an adult white-tailed sea eagle glide and perch on the opposite side of the loch being joined by a second bird a few minutes later. 
Yes, the pale dot in the centre is a sea eagle
All that could be seen of the birds were their very pale heads as the rest of their bodies blended in with the surrounding vegetation.  I took my binoculars off them for a minute or so to point out to Janet where they were and by the time I checked again with my binoculars, they were gone.  I scanned back to where the otter had been and there were the two eagles being aggressively harassed, as the otter had been, by several gulls.  Perhaps there was something dead on the shore causing both the otter and eagles to visit to feed.  The new Panasonic camera was tested to its limit to see if at x30 zoom anything could be seen of the birds, their pale heads being just about visible but only by knowing that was what I was photographing.

On our outing to Berneray we were also in for a surprise.  As you drive off the causeway linking the island to North Uist, you pass the ferry terminal which links Berneray to the Island of Harris and Lewis.  There, in the vehicle queues were several police-type vehicles and police
The BBC live action camera van
motorbikes – the accompaniment for the wellbeing of the Commonwealth Games baton relay which, the day before, had had its official day in the Uists.  The folk accompanying the baton had stayed overnight in Lochmaddy but early in the morning the baton and a few lucky folk took off in a helicopter to allow the baton to visit St. Kilda, flying back in time to meet up with the ferry
with police contingent arriving in Harris.  Being just about lunch-time there were boxes of sandwiches, cakes and fruit being passed around the support staff and as the ferry departure time drew close all the folk assembled for group photos.  From the little we saw at the ferry terminal one begins to wonder what the cost of the baton relay going round the whole of the commonwealth has been, the packed lunch alone would have probably covered the cost of our two week holiday.  The last day of our island holiday was spent wandering right round the
Arctic tern at 6-o-clock!
RSPBs Balranald Reserve.  Along the way we heard only our third and fourth corn buntings of the holiday as the Uist population continues to decline at an alarming rate and close to the car park was the regular corncrake.  A dead seal on the beach at Traigh Iar was attracting the interest of the ravens and big gulls and just off shore a crèche of eiders was feeding and resting on the rocks.  Around the top of the headland artic terns were constant companions as they dive-bombed the two of us as we walked along, no doubt worried that we were getting close to
Dunlins bathing
their fledged youngsters.  A freshwater pool had 40-50 dunlins bathing and drinking along with a few gulls and just above us in the machair were 20-30 cows and calves with accompanying bull and starling flock.  Strange marks carved into a large rock spotted by Janet turned out to be a bench-mark the location of which is probably the number •20 (height above sea-level) shown on the current OS map of the site (grid ref NF69355 70990).  As we made our way back along the edge of the sandy bay towards the car park a couple of sand martins circled overhead, rare birds in the Uists, and as we watched, one of the birds flew in towards the hard sand “cliff” which, on closer inspection, had the start of a nesting hole.  Whether a hole being dug in the
Red-breasted merganser family
middle of July would ever be used I’m not too sure but I let warden Jamie know, just in case.  The final evening was spent having a last look at a couple of small lochs just along the road from our accommodation.  Growing from a rock outcrop on one of them a strange seed-head could be seen which, on closer inspection turned out to belong to a bluebell plant, surviving in the only location out of reach of the grazing sheep, of which there were loads.  Another plant
Water lobellia at sunset
that I didn’t know occurred on the islands.  A couple of families of red-breasted mergansers were seen heading off to roost and on one of the lochs, where the sheep access had been restricted, several massive clumps of fertile royal fern could be spied on the opposite shore.  Time to test out the x30 zoom on the camera again.  As the sun began to set I was wandering
close to the edge of one of the lochs and the wee waves caused by the gentle breeze created an amazing sight as they washed through a group of water lobelia flowers protruding from the surface of the water.  If that wasn’t good enough to bring our holiday to a close the red sky and setting sun as I walked back along the road provided the perfect end.

Once back home it didn’t take long to get back into the “normal” routine with paper and bag of peanuts delivered to Rita just down the road before getting the chalet ready for our next visitors.  With everything ship-shape I drove over to thank Richard for keeping an eye on the birds and feeders before heading off to see how the bog orchids found in 2013 were
Bog orchid group
performing this year.  With tiny flower spikes growing from several of the sphagnum hummocks and even smaller non-flowering bulbils in similar locations, great care was needed as I checked the site.  About 160 plants were counted compared to just less than 100 a year ago – excellent.  Next day Janet’s tweedcraft goods were loaded into the car and set up at one of the Open Garden sites a percentage of her takings going towards the Castle Roy Trust maintenance fund.  This ancient structure, by the B970 when leaving Nethybridge for Grantown, is currently undergoing major repairs, and all takings from the wider Open Garden event were also going towards the fund.  Another group to check on on our return was the status of the
Janet's Tweedcraft stall & Julie's plants
© Julie Pritchard
tooth fungi, especially with a group visit organised for late in August.  Worryingly, seeing two of the less common species up and looking good at the end of June (rather than mid-August!) I was interested to see if many more fruiting bodies had appeared in this earlier than normal growing season.  The visit to the forest track not far from the house produced 64 fruiting bodies of 5 species, the rarest species being Hydnellum caeruleum (3 fruiting bodies) and Sarcodon glaucopus (x3), with little chance of either species being recognisable if even still present by the end of August.  A case of keeping all fingers crossed.  With good weather developing mid-week the local butterfly transect was walked with ringlet and green-veined white the main
Speckled wood distribution to 1990 (NBN)
species and with the sun still shining the next day I popped over to near Grantown to walk the BTO/Butterfly Conservation transect.  The route is the same as that walked for the BTO bird
Speckled wood distribution 2000 to 2014 (NBN) showing
southern spread from Moray coast
survey during April and May.  This covers an outward leg of one kilometre of mainly conifer plantation, a cross-country leg of about 800 metres with no recording before walking the return one kilometre back almost to the start point.  Whilst the conifer plantation might be good for the commoner bird species there are usually few butterflies to be seen along the 4-5 metre wide forestry ride.  So I was in for a big surprise when a speckled wood flew down the ride towards me before heading off through the trees no doubt in search of a nice flowery patch on which to feed.  This is still quite a rare butterfly in our part of the world.  Each one kilometre leg is split into five recording sections of 200m (same as the bird survey) and thankfully, for the last 200m of the first leg the plantation is exited and a nice boggy area with a reasonable mix of flowering plants comprises most of the section.  Green-veined whites, ringlets and small pearl-bordered fritillaries were seen as the sun continued to shine keeping the temperature about right for good butterfly activity.  The non-recording cross-country section covers an open area of plantation Scots pine woodland along with more forest bog, the pines having been thinned about two years ago.  There can be a bit of fun working a way through some of the brash left behind from
Dolichomitus imperator ichneumon fly in action
the thinning but on this occasion the brash provided the perfect habitat for the next find of the day – a three inch long ichneumon fly.  This fly has featured before in the blog but on this occasion the fly was most obliging and let me get in quite close as it probed the log with its inch and a half long egg-laying ovipositor, seeking out the beetle larvae host in which to lay its eggs.  This amazing fly is Dolichomitus imperator, an important parasitoid of other insects.  Quite often, the mated female fly wanders pieces of deadwood touching the wood with her antennae as she searches for the scent of the beetle larva developing inside the log.  The fly’s legs pick up on the vibrations made by the wood-boring larva and once located the sheaths protecting the ovipositor (sort of drill) part and the fly pushes it onto the deadwood until it enters the beetle larva.  Once the ovipositor has entered the host, eggs are injected into the host’s body cavity where eventually they will hatch whereupon the ichneumon larvae will devour the beetle larva before emerging as adults to start the whole process over again.  Sadly, the new Panasonic didn’t perform as well as I had hoped, the bright sun cancelling out the use of the camera
Dark green fritillary on thistle flowers Garten butterfly transect
screen and the viewfinder option, which is pretty poor for this sort of close up work, let me down a bit.  Perhaps I was a bit too ambitious in actually trying to video the fly at work, stopping occasionally to take still photos, one of which thankfully came out okay.  To see a video of the ichneumon fly in action click on the youtube link below.  Somewhat delayed I pushed on to reach the other one kilometre road section of the transect, small tortoiseshell being the only new species to add to the list.  Once home the data from the days transect was entered on-line to the Butterfly Conservation database adding a little more information on the current status of our UK butterflies.  Later that day the chalet guests had two pine martens visiting the peanut feeders.  Amazingly a single speckled wood butterfly turned up on the Loch Garten butterfly transect a few days later, a new species for the site and only the second ever record for the Abernethy Reserve.

The main undertaking for the rest of July has been the continuation of the BSBI plant survey of under-recorded tetrads within the Cairngorms National Park.  Quite often two to three visits have been needed to cover the survey area reasonably well and it has been a good way of visiting areas I’ve never been to before.  Quite a bit of rockrose has been found in the Kingussie/Newtonmore area which was a pleasant surprise, as was the appearance of a
Unexpected find high up in the moors
timber haulage wagon high up in the moors above Newtonmore, removing felled logs from the woodland that was my turn-around location for that day.  Thankfully, the ground flora of the woodland being clear-felled (mainly lodgepole pine with Scots pine) indicated a wood of recent plantation origin rather than a plantation on an ancient woodland site, yet another clear-fell possibly prompted by fungal disease starting to appear nationally in lodgepole pine plantations.  On the way back down the hill three trees on the edge of a recently created turnip field were a pleasant surprise, an ancient elm, ancient ash and mid-aged rowan, and worthy of
Splachnum ampullaceum moss
another visit when plant recording isn’t the priority.  Find of this particular day was an unusual moss which I had only ever seen once before – Splachnum ampullaceum - cruet collar-moss.  For once the brain was working well and I managed to remember most of the scientific name along with the fact that it was a moss which grows on herbivore dung deposited in damp, boggy sites, a perfect description of the habitat I was in.  With dozens of pages of plant records accumulating all I need to do now is get all the records onto the MapMate database, not quite as pleasant a pastime as wandering the sites finding them!

A follow up email linked to the Ancient Tree Forum visit mentioned in the last blog lead to what might possibly be the find of the year, the “find” only being possible with help from others.  A couple of follow up emails circulated after the ATF visit with one mentioning one team had found a peacock moth during their survey.  This moth was featured last month and, being a bit uncommon locally, I followed up the email by asking for an approximate location so the record could be forwarded to the moth atlas people.  The couple who recorded the moth then sent me a second email asking if I knew who should be contacted locally regarding rare plants and in
The first group of heath cudweed flowers
the exchange of emails that followed I was made aware of a large number of flowering spikes of heath cudweed (Gnaphalium sylvaticum) growing in a field near Carrbridge, the initial estimate was “probably over 1000”.  Wow, the largest population I’d heard of locally probably comprised a few hundred, and enquiries via local BSBI recorders informed me that the highest UK count on the national database was 1300!  Late one afternoon, after a meeting about the loss of wader fields locally, I thought I had just enough time to nip over to try and find the field and plants and, armed with my hand-tally counter, undertake a reasonably accurate count of the thousand or so flowers.  I thought I was in the right field but it didn’t look right, heath cudweed plants are usually found on fairly bare ground and this usually means tracks and track verges, and this field was fairly lush with a good mix of plants and grasses.  Before I knew it I was almost walking on the first group of plants, all growing from within the established grasses!  I could though see lots of flowering spikes, this must be the right field.  Out came the hand-tally counter and over the next forty-five minutes the counter never stopped counting.  Rough
transects were walked across the field until I eventually ran out of flowering spikes and only then did I dare look at the total on the counter. 6137!  I had just counted over six thousand flowering spikes of a nationally declining plant – heath cudweed, and this had to be a minimum count because of the lack of a formally laid-out grid.  Enquiries informed me that this is the highest count ever (via reported records) of this plant and further enquiries by the lady finder informed me that the field used to be a storage area for logs for the local sawmill.  Despite the field not looking ideal currently for the plant in the not too distant past the stacking of logs would have left the field in ideal bare conditions for the Gnaphalium to thrive, which it certainly did.  Currently, I gather the field is lightly grazed by horses, so if the same grazing regime continues, the plant should have a positive future, that is until the more dominant grasses and tall plant eventually take over the site.

That’s it for another month, enjoy the read.

Stewart and Janet

Castle Roy
More about Castle Roy and Nethybridge
Dolichomitus imperator - ichneumon fly (4 minute video)
BTO/Butterfly Conservation wider countryside butterfly survey
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

Mute swan family South Uist
Keeled garlic from last blog now in full flower - beautiful
"Banksy" Taylor and Sympetrum dragonfly

Photos © Stewart Taylor