Monday, 21 December 2015

Fun with aspens and juniper bushes

On the 1st November, a day of brilliant weather, I re-visited a mainly woodland site with exciting potential by the River Findhorn at Ardclach, first visited during the summer.  On that occasion I found ancient ash trees hanging thick with Lobarian lichens so kept in mind the need for a second 
Ardclach - the way in
visit, which didn’t disappoint.  On my first visit I struggled to get into the wood down a very steep slope before realising that there was a fisherman’s “path” complete with rope handrail across what looked like an impassable rock-face along the edge of the river.  Rock-face negotiated I made my way to the woodland area where the first visit ended and checked the first ash tree.  The tree was covered in lichens classed as quite rare in this part of Scotland, more a feature of west of Scotland woodland, with masses of lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria), textured lungwort (L. scrobiculata), Peltigera collina, Nephroma laevigatum and big populations of Degelia plumbea.  In a wee hollow a crustose lichen had me scratching my head but made me think of Pannaria mediterranea, later 
Degelia plumbea (brown on grey) and Normandina pulchella (blue/green)
confirmed, and with just a couple of records local to Ardclach.  A plant with unusual leaves also had me baffled and it was only with help from plant specialist Ian that I arrived at tutsan, a plant easier to identify when displaying its bright yellow flowers.  I stopped for lunch by yet another ancient ash and checked the tree as I munched.  The Degelia lichen was present again, covering much of the lower trunk of the tree and another greenish lichen was growing with it/on it Normandina pulchella, something I had seen only a couple of times previously.  Obvious black dots (a parasite) also on the 
Degelia plumbea and parasite Toninia plumbina (black spots)
Degelia required me to take a tiny sample home to check.  These ‘parasites’ are known as lichenicolous fungi and though a lichen is a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga, the lichenicolous fungus is not the same as the fungus component of the lichen (confusing ain’t it!).  In addition, lichenicolous fungi live exclusively on lichens and most are host specific so if you can identify the lichen there is a good chance that you might be also able to name the parasite.  Amazing 
Toninia plumbina ascospore x1000 oil
ascospores appeared under the microscope, comprising four ‘segments’ and measuring 25 x 6µm (microns or millionth parts of a metre) and when I looked up Degelia plumbea in The Lichens of Great Britain and Ireland handbook it told me that there was a parasite called Toninia plumbina, and my specimens and spores were of the right size.  The handbook also told me that the parasite was “very rare”.  Wow!  Despite there only being 21 UK records on NBN Gateway that amazing lichen expert Brian Coppins had found it in two woodlands adjacent to mine.  Brian had also recently asked me to look out for another rarely seen lichen parasite, but more about that one later.

The next day the last of the potatoes were lifted from the veg patch before I set off to collect more leaves from some of the remaining locations for the Balsam-type poplars mentioned in the last blog.  Some sites were nearby in Tulloch but others further afield out near Insh Marshes RSPB reserve.  As Andy also continued to visit the site he knew he was also developing an excellent guide covering the main features needed to identify the tree species from mainly, just the leaves.  As our knowledge increased a few sites had to be re-visited to collect more leaves to be certain of species and at one 
Stropharia pseudocyanea
group of trees right next to the A9 a group of amazing slightly slimy, greenish fungus were growing under the poplars so time for a few photos and a specimen for checking once home.  As my leaves arrived back at home I checked and tried to name correctly before passing on to Andy to double check and by the end of the first week of November most of the trees we knew about had been visited.  Ian Green was also visiting some of the known trees in the Morayshire area to add to the species distribution picture.  Andy also made progress with the mystery poplar near Aviemore and after arriving at a name he sent the leaves off to a BSBI Poplar referee to confirm that we had found Populus maximowiczii, a species new to Scotland.  Andy has now made his guide to identifying the Poplars available on the internet, just follow the link at the end of the blog.  The “amazing fungus” turned out to be from the Stropharia family of fungi but with two species being very, very similar I 
Effect of plaque revealer dye on cheilochrysocystidia on gills of
Stropharia pseudocyanea
had to contact expert Liz for help.  She agreed that it was either Stropharia cyanea or S. aeruginosa but suggested I needed to do something I had never attempted before and it involved something a dentist might recommend - blue plaque revealer tablets!  Under the microscope it is possible to see something called cheilochrysocystidia along the edge of the gills found under the cap of the fungus and by dissolving a bit of one of the tablets in water this mix was used to wet a section of gill as prepared on the glass microscope slide.  The cheilochrysocystidia on the gill of just one of the fungi would react by turning bright blue and this would confirm the species.  Amazing.  Under the microscope I could see bright blue, confirming that I was dealing with Stropharia cyanea.  Thank you Liz.

The entry in my diary for the 10th November asks “The end of life as I know it?”  This was the day for a return visit to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness to find out the results of two whole body scans carried out a few weeks earlier.  The scans were needed as a follow up after a biopsy revealed there was cancer in my prostate.  A new species to me but one with lots of dots on the UK distribution map.  The good news was that the cancer was contained and hadn’t spread to bones or body tissues.  Mr Douglas then explained to Janet and myself the three options open to me, two types of radiation based treatment or complete removal.  He also explained that I could choose to do nothing and probably live for many more years with little effect.  But if there was an effect……………..probably too late.  Removal was our option and the last visit to Raigmore saw me going through all the pre-op procedures so that I’m ready to go once a date is offered.  Personally, I don’t feel any different than before the diagnosis and am carrying on with all the things I normally do.  Fingers crossed that this is how it will be as we progress into 2016, but I’m not likely to be doing all the things I normally do for four to six weeks.  Perhaps I can bring it home and see how much I can raise from the ‘prostate fairy’!

On the 6th, Janet once again converted the chalet into her Christmas pop-up-shop with an amazing display of tweed crafts and additional displays of other local crafts.  A percentage of sales income 
went to support Marie Curie and despite the odd quiet day things went quite through to the last day on 22nd.  Daughter Laura came over for a few days to provide moral support but also to do a bit of walking with dad as we both sought out photo opportunities.  I introduced her to pipe club fungi (Macrotyphula fistulosa), both Sclerophora pinhead lichens growing together (a first?) and views to the Cairngorms, Sluggan Bridge and Abernethy Forest.  However, she won the photo competition 
The winner - Laura's snow shot
© Laura Taylor
with an amazing early evening shot of the first heavy snow fall lit-up with the street light just outside the house.

November has been the oddest of months weather-wise.  There were 9 night frosts the lowest being -40C but many mild days so much so that we still had lupins in flower, the rose bush with several flowers and buttercups, ragworts and daisies still in flower and even fox and cubs flowering just 
down the road.  Waxcap fungi continued to pop up and expert Liz even delayed her annual waxcap count at Haddo until mid-month when usually it is undertaken in October.  Whilst visiting Tulloch to look for Brian’s lichen parasite I was pleasantly surprised to see a group of pipe club fungus by the track and a wider search found about fifty fruiting bodies.  I just had to re-visit them a few days later when the snow had fallen to repeat my photo.  However, the snow had all gone a couple of days later 
Pipe-club fungus (Macrotyphula fistulosa
a few days later!
and the pipe clubs looked just fine.  Blackbird numbers in the garden increased as they normally do at this time of year and it was interesting to see the blackbird from the summer without a tail was still around. The tail had started to re-grow but completely white!  It never looked quite right though and within a couple of weeks all the white feathers had gone.  We got the feeling that there was something physically wrong with the bird’s tail and perhaps it was meant to go through life without 
one.  As the month progressed more whooper swans were passing overhead and a count of birds roosting on Loch Garten during a goose roost watch by ranger Alison produced a total of 63 swans, the highest count to date for the Abernethy Reserve.  I also made a big effort during the month to catch up with entering my records into MapMate, reaching the end of August and the running total reaching 6500!  Emptying the recycle bin on my photo external hard-drive was even more impressive – 14,000 photos (jpeg and RAW per photo), and that was just the deleted ones since August!  Quite a bit of time was spent being a press officer for the HBRG to try and publicise an amazing achievement by two Highland naturalists, one a long-standing member of the Group.  All the records I put into MapMate go initially to the data manager for the HBRG to be checked and then added to the Highland Region record database.  He then sends the records to The National Biodiversity Network (NBN) to add to the UK distribution maps of the species recorded.  In 2010 the 50 millionth record 
 was added to this database!  To mark the amazing efforts of the people sending in their record the NBN Trust decided this year to offer awards to 4 people who had contributed immensely over many years.  Two awards were to be given for adult and junior recorders undertaking terrestrial and freshwater wildlife recording (my type of recording) and two similar awards for those involved in marine and coastal wildlife recording.  The Gilbert White adult award for terrestrial and freshwater wildlife recording was won by HBRG member Ian Evans and the late Pat Evans from Nedd in Sutherland and the David Robertson youth award for marine and coastal wildlife recording was won
Callum (left) and Ian with their NBN Awards
by Callum Ullman-Smith from Auchtertyre, in Ross-shire.  I was to attend the HBRG AGM in Lochcarron at the end of November to photograph the two winners and to send background information and photos of Ian and Callum to local Highland papers to publicise their success and highlight their recording efforts in Highland Region.  Lots of phone calls and emails and in the end several papers carried the story.  I might have also managed to get the BBC Scotland Out of Doors team to meet and interview the winners for a programme sometime in the New Year.

The trip to Lochcarron had a couple of aims, take the winners’ photo and possibly to visit a lichen-rich woodland on the west coast in the couple of hours that would be spare.  There was lying snow at the 7am start and occasional snow showers until I reached Garve and then heavy rain until about ten miles before Lochcarron.  As the rain stopped I was close to Achnashellach and as I slowed down to 
West-coast rain!
find a quite loo stop I noticed several trees by the side of the road covered in lichens, probably the good old lungwort again.  I parked up in a convenient Forestry Commission car park, donned my waterproofs, and made my way back to the roadside trees.  The damper climate of the west coast is ideal for lichen growth and apart from the trees being covered with lungwort and textured lungwort 
Roadside tree covered in lungwort lichen
Lobaria virens
there was another Lobaria present in quantity, L. virens, a lichen I had only seen three times previously and only once on my ‘own patch’.  Passing motorists must have wondered what this strange man was doing staring at trees!  A new one for me was Degelia atlantica and a jelly lichen turned out to be Leptogium saturninum, a new species to that area.  Time to push on to the AGM where Ian and Callum were photographed with their awards followed by two excellent presentations by Roo Campbell covering his work with Scottish Wildcats and Becky Priestly and the red squirrel reintroduction project.  To make the most of the journey there were swift goodbyes and I drove back down the road a little where lunch was spent wandering through a bit of hazel and oak woodland before setting off on the 95 mile drive back home.  A grandson-sitting evening finished of a long but enjoyable day.

Two emails mid-month started a bit of serious searching during late November.  One was a request for a sample of a lichen parasite for DNA work and the other informed me of a recent find of a tiny Mycena fungus found growing on juniper which was new to Britain.  The parasite required old aspens and the fungus old juniper bushes with both being in good supply locally.  The lichen parasite, 
Physconia distorta (black circles are re-productive apothecia)
Opegrapha rotunda (a lichenicolous fungus) had only been recorded a few times in the UK (about x10) which was a little surprising considering that the host lichen, Physconia distorta is fairly common.  This lichen was to be found quite regularly on older aspen trees and I saw it often enough on outings to only record it occasionally, but knew it occurred on the local aspens in nearby Tulloch.  The host lichen, which turns from grey/brown when dry to a brilliant green when wet would be easy to see after rain so that was when I made my first visit.  It’s funny though isn’t it, you think something is common until you go looking for it and that was the case on my first outing, when only 
The tiny black central 'spots' are the parasite Opegrapha rotunda
tiny scraps of the host were found.  More luck on the next outing with a few trees supporting big populations of the Physconia and then the search really began.  The host could be classed as generally ‘circular’ in shape with individuals growing 3-4” in size, but that is the easy bit.  The parasite is also circular, black, but with the fruiting body (apothecia) just a half to one millimetre in diameter and was to be looked for on the ‘leafy’ sections of the host (the thallus).  My first bit of excitement turned out to be an error with the small, black ‘spots’ belonging to a Bacidia lichen and 
Opegrapha rotunda asci (sort of spore 'sack') x1000 oil
Opegrapha rotunda ascospores x1000 oil
not actually growing on the host!  The next outing though lead me to something that looked correct after checking several aspens, with the tiny black growths sporting a slightly rounded rim similar to the ones in the photo I had with me of host and parasite.  This aspen, with good populations of the Physconia, produced two population of whatever was growing on the host so one part of the lichen was carefully removed, complete with black growths.  The big test would be checking the ascospores under the microscope once home and with little guidance to be found on the internet I would have to rely on the lichen handbook for information.  Bingo, what was found under the microscope matched the description in the handbook so the specimen of Opegrapha rotunda was forwarded to Brian for 
Protective clothing for juniper bushes
Sticta limbata lichen rarely found on juniper
new to RSPB Abernethy Reserve
confirmation before passing on to the experts undertaking the DNA work.  The other information was about Mycena juniperina, a tiny fungus found on a juniper bush in the south of England which, when confirmed, was a species new to the UK.  This is a late autumn/early winter species so the time was right to go a-looking which is easier said than done.  Juniper bushes have lots of small needles some alive and many dead and as you push your way through them the needles go everywhere, so the use of waterproofs to stop the needles going down wellies, the back of the neck etc was needed.  Despite 
Ichneumen fly to be identified
lots of crawling in and out of many bushes the Mycena hasn’t been found but several unusual lichens have turned up many with few records with juniper as the host.  Whilst searching, a small ichneumon fly was found, which being late in the season might be something unusual and awaits being seen by that rare species an ichneumon expert.  Most unwelcome, on the last day of the month was a tick in the leg, hopefully the last one of the season and a by-product of the juniper searches.

Early November also saw my hopping out of bed early in the morning to check on one of the celestial highlights of the early winter – a spectacular coming together of three planets, Venus, Mars and Jupiter.  It was suggested that the best time to see this was just before dawn which around the 7th was between 5 and 6am.  The first morning was hopeless with lots of cloud but the following day there 
Venus bottom right and Mars to left, Jupiter top of photo
Moon bottom, Venus, Mars (just visible) and Jupiter
they all were, Venus and Jupiter shining brightly in the southern sky with the tiny dot of Mars side by side with Venus.  The camera and big lens was hurriedly put together, mounted on the tripod and, still clad in my pyjamas but with a warm jacket on top, I popped out into the house driveway and fired away, running off probably 50-80 shots as I varied shutter speed, aperture and zoom in the hope that the tiny spot of Mars would show up in the photo.  It just about worked.  The big test though was a couple of days later when for one morning the crescent moon would be in the middle of the triangle of planets, an even bigger test if Mars was going to be visible in the photo.  The clouds won and it wasn’t until the following morning that I was able to see planets and moon but in just one day the moon had moved to below the planets all three of which though were now in a line.  Again, the biggest test was to try and capture a shot of tiny Mars with the bright moon now in the picture.  As I tried to capture a photo it was amazing just how quickly the moon was descending towards the horizon. As it ‘dropped’ it met some mist created by cold air. The quartet were just about visible in one photo with the moon a bit of a hazy blob as it started to drop below the nearby trees.  Then it was back to bed for a couple of hours before getting round to checking the photos.  All good fun and almost successful.

Enjoy the read and with best wishes for Christmas and 2016
Stewart and Janet

West Coast lichen-rich woodland
NBN Gateway
Andy Amphlett’s guide to Poplar identification
National Biodiversity Network
NBN Trust UK Awards for Biological Recording and Information Sharing
Scottish Wildcat Action
Red squirrel reintroduction
Opegrapha rotunda
Come to Scotland the windfarm capital of Britain!  Sit down before opening the following!
Fungal Records Database of Britain and Ireland (FRDBI)
BSBI – Botanical Society of the British Isles
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

Photographing Opegrapha rotunda hasn't been easy
A bit of Ho, Ho, Ho in the pop-up-shop
Red deer in late afternoon when out with Laura

Photos © Stewart Taylor unless stated otherwise

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

A Mild and Balsamiferous Autumn

Indoor work for the early part of the month was completing data entries for plants recorded during the BSBI/Cairngorms National Park (CNP) survey covering areas of the Park with few plant records.  My commitment covered 5 tetrads (2 x 2km squares).  The enjoyable bit was wandering and recording, the slightly more tedious bit was entering the records, but with many happy memories along the way.  My five tetrads produced a total of just over 4200 records (records not plant species) with amazing habitats around Spey Dam producing the most (1400).  Overall, this year’s survey has, so far, produced 27,000 records of 777 species, 152 of which are on the CNP Rare Plant Register so a brilliant effort by all involved and excellently organised by BSBI Vice County Recorder Andy Amphlett.  Highlights were finding good populations of a couple of scarce sedges locally, Carex hostiana and Carex pallescens (tawny and pale sedge) and their Anthracoidea fungi, and getting fixed in my mind that “molly has hairy knees” when trying to remember which is which of the two 
'Molly has hairy knees'
Holcus grasses regularly encountered.  Once you get your eye in the difference between these two ‘soft’ grasses is reasonably obvious but if in doubt look down the plant and Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus) is generally softly hairy.  Creeping soft-grass (Holcus mollis) on the other hand is ‘glabrous’ (no hairs) apart from ‘white beards at the nodes’, the swollen joints along the grasses stem.  Hence the schoolboy mnemonic to distinguish it from Yorkshire fog, ‘molly has hairy knees’!

After a morning of data entry I went for a walk in one of the local aspen stands following up a request from Brian C to check for a rarely recorded parasite of the lichen Physconia distorta, a species I occasionally see on trunks of older aspen trees.  However, there were too many other distractions, the first one being a large, orange fungus growing in grassy vegetation amongst the aspens.  Long ago, when fungus expert Peter Orton used to make his annual recording visit to Abernethy Forest, these 
Leccinum aurantiacum
same aspens were visited to try and find ‘a large orange boletus’ which Peter had been involved in describing for the first time, as a species new to science.  In this same woodland there could always be the chance of finding the commoner orange birch bolete (Leccinum versipelle) but, having been caught out with this one once before when found growing under aspens, (very black scales on the stem of the fungus), I was fairly certain that the colours on the ‘stipe’ (stem) this time were pointing to something different.  The stipe however, had been quite badly attacked by slugs, so not quite as obvious as it should have been.  This group of fungi have pores under the cap rather than gills so to help with identification, a small section of the caps was removed to take home to check for spores.  
Sclerophora peronella pinheads
All the time I was looking at and photographing the fungus several small flies were landing on it and, I assume, laying eggs in the cap, the fungus providing a food supply for their larvae once the eggs hatched.  If you want to see how many wee larvae live and grow within a large Boletus fungus, try cutting one open to view the inside.  Having once collected several ceps/penny buns (Boletus edulis) and popped them into a pan to make mushroom soup, I was put off ever doing this again by the sheer number of larvae that came floating to the top of the pan!  I digress.  I got back to checking aspens, briefly, and found a small population of the pinhead lichen Sclerophora peronella, one of the species ‘missing’ from this particular aspen wood despite visits by experts and checks of hundreds of aspens 
Stump puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme) spewing spores
Stump puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme)
by myself, many with typical sections of canker decays, the right habitat for the lichen.  A large group of puffballs were the next distraction, growing from the base of a fallen aspen, so more photos particularly trying to capture one, of the spores being spewed out.  Once home this turned out to be, appropriately, the stump puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme), confirmed by checking the abundant supply of spores.  The distractions continued and around the base of a standing aspen I could see a large population of inkcaps, not as big and bold as the lawyers wig in the last blog, but none the less 
Coprinopsis atramentaria
impressive as some of the caps had reached the deliquescing (inky spore release stage).  There was decay in the aspen base and the common inkcap (Coprinopsis atramentaria) was popping up in quantity from its typical deadwood habitat.  The big orange fungus turned out to be not the very rare aspen fungus Leccinum albostipitatum, but its look-alike Leccinum aurantiacum, confirmed with a little help from expert Liz.

Way back in April, as I was undertaking the aspen ground truthing work, I came across a group of very big poplars close to the A9 whose catkins didn’t look right for the tree often just listed as Balsam poplar a species often found in the Firwood blogs.  The twigs were also covered with the tiny pinhead lichen Phaeocalicium populneum so I was keen to correctly identify the tree in case it was a 
Phaeocalicium populneum pinhead
new host.  At the time there were just catkins but none of the all-important leaves and little of the strong Balsam scent, so, on the way back from daughter Ruth’s I pulled off the A9 and wandered over to collect a twig with a few leaves.  Little did I know what I was starting!  I was suspicious back in April that I was dealing with a hybrid black poplar (Populus x canadensis) but on checking the leaves in front of me I wasn’t too sure.  Hybrid black poplar leaves are green on both sides, lack any hairs and the leaf stem (petiole) is flat in section.  It was obviously not that species and as I looked at twig and leaves I noticed what looked like a bit of twig attached to a leaf, which I tried to remove.  I 
Peppered moth larva (Biston betularia)
then realised the ‘twig’ was alive, and was a big caterpillar mimicking brilliantly the leaf stems and twigs around it, so more photos to help identify the species once home before carefully removing it and re-attaching to twigs on a low branch.  The caterpillar turned out (with the help of Mike) to be the larva of the peppered moth (Biston betularia), if only the poplar had been as easy to identify.  Confused by the contradicting information on the key features of the leaves of the Balsam poplar group, I passed the leaves on to BSBI expert Andy, who responded by providing an identification key.  However, leaf shape, presence or absence of hairs again didn’t always seem to correspond with what I had collected and so started a month of poplar leaf collecting and with Andy’s logic, measuring and leaf scanning, a picture started to develop for the species of Balsam poplars we were seeing.  All Balsam poplars have been introduced and have probably proved popular because of their wonderful display of heavily scented catkins in spring and with much showier leaves than our native aspen, Populus tremula.  They are also quite large, fast growing trees.  The books list 4 regular 
Populus tricocarpa leaf
Two lengths of hairs on leaf stem of Populus 'Balsam Spire'
species of Balsam poplars, - Eastern Balsam-poplar (Populus balsamifera) the one always casually listed as Balsam poplar when found, Western Balsam-poplar (Populus trichocarpa), and two hybrids Populus 'Balsam Spire' (a hybrid between P. balsamifera and P. trichocarpa) and Populus x jackii (a hybrid between P. balsamifera and Populus deltoids a hybrid black poplar).  All the trees have their origins in America or Canada.  As Andy and I collected leaves he worked at linking the leaf sizes, shapes and stem (petiole) hairs to those described in the books.  The best guidance came from the “New Flora of the British Isles by Clive Stace” who seemed to have followed exactly the same method as Andy and gradually leaves from the four species of trees listed earlier were found.  Interestingly, the tree we casually listed previously has turned out to be the rarest.  As the correct species became clearer a big effort was made to re-visit all the sites where our “Balsam poplar” records had originated whilst collecting leaves from any new sites along the way.  Because I had been visiting these trees to look for the tiny pinhead lichen I had quite a list of locations and the conversion from Balsam poplar to the correct species, has, so far produced Western Balsam-poplar x14 locations, Populus 'Balsam Spire'x5, Populus x jackii x3 and Eastern Balsam-poplar x2.  In addition, leaves I collected from a site near Aviemore could be yet another species, but much more information on key 
A Balsam Poplar yet to be identified
tree and leaf features will be needed to complete the task.  At the end of the day the identifications were made on the shape of the leaves, whether heart-shaped or triangular and where the leaf was widest and, possibly less problematic, whether there were any hairs on the petiole and whether all were short, sparse or of two different lengths.  Possibly the easiest to identify was Populus x jackii with leaf and petiole so hairy the whole thing felt downy.  Andy also became quite proficient at identifying the trees from branch angles and shape of crown.  Interestingly, the tiny Phaeocalicium populneum pinhead lichen that started the whole project has been found on twigs of at least one of the trees of each species identified, and the tree that started the whole thing is one of the Western Balsam-poplar records.  Phew!

There has also been follow up work with the bladder ferns (Cystopteris species) following the finds mentioned in the last blog.  There are two species, the commoner brittle bladder fern and the rare Dickie’s bladder fern.  At one site where I recorded brittle bladder fern (Cystopteris fragilis) in the past a check by Andy showed the fern to be the rarer Dickie’s bladder fern (Cystopteris dickieana).  
Cystopteris dickieana spores x600
Cystopteris dickieana spores x1000 oil
To confirm the correct species a small sample, with spores (found on the back of the fronds) had been taken home to check under the low-powered microscope, and when the spores lacked spines and showed ‘cracks’ on their surface, Andy knew he had the rarer fern.  So, the question raised was whether any of my other brittle bladder sites had been incorrectly identified, and, during October six sites were re-visited.  The ferns are mostly found on rock outcrops and, to ensure I knew what the Dickie spores looked like, I visited the site incorrectly named by me in 2011.  With most of the ferns now past their best, mostly brown and drooping, I tapped a few fronds against a glass slide until I could see some spores had been dislodged and then secured another glass slide on top with blutac and packed the whole thing in one of my sealable plastic food boxes to take home.  Dickie’s bladder fern 
Cystopteris fragilis spores x600
Cystopteris fragilis spores x1000 oil
is rare enough to be a protected species and a licence is required to pick or damage the plant.  A Puccinia fungal rust was also found on the leaves of harebell flowers which has yet to be fully identified.  Back home I put the glass slide under the microscope and for the first time was able to see Dickie’s bladder fern spores, spineless and with the black ‘cracks’ on their surface.  One down, six to go.  The Bridge of Brown site was confirmed as the commoner fern but it was the next outing to the Craigmore section of RSPB Abernethy NNR that produced the first, pleasant surprise.  Originally 
A typical set of bladder fern fronds (Brittle bladder fern)
Bladder fern fronds late in the season
recorded as brittle bladder fern the small sample of frond taken home (licence not required because species not known) turned out to be Dickie’s bladder fern, a new species for the reserve.  Lesson to be learned, always take a sample home to check, when fern first found.  The next three were all found to be the commoner version but the last site, found during the aspen ground truthing survey earlier in the year produced one small population of brittle but a slightly bigger population of Dickie’s, possibly, the first time the two have been found growing on the same crag.  The rarer fern was first found by Dr George Dickie, the same man who first found the tiny fungus on the twinflower leaves covered in an earlier blog, so nice to link up again. 

Whilst checking out the Bridge of Brown site I noticed quite a lot of heather burning taking place on the adjacent grouse moor, possibly with a bit more flame and smoke than the keepers would have liked.  Dry weather during October has allowed lots of heather burning with some moors looking a bit ‘over done’.  I know this management isn’t very beneficial to wildlife, destroying as it does many 
Muir burn for red grouse
square kilometres of upland habitat purely aimed at artificially increasing the number of red grouse available for shooting, mainly driven grouse shooting.  I’m not against the walked-up form of grouse shooting which supports many jobs and with benefits to local economies, but to hear that grouse moor management benefits all sorts of other wildlife including wading birds, just doesn’t appear true to me when visiting these moors during breeding bird surveys.  These ‘benefits’ are supposed to be delivered because of intensive predator control but again at what costs to wildlife, particularly our small mammals.  The sheer number of legally set funnel traps (with fen trap inside the cage), is 
Funnel trap and fire engine
immense and, in some places, right in your face as I have been seeing by the road back from Bridge of Brown.  I have considered for a while stopping to photograph one of two traps set right by this road (the A939 road between Grantown on Spey and Tomintoul) and on this day, when I saw a fire engine parked by the same road, I just had to stop to take that photo.  The fires seen earlier had been out of control, and the local fire brigade had been called in to help out!  On other outings I have found a dead dipper in one of these traps on Crown Estate land near the Lecht, and a thrush in one at a site near Newtonmore where I also saw the biggest numbers of released red-legged partridges to date.

Having handed over the reins of the Loch Garten butterfly transect at the end of last season, I was invited to the recorders’ end of season gathering at Forest Lodge.    With the meeting planned for early afternoon I drove up early so that I could check a couple of sites for some of the rarer tooth fungi, one of which (Hydnellum cumulatum) had failed to appear this year at two of its other known sites.  At the first ex-quarry, parting the hanging vegetation confirmed that Hydnellum gracilipes was still there and looking quite healthy.  At the next quarry it took a lot more searching to find any trace of H. cumulatum, but eventually a small amount was found hidden behind hanging vegetation rather than on the top edge of the old quarry.  The search at this site also produced another seldom seen tiny, orange fan-shaped fungus Stereopsis vitelline, completing a hat-trick of fungi probably not recorded 
Hydnellum gracilipes
close together anywhere else in the UK this year.  All seemed to have gone well on the butterfly transect in what was a cool and testing recording season.  The meeting raised a few queries about recording protocol which were mostly addressed.  Alison’s cakes were also very good!  Well done the butterfly transect recorders.  Whilst looking for the fungi a tiny insect caught my eye as it wandered across a plant, a miniature form of a lobster.  Having encountered these amazing wee insects a couple of times before I realised I was looking at a Pseudo-scorpion, not a scorpion at all but a member of the arachnida, the same family as spiders.  Despite their small size these animals do look like a small scorpion, but without a sting in the tail.  Amazingly, there are 27 known species of 
pseudo-scorpions in the UK with 12 of them fairly common.  The only way my specimen could be identified was by going to be checked by an expert, so a name is currently awaited.  All this tramping through the deeper vegetation looking for ‘things’ continues to attract ticks many of which attach themselves to my body with about ten found on one particularly bad day.  Not sure why, but as autumn approaches we seem to get many more of the bigger, brown variety of this not very welcome 
Tick horror waiting for victim
wee beastie, and these take a little more effort to pull out with finger nails kept just that little bit longer during the tick season, just for this task.  Once again, the location of one removal started to develop the dreaded red ring and another two week course of Doxycycline, Lyme disease tablets had to be undertaken.  I should keep a count of the number of ticks removed in a season just to shock myself! 

The visits to rock outcrops to check for bladder ferns also produced other interesting sights.  At several locations beech ferns (Phegopteris connectilis) have also been present, a little past their bright-green summer best as they change to a very subtle shade of very pale green to almost white.  This fern is easily identified by the way the bottom two pair of ‘leaves’ (pinnae) bend down and 
Pale leaves of beech fern (Phegopteris connectilis)
Frond and sori of lemon-scented fern (Oreopteris limbosperma)
forward a little from the other leaves.  Another common fern in the damper rock outcrop locations is lemon-scented fern (Oreopteris limbosperma).  Initially this fern looks like many of the other large ferns like male fern but turning it over to check the underside of the leaves helps to identify it.  You will find all the spore-bearing sori run along the outside edge of the secondary ‘leaves’ (pinnules) making identification fairly easy.  At another rock outcrop it was nice to be re-acquainted with the orange fungus growing round the stems of a group of grasses.  This is the Choke fungus (Epichloë typhina) and one thing I noticed for the first time was that the grass stems with the fungus didn’t have any flower-heads.  On checking sites on the internet I found that the common name is explaining 
Choke fungus
what the fungus does to the grass – it chokes it, leading to the loss of seed production, hence no flower-heads.  The fungus also makes the grass less susceptible to grazing by herbivores, yet another mix of symbiotic relationships.  There is also a fly involved in ensuring the fungus is spread around successfully.  I also found out that the fungus might not be E. typhina, as six species of Epichloë have been recorded in Britain.  More specimen collections needed in the future!  One of the Choke sites was found whilst checking the amazingly productive green shield-moss site found last year, where 
Pink feet passing over
around 150 capsules were found.  This doesn’t appear to be a good year for capsule production with just 10-20 capsules present this year.  However, about 50 new capsules were found on a Norway spruce root-plate just a few metres away.  Whilst out and about there were lots of mainly pink-footed geese passing over and towards the end of the month the first redwings were arriving.  RSPB/Community Ranger Alison also had an amazing count, 63 whooper swans roosting on Loch Garten, the highest count to date.

Whilst looking after grandsons Finlay and Archie I decided to take them to see the Glenmore reindeer, not at the reindeer centre but in the enclosure by the road up to Cairngorm.  Having passed the same enclosure several times this year I had always seen the reindeer in the area where they are 
There they are
fed and where visitors are taken to see them.  No problem then.  We parked off the Cairngorm road and spent the first half an hour messing about climbing on the branches of an ancient but leaning Scots pine, well Finlay and Archie did!  After descending down to the Allt Mor burn we climbed out on the other side and eventually arrived at the enclosure with not a reindeer to be seen, well not within easy viewing distance.  However, looking quite a way up the path a couple of reindeer were grazing right by the path and close by there were more inside the enclosure fence.  Phew!  So, with 

the promise of chocolate biscuits if we carried on up the path to where the animals were, on we walked.  Because these reindeer are used to meeting visitors the ones outside the fence just carried on grazing as we approached, and the big snorting male inside the fence seemed determine to try and see off the couple of males on the outside of the fence.  All good fun and as we sat to munch our biscuits I was a little surprised that the reindeer didn’t wander over to see if we had some for them. 

Whole body scans were also something new during the month and the nurse wasn’t joking when she said for one of the scans it would be like going into a building site!  But more about these in future blogs.  Also, on the 24th the first snows appeared on the tops but the month ended with temperatures in the mid-teens.

Enjoy the read
Stewart and Janet

Grass structures
Dickie’s bladder fern Firwood blog October 2007
Dr George Dickie twinflower and bladder fern Firwood blog May 2013
Mark Avery’s blog with more information about grouse moors and hen harriers
Introduction to parts of a fern
Buglife link to pseudo-scorpions
Fungal Records Database of Britain and Ireland (FRDBI)
BSBI – Botanical Society of the British Isles
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

Bonny aspen leaves
Heavy rain at Loch Mallachie
To complete a rainy end - rainbow over Dorback Estate

Photos © Stewart Taylor