Sunday, 22 February 2015

Did Ellie Harrison spot my car?

Happy New Year.

Snow, snow, go away come again another day!  From about the 10th January onwards we seemed to have some snow fall on most days, about 8” being the most in a single overnight fall. Regularly, on some days, 1-2” would fall then stop, followed by another 1-2”, building up to about a foot of snow 
a daily pastime
in areas not cleared.  An outing to a couple of oak trees in Tulloch on 28th proved interesting with wind and snow showers combining to create impressive blizzard conditions.  Not the best conditions for my outings searching for “stuff” so by 31st cabin fever was setting in.  However, we did get out, and a few items of interest were found.

Prior to the snow, site visits to check for presence or absence of aspens progressed but with the first three outings finding few aspens, several dead pines, the odd ash tree and an ancient alder.  Two local outings though proved quite valuable for other things.  A visit to Tulloch where a slightly sandy, mossy bank by the track tempted me over, as a possible shield moss or lichen site.  No shield mosses
Peltigera malacea
but a bright green leafy lichen got me a bit excited even though there were only about five “leaves” (the lichens thallus) belonging to one of the Peltigera group.  A wider search all around the sandy knoll didn’t find any more so time for a decent photo before heading off to look for aspens.  In the back of my mind was the possibility of this being Peltigera malacea, a lichen whose nearest big population is in the sand dunes at Findhorn, though I had re-found another tiny population in an ex-quarry not more than a few hundred yards from where I stood.  This rare lichen is not in Dobson’s illustrated lichen guide but it has appeared in the blog before when photographed at Culbin, and also when I found another small population in a sandy hole near Kinchurdy Farm near Boat of Garten.
NBN map sowing distribution of Peltigera malacea
So one to check via my photos once I got home.  Right next to the Peltigera was another one, the one that I list in my notebook as P. didy – Peltigera didactyla a lichen which was first brought to my attention after my Kinchurdy Farm find.  On that occasion I fired my photos off to Brian Coppins whose email reply said well done, but did you know there was also P. didy in the photo!  Thanks to that bit of information I’ve now found P didy in lots of places despite being quite small in comparison to its bigger relatives.  Photos taken just in time, within five minutes there was an inch of snow covering everything.  A couple of days later the same thing happened.  The aspen map gave me a location to check in the Garten Wood section of the RSPB Abernethy Reserve and after my hike found just an ancient rowan I remembered that several years ago there was a young aspen close to the Speyside Way path which passes through the car park where I had left my car.  Amazingly there were two not one young aspen and as I made my way back to the car a sandy bank once again caught my eye, and, not being able to help myself, I wandered over to see if there was anything of interest and yes you’ve guessed it, there was another tiny patch of Peltigera malacea!  Sadly, no hat-trick.

On the day before the snows arrived Janet was having her ex-school mates around for lunch so I planned an outing to one of the ground truthing sites way down at Newtonmore. The sites to be checked comprising a few around the village and two a couple of miles up the River Calder.  As mentioned before in an earlier blog, the aspen ground truthing work arose from the huge interest shown in this tree and its dependant wildlife at the first Aspen Conference held in May 2001 and a need to know fairly accurately, the distribution of aspens or aspen stands throughout Strathspey.  This conference initiated the setting up of the Highland Aspen Group (HAG) and via this group the mapping project developed.  During 2007 and 2008, an aerial photographic survey was conducted 
Aspen ground-truthing map
over 600km2, covering the core area for aspens in Strathspey (Advie to Newtonmore), the flights taking place in late May when most trees apart from aspens are in full leaf.  This enabled bare trees or groups of bare trees to be identified from the photos.  A presentation on this work was given at the second Aspen Conference held in October 2008 and, following on from the aerial photography the images were painstakingly checked and the “bare tree” locations transferred accurately to OS maps.  However, “bare trees” can also comprise dead trees, late leafing rowans and most ash trees (rare locally) which also only come into leaf, in most years, in late May.  Hence the need to ground truth 
what is where.  And so it was off to Newtonmore with Map 11 to see what I could find.  The ones around the village were either close to wooded gardens or on the edge of fields with the result being aspens 2 and ash 1.  The locations near the River Calder seemed best to be accessed from the A86 Loch Laggan road, following a track through the Newtonmore Riding Centre.  Parking my car by the road I loaded up and made my way up the track, aware, as I passed the riding centre car park, that there was a film crew on site – perhaps something for tonight’s Scottish news.  Walking by the river I came across a few ancient oaks and an ancient rowan, the rowan providing the first good find of the day: flaky freckle pelt lichen (Peltigera britannica), a sign of things to come.  The riverbank also 
Textured lungwort (Peltigera scrobiculata)
had a small population of shining cranesbill (Geranium lucidum), identifiable without flowers by its distinctive leaves.  Lots of old hazels started to appear along with the occasional ancient goat willow (Salix caprea), each adding a few more lichens to the list including lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) and the textured lungwort (L. scrobiculata).  Right on location the first ancient aspen was found – sadly having been felled by the gales a couple of nights earlier, and there were three more by the river, all corresponding with the two red polygons on my map.  It took about an hour to check over 
The wind-felled aspen
all the trees for mosses and lichens, collating their records was one of the main reasons for getting involved in the mapping project.  There were occasional ravens overhead and in one part of the birch woodland there were 3 feral goats.  Despite there being deer droppings everywhere I only saw a couple during my wander.  It was about 3pm as I headed back toward my car but it was already getting slightly dark, and as I passed by the riding school car park I was surprised to see the camera crew were still on site.  Fast forward a couple of weeks and Janet and myself were watching the Sunday edition of Countryfile on BBC with the presenters doing various things linked to Burns Night which was being celebrated that night (25 January).  One session, filmed at the Pass of Killiecrankie, covered the Battle of Killiecrankie, the major event in the first of the Jacobite uprisings, which was fought nearby on 27 July 1689.  The interview ended with a discussion about how folk got about all those years ago and horses were mentioned.  As my least favourite bit of Countryfile saw the cameras heading off to Adam’s farm I did the washing up, sitting down just in time to see Ellie Harrison hopping onto a horse to go for a ride, linking nicely to the discussion about travel a little earlier at 
"Janet, that's my car!"
Killiecrankie.  The penny had not yet dropped!  Five minutes later the single horse was exchanged for a pair of horses and carriage, expertly driven by Ruaridh Cameron, one of the family members running the Newtonmore Riding Centre.  The penny was dropping and I said to Janet that this filming might have been linked to the camera crew I saw on site on the 9th January.  Ellie than swapped the two horse carriage for the four horse version and as Ruaridh and a very worried Ellie galloped off around the horse driving course I spotted it – “Janet, that’s my car!”  And, just to be sure, Ruaridh took the horses on another circuit, and there it was again my wee blue car parked in the background.  It would have been nice to have grabbed a quick photo of the Countryfile team at work, but that might have distracted me from the more important task of recording aspens and the species they support.  I was so impressed by the lichens I had found on my recording visit that I made plans for another visit once the snow had started to melt, but this was unlikely to happen before early February.

A heavy fall of snow occurred on the 14th at the time of a deep depression passing over Scotland.  For several days prior to this the early morning shipping forecast gave out “warnings of gales in all areas” and on a few days “winds of storm force 12”.  We did have gales, and in some woods more 
The low barometer reading
trees came down but on the 15th I did get quite worried when a saw the needle on the house barometer had almost reached the same deep depression level as that reached in December 2013 (slave needle had been left at the 2013 mark) when the 1000-2000 trees were blown over in Abernethy Forest.  Thankfully, this was a fast moving area of low pressure, and by the next day high pressure was moving in and a few nights later, with clear skies, the temperature dropped to -9.50C, and all returned to cold and calm followed a few nights later by a temperature of -11.80C, the lowest of the winter so far.  Red squirrel tracks were a regular feature in the fresh snow and on a couple of occasions they were joined by a single pine marten track, though we didn’t think the marten was a 
Pine marten (left) and red squirrel tracks
regular visitor.  On a morning with bright sun and no snow we decided to get out of the house and headed for Findhorn, having lunch in the “Universal Hall” cafĂ© before stretching our legs around the Findhorn Foundation grounds.  On the way to the lunch spot we saw plenty of snow on Dava Moor, the high point between Grantown and Forres but as we drove through the Altyre Estates woodland we ran out of any sign of snow and there was even green grass at Findhorn.  A different world.  With a heavy frost developing by early afternoon we decided to head home by taking the B9007 from Logie (to Carrbridge), turning off to follow the single-track road to Lochindorb.  Thankfully someone had ploughed the road clear of snow – just – but with lots of evidence of deep snow drifts in many places.  We had just got on to the single-track road when was saw our first group of red grouse, feeding in an area where wind had blown the snow clear of the heather.  A quick stop for a photo, 
Group of red grouse in snow
something that was to be repeated several times before we reached the loch.  However, photographing a dark coloured bird against a white background in bright sunshine didn’t give the best results, though the longer distance shot of a group of about 30 birds worked out better.  When we got to the loch it was frozen solid but looking stunning in the late afternoon sun.  Bobbly ice and snow, 
Lochindorb sunset
the ruin of the castle and the sun and clouds as a back-drop there were lots of stops to take photos.  The single ancient ash tree was aglow and it was photographed several times as the sun lit it up to varying degrees.  Amazingly, apart from a lady stopping to ask if there were any black grouse about, 
The Lochindorb ash tree
we had the place to ourselves, not leaving until the sun finally found the clouds, the pink glow disappeared and the camera was finally turned off.  Two different worlds.  As we left, a couple of ravens looked like they were heading to a nearby roost and as we drove towards the A939 Dava Moor to Grantown road there were more red grouse, some looking like they were gathering together to settle down in the snow for the night.

Through part of January I was involved in an interesting bit of reading.  Dr Ron Summers, Principal Conservation Scientist with RSPB in North Scotland has spent many hours putting together the draft outline of a book about the Abernethy NNR, covering many of the years when I was employed there.  For probably the first ten years of my time at Loch Garten (to grow in size to become the nationally important Abernethy NNR) I undertook surveys that I thought would be beneficial to the reserve, the 
Old photo of forestry ploughing in Abernethy Reserve ca. 1986 when
owned by forestry company © Chris Gommersall
results being included in the reserves annual reports.  However, as the RSPB became bigger both in membership and land ownership, survey work had to be “robust” and monitoring of population increases or declines of birds, plants and insects needed to be done so that “confidence limits” could be applied to the final figures.  Experienced scientist started to guide how wardens did their surveys and, in many big projects, employed other people dedicated to surveying and collecting data.  Ron came in to oversee and be involved in these scientific studies of habitats and key bird species within Abernethy with ultimate objectives of guiding major management decisions within the reserve.  I don’t think we got too many things wrong prior to the helping scientific hand as some of the early management decisions show (Scots pine plantations re-structuring, bog woodland restoration and common bird censusing) with the bird survey still being the only long-term study of birds in Scots pine woodland.  The efforts in this direction eventually produced a joint paper titled “Numbers of breeding birds in old Scots Pine wood at Abernethy Forest, Badenoch & Strathspey, from 1977 to 
Same area today (now repaired) as ploughed area last photo - compare
dead trees though central one was alive in first photo
1988, S. Taylor & R. W. Summers in Scottish Birds 30: 302-311.  So, it was with great interest that I said “yes” when Ron asked me if I would like to read and comment on the second draft of his book covering the history and ecology of Abernethy.  Having seen the time and effort dedicated to collecting, sorting and compiling information by Ron, I’m glad this isn’t something I’d tried to tackle.  And, despite having been involved with Abernethy since 1976, there were lots of bits of historical information that I had never picked up on.  At some point in the future I will try and produce a couple more repeat photos of scenes within the forest, found by Ron, from many years ago.  Well done Ron.

The landscape scale destruction carried on a pace during January at the Granish go-kart site and across the road on the caravan site.  Local conservationists are starting to realise that there are a huge number of surveys taking place AFTER planning permission has been given.  Archaeology, mainly on the go-kart site, where the last building associated with a small settlement on the site has gone. Was there an archaeologist on site when the bulldozers moved in as requested…who knows?  A tree 
The caravan site creation
survey was undertaken on the caravan site, again, after planning permission had been given, detailing which trees were to be removed which was completely different to that presented with the planning application.  Not only that, but hours had to be spent trying to work out exactly which trees would go with many not shown in red on the site survey map.  We are certainly well into the tick-box era, survey done, report received, on you go.  No bat roost survey, no tree lichen survey, and in typical forester fashion, an aspen with canker must be dangerous and will need felling or surgery!  Wrong, 
Sclerophora pallida pinhead lichen
with paint!
and a typical response from someone who knows little about aspens.  The forestry consultant also carried out the ecological enhancement survey (a bit like the botanist undertaking the fungi survey for another planning application site in Carrbridge) and managed to get the rare Cairngorm Nature bee wrong (Andrena cineraria instead of Andrena marginata), an ancient willow became an elm and we find that badgers live in dens!  The worrying bit is that no one at the Cairngorms National Park seem to see these errors, and the bee is one of the species they have a management plan to help.  Help?  The location within the caravan site where the bee had been photographed and potentially breeds has 
X marks the spot!
already been removed by the JCB.  The contractors on the caravan site aren’t allowed to work weekends to give a local household a noise break so that is the time to visit to see what is happening.  Checking the trees to be felled, I found one was a small aspen close to the road and on the route of a proposed new footpath.  It had been given the “canker” death-sentence and when I had a quick look at the dark bark close to the canker I found a decent population of Sclerophida pallida pinhead lichens many neatly coloured blue with the painted cross to indicate tree to be felled.  This lichen is Nationally Scarce and a UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species and when the Park were 
The go-kart track creation 
informed I was told the developer had kindly allowed the tree to remain!  However, this bit of email correspondence made the Park suddenly realise that they had failed (yet again) to ensure the developer had carried out a pre-construction ecological check, so work was halted until once again someone somewhere put a tick in a box.  I was also unsure that the title Ecological Enhancement Report was correct when a site with rare plants, insects, lichens, visiting badgers and possibly wildcat was going to be destroyed, what is there left to “enhance”?  Enough.

That’s it for another month - enjoy the read
Stewart and Janet

British Lichen Gallery – photo of earlier Peltigera malacea/Peltigera didactyla find.  The grey, spotty lichen is P. didactyla and the bright green leaves P. malacea
Second Aspen Conference
Highland Aspen Group
Newtonmore Riding Centre
Dr. R. W. Summers
Scottish Birds Common Bird Census paper
Cairngorms Nature (see page 17 for species)
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

Road-side ice spectacle during the freeze
January wind-blown pine
Whooper swan on River Spey
Garden sparrowhawk
Photos © Stewart Taylor