Saturday, 9 May 2015

An Easter “Little star of Bethlehem”

We have just experienced a month of an amazing mixture of weather, the only thing lacking in any quantity has been rain, well, of the liquid kind.  A spell of hot days with night frosts, ended on the 10th with snow on the tops and then snow at the house the following day.  High pressure that covered most of Britain then came into play and despite continuous cold winds the day time temperatures 
Sheep with lambs in snow - Dallas
eventually reached 190 C with a pleasant if overcast day for a botany meeting on 25th.  The weather folk hinted at more snow and on the 26th our drive back from Forres, via Dallas, was through lying snow 1-2 inches deep.  Thankfully, the car still had its winter tyres on helping cope with soggy slush covering the road home.  And that was it. End of summer and back to the arctic blast that has dogged 
Happy Christmas!
us for most of the winter.  A great test of which clothes to wear, lightweight summer jacket and end up freezing or risk the winter one and sweat like you’re training for a jockey’s seat in the Grand National.  The sunny days pushed on the growth of plants and leafing of trees and I’m fairly sure many birds had nests built and eggs laid before the cold returned. 

I continued to work my way through my batch of aspen ground truthing maps completing the last one on the 24th and delivering them to Andy the next day to progress to the next stage.  It will be interesting to see the true distribution of this tree within the strath.  The great thing about these sorts of projects is setting out to visit areas never visited before and areas which would probably have 
Orang underwing moth
never popped up on the radar as worthy of a visit.  Perhaps one of the biggest areas with aspens I checked was close to the Landmark Visitor Centre in Carrbridge where lots of single trees were scattered through an area of Scots pine plantation, quite an unusual mix of woodland.  Whilst nice to find so many trees it was a very poor group of trees for anything notable in the lichen world.  A nice find though was an orange underwing moth allowing me to photograph it well enough to identify once home.  This days mapping also led me to an area that I had probably last visited when we moved to the Loch Garten reserve in 1976, the year of the great Carrbridge fire that crossed the A9 and burnt for several days, only finally being contained when a fire-break was cut by a bulldozer 
A monster of a wood ant nest
ahead of the fast moving flames.  As I walked towards one of the aspen map polygons to be checked I was fairly sure I was walking along that fire-break and, of course, the “aspens” that had been located via the aerial photographs were all dead granny pines killed off by the fire all those years ago.  The edge of the track/fire-break was also notable for a good number of wood ant nests, some so big that they probably dated back to having started life 39 years ago.

A long day was also spent with the aspen maps in the Kinrara area close to Aviemore.  The Kinrara Estate is well known for its ancient aspens and important lichens and mosses the trees support but this visit was aimed at checking out individual trees or small groups of trees away from the main stands.  The uphill trek lead me to the polygon by the Waterloo Cairn, a large boulder cairn with inscription 
The Waterloo Cairn
commemorating two men who were lost in that battle in 1815.  No aspens were found so perhaps the cairn itself looked like a tree on the aerial photo.  An impressive structure and worthy of the trek.  The more obvious structure in this area is the Duke of Gordon Monument built on the highest point of the same hill (known as Tor Alvie), a structure that has appeared in earlier editions of this blog.  The next aspen polygon was going to take me to another monument on the estate that I had never visited before, the Duchess of Gordons memorial monument, located in a much less prominent 
Duchess of Gordon Memorial Monument
position down by the River Spey.  Another impressive monument, buried in a stand of rhododendrons showing that folk all those years ago really did know how to remember someone with something a little more impressive that a wee plaque!  The polygon to be checked right by the River Spey turned out to be an ash tree but looking up river I could see an amazing area of sands and gravels and wooded islands, an excellent place to have lunch.  The peace of lunch was broken by loud voices as a group of 6 canoeists paddled their way down river.  Being mid-April, spring plants were just starting 
to appear and the island had the first flowers of yellow lesser celandines and white wood anemones.  A small strawberry plant covered with an orange fungus turned out to be barren strawberry the host plant for Phragmidium fragariae and a large, cranesbill like plant growing from the river-bank had me scratching my head until I got home.  It had reminded me of something growing in our garden and when I checked, it turned out to be monk’s hood (Aconitum napellus) quite a poisonous plant from what I can gather.  Annoyingly, the next bit of the map to be checked was just across the river 
Monkshood plant
so it was back to the car for the drive to Kincraig to cross the river.  As I crossed the railway bridge just before reaching the car, I noticed a neat, rounded bit of metal sticking up from one of the coping stones on the bridge and on closer inspection I could see a familiar shaped, upward pointing arrow, and on the opposite side the letters OSBM, one of the levelling benchmarks used by the Ordnance Survey folk many years ago.  I’ve seen the benchmark arrows on rocks and the very ornate one from the old road bridge at Daviot featured in and earlier blog, but this was the first time I’d see what I now know is an OSBM ‘Bolt’.  So, time to check the Bench Mark Database and sure enough it was there and offered the following information: “Third Geodetic Levelling, Scotland (1956-68).  This 
Bench Mark bolt
bench mark was used during the Third geodetic levelling, Scotland.  It was included on the Dalwhinnie to Daviot levelling line.  The surveyor's description was OSBM Bolt on bridge parapet”.  Nice to know it had a sort of link to my earlier find, even though a much more basic marker.  The visit to the other side of the Spey found several red polygons were aspens though at one site the group of young aspens had been cut down.  More lichen pinheads were found on a lone balsam poplar and on both an eyed ladybird (Anatis ocellata) and the hieroglyphic ladybird (Coccinella hieroglyphica
Peltigera britannica lichen
were seen.  The day ended with a trek up a track in FCS Inshriach Forest and as I left the track following my trusty GPS and its ‘go-to’ feature, I began to think I was again heading to a red polygon without aspens.  The mix of conifers opened out into a boggy area but up ahead I could see quite an imposing rock-face which is where the GPS was taking me and, growing out of the rock-face were several semi-mature aspens.  A north-facing rock-face is always worth a reasonable search and with the aspens producing records for Nephroma laevigatum lichen and the rocks above big populations of Peltigera britannica (flaky freckle pelt lichen) we had a perfect end to the day.

In late March I visited the Kew Lost and Found Fungi website to see if there was anything new to see or suggestions of species to look for and reading down the ‘Candidate species for targeted surveys’ section noticed a request to look for a fungus growing on a plant called yellow star of Bethlehem (Gagea lutea).  I knew nothing about this plant but clicking on the PDF tab I found out more about it, its distribution and where the fungus had been found in the past and currently.  Interestingly, I noticed 
Yellow star of Bethlehem (Gagea lutea)
three dots for locations of the plant along the coast close to Forres – just up the road – so made a few enquiries.  Next morning I had a list of locations from Vice County Recorder Ian along with a few details of when last seen.  The plant is classed as native south of the border, but, despite the plant growing in exactly the same habitat locations in the north of Scotland, it’s classed as introduced.  Ian suggested that the best place to go was along the River Findhorn but to be aware that the plant population produces lots of leaves but just one per plant. It is a shy flowerer and that without seeing the flowers, the leaves might be difficult to locate.  A couple of the Findhorn sites had also been “damaged” during recent flood prevention works where trees had been felled or the ground disturbed to create high flood-banks.  No problem then!  I parked up close to the Findhorn Bridge and as I 
Giant hogweed seedlings - lots!
made my way along the path to the river-bank, I noticed lots of black and white striped seeds, on the ground, close to the path.  I was also aware that there were enormous stem remains lying on the ground from the last year’s crop of giant hogweed, an invasive plant that the local authority have major problems trying to eradicate.  Surely the seeds didn’t belong to that plant?  A quick search found an old flower-head with a few seeds still attached and sure enough, they were striped black and white.  There were hundreds of cotyledons (the first stem and leaves of the plant) many with the seed from which they had grown, still attached, showing what a massive problem still exists re eradication and that rather than winning the battle, the problem would seem to be getting worse. The bridge itself also had a population of a native plant which is on the move – Danish scurvy grass.  This coastal 
plant is now growing further and further inland as the use of salt to treat the roads in winter is helping to create ideal conditions for colonisation.  On the river bank the search for the yellow star of Bethlehem started, checking areas of consolidated sandy soil created over the years by river spates; its ideal habitat.  As I reached the last of the trees I spotted my first yellow flowers, no more than about ten, and I then spotted the distinctive single leaves with their slightly hooded tips, some narrow but several quite broad, and totalling probably a couple of hundred.  Photos taken, the search of the leaves started, looking, I assumed, for areas of black (spores) breaking out of the leaves.  With so many leaves I was quite hopeful but at the end of my search nothing was found.  Many of the leaf tips had been eaten by animal unknown, and brown areas on some leaves initially looked right but when checked with the hand-lens, were obviously not correct.  Time to move on, the next site being on the other bank of the river.  Approaching roughly the right location I thought all my prayers had been answered as either side of the path there were thousands of leaves but it was only via a wider search and a sniff of a crushed leaf that I realised most of the leaves belong to the ramsons or wild garlic (Allium ursinum) whilst some slightly thinner ones belonged to its close relative the few-flowered leek (Allium paradoxum).  This could be fun!  Eventually I found the right flower with again several 
Moschatel with two fungi on leaves and stem
hundred leaves but with even fewer flowers.  However, I was getting my eye in for the right leaf shape and the general appearance of the plant.  The flower is a member of the Lily family, with typically fleshy leaves.  A couple of times I thought I had found the right black patch on a few leaves only to find I was looking at a hole in the leaf!  Ian had told me that the biggest population he had seen was actually on the River Spey, near Rothes, so my route home took me via that site.  He wasn’t joking, there were tens of thousands of leaves and quite a few flowers, possibly over a hundred, but also alternate-leaved and opposite-leaved golden-saxifrage, moschatel, masses of celandines and wood anemones but also another dreaded invasive, Japanese knotweed.  I paced the site out where the leaves were most obvious and arrived at an area of 21 x 8 metres and then very slowly, and with difficultly, I wandered back and forth checking the leaves.  Zilch, nought, nothing.  Perhaps the fungus hadn’t reached Scotland.  I did find leaf fungi on the ramsons (Puccinia sessilis), two on moschatel (black spots Puccinia adoxae and orange spots Puccinia albescens) and on nipplewort (Lapsana communis and fungus Puccinia lapsanae), so not too bad a day.  Back home I re-checked the distribution list again for the yellow star of Bethlehem and worked out there were another 5 sites near the River Findhorn that would warrant another visit.  So, a few days later I was again walking 
Not holes in the leaves but a fungus!
over the Findhorn Bridge and slowly working my way through the small populations of the plant along the bank of the river even more horrified by the quantity of fallen stems of giant hogweed I was encountering.  By lunchtime nothing had been found and it was time to visit one of the areas affected by the flood prevention works.  At the first site I failed, for the first time to find the plant and as I made my way to the last site for the day I was even less hopeful when I saw the scale of earthworks undertaken to create the flood-bank.  However, several of the elms where the plant had been recorded were still in place and I was even more surprised to see that the small population of yellow star of Bethlehem had quite a few flowers.  The flowers here also looked a bit older and had lost the yellow colour being more greenish.  I saw one leaf had a black patch and was quite surprised when I put my 
Gagea lutea and Vankya ornithogali fungus
hand behind it I realised it wasn’t a hole in the leaf.  Hmmm.  I then spotted more black patches, not just on the leaves but also on the two stem leaves on one plant.  Time for a few photographs before carefully packing away a few of the leaves with black patches.  I was reasonably happy that what I was looking at was the plant Gagea lutea with the brilliantly named fungus Vankya ornithogali on its leaves.  There were obviously problems with the original description of this fungus on yellow star of Bethlehem until K. Vánky (2013) re-described the fungus which now bears his name.  Once home, 
Vankya ornithogali spores x1000
the spores were checked and looked correct and the staff at Kew were happy that everything in the photos sent to them looked correct.  However, the leaves and fungus are now with them and I await their final verdict before opening the champagne to celebrate what will be a new find for Scotland.  Watch this space.

I have been doing a bit of follow up work with the black-spots on the twinflower leaves, visiting a couple of sites where transplants from other twinflower patches have been introduced to try and encourage cross-fertilisation and more seed production.  I’ll be honest and admit that I’m not too sure about this sort of “intervention”, if the plant had that big a problem re fertilisation, it would have probably died out years ago, but let’s see what happens before making a final judgement.  The other interesting thing that is happening, good or bad, is the leaf fungi are also being moved around.  Until 
Crested tit with food at nest hole
last year we knew of only one site with the fungus Septoria linnaeae present on the leaves, growing alone, with none of the other two fungi species present.  Via the transplants it now has at least one “leaf-mate” nearby and possibly two, so it will be interesting to see what will happen next.  An unusual thing also happened whilst returning from one of these sites.  On my way in I had heard a crested tit calling, a call which I know from experience, means there is a female nearby.  I stood around and waited but the bird didn’t return.  On my way out I was heading to a pile of decaying Norway spruce trunks and limbs to check for green shield moss capsules when I heard the crestie 
The crestie and green shield moss combination
again.  I looked around and spotted a dead Scots pine which looked like it might be suitable as a nest site, and sure enough, I could see a hole which might be a nest entrance.  However, the bird disappeared and I proceeded to look for moss capsules and just as I spotted seven of them on a well decayed log I heard the crestie again and had just enough time to get my binocs on hole in the dead tree to see the female pop out to be fed by the male.  A combination of events which has to be a UK first!

During the last couple of days of warm sunshine I headed out onto the Dorback Estate to look for a moth associated with bearberry – the small dark yellow underwing (Coranarta cordigera was Anarta cordigera).  I’d noticed on previous visits that the plant was quite abundant and a bonus would be to try and also see the netted mountain moth (Macaria carbonaria).  I had recently (May 2014) seen this moth on Tulloch Moor but had only ever seen the yellow underwing once, in the same area, in May 1988!  The bearberry was getting into full flower and as I walked along the flowers were being visited by the blaeberry bumblebee (Bombus monticola) and also by several green hairstreak 
Blaeberry bumblebee (Bombus monticola)
butterflies.  The bee didn’t like its photo being taken and just wouldn’t settle for more than a few seconds but the butterfly was much more obliging and slowly I was able to move closer to get a picture without disturbing it.  This butterfly is quite amazing, one minute you see it then you don’t, as its wings open and close as it flutters by.  I had been thinking about seeing adders but was twice 
Green hairstreak
caught out as I walked along.  The first one was actually on the track, enjoying the sun, and we probably spotted each other at the same time.  I slowly backed off but did notice the snakes head had popped up.  I tried to disappear behind the heather by the track to try and see the adder a little better and very slowly peeped over the heather, camera at the ready, to get a better view.  Too late, the adder had seen me earlier and had slithered off into the vegetation.  Dammit Janet!  Rucksac back on, I carried on and probably hadn’t gone more than another 400 metres when I suddenly realised there was another one sunning itself on the grass by the track right next to me.  I had a brilliant view, all 
Adder on track
the zig-zags and colours but once again I was spotted, its head was up, it was hissing, and it also slithered off into the vegetation.  I tried to follow, and even though it appeared and disappeared through the heather, still hissing, it never allowed me a photo.  My first cuckoo of the year was heard and at various times there were between 2 and 4 ravens overhead.  As I walked toward Eag Mor there were more blaeberry bumble bees on the bearberry flowers but none of the moths.  At the top of the path I had a good view over Abernethy Forest and then decided to cut across the moor to make my return via a place I can’t remember ever having visited, Eag Bheag, a slightly smaller cut in the hillside than its neighbour.  Quite quickly I picked up the start of a wee burn running back down the 
Duval's thread-moss (Bryum weigelii)
hill and I decided to follow this to see what might turn up along the way.  A very mossy, side flush tempted my over to find the dominant green vegetation was masses of opposite-leaved golden-saxifrage flowers, but with a funny wee pinkish moss also popping up all over the place.  It didn’t ring a bell name-wise so a photo was taken along with a small sample for checking once home.  The mosses and liverwort handbook lead me to Duval's thread-moss (Bryum weigelii) a moss associated with higher altitude burns and flushes.  As the trickle of water from the flush joined the tiny main burn, the leaves of another plant had me racking my brain.  The shape was distinctive and it was growing in damp ground and was possibly a close relative of the plant in the flush.  A little further down the hill and I had the name confirmed as I came across lots more leaves but just a few flowers – alternate-leaved golden-saxifrage, a rarer relative of the one found earlier.  As I photographed the 
Alternate-leaved golden-saxifrage and Entyloma chrysosplenii fungus
plant I realised that there was a white fungus on the leaves so a specimen would have to be taken for checking.  No spores, no name.  As the small burn exited Eag Bheag it ran towards the path I had come in along, and as I descended the hill I was hoping for another adder encounter but was out of luck, but did manage to see my first wheatears of the year.  Back home I scraped a bit of the fungus from the leaf, and under the microscope (x1000) found almost round spores 12-13µ in diameter.  The book told me I had probably found Entyloma chrysosplenii, a fungus with just 10 confirmed records in the UK and classed as Vulnerable in the Red Data List of species (Evans et al. 2006).  Amazingly there was also a link between this species and the yellow star of Bethlehem.  It was described fully in 1994 in the European Smut Fungi guide by none other than K. Vánky!  The specimen is now off to Kew to be checked.

Perhaps the sickest bit of news during April was that the folk in Malta had voted to continue killing massive numbers of migrating birds not for food but for fun, and because they have always done it.  Just to remind everyone this is the year 2015.  Many of our migrating birds are finding life ever more 
Sick, sick, sick
difficult due to changes in land management, climate and habitats in both their wintering and breeding grounds and the last thing they need is also to be killed as they move between the two.  So important was this vote to try and get this slaughter stopped one of this year’s osprey staff who lives in Malta, travelled all the way home to vote.  Do you plan a holiday in Malta?  Well, don’t go and tell the Prime Minister (who voted to continue the slaughter) why.

On a slightly happier note our “fir-candle” research progressed a little further during the month when Ron and myself went to meet staff at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore.  In the store room we were shown several different metal holders for the candles, all very similar to the one I made for 
Several fir-candle holders - my wooden one was just about right
the photograph in the last blog.  Most were of the type that would have been stuck into the black-house walls but there was also one attached to the top of a large wooden stand so that the user would have been able to have light from the candles wherever they wanted to sit.  We also found out that someone else had recently visited the Museum to look at the very same holders as they prepared a 
Fir-candle "holders" Highland Folk Museum
paper on fir-candles and their use for the Woodland Trust.  Funny isn’t it.  A couple of months ago I had never heard about fir-candles and now they seem to be flavour of the month.  The paper is quite helpful in bringing together more written information from several authors about the history of the candles, a little dating from the time of their use.  There may be more yet to come on this interesting topic.

Enough. That’s it for another month, enjoy the read
Stewart and Janet

Waterloo Cairn
Bench Marks Database
Yellow star of Bethlehem fungus background
Kew Lost & Found Fungi Project
Small Dark Yellow Underwing information
Dammit Janet!
Malta bird slaughter
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

Heather shieldbug (Rhacognathus punctatus)
A bit more "Boris" (now MP) art
Oystercatcher on fence-post - with ring

Photos © Stewart Taylor