Sunday, 28 June 2015

Avocets, Cowslips galore but topped by a graceful lichen

Northerly winds, -20C and more snow on the high-tops on 28th sums up the weather for the month up north, but warmer days, masses of flowers, good birds and beer in real pubs down south, hints at the Taylors off on holiday.  A month of two halves.

My fun with the fungus growing on leaves of alternate-leaved golden saxifrage in April, led me to re-visiting a wood near Grantown on Spey where I knew the plant was pretty abundant, it didn’t disappoint.  Masses of flowers, more of the white leaf fungus on the saxifrage as mentioned in last 
Alternate-leaved golden saxifrage
months blog (Entyloma chrysosplenii) but a second one also turned up, a brown job this time called Puccinia chrysosplenii, with more UK records than the former but with few records in Highland Region.  A newly arrived blackcap was nice to see and hear and, with lots of standing dead trees (elms) great spotted woodpeckers and jackdaws were both nesting, the latter in a hole in a tree lying on the ground – another first!  This is the wood that appeared in my blog in May 2014, a hugely important woodland made up of ancient aspens, hazels and elms, several of which are still alive.  A 
Puccinia chrysosplenii
year ago I poked my nose into a hole in amongst the roots of one of the ancient elms and spotted a small pinhead lichen that got me quite excited, justly so, because it turned out to be Chaenotheca gracilenta and was just the 7th UK record.  Being in amongst the elms again I just couldn’t help myself, and checked out the gaps in amongst the elm roots once again.  The woodland is established on quite steep slopes creating a situation where the elm roots have had to spread down the slope and outwards to give the trees stability.  Because of that, there were many nooks and crannies to search, 
Chaenotheca gracilenta lichen - really was just as photographed
and bingo, another population of the pinhead was found.  Inspired, there was more searching and at the end of a couple of visits five new populations of the lichen had been found, this wood alone had, therefore, doubled the known population of this rare pinhead.  With a little bit of ingenuity I also managed to obtain photos (not all good) of the lichen in their holes and the host tree for future monitoring purposes.  Sadly, with so many of the ancient elms dead or dying, the lichen probably has 
A typical elm site for the lichen
a limited life at this location.  Seeing the saxifrages again reminded me about my Dorback visits a week earlier where I had great success with adders but not with small day-flying moths.  After we had said cheerio to Colin and Jackie our chalet guests and the day progressed to sunshine and warmth, I headed back up the track towards Eag Mor in the hope that either netted mountain or small dark-yellow underwing moths might still be on the wing in the areas of plentiful bearberry plants.  
The strainer support
Despite walking with great care and with camera at the ready, no adders were encountered but seeing a couple of green hairstreak butterflies gave me hope for moths.  An update a few days earlier from local moth expert Mike informed me that he was still finding the yellow underwing moth, the last ones mating whilst resting on a fence post.  Little did I know what a great bit of information that would turn out to be.  The sun was coming and going so conditions were not ideal and as I approached the deer fence gate, I carefully checked all the posts and gate woodwork.  A small bee was found and photographed but without the actual specimen (I wasn’t happy to collect) I wasn’t able to get a name.  A northern (oak) eggar moth went whizzing by, probably a male looking for a mate, 
Small dark-yellow underwing (Coranarta cordigera)
© Pekka Malien
and when I progressed through the fence and was closing the gate, I noticed a small black and grey moth resting on the strainer-post support.  I had it, well nearly so, because as I got my camera out to get a photo the yellow underwing was off, and despite lots of searching, I was unable to re-locate.  I walked about a kilometre of deer fence checking each fence post I passed but without any further sightings.  However, it was good to catch up with this early season, day-flying moth after 27 years and I look forward to trying again next year.

The next day I did the first lawn mowing of the year, voted in the General Election, and made a recce visit to my random recording site for the BTO’s 2015 house martin survey.  The next day the lawn looked brilliant, the flag-waving Nationalists were marching to Parliament and the paperwork was sorted for the martin survey.  The holiday visit to North Yorkshire a couple of days later was so well 
Swallows at Hawes
timed allowing time for thought, alternate life-styles and a link to a media not dominated by all things blue and white.  And so, with bags packed, we headed south to Masham, home to the Theakston and Black Sheep breweries and in the midst of or very near to many great sites for plants, birds, ancient monuments and famous gardens.  Having got the motorway part of the journey out of the way we stopped off for a wander in the village of Hawes and saw dippers disappearing through a waterfall to 
their nest, swallows twittering away around nest sites and stared in amazement at the yellowness of the road-verges covered in dandelions and hedges white with massed ranks of jack-by-the-hedge or garlic mustard flowers.  Everything was way ahead growth-wise, of things back home so everything looked good for our first early summer holiday for as long as we can remember.  We arrived at the house at 5pm, unpacked, and walked round to the King’s Head for a meal, a G & T and a pint of Black Sheep bitter.  Brilliant!

A lucky search on the internet the first evening found a nearby wildflower meadow called Leyburn Old Glebe Nature Reserve owned by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, and, being just a few miles away we thought it would make a good outing for the next day.  It did not disappoint.  This meadow, once owned by the local church, had survived the march of ploughing, sowing and fertilising on adjacent farmland, and had been allowed to grow on, naturally, producing a brilliant display of wildflowers 
Leyburn Old Glebe Nature Reserve & flowers
every summer.  Traditional management would require a crop of hay to be taken later in the summer.  From top to bottom the field was covered in cowslips and one of the early orchids, which, thankfully, had been identified by a group of folk leaving the field just as we arrived – green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio).  Salad burnet was everywhere and there was a fine show of bluebell under the hedge along the edge of the field along with patches of ramsons, a plant we would see and smell a lot more of.  Lunch was eaten sitting by the River Ure, surrounded by more cowslips, many of which seemed to have been felled, possibly by rabbits or slugs, a singing blackcap and whitethroat and 7 
Cowslip lunch
spot ladybirds.  The afternoon saw us visiting another species rich area called Leyburn Shawl, a limestone outcrop running west for a couple of miles from Leyburn village.  On top of the wall by the path was lots of rue-leaved saxifrage and moschatel in places along the route.  A patch of nettles had more 7-spot and several black and yellow 14-spot ladybirds, a new one for me.  Shining cranesbill and hoary whitlow grass were also nice finds.  The evening saw Janet dragging me out for more pub beer!

I’ll just cover a few of our notable outings.  The National Trust’s Fountains Abbey wasn’t too far from where we were staying and that’s where we headed, for a day out.  A very impressive site and set up, spoilt a little by too much grass cutting and tidiness.  The ruins though are pretty amazing and we made it a day out by wandering the site to see the abbey and other buildings/ruins and the 
woodlands.  Having walked through the old abbey we climbed up a wee bank to get on to a track we wanted to follow.  A wall running along the edge of the track had masses of hart’s tongue fern growing from it, with lots of new young fronds and many from the previous year.  Janet had wandered on a little ahead but had stopped to allow me to catch up, but with a look of expectation on her face.  And then I saw them, several flower spikes of the parasitic toothwort, last seen on a visit to Dingwall a year earlier.  In all we counted 18 flower spikes, with some a bit past their best.  The most amazing sight though was the massed ranks of bluebells and ramsons, covering vast areas of the 
forest floor.  We walked the main track towards the lakes where the iconic photos of the abbey are mostly taken from before exiting the abbey grounds and into the Studley Park part of the Trust ownership.  Very impressive ancient sweet chestnut trees were scattered across the open fields that led upwards to the Obelisk and St. Mary’s Church which sadly had just closed for the day, because the photos of the main windows looked amazing.  Through a gate, onto a footpath by the road and we were back at the car park having, unusual for me, spent a whole day at a National Trust property.  The next day Janet wanted to have a good look around the shops in Leyburn for a morning so I was dropped off for another visit to Leyburn Shawl to have a good look at the woods below the small 
Ramsons galore
limestone cliffs to see if it was possible to re-locate a site from several years ago (1999) where toothwort plants had been found.  The location for the find was so vague (10km square scale) that the search was a bit of a long shot but worth a go.  Not wanting to miss bits of wood I hopped over a fence just where the woodland began and entering an amazing world of trees, ramsons and bluebells and the odd cuckoo-pint flower some of which had managed to grow without the brown/purple central ‘spadix’ having been nibbled off by predator unknown.  However, the wood was so 
dominated by ramsons that for the first half-hour there were no records taken apart from the odd fungus on bluebell or wood anemone leaves.  Eventually a path was reached and, in places, suitable habitat for the toothwort started to appear.  Something caught my eye below a hawthorn bush where a group of twenty-one of the plants were found growing close to elms, one of the tree species the plant is thought to parasitise.  Amazingly I was back in to Leyburn for the agreed rendezvous time but with a pair of wellies in the back of the car stinking heavily of onions!

All around the house we were staying in were table mats with the words “Woodland Trust Hack Fall” printed on them, and the OS map showed that this woodland was just a few miles down the road.  Internet information show it to be a place worth visiting, an ancient broadleaved woodland with a strange mixture of follies scattered round the walks.  Lots of blackcaps, willow warblers and a dipper 
Pendulous sedge
(Carex pendula)
by the River Ure, and a mystery pigeon like call turned out to be a turtle dove, a bird not knowingly seen by either of us previously.  The path-sides were over-hung with lots of pendulous sedge plants and two other sedges that took a little while to identify were wood sedge (Carex sylvatica) and thin-spiked wood sedge (Carex strigose) both plants of richer calcareous soils.  More toothwort plants 
Wood sedge top & spiked wood sedge bottom
were found and one re-find had a particularly nice link, alternate-leaved golden saxifrage, having been found previously in these woods by the late Dr Frances Rose, one of the finest botanists of his generation.  Sanicle was also regularly seen, a plant not often seen in our part of the world.  An afternoon visit to the Nosterfield Local Nature Reserve proved to be quite a highlight of our holiday.  
Avocets - okay, they're a long way off, but who cares!
In one part of the reserve, which is made up of flooded ex-gravel extraction sites, we saw several great crested grebes but on the other side of the road the pools proved to have a few more of the seldom seen birds from the Highlands.  Shelduck with young, 10’s of swifts and other hirundines, a pair of gadwall (not sure when last seen), a distant green woodpecker and then, in the distance on one of the shallower pools, a pair of avocets.  The G&T and pint of Theakstons tasted even better that evening. 

Janet’s query about whether I would like to go to Harlow Carr had me scratching my head until she said it was an amazing mix of gardens run by the Royal Horticultural Society and was only about 40 miles away.  In for a penny….and off we went.  We arrived at the gardens about 11 am and were both slightly worried when we realised that several car parks were full and we were heading for the third, 
very large car park which was also filling up fast.  In we went and were both quite surprised to find that there weren’t that many people visible and, because of the size of the place and garden layout, visitors were sort of absorbed into the place and it was only near to loos or tea-rooms that lots of people gathered.  The alpine house had an amazing mix of plants as did the various “themed” areas with Janet overloading my brain with lots of Latin names of beautiful and colourful plants a little alien to me.  Orange tip and green-veined white butterflies were enjoying the sun and flowers and though there were bees on the wing not too many were seen.  We found a nice seat by one of the tracks for lunch and the wee brown rust was seen on bluebell leaves and Janet asked what the purple plant was just visible under a nearby yew.  It was a bit like the common lousewort flower but was all 
Purple toothwort (Lathraea clandestina)
purple and all I could think it might be was purple toothwort, a parasitic cousin of the toothwort found earlier but this one is parasitic on alder, willow or poplars.  We were close to a small stream with alder present and probably willow also.  Purple toothwort is an introduced plant but one that has become naturalised in some areas.  Being in Harlow Carr this could have been planted or, seeing its location, possibly a naturalised plant.  A little further round our walk into the wildflower woodland near the bird hide, more was found, in a much more open woodland situation but damp and with alders present.

Grassington is always worthy of a visit and though the day was a bit damp we headed over the tops to have a wander through the village and then drive out to Grass Wood for an afternoon walk.  No lady’s slipper orchids but “real” lily of the valley, betony and a singing pied flycatcher, our first.  On 
our drive between Kettlewell and Grassington we spotted a field full of orchids just above the road which we thought must be a local nature reserve, but no link was found.  Once again masses of cowslips but this time growing with early purple orchids.  The day turned very chilly and we noticed snow forecast for the mountains in Scotland!  On our outings around Leyburn we noticed a very 
The amazing orchid field
impressive rocky outcrop near a place called Redmire, with what looked like brilliant wee roads criss-crossing the fells, a must for a day out.  The map did warn us about “Danger Area” and “Rifle Range” in red letters, and as we drove towards the rock outcrop we realised we were on the edge of the training ground for soldiers from the Catterick Barracks.  What we didn’t expect were signs warning us of “Tanks” and “Tank turning circle”!  Sadly our paths didn’t cross and the rock outcrop was a big disappointment as most of the land hidden behind it turned out to yet another massive limestone quarry.  Lunch was taken overlooking the quarry as we took shelter and lunch under our 
umbrellas as the heavens opened.  It was also very cold, with black skies all around.  Nearby Castle Bolton didn’t look too inviting so we drove on towards Aysgarth when we passed an area of mining and spoil-heaps and Janet said there were signs indicating some sort of reserve.  We had stumbled on Ballowfields Local Nature Reserve and the sign informed us that previously the site had been a lead mine and that the old spoil heaps were now very important for metal-tolerant plants (known as metallophytes).  On warm days the information board told us that a good range of butterflies might be seen.  Janet immediately spotted large cushions of thrift growing (one of the metallophytes) and in the distance a large scurvygrass could be seen and this, the board informed us was Pyrenean scurvygrass and that the tiny, white spring sandwort was also present.  As we donned our wellies to have a wander, the sky blackened even more, and Janet took the sensible option and decided to stay 
Spring sandwort (Minuartia verna)
in the car.  I was keen to see the plants a little better so set off to see if it was the sandwort growing season.  The thrift and scurvygrass were by the stream close to the carpark, but I guessed that the sandwort would most likely be growing on the spoil-heaps across the stream.  Bang-on, and the tiny white flowers were found almost immediately, just as the rain started to fall.  Just time for a quick photo before the rain got heavier and just enough time to get out the umbrella before rain turned to hail and within minutes everything was covered in the white stuff.  I pottered around under my umbrella checking out the ancient hazels for lichens and the woodland for more plants until the hail stopped.  On my way back to the car I re-visited the sandworts just to see how they had fared and the flower-heads were just visible above the white balls of hail!

The next day was our last in Yorkshire and we set off with intentions of walking along the River Cover for a cuppa at Jervaulx Abbey.  Orchids and other plants slowed our progress and when Janet spotted a kingfisher, giving her a lead of 3-2 in sightings, we ground to a halt for a while.  The cuppa went by the board and we had lunch overlooking a wee lake with blackcaps and sedge warblers singing, coots feeding young and our only contact with a garden warbler.  A mute swan came 
steaming down the lake towards us, followed by its mate with 8 cygnets in tow and all seemed oblivious to the pair of us watching them from a few yards away.  On the way back Janet shouted “come and look at these” and I dashed over to find two, brightly coloured “bugs” resting on a meadowsweet leaf.  They turned out to be the UKs biggest frog-hopper (Cercopis vulnerator) and something we hadn’t seen before.  On the way back to the car Janet spotted a hybrid 
Cercopis vulnerator
cowslip/primrose (Primula x polyantha) known as a false oxlip, onion-type plants were field garlic (Allium oleraceum) and 17 twayblade plants, amazingly, seem to be new to that location despite records for the rare burnt-tip orchid having been made nearby.  We dodged more showers and a thunder-storm to get to the White Bear (highly recommended) for a meal and last pint of Theakstons before heading over the border next day to Lancashire to visit Janet’s mum for a few days before heading back north.

We arrived home on 24th and plans had been made earlier for a visit with Murdo and others to Blair Atholl the next day!  This visit was aimed at follow up work to try and establish whether the rare Osmia inermis mason bee still occurred at the last two sites where it had been recorded 10-15 years ago.  Myself and Murdo did similar work with this bee in 2011 where natural rock “nest” sites were created but without any success.  Similar nest sites, where the bee creates a nest cell under the rocks, 
The "wee bee" team
had been erected on the site in 2007, and cells had been created by a bee, giving some clues that it was still around, but sadly this wasn’t repeated in 2011.  This time we were going to re-visit the 2011 site, plus another one a few miles away where again breeding cells had been found in the past.  On this occasion, the nest “sites” would be terracotta plant-pot saucers, turned upside-down, and slightly embedded into the soil/vegetation, but with the majority of the bottom of the saucer (i.e. upper-most surface) accessible to sunlight.  These saucer nest sites have been used successfully in Canada by this bee as an aid to fertilise commercial blueberry crops (Vaccinium angustifolium) as well as to ensure conservation of bee populations.  And so, at 8am on the Monday morning we headed off back down 
Hopefully, a bee nesting site
the A9 to Blair Atholl to install 50 of these saucers at the first of the two sites.  On site, the five of us started to install the saucers, in groups of five, across the birds-foot trefoil rich moor, this plant known to be one of the main food plants for the bee.  The ten sites were completed by 12.30 and we then drove to a farm close to the second with the aim of seeing how suitable it would be for accepting the saucers.  This site is on moorland but the trefoil-rich areas occur on outcrops of limestone, quite a way up a moderate hill.  To human eyes, it looked a much better location than the first for the bee, and despite there being limited numbers of flat rocks lying on the ground, there was a stone wall and many nooks and crannies in the limestone rock itself.  As we walked about the outcrop we were regularly aware of a small, purple-coloured moth flitting about.  Eventually we caught up with one 
Pyrausta ostrinalis
but weren’t able to get a good photo which is probably just as well because a bell was ringing in my head about this being a Pyrausta micro-moth and a specimen would be needed to tell two very similar species apart, so one accompanied us as we made our way back north.  The site looked so good that we were all looking forward to making a second visit once the rest of the saucers arrived.  Back home I contacted moth expert Mike about the moth and he gave me the information that it was the under-wing of the moth that would need to be checked to confirm the ID.  So, for the first time in about 20 years, I got out my setting boards, pinning out the moth to allow the under-wings to be checked carefully.  Mike’s guidance was that in Pyrausta purpuralis a white line on the under-side of the forewing stops before it reaches the edge of the wing (Costa) but in P. ostrinalis it goes all the way.  We had found Pyrausta ostrinalis, in numbers, and from a new site.

And one wee bit of local good news to end with.  The Nethybridge pond and birchwood walks are getting better as the woodland recovers from management two years ago.  The gales of the last couple of winters have toppled a few of the spruces that were left at the time of thinning and last year the local school children helped Ross from RSPB to install several nest-boxes.  These ranged in size from the usual blue and great tit boxes, a few open-fronted ones and a few of the larger owl/goldeneye 
Goldeneye female & family
ones.  Nipping down to the village one evening late in May to deliver the last of my aspen maps I spotted something moving on the pond and was amazed to see a female goldeneye with nine recently fledged chicks.  Wow!  I ran, sort of, back to the house for the camera and big lens and dashed back to the pond to take a few photos thinking the whole family would disappear off down the Duack Burn by morning.  But no.  The family stayed around for three whole days before the female started to disappear no doubt trying to entice the chicks down to the River Spey.  She would have been 
Long-tailed tit family near goldeneye pool
incubating the eggs for about 30 days with brief breaks to get a bit of food.  Once out of the box, with her chicks, she would have been desperate for food which she would normally dive for and the pond just wasn’t deep enough for her to do that.  So, despite the chicks looking very relaxed and feeding well from insects on the pond vegetation, she would have liked to have moved them on quite quickly after jumping from the box.  We wish mum and chicks all the best – wherever they are.

That’s it for another month, sorry about the delay, bees, fungi and plants got in the way! Enjoy the read.
Stewart and Janet

Leyburn Old Glebe Nature Reserve
Nosterfield Local Nature Reserve
Harlow Carr RHS
Ballowfields LNR
The White Bear Hotel
Osmia inermis
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

Family outing to Longridge
Memories of Tour de France 2014
The amazing Yorkshire countryside
Just blame Grandad!
Photos © Stewart Taylor