Monday, 20 July 2015

At last, a meeting with Hammerschmidtia ferruginea, the highlight of the month

An email at the start of June asked if I would like to visit some more aspen mapping sites because a few of them had still to be visited mainly due to commitments not being honoured.  And so, three days were spent checking out the red dots on the last few aspen ground truthing maps, ensuring that the next phase of the project could be started.  This, I hoped, would see key bodies and organisations getting together to identify important stands of trees to ensure their future by getting new trees established on the sites mainly by natural regeneration.  Planting could also be considered to create new stands possibly linking some of the existing important stands.  This will not be easy and will probably require money being made available to cover the cost of a rolling programme of protecting groups of trees from grazing pressures over possibly a couple of decades.  The need is also urgent in many of the stands (I have to call them stands because few can, currently, be called woods) because the current trees are ancient and in most of the stands that I visited to map, there are no new trees becoming established.  This doesn’t just apply to aspens, few woods locally have any semblance of new saplings becoming established.  All the locations were close to Grantown on Spey and most introduced me to stands of aspens that I didn’t know about providing a few additional records of lungwort lichen and a few plants and mosses.  Five days later the completed maps were returned to 
Puccinia festucae on honeysuckle leaf
project co-ordinator Andy, and I will need to guarantee we move on to a positive next step following the massive effort that went into site visits, to ensure the future of our aspens and the important flora and fauna they support.  Visiting one site, I came across some well-established honeysuckle and ever since my work with the wee black fungi growing on twinflower (Linnaea borealis) leaves, I have been aware that a relative of one of the fungi lives on honeysuckle leaves, so most bushes get a cursory glance whilst passing.  This particular bush did have something growing on its leaves, but the colour was yellow rather than black but worth taking home to check anyway.  This turned out to be Puccinia festucae with about 50 records in UK (FRDBI).  A little further on though, something dark 
Kabatia periclymeni on honeysuckle leaf
on several leaves caught my eye: pale brown patches with black spots in the pale area, could this be the fungus I’d been looking for?  Again, a sample went home with me but, a little disappointingly, turned out to be Kabatia periclymeni.  Not sure why I was disappointed as there are only 23 records currently in the above database.  More of the yellow one turned up in the Firwood garden and within days, Murdo (HBRG) had found the dark one in his garden!  Obviously, we are back in the area of few folk looking and probably both species much under-recorded.  Roll on to the end of June and 
Fiddleneck (Amsinckia micrantha
Janet and myself paid a visit to Howford Bridge near Nairn and after bacon butties, cake and coffee at the plant nursery, we walked along the path back to Howford Bridge.  A plant by the road had us scratching our heads but with the help of expert Andy we arrived at the amazing name of ‘fiddleneck’ (Amsinckia micrantha), so called because the curl of the stem bearing the flowers resembles a fiddle.  The path narrowed as it climbed over a rocky knoll and I noticed a honeysuckle bush and this time the 
Lasiobotrys lonicera on honeysuckle leaf
leaf spots were black, and pimply and probably the fungus I had been looking for.  Sure enough, it turned out to be Lasiobotrys lonicera the one that Martyn at Kew had said to look out for.  Potentially, this is a rarer fungus than the other two with just eight UK records and currently classed as Vulnerable / D2 (Red Data List, Evans et al. 2006).  June though is a bit early for the fungus to be ‘mature’ and I will have to wait until late July or August for a return visit to collect another specimen to see the spores.  Four of the current records are from Scotland.  The current specimen has disappeared off to the Kew collection.  Thank you honeysuckle.

Early in June I attended another farewell gathering at Forest Lodge (RSPB Abernethy) to join with about 40 other friends and colleagues to say thanks and best wishes for the future to Richard Thaxton as he departs from the Society to pursue other challenges.  Richard was one of my winter contract wardens in the early years of the fledgling Abernethy Forest NNR (the smaller Loch Garten Reserve) 
and for about the last fifteen years has been the mainstay at the Osprey Centre and Manager of the Loch Garten section.  The gathering was attended by several other RSPB (now) staff members who spent time as the summer Osprey Centre Warden along with staff from the wider sections of the Society.  I must be getting old and bailed out at about 10.30pm leaving the rest to party on until the early hours! Richard was a hugely faithful and conscientious work colleague who will be sadly missed by staff, Osprey Volunteers and visitors alike.

Now, what about that unpronounceable name in the blog title?  Hammerschmidtia ferruginea thankfully, condenses down to the aspen hoverfly, one of the rarer species dependant on aspen trees.  Not young trees, not old trees, but those trees that have reached the end of their lives and fallen over.  It is a saproxylic hoverfly, an insect that depends on mainly fallen deadwood for part of its lifecycle.  This means that aspens which fall over whether due to old age or via gales or heavy snow, need to be 
Aspen hoverfly (Hammerschmidtia ferruginea)
left in-situ to help maintain the habitat required by the hoverfly.  When the aspen falls over the decay process starts and during the four or five years after the tree falls the action of fungi and bacteria working away under the bark, creates a sort of sticky ‘soup’ and it is into this habitat/environment that the adult females lay their eggs.  The eggs hatch, and the larvae live in this ‘soup’ for one to two years before emerging as adults to go through the mating and egg laying process once again.  I have visited, casually, many fallen aspens during the flight period (mid-June to mid-July), looking for the hoverfly but without luck.  Photos had been sent to the experts (mainly Ellie Rotheray – see the Research Project report at the end of the blog) over the years to check whether I had seen the hoverfly but all with negative replies.  However, this year, Ellie’s dad Graham, one of the UKs top diptera experts, had been visiting the aspen hoverfly woods and reported a lot of larvae in one ancient tree 
that had fallen a couple of years ago.  This tree also happened to be one of the important pinhead lichen trees, so was well known to me.  Knowing a tree with hoverflies due to emerge is very helpful and after local expert Hayley let me know she had seen the first ones (I’d made two unsuccessful earlier visits), I popped in the next day, late in the afternoon, to see my first aspen hoverfly.  Male hoverflies protect small areas of the log for their females (territories) and the females wander about the bark on the log checking for small openings through which to access the ‘soup’ with their eggs.  On my visit I photographed flies just wandering about and others which were obvious females, 
dipping their ovipositors (egg-laying tube) into the holes in the bark to lay their eggs.  Provided I didn’t move too quickly the hoverflies accepted my presence and just carried on with business as usual.  It was only as I left, both cards in my camera full (738 photos in raw and basic!) that I remembered my camera was also capable of taking video so next day, with the sun shining, I returned to the log and spent an hour and a half videoing the females egg laying (sadly, not worth viewing full screen).  A real honour to catch up with the hoverfly at last and to watch, at close quarters, the females depositing their eggs   A rare hoverfly requiring a rare habitat, hopefully the end product of the recent mapping project will help it well into the future.

June is also the month when orchids come to the fore, with the annual count of the Flowerfield field undertaken near the end of the month.  However, checking whilst driving past, and in conversation with the owners of the field, Jane and Jeremy, it was looking like the flowers were going to be late 
One of the affected lesser butterfly orchids
this year.  Overall, June in this part of the world has been cold, not too wet, but with winds that continually blew from a northerly direction.  Even on sunny days the wind remained cool and on days of sunshine and clear skies, night-time temperatures dipped very low, so low that on the morning of 15th the garden thermometer read -0.50C ensuring there would have been a ground frost.  This was apparent when I visited Jane and Jeremy, and a walk around part of the field showed stunted lesser 
butterfly orchids, many with brown flowers (wind?) and some brown and bent over, probably as a result of the frost.  With such affects it was decided to delay the count until the first week of July at the earliest.  Other flowers though were counted.  The twayblades by the Nethybridge gun-club shooting grounds again produced five lots of leaves but no flowers, but a wee marker was installed to 
Lesser twayblade
show their location for the shoot on the last Sunday of the month.  Near where the aspen hoverfly was photographed is another twayblade site (a rare plant around here) the plants first being found during an aspen hoverfly training day several years ago.  A count on 18th found 81 plants with about half with flower spikes.  A count was also made of its smaller cousin, lesser twayblade at a regular site near Loch Garten where about 200 flowers were seen.

The second visit was made to the potential Osmia inermis site near Blair Atholl to install the second set of fifty ceramic plant pot saucers with five saucers being installed at ten locations across the potential site.  A small red/pink plant at the first location had us scratching our heads until Murdo shouted “rue-leaved saxifrage” a plant I should have remembered from our Yorkshire holiday.  Green spleenwort fern was one I was hoping to see and it was found in a few sites on the limestone and a 
Green spleenwort (Asplenium viride)
hovering moth visiting bird’s-foot trefoil flowers was a fast-flying humming-bird hawk-moth.  There were lots of the small purple Pyrausta ostrinalis micro-moths and the limestone had a good population of the trefoil coming into flower – hopefully a sign that all could be well for the wee bee.  Three times one of the team shouted “small bee” raising the possibility that the Osmia was present but none could be caught to check despite lots of running around.  It was a warm, sunny day, one of the bees requirements, so it was fingers crossed.  By mid-afternoon all the saucers had been installed and we made our way back down the hill to the car.  The warm weather was due to last for a few 
The Osmia site
more days and, inspired by the possibility of the Osmia bee being on the wing, I arranged to make a return trip a few days later.  The aim would be to just wander slowly across the site checking patches of b-f trefoil and standing and waiting by the plant to see what turned up.  The humming-bird hawk-moth was still whizzing around and a few plants were listed as I wandered.  Hairy rockcress (Arabis hirsuta) was a nice find along with young quaking grass plants, more rue-leaved saxifrage, and the ferns wall rue and maidenhair spleenwort.  A large day-flying moth kept whizzing by and I had to 
Northern oak eggar
guess initially at northern oak eggar and as the breeze got stronger I was able to confirm by finding one resting on the rocks.  Having arrived on site at about 10am, I had the best part of the day for bee activity but with a strengthening wind turning things a bit cooler I was giving up hope by 3pm.  Momentarily a small bee landed close by and as it moved to another flower I could see a characteristic orange “bum” and more in hope than anything else, I landed my butterfly net on the spot where I had seen it land.  Quite often wee bees disappear down into the vegetation when you do this but this bee was quite obliging and flew up into the top of the net where, very carefully, I managed to get it into my small plastic pot.  It looked like the Osmia if possibly a little bigger and, not wanting to collect for checking by Murdo I got my camera ready and very carefully removed the 
Almost but probably Andrena lapponica
pot lid whilst at the same time covering the top of the pot with my camera lens.  Round and round went the bee but always resting out of view of the macro-lens but eventually it obliged and I managed to get a couple of reasonable photos for the experts to see.  The bee was then released and it was fingers crossed time.  Murdo’s email came straight to the point “your bee isn’t Osmia but probably Andrena lapponica”!  Is this the bee we saw when installing the saucers?  If the weather warms up I might be tempted to make another visit if only to see what butterflies might be at the site but if I don’t make it we will have to wait until the autumn when the saucers will be checked for any Osmia larval cells.  20 years and still searching!

However, 108 years on and we can claim one success.  This find links to something that appeared in the blog in November 2014 when I visited a path near Cairngorm to try and find patches of bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum).  A list which had appeared on the new Lost and Found Project website produced by Kew had mentioned that a fungus, Sporomega degenerans, had been recorded just once in the UK on this mainly montane plant in 1907 in Perthshire.  My visit in 2014 did find the 
Bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum)
plant and there was something very like the fungus on some of the dead twigs but, being so late in the year the spores had all dispersed or, a parasite had got into the fungus and destroyed them.  Information from 1907 was scarce so there wasn’t a full date of when found so I made an assumption that if the fungus was “past it” by October, it must produce new fruiting bodies and spores fairly early in the year.  A French website (AscoFrance) also suggested that June would be a good month to look.  So, mid-month I made a return trip to my bog bilberry plants on the lower slopes of Cairngorm in the hope that something new might have developed.  It started to rain as I set off up the path but 
Dead Vaccinium stems, Sporomega degenerans (black spots) &
grey 'blobs' of parasite left end of twig
that was to my advantage in that the elliptical slit comprising the fungus (apothecia) would be “open” making the grey spore bearing mass inside (hymenium) more visible.  Last year the fungus was found on dead twigs still attached to live twigs on the plants visited, but, being fairly early in the season for this montane plants the leaves were only just starting to appear making the plant much more difficult to locate.  One plant though was quite well established when found in 2014 and it was to this one that I headed first.  Parting the live twigs I could see that several dead looking twigs appeared to be quite red and on some of these I could see 1mm long black edged slits identifying what I was hoping would be the fungus.  A few photos were taken whilst dodging the rain and whilst taking these I could see some pale-grey coloured “blobs” also on the twigs.  Time to get home and visit the microscope.  
Sporomega degenerans &
grey spore mass
Under the microscope everything looked right when compared to the AscoFrance website and it looked like the fungus had been found once again.  The one thing I couldn’t find was the grey blobs visible in my photograph a bit of a mystery until my specimens arrived at Kew.  Brian and Paul where quite happy that we had the right fungus – Sporomega degenerans – and Brian went one step further by finding that many of the fungal fruiting bodies had been parasitised by another fungus!  When he wet an infected fungus out popped a blob of greyish jelly, the parasite.  The parasite has yet to be fully named so one for the future.  Would the Sporomega fungus be fairly common?  A few 
Sporomega degenerans asci & 'curly' spore
days later I wandered out towards the Chalamain Gap, an area that had produced other good records of species associated with bog bilberry.  Nearly all good clumps of the plant had dead twigs, reddish in colour, and with populations of the fungus.  Something similar happen when visiting the plant on the moors in Abernethy Forest NNR so it looks like it could be in most places where the plant occurs.  Paul from Kew is in Shetland as I type so it will be interesting to hear if it turns up there.  The trip to the Chalamain Gap area also saw me making the first recording trip for a new round of BSBI tetrad surveys (2 x 2km squares) but more about that next month.

All around the place we are seeing juvenile birds from this breeding season, a good result considering the cold weather.  The garden has had two broods of robins, a brood of dunnocks, families of house sparrows on the feeders and the tail-less female blackbird appeared with her family of youngsters 
Tail-less blackbird & young
demanding food.  Swallows locally still seem to be feeding young as do the house martins under the eaves of the house at the end of the road.  My random BTO house martin recording square near Grantown was visited mid-month and initially looks like the only suitable buildings will have a few occupied nests, to be confirmed by the July visit.  The mornings are getting quieter with just the odd 
House sparrow feeding young
snippet of blackbird song although there is more of a noise if the pine martens visit the squirrel feeders.  A new plant for the Caigngorms National Park (CNP) turned up in the new village pond – water plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica) – perhaps a by-product of the disturbance of creating the pond or possibly introduced?  Another plant I’d not seen before came via a find by local Recorder 
Water plantain 
Andy – goldilocks – a member of the buttercup family.  It was growing in slightly lime-rich ground up near the TV mast on Laggan Hill, an area with quite a few old lime quarries.  Without being warned it was a plant I would have missed, probably dismissing as just another buttercup, but once found the leaves are quite different, hopefully a feature that will remain in my head in case I 
Goldilocks (Ranunculus auricomus)
encounter any more.  A bonus was several plants of wood cranesbill and the giveaway red and white tops of alpine bistort, the red bits being bulbils and the white tops the flowers.  Sadly, we have also had the 2015 summer solstice and currently we are losing four minutes of daylight per day.  Roll on summer!

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

Fungal Records Database of Britain and Ireland (FRDBI)
Aspen Hoverfly Research Project
Description of a saproxylic insect species
Dr Graham Rotheray
Osmia inermis
Sporomega degenerans fungus
BSBI – Botanical Society of the British Isles
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

Janet's brilliant bee-rich garden

"You looking at me!"

"Where have all the waders, flowers and bees gone?"
Nethybridge, Cairngorms, 1st June 2015
Photos © Stewart Taylor