Monday, 31 August 2015

Staring at a hole in a tree takes over the end of the month!

As I type, the big Strathspey upheaval has started – dualling the A9 road between Perth and Inverness, with the first section right on our doorstep just south of Aviemore.  Of course, some sections have already been upgraded to four lanes but this project will link all of them together.  Ahead of the work starting, lots of miles were walked (I have to assume) by surveyors to carry out a rapid survey of habitats called a Phase 1 Habitat Survey, trying to identify areas of importance for biodiversity along all the section to be worked on over the project’s ten year life.  Having a little knowledge of biodiversity rich sites locally, Hayley from the Cairngorms National Park asked if I would look at the maps created by the Phase 1 surveyors, and add anything of importance that I was aware of in areas to be converted from woodland and farmland to tarmac.  It sounds simple but what arrived were a couple of hundred maps accompanied by pages of ‘target notes’ giving basic information on areas that ‘might’ be important for biodiversity.  In between testing my brain for things I might have seen in the construction corridor and checking my MapMate database I 
Aspen with catkins
eventually managed to get something back to Hayley just before the comments deadline.  Phew!  The Park and Scottish Government have not been too good in looking after our biodiverse rich areas to date so whether anything will come of my efforts (and others asked to similarly help) only time will tell.  As a minimum, areas highlighted as important need to be surveyed properly, by experts, and wherever possible adjust the route a little to minimise losses.  It’s okay saying that “we will replant with birches, aspens etc” but it isn’t possible to replace hundreds of years of natural development with new trees.  The Phase 1 Survey surveyors were also of varying reporting standards which was a little surprising considering the importance of some habitats along the route.  Target notes for the section up to Dalwhinnie were quite good and identified important stands of trees and fields where there was waxcap fungi potential.  However, for the section through Strathspey target notes mention things like “dead hedgehog found” and overall were less than informative about where additional survey work might be needed.

On the 3rd July, 7-10 days later than normal, the lesser butterfly orchid (LBO) survey got underway at the nationally important Flowerfield site by the B970.  As mentioned in the last blog, the count was delayed because the cool summer weather had slowed down the growth of the orchids as well as cold winds and a slight frost (15 June) causing some plants to brown off or keel over.  With fellow counter Andy fully employed on other survey work it was going to be a lone effort this year which eventually took two and a half days to complete, with another few hours dedicated to the additional count of the 
Lots of field gentians also
present in orchid field
small white orchids.  The count is undertaken using cane-marked transects and with a hand-tally counter to convert eye contacts into numbers.  Day one covered the less populated section of the field and produced 266 flowering spikes.  Day two saw the bulk of the open field section counted and the back and forth walks found 1095 flowering spikes and, with the sun shining, there were butterfly distractions of the best kind.  The first ringlets were on the wing along with regular encounters with meadow browns.  Common blues were seen but not before being upstaged by their rarer cousin the northern brown argus, several of which were seen in immaculate condition as though only just 
Mating northern brown argus butterflies
emerged.  I was even lucky enough to find a pair mating which brought orchid counting to a halt as I dashed, carefully, back to grab my ‘real’ camera so that I could get a decent record of this rare encounter.  In sunny conditions the wee Panasonic compact which was carried throughout the count, can’t seem to cope with light and shade too well.  Small pearl-bordered and dark green fritillaries 
Northern brown argus upper wings
were seen as were several small heaths adding greatly to the importance of this field not just for its flowers.  Considering neither green-veined white or small tortoiseshell were seen, it makes you wonder what the final tally would be if the field was counted for the whole summer.  The last half day was spent counting the higher sections of the field and this area brought in another 306 LBOs giving a final tally of 1667 flowering spikes, making this an average year for the number of plants.  
The table below gives details of all the years since the systematic counts began, though 2008 was a walk over count rather than a caned, transect count.  Once the lesser butterfly orchids had been counted it was time to set up the canes for the small white orchids and as I installed canes to indicate 
the extreme outer edges of the distribution of the plants it was pretty apparent that the population is expanding towards the fence and road.  Compared to the distribution of the LBOs the small whites occupy quite a small area making it difficult to walk up and down the transects without actually walking on the plants.  After a couple of hours the job was complete and the clicker showed that 1010 plants were present, the second best count to date.  Not bad when Jane and Jeremy the owners of the 
Orchid count transect markers
field can remember when there were less than a dozen plants twenty years ago.  A small red waxcap was also found which turned out to be Hygrocybe cantharellus another addition to this amazing site.  The following day the two LBO sites in Tulloch were visited and counted producing 14 and 30 flowering spikes respectively, the latter site counted under an umbrella as the heavens opened with a torrential downpour.

The BSBI co-ordinated plant survey of under-recorded areas within the Cairngorms National Park continues again this year with my personal commitment being another 5 tetrads (2 x 2 km OS squares) from locations close to home down to an area near Laggan.  The first outing last month took in one of the local sites which saw me visiting one of my old limestone quarry sites checked for lichens a couple of years ago and following a small burn to the top of Baddoch Hill at just over 500m high.  This was a useful tetrad to start with as I tried to get my brain in gear remembering the names 
Shade horsetail
Equisetum pratense
of the plants encountered along the route.  With quite a bit of moorland this limited the plant species many of which I was quite familiar with.  As I dropped into the burn there was a nice patch of intermediate wintergreen (Pyrola major) but a horsetail growing by the burn had me a bit confused, as the horsetails often do, so a sample thankfully, was taken home for checking.  After checking the books it turned out to be shade horsetail (Equisetum pratense) quite a rare plant locally.  On a couple of occasions I had a close encounter with a short-eared owl in the same area where a family staying in the chalet had seen one a couple of weeks earlier, so hopefully this was one of a breeding pair, not a common bird in Strathspey.  The next botanical outing took me to the Spey Dam area just west of 
Perched osprey
Laggan (NN5693) where my recording tetrad comprised a nice mix of habitats close to Glenshero Lodge.  I dropped down from the track to record the plants close to the edge of Loch Crunachdan where I was greeted by around 200 greylag geese, suggesting to me that our local feral population is getting a little out of control.  Along the loch shore the loss of vegetation wasn’t down to the local deer population but to geese grazing making it difficult to know which sedge was which because of the lack of flowering stems.  Something detached and floating in the water looked like mare’s tail 
Mare's tails sample
(Hippuris vulgaris), but a bit had to go home to confirm it because there were no emergent flower spikes popping out of the water.  Close by I suddenly heard a very familiar call, a displaying/alarming osprey which eventually perched in a tree at the far end of the loch.  Leaving the loch I headed uphill into an ancient bit of mainly birch woodland and the first real surprise plant of the day was wood cranesbill (Geranium sylvaticum), growing in quantity, with a nice mix of other plants.  An ancient goat willow (of which there were very few) produced the lungwort lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria) and 
Canada geese, recent arrivals to compete with the grey lags!
in many places I encountered stands of pale sedge (Carex pallescens) and good populations of oak and beech fern on the steep rocky outcrops amongst the trees.  In all not a bad outing with a reasonable list of plants.  To cover the tetrad fully a second visit was made later in the month this time following the River Spey up to the edge of the moorland then back through the most boring piece of conifer plantation, mostly flooded, to the road and back to the car.  Highlights of the outing were house martins, swifts and swallows associated with Sherramore house next to the Spey. 

Another survey was also completed this month, the BTO house martin survey covering a local, randomly selected one-kilometre square east of Grantown on Spey.  Mike, the one of the estate keepers was very helpful and the two visits went off without a hitch.  In the end the house and workshop produced 5 occupied nests and with a maximum count of 7 birds at any one time in the 
One of the 5 house martin nests
hour long, second visit when young appeared to be being fed.  One of the nests was a semi-detached affair with two nests sitting side by side under one of the house eaves.  The same day as the house martin survey (14 July) we had another unforgettable experience when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made its fly-past of Pluto after a remarkable flight which started life way back on January 19, 2006.  This amazing feat will provide huge amounts of information about a planet (now re-classified as a dwarf planet) so far from the Earth that very little was known about it.  The spacecraft’s first surprise was the heart-shaped area now known unofficially as Tombaugh Reggio and is made up, in part of carbon monoxide ice and a central area, lacking meteorite impact craters suggesting that, on a geological timescale it is quite young, if you can really class 100 million years ‘quite young’!  So, watch this space as much more is learnt about this tiny planet, about a fifth the diameter of the Earth, thanks to NASA’s efforts.

In June 2007 I got involved with a tiny bee called Osmia uncinata after having found it for the first time feeding on bird’s-foot trefoil flowers the year before along track in parts of Abernethy Forest.  In 2007 I was contracted to undertake a survey of potentially suitable sites within Strathspey between Kingussie and Alvie which involved finding good populations of the trefoil and spend time waiting to see if this tiny bee visited the flowers for food.  The survey was reasonably successful and the bee 
Aviemore Osmia uncinata nest site
low down front, on right
was found at 8 sites from the twenty-odd visited.  In 2011 these 8 sites were used to trial artificial nesting sites for the bee which is known to nest in holes, in trees, created by the emerging adults of long-horn beetles.  This trial was unsuccessful and none of the nest boxes were used.  Since 2011 I have continued to check occasional patches of bird’s-foot trefoil by forest tracks to see if the bee was in attendance.  What I had never seen throughout this period was a beetle hole used by the bee as a nest site and, until this year possibly less than 5 had ever been found.  Local recorder Gus though had an exceptional July and managed to find the bee visiting two nest sites, both in dead Scots pines, one in Nethybridge and the second near Aviemore.  The Aviemore site was quite unusual in that a pine killed in a forest fire many years ago had fallen over leaving mostly the thick bark remaining upright 
Osmia bee at its nest hole with sealed nest to left (green colour)
but with very little actual wood supporting it.  The nest was completely within the remaining bark.  After a few days the Nethybridge site seemed to have been deserted with the hole perhaps not being suitable or the bee had been predated by whilst going about its business.  However, the second site continued to be occupied and eventually I received details of where it was and went to see it, initially out of curiosity but once seen I realised there was the potential to learn more about this part of the bee’s breeding cycle.  My first visit was made on 24 July a few days after Gus had seen the bee sealing its nest hole with chewed up plant material but then realising that it had started to prepare a second hole less than a couple of inches away.  My first visit to record the comings and goings of the bee ended when heavy rain started to fall, a feature that was going to be very common as the recording project progressed.  By the end of July, 4 recording visits had been made on days when the weather forecast showed that there was the potential of some sun but on many of these visits the cold 
Osmia bee flying from hole - a rare event
wet weather that plagued this part of the UK in a supposed summer, intervened, and little activity was seen.  It was known from the 2007 survey that for the bee to leave its breeding site to forage the temperature had to reach about 180C.  The daily temperatures recorded at the local Strathspey Weather station gave a high of 17.50C and a low of 13.10C between the 24th and 31st July and the 11 hours of hole watching saw the bee make flights totalling just 9 minutes and this was when trying to 
Zebra jumping spider (Salticus scenicus)
target the best sunny days!  As far as I know, data on the foraging activity of Osmia uncinata has never been collected in the UK and possibly in its wider European range so this, to me, was quite an important opportunity but a wee project that would rely heavily on co-operation from the weather.  Watch this space.  Whilst watching, my Casio watch was used to record the time of activity but just 
Top view of zebra jumping spider
to the whole minute, and the thermometer used for my butterfly transect work was set, in the shade, to allow the temperature that triggered activity to be noted.  It was also quite interesting to see all the other activity taking place around the pine stump with regular lizards, beetles of varying sizes – one with a determined predatory wood ant attached to a leg, other tiny wasps also visiting beetle holes and regular visits from a zebra jumping spider (Salticus scenicus). 

Perhaps the real highlight of the month though was a botanical outing with recorder Ian to a damp field near Tomintoul.  Ian organises these outings on a regular basis through the summer to allow attendees to learn more about the plant species they might encounter when botanising on their own.  The site was known to have species like broad-leaved cotton grass indicating a base-rich flush.  At 
Pocket plum galls (Taphrina pruni)
the car park the evening started well with nettle rust (Puccinia urtica) and pocket plum galls (Taphrina pruni) distorting the blackthorn sloe berries via a fungus rather than an insect.  I had never seen the cotton grass before and was amazed to see the damp slope covered with the tell-tale white fluffy heads of this rare plant locally.  Then one of the team shouted “grass of Parnassus” and though early in the season it was possible to just see the single white flower-heads starting to form.  I have become a bit notorious on these outing for finding “those other things living on the plants” and as I 
Puccinia caricina fungus on leaves of
Grass of Parnassus
started to see more and more leaves of the grass of Parnassus I spotted something growing on it leaves, a yellow rust fungus.  This plant is not that common locally so I got quite excited as to what the fungus might be and how often it had been recorded previously.  When I checked, the NBN Gateway map does show quite a few locations for the plant during the period 2000 to 2015 so I began to think this would be a common fungus.  But there was more to come.  It was also known that the flush was a location for the russet sedge (Carex hostiana) a plant I had missed identifying from one 
Carex hostiana (tawny sedge) with
Anthracoidea hostianae fungus
of my BSBI recording tetrads the previous year, so I was quite keen to make my acquaintance to help with future outings.  Quite quickly Ian was pointing out the sedge and, quite interestingly, a hybrid between russet sedge and long-stalked yellow sedge (Carex lepidocarpa currently changed to C. viridula subsp. brachyrrhyncha – phew!), fairly easily recognised by its pale colour and soft flower-heads when squeezed due to the lack of seeds (infertile).  As I hunted around for a nice set of examples to photograph I got even more excited when I found a russet sedge flower-head covered in the black fungal Anthracoidea balls found on other sedges over the last few years.  Could this be an 
Carex hostiana centre, hybrid to left and Carex
viridula subsp. brachyrrhyncha
on right
interesting find?  Only the experts at Kew could answer that question.  Quaking grass was just starting to appear and when someone found the first fragrant orchid it was Ian’s turn to get excited because this orchid growing in a base-rich flush would probably be rare marsh fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia densiflora).  Again, a query for the botanical expert at Kew to advise on.  If it was to be the rarer orchid an even rarer species was found – a completely white variant.  Once home I got out the Micro-fungi on Land Plants book by Ellis and Ellis and found that the fungus Puccinia caricina had been recorded on the leaves of grass of Parnassus in the past and checking FRBDI found that 
Marsh fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia densiflora)
there were less than 5 records of the fungus on this plant in the last 50 years.  This fungus can though be found on other plant hosts, of which there are many records.  A check of my other known sites for the plant locally over the next few days found the fungus at all of them so once again we are probably dealing with a much under-recorded species.  Typing Anthracoidea on Carex hostiana into Google led me to a website in Poland which gave a name of A. hostianae and checking for this name on the FRDBI website I could find no records!  Hmm, even more excitement which was confirmed a few days later by Martyn at Kew, the fungus hadn’t been recorded in the UK previously.  Wow!  
Orchid being measured!
Specimens of both though would need to be sent to Kew for confirmation but the confidence was high.  The Kew plant expert replied to Ian requesting more information about the orchid, so the next day I re-visited the site armed with camera and tape measure to provide photos giving plant heights and flower sizes which confirmed a few days later that Ian was correct and we had found a new site for marsh fragrant orchid.  What a great way to end the month and with a big thank you to Ian for organising these outings which, not for the first time, had added many additional records of things associated with the plants we went to see.

Sorry for the delay, blame a wee bee and a trip to the Western Isles for taking up the time. That’s it for another month, enjoy the read
Stewart and Janet

Fungal Records Database of Britain and Ireland (FRDBI)
A9 dualling works
Phase 1 Habitat Surveying
NASA Pluto fly-past
Strathspey Weather
For the Polish paper type the following into Google and hit return
The calcareous mires in South-East Poland are home to two rare Anthracoidea species
BSBI – Botanical Society of the British Isles
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

Spectacular end to evening wader count
Same evening - looking the other way
3 boys, 3 dogs, 1 cat, several hens, a very supportive partner
and a new degree.  Well done Ruth.

Photos © Stewart Taylor