Monday, 21 September 2015

Cairngorm visit finds two skiers and a Painted Lady

On the 12th August the sun decided to shine again and after a morning visit to the Nairn plant nursery for lunch and a visit to collect a few honeysuckle leaves with Lasiobotrys lonicera fungus for Kew (see July blog), we dashed back for me to make a late afternoon visit to the Osmia uncinata bee monitoring site.  The bee’s breeding hole only receives full sun from around 1.30pm each day, and, requiring 17-180C temperatures to emerge and fly, I was hopeful that 4pm would be a good time to see activity.  Three visits had been made to watch the bee between the 1st and 12th, comprising three hours, five hours and forty minutes, but with the poor weather mentioned in the last blog, there was a lot of watching and waiting with little activity.  The visit on the 3rd was the most successful of these 
Osmia uncinata bee at its breeding hole
visits and with temperature in the twenties, the bee was fairly active, but even on this day the data log lists, sun, sun/cloud and light rain and during the watch the bee was out, collecting pollen for just 47 minutes, 23 of which were for just one flight.  The five hour stint on the 7th was the most frustrating with the temperature just hovering around the 180C mark but with lots of cloud and short splashes of sun.  In these five hours the bee was out for 59 minutes, 58 of these were in just one flight, a long time away and I was beginning to think I had lost the bee.  The sun on the 10th was very cruel, full sun and warm until I got to the site and then cloudy with light rain which had me packing up after just 40 minutes.  With our holiday departure date of 15th fast approaching I was running out of time to have a single session where the bees ‘normal’ flight pattern could be recorded.  Lots of data now showed the temperature required for the bee to fly to collect pollen (180C) but how regular these flights would be and their duration under ideal, sunny conditions was completely lacking.  The dash back from Nairn proved very rewarding, and, with full sun and 20-220C, I could see on arrival that 
Osmia bee flying in with chewed up plant material
the bee was at the hole and ready to fly.  However, the behaviour during the first 30 minutes was quite odd with lots of flights of just one to two minutes hardly time to even land on a flower let alone collect anything.  Perhaps it was doing something else?  The next flight though did seem more like what I would have expected and the bee was away for 37 minutes flying back and going straight into the hole, so little chance to see pollen or anything else.  For all the visits I did have my camera on a low tripod a safe distance from the nest hole and with a long cable allowing me to take photos whilst sitting at reasonable distance away.  Photographing the bee coming back from very short flights was quite challenging as with little warning it was suddenly at the hole and disappearing straight inside.  The camera was firing at six frames per second and was just about able to see the bee before it disappeared.  The photographs at the return of the 37 minute flight though were quite revealing and it was obvious that the bee was carrying something green, which was chewed up plant material, indicating that it was sealing off the nest containing the larval cells.  You can see this material in the last blog sealing off the first breeding hole.  As I prepared for more flights the cloud started to appear and, with the time at 5.30pm, there was probably only about an hour of potential flight time remaining before the sun disappeared behind the surrounding trees, casting the pine stump into shade.  With the sun/cloud the temperature was once again hovering around the 18 degrees mark and 
The bee watching set-up
over the next hour the bee was able to make just three more flights of just 1-2 minutes, probably not long enough to collect more chewed plant material.  Thwarted, once again, and after just over two hours of watching it was time to pack up and go home.  The following day dawned bright and sunny with a gentle southerly breeze and with the sun due to hit the breeding hole just after noon I made my way back to the site with high hopes of a decent days recording.  The data log says arrived 1pm, the temperature was 220C and there was full sun and with no activity at the hole I assumed the bee was out working.  2pm, still no bee.  3pm, still no bee, and this time I really was fearing the worst and when nothing had happened after two and a half hours I knew this was the end of the monitoring 
Perhaps the same end as the Osmia bee?
project.  With full sun and a nice, calm, warm day, lots of other insects and animals would be reacting by being more active, so whether the bee had been caught by a bird, a dragonfly or even in one of the many spider webs that appeared all over the place, we will never know.  All we can hope is that inside the second hole, as in the first, there are sealed cells with a few larvae waiting for a warm day in June 2016 to emerge and set about going through the whole reproductive process once again.  All told, 8 recording visits had been made over two and a half weeks, totaling just less than 24 hours of watching and in that time the bee had had a total flight time of just 217 minutes.  Whilst the sitting, watching and recording only allowed me to record part of this process, it does bring home to you just how much the weather can play a part in success or failure for many insects that work so hard to 
The wee Rhopalum clavipes wasp at its breeding hole
reproduce their next set of offspring.  As I left for the last time a tiny wasp provisioning its own ex-beetle hole quite close to the Osmia hole was still very active and obviously not as temperature dependant as the bee.  I did wonder if the wasp was actually digging its way into the first, sealed Osmia nest hole, but with help from Murdo I now know that this wee wasp goes by the name of Rhopalum clavipes, and isn’t a predator the Osmia larvae will need to worry about.  However, there are many other predators out there and it will be interesting to see if anything emerges from either hole next year.

Early in the month saw Janet setting up her stall for the Abernethy Highland Games and hoping for a busy Saturday.  As usual Laura came over to help and amid the pipes and bands, highland dancing and ‘heavy’ events like tossing the caber, they were kept quite busy for the day.  These games continue to be a major gathering for local pipe bands and with seven different ones attending this 
Janet's craft stall
year’s event the sound and spectacle of all the bands marching and playing as they march around the games field is something quite amazing.  As I got back from a bit of sedge hunting at Loch Pityoulish the last of the RSPB 10 mile road race runners were passing the house with just half a mile to go to the finish.  With Laura over for the weekend, Ruth, Lewis and the boys came over for lunch on Sunday with Finlay and Archie making some amazingly decorated cakes to finish off the meal.  The 
following day I tried to walk the last of the BTO/Butterfly Conservation butterfly transects but with deteriorating weather I bailed out, returning to re-walk a few days later.  Despite full sun there were few butterflies, Scotch argus being the most numerous.  A funny wee fungus found growing by the 
Finlay's amazing cake
roadside turned out to be elfin saddle (Helvella lacunose) a species that has popped up in a few places this year.  The butterfly transect is quite close to a nice flushed hillside so after completing the survey I headed for the bog.  I had been informed that this site was quite good for plants and might have good sedge populations, so worth a visit.  The white heads of cotton grass were everywhere and the ground varied from damp bog to soggy bog with plants like marsh arrow-grass, round-leaved sundew and bogbean.  The sedges like star sedge (Carex echinata), carnation sedge (Carex panicea
Elfin Saddle fungus
Helvella lacunose
and flea sedge (Carex pulicaris) were quite common with the first two also displaying the smut fungus (Anthracoidea spp).  However, it was tawny sedge (Carex hostiana) that I was looking for, flushed with my success of finding it with the smut a couple of weeks earlier, could this be the second UK site for the smut?  Hopefully no one was watching me from afar as I wandered back and forth, finding the sedge in small quantities, and getting a feel for the sort of places to check.  A lot of bending over is needed for this sort of pass-time and as I searched a funny wee insect caught my eye and the more I looked, the more insects I could see.  What I had found was a young family of shield-bugs, no adult to be seen, but in the group of insects was one, slightly bigger than the others.  These nymphs, as the young bugs are called, go through a series of growth phases known as instars and not 
Spiked shield-bug nymphs (Picromerus bidens)
sure why, but my group contained one final instar nymph (the biggest) and about 6-8 mid-instar nymphs and my photos would need to be checked against the species described on the British Bugs website to arrive at a name.  The adult these bugs are predatory and feed on caterpillars and other insects.  This species overwinters as eggs which hatch to grow into adults in July/August, so my timing would indicate the ones I had found were spiked shield-bug nymphs heading quickly towards adult-hood, with one possibly developing a little quicker than the others.  My notebook tells me that shortly after this find I came upon a small population of tawny sedges and amongst the fruits I could see just one, black fungal ball of Anthracoidea hostianae, we had the second UK site.  Trying to determine whether a fungus like this is really rare or just missed or not looked for takes a bit of time 
Anthracoidea hostianae the 2nd UK find
and having a link to the local BSBI recorder and the BSBI website allowed a few locations for the sedge to be searched for.  It was following up one of these locations, close to Dulnain Bridge, that led to the ‘searching for one species often leads to another’ outcome.  Local Recorder Andy had found several patches of tawny sedge at the Dulnain site so that was the next site to visit.  I soon found the first small group of plants, then another and another as I wandered the site, along with a few flowering spikes of fragrant orchid.  As with other boggy sites there were other sedges to see and at one checking stop there were some particularly tall examples of flea sedge, a plant whose fruits hang, individually, and slightly angled away from the top part of the stem, a bit like a sparsely branched 
Anthracoidea pulicaris fungus on flea sedge
Christmas tree. And there was ‘that other species’ the fruits of one flea sedge has the distinctive black fungal balls growing from them.  Searching the wider area a few more were also found.  Again, I was totally unaware of whether this was a sedge that had been recorded regularly with the fungus or not so it wasn’t until I got home and checked to find that it (Anthracoidea pulicaris) had only been recorded twice before, so the specimens were sent off to Kew to be confirmed and to be added to the Anthracoidea collection. 
The full list of Anthracoidea fungi and hosts found to date

There was one last job to do before we headed off on holiday and that was to count the number of flowering field gentians in the field at the end of our road, an important annual undertaking (along with the check of the number of waxcap fungi) for a field that has already survived one planning application to cover it with houses.  Canes and tapes were used to provide rough transect lines and the walks back and forth produced a total of 1036 flowering spikes, up from just 250 in 2014.  Not bad.  
Field gentians
Fields like this are getting rarer and rarer as more and more are ploughed and fertilised to grow things to ‘feed the world’.  As far as is known this field has only been grazed by sheep or horses over the decades maintaining the ideal conditions for both gentians and waxcaps.

And so, on the 15th we headed for the Macbrayne’s ferry from Uig on Skye for a week’s holiday in the Uists joining lots of tourists on the car park with the best view of Eilean Donan Castle along the way.  Having stopped we were obliged to take the now annual photo of the castle which has always got a different kind of lighting dependant on sun, clouds and misty mountains.  On arrive at Uig we 
went into the booking office to collect tickets and boarding passes and as we got back to the car I hear the familiar voice of my namesake from a van in the next parking lane – Stuart Taylor (RSPB Balranald) was on the same ferry – again!  We got to the cottage with enough time to have a short evening walk before watching the sun set over Kirkibost Island.  The weeks stay saw us battle a little with windy days sometimes accompanied with rain and with one good sunny day.  However, the mix of sun, cloud, dark clouds and rain made for some amazing views out over the sea and apart from one day we managed to get out and about without getting wet.  One of the plants I had planned to look for was white beak-sedge (Rhynchospora alba) a plant found occasionally on previous visits growing in 
White beak-sedge
Rhynchospora alba
boggy ground, mainly to update old records but also with the chance of finding something growing on it.  Quite a bit was located mainly on our way to and from days out with the biggest find located by me in torrential rain while Janet monitored my progress from the car.  At Lochboisedale we found the new £10 million harbour complex just about complete but did wonder how it was going to help create that many jobs for the area with one business processing seaweed having already decided not to re-locate to the site.  Mid-way through our stay I spotted a sea eagle flying past the cottage and out towards Kirkibost Island, but the whole thing happened too quickly to capture anything on camera – but nice to see.  We spent that day on Berneray walking up through the island to the Youth Hostel 
noting that a few more thatched black houses had been restored.  Seals were hauled out on their usual rocks and another site was found for a wee sawfly gall (Eupontania collactanea) on the leaves of creeping willow.  With the wind blowing a hooley most boats were tied up in the tiny harbour.  After stopping to stock up with goods at the Co-op in Solas we made our way home via the ‘Committee Road’ crossing the moor where huge amounts of peat is still cut for household fires.  As we were heading back off the moor towards the main road at Claddach Janet shouted “looks like a sea eagle” as a large bird headed towards us flying in from the sea close to Kirkibost Island.  The same bird as that morning?  As I was getting the camera with 400mm lense out and sorted Janet shouted “there’s another one” which was just as well because the first one was now well inland and just about out of range.  With the camera firing away this bird kept flying towards us eventually flying right over our 
heads and almost too close for the camera to cope with.  Brilliant.  All too quickly the holiday was over and as we made our way back to the ferry (not until 4pm!) we stopped off for lunch in the dunes at Hòrnais allowing me one last go at re-locating a couple of small populations of curved sedge (Carex maritima) found there just once previously in 2006.  I failed miserably to find anything by the Allt Gulabaidh apart from a population of mare’s tail in a very odd dune pool so headed to the site where I expected to be even harder pushed to find anything.  This is a small plant, 1-2 inches tall, and growing where there is usually a small amount of dampness right on the edge of the dunes.  At another site where the sedge had been found earlier in the week, I notice a small white flower, knotted pearlwort (Sagina nodosa), was also growing.  As I searched I spotted the same white flower 
Curved sedge (Carex maritima)
growing on a tiny piece of consolidated soil ‘stuck’ on top of a rock outcrop and slowly the tiny sedge also came into my view.  The original count was of about 50 plants but my initial reaction was that there were many less than that, but then I saw a few more and eventually counted about 110 plants none of which were more than about an inch high.  Time to head for the ferry, happy.  We arrived at the pier a couple of hours before the ferry was due and with about 4 cars already in the first parking lane debated about joining the queue or parking elsewhere for a while and then join the queue.  Nearly every time we catch this ferry we end up on what is called the mezzanine deck, the first cars on drive onto this ‘deck’ which is then raised to allow more vehicles to park below it.  First 
Hornais dunes - our last day on North Uist
on – last off!  I noticed that two of the cars were land rover types and these are too big for the raised deck so we decided to join the queue.  Sure enough we were waved through towards the bow of the ferry along with an artic lorry.  Getting off at Uig means you join a long line of vehicles slowly making its way through Skye, then Kyle of Lochalsh and usually all the way to Drumnacrochit and along Loch Ness-side.  As we got back in our vehicles to disembark, the lorry was first off (very bad news) followed by five cars, followed by us!  This had never happened to us before and when we saw the lorry pull into the harbour car park we could see we were set for a reasonably quick drive through Skye and beyond.  One by one the cars in front pull off at various junctions and as we headed towards Invermoriston there was just one of the original cars in front of us and when this car turned off towards Fort William we thought the job was a good one and we would sail steadily towards Inverness, particularly as it was approaching 10pm.  Wrong.  In Drumnadrochit we caught up with a few cars behind a transit van towing a caravan and we all then caught up with a large fair-ground wagon leading us at a steady 20-30 mph all the way along the side of Loch Ness and into Inverness, completely ignoring all the signs (with lay-byes) saying use lay-byes to allow overtaking!  We got home at 11pm and sorted the stuff we would need for the next day’s craft fair in Aviemore!

The end of August saw me trying to complete my visits to the plant recording tetrads before some plants became too difficult to recognise as they reached the end of their growing season.  A days outing to NH80C lead me through excellent woodland which sadly was a bit overgrazed by sheep and cattle but the day was saved, botanically, by emerging into a nice bit of bog which added a few good records for the day’s efforts.  Having now got my eye in for tawny sedge I saw several small patches along with the yellow sedge and the hybrids between the two.  Photos of the recent finds were also 
Grass of Parnassus and leaf fungus
processed and forwarded to Kew for the Lost and Found Project as well as several envelopes with dried specimens for checking.  A visit was also made to one of the Abernethy Forest sites for Grass of Parnassus to see how the fungus found a few weeks earlier near Tomintoul (Puccinia caricina) looked after a month of plant growth and fungus development.  When I found the plants I could see why there were few records for the fungus because instead of the obvious yellow patches (see last blog) on the leaves all I could find were leaves full of holes or with dark brown patches where the fungus had been.  Job done, the fungus had shed its spores, and the plants just got on with growing 
Fen bedstraw showing characteristic spines and leaf points
and producing the stunning display of flowers found at the site.  The boggy area was also home to lots of the uncommon fen bedstraw (Galium uliginosum), a plant with a very spiny stem and spiny leaves with sharply pointed tips.  These features make the plant quite distinctive when compared to the commoner marsh bedstraw (Galium palustre).  There was so much of the plant I had to keep checking that I had the right species.  I then noticed something odd on one of the ‘flowers’ at the top of the plant stem, the flower didn’t look properly formed and once checked under my hand-lens I could see there was something unusual about it and I wondered about whether I was looking at a 
Plant gall Dasineura hygrophila on
Galium uliginosum
plant gall.  A couple of samples were removed and once home the British Plant Galls book by Redfern and Shirley informed me that I was probably looking at a gall caused by a wee midge called Dasineura hygrophila but with a cautionary note saying that there was still confusion over the names of the gall causer and that morphological and DNA studies were required.  With few dots on the distribution map locally the plant and gall were sent off to the experts to check.  Thankfully, at the time of collection, storage and posting, the plant and gall had been kept in a sealed poly bag because when it arrived with the expert a midge was flitting around in the bag allowing the cautionary 
Painted lady
identification to be made.  Phew.  On the way to see the plants I came across the first of my local painted lady butterfly records, possibly indicating that there had been an arrival of butterflies from 
further south.  In a similar vein I made another visit to the Chalamain Gap path to re-check the rust fungus found on the leaves of bog blaeberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) back in 2013.  This was just two days after the Abernethy outing and there were three contacts with painted lady butterflies as I 
Exobasidium pachysporum on upper leaf of Vaccinium uliginosum
Exobasidium pachysporum on under leaf of V. uliginosum
Heather fly Bibio pomonae
walked along the track and an odd, red-legged fly turned out to be Bibio pomonae, which, with purple heather in bloom all over the area, is known appropriately as the heather fly!  A bog blaeberry outing on the path to the Northern Corries in the Cairngorms for the same objectives didn’t add to the number of painted lady butterfly sightings but did, perhaps, produce one of the strangest sights for late August, a couple of blokes walking down the path towards me, both with skies strapped to the 
sides of their rucksacks.  “surely you’ve not been skiing?” I asked.  “Sure have” came the reply “there’s lots of snow in the Feith Buidhe area”.  Higher up the path that I could also see small patches of snow still held in the steep gullies above Coire an t-Sneachda but was amazed to hear that there was enough to ski on out towards Ben Macdui.  I’ve no doubt they also wondered what this guy was doing wandering along the path to the high-ground in his Muck Boot wellies!

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

Fungal Records Database of Britain and Ireland (FRDBI)
Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey BTO/BC
British Bugs
Kew Lost and Found Project
BSBI – Botanical Society of the British Isles
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

Perseid meteor shower - well, just one, bottom left!
Evening visitors North Uist Cottage
Wood wasp (Urocerus gigas) egg-laying in Lodgepole pine log
Photos © Stewart Taylor