Thursday, 22 October 2015

A right royal error on royal Deeside

A good month for midges.  Opening my diary to check what I had been up to during September I found several pages dotted with dead midges no doubt ‘collected’ during an outing to Rothiemurchus to check out a brilliant population of sedges found by plant expert Andy a few days earlier.  The visit was made to try and find a new location for the smut fungus growing on heads of bladder sedge (Carex vesicaria), found only once before by the River Spey near Kincraig.  There were lots of the fungus on the heads of the more abundant bottle sedge (Carex rostrata) but, despite lots of false 
Skullcap sawfly (Athalia scutellariae)
alarms, I failed to find anything on the bladder sedge.  The wee lochan with the sedges also had a good population of skullcap (Scutellaria galericulata), a rare plant in these parts, but even rarer was a caterpillar-like larva that Andy had found, munching huge holes in many of the plants leaves.  The number of larvae suggested a species of sawfly (just think of sawfly larvae defoliating your gooseberry bushes) and Andy identified the species as Athalia scutellariae, the skullcap sawfly.  This strikingly patterned larva had only been recorded previously from two locations in Scotland and just once from Highland in 2014, so one to look out for if encountering its food plant in the future.  The same day our Queen also broke a record having been on the throne for 63 years and seven months, almost the whole of my life – amazing.

The ongoing search for Anthracoidea fungus on sedge heads, particularly on sedges with few records or no records at all in the UK continued to take me down new paths of discovery.  Re-checking a big population of mud sedge (Carex limosa) near Loch Mallachie took me across Tulloch Moor where I 
Greenwich balloon
found a deflated balloon (a regular event) complete with coloured ribbon. At the end of this ribbon was a message asking the finder to email details of the location.  This I did and the thank you reply informed me that the balloon had been released in Greenwich, London, some 550 miles away.  An amazing distance but I did ask the Tarmac organisers whether adding to the number of balloons now littering the countryside was a good idea.  I still await a reply.  Another outing saw me heading to a 
Club sedge (Carex buxbaumii)
loch west of Inverness to see a sedge I’d never seen before – club sedge (Carex buxbaumii).  The initial test would be to find and identify the sedge and if found, spend a bit of time checking the fruiting heads.  A few plants were added to the notebook as I descended through boggy ground towards the loch including the insectivorous plants great and round-leaved sundew, plants that would have an unexpected link to another find later in the day.  I needn’t have worried about identifying the club sedge: quite tall, with an unusually coloured (green/yellow) flower-head, and quite abundant in a few locations with five distinct population along the loch shore.  In Scotland there are just a few 
Red-legged shieldbug (Pentatoma rufipes)
locations for this sedge so it was quite good to catch up with it at last.  Whilst it wasn’t possible to check all the sedge heads for the fungus, quite a few were looked at and a growing sense of excitement was extinguished when the sedge with the right fungus turned out to be carnation sedge, a a sedge regularly found with the fungus.  An insect having a swim in the loch was worth saving as it was one of the shield bugs and once home my photo helped identify the red-legged shield bug (Pentatoma rufipes) via the British Bugs website.  My wander round the loch turned up a tiny quantity of mud sedge which I thought might be new to the site but expert Ian Green had beaten me to it.  In a small loch-side pool I could also see another unusual plant, a member of the bladderwort family, and just on the off-chance I would be able to identify it, I took a small piece of stem and leaves and also with a single side stem complete with ‘the bladders’.  Unlike the sundews seen earlier the bladderwort is an under-water (aquatic) insectivorous plant, the bladders being the part of the 
Bladderwort (thin leaves in water) and sundew (red/green pads)
plant that captures the prey items.  Sadly, no smut fungi were found on the club sedges, but it had been a good day in an area I seldom visit.  Back home I found some information on bladderwort identification, but this meant microscope work to look at hairs on the inside of the bladders!  Sadly, this group of plants seldom produce flowers (apart from lesser bladderwort (Utricularia minor) see Firwood blog September 2009), so the only way is to carry out the microscope check.  In the back of my head I remembered the name Utricularia australis (Bladderwort) as being the species recorded in the past from within Abernethy Forest but that was possibly before experts got down to the tricky pastime of looking inside the bladders.  So, undaunted, I sliced one of the bladders open to see what I could see.  Inside the hairs grow out from the bladder wall and it is the shape of these hairs that leads to the plants ID.  And sure enough, I was amazed to find a beautiful patterning comprising the hairs.  
Hairs inside bladder of Utricularia stygia
Photos were sent off to the BSBI expert and the name Utricularia stygia (Nordic bladderwort) came back.  Were the plants in Abernethy the same species?  There was only one way to find out by combining an outing to check a few more patches of mud sedge for smuts.  The forest bogs (wet-woodland officially) in Abernethy are, in places, quite extensive, and were, over many years, the subject of restoration work, removing planted exotic conifers, blocking drains, and re-wetting the 
Bladderwort and stem with bladders
sites to allow the natural bog habitats to become re-established.  The best forest bogs were just too wet to have been drained and planted during the damaging 1960s and 70s, and it was to a couple of these sites that I made my outing.  Once again no smuts were found on the mud sedge but all the wetter sections of the bogs had abundant populations of bladderwort and a few small samples were collected for checking.  During the last collection whilst lifting up enough of the plant to ensure a line of bladders was attached a rather large spider appeared and I was able to say hello to what has to be 
Raft spider (Dolomedes fimbriatus) and bladderwort leaves to left
my favourite spider, the raft spider (Dolomedes fimbriatus), a common spider in Abernethy in this watery habitat.  Just time for a quick photo as it posed with a brilliant patch of bladderwort as a back-drop.  Back home it was back to the microscope and it very quickly became apparent that there were ‘things’ inside the some of the bladders, the first one in the shape of a tick!  Amazingly, another bladder with tick was found in another, later collection from another site – well done bladders.  On cutting open the bladder I found it was a tick and just how tick and underwater bladder came together I’ll never know! More amazing was the tick was still alive in this and the later collection.  The hairs 
Tick inside bladder
Ostracoda inside bladder
inside were the almost perfect crosses of U. stygia.  The next bladders checked posed a slightly different problem in that there seemed to be a mix of perfect crosses and crosses with different arm length but when checked by the expert they were deemed to be the same.  The third collection once again had something within the bladders which initially looked like tiny eggs.  When the bladder was opened the ‘eggs’ looked like tiny mussel shells with a very obvious bright spot at what would be the hinge.  I’m not sure how I searched but out popped the name Ostracoda, an arthropod of the large, mainly aquatic group Crustacea, such as a crab, lobster, shrimp, or barnacle, so my mussel description wasn’t too far from correct.  Other searches revealed that Ostracodas are mostly found in slow flowing or still water where they hover over and amongst the bottom sediments where they feed 
A single Ostracoda
on any small animal or plant matter stirred up by their movements.  I have to assume that the bladders catch their prey by being able to suck in and filter the water around them.  Goodness, we know so little about what is going on around us.  Without an Ostracoda expert to hand that is as far as my ID skills can go.  So, amazingly, the plant was a new species for Vice County 96 (East Inverness-shire with Nairn), and a new species for Abernethy Forest NNR.  I just need to find out if U. australis is there also and see just what else these amazing plants have been eating.

Early September saw the Osmia inermis bee team back in the Blair Atholl area to re-visit the two sites where the ceramic saucers were installed to see if we had tempted any bees to use them as nest sites.  Sadly, not one of them had been used but seeing things like vegetation growth around them, dampness within and the number occupied by tiny ants, a little more thought will need to go into how to present them on site when the project enters its second year.  With a better summer in 2016 it would also be sensible to try and spend a little more time on site to see if the bee can be found visiting flowers.  However, the visit did find a site for the lichen Peltigera leucophlebia and the fungal smuts on star and glaucous sedge (Carex echinata & flacca) so not all wasted despite the huge disappointment.

The 5th September saw me set off on the last plant recording session of the summer for the BSBI survey of under-recorded areas within the Cairngorms National Park.  This outing took me once again to the Spey Dam area close to Laggan where two previous outings had already been completed.  The mainly natural birch woodland on the hillside to the south of the loch and dam looked so interesting that this visit would complete plant surveys in the three major habitat types 
Carex pallescens and
Anthracoidea pseudirregularis smut
Anthracoidea pseudirregularis spores x1000 oil
within the tetrad (2x2 km OS square) I was surveying.  Quite a bit of the birch wood had been enclosed within a deer fence and some of the lower, tree-less ground had been planted with native broadleaves, and once over the fence I was in a naturally flushed hillside with runnels and boggy areas where straight away populations of tawny sedge (Carex hostiana) appeared.  A good start.  Wood crane’s-bill was also found as on one of the earlier visits and a second interesting sedge was found slightly higher up the slope, pale sedge (Carex pallescens).  Due to the dampness of the site fifteen species of sedge were recorded during the visit with the pale sedge turning out to be the star of the day right at the end of the day.  An ancient goat willow produced what I thought would be the highlight of the day with lichens Pannaria conoplea and Lobaria pulmonaria on its trunk but the next patch of pale sedge had black balls of fungus on its fruits, an Anthracoidea/sedge combination I had 
View from hillside with "wee" car
never encountered.  Would it be unusual, that would only be determined once back home.  At this stage I was quite a way up the hillside and well into the area of natural birch woodland with brilliant views back down to Spey Dam and loch and the tiny green dot which was my wee car!  Back home and the first thing I did was type into Google “Anthacoidea fungus on Carex pallescens in UK” and the list of options took me to the FRDBI database where I found there was just one record for a fungus with the unpronounceable name of Anthracoidea pseudirregularis, found by the late P. W. James on the island of Mull in 1966.  Famous footsteps to follow indeed.

Ongoing survey work at a site locally threatened with 1500 houses by local volunteer recorders turned up some good records.  A phone call to say that something odd/unusual had been found on the leaves of a small patch of bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) had me visiting the site to confirm that the rare Exobasidium sydowianum fungus was present.  On the way into the site a few small bees flying around on the sandy track-side stopped me in my tracks and, with camera at the ready, several were photographed and videoed so the species could be confirmed.  A large colony of Colletes 
Colletes succinctus mining bee
Mellinus arvensis digger wasp
succinctus (a small mining bee) had been found and as the bees were watched going about their business, another small but longer, brighter flying insect was also seen visiting its breeding holes, the digger wasp Mellinus arvensis.  The false morel parasite fungus Cordyceps ophioglossoides was also growing from the bank as was a group of three Sarcodon imbricatus, the scaly hedgehog tooth fungus.  About the same time an email arrived detailing a find of a variety of one of our common clubmosses which looked unusual enough to want to go and try and find it.  The regular variety is fir clubmoss (Huperzia selago), but a little higher up on our hill/mountain sides is the subspecies arctica - Arctic fir clubmoss, with records currently (26, 14 of which are recent finds by local expert Andy) from the Cairngorms area and the Western Isles.  My first thought was to visit the path taking walkers out to the Chalamain Gap, so with an afternoon free, I headed off up the Cairngorm road parking near the Sugarbowl car park.  The path towards Chalamain Gap drops from the road to the Allt Druidh and then the climb up the other side takes you past the reindeer enclosure before levelling out with great 
Huperzia selago
s.sp arctica

views of the Northern Corries.  At this point the path reaches 550 to 600m in altitude, about the right elevation to look for the clubmoss.  The first find was a small group of fir clubmoss plants but with a shape tending towards subspecies arctica, so hopes were high for the real thing.  All around the deer grass was turning to its orange/brown autumn colour and there were good patches of bearberry on the bare gravels.  The next small population of clubmoss looked like the plant I was looking for with single plant stems and each with distinct double whorls of larger leaves spaced up the stem.  Right at the top were the double whorls of this years growth with slightly larger and darker growths called ‘gemmifers’ projecting.  These fall off and presumably allow the plant to vegetatively regenerate itself.  Hopefully, the passing group of walkers didn’t think they had found a body as I lay photographing the plant as they walked past!

The 24th saw us up bright and early as we drove over to daughter Ruth’s to pick her up en-route to Eden Court in Inverness for her BA Graduation Ceremony the culmination of four years of study.  I think there were around 500 students packed into the theatre with at least the same number again of supporting partners, parents and family members.  Resplendent in their graduation gowns Ruth and her fellow course students made their way down towards the stage where, one by one they climbed 
the steps, walked across the stage to receive their certificates and posing for a quick official photo before returning to their seats.  A brief thumbs up from her course tutor as she crossed the stage was in recognition of not just completing the many assignments but of encouraging her to keep going whilst coping with the many demands of raising a young family, giving birth to Harry and moving house four times!  Three weeks later she also successful in getting a place on another three year course at Elgin College.  Help!

The following day saw the culmination of several days of preparation for the felling of a huge Norway spruce in one of our neighbours gardens by local tree surgeon Alban and his team.  On the way back from collecting the daily paper Alban gave me the nod that the tree top would be ready for 
removal within the hour so I nipped home to get camera and tripod to capture the event.  The top would come off first and gradually through the day the height of the main stem would be reduced until the main trunk was of a manageable height to be felled in one go.  This fast growing tree was about 1.5m diameter near its base, way outside the size of anything I had ever tackled in my tree felling days.  When I got back with my camera Jamie was up at the top of the tree taking off the last few smaller branches before fixing himself in position to fell the top eight metre section of the tree with his chainsaw.  The felling notch was made on the felling side of the tree.  Jamie then started the 

most critical part of the felling, bringing the saw into the tree from the other side aiming for just above the top of the felling notch so that a ‘hinge’ would be left to control the speed and direction of the felling.  With the two cuts complete Jamie then switched off his powersaw using his strength to lever over the top of the tree, pushing upwards on one of the branches left on for that purpose.  At first nothing happened, but as Jamie got a rocking motion going, the top of the tree started to topple over in exactly the right direction as planned.  Success, and just before the rain started to fall.  By the end of the day the whole trunk was on the ground, some of which would be planked into useable sections rather than just cutting up for firewood.

With fungus expert Liz now no longer resident on Deeside I made a trip over the tops mid-month to check one of only two known sites for the tooth fungus Bankera violascens and if present, to undertake the annual count of fruiting bodies.  As I reached the A93 Deeside road I stopped off to check a notable stand of Sots pines between the road and the River Dee for other fungi.  On the opposite side of the River Dee was the Woods of Garmaddie, part of the Royal Balmoral Estate.  The huge floods that occurred on the Dee in 2014 seemed to have left their mark and only a few of the previously recorded fungi were found.  No doubt, recovery might take a few years.  As I searched a 
Cudonia circinans
call I thought was familiar to me was coming from the river but search as much as I did, the elusive ‘kingfisher’ wasn’t found.  At one stage it sounded like it was just below me on the side of the river, but still I couldn’t see it.  A few Hydnellum ferruginium tooth fungi were found along with the wrinkled club (Clavulina rugose) and as I started to list some of the plants present the ‘kingfisher’ 
Clavulina rugosa
call started again and once again quite close to me.  Time to sit down and blend in and await a bit of movement to see my bird.  A movement on the opposite side of the river caught my eye and through my binocs I was able to make out an adult otter making its way along the bank, occasionally calling.  The penny then dropped, my mystery calls weren’t coming from a bird at all, but from a young otter separated from probably its mother, by the width of the river!  Time to move on, and after a short drive and uphill walk, I arrived at the Bankera site to find, as at the only other currently known site for the fungus, there were fewer fruiting bodies than last year with none at all on one side of the 
Lesser twayblade
forest track and just 20 on the other.  On the damp track side were lots of leaves of lesser twayblade, with just a few flowering spikes but in the conifer needle debris a small buff-coloured fungus had me thinking about something growing in a spruce wood near home, Cudonia circinans, and sure enough when checked at home this is what it turned out to be.  As I drove back over the tops (Deeside – Lecht – Tomintoul) I had one other species in my mind to look for, brittle bladder-fern (Cystopteris fragilis), in an old lime quarry.  The quarry had, in the past, produced several good lichen records, so worth a quick stop.  In Strathspey Andy had been taking a small sample of this fern home to check the spores because the very similar Dickie’s bladder-fern (Cystopteris dickieana) had turned up in a 
Brittle bladder-fern sori with spores top right x40
few locations.  The lichen Solorina saccata was still present on some of the rock ledges but the quarry didn’t look quite right for the fern, but, surprisingly it turned up on the next set of rock ledges.  It isn’t possible to check the spores on site so a small sample has to be taken home, so I checked the back of the fern to ensure there were sori present (these incurved structures hold the spores and are ‘spring loaded’ to eject the spores when mature) and to my very pleasant surprise I found the under-side covered in orange spots indicating a rust fungus was present.  A brilliant article on “Rust fungi on ferns” by Paul Smith in Field Mycology earlier this year alerted me to these rusts and despite lots of searching, I had only found the one on common polypody (Polypodium spp.) previously, so to me 
Brittle bladder-fern and
rust Hyalopsora polypodii
this was a ‘real’ find meaning two species for the price of one from the fern frond collected.  Back home the fern turned out to be brittle bladder-fern and the rust, later confirmed by Paul, was identified as Hyalopsora polypodii, with just 40 previous records in the UK.  I couldn’t resist popping into the other limestone quarry on the edge of Tomintoul as I drove towards home where, once again the species turned out to be brittle bladder-fern but the bonus here was finding a tiny population of holly fern (Polystichum lonchitis) in amongst the rocks, a new location despite probably lots of previous visits by botanists.  As I drove through Nethybridge on the way home I also noticed another 
Shaggy inkcap or lawyers wig
spectacular fungus growing in Ross and Ros’s garden, lawyers wig or, more appropriately, shaggy inkcap (Coprinus comatus).  The group comprised three fruiting bodies, two young ones plus an older one mostly fully intact but with the cap on one side beginning to liquefy into drips or much more descriptive deliquesce, as the fungus went about dispersing its spores.  Somewhere along the way some animal dung must have found its way onto their lawn because the generic name Coprinus means ‘living on dung’.

As we said cheerio to Sue and Clifford our chalet guests we headed down the road to Lancashire to spend a few days with Janet’s mum.  Ribchester Arms, Bashall Barn and the Calf’s Head provided wonderful lunch-time outings augmented by excellent weather.  The routes to and from the lunch-stops were all decided by local knowledge gained by Janet’s 95 years young mum and as we followed the wee lanes the changing colours of autumn were becoming attractively obvious.  “Turn left and we can go over Longridge Fell” or “That wee lane is an old Roman Road”, every outing was very 
Ribchester Arms for lunch
informative and expertly guided.  Mid-way through our visit we had planned a day’s shopping(!) mainly to furnish yours truly with some new shirts and to have a wander round Clitheroe.  We gave up on driving on to Skipton and wandered up and through the old castle before a short walk round the Salthills Quarry Local Nature Reserve with ferns and limestone in mind.  This area was quarried for decades by Ribble Cement (now Hanson Cement Ribblesdale) and as the quarrying moved to its current adjacent site the old site started to become home to lots of unusual plants like lime-loving orchids.  My dad knew the site well and often told me about his finds and those made by the members of the local natural history group.  We had moved to Scotland by this stage so not a site I had visited at that time.  As the need for industrial development became pressing much of the old quarry was converted into industrial units with the small area now comprising the local nature reserve squeezed in amongst the new developments.  The central section of the reserve is an important area of 
Quarry fossils
calcareous grassland with just a few of the previous orchids and, during our visit displaying lots of devil’s-bit scabious and field scabious, betony and agrimony and on the barer less vegetated area field gentian and the occasional carline thistle.  As we followed the trail back towards the car I noticed a section of the reserve which looked like it had been closed off by a locked gate despite there still being numbered information posts present.  This area was mainly the remains of a quarried rock-face, rich in fossils with a carline thistle rich flat area which was probably the old quarry floor.  Janet was happy to walk back to the car as I hopped over the gate to see if there was anything unusual along the rock-face but nothing was found and it was only as I was walking back that I spotted something that got me quite excited – the leaves of one of the wintergreen plants.  I had a feeling that the three species I knew about, common, intermediate and round-leaved were all quite rare or under 
Pyrola rotundifolia
recorded in this part of Lancashire and it was only as I bent down to have a closer look that I realised I was looking at the round-leaved version, Pyrola rotundifolia, a plant I had only seen once before over on the NTS Mar Lodge Estate (see August blog 2011).  There were just five flower-spikes with some flowers well past their best, the ones still present though all displayed the distinctive down-bending style popping out from the white petals.  I was aware that there were several populations of this plant in the dunes south of Southport but wasn’t too sure about whether it had been found in this limestone area near Clitheroe.  Brother John’s computer provided the answer later in the day – there were no records on either NBN or the BSBI database.  An old school friend who I mentioned the find to once home did vaguely remember one Rex Taylor (my dad!) showing him a wintergreen plant in the Salthill area in the distant past.  Wouldn’t that be a great link to make, particularly as there are a couple of other unusual plant records on the BSBI Db from the mid-1980s from that area!  All too quickly we were heading back up the M6, M74 in time for our next chalet guest arriving on the Saturday.

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

British Bugs
Field Mycology Volume 16(2) April 2015
Rust fungi on ferns – Paul Smith, currently available at
Fungal Records Database of Britain and Ireland (FRDBI)
Salthills Quarry Local Nature Reserve
Ribble Cement/Hanson Cement Ribblesdale (to see scale click on Downloads top right-hand)
BSBI – Botanical Society of the British Isles
Firwood Cottage blog September 2009
Firwood Cottage blog August 2011
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

Down at last!
The great diving beetle (Dytiscus marginalis) Firwood garden
Spot the green lestes damselflies
Photos © Stewart Taylor