Tuesday, 17 November 2015

A Mild and Balsamiferous Autumn

Indoor work for the early part of the month was completing data entries for plants recorded during the BSBI/Cairngorms National Park (CNP) survey covering areas of the Park with few plant records.  My commitment covered 5 tetrads (2 x 2km squares).  The enjoyable bit was wandering and recording, the slightly more tedious bit was entering the records, but with many happy memories along the way.  My five tetrads produced a total of just over 4200 records (records not plant species) with amazing habitats around Spey Dam producing the most (1400).  Overall, this year’s survey has, so far, produced 27,000 records of 777 species, 152 of which are on the CNP Rare Plant Register so a brilliant effort by all involved and excellently organised by BSBI Vice County Recorder Andy Amphlett.  Highlights were finding good populations of a couple of scarce sedges locally, Carex hostiana and Carex pallescens (tawny and pale sedge) and their Anthracoidea fungi, and getting fixed in my mind that “molly has hairy knees” when trying to remember which is which of the two 
'Molly has hairy knees'
Holcus grasses regularly encountered.  Once you get your eye in the difference between these two ‘soft’ grasses is reasonably obvious but if in doubt look down the plant and Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus) is generally softly hairy.  Creeping soft-grass (Holcus mollis) on the other hand is ‘glabrous’ (no hairs) apart from ‘white beards at the nodes’, the swollen joints along the grasses stem.  Hence the schoolboy mnemonic to distinguish it from Yorkshire fog, ‘molly has hairy knees’!

After a morning of data entry I went for a walk in one of the local aspen stands following up a request from Brian C to check for a rarely recorded parasite of the lichen Physconia distorta, a species I occasionally see on trunks of older aspen trees.  However, there were too many other distractions, the first one being a large, orange fungus growing in grassy vegetation amongst the aspens.  Long ago, when fungus expert Peter Orton used to make his annual recording visit to Abernethy Forest, these 
Leccinum aurantiacum
same aspens were visited to try and find ‘a large orange boletus’ which Peter had been involved in describing for the first time, as a species new to science.  In this same woodland there could always be the chance of finding the commoner orange birch bolete (Leccinum versipelle) but, having been caught out with this one once before when found growing under aspens, (very black scales on the stem of the fungus), I was fairly certain that the colours on the ‘stipe’ (stem) this time were pointing to something different.  The stipe however, had been quite badly attacked by slugs, so not quite as obvious as it should have been.  This group of fungi have pores under the cap rather than gills so to help with identification, a small section of the caps was removed to take home to check for spores.  
Sclerophora peronella pinheads
All the time I was looking at and photographing the fungus several small flies were landing on it and, I assume, laying eggs in the cap, the fungus providing a food supply for their larvae once the eggs hatched.  If you want to see how many wee larvae live and grow within a large Boletus fungus, try cutting one open to view the inside.  Having once collected several ceps/penny buns (Boletus edulis) and popped them into a pan to make mushroom soup, I was put off ever doing this again by the sheer number of larvae that came floating to the top of the pan!  I digress.  I got back to checking aspens, briefly, and found a small population of the pinhead lichen Sclerophora peronella, one of the species ‘missing’ from this particular aspen wood despite visits by experts and checks of hundreds of aspens 
Stump puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme) spewing spores
Stump puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme)
by myself, many with typical sections of canker decays, the right habitat for the lichen.  A large group of puffballs were the next distraction, growing from the base of a fallen aspen, so more photos particularly trying to capture one, of the spores being spewed out.  Once home this turned out to be, appropriately, the stump puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme), confirmed by checking the abundant supply of spores.  The distractions continued and around the base of a standing aspen I could see a large population of inkcaps, not as big and bold as the lawyers wig in the last blog, but none the less 
Coprinopsis atramentaria
impressive as some of the caps had reached the deliquescing (inky spore release stage).  There was decay in the aspen base and the common inkcap (Coprinopsis atramentaria) was popping up in quantity from its typical deadwood habitat.  The big orange fungus turned out to be not the very rare aspen fungus Leccinum albostipitatum, but its look-alike Leccinum aurantiacum, confirmed with a little help from expert Liz.

Way back in April, as I was undertaking the aspen ground truthing work, I came across a group of very big poplars close to the A9 whose catkins didn’t look right for the tree often just listed as Balsam poplar a species often found in the Firwood blogs.  The twigs were also covered with the tiny pinhead lichen Phaeocalicium populneum so I was keen to correctly identify the tree in case it was a 
Phaeocalicium populneum pinhead
new host.  At the time there were just catkins but none of the all-important leaves and little of the strong Balsam scent, so, on the way back from daughter Ruth’s I pulled off the A9 and wandered over to collect a twig with a few leaves.  Little did I know what I was starting!  I was suspicious back in April that I was dealing with a hybrid black poplar (Populus x canadensis) but on checking the leaves in front of me I wasn’t too sure.  Hybrid black poplar leaves are green on both sides, lack any hairs and the leaf stem (petiole) is flat in section.  It was obviously not that species and as I looked at twig and leaves I noticed what looked like a bit of twig attached to a leaf, which I tried to remove.  I 
Peppered moth larva (Biston betularia)
then realised the ‘twig’ was alive, and was a big caterpillar mimicking brilliantly the leaf stems and twigs around it, so more photos to help identify the species once home before carefully removing it and re-attaching to twigs on a low branch.  The caterpillar turned out (with the help of Mike) to be the larva of the peppered moth (Biston betularia), if only the poplar had been as easy to identify.  Confused by the contradicting information on the key features of the leaves of the Balsam poplar group, I passed the leaves on to BSBI expert Andy, who responded by providing an identification key.  However, leaf shape, presence or absence of hairs again didn’t always seem to correspond with what I had collected and so started a month of poplar leaf collecting and with Andy’s logic, measuring and leaf scanning, a picture started to develop for the species of Balsam poplars we were seeing.  All Balsam poplars have been introduced and have probably proved popular because of their wonderful display of heavily scented catkins in spring and with much showier leaves than our native aspen, Populus tremula.  They are also quite large, fast growing trees.  The books list 4 regular 
Populus tricocarpa leaf
Two lengths of hairs on leaf stem of Populus 'Balsam Spire'
species of Balsam poplars, - Eastern Balsam-poplar (Populus balsamifera) the one always casually listed as Balsam poplar when found, Western Balsam-poplar (Populus trichocarpa), and two hybrids Populus 'Balsam Spire' (a hybrid between P. balsamifera and P. trichocarpa) and Populus x jackii (a hybrid between P. balsamifera and Populus deltoids a hybrid black poplar).  All the trees have their origins in America or Canada.  As Andy and I collected leaves he worked at linking the leaf sizes, shapes and stem (petiole) hairs to those described in the books.  The best guidance came from the “New Flora of the British Isles by Clive Stace” who seemed to have followed exactly the same method as Andy and gradually leaves from the four species of trees listed earlier were found.  Interestingly, the tree we casually listed previously has turned out to be the rarest.  As the correct species became clearer a big effort was made to re-visit all the sites where our “Balsam poplar” records had originated whilst collecting leaves from any new sites along the way.  Because I had been visiting these trees to look for the tiny pinhead lichen I had quite a list of locations and the conversion from Balsam poplar to the correct species, has, so far produced Western Balsam-poplar x14 locations, Populus 'Balsam Spire'x5, Populus x jackii x3 and Eastern Balsam-poplar x2.  In addition, leaves I collected from a site near Aviemore could be yet another species, but much more information on key 
A Balsam Poplar yet to be identified
tree and leaf features will be needed to complete the task.  At the end of the day the identifications were made on the shape of the leaves, whether heart-shaped or triangular and where the leaf was widest and, possibly less problematic, whether there were any hairs on the petiole and whether all were short, sparse or of two different lengths.  Possibly the easiest to identify was Populus x jackii with leaf and petiole so hairy the whole thing felt downy.  Andy also became quite proficient at identifying the trees from branch angles and shape of crown.  Interestingly, the tiny Phaeocalicium populneum pinhead lichen that started the whole project has been found on twigs of at least one of the trees of each species identified, and the tree that started the whole thing is one of the Western Balsam-poplar records.  Phew!

There has also been follow up work with the bladder ferns (Cystopteris species) following the finds mentioned in the last blog.  There are two species, the commoner brittle bladder fern and the rare Dickie’s bladder fern.  At one site where I recorded brittle bladder fern (Cystopteris fragilis) in the past a check by Andy showed the fern to be the rarer Dickie’s bladder fern (Cystopteris dickieana).  
Cystopteris dickieana spores x600
Cystopteris dickieana spores x1000 oil
To confirm the correct species a small sample, with spores (found on the back of the fronds) had been taken home to check under the low-powered microscope, and when the spores lacked spines and showed ‘cracks’ on their surface, Andy knew he had the rarer fern.  So, the question raised was whether any of my other brittle bladder sites had been incorrectly identified, and, during October six sites were re-visited.  The ferns are mostly found on rock outcrops and, to ensure I knew what the Dickie spores looked like, I visited the site incorrectly named by me in 2011.  With most of the ferns now past their best, mostly brown and drooping, I tapped a few fronds against a glass slide until I could see some spores had been dislodged and then secured another glass slide on top with blutac and packed the whole thing in one of my sealable plastic food boxes to take home.  Dickie’s bladder fern 
Cystopteris fragilis spores x600
Cystopteris fragilis spores x1000 oil
is rare enough to be a protected species and a licence is required to pick or damage the plant.  A Puccinia fungal rust was also found on the leaves of harebell flowers which has yet to be fully identified.  Back home I put the glass slide under the microscope and for the first time was able to see Dickie’s bladder fern spores, spineless and with the black ‘cracks’ on their surface.  One down, six to go.  The Bridge of Brown site was confirmed as the commoner fern but it was the next outing to the Craigmore section of RSPB Abernethy NNR that produced the first, pleasant surprise.  Originally 
A typical set of bladder fern fronds (Brittle bladder fern)
Bladder fern fronds late in the season
recorded as brittle bladder fern the small sample of frond taken home (licence not required because species not known) turned out to be Dickie’s bladder fern, a new species for the reserve.  Lesson to be learned, always take a sample home to check, when fern first found.  The next three were all found to be the commoner version but the last site, found during the aspen ground truthing survey earlier in the year produced one small population of brittle but a slightly bigger population of Dickie’s, possibly, the first time the two have been found growing on the same crag.  The rarer fern was first found by Dr George Dickie, the same man who first found the tiny fungus on the twinflower leaves covered in an earlier blog, so nice to link up again. 

Whilst checking out the Bridge of Brown site I noticed quite a lot of heather burning taking place on the adjacent grouse moor, possibly with a bit more flame and smoke than the keepers would have liked.  Dry weather during October has allowed lots of heather burning with some moors looking a bit ‘over done’.  I know this management isn’t very beneficial to wildlife, destroying as it does many 
Muir burn for red grouse
square kilometres of upland habitat purely aimed at artificially increasing the number of red grouse available for shooting, mainly driven grouse shooting.  I’m not against the walked-up form of grouse shooting which supports many jobs and with benefits to local economies, but to hear that grouse moor management benefits all sorts of other wildlife including wading birds, just doesn’t appear true to me when visiting these moors during breeding bird surveys.  These ‘benefits’ are supposed to be delivered because of intensive predator control but again at what costs to wildlife, particularly our small mammals.  The sheer number of legally set funnel traps (with fen trap inside the cage), is 
Funnel trap and fire engine
immense and, in some places, right in your face as I have been seeing by the road back from Bridge of Brown.  I have considered for a while stopping to photograph one of two traps set right by this road (the A939 road between Grantown on Spey and Tomintoul) and on this day, when I saw a fire engine parked by the same road, I just had to stop to take that photo.  The fires seen earlier had been out of control, and the local fire brigade had been called in to help out!  On other outings I have found a dead dipper in one of these traps on Crown Estate land near the Lecht, and a thrush in one at a site near Newtonmore where I also saw the biggest numbers of released red-legged partridges to date.

Having handed over the reins of the Loch Garten butterfly transect at the end of last season, I was invited to the recorders’ end of season gathering at Forest Lodge.    With the meeting planned for early afternoon I drove up early so that I could check a couple of sites for some of the rarer tooth fungi, one of which (Hydnellum cumulatum) had failed to appear this year at two of its other known sites.  At the first ex-quarry, parting the hanging vegetation confirmed that Hydnellum gracilipes was still there and looking quite healthy.  At the next quarry it took a lot more searching to find any trace of H. cumulatum, but eventually a small amount was found hidden behind hanging vegetation rather than on the top edge of the old quarry.  The search at this site also produced another seldom seen tiny, orange fan-shaped fungus Stereopsis vitelline, completing a hat-trick of fungi probably not recorded 
Hydnellum gracilipes
close together anywhere else in the UK this year.  All seemed to have gone well on the butterfly transect in what was a cool and testing recording season.  The meeting raised a few queries about recording protocol which were mostly addressed.  Alison’s cakes were also very good!  Well done the butterfly transect recorders.  Whilst looking for the fungi a tiny insect caught my eye as it wandered across a plant, a miniature form of a lobster.  Having encountered these amazing wee insects a couple of times before I realised I was looking at a Pseudo-scorpion, not a scorpion at all but a member of the arachnida, the same family as spiders.  Despite their small size these animals do look like a small scorpion, but without a sting in the tail.  Amazingly, there are 27 known species of 
pseudo-scorpions in the UK with 12 of them fairly common.  The only way my specimen could be identified was by going to be checked by an expert, so a name is currently awaited.  All this tramping through the deeper vegetation looking for ‘things’ continues to attract ticks many of which attach themselves to my body with about ten found on one particularly bad day.  Not sure why, but as autumn approaches we seem to get many more of the bigger, brown variety of this not very welcome 
Tick horror waiting for victim
wee beastie, and these take a little more effort to pull out with finger nails kept just that little bit longer during the tick season, just for this task.  Once again, the location of one removal started to develop the dreaded red ring and another two week course of Doxycycline, Lyme disease tablets had to be undertaken.  I should keep a count of the number of ticks removed in a season just to shock myself! 

The visits to rock outcrops to check for bladder ferns also produced other interesting sights.  At several locations beech ferns (Phegopteris connectilis) have also been present, a little past their bright-green summer best as they change to a very subtle shade of very pale green to almost white.  This fern is easily identified by the way the bottom two pair of ‘leaves’ (pinnae) bend down and 
Pale leaves of beech fern (Phegopteris connectilis)
Frond and sori of lemon-scented fern (Oreopteris limbosperma)
forward a little from the other leaves.  Another common fern in the damper rock outcrop locations is lemon-scented fern (Oreopteris limbosperma).  Initially this fern looks like many of the other large ferns like male fern but turning it over to check the underside of the leaves helps to identify it.  You will find all the spore-bearing sori run along the outside edge of the secondary ‘leaves’ (pinnules) making identification fairly easy.  At another rock outcrop it was nice to be re-acquainted with the orange fungus growing round the stems of a group of grasses.  This is the Choke fungus (EpichloĆ« typhina) and one thing I noticed for the first time was that the grass stems with the fungus didn’t have any flower-heads.  On checking sites on the internet I found that the common name is explaining 
Choke fungus
what the fungus does to the grass – it chokes it, leading to the loss of seed production, hence no flower-heads.  The fungus also makes the grass less susceptible to grazing by herbivores, yet another mix of symbiotic relationships.  There is also a fly involved in ensuring the fungus is spread around successfully.  I also found out that the fungus might not be E. typhina, as six species of EpichloĆ« have been recorded in Britain.  More specimen collections needed in the future!  One of the Choke sites was found whilst checking the amazingly productive green shield-moss site found last year, where 
Pink feet passing over
around 150 capsules were found.  This doesn’t appear to be a good year for capsule production with just 10-20 capsules present this year.  However, about 50 new capsules were found on a Norway spruce root-plate just a few metres away.  Whilst out and about there were lots of mainly pink-footed geese passing over and towards the end of the month the first redwings were arriving.  RSPB/Community Ranger Alison also had an amazing count, 63 whooper swans roosting on Loch Garten, the highest count to date.

Whilst looking after grandsons Finlay and Archie I decided to take them to see the Glenmore reindeer, not at the reindeer centre but in the enclosure by the road up to Cairngorm.  Having passed the same enclosure several times this year I had always seen the reindeer in the area where they are 
There they are
fed and where visitors are taken to see them.  No problem then.  We parked off the Cairngorm road and spent the first half an hour messing about climbing on the branches of an ancient but leaning Scots pine, well Finlay and Archie did!  After descending down to the Allt Mor burn we climbed out on the other side and eventually arrived at the enclosure with not a reindeer to be seen, well not within easy viewing distance.  However, looking quite a way up the path a couple of reindeer were grazing right by the path and close by there were more inside the enclosure fence.  Phew!  So, with 

the promise of chocolate biscuits if we carried on up the path to where the animals were, on we walked.  Because these reindeer are used to meeting visitors the ones outside the fence just carried on grazing as we approached, and the big snorting male inside the fence seemed determine to try and see off the couple of males on the outside of the fence.  All good fun and as we sat to munch our biscuits I was a little surprised that the reindeer didn’t wander over to see if we had some for them. 

Whole body scans were also something new during the month and the nurse wasn’t joking when she said for one of the scans it would be like going into a building site!  But more about these in future blogs.  Also, on the 24th the first snows appeared on the tops but the month ended with temperatures in the mid-teens.

Enjoy the read
Stewart and Janet

Grass structures
Dickie’s bladder fern Firwood blog October 2007
Dr George Dickie twinflower and bladder fern Firwood blog May 2013
Mark Avery’s blog with more information about grouse moors and hen harriers
Introduction to parts of a fern
Buglife link to pseudo-scorpions
Fungal Records Database of Britain and Ireland (FRDBI)
BSBI – Botanical Society of the British Isles
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

Bonny aspen leaves
Heavy rain at Loch Mallachie
To complete a rainy end - rainbow over Dorback Estate

Photos © Stewart Taylor