Monday, 21 December 2015

Fun with aspens and juniper bushes

On the 1st November, a day of brilliant weather, I re-visited a mainly woodland site with exciting potential by the River Findhorn at Ardclach, first visited during the summer.  On that occasion I found ancient ash trees hanging thick with Lobarian lichens so kept in mind the need for a second 
Ardclach - the way in
visit, which didn’t disappoint.  On my first visit I struggled to get into the wood down a very steep slope before realising that there was a fisherman’s “path” complete with rope handrail across what looked like an impassable rock-face along the edge of the river.  Rock-face negotiated I made my way to the woodland area where the first visit ended and checked the first ash tree.  The tree was covered in lichens classed as quite rare in this part of Scotland, more a feature of west of Scotland woodland, with masses of lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria), textured lungwort (L. scrobiculata), Peltigera collina, Nephroma laevigatum and big populations of Degelia plumbea.  In a wee hollow a crustose lichen had me scratching my head but made me think of Pannaria mediterranea, later 
Degelia plumbea (brown on grey) and Normandina pulchella (blue/green)
confirmed, and with just a couple of records local to Ardclach.  A plant with unusual leaves also had me baffled and it was only with help from plant specialist Ian that I arrived at tutsan, a plant easier to identify when displaying its bright yellow flowers.  I stopped for lunch by yet another ancient ash and checked the tree as I munched.  The Degelia lichen was present again, covering much of the lower trunk of the tree and another greenish lichen was growing with it/on it Normandina pulchella, something I had seen only a couple of times previously.  Obvious black dots (a parasite) also on the 
Degelia plumbea and parasite Toninia plumbina (black spots)
Degelia required me to take a tiny sample home to check.  These ‘parasites’ are known as lichenicolous fungi and though a lichen is a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga, the lichenicolous fungus is not the same as the fungus component of the lichen (confusing ain’t it!).  In addition, lichenicolous fungi live exclusively on lichens and most are host specific so if you can identify the lichen there is a good chance that you might be also able to name the parasite.  Amazing 
Toninia plumbina ascospore x1000 oil
ascospores appeared under the microscope, comprising four ‘segments’ and measuring 25 x 6┬Ám (microns or millionth parts of a metre) and when I looked up Degelia plumbea in The Lichens of Great Britain and Ireland handbook it told me that there was a parasite called Toninia plumbina, and my specimens and spores were of the right size.  The handbook also told me that the parasite was “very rare”.  Wow!  Despite there only being 21 UK records on NBN Gateway that amazing lichen expert Brian Coppins had found it in two woodlands adjacent to mine.  Brian had also recently asked me to look out for another rarely seen lichen parasite, but more about that one later.

The next day the last of the potatoes were lifted from the veg patch before I set off to collect more leaves from some of the remaining locations for the Balsam-type poplars mentioned in the last blog.  Some sites were nearby in Tulloch but others further afield out near Insh Marshes RSPB reserve.  As Andy also continued to visit the site he knew he was also developing an excellent guide covering the main features needed to identify the tree species from mainly, just the leaves.  As our knowledge increased a few sites had to be re-visited to collect more leaves to be certain of species and at one 
Stropharia pseudocyanea
group of trees right next to the A9 a group of amazing slightly slimy, greenish fungus were growing under the poplars so time for a few photos and a specimen for checking once home.  As my leaves arrived back at home I checked and tried to name correctly before passing on to Andy to double check and by the end of the first week of November most of the trees we knew about had been visited.  Ian Green was also visiting some of the known trees in the Morayshire area to add to the species distribution picture.  Andy also made progress with the mystery poplar near Aviemore and after arriving at a name he sent the leaves off to a BSBI Poplar referee to confirm that we had found Populus maximowiczii, a species new to Scotland.  Andy has now made his guide to identifying the Poplars available on the internet, just follow the link at the end of the blog.  The “amazing fungus” turned out to be from the Stropharia family of fungi but with two species being very, very similar I 
Effect of plaque revealer dye on cheilochrysocystidia on gills of
Stropharia pseudocyanea
had to contact expert Liz for help.  She agreed that it was either Stropharia cyanea or S. aeruginosa but suggested I needed to do something I had never attempted before and it involved something a dentist might recommend - blue plaque revealer tablets!  Under the microscope it is possible to see something called cheilochrysocystidia along the edge of the gills found under the cap of the fungus and by dissolving a bit of one of the tablets in water this mix was used to wet a section of gill as prepared on the glass microscope slide.  The cheilochrysocystidia on the gill of just one of the fungi would react by turning bright blue and this would confirm the species.  Amazing.  Under the microscope I could see bright blue, confirming that I was dealing with Stropharia cyanea.  Thank you Liz.

The entry in my diary for the 10th November asks “The end of life as I know it?”  This was the day for a return visit to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness to find out the results of two whole body scans carried out a few weeks earlier.  The scans were needed as a follow up after a biopsy revealed there was cancer in my prostate.  A new species to me but one with lots of dots on the UK distribution map.  The good news was that the cancer was contained and hadn’t spread to bones or body tissues.  Mr Douglas then explained to Janet and myself the three options open to me, two types of radiation based treatment or complete removal.  He also explained that I could choose to do nothing and probably live for many more years with little effect.  But if there was an effect……………..probably too late.  Removal was our option and the last visit to Raigmore saw me going through all the pre-op procedures so that I’m ready to go once a date is offered.  Personally, I don’t feel any different than before the diagnosis and am carrying on with all the things I normally do.  Fingers crossed that this is how it will be as we progress into 2016, but I’m not likely to be doing all the things I normally do for four to six weeks.  Perhaps I can bring it home and see how much I can raise from the ‘prostate fairy’!

On the 6th, Janet once again converted the chalet into her Christmas pop-up-shop with an amazing display of tweed crafts and additional displays of other local crafts.  A percentage of sales income 
went to support Marie Curie and despite the odd quiet day things went quite through to the last day on 22nd.  Daughter Laura came over for a few days to provide moral support but also to do a bit of walking with dad as we both sought out photo opportunities.  I introduced her to pipe club fungi (Macrotyphula fistulosa), both Sclerophora pinhead lichens growing together (a first?) and views to the Cairngorms, Sluggan Bridge and Abernethy Forest.  However, she won the photo competition 
The winner - Laura's snow shot
© Laura Taylor
with an amazing early evening shot of the first heavy snow fall lit-up with the street light just outside the house.

November has been the oddest of months weather-wise.  There were 9 night frosts the lowest being -40C but many mild days so much so that we still had lupins in flower, the rose bush with several flowers and buttercups, ragworts and daisies still in flower and even fox and cubs flowering just 
down the road.  Waxcap fungi continued to pop up and expert Liz even delayed her annual waxcap count at Haddo until mid-month when usually it is undertaken in October.  Whilst visiting Tulloch to look for Brian’s lichen parasite I was pleasantly surprised to see a group of pipe club fungus by the track and a wider search found about fifty fruiting bodies.  I just had to re-visit them a few days later when the snow had fallen to repeat my photo.  However, the snow had all gone a couple of days later 
Pipe-club fungus (Macrotyphula fistulosa
a few days later!
and the pipe clubs looked just fine.  Blackbird numbers in the garden increased as they normally do at this time of year and it was interesting to see the blackbird from the summer without a tail was still around. The tail had started to re-grow but completely white!  It never looked quite right though and within a couple of weeks all the white feathers had gone.  We got the feeling that there was something physically wrong with the bird’s tail and perhaps it was meant to go through life without 
one.  As the month progressed more whooper swans were passing overhead and a count of birds roosting on Loch Garten during a goose roost watch by ranger Alison produced a total of 63 swans, the highest count to date for the Abernethy Reserve.  I also made a big effort during the month to catch up with entering my records into MapMate, reaching the end of August and the running total reaching 6500!  Emptying the recycle bin on my photo external hard-drive was even more impressive – 14,000 photos (jpeg and RAW per photo), and that was just the deleted ones since August!  Quite a bit of time was spent being a press officer for the HBRG to try and publicise an amazing achievement by two Highland naturalists, one a long-standing member of the Group.  All the records I put into MapMate go initially to the data manager for the HBRG to be checked and then added to the Highland Region record database.  He then sends the records to The National Biodiversity Network (NBN) to add to the UK distribution maps of the species recorded.  In 2010 the 50 millionth record 
 was added to this database!  To mark the amazing efforts of the people sending in their record the NBN Trust decided this year to offer awards to 4 people who had contributed immensely over many years.  Two awards were to be given for adult and junior recorders undertaking terrestrial and freshwater wildlife recording (my type of recording) and two similar awards for those involved in marine and coastal wildlife recording.  The Gilbert White adult award for terrestrial and freshwater wildlife recording was won by HBRG member Ian Evans and the late Pat Evans from Nedd in Sutherland and the David Robertson youth award for marine and coastal wildlife recording was won
Callum (left) and Ian with their NBN Awards
by Callum Ullman-Smith from Auchtertyre, in Ross-shire.  I was to attend the HBRG AGM in Lochcarron at the end of November to photograph the two winners and to send background information and photos of Ian and Callum to local Highland papers to publicise their success and highlight their recording efforts in Highland Region.  Lots of phone calls and emails and in the end several papers carried the story.  I might have also managed to get the BBC Scotland Out of Doors team to meet and interview the winners for a programme sometime in the New Year.

The trip to Lochcarron had a couple of aims, take the winners’ photo and possibly to visit a lichen-rich woodland on the west coast in the couple of hours that would be spare.  There was lying snow at the 7am start and occasional snow showers until I reached Garve and then heavy rain until about ten miles before Lochcarron.  As the rain stopped I was close to Achnashellach and as I slowed down to 
West-coast rain!
find a quite loo stop I noticed several trees by the side of the road covered in lichens, probably the good old lungwort again.  I parked up in a convenient Forestry Commission car park, donned my waterproofs, and made my way back to the roadside trees.  The damper climate of the west coast is ideal for lichen growth and apart from the trees being covered with lungwort and textured lungwort 
Roadside tree covered in lungwort lichen
Lobaria virens
there was another Lobaria present in quantity, L. virens, a lichen I had only seen three times previously and only once on my ‘own patch’.  Passing motorists must have wondered what this strange man was doing staring at trees!  A new one for me was Degelia atlantica and a jelly lichen turned out to be Leptogium saturninum, a new species to that area.  Time to push on to the AGM where Ian and Callum were photographed with their awards followed by two excellent presentations by Roo Campbell covering his work with Scottish Wildcats and Becky Priestly and the red squirrel reintroduction project.  To make the most of the journey there were swift goodbyes and I drove back down the road a little where lunch was spent wandering through a bit of hazel and oak woodland before setting off on the 95 mile drive back home.  A grandson-sitting evening finished of a long but enjoyable day.

Two emails mid-month started a bit of serious searching during late November.  One was a request for a sample of a lichen parasite for DNA work and the other informed me of a recent find of a tiny Mycena fungus found growing on juniper which was new to Britain.  The parasite required old aspens and the fungus old juniper bushes with both being in good supply locally.  The lichen parasite, 
Physconia distorta (black circles are re-productive apothecia)
Opegrapha rotunda (a lichenicolous fungus) had only been recorded a few times in the UK (about x10) which was a little surprising considering that the host lichen, Physconia distorta is fairly common.  This lichen was to be found quite regularly on older aspen trees and I saw it often enough on outings to only record it occasionally, but knew it occurred on the local aspens in nearby Tulloch.  The host lichen, which turns from grey/brown when dry to a brilliant green when wet would be easy to see after rain so that was when I made my first visit.  It’s funny though isn’t it, you think something is common until you go looking for it and that was the case on my first outing, when only 
The tiny black central 'spots' are the parasite Opegrapha rotunda
tiny scraps of the host were found.  More luck on the next outing with a few trees supporting big populations of the Physconia and then the search really began.  The host could be classed as generally ‘circular’ in shape with individuals growing 3-4” in size, but that is the easy bit.  The parasite is also circular, black, but with the fruiting body (apothecia) just a half to one millimetre in diameter and was to be looked for on the ‘leafy’ sections of the host (the thallus).  My first bit of excitement turned out to be an error with the small, black ‘spots’ belonging to a Bacidia lichen and 
Opegrapha rotunda asci (sort of spore 'sack') x1000 oil
Opegrapha rotunda ascospores x1000 oil
not actually growing on the host!  The next outing though lead me to something that looked correct after checking several aspens, with the tiny black growths sporting a slightly rounded rim similar to the ones in the photo I had with me of host and parasite.  This aspen, with good populations of the Physconia, produced two population of whatever was growing on the host so one part of the lichen was carefully removed, complete with black growths.  The big test would be checking the ascospores under the microscope once home and with little guidance to be found on the internet I would have to rely on the lichen handbook for information.  Bingo, what was found under the microscope matched the description in the handbook so the specimen of Opegrapha rotunda was forwarded to Brian for 
Protective clothing for juniper bushes
Sticta limbata lichen rarely found on juniper
new to RSPB Abernethy Reserve
confirmation before passing on to the experts undertaking the DNA work.  The other information was about Mycena juniperina, a tiny fungus found on a juniper bush in the south of England which, when confirmed, was a species new to the UK.  This is a late autumn/early winter species so the time was right to go a-looking which is easier said than done.  Juniper bushes have lots of small needles some alive and many dead and as you push your way through them the needles go everywhere, so the use of waterproofs to stop the needles going down wellies, the back of the neck etc was needed.  Despite 
Ichneumen fly to be identified
lots of crawling in and out of many bushes the Mycena hasn’t been found but several unusual lichens have turned up many with few records with juniper as the host.  Whilst searching, a small ichneumon fly was found, which being late in the season might be something unusual and awaits being seen by that rare species an ichneumon expert.  Most unwelcome, on the last day of the month was a tick in the leg, hopefully the last one of the season and a by-product of the juniper searches.

Early November also saw my hopping out of bed early in the morning to check on one of the celestial highlights of the early winter – a spectacular coming together of three planets, Venus, Mars and Jupiter.  It was suggested that the best time to see this was just before dawn which around the 7th was between 5 and 6am.  The first morning was hopeless with lots of cloud but the following day there 
Venus bottom right and Mars to left, Jupiter top of photo
Moon bottom, Venus, Mars (just visible) and Jupiter
they all were, Venus and Jupiter shining brightly in the southern sky with the tiny dot of Mars side by side with Venus.  The camera and big lens was hurriedly put together, mounted on the tripod and, still clad in my pyjamas but with a warm jacket on top, I popped out into the house driveway and fired away, running off probably 50-80 shots as I varied shutter speed, aperture and zoom in the hope that the tiny spot of Mars would show up in the photo.  It just about worked.  The big test though was a couple of days later when for one morning the crescent moon would be in the middle of the triangle of planets, an even bigger test if Mars was going to be visible in the photo.  The clouds won and it wasn’t until the following morning that I was able to see planets and moon but in just one day the moon had moved to below the planets all three of which though were now in a line.  Again, the biggest test was to try and capture a shot of tiny Mars with the bright moon now in the picture.  As I tried to capture a photo it was amazing just how quickly the moon was descending towards the horizon. As it ‘dropped’ it met some mist created by cold air. The quartet were just about visible in one photo with the moon a bit of a hazy blob as it started to drop below the nearby trees.  Then it was back to bed for a couple of hours before getting round to checking the photos.  All good fun and almost successful.

Enjoy the read and with best wishes for Christmas and 2016
Stewart and Janet

West Coast lichen-rich woodland
NBN Gateway
Andy Amphlett’s guide to Poplar identification
National Biodiversity Network
NBN Trust UK Awards for Biological Recording and Information Sharing
Scottish Wildcat Action
Red squirrel reintroduction
Opegrapha rotunda
Come to Scotland the windfarm capital of Britain!  Sit down before opening the following!
Fungal Records Database of Britain and Ireland (FRDBI)
BSBI – Botanical Society of the British Isles
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

Photographing Opegrapha rotunda hasn't been easy
A bit of Ho, Ho, Ho in the pop-up-shop
Red deer in late afternoon when out with Laura

Photos © Stewart Taylor unless stated otherwise