Sunday, 31 January 2016

A warm, cold, wet and windy month

The major event at Firwood this month has been starting work in the area of land, to the rear of the chalet, purchased from the local estate last summer, a condition being that a boundary fence should be erected.  With the six month deadline looming, materials were purchased comprising four strainer posts, fifteen stock fence posts, wire and rylock, and once our neighbours RSPB had tightened up the 
One strainer post, 2 more to go
boundary fence between us and them, strainer post holes were dug.  It has been quite a while since I did any ‘real’ fencing but once back into the swing of things the strainers were installed, top and bottom wires attached ready for the fence posts.  Me on the mell/maul (the big hammer for the posts) and Janet on the post-holder, we progressed quite well over a day and with a loan of wire strainers 
Jamie at work on the Scots pine
The last cut leaving most of the stump for wildlife
from RSPB, everything was tightened and stapled ready for the rylock later in the month.  One of the reasons for buying the land was to allow us to have better control over the growth of bigger tress over the old ‘boundary’, and with local tree surgeon Alban booked for a day, some of the trees were to be managed.  The main threat would be to the garage and chalet particularly with ever increasing number of extreme gale events, and the main tree to be tackled, was, sadly, the big Scots pine towering over the garage.  The limbs were removed but a large section of the trunk was retained for deadwood with potential for woodpecker and crested tit nest sites.  A little of the birch with the nestbox close to the chalet was to be worked on but when the tree surgeons saw it from above more decay could be seen so most of the limbs had to be removed.  The nestbox remains.  A couple of other birches with top decay were top felled leaving most of the trees and the long branches to allow squirrels tree top access to the feeders.  Once the trees had been completed the rylock was attached to the fence followed by lots of log and branch stacking right into the new year.

Searches of juniper bushes for the tiny Mycena fungus mentioned last month continued but without success.  A bonus though was finding a common plant called selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) by the track to Forest Lodge, Abernethy, with what looked like muck splashed from the track all over its leaves.  I’m not fooled that easily so a leaf was picked and checked under the hand-lens revealing what 
Selfheal leaves with Leptotrochila prunellae fungus
Leptotrochila prunellae spores x1000 oil
looked like a black fungus growing in star shapes on the leaf surface.  Once home it was confirmed as a fungus, one of the ones appearing in the winter months, but it was a bit immature making it difficult to find spores.  Checking the books led me to two possible species and by checking photos/drawing for both via Google, I arrived at Leptotrochila prunellae.  Despite the host plant being common, the FRDBI website lists only 34 records, several of which are duplicates, so a fungus which hasn’t been seen that often.  My other theory is that being a winter fungus, not many people, once again, are looking!  A second leaf collection from the plants at the end of the month did produce spores but something else that might be a parasite so watch this space having sent the specimens off to the experts at Kew.

The weather through December has been quite remarkable, down to -70C one night and rising to 12-130C on some days.  There was 4” of snow one morning but the month ended with gales and very heavy rain as we saw from the events over on Royal Deeside.  The fall of snow came as a shock to birds and plants alike and suddenly there was a big demand for bird food in the garden.  Lots of 
Male bullfinch eating honeysuckle seeds
chaffinches as usual, siskins were back in numbers and a couple of bullfinches have been feeding on the plentiful honeysuckle fruits from last summer.  The most unusual bird though was a single song thrush, which to many folk wouldn’t be that unusual, but locally song thrushes disappear for the winter months, so this one must have hung on due to the mild weather.  With good numbers of chaffinches, goldfinches, coal tits, blue tits and great tits visiting the feeders a female sparrowhawk 
A just visible sparrowhawk, no breakfast on this visit
Whooper swans near Broomhill Bridge
has also been a regular visitor, just missing a male brambling on one charge through the garden.  As heavy rains fell towards the end of the month the River Spey came over the flood banks and filled the adjacent farm fields drawing in greylag geese and families of whooper swans.  What an attraction managed flooded farm fields would be to local and visiting birdwatchers if this was how some areas could be managed on an annual basis.  As the water continued to rise the Spey almost reached the B970 between Nethybridge and Boat of Garten requiring Carol from the post office to hop into a canoe to get from her house to the B970 to get to work each day!  A rarity was also making daily use of the flooded fields close to Broomhill steam railway station – a glaucous gull, which, along with many of the other big gulls (herring and greater black-back) was finding good feeding in and around 
Adult glaucous gull nearest to camera
the floods.  As the chaos increased on flooded Deeside a trip to Inverness on the 30th proved interesting.  Some culverts on minor roads and the A9 where overwhelmed turning some roads into rivers requiring road maintenance staff to try and remove the blockages and open up roadside drains to take the torrents.  On my way back from Inverness I thought it would be worth a visit to Carrbridge to see how the pack-horse bridge across the River Dulnain was faring.  This famous bridge which, under normal calm, tranquil conditions is very photogenic, becoming even more so after heavy rain.  
Gillian Smart BBC Scotland weather presenter & hydnellum photo
And the real photo!
As I drove towards the bridge it was pretty obvious from the number of folk on the road bridge, many with cameras, that something spectacular was happening.  With cars and folk all over the main road it took a wee while to get along the road to park in the village car park before walking back to see the spectacle, which didn’t disappoint.  I photographed the last major flood at this bridge in August 2014 (see blog September 2014 with the main photo loaned from a naturalist friend).  The level of water this time round was not quite as high but just as spectacular.  I grabbed a few photos with the wee Panasonic camera and once home put one onto the BBC Weather Watchers website along with the other bits of weather data like temperature and atmospheric pressure and was quite surprised to see it 
The first Weather Watcher photo to make it to TV
appear on the BBC Scotland weather report at 7pm!  And it wasn’t the first!  A call from Brother John early in the month, down in Lancashire informed me that there had been a photo of icicles on the national BBC weather that morning and it was from Nethybridge.  The Weather Watcher though had some strange name like hydnellum, was it me?  The day before I had been out, it was pretty chilly, and on the King’s Road track, close to the village bird feeders, the old tin shed, known locally as “Steel’s Shed” was just being caught by the early morning sun.  Round the back, hanging from the corrugated tin roof, were a mass of icicles; brown rusty tin background, shiny ice lit by the sun, it was worth a shot.  Next morning it made it to the BBC weather report – so worth the shot and you just never know.

Way back in June, in the warmth(?) of the summer, I visited one of the better populations of green shield-moss (Buxbaumia viridis) capsules, and, remembering the wee experiment a group of us had tried a couple of years ago, I went with a wee bottle sprayer and a small wooden ‘poker’ to visit them.  Just as last time, once a tiny bit of water (stream water not tap) had been sprayed onto the capsules and with the small plastic container in place by the top of the capsule, a gentle poke caused 
Green shield-moss capsule (Buxbaumia viridis)
the capsule to react, and a squirt of spores appeared in the container.  This was repeated and I was happy with the capture of four squirts of spores from just two capsules, leaving plenty more for the capsules to go about their normal reproductive business when next it rained.  Who knows, my wetting may have also caused the capsules to eject more spores after my visit because at several other sites, the cool but dry weather of last May and June left many capsules with spores intact, something I’m still finding six months on.  A bit of the non-tap water was added to the tubes with spores and it was off to a local woodland which looked suitable for the moss and for a trial spore inoculation.  The first site that looked suitable was a peaty/mossy plough-line with a Norway spruce root somewhere just below the surface.  Water was sprayed on to it to thoroughly wet it before a bit of the spore/water mix was added.  The next site was an obvious Norway spruce root, covered with moss, but where the tree 
Green shield-moss spores in tube
had been felled a couple of years ago and next to it was another Norway spruce root-plate; this one was still attached to the tree which had blown over a year ago.  Here a patch of a short growing moss looked suitable.  A little further away a similar blown-over Norway root-plate had what I would call a better coloured patch of moss on peat, and here the last mix of spores and water was added to the wetted spot.  As I had progressed, each inoculation site had been carefully marked with a slightly hidden bit of red and white tape.  Time to sit back and wait, well, until mid-November.  For some reason, the November visit didn’t find any capsules but a re-check a couple of weeks later found 
A capsule at one of the 'inoculation' sites
capsules at two of the four inoculation sites (x1 and x4), was this going to be a first?  The last time I tried this, spores were released at ten locations, again in a Norway spruce wood, with possible success at just one location.  However, when I checked a little more around the site, capsules were found at quite a few ‘natural’ sites, my site selection had been too good and the moss had been there all along.  The guidance from Dave Genney, the lower plants man at SNH and one of those initiating the first experiment, was have a good look around the other trees at the current inoculation site, just in case!  Yes, you have guessed it.  On the first check, a single green shield-moss capsule was found on top of the stump of possibly a conifer and on the second search visit, another single capsule was found, again on another tree stump.  So, once again my little trial had not quite stuck to the strict protocol required in this type of experiment, but, with the capsules at my inoculation sites growing right by the red and white marker tapes, I’m fairly happy that “it was me that got them there”.

Santa came and went and left Janet and myself a new toothbrush each, not just any old toothbrush but Oral-B Pro 3000 Cross-Action ones, a big improvement on the older versions.  Other presents comprised chocolates, beer, nice gin and clothes before we joined up with other family members for an enjoyable Christmas dinner, thank you Louise and Hugh.  Not content with one great food feast, we all gathered up again for another session at Firwood a few days later, with the youngsters testing 
Honey waxcap (Hygrocybe reidii) on New Years Day
out grandad’s goal-keepering skills.  We then had the end of year gales and rain and mild weather allowing chanterelles and the honey waxcap (Hygrocybe reidii) to continue popping up right through to the last day of the year.  These species were added to the new year day count organised by a few keen mycologists, adding to the 153 other species found by 18 other recorders, their highest count to date.  A most unwelcome email arrived on the 30th from the owners of the famous Flowerfield orchid meadow next to the B970, a new planning application had been lodged with Highland Council for two chalets in the adjacent field.  This development was hinted at about a year ago when six or eight 
chalets were being considered, the main problem being that any development could alter the vital 
Lesser butterfly orchid at orchid meadow
grazing levels that maintain the orchid site at its best.  As Jane and Jeremy’s email stated “Sorry to spoil your New Year” is turning out to be amazingly true.  The last few weeks have been spent visiting the site, collecting information and ensuring all the various expert are aware of developments, the reason this blog is running a little late.  My objection is just about finished and ready to be sent to the Cairngorms National Park planners who have called in the application and will be the ones to say yea or nay.  Hopefully I will manage another one before disappearing off to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary on the 16th February for a date with a doctor and a robot!

Enjoy the read
Stewart and Janet

Blog September 2014
Chalet planning application website – click on ‘Documents’
Hair ice
NBN Gateway
Fungal Records Database of Britain and Ireland (FRDBI)
BSBI – Botanical Society of the British Isles
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

Janet's new crafts - felted pendants
Hair ice - frozen moisture forced from dead wood
Archie loses tooth whilst at Firwood!
Rynettin and the Cairngorm Mountains

Photos © Stewart Taylor