Sunday, 14 February 2016

Flowerfield fun plus an Iceland and Glaucous gull start to 2016

Goodness, how true the “Sorry to spoil your New Year” email mentioned in the last paragraph of December’s blog turned out to be regarding the planning application for two chalets close to the Flowerfield orchid site.  Going through my diary I find that there was some involvement in visiting the site, trying to work out where roads and chalets would be, contacting the Highland Council planners and then when the application was ‘called in’ by the Cairngorm National Park (CNP) contacting their staff and generally gathering and passing on information to interested parties, over 17 days!  Very poor information given in the application, particularly covering exactly where buildings would be, where septic tank run off would go, which trees might have to be felled and, initially, a 
The 'L' shape of one proposed chalet in an ancient woodland site
complete lack of landscape and ecological information, meant many visits to the location.  From limited information I eventually managed to produce a map of where the chalets would be, then transferring that onto the ground at the site allowed myself and others involved in possibly objecting to see exactly what would be where.  Via the computer, and with the invaluable help of local BSBI Vice County Recorder Andy, information was gathered on how the number of the two key orchids at the Flowerfield meadow – lesser butterfly orchid and small white orchid – compared with other known UK sites.  Despite still waiting for an up to date count for a site in Wales where one of the two butterfly orchids grows (lesser or greater) the Flowerfield site is turning out to be one of the best in the UK for both species.  There are few individual sites with comparable counts for either species but when you consider that the Flowerfield site has BOTH species in numbers at levels of UK 
Cattle grazing close to the un-fenced boundary
importance, the site is proving to be exceptional.  And how does this all tie in with the planning application?  Currently, the Flowerfield ownership has an unfenced boundary with the land owned by the applicant and because of that there is an ad hoc grazing arrangement, whereby the cattle wander between the two ownerships, as they have done for possibly 50-60 years, and this level of grazing maintains the short sward which is proving to be ideal for the orchids.  If the chalet application is successful and this boundary is fenced or, the area of the two chalets is fenced, the current grazing levels could be altered with a knock on effect for the orchids.  In making the case for maintaining the 
Northern brown argus butterfly, one of the rarer butterflies
status-quo two excellent papers have been produced and forwarded to the CNP and the Scottish Governments conservation agency Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), one covering the important plants, including the orchids, and the other covering the Red Data Book moths that have also been recorded on the meadow.  As part of the information gathering process I was given access by SNH to what is known as the Glencairn file (as the site was known before it became Flowerfield), and the number of times designating the site as possibly an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) was raised without anything happening, is quite scandalous.  Few SSSI are designated anymore, so it is 
Before and after, orchid meadow on the left
unlikely that this could happen retrospectively.  Interestingly, the field comprising the current orchid meadow used to be much bigger until the 1980s when about half of it was fenced off as part of a woodland regeneration scheme.  It is interesting to see what the orchid site could turn into without the right level of cattle grazing, this photo is taken along the boundary of the two sections of the once bigger field.  The application will be determined at the CNP planning meeting on the 18th March 2016.

Close to the orchid meadow is another area with its own wee bit of importance.  Up until a few years ago there was a visitor attraction known as Auchgourish Gardens, by the B970 road which also runs past the orchid site.  When it closed I knew parts of it, particularly the ex-car parks, might be good for the plant heath cudweed (Gnaphalium sylvaticum), and a count carried out in September 2014 found 
Heath cudweed in flower
Heath cudweed after flowering
660 plants.  In late 2014, the ex-garden area and car parks were used to store logs, felled from the surrounding Scots pine plantation, ready for the timber wagons to load up and take to market, so I avoided visiting during last summer.  It took until about September 2015 for most of the logs to be removed from the site and on my way back from one of the Flowerfield visits I decided to pop in to see whether the plants had survived in reasonable numbers.  Despite storage of timber not being too good for the cudweed during log storage time, ground disturbance would, ultimately, benefit the plant by creating bare ground conditions it likes.  Despite my visit being on the 3rd January I knew the plants from the summer would still be quite visible, standing erect like mini Christmas trees.  As I visited each of the ex-car parks the numbers began to build with the biggest count coming from the uppermost car park – 230!  In total, 540 old flower spikes were found so not a bad count.  As I wandered back and forth counting the uppermost car park I suddenly noticed something quite odd, a 
Corkscrew rush (Juncus effusus f. spiralis)
Close up of corkscrew rush
ground hugging plant comprising a mass of ‘curls’.  On closer inspection it looked like a rush species (Juncus), almost like someone had taken a set of curling tongues to the normally tall spikes of soft rush (Juncus effusus).  There had to be a strong possibility that this was something that had ‘escaped’ from the ex-gardens, so a small sample was taken home, along with a photo or two, to check.  The obvious starting point was to type “curly rush” into Google and sure enough pictures of the garden plant the “corkscrew rush” popped up.  One problem was solved, I was dealing with a garden escape, a non-native plant, going by the name of Juncus effusus f. spiralis, and a quick check with the man that used to run the garden confirmed that he had had a few plants within the garden set up but nowhere near where I had found my plant.  It just goes to show how quickly new plants can become established in the wild.  However, if you check for Juncus effuses var. spiralis on NBN you will see that there is a genuine native rush by that name, growing mostly in the west of Scotland, including the Outer Isles, so one to look out for when next we visit.  This native though doesn’t have the tight spirals found on the garden escape.

It has been quite a good bird month.  The number of tail-less blackbirds in the garden rose to two, possibly members of the same 2015 family?  Both were seen feeding on the large fat-cake together on several occasions.  A brambling was present all month so possibly more than one, and one of 15 species recorded on the ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ day, the commonest being chaffinch with an 
The two blackbirds without tails
estimate of around 50.  There were no corvids or house sparrows despite there being a light fall of snow but the sparrowhawk was a regular visitor as it was all month.  A text from Richard early in the month informed me that the glaucous gull from the last blog had been joined by an adult Iceland gull, both in amongst a couple of hundred other gulls in a flooded field next to Broomhill steam railway 
Greenfinch, brambling and chaffinch
Wow!  Sparrowhawk looking for breakfast
station.  Just as interesting was a flock of about 130 lapwings possibly having chosen the wrong month to return to breed but probably being tempted inland during yet another warm spell.  A day out to Findhorn on the 13th produced a couple of surprises.  After a light lunch at the Findhorn Foundation cafĂ© we made the most of a sunny day and wandered through the dunes to the pebbly shore to be greeted by a very high tide.  Dodging amongst the pebbles were several small groups of turnstones allowing us to get quite close before they flew off along the shore.  As we approached another group I fired off a few shots with the camera before trying to get a little closer by dodging about in the dunes.  Being quite bright I was having to use the tiny view-finder on the camera to see what I was photographing.  As we turned to head back to our lunch venue I spotted what I thought were more turnstones but this time wandering amongst lots of pebbles in the sandy dunes.  Being 
Turnstones and ringed plovers fly-past
Golden plovers
high tide I assumed these were birds that had been pushed off the shore in search of food or had been disturbed by us.  Having forgotten my binoculars I was assuming my camera was taking pictures of some of the same turnstones throughout and it was quite a surprise, once home, to see that there were turnstones in the first pictures, ringed plovers in the second set and the birds in the dunes turned out to be golden plovers.  Amazing!  As we walked back through the dunes I found a few small populations of the rare matt felt lichen (Peltigera malacea), a dune/sandy habitat specialist, the most 
Peltigera malacea lichen
photogenic being a small population growing in a limpet shell.  The month ended with quite a dump of snow with an accumulation of about six inches by mid-day.  Photographing the general mayhem of birds trying to get sunflower hearts from the feeder I noticed a robin popping up from a heap of snow cleared from below the feeders.  I fired a couple of shots off thinking of a robin and snow Christmas 
Stewart's robin
card which when checked wasn’t quite good enough so, just for a bit of fun, I put the photo on the BBC weather watchers website along with the weather details.  Watching the weather forecast at the end of the Scottish news, there was my robin, another success.  That though wasn’t the end and later in the day one of my photos of the snow falling in the village made it to the BBC continuous news channel!

An email early in January from David Genney, SNH’s Bryophytes, Fungi and Lichens expert informed me that funding had been secured for a contract to survey for the green shield-moss (Buxbaumia viridis) in the wooded glens to the west of Inverness.  Two bryophyte experts were to be employed to carry out the searches but to let them see the moss and the sort of deadwood habitat where it grew, would it be possible for me to take the three of them round a few of my Abernethy Forest sites.  I visited some of my sites to ensure the moss was present and on the 19th the three of 
The green shield-moss trio checking the moss
Spot the caper
them spent the morning with me visiting three different species of dead trees along with one ex-wood ant nest.  I light dusting of snow actually made the upright capsules quite a bit easier to see and several photos were taken of the capsules popping out of the snow.  One of Dave’s photos looked very impressive and after I had said cheerio to the trio I packed my camera bag and returned to one log where there might be photographic potential.  After taking my pictures I headed back to the car and with the nearby young Scots pines covered in a dusting of snow and frost I set the camera up to take a photo.  Something in the background then caught my eye – a male capercaillie was feeding on pine needles right at the top of one of the trees.  In the gathering late afternoon gloom I was just about able to capture a shot of trees, snow, frost and caper all in the same picture.  What an end to a great day out and good luck Clare and Julie with the searches, not an easy task.

Late in the month I attended a committee meeting for the HBRG in Strathpeffer.  The date clashed with the madcap event called the Strathpuffer, a twenty-four hour endurance event involving riding mountain bikes on forest tracks for both individuals and teams.  When I attend the HBRG meetings in Strathpeffer I always set off early so that I can make a quick visit to Rogie Falls and adjacent woodland, and, with the meeting ending at about 1pm, a visit to another site that might prove to be 
Bifid crestwort (Lophocolea bidentata)
Bifid crestwort leaf cells x1000
interesting.  Rogie Falls has been a site for the green shield-moss in the past so a couple of the ancient dead trees are always worth checking.  The moss wasn’t found but an unusual looking liverwort was on a log, a group of species I know very little about.  So photos were taken along with a small sample for checking.  Back home, after quite a while squashing some of the liverwort leaves and checking The Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland handbook, the name Lophocolea bidentata (bifid crestwort) was arrived at, quite a common species so one I’d not noticed previously. The afternoon visit took me past the entrance to the Forestry Commission woodland where the Strathpuffer event 
Carex flacca and
Anthracoidea fungus
Anthracoidea pratensis spores x100
was being held and, with hundreds of cars parked close to the site, I decided this wasn’t the place for my afternoon outing.  On previous visits to the area I had noticed what looked like an old quarry right next to the Ullapool road and close to Rogie Falls, and that is where I headed.  A lot of rock had obviously been removed in the past and it looked like the quarry had been closed for quite some time due to the amount of plant and trees species now present on the site.  The actual rock face looked just too dangerous to visit, especially after frost when a following thaw makes some rocks quite unstable and loose.  My initial thoughts were that the quarry wasn’t going to produce anything too unusual so I decided just to make a list of all the plants that could be identified from their winter remains plus any evergreens.  There was a lot of water on the quarry floor and the remains of one of the sedges was regularly found.  Short hairs on the dead sedge fruits lead me towards Carex flacca and when I found black fungal balls on some fruits I just had to take a few samples back to check.  The sedge was C. flacca (glaucous sedge) and, despite this being the middle of winter the fungus on the fruits still had readily identifiable spores leading to the amazing name of Anthracoidea pratensis, the most northerly record to date.  Despite this being winter-time 46 species of plants were recorded along with a tiny population of the lichen Lobaria pulmonaria on an ancient goat willow.  It would be interesting to re-visit the site during the summer months.

It was sad to hear of the death of Terry Wogan on the 31stJanuary, an easy going broadcaster who, for a few years, made the Eurovision Song Contest fun to listen to.  The songs were mostly terrible, but the commentary was always witty and to the point.  However, not a programme I have listened to for probably the last 20 years!  Neither was I one of the TOGs, regular radio listeners known as Terry’s 
The Lecht ski-road a good job done by the redoubtable 'Mrs Mackay'
Old Geezers and Gals.  As all the tributes flowed the one person I didn’t hear mentioned was the famous old lady that helped keep one of our local roads open after winter-time snows – Mrs Mackay!  When the roads reports were read out on the Radio Two morning programme you would often hear that the A939 Cockbridge to Tomintoul road (over the Lecht ski area) had been closed because of deep snow.  Wogan would often be heard to joke that the redoubtable Mrs Mackay, the one woman snowplough, would be out with her shovel clearing the road!

As I complete this blog the date with doctor and robot is just a few days away (operation 17 February) when my walnut sized prostate will be removed.  4 to 6 weeks is the suggested recovery time, possibly longer, so there is likely to be a ‘short intermission’ in blog production.

Enjoy the read
Stewart and Janet

Sites of Scientific Interest details
Firwood Blog and heath cudweed Auchgourish Gardens
Juncus effusus var. spiralis photos
and NBN distribution of the native spiral rush
NBN Gateway
Strathpuffer Event
Fungal Records Database of Britain and Ireland (FRDBI)
BSBI – Botanical Society of the British Isles
Highland Biological Recording Group (HBRG)
and how to join HBRG

Glaucous gull
Iceland gull
Bynack Mor and the Cairngorms from Nethybridge
The flock of early lapwings
Photos © Stewart Taylor