Tuesday, 23 August 2016

See if you can find a fly that annoys you!

After keeping a list of bird species seen in the house garden for about 15 years were are pleased to announce a new species – common gull!  Usually, when bits of brown bread or left-over rice are thrown out in the garden the local rooks, jackdaws and, in summer, black-headed gulls dive in to pinch it all.  But, on the 2nd, I happened to be looking out of the window just in time to see a gull, with a completely white head drop in to grab whatever we had put out and it was only as it departed 
Juvenile great spotted woodpecker on the new Firwood garden 'stump' feature
that I shouted to Janet that we had just had a visit from a common gull.  Go back a decade and there were just a few localised breeding colonies, mostly comprising just a few pairs, but over recent years there seems to be about as many common gulls as black-headed gulls visiting local fields at ploughing-time, showing how numbers have increased.  At the same time, the number of black-heads has declined quite markedly and the evening roost of up to 4,000 birds on Loch Garten in the spring, is no more.  Many small colonies on local farmland pools or wee lochs has also declined perhaps leaving an opening for the common gulls?

Early in July one survey was giving way to another.  Having wandered over some of the Abernethy sites cleared of lodgepole pines, checking stumps for the appropriately named stump lichen (Cladonia botrytes), I was reaching the end of the easier access sites and getting close to a hoped for total of 50 locations.  In the May blog finding quite a few stumps with the lichen in one localised area was the highlight and it was completing the stump checking in an adjacent area that was to be my final area before other survey work took priority.  Despite this area looking none too suitable, stumps 
The natural Cladonia botrytes site a dead Scots pine tree
A good population of Cladonia botrytes
once again started to provide more records though the last outing produced a blank.  Pedalling back home thinking I was finished staring at stumps for a while, I was tempted to visit an area of similar fellings close to the track.  It would only take a few minutes!  Many of the 25 stumps looked suitable but didn’t support any stump lichens and as I circled round to make my way back to my bike I passed a long-dead fallen Scots pine supporting quite a good covering of the other Cladonia lichens that occupy this type of deadwood habitat.  As I have been checking stumps at other locations I have been also checking this sort of habitat – just in case- and at one location previously, the lichen was found on a decaying section of lodgepole pine trunk.  However, this was a Scots pine, a fallen tree, providing a natural ‘lump’ of deadwood compared to the man-created tree stumps and my day was 
One happy man!
well and truly made when I found a group of podetia belonging to Cladonia botrytes!  As far as I can find out this is the first time the lichen has been found on a naturally occurring piece of deadwood in the UK a fitting end to this period of stump checking.  And the total so far?  Of the 2500 stumps checked so far (stumps not counted for the first six outings so probably more than 3000) the lichen has been found on 45 of them giving a strike rate of one in every 50 stumps checked.  50 by the end of the year?  Watch this space.

The new survey mentioned above is the 2016 BSBI/Cairngorm National Park plant survey, targeting the under-recorded OS map squares comprising the Park.  This is the third year of involvement and the great thing about these surveys is wandering through areas that normally wouldn’t be visited and for me, finding other ‘things’ along the way.  My commitment covers 5 OS tetrads (2 x 2 kilometre squares) stretching from Laggan in the south to four others more local to home.  The first one of these was visited on the 6th July, a little later than my start date last year but a good time with most plants 
Remembering about willowherbs with 4-lobed stigmas (flower centre)
And willowherbs with club-shaped stigmas
in full flower.  This first site was by the B9007 road near Carrbridge in what looks like a fairly boring piece of moorland but I knew from an earlier visit to check on a group of aspens that there was more to this location than was obvious from the road.  The first thing was to get my brain back into gear with all the plant names and straight away I was puzzling over the willowherbs and forget-me-nots and getting used to hairy stems (pubescent) or not (glabrous) and if hairs were present whether glandular or not.  Problem species, provided they were plentiful, required a specimen to be collected and popped into a polybag for that evening/next day’s homework.  The amazing gully I dropped down into, complete with waterfall, took a couple of hours to work my way through with all plants recorded as progress was made.  As the GPS told me that I was entering a new 100 metre OS square 
(JJ100345 to say JJ100346), the recording started all over again and by late afternoon fourteen 100m squares had been visited giving me over 550 records comprising 147 different species.  Recording is the enjoyable bit, spending time entering the records into Mapmate is the more laborious bit, but all worthwhile in developing a picture of what is important and its location.  Ten species of sedge were recorded with the highlight being a group of flea sedges (Carex pulicaris) complete with the black fungus (Anthracoidea pulicaris) growing on their fruits (utricles).  This was something found last year and was the third UK record so nice to add another location.  I had seen on the map that there were a couple of small lochans higher up on the moor and these were visited in case they supported something interesting plus providing a list of plants possibly not seen elsewhere during the day.  The 
Marchantia polymorpha liverwort
first lochan was quite unusual in that it didn’t have water flowing in our out, its water-level being determined by the surrounding water-table.  Whether because of this I’m not sure but the whole shore was covered with a green leafy liverwort appropriately named common liverwort (Marchantia polymorpha subsp. ruderalis) many with umbrella like female reproductive organs present.  A very stunted plant had me puzzled so a photo was sent to expert Ian who confirmed my suspicion that this was mare's-tail (Hippuris vulgaris), usually found growing in the water.  An annoyed common gull 
Mating six-spot burnet moths
circled overhead but I didn’t find any evidence of breeding but a female teal, feigning injury as it flapped across the water, was followed in the sedges by a group of youngsters.  Time to leave them in peace.  Back at the car I was pleasantly surprised to see mating six-spot burnet moths on the road verge close to bird’s-foot trefoil, another inland site for this once coastal species.

The BSBI recording outing to just above Aviemore a few days later held an unusual surprise.  A timber stacking area by the main track held a few good plants including several spikes of heath cudweed (Gnaphalium sylvaticum).  This area is mainly Scots pine woodland, some planted and some natural so if I was to keep recording within the pines the list of plants would be monotonous 
Valerian leaf with fungus Uromyces valerianae
Uromyces valerianae spores x1000 oil
and few in number so heading for rock outcrops or wee burns added a great deal of diversity.  Following one burn lots of leaves but without flowers turned out to be valerian (Valeriana officinalis) many covered with the fungus Uromyces valerianae and as I passed them, any sedge heads were quickly checked for Anthracoidea fungi.  The long, bendy spikes of green-ribbed sedge (Carex binervis) were regularly encountered and one flower-head caught my attention because the utricles on one head looked swollen and possibly the start of the fungus developing.  This is one sedge I’ve yet to find with the fungus so possibly quite important.  One for the microscope so the spike and head were collected to be checked once home.  The microscope confirmed that a few of the utricles were swollen so to check if there was a fungus inside, one was poked with the point of my very sharp tweezers but instead of a black spore mass appearing a bit of liquid oozed out and with it something I was sure was moving!  Sure enough, the longer I watched the ‘something’ turned out to be an insect 
Larva of Wachtliella caricis  (yellow) on utricle of green-ribbed sedge
(to be confirmed 100%)
larva so out came the book on plant galls to see if anything was known from the sedge.  Sure enough, the book told me that a small Diptera fly lays eggs in the sedge fruits from the family with the amazing name of Wachtliella.  However, there are very few UK records and very little is known about the species so the specimen, with intact inflated fruits was sent off to the UK expert in this particular group.  The initial email reply after receiving the specimens contained a few words that confirmed the lack of knowledge about this group – “I am always pleased to receive queries on Cecidomyiidae [Diptera family] but cannot guarantee satisfactory answers!” and “Much of the descriptive work was done in the late 19th century and there has been little subsequent research, partly because of the difficulties of working with sedges……… I am willing to examine specimens of galls with larvae (dead or alive) but cannot promise positive identification.”  Not sure why I keep finding things that need more work doing on them and this would appear to be another one but, for now, Wachtliella caricis will have to be the name we will be working with, and if anything develops in the future at least all the information about location, host plant etc is there for the record to be modified if needed. 

Mid-month the older grandsons came over for a night and quite a few things of note occurred.  Archie had scored a few times in the garage door goals and Finlay was getting pretty good at being a goalkeeper.  However, when grandad was in goal a few more goals were scored but with the ball also ending up on the roof and regularly disappearing in the gap between garage and chalet.  Retrieving the ball from the latter I noticed a lot of leaves at the base of the birch tree in the tub had been eaten 
Birch sawfly (Cimbex femoratus) larvae
Adult birch sawfly found later in the month near Carrbridge
and on checking I could see a mass of birch sawfly (Cimbex femoratus)  larvae (nibbling away.  I left them undisturbed and let the boys see them before letting them see the odd behaviour should you touch them – the larvae curl the tail end of the bodies over their backs towards their heads probably as a defence mechanism, producing quite an odd but amusing sight.  Most sawfly larvae seem to react in the same way so worth checking if you find any.  Archie is really keen on spiders so next day we headed off towards a part of Abernethy Forest where several bog pools have, in the past, held good populations of the big raft or nursery-web spider (Dolomedes fimbriatus).  Whilst I searched the bog Janet and the boys enjoyed picking lots of blaeberries in what is an exceptional year for these woodland berries.  Grandad though wasn’t having any luck and failed to find even a hint of the spider realising a little later that the best time for the nursery-webs is a few weeks later than our visit!  I did 
though find a very obliging large red damselfly which allowed Archie to get a good close up view.  Back at the house I noticed that a small fly was landing regularly on my head and hands and anywhere close to where I was sitting.  After this had been happening for over half an hour I decided it was time to try and catch it, initially using a handy empty glass but after asking Janet to nip through to my rucksack, one of my smaller plastic tubes, a bit handier if the fly was on my hands or arms.  Why did I have such an interest in this wee, annoying fly?  Over the last couple of years the HBRG have been asking members to keep an eye open for it and despite may folk seeing flies buzzing around their houses few are likely to be the ‘true ‘house-fly (Musca domestica).  The HBRG website gives the following information “Ask most people if they have seen a House-fly and they will tell you their kitchens are full of them.  Sadly or otherwise, the true House-fly is very scarce in Britain these days, and very few flies in houses are indeed House-flies.  The NBN Gateway map shows only six Scottish localities since 1990.  Those in Highland were found in 2009 and 2010 in Inverness; and in 2015 from near Edderton, at Strathpeffer, and on Raasay.  Just south of our area, in 2011 a pair was 
Wing venation of House-fly (Musca domestica)

found on Lismore.  One useful clue is that House-flies, unlike other flies in houses, are a particular pest at mealtimes, darting about your person and the food you are trying to eat.  If you meet a fly behaving like that, even in a respectable home or hostelry, bottle it and send it in.”  In other parts of the world the house-fly is quite numerous but as our own homes becoming increasingly clean and sanitised this is not so in Britain.  In countries where the fly is common they can cause problems and are capable of carrying over 100 pathogens, such as those causing typhoid, cholera, salmonellosis, bacillary dysentery, tuberculosis, anthrax, ophthalmia, and parasitic worms.  Some strains have even become immune to the most common insecticides.  However, my attempts to catch the Firwood individual were failing quite badly and though being able to sneak up on it with my tube when it landed on me, I wasn’t having any luck and for a while it seemed to disappear.  A little later whilst sitting doing ‘stuff’ on my laptop, it was back and, just as earlier, it became quite annoying.  Luckily next to my laptop I found one of the small, square plastic ‘food saver’ tubs that I use for collecting 
Top view of House-fly
things like small fungi when out and about and a few minutes later I had it.  Sadly, this meant the fly was heading for a cold ending in the freezer, but if all the problems it could cause above are correct, then perhaps this was the right place for it.  A couple of hours later box and fly were retrieved from the freezer and after letting it thaw for a little while I popped it under the microscope to see if I could match the colouring of the fly with those given on the Diptera.info website below.  The colouring on the top of the fly looked correct as did the veins in the wing so, photos taken then, as requested, I ‘bottled it and sent it in’.  A few days later Murdo informed me that I had won another virtual lollipop and my fly was indeed a House-fly.  Brilliant.

An odd query arrived from Will at the National Park about something he had seen high up in the Cairngorms.  Whilst visiting Loch Avon during survey work he had seen a huge yellow tide-mark around the loch and, being a little worried about the source, he picked some up and took it home in his lunch-box.  He asked if this might have been pollen from the big population of junipers along one side of the loch and I had to admit that I couldn’t be sure.  Would I like to see the contents of his lunch-box which, since his return from the mountains had lived in his freezer.  So I popped in to see what he had found and to take a small bit home to look at under the microscope.  Sure enough once viewed there was some kind of pollen there and checking what juniper pollen looked like via the 
Scots pine pollen grains with 'air bladders'
internet I was able to rule this plant out as the source.  However, in helping RSPB Research man Ron out with his book, I had done a little checking of pollen and what I was seeing looked very similar – Scots pine pollen!  This was a little odd because there are no pines by the loch, the nearest lone trees being about five miles away and true woodland about six miles away.  I checked the weather around the time that Will had found the pollen and could confirm that it had been strong at times and blowing from a north/north east direction, and just at the time that the pollen would have been falling from the pines.  It’s not unusual to see yellow tide-marks on the shore of Loch Garten but this was the first time I’d heard about it being seen on this high altitude loch.  Will had also queried whether pollen deposits like this would be beneficial to the loch and with a little help from Ron we found that this 
Tide-mark on shore of Loch Avon © Will Boyd Wallis
topic is starting to be researched.  The first thing I found out is that the circular shapes making up the pollen grains are air bladders allowing the pollen to travel, wind assisted, over large distances.  Having been high above Glenmore forest several years ago after a calm dry spell I was amazed to see that as the wind strengthened the pollen from the Scots pines was being lifted by what looked like mini-whirlwinds high into the sky.  So it looked very feasible that this is what had happened between the Abernethy Forest pines and Loch Avon.  Research has shown that there is a beneficial effect by these pollen deposits.  Pollen introduces high amounts of bio-available terrestrial organic matter and nutrients into surface waters within a short time and that pollen plays an important ecological role in nutrient cycling of temperate lakes but requires further work to be undertaken in ‘aquatic ecology’ to determine just how beneficial.

Early in the month I was told about a remarkable orchid population near Newtonmore.  These were greater butterfly-orchids (Platanthera chlorantha) and there were estimated to be upwards of 10,000, possibly as many as 20,000 so on a day when I had to pick up Archie and Finlay from school just 5 miles away, I set off early allowing a site visit before driving back to Kincraig for 3pm.  I was not 
Greater butterfly orchid meadow
disappointed and the orchids were indeed present in jaw-dropping numbers.  Thankfully I was not counting these orchids as I had been at the Flowerfield site just a few days earlier.  When encountering lesser and greater butterfly-orchids size is not the main determining factor, many of the lesser butterfly orchids at the count size were big enough in height to fool the unwary.  What you need to check are the two ‘pollinia’ inside the flowers, growing parallel in lesser butterfly and divergent downwards in greater.  Looking across the thousands of orchids though at this site there 
Greater butterfly orchid 'divergent pollinia' inner part of flower
Lesser butterfly orchid 'straight pollinia'
was little doubt that they were of the greater variety and such was the scale that it was difficult to get the camera to do justice to what the eyes were actually seeing.  As I approached the end of the meadow I spotted something a little unusual towards the back of the greater butterfly’s, a very tall pink/purple-coloured orchid which had me guessing as to species.  It looked like a heath-spotted orchid but was far too tall to be that species so time for a photo to send to the experts.  Local plant expert Andy suggested it was a hybrid possibly between heath spotted-orchid and northern marsh-orchid but I would need better photos to send to the orchid expert at Kew.  So, a second visit was made and more photos were taken but whilst there I also photographed other orchids that might be 
Hybrid orchid Dactylorhiza x formosa
the two parents of my plant.  These were processed and sent off to Kew and a few days later an email arrived saying that the photos were great but that I had photographed the wrong parts of the plant!  I had repeated the types of photos taken of the marsh fragrant-orchid a year earlier where petal sizes were critical but for this plant it was the shape and size of the ‘spur’ growing from the back of the flowers.  Doh!  You live and learn but, my expert did actually have enough pictorial information to confirm that Andy was right, this was a hybrid between the two orchids and is known as Dactylorhiza x formosa.  There were also a few old records from the same general area.

The second Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey was completed and with the sun shining for a change, green-veined white (1 contact), common blue (1), meadow brown (2), ringlet (28) and small pear-bordered fritillary (1) were seen.  Large heath butterflies have also been a feature of some of the BSBI survey sites.  Two coralroot orchid sites were visited and plants counted and the choke fungus 
Large heath butterfly - hiding
on grass stems has been found at several sites but all so far being EpichloĆ« baconii on Agrostis grass species.  A bit of path repair in the garden found a New Zealand flatworm (Arthurdendyus triangulates) under one of the paving slabs – not good news for the native worms.  Scottish Natural Heritage Information and Advisory Note Number 7, gives the following information:           “4.3 Prey.  The New Zealand flatworm feeds by wrapping its body around its prey and secreting digestive juices onto it.  The liquefied prey is then ingested through the mouth tube that extends from the middle of the underside.  When not in use, the tube is drawn back into the body of the flatworm.  Studies on captive New Zealand flatworms have shown that they can consume several earthworms in 
New Zealand flat worm (Arthurdendyus triangulates)
a week.  Part of the reason for the large impact of the flatworm on the earthworm population may be that the flatworms can follow their prey through their burrows in the soil.  By contrast, other earthworm predators such as birds are largely limited to the soil surface, and those such as moles which attack worms underground are restricted to large burrows.”  The BSBI survey has also taken me to places where other good records have been made.  Near Carrbridge a population of pill sedge (Carex pilulifera) had the Anthracoidea caricis fungus on its fruits.  Because of confusion in the past with the correct fungus name/sedge relationship I can’t be sure how often this fungus has been recorded – not too many times I think.  On my way to one of the survey sites west of Carrbridge, 
Anthracoidea scirpi on deergrass
several tooth fungi were found with one, Sarcodon glaucopus (green-foot tooth), being found for the first time west of the A9 road.  This outing also found a good population of bog orchids (50+) at a new site and on a botanically boring area of bog a highlight was Anthracoidea scirpi growing on the flower-heads of deergrass (the hybrid Trichophorum x foersteri), just my second site and about the 10th UK site.  In the Kinveachy Forest above Aviemore an enormous wood ant nest checked for any 
Rose chaffer  (Protaetia metallicaand ants
green shield-moss capsules instead produced a large metallic green beetle – Protaetia metallica.  The 
beetle was totally surrounded by wood ants so I wasn’t sure whether the female beetle had deposited eggs in the ant nest or not.  The larvae of the beetle live as guests in the wood ant nests and occasionally when I’ve found nests dug open by deer or badgers, these beetle larva about the size of your little finger have been present.  The same day produced a slow-worm (Anguis fragilis) warming itself by the track and happily staying put whilst having its photo taken, the first I’ve seen for quite a while.

I can’t sign off without mentioning the weather.  The day of the butterfly count the temperature reached 250C but the weather-folk were warning of a massive break-down with lightning, thunder and heavy rain.  At 3.30am on the 20th the thunder started with some very impressive sessions of lightning, lighting up the bedroom especially when we had a flash and bang right overhead.  The rain 
was impressively heavy bouncing off the road with mini-rivers along the verges.  I debated about getting up to see if I could photo events but with the rain falling so heavily it would have been difficult to get shots with the window down.  Eventually everything settled down and it was back off to bed.  However, it wasn’t over and at 10am the whole storm was repeated with again a big flash and bang overhead with once again rivers running down the road outside the house.

Quite a month, enjoy the read.

Stewart and Janet

Lichen Podetia definition (please ignore the adverts!)
Glandular hairs photo
House fly information
Diptera.info website – House-fly
BTO/Butterfly Conservation - Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey
NBN Gateway
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

Common blue butterfly
GreyHeron River Nairn
Bog orchid
Photos © Stewart Taylor.  Loch Avon photo © Will Boyd Wallis