Sunday, 25 September 2016

Did you spot my wellies in a month that literally ticked by?

Firstly, congratulations to daughter Laura for achieving something I’ve never managed.  Back on the 11th August Laura came over to help Janet with her craft stall at the local Abernethy Highland Games held annually in the village.  Having finished work and then driven over from Aberdeen she was keen for a walk so we set off up the road and onto the Speyside Way with me going a little mad in showing her all sorts of things as we walked.  Black clouds overhead weren’t kind, and dropped light drizzle, then steady drizzle for which we were both prepared, me with my waterproof jacket slung over my shoulders and Laura with her umbrella.  As we walked, we took photos of tooth fungi along the track 
Hydnellum peckii (Devil's tooth)
side, making our progress quite slow.  I was fine when we had to negotiate the puddles on the track wandering as usual in my Muckboot wellies but Laura had to be more cautious only being shod in trainers.  Our aim was to reach one of the small trackside quarries where I knew there would be species of tooth fungi we hadn’t seen but as we got there the rain got a little heavier so I had to resort to putting up my umbrella as Laura tried to take photos whilst sheltering under hers.  Then her phone rang “Where are you? Dinner is ready” Janet informed us so we turned to head for home walking a little quicker than on our way out.  At one of the bigger puddles I had got a little ahead of Laura when I heard her shouting for me to stop, mid-way through the puddle.  She wanted a photo so I turned to face her.  “No, just carry on walking” so I slowly carried on through the water.  As I waited to see how the photos had come out I was about to be treated to a course in modern technology.  Laura sends in quite a few photos to the BBC Weather Watchers website and as we walked the photo of me, mid-puddle, was loaded up on her phone and sent off to the BBC.  We were running so late in getting 
Distracted by the Olympics, well done Max and Laura Trott
back to Firwood that we missed both the national weather at 6.30 and even the Scottish weather at 6.55pm so didn’t see if the photo had been used, but no one phoned to say they had seen it so we assumed it had arrived too late for the broadcasts.  Family viewers would also have been unaware that the back view of someone walking through a puddle was me, and, with a user name and not her own name attached to all her photos sent in, that wouldn’t have been too obvious either.  So, that was 
Laura's photos
that – we thought.  Friday, we were all out with Ruth and the boys and Saturday saw Laura and Janet running the craft stall at ‘the games’.  Mid-day Sunday we thanked Laura for all her help and waved cheerio as she headed home.  During the afternoon I counted flowering field gentians in the field at the end of our road finding just 186 compared to just over a thousand in 2015.  In the early evening we were watching the Rio Olympic Games when the phone rang, “Did you see my photo?” Laura asked, “which photo?”  “You, in the puddle, it’s just been on the BBC Countryfile 5-day weather forecast!”  The weather for the week ahead was to be overcast and showery so the Met Office/Weather Watcher picture selectors must have thought me in a puddle, under an umbrella, summed up the outlook, so well done Laura for spotting the photo opportunity.  The strange thing about the photo though is me holding an umbrella whilst both my arms are by my side!  The clue is given earlier in the blog.

Back in April and May 2014 I wrote in two blogs about the appalling number of deaths, by poisoning, of buzzards and red kites on the Black Isle, north of Inverness.  The April blog was titled ‘Conon Bridge, Highland Region, Scotland, the bird of prey killing capital of Britain”.  During August 2016 more information emerged to show that this remains the case, in Highland Region, with an accumulation of information, via satellite tagged birds, that, over a 5 year period, eight young tagged golden eagles have disappeared, three of them in this year alone.  The most recent was a tagged hen harrier which had fledged just a few weeks earlier in Banffshire.  These birds have all ‘disappeared’ in the Monadhliaths, a vast area comprising mainly grouse moors.  A few estates in this area are doing brilliant work to help birds of prey and nature in general, but away from these, the slaughter goes on.  When I arrived at Loch Garten as the first permanent warden in 1976 I became aware of how intense killing birds of prey was in the general area and, following up reports, I visited several pheasant rearing pens with gin traps on every strainer post, some with dead birds in them, a tawny owl and a buzzard if I remember correctly.  In 1977 I was approached by a visitor to the Osprey Centre who said he had seen a large dead bird of prey on a moor, in the Monadhliaths and 
One of many dead buzzards
when I went to check I found a dead, adult, golden eagle.  You will rarely find gin traps on posts around pheasant pens today but you will find lots of fen traps, set legally, inside mesh cages, aimed mainly at catching the smaller mammal predators like stoats and weasels.  You will see a Firwood blog (September 2014) with one of these traps, set legally, with a dead dipper in the fen trap!  In January 2008 I found a dead buzzard next to a fence post where it had died after eating a poisoned bait.  This way of killing birds of prey is very indiscriminate and other birds and mammals have been killed along with the occasional pet dog.  However, for the bird to eat the bait and then fly away to die opens the possibility of the bird being found and the finger pointed at the estate though very few prosecutions follow because there is no proof of where the bird had dined.  What is happening in the Monadhliaths though is showing a change in the way the birds are killed.  Aware that blasting at a bird that might fly away to die or do something similar after eating poisoned baits is being overtaken by a more subtle way of killing, particularly with quite a number of birds now carrying satellite tags.  Probably a bit like a what you see on BBCs Winter Watch, a bait will be left out on the hill to attract the bird of prey, but, close by will be the perpetrator, gun at the ready, to ensure a clean kill so the bird can be removed, tag and all, and no evidence is left.  The folk monitoring the tagged bird know where it is, the satellite stops working, the location is searched, but no evidence is found.  Sadly, a Monadhliath ‘Bermuda Triangle’ is in place. 

Enough about these deeply disturbing events, what has been happening in the recording world locally?  Plant recording work has continued with outings taking me into places that wouldn’t normally attract attention producing lots of plant records but also interesting finds.  The first day of the month saw me in woods on the outskirts of Aviemore recording either side of the A9.  The strange orange fungus growing on grass stems has appeared in the blog several times previously, and once 
Choke fungus on Velvet bent grass
again more was found, again all associated with Agrostis grass species (A. capillaris – common bent).  The first finds were at the end of July on Tulloch Moor on Agrostis canina (velvet bent) and since then, including the find above the fungus has been found six times on velvet bent and three times on common bent.  On both grasses the fungus is EpichloĆ« baconii and despite lots of searching I’ve not found it on any other grass species locally.  Whilst on holiday in Yorkshire earlier this year the grass was cock’s-foot (Dactylis glomerata) and the fungus there was EpichloĆ« typhina.  Up until 2005 this was the name given to the fungus irrespective of which grass it was found on and was the 
Choke re-found near Grantown after 5 years
name I’d used for my earlier finds.  Interestingly, I’ve re-visited locations of three of my finds from earlier years and at all the sites the fungus was still present allowing the earlier records to be modified to record the right species.  The biggest gap between records was the one near Grantown where my first record was in 2012, so quite intriguing to find it still in the same location.  This has been a bit of a theme during this month and several species of tooth fungi have appeared in exactly the same spots as they were last recorded from in 2011.  Amazing. 

A search for the choke fungus on the grass false brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum) on Ord Ban hill next to Loch an Eilein developed into quite a test.  The first part of the morning saw Janet setting up her craft stall in Aviemore and once my input was complete I said cheerio and drove along to Loch an Eilein.  The grass is not that common in the local area or within the Cairngorms National Park but the population on the side of Ord Ban is big and I was hopeful something might be found.  The only way 
Janet's craft stall in Aviemore
to check for the fungus was to wander back and forth across the steep slope with the tall grass often above my waist.  Lime-rich rock has, in the distant past, been extracted from high up on the hill and a winding sort of path, possibly used by ponies to carry the excavated rock, works its way up to the small rock-face and as I wandered three lots of folk made their way up the path one stopping to chat and explaining they were going up the hill for the view.  In the past when visiting this area looking for lichens I had never seen anyone so perhaps the path has been advertised as one to visit for the view.  Patches of grass drew me well away from the path and in the distance I could see a natural rock-face which looked like it was worth visiting.  As I left the last patch of grass I wandered into an 
Ticks waiting for a victim - ST?
area of scattered rocks with small populations of beech and oak fern, bracken, the occasional mature birch tree and a few Norway spruces.  A plant growing between big rocks had me guessing though, for some reason, the name Enchanter's-nightshade was written in my notebook.  Grid reference taken along with a few photos I continued on towards the rock-face but not before encountering more of the same plant, all growing within the rocks.  The only enchanter's-nightshade I had seen locally was the rare alpine version so time for more photos along with a small sample to check once home.  The rock comprising the small cliff must have been fairly acidic because plants encountered were generally run of the mill though a few small populations of brittle bladder fern were found (Cystopteris fragilis) identified correctly once home by checking the sori and spores on the underside of a frond.  Several times I had to stop to pick off and squash the ticks that I was finding on my pants, hands and arms, a few being of the ‘bigger’ more colourful variety.  Back down at the car park I headed out to the road 
Hybrid enchanter's-nightshade (Circaea x intermedia)
(refusing to pay the parking charges I had parked down the road) and along the way firstly finding hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) and them marsh woundwort (S. palustris) the latter being a plant I don’t often come across.  Perhaps in the past I had just put all my woundwort finds down as hedge, when, with a little care in checking the leaves, some might have been marsh, a long leaf stalk in hedge and a short one in marsh.  Time to drive back to help Janet pack up but as I drove I was constantly picking off ticks!  I arrived at Janet’s stall whilst there were still lots of visitors wandering between the craft stalls so I sat in the back of the tent and started to remove an ever increasing number of ticks, mainly from my arms.  My actions weren’t too good for trade so Janet asked me to go and sit somewhere else to continue my tick removal efforts!  Back home it was time to check the itches around my waist and chest where again many ticks were pulled out.  The plant sample was 
Infertile seed hybrid enchanter's-nightshade
checked and I was quite excited as I was fairly happy that I was dealing with the alpine enchanter's-nightshade so photos were forwarded to BSBI man Andy.  He thought my ID was correct but was a little concerned that the leaves were slightly the wrong shape, though the flowers all growing at the top of the flower stem did look right.  “Did I have a good photo of the flowers and the seeds?”  Sadly not, and the sample I had brought home was mainly showing flowers.  I would have to go back and get photos of the seeds!  Having removed 50-60 ticks from body and clothing this was something I wasn’t looking forward to.  So, the next day, the walk up Ord Ban was repeated though this time I was trying hard to avoid wandering through tall grasses, possibly the source of my tick infestation.  The enchanter's-nightshade was easily re-found and once I found plants with good flower-heads AND seeds I collected another sample for checking.  However, I collected more than I bargained for and, sticking out horizontally from the plant stem was a caterpillar!  Photos taken it was removed and 
Small phoenix moth larva (Ecliptopera silaceata)
placed back on another plant stem.  Local expert Mike helped with this one and advised that this was the larva of the small phoenix (Ecliptopera silaceata) a moth I had only ever seen once before.  I also noticed that some of the nightshade leaves were infected by a fungus – more samples needed.  I did though remember that when I visited the only know population of alpine enchanter's-nightshade locally a leaf fungus was also present and once checked it turned out to be the same species Pucciniastrum circaea.  Not wanting to waste the effort of the repeat visit a list of plants was compiled just local to the nightshade to add to the BSBI survey and by the path at the bottom of the hill a strikingly hairy caterpillar was found sitting on a bracken leaf – the vapourer (Orgyia antiqua).  
Vapourer moth larva (Orgyia antiqua)
When Andy saw the new plant sample he confirmed that I had actually found the hybrid species a mix of Alpine and common Enchanter's-nightshade (Circaea x intermedia (C. alpina x C. lutetiana)) a plant with quite a few known sites locally.  One of the features of the hybrid, and hence the need to see the seeds, is that not being fertile, the seeds drop off the plant as the flower-head grows.  The leaf shape is also a little different. So you live and learn.  And the ticks?  Another 50+ with one inside my belly-button and three in my private parts!  I won’t be returning to that site in a hurry!

As can be seen from earlier blogs I have been quite active in recording the fungal balls (smuts) that occur on flower-heads of sedges.  As with many of these less obvious undertakings, once bitten by the bug, the urge to learn more about the subject takes over and searching begins.  This happened with this group of fungi and after seeing a smut for the first time on a tiny spring sedge back in 2013 whilst counting the Flowerfield orchids, casual checking or structured searching has led to many new 
Mud sedge (Carex limosa) and Anthracoidea limosa smut
Anthracoidea limosa spores x1000 - oil
finds.  This year the best was finding the smut on pill sedge (Anthracoidea caricis on Carex pilulifera) probably for only the third time in the UK whilst adding a couple more sites for the similarly rare Anthracoidea pulicaris on flea sedge (Carex pulicaris).  However, despite much searching over the years, finding anything on populations of mud sedge (Carex limosa) has so far eluded me.  Like the last two listed species there are only three UK records for this sedge/smut 
Rannoch-rush (Scheuchzeria palustri)
combination with two of them coming from the Rannoch Moor area.  The site, near Rannoch Station, was first found in 1920, with just one record since about ten years ago.  The second site, on the other side of the moor (Glen Coe area) had a similarly ancient record dating back to 1943.  Would they still be there?  Only one way to find out!  A good weather window developed early in the month so I drove down to a location I last visited, by train, when we lived on the Isle of Rum – Rannoch Station.  This remote station is reached via a single track road some sixteen miles west of Kinloch Rannoch and thirty-eight miles from the A9 at Killiecrankie and is on the line between Glasgow and Fort William.  An early start saw me arrive by 9.30am, the drive down the A9 not being too bad, regardless of the average speed cameras.  Despite there not being a specimen lodged with Kew from the more recent find, Brian at Kew did have a reasonable grid reference for the location, so wellies on, off I went.  The other plant Rannoch Moor is famous for is the Rannoch-rush (Scheuchzeria palustri) with several sites around the moor and found nowhere else in Britain.  Would it be possible 
Lesser bladderwort (Utricularia minor)
Lesser bladderwort 'hairs'
to see it?  The moor close to the station is generally wet heathland with lots of wee lochans and it was to one of these that the grid ref was guiding me.  No searching, there was the mud sedge complete with Anthracoidea limosa smuts!  Brilliant, and a great start to the day.  Not only the sedge but also masses of Rannoch-rush, sadly past flowering, so doubly brilliant.  At this location most sedge heads had the smut so time for a few photos along with a single modern sample for Kew.  First found in 1920 and still there, perhaps an indication that it might never have been present in my local mud sedge populations.  Lots of the small peaty pools were visited but the sedge/smut combination wasn’t always present in fact in the five locations were the sedge was found the smut was only growing at three of them, two of which were more or less on the same pool.  Smuts were also found on star sedge (Carex echinata/Anthracoidea karii), carnation sedge (C. panicea/A. paniceae) and on deergrass (Trichophorum x foersteri hybrid / A. scirpi).  The Rannoch-rush was found at four sites.  
Vaccinium oxycoccos
To visit all the pools the railway line had to be crossed and in a runnel close to the line a small yellow flower caught my eye – a bladderwort.  This was lesser bladderwort (Utricularia minor), confirmed 100% when the bladders were checked under the microscope once home.  At the last of the bog pools several sphagnum cushions were covered with cranberry runners and lots of berries.  This was a new plant for me Vaccinium oxycoccos, very slightly different (minutely hairy flower/fruit stalks) to the small cranberry (Vaccinium microcarpum) generally found in Strathspey.  Just the drive home to complete a great day.

This visit had set the ball rolling and a second visit was planned for the Glen Coe end of Rannoch Moor.  A very different drive with Loch Laggan, Fort William, Ballachulish and Glen Coe to pass by/through, achieved in about two hours.  In brilliantly sunny weather there were many visitors stopping and passing through Glen Coe and with cloudless skies the surrounding mountains looked 
3 sundews L to R - greater, hybrid and round-leaved
stunning.  This visit though was about looking down and not up so the wellies were worn once again and searching started.  This though was a very different challenge with the old record just having Loch Ba, Rannoch Moor as its location.  Help was sought before making the visit and several location were provided from the BSBI database for where mud sedge had been found previously but with a huge problem – there was only one location for the plant in the Loch Ba area and the grid reference was only at the one-kilometre scale!  It wasn’t even clear if this was the location of the infected plants because the modern day map shows Loch Ba on the east side of the Glen Coe road whereas the older ones show the same name being applied to the loosely connected water bodies to the west of the road.  From the BSBI locations there was a good concentration of mud sedge locations about four kilometres north of Loch Ba so initially this is where I went and despite finding the sedge in seven locations, no smuts were found.  Lots more locations though for the Rannoch-rush, lots of sites for the insectivorous greater and round-leaved sundews and, with both parents present the hybrid obovate sundew (Drosera x obovate) was also found which, surprisingly, was only the second record for the area.  A pleasant surprise was finding lots of white beak-sedge (Rhynchospora alba), not actually a sedge but a plant with a similar smut to the sedges.  This was looked for but not found.  
Lots more lesser bladderwort in flower and more records for the smut on star and carnation sedge.  After nearly three hours of searching it was time to move on to Loch Ba and for lunch I headed out towards Loch na Stainge in the area covered by the 1km map square.  Bog pools were checked along the way without success but lunch was taken in possibly one of the most picturesque location I have dined in during 2016.  To my right were at least three mountains towering to over 1000m in height and with blue skies and the occasional fluffy white cloud the view was amazing.  Down below me in 
Water lobelia
the loch I could see scattered populations of water lobelia (Lobelia dortmanna) bobbing about in the gentle waves hitting the shore.  Again, I wasn’t here to gaze at the view so a bit more bog searching was undertaken. Despite lots of wandering, no mud sedge was found.  My body was telling that it had had enough so, reluctantly at around 3pm I called a halt and headed for home.  Perhaps one for a second effort next year. 

Late in the month the annual Harley Davison ‘Thunder in the Glens’ event took place with something like 3,000 bikers taking part.  For a change I went out onto the B9007 Carrbridge to Ferness road in 

the hope of getting photos of bikes and riders with the Cairngorms as a backdrop as well as riders with the usual cowhorns, flags and muppet head covers!  One of my BSBI plant recording outings was just off this road and my survey in what looked like a pretty boring piece of moorland, found a small hillside burn with some very important plants.  The first was one of the horsetail family, shade 
Shade horsetail
horsetail (Equisetum pratense), followed a little further along the burn by it equally rare relative rough horsetail or Dutch rush (Equisetum hyemale).  Wood cranesbill was unexpected and it was nice to see a couple of patches of starry saxifrage, possibly washed down from higher up the hill.  Small heath and Scotch argus butterflies were enjoying the sun but the biggest surprise of the day was a trackside pool still full of tadpoles – in the middle of August!  The most remarkable sight though was 
Late tadpoles
saved until almost the end of the month.  A very ordinary looking sitka spruce plantation near to Forres once again produced a huge surprise, the same wood that produced only the second UK location for the rare Bankera violascens tooth fungus.  When first found in August 2012, 1100 fruiting bodies were present – a remarkable count.  The next two counts in 2013 and 2014 produced just 100 and 50 fungi whilst just a handful were found last year.  Pushing my way into the spruce 
Bankera violascens the spruce tooth
branches this year I could see the population had increased, and at the end of my count 1800 fruiting bodies had been seen!  Despite the rarity of this fungus it hasn’t been given a red data, rare or other designation due to the fact that it grows with and is dependent on a non-native tree species – sitka spruce.  Again I produced a map of what was where and let the estate know what had been found so hopefully the wood will be managed sympathetically if thinning work is undertaken.


Enjoy the read.

Stewart and Janet

Raptor persecution information
Monadhliath Mountains “Birds of prey not welcome here!”
followed by
Raptor Persecution Scotland 2016 incidents
Firwood Blog May 2014
Small phoenix (Ecliptopera silaceata)
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

Slow-worm found during plant recording
Jam time!  Thank you Janet
A massive crop of blaeberries this year
 Photos © Stewart Taylor