Saturday, 22 October 2016

Goodbye swallows hello redwings

Summer arrived late this year.  Compared to April, May and June when the winds were generally from a northerly direction, July, August and September benefitted from winds regularly from the south-south-west and much warmer weather.  September was particularly good with the temperature 
One of the first spiders webs covered in dew
for the first 15 days averaging 19.50C, the highlight being 250C on 15th!  Despite our good weather, the first pinkfeet were passing overhead on the 15th and a late curlew was heard flying east the same morning.  Even though this day was very warm, a cool night ensured we had a typically, misty September morning so I combined a tooth fungi check near Loch Mallachie with a camera outing to 
Loch Mallachie
photograph the water droplet covered spiders webs and I wasn’t disappointed.  A misty Loch Mallachie didn’t disappoint either.  Progress was slow and, as I walked the sun started to burn through the mist and spiders webs became even more photogenic.  However, this was a morning to check the last of the rarer tooth fungi sites and there was huge disappointment when the main site in 
Hydnellum cumulatum on track
and the nearby spiders web
Abernethy Forest for Hydnellum cumulatum (new to the UK in 2001) produced no records.  Nearby Phellodon niger and Hydnellum aurantiacum where found in almost the exact same locations as in 2011 and all was not lost re H. cumulatum as I knew of another site close by that might still support the fungus despite quite a lot of trackside vegetation encroachment.  Despite not having checked this location since 2012, the fungus was still present at two of the three locations and, looking up, there was an amazing glowing spiders web, back-lit by the strengthening sun.  I have no doubt that this will be the only UK record for this fungus this year. 

Local moth expert Mike had also suggested that with the very warm southerly winds mid-month we should remain alert to the possible arrival of migrant moths and butterflies.  Certainly, red admirals were being encountered but the real surprise came when I saw Aileen in the village who told me that she had seen the biggest ever moth on her windowsill the night before.  My “do you have a photo?” query saw one arrive by email that evening and despite going through my moth book a couple of 
Convolvulus hawk-moth - copyright Aileen MacEwan
times I wasn’t sure what it was.  Initially I thought it looked like a dark arches (Apamea monoglypha) which is quite a big moth, but the moth in the photo lacked the distinctive ‘W’ markings on the outer edge of the wings of that species.  The photo also lacked any other feature by which to determine how big was “the biggest ever” moth.  Another run through the moths field guide didn’t help so as a last resort I went on to the brilliant UK Moths website and clicked on the systematic list under the Species tab and worked my way down to the start of the bigger moths (beyond the micros) and when I arrived at the Family Lasiocampidae, I was able to click on links to photos.  Could it be a hawk-
Painted lady
Red admiral
moth?  Checking the moth book hadn’t led me to this group despite it being the first I checked but, clicking onto convolvulus hawk-moth (Agrius convolvuli) I saw a likeness of the characteristic features, mainly because there was a similar photo of the moth with wings closed, and this was confirmed a little later by expert Mike.  Phew!  Garden arrivals were painted lady and red admiral butterflies.

In August I met up with three SNH staff regarding a planned visit towards the end of September to a couple of sites in RSPB Abernethy Forest.  The visit was aimed at showing a larger staff group the effects of disturbance in the landscape both natural and man-made and my link was to the latter and the reason why most tooth fungi are found associated with tracks and small quarries linked to them.  The effects of natural disturbance would be covered by visiting a section of the River Nethy where heavy winter rains had caused major changes to the course of the river.  The August visit was aimed at visiting the possible sites so that an agenda for the later outing could be prepared.  At the first site lots of tooth fungi were seen along with deadwood creation and the group were well impressed by what they saw overlooking the River Nethy.  Heading back to our cars from the latter site 
Exobasidium splendidum?
Exobasidium splendidum?
lichen/fungus man Dave spotted a group of cowberry plants (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) which had been turned completely red by a fungus attack and he queried whether this was linked to the common fungus on cowberry - Exobasidium vaccinia or cowberry redleaf.  I said I wasn’t sure but the reddened plants were something I regularly encountered in the forest though E. vaccinia was a fungus I knew created concave leaves on the living plant and with the lower surface white-felted with the reproductive part of the fungus, much different to what we were seeing.  Dave took a few photos to check.  An email the next day informed me that the reddened cowberry plants could be linked to another fungus going by the name of Exobasidium splendidum, a brilliant name for this bright red fungus.  However, there were few records for it and there were problems identifying it but if I had time, could I return to the site and collect a specimen to send off to the experts at Kew.  This I did but 
Cowberry red leaf left & others
and more of the same or, perhaps, different?
in making my way back to my car I wandered away from the track, seeing if I could locate more red infected plants as I walked.  The cowberry redleaf fungus was everywhere and I had no problem finding it as I walked.  At the site where I collected the totally red infected plants I realised that they were around the base of the Scots pine, almost tightly so, and as I walked I checked the bases of more pines.  In the few hundred metres between my first find and my car I found another seven infected plants, the red plants growing at the bases of the pines and growing quite happily with non-infected plants.  A few more specimens were collected to send off.  Back home I tried to find fungal spores but was unsuccessful, but reading the literature and checking the various websites I found there were just four records for E. splendidum in the UK and that it wasn’t formally assessed re rarity, but potentially Critically Endangered.  Did I have the right species?  In a few hundred metres I had almost doubled the total of known UK locations for the fungus so I awaited the results from Kew with interest.  Brian at Kew did some amazing work with the specimens and with very limited other 
Blaeberry bumblebee (Bombus monticola) found the same day
material to compare with suggested that we were possibly dealing with Exobasidium spendidum but it could also be E. juelianum or a species that has yet to be fully described.  Complex sequencing will be the only way to get to the bottom of this group of species and with more material at home drying, there could be more work to be done to arrive at the true species.  I think this just confirms the complexity of some of these closely related species, and this is for just one plant species.  There’s a lot more out there that is in need of more work so hopefully, one day……..

A phone call from Gus in the village alerted me to the possibility that one of our most deadly fungi could be growing in Grantown.  The local Strathy newspaper editor had been in contact about the destroying angel fungus (Amanita virosa) and because he knew little about it had contacted me to see if I could help.  I had only ever seen this fungus once before in 2012 but was familiar with what it looked like and its key features and hoped that the general location details supplied by the editor might let me see it again, so, off I went to Grantown.  I walked the track where the fungus was supposed to have been seen and did manage to find a similar looking white fungus but growing from deadwood and in another place something that might have been the false death-cap, a member of the same family but not quite so deadly.  But no destroying angels.  I began to think that there had been a misidentification by someone unfamiliar with the fungus but when the editor supplied a poor photo of what had been found along with the name of the finder, I knew we were dealing with the real thing.  
The Grantown destroying angel
The editor was working to a tight deadline so I supplied what information I had about the fungus along with a photo of my 2012 find and thought that was that.  An informative write-up appeared in the newspaper warning readers to be careful if collecting mushrooms to eat, along with the poor photo (the fungus was on its side and a bit out of focus) to accompany the article.  Returning to Grantown for a bag of bird food a couple of days after the paper was published I was tempted back to the path through the woods to see if I might have more luck finding the fungus via a slightly wider search.  People walking their dogs must have wondered what I was up to as I wandered back and forth, but there, perhaps two or three times the distance into the wood than reported, was a white fungus with a slightly bent stem (stipe) and also displaying the ‘ring’ on the stem, characteristic of this fungus.  The ring is the remains of a covering that enclosed the gills when the fungus was young (look at the button type mushrooms in the supermarket) and as the cap expands the cover tears 
The Boat of Garten version
resulting in the floppy ring around the stem.  Close by was another specimen and on the bank below were the decaying remains of another four, one of which might have provided the original photo.  The information that was correct said ‘growing under a beech tree’.  Heavy rain between my visits might have been responsible for the two fresh specimens emerging.  Would there be anything to see at the site found in 2012?  Next day I was on site but couldn’t find anything in the gap amongst the birches and aspens where first found.  However, nearby, and protected a little by the branches of a fallen tree were two fruiting bodies but both well past their best and starting to disintegrate.  A few metres away 
Amanita virosa spores x1000 oil

though another specimen was found and this was in good order and with all key features still visible.  A small section of one of the decaying fungi was carefully popped into a tube so the spores could be checked once home.  Lots of washing of hands followed as gills were removed, sectioned and squashed to provide a view of the spores under the microscope.  New photos were forwarded to the Strathy editor allowing a second article to be written showing the deadly fungus in situ emphasising just how similar it looks to similar sized edible species.

4th September 2016 and I did it.  A late afternoon walk to stretch my legs saw me wander off track and into ‘stump land’, an area which initially I had written off as unsuitable to check for the stump lichen.  The further into the thicket of natural regeneration of birch and Scots pine I walked the more open it became and the stumps from the felling of lodgepole pines in 2000/2001 appeared.  Location number 49 was found quite quickly but it took quite a bit more wandering to find another occupied 
stump. After 138 stumps checked (this outing) my 50th location for Cladonia botrytes was found.  Once again I had to phone Janet to say sorry, I was going to be late for my evening meal as measurements and photos had to be taken.  The number of locations for this lichen in Abernethy Forest has now passed the total known within the UK spanning the period 1955 to 2015 (x30) but because the stumps supporting the lichen are usually in an advanced state of decay, few of these survive today.  I have no doubt that there are more to be found in Abernethy but 50 will be enough for now!  More work though was to follow.  The editor of The British Lichen Society’s members Bulletin had issued an urgent request for articles for the next edition and the experts that had helped me 
The 50th population of the stump lichen
identify my first finds had also suggested a write up would be very helpful.  So, it was time to put pen to paper, sort all my records into order along with stump details (sizes/heights) and to match up my photos to my finds.  Drafts were circulated and comments acted upon and with the final draft signed off by Sandy Coppins (thank you), text and photos were sent to Paul to incorporate into the next Bulletin.  Not sure that the 20-odd photos will all be used but hopefully enough will be used to reflect the range of stumps occupied by the lichen.

After an early start on the 18th to set up Janet’s craft stall in Aviemore I headed up to the carpark on Cairngorm to try once again to find plants of bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) which had been turned bright red by the fungus Exobasidium expansum.  The route I was following was a wee burn 
Bog bilberry & Exobasidium pachysporum fungus
running below and adjacent to the funicular railway whose occupants must have wondered who the strange chap was wandering about below them, especially if I was there on their trip up the mountain AND down!  Because the plants in this area are close to areas visited by the public many grow quite well when compared to the deer nibbled plants a little further out on the hill.  Many plants were covered with the fungus I’d found on previous visits, Exobasidium pachysporum, a species classed as rare in the UK but probably under-recorded.  As I wandered higher up the burn the plants started to 
Peacock butterfly
peter out so the single recent record for the fungus in the UK remains.  I made my way to areas bulldozed flat all those years ago when Cairngorm started to develop as a ski area and the first 
Interrupted (top) & alpine clubmoss (bottom)
surprise was finding a peacock butterfly sitting on the ground enjoying the sun (the temperature was 150C!) but when it realised I was close by taking its photo it rose into the air and kept on rising just like a bird of prey.  Perhaps it was a recent migrant arrival?  Plants of the clubmoss family were the other highlight with stag’s-horn, interrupted and alpine species found growing fairly close together.  Time to descend and help Janet to pack up after a none too productive day.

Late in the month the last visit to the Osmia inermis trial nest site near Blair Atholl was made on yet another warm, sunny day, weather that wasn’t too kind on this bee and other insects earlier in the summer.  The orange, ceramic saucers, installed to see if the bee would find them suitable as nesting 
Nest site saucer in place
A disappointing end
sites were searched for, inspected and removed as this was the end of the two year project.  At the first site, a bit of limestone outcrop, saucer after saucer was checked but without any having been used.  Quite a disappointment and with the fifty saucers collected we made our way back to the car.  The second site which is again slightly lime-rich, comprises an area of bird’s-foot trefoil rich heathland and the last site in the UK where the wee bee was known to be breeding (old nest found 2008).  Sadly, nothing was found at this site either and with all the potential nesting saucers now removed it is debatable whether another artificial nest creation project will be considered.  Ideally, site visits during hot, sunny weather in June to early July would be best to watch for the bee visiting flowers, but with a trip each way of around 80 miles and the guarantee of sunny weather when there make this type of visit fairly impractical.

As the autumn colours were becoming evident across the countryside the last of the BSBI recording tetrads was visited early in the month.  This outing took me back to Glen Markie, west of Laggan, with the aim of trying to visit a deep gorge along the River Markie (seen on an earlier recording visit) to see if there might be a few lichens of interest along with plants.  A couple of surprises were found by the track.  In the track-side grass I could see a tiny yellow, spindle-shaped fungus, an indicator of a fairly rich grassland habitat, and a guess that these were known as the ‘handsome club’ (Clavulinopsis laeticolor) was confirmed once back home.  The second fungus was a much bigger 
The 'handsome club' fungus
surprise - two fruiting bodies of the tooth fungus, Sarcodon squamosus, which was new to that area.  The boggy area between track and river produced records of the usual plant species and as I reached the river I could see that I would have fun trying to get into the gorge despite the fact that I was about half a mile down river from it!  In places there was accessible boulder strewn riverbank but most of the side of the river was sheer rock outcrops, not very high but not very easy to get on to check.  Plants from the higher, mountain sections of the river were evident, mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna
River Markie
Mountain sorrel
and tea-leaved willow (Salix phylicifolia) along with several aspens growing from rocky areas where they had escaped browsing deer.  Close to the main section of the gorge I found an accessible section with a good mix of tree species, including hazel and aspen and some nice, damp sections of rock, which looked right for one of the lichens I was hoping for: Peltigera britannica.  Sure enough, several small populations were found along with its rarer relative Peltigera leucophlebia, which is often found along river-sides.  Rocks on the other side of the river looked very interesting and would be much more accessible but it just wasn’t possible to get across.  One for the future.  As I made my way back down the track to my car, parked by Spey Dam, lots of mistle thrushes were in the trees and adjacent fields, but it would be much later in the month before the first redwings would appear.  
Peltigera britannica top & leucophlebia bottom
Recording visits completed all that was left to do was get all my records into Mapmate, ready for forwarding to Andy to add to the 2016 report for the Park and to forward to the BSBI database.  My recording outings this year had produced 5700 plant records (I’ve yet to work out how many species) adding to a current ongoing total from all recorders of 23,400.  Over the three years of the project, but with a few more records still due for this year, an impressive total of just over 75,000 plants were recorded by the 10-15 recorders, comprising just over 1000 plant species, quite an amazing result.  It has been a great project to have been involved in which shows the real benefits of targeted area recording, but the biggest ‘thank-you’ has to go to Andy Amphlett who organised the project, kept everyone informed of progress, and highlighted some of the rarer species to keep an eye open for whilst out in the field.

And lastly, thanks has to go to Janet’s sewing machine for a great outing right at the end of the month.  Due its annual service we dropped the machine off in Fochabers before making our way to Spey Bay just a few miles up the road.  Cool and a bit breezy we made our way out over the pebble ‘beach’ to the shore to be met by many gannets fishing just off-shore.  Perhaps a combination of a high tide and a fresh run of water down the River Spey after recent rains had brought the fish close to the shore, but as we watched gannet after gannet plunged into the sea in front of us attracted by a plentiful food supply.  So, out came the camera and, after several attempt the technique was established to capture some of them during their spectacular dive process.  We hope you agree.

One of many sets of photos!
Hm! Don't know what all the fuss is about!

Enjoy the read.

Stewart and Janet

UK Moths
and, for convolvulus hawk-moth
Destroying angel Firwood blog
Fungus rings via photos
British Lichen Society – and The Lichenologist
Osmia inermis
July 2015 blog first Osmia inermis visit
Mapmate recording database
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

Chanterelles near 'the gorge'
Grandson Archie's photo of dung beetle rolling rabbit dropping
A daytime moon

Photos © Stewart Taylor