Thursday, 22 December 2016

Up north, down south, waxwings and Windows 10

The early part of November saw me putting my final modifications to a PowerPoint presentation to be given to the Tain and District Field Club held over from March following my prostate op.  Quite timely because facts and figures for another summer could be added for work with butterflies, orchids and BSBI plant recording.  At the same time, final touches were added to an article on sedge smuts (Anthracoidea fungi) for Field Mycology and arrangements made with Emma at the Boat of Garten Community Hall for the first ever meeting this far south for the Highland Biological Recording Group’s AGM.  A visit to Tulloch on the 2nd saw me in some aspen/oak woodland that had somehow evaded earlier visits, being tucked away behind glacial moranic type topography close to the moor 
Plicatura crispa on dead hazel branch
road.  I couldn’t find any knopper galls on the acorns or anything unusual on the aspens but the hazel bushes had the dainty little bracket fungus Plicatura crispa, but it was the mass of stones at the edge of one field that provided the biggest surprise.  Around many farm fields locally you can find heaps of stones which possibly date back to the late 1700s to early 1800s when the land was ploughed for 
Nephroma parile lichen on field clearance rocks
the first time.  They are often referred to as stone/field clearance heaps.  As ploughing techniques and equipment improved these heaps were probably added to but few that I see have been added to in recent times.  Lots of plants pop up from amongst the stones but this heap was particularly large and not heavily grown into by plants and grasses.  However, it was the tops of the stones that had 
Birch shieldbug
Scarlet waxcap
something unusual: good populations of a lichen which locally I often associate with trees, Nephroma parile.  The lichen handbook states “On bark and mosses, characteristic of old woodlands, also rarely on sheltered, mossy , coastal rocks.”  A good find.  A fallen hazel limb had a birch shieldbug (Elasmostethus interstinctus) wandering over it and as I made my way back to the car, a group of scarlet waxcaps (Hygrocybe coccinea) indicated a patch of good, natural grassland.

A couple of days later and I was off early and with a talk in Tain in the evening I thought I would make the most of the day and head a little further north to visit the Spinningdale oak wood.  After sorting out the location of the evening talk in Tain I headed north across the Dornoch Firth Bridge with amazing views inland as well as out to sea.  As I left the bridge the sand dune habitat caught my eye and, with a convenient layby to hand, I pulled in, donned my wellies and hopped over the fence to check the gorse covered dunes.  From the car the habitat looked very similar to parts of Findhorn 
Moor club fungus (Clavaria argillacea)
Peltigera malacea
Bay and with that in my mind I was hopeful of finding something unusual.  With gorse covering large tracts of the dunes though there were few open sandy areas so I wandered back towards the bridge where open sands had been visible.  Despite looking like open sandy habitat from the car the surface was covered with dense population of a common lichen Cladonia portentosa, one of two lichens known as the reindeer lichen, leaving little room for much else to grow.  However, another interesting lichen was found Cetraria islandica but the one I was hoping for couldn’t be found.  As I made my way back towards the road an open sandy area appeared, almost below the road and having first spotted a tall club-like fungus (Clavaria argillacea), something that looked like what I was hoping for, Peltigera malacea was also growing.  The distribution maps show it to be present close to my find but with the whole area being part of the Dornoch Firth SSSI I’ve no doubt it might be present in other areas of suitable habitat throughout the dunes.  However, the oak woods were calling so time to 
An old oak apple (Biorhiza pallida)
Acorns but no knopper galls
move on via the A949.  As I drove along the road I thought there would be lots of areas to pull over on but there wasn’t. Eventually a bit of space became available and I pulled over.  Either side of the road there were mature oaks so I decided to work my way up the slope to start with.  A few fallen oak leaves had spangle galls (Neuroterus quercusbaccarum) and cherry galls (Cynips quercusfolii) on them and occasionally fallen oak apples (Biorhiza pallida) were found, well past their best and with all the tiny gall wasps probably having emerged.  Once again though, no knopper galls were found which was a pity as that would have been the furthest north record for the gall wasp in the UK.  I should really have taken my binoculars with me and tried scanning the trees because there were few 
Schismatomma graphidioides lichen on oak tree
acorns on the ground.  Time to start staring at the tree trunks and, quite quickly, I found the script lichen Schismatomma graphidioides on two oaks.  Would it be new to that area?  Hard to believe but it had been recorded twice before and only from almost the same location!  Crossing the road, I made my way down to the sea shore just in time for the late afternoon fly-past of greylag geese but overall it had been quite a quiet day for birds.  Probably the strangest find on the rocky shore was a big 
Dornoch Cathedral - early evening and all lit up 
tussock of lyme grass, (Leymus arenarius) probably washed there after one of the winter storms but having said that, there are very few records for this plant in that general area with none in the Dornoch dunes visited earlier in the day.  With darkness falling it was time to nip into Dornoch for a bite to eat before heading back to Tain to give my talk

As the industrialisation of our remoter, wildland areas increases it was well done – almost, to the John Muir Trust.  A year ago I joined the John Muir Trust (JMT) to support their efforts to stop a wind farm development in the heart of the Monadhliath Mountains near Loch Ness/Fort Augustus.  But to start, let’s wind back the clock to 2013 when Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) produced a draft Consultation Paper covering the Core Areas of Wild Land 2013.  One of the ‘wild land’ areas comprised a part of the Monadhliath Mountain area where, a year later, an application for the Stronelairg wind farm would be made.  Something very strange then occurred.  When the final Wild 
An accurate map of the Stronelairg windfarm recently given planning permission.
Turbines red dots and tracks in brown. Courtesy of John Muir Trust Journal
Land map was produced (Wild Land Areas 2014) the area comprising the wind farm application had been removed because the then Scottish Government Energy Minister Fergus Ewing, had approved the application.  Can you start to smell something?  The SSE wind farm application made national news when it was made because of the sheer scale of what was being proposed, 67 turbines, mostly 135m high and covering an area of around 35 square kilometres in a remote Highland landscape.  The original application had been for 83 but Highland Council planning officials made a recommendation that no objection would be lodge but only on condition that the development was reduced to 67 turbines!  Had Highland Council objected to the application a Public Local Inquiry (PLI) would have been triggered and this would have brought in to play a more serious assessment of the environmental impact.  The smell is getting stronger!  At that time, in 2013, the JMT initiated a judicial review against Highland Council but unfortunately were refused a Protective Expenses Order (PEO) meaning they could have been left with a huge bill that they just couldn’t afford.  At the time of the application there were many objectors, including the Scottish Governments nature conservation arm, SNH which you would have thought would have produced a PLI.  But no, and on 6 June 2013 the Scottish Government approved the application.  Pass me that peg!  Having found what they considered several flaws in the application and decision making process JMT took out a judicial review against the Scottish Government.  However, the developer, Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) joined the case as an ‘interested party’ meaning JMT would have to face two sets of lawyers increasing the financial penalty should they lose the case.  Again, an application for a PEO was turned down.  To progress, JMT issued an appeal for funds and due to the generosity of its campaign supporters was able to continue with the case.  In December 2015 the judicial review judge found in favour of JMT.  Amazing!  There is though a ‘BUT’.  SSE and the Scottish Government appealed the ruling and JMT once again asked, unsuccessfully for a PEO to contest the appeal and, five months 
Same OS Map as above but without the industrialised landscape
The black rectangle shows the windfarm location on a smaller scale map
to try and give a reasonable impression of the remoteness of the site.
later, the judicial review decision was overturned and the plan to industrialise one of Scotland’s wild and remote areas of land was again on the cards.  More pegs please because something really does stink!  The Stronelarig Estate at the time of the application was owned by Charles Connell, who sadly died of heart failure in 2015, and may still be owned by the family.  When permission for the wind farm was given the go ahead in 2014 the Sunday Times revealed that the development would bring in up to £60million in profits to the estate.  Having followed this saga over the last few years it was quite interesting to see a comment in our local Strathspey and Badenoch Herald paper by Local Highland councillor Bill Lobban (SNP).  Currently, local folk have been objecting to two wind farm applications that will impinge on the ‘wild land’ area around the picturesque Lochindorb, and lying within the Drynachan, Lochindorb and Dava Moor Special Landscape Area.  One is still in the wind-mast trial stage but the other, despite the application being rejected by Highland Council and with 161 local objectors including the community councils of Carrbridge and Dulnain Bridge, the Scottish Government Reporter gave it the go-ahead.  Councillor Lobban summed up what many folk locally have been thinking.
"This decision is yet another insult to democracy.  Quite simply the planning process in Scotland is broken.  Allowing decisions to be taken by a single government employee rides roughshod over the democratic process and it is now high time that the Scottish Government realised that fact and made drastic changes to the whole system.  There is no point bleating on and on about local democracy when the views of local people and their democratically elected representatives are ignored time and time again."  Thank you Bill but pass me that gas-mask please.

Lots of excitement on the 14th when, walking back from the shop that familiar sound of tinkling bells sounded overhead – waxwings!  Daughter Laura had told me that there were a few hundred in Elgin but these were the first to be heard locally and when I caught up with them there were about 50 sitting at the top of a larch tree at the end of our road.  As I pointed them out to a neighbour the whole lot flew overhead and carried on in the Firwood direction.  I dashed home and in the hope that they 
Tree-top waxwings
And what they should look like courtesy of Craig Bell - wow!  
might be attracted, I cut up some of the fallen apples and laid them out white-side up on the lawn.  Nothing!  Next morning there were about 10 at the top of a tree across the road but that was it.  Our old rowan tree was hanging thick with berries but they weren’t tempted and it was a few days later that the redwings, fieldfares, blackbirds and the odd mistle thrush started to attack the crop.  No 
waxwings but lots of fun trying to get a decent photo of the thrushes devouring the rowan berries.  Watching the comings and goings it was interesting to list just how many birds were feeding on the berries.  There were the four species above plus a female brambling, chaffinches, bullfinches (2), goldfinch and, trying to feed on them a sparrowhawk.  The waxwings were found again near the Dell Road church and, with a hedge full of cotoneaster berries I had hopes of a low down rather than bright sky background photo.  No luck there.  During this period a new laptop was ordered and despite trying to stay with Windows 7 it wasn’t to be and the new machine arrived with all the junk 
Unlucky sparrowhawk - on this occasion
that accompanies Windows 10.  The simplicity of the older versions of PowerPoint and Publisher have been overtaken by newer ones which are trying to think for you and might eventually be learnt.  Word, excel and the email side seem to be okay but all with new quirky was of doing things and I’ve yet to get the Mapmate database moved over successfully.  I contacted Nikon to see if they could supply details as to how to install their pretty good NX2 photo software but they don’t do that for W10 and there is now a less powerful NX-D which doesn’t do the same tweaks that the older version did.  Why?  Currently the overheating old laptop continues with the Mapmate database and the old Nikon software and if that really does pack up and PC Specialists can’t mend, where do we go?  Both laptops were used to produce the last blog.

Weather.  13.80C on 15th and with a couple of night-time -70C, all day frosts and some snow on high ground.  It was cold enough towards the end of the month to freeze over most waterbodies and create amazing frost-scapes on some days.  Despite the day staying below freezing I managed to re-visit a section of the River Findhorn near to Logie Bridge to find the most amazing area of very old hazel 
Ancient ash and lungwort lichen
Leptogium saturninum lichen on ash tree
trees in amongst ancient ash and oak trees, all hanging thick with lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) and smaller numbers of textured lungwort (Lobaria scrobiculata), Degelia plumbea and two local rarities Collema fasciculare and Leptogium saturninum.  Some of the hazels have to be the oldest I’ve seen locally.  Perhaps the strangest pursuit though involved whisky and their distilleries!  A couple of months ago I was alerted to the fact that there was something called the ‘whisky fungus’ a Baudoinia species and that it was linked to the black, sooty deposits found on buildings and trees all around some distilleries.  Despite having been aware of this phenomenon during all the years driving past the distilleries I had never thought beyond the deposits being linked to the steam billowing out from the buildings during the whisky distilling process.  Murdo at the Highland Biological Recording Group alerted me to the fact that despite several studies having been done to confirm and identify the 
A typical steamy distillery - but don't blame the steam!
fungus, there was only one UK record!  He had visited a couple of distilleries north of Inverness, had collected some ‘soot’ and had had the fungus identity confirmed by an expert mycologist.  Close to home there are several distilleries in the Aberlour and Dufftown areas and it was to the first location that I set off to see what I could find.  The first site was Glenfarclas a few miles before Aberlour and despite being closed to visitors it was possible to drive up to the visitor car parking area and scan the buildings and trees, but no obvious deposits could be seen.  Just before Aberlour is the Carron 
The soot-like fungus found on hawthorn twigs at Aberlour distillery
Distillery, almost on the south bank of the River Spey and despite lots of steam pouring out of one of the buildings again, no deposits could be found.  So, on to Aberlour where the distillery is at the bottom of the hill as you reach the edge of the village.  I drove into the car park area and bingo, some bushes, trees and building were covered in the black deposit, so carefully I cut a bit of hawthorn twig complete with a mass of deposit and scraped a bit more into a plastic tube.  Every tree over quite a distance from the buildings was also covered, something typical of other sites I’d driven past.  Onward, this time to Dufftown and on the approach to the town all the trees were black.  This town is very well off for distilleries with five all within a mile or so of each other so possibly they all combine to create more deposits?  I parked the car and wandered along the road looking for suitable 
Baudoinia compniacensis (whisky fungus) under the microscope x400
Whisky fungus x1000 oil
deposits to take home to check by wandering between the Glen Fiddich and Diageo distilleries.  Despite the trees all being pretty black the deposits were nowhere near as thickly encrusted as at Aberlour but were plentiful enough to collect a couple of samples.  Job done, off home to see what the deposits looked like.  What I found under the microscope matched the details available on the internet so it looked like I was dealing with Baudoinia compniacensis.  As I was about to email Murdo with my results, complete with photos of the fungus and the steaming chimneys of the distilleries I thought I should read a little more about its history and recent research and it was only then that I realised that the fungus has got nothing to do with the steam!  When the distilling process is complete and the whisky is in the barrel (previously used oak Spanish sherry barrels are used at Glenfarclas for instance), to obtain the title of Scotch whisky, by law, the new spirit must be matured in oak casks, with a capacity no greater than 700 litres, in a warehouse in Scotland, for a minimum of three years.  This is known as maturation.  During this process 2% of the alcohol is lost due to evaporation via the pores in the wooden barrels and is known in the industry as “the angels share” and it is this airborne alcohol/ethanol that is responsible for the fungal growth.  Despite, until recently, there only being one UK record of this fungus, work on its identity started in 1872 by the French pharmacist Antonin Baudoin who checked the black, sooty growth found on the walls and roof tiles of buildings near distilleries in Cognac, France. Fascinating.

The most surprising birding event was least expected.  On one of the days that Janet wasn’t running her ‘pop-up-shop’ in the chalet, we headed for a day out at the coast in Nairn.  Our walk circuit took us from the town centre and out to the shore where we stopped for a few minutes to watch a partial 
Pale-bellied brent geese feeding and the locally ringed bird
rainbow develop over the sea.  Below us a group birds flew in and landed before starting to feed on the rocks, “they’re brent geese” I shouted to Janet, a bird I have very rarely seen previously.  As we watched the birds feeding more arrived, adding up to 47 in total, and as one group flew in I fired off a few shots of the camera to get a figure just in case the birds didn’t stop.  They did, and as I checked the photos on the camera I realised one of the birds coming in to land had rings on its legs.  As they were feeding they moved quite quickly along the rocky shore heading in the Ardersier direction.  A few enquiries once I got home dashed my hopes of the bird having been ringed in its breeding area (northern Greenland, Spitsbergen?) when the leader of the Highland Ringing Group informed me that a small number of birds winter each year along this part of the Moray coast and that they were responsible for adding the rings!  No matter, a very pleasant surprise on our day out.

Early in November we received the sad news that my Uncle Rob had died and mid-month I travelled down to Morecambe to be with other family members and friends to say cheerio to a man who had dedicated quite a lot of his working life to Scotland’s railways and latterly at the ferry port in Heysham.  The tiny station at Drumoak on the then Aberdeen to Ballater line is one of the places 
where he worked close to the Toll-gate cottage where he grew up.  Before its closure in 1966, the Royal Family were regular passengers as they made their way to Balmoral.  As a boy scout camping in Inverness and having travelled up from Lancashire, I was able to pay a surprise visit to Dalwhinnie where he was station master for many years, and when myself and Janet toured Scotland in our good old Ford Poplar, we again dropped in unannounced when he was doing the same job at Annan.  Our thoughts are with Grace, Shona, Graeme and family at this sad time.

With best wishes for the festive season and 2017

Stewart and Janet

SNH Core Areas of Wild Land 2013 Map Consultation Paper see Site 17 Monadhliath
Bill Lobban and Strathy article
Tain & District Field Club
Dornoch Firth SSSI
Dufftown Distilleries
Baudoinia compniacensis the whisky fungus
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

Green shield-moss capsules as seen on the HBRG AGM outing
Hydnellum (ST) on BBC Scotland weather but
still a long way behind daughter Laura's successes!
It has been mild but also very frosty

Nethy Bridge old kirk sunset
Have a good Christmas
Photos © Stewart Taylor and © Craig Bell waxwing