Sunday, 15 January 2017

An interesting late guest for Christmas ‘dinner’

In a month where Christmassy things take over, birds were the highlight for the first half of December.  Waxwings from last month continued to test me out as I tried to find a few that would stay still long enough for a decent photo (none did!) and it was whilst out on the 2nd that I realised Janet and myself had made a big mistake.  A week earlier there had been a report of a hawfinch via someone visiting the pop-up-shop in the chalet and whether failing to make enquiries or, not too sure about the report, I didn’t react.  My outing on the 2nd failed to find the local flock of waxwings but I did meet up with John who told me that there had been 14-16 hawfinches feeding in bird cherry trees by the River Spey in Grantown, Doh!  As I got there late morning a couple of birders told me that they had seen just one bird about half an hour earlier, so I wandered down the track to see if it was still there.  I was told to keep an eye on the berry-rich hawthorns, bird cherries and the tops of the 
Single hawfinch on branch by main stem, mid-picture, honestly!
adjacent larches.  As I waited a dipper was singing from a rock in the river and overhead flew fieldfares and redwings.  Some of the latter had me checking the top of the larches pretty intently until I was sure of what they were.  After about an hour, 2-3 chaffinches landed in the top of the larches and, just below them, was a bird that looked a little bit bulkier and with the wee Panasonic camera set at its maximum of x30 zoom, I fired away in the hope of checking which species once home.  And that was it, so after another half hour I gave up.  The bird at the top of the larch was indeed a hawfinch – a mega-tick!  A few days later I got a call to say there were about the same number of hawfinches in bird cherry trees by the footbridge over the River Nethy.  However, my mid-afternoon visit failed to find any and the folk who had been watching the Grantown birds said they 
The flock top and the ones feeding in the rowan tree
often disappeared from about half-two.  A visit first thing next day failed to find anything but reports later that day said they were still there.  I have to thank the hawfinches for what happened next.  My Sunday morning breakfast was quite early and, with cameras loaded in the car I set off to see what I could find.  As I drove towards the post office and football pitch a huge flock of birds suddenly wheeled overhead making me screech to a halt, hop out of the car and marvel at the 300 or so calling waxwings circling around.  (I've just done an accurate count of the birds just in the top photo and there are 462 so there had to be a minimum of 500-600 in the flock). For a few seconds they perched in birches at the back of the houses, then some would dive down to a small pool just off the road to snatch a drink, then regularly a mass of them landed in a tiny garden rowan tree to feed on the berries before taking off almost as quickly as they had landed.  What a sight.  Just as quickly as they had appeared they were off again, heading towards the post office where I gather they appeared on and off for the morning.  However, it was hawfinch time and I drove up to the footbridge to at last be greeted by 4-5 hawfinches, briefly feeding in the bird cherries and regularly perching up at the top of the larch trees where I gather from one of the other birders, they were also feeding on larch seeds.  Within half an 
The Nethy hawfinches
hour there were about 10 folk all wanting to see the birds and it was fairly obvious that with so many people close to some of the smaller cherry trees with lots of berries, the birds were going to stay high up and outside the range of decent photos.  A wander round the roads where more cherry trees were still showing berries failed to find the birds so time for home.  However, knowing the River Nethy quite well between the village and RSPB Forest Lodge, I wondered if there might be more, or the same birds, feeding in the cherry trees so that is where my afternoon outing took me.  Bingo! 12 birds together plus a further 2 found in a big stand of bird cherries about 1 km from the footbridge, so probably the same flock.  Despite remaining completely motionless, within five minutes the birds were off, perhaps to go to roost or just to feed in another group of trees.  No decent photos but so nice to catch up with these very rare visitors to this part of the world.

As I waited around to see if the birds would return I wondered about the value of the wizened bird cherry fruits as food.  The juicy outer part of the berry has lost most of its food value by this time of year and it is the inner cherry stone that these birds are feeding on.  Out of interest, I grabbed a few 
Bird cherry dried old fruits
low-down berries and using my pretty sharp pocket knife tried to cut through the cherry stones whilst they were lying on a dried log.  They were incredibly hard and difficult to cut through.  The first one had nothing inside the cherry stone but the next two were obviously fertile and both contained the nutritious seed the birds were seeking.  Amazingly, all the parts of the cherry fruits have names; the 
Bird cherry fruit top and same one cut in half showing the seed
black outer skin when the cherry is ripe is the exoparp, the juicy fleshy layer the mesocarp, the woody outer layer of the cherry stone the endocarp which protects the single seed.  Having tried cutting these seeds the hawfinches must have amazingly strong beaks.  A few days later I was picking up the grandsons in Aviemore when again, a flock of around 300 waxwings were wheeling overhead, perching in trees, visiting a small garden pool to drink and with huge numbers landing in tiny rowan trees to feed.

I’m not sure what the birds, plants and animals think about our current weather patterns.  Twice during December we have seen temperatures one day well below freezing and the next slightly balmy.  We had -11oC on the 5th and +120C on the 7th, and -40C on 24th and +110C on the 25th!  Bulbs have been appearing in gardens and by our backdoor yellow flowers of the winter jasmine came out early in the month when usually it is well into the new year before this happens.  Mistle 
thrush has been heard singing, and rooks in the village have been in attendance at their rookery.  With Christmas Day past and the meat removed from the turkey breast Janet asked me hang up the bones in the apple tree for the birds to peck at.  All the other bits that had fallen off were left on the lawn.  Early afternoon Janet shouts “There’s a buzzard in the garden eating the turkey bits!” and sure enough this brave (or starving/ill) bird had come in and was scoffing the skin and bits of meat that were lying on the ground.  A first for the ‘in garden’ bird list.  Next day I cut down the turkey bones and left them on the ground but we didn’t see the buzzard return, however the evening pine marten and visiting cat had good feeds.

In the October blog in 2013 I highlighted a threat to the existence of the Kincraig U5s Playgroup which daughter Ruth ran at the time.  The playgroup meet in the church hall and, being a ‘forest school’ type group a part of most days is spent outdoors, particularly in an adjacent woodland known as The Knoll.  Prior to this application by local builder Allan Munro, five houses had already been built, claiming about half of the original woodland area, with the then current planning application wanting three more right in the heart of the remaining wooded area.  With the potential loss of mature oaks and birches I objected on conservation grounds and the playgroup did the same highlighting the 
The Knoll from 1st planning application showing
woodland lost to housing by 2013
loss of amenity woodland (as listed by Highland Council) and the threat to the existence of the playgroup.  There were many objections and the application was withdrawn.  2014.  A planning application is made for four terraced houses in woodland on the side of The Knoll (14/04702/FUL if you want to check Highland Council Planning) which again had potential implications for amenity and the playgroup.  As with most of these ‘controversial’ planning applications it was made on 17 Dec 2014, as everyone prepares for Christmas/New Year.  The application was withdrawn possibly on the advice of the Planners who suggested it wouldn’t succeed.  2015.  Another application for almost the same four house on the side of The Knoll (15/03930/FUL), a big outcry, playgroup leaders and children photographed with banners on the Knoll asking “Save our Playgroup” and eventually the Council refuse the application.  There is an appeal and on 16 Dec 2015 this is also turned down.  
An aspen leaf gall which the Playgroup children saw when I was out with them
2016.  Yes, sadly there’s more, and this is in the Cairngorms National Park!  “16/05110/FUL.  Proposed 3 no terraced houses.  Amenity Woodland East Of The Knoll Kincraig” by Agents for Allan Munro Construction Ltd. 05/12/2016.  Is this a case of who will give in first, the objectors or the developer?  This site isn’t in the Local Plan for housing but a large field about quarter of a mile away is.  So, once again the playgroup leaders are having to make a case as to why this shouldn’t happen and once again the local planning officials have to devote yet more time to consider and make a decision.  Since the application our local SNP Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) Kate Forbes has stated that people and housing should come before badgers and slow worms so we will see what influence that has on the planning decision.  Hopefully the people in this case are the young, playgroup members.

Aspens have taken up a bit of my time this month – so what’s new!  I was invited to be one of a team of folk to assist the Cairngorms National Park staff develop plans for getting our aspen woods into favourable condition and the part that farm woodland might play in the process.  The first meeting highlighted the difficulties that would need to be overcome mainly related to woodland and farm grants with much of the aspen woodland occurring on land possible linked to one or either of these.  However, this is a start and hopefully positive progress can be made.  Something like this might also help raise awareness of the importance of aspen woods for the species they support and help stop the senseless damage done to the ancient woodland stand at Spey Bridge as covered in an earlier blog.  I 
Mindless destruction - the ancient hazel tree
hadn’t fully realised the extent of this damaging work until I walked back homewards from leaving the car for its MOT in the garage next to the Spey Bridge wood.  The same tidying up work continued for about one-kilometre from the bridge and as I reached the estate boundary one of the last trees I found to have been completely cut down was an ancient, multi-stemmed hazel which instinct told me would have been important for something.  I took a GPS reading so I could check once home.  Sure 
The blackbirds nest
enough it was home to a blackbirds nest when I last visited it along with the rare local lichens Lobaria scrobiculata, Nephroma parile, Peltigera collina and the wee fungus Plicatura crispa.  So, so sad.  Members of the local Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group had also made contact to see if I would like to join them when they had an outing with another MSP John Finney (Green Party).  John had recently agreed to be the Scottish Parliaments ‘Aspen Champion’, one of 69 of the 129 MSPs who have become Species Champions for some of Scotland’s rare or threatened wildlife.  We met John in Carrbridge and in the time allowed, drove to Grantown on Spey to see the Spey Bridge aspens, where, looking into the wood from the opposite side of the River Spey, we were able 
John Finney in Spey Bridge aspens and Gus giving information
to show the very distinct ‘punk hairstyle’ shape of the tops of the mature trees.  Visiting the woods also allowed time to discuss the damage done and how this might be addressed in the future.  We then travelled on to a second stop where I was able to show John a couple of the rarer aspen lichens and where we could see some new suckers growing up from the mature trees roots whilst also seeing the site stocked with sheep which stopped the young trees growing to become mature trees.  A lot to see and take in but hopefully we managed to sow a few thoughts that John can discuss and raise in the parliament when opportunities arise. 

Following on from the meeting with the Park staff I met with Anne at Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to see how information of the rarer species (currently lichens, aspen hoverfly and two rare mosses) could be assembled to identify the ‘key’ stands where getting new trees established was urgent to try and ensure the future of these rare species.  In addition to this the distribution map of aspens within Badenoch and Strathspey that I was involved in with ground truthing work until just over a year ago, could be used to show where linking small aspen stands might be a possibility, mainly by planting.  The survey of the aspens to look for rarer mosses was done way back in 2003 so 
The recently fallen ancient aspen tree
The old jackdaws nest
I was keen to know if the trees supporting them still survived, particularly where the moss population was restricted to just a few trees and where they had been found in some of the smaller stands.  Eventually I tracked down a copy of the report and, using grid references and excellent photos of the trees supporting the mosses, I made my first re-survey visit to where else but the Spey Bridge aspens.  I knew one small tree with the moss had been removed at this site, but how had the others fared?  This first outing was on the 27th and I was saddened to see that yet another of the leviathan aspens had fallen, brought down during the Boxing Day gales.  I could see that the core of the tree was riddled with the tell-tale strands of ‘boot-laces’ linked to honey fungus (Armillaria species) so it had been on its way out for quite some time.  I had known this tree for many years as it supported a huge population of the pinhead lichen Sclerophora pallida, and smaller populations of Sclerophora peronella and the script lichen Schismatomma graphidioides.  With the tree now lying on the ground 
Orthotrichum obtusifolium, dry (top) and wetted (bottom)
I could see that the first pinhead was also growing 8 and 10 metres up the tree both groups associated with an old ‘canker’ growth which, over time, had created a hollow section of tree used annually by nesting jackdaws and starlings.  The tree trunk also produced the first ‘real’ find of the day, the rare moss I had come to find on other trees, Orthotrichum obtusifolium.  This hadn’t been recorded previously because it was also above head height, 4 metres up the tree.  I was aware of the location of two of the known Orthotrichum trees but the rest of the day was spent sorting out the other four, mostly from the photos, though the moss was only found on two of them.  However, one of the trees was also home to lots of one of the commoner mosses so more work will probably be needed to find the rare one.  Park staff and SNH were also contacted to ensure the estate don’t return to ‘tidy up’ once again and deprive any surviving aspen hoverflies of a place to breed.  All their previous ‘homes’ had been removed or burnt.

At long last I made an outing to a place I had seen that looked very interesting whilst undertaking aspen survey work mentioned earlier.  This was an area of consolidated shingle by the spate-prone River Dulnain west of Carrbridge and on the walk in I was determined not to stop by any of the aspens but when I saw unusual ‘stuff’ growing on many juniper bushes, I just had to stop, record and 
Lungwort on juniper
photograph the lichens I was finding.  The most unusual for a juniper bush was lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) and there was quite a bit of Nephroma laevigatum.  Eventually I descended down to the river and started my systematic walking back and forth across the shingle and almost immediately I found what I was hoping for, the amazingly-named ruffled freckled pelt(!) but officially called Peltigera leucophlebia.  I have found this lichen quite regularly on river shingle and had already 
Peltigera leucophlebia as normally found (top) and fertile (bottom)
found it elsewhere on this river, but usually in small amounts.  The first find was quickly doubled and the next patch was actually fertile, something not too common with this lichen.  The lines of walking continued and as daylight started to fade (must set off earlier next time) about half of the shingle had been walked and an amazing 20 patches of the lichen had been found with several of them fertile.  A site to re-visit and one to tempt the lichen experts to visit also.

Christmas day was great, all the family over, lots of presents to open, great food (thank you Janet and Ruth), lots of good chat, Lego, Pok√©mon and Minecraft to learn about and a good time had by all.  Last diary entry on 25th – ‘knackered’.  Diary entry 26th – ‘finish washing up + recovery. Paper from shop. 1-2” snow.  TV’!
Ready, steady -
All the best enjoy the read

Stewart and Janet

Hawfinch information
Firwood blog & Knoll planning application
MSPs Species Champions
Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group
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

Curlew Findhorn Bay
Squirrel says "Must try harder next time"!
That's it for 2016 - what will 2017 bring?
 Photos © Stewart Taylor