Sunday, 26 February 2017

Having a LAFF in more ways than one!

I learned a new word this month – bioluminescence - ‘The production and emission of light by a living organism’!  I suppose I would have met it before having seen things like glow-worms (actually beetles) and glowing seas when on the Isle of Rum possibly caused by dinoflagellates ("fire plants") or, under rare conditions might be copepods (crustaceans) or a bloom of small jellyfish.  However, a phone call from a friend asked me if I knew anything about mosses or lichens that might glow in the dark following on from a query from someone in Grantown.  Intrigued, I went on the internet to see if there was anything obvious and found that there might be something, although from a species that doesn’t occur in Britain.  In the meantime, more information had been received giving a location where the mystery glows had been seen so we met up and went to check out the site.  The location 
Glowing trees! 
was the old railway line in Grantown and the trees on site were mainly birches with some aspens and willows all with good lichen populations which might be the cause of the greenish and reddish colours seen after dark.  Knowing the location we agreed to meet up again as darkness approached to see if we could pinpoint the spots on the trees where the “bioluminescence” was occurring.  The colours had been seen by the person reporting the glows at both dawn and dusk so we had a couple of options to see what was what.  Standing around on the old railway line, close to houses as it was getting dark made us feel a little uneasy, particularly as dog walkers and people were passing us before final darkness!  We didn’t have to wait long and, there above our heads were very distinct red and green colours appearing on the trees.  To get closer we made our way up the steep railway 
A closer view of one of the 'spots'
embankment but then had difficulty in pinpointing the tiny spots of light on the twigs and branches.  However, becoming a little elevated above the railway line allowed us to see over the other embankment where we could see a house was also covered in red and green spots as was much of its rhododendron bush.  Then the penny dropped and we had a little laugh – laser-lights – emanating in all directions, several of which were creating colourful spots on the trackside trees.  The query about the colourful spots had been genuine but the possibility of describing something that might be new to science faded just as quickly as the last of the daylight!  Amazingly, a few days later I had an email from another friend who lives quite close to the railway line asking if I knew of any ‘organism’ that glows in the dark!

This unusual outing though did have a real bonus.  I’d gone into Grantown mid-afternoon to visit the Old Spey Bridge area where up to 14 hawfinches had been reported several days earlier, but a circuit covering both Spey riverbanks and bridges where the food-plant bird cherry was present, failed to find anything.  With a little time still to spare before darkness I wandered down river to where the hawfinches had been seen originally and was entertained for a while with passing long-tailed tits, 
The first sighting of the hawfinch
great tits and blue tits and a pair of goldeneye on the river.  Most of the seeds on the bird cherries had gone but right at the top of the bank I spotted a bulky bird in one of the bird cherry bushes and through my binoculars I could see it was a hawfinch, still managing to find a few seeds on the bush.  There was snow on the ground and the temperature was around zero so I assumed it was just filling itself up with any food it could find before it followed the tit flocks off to roost.  It then left the cherry bush and landed in a very dense hawthorn bush where again I could see it was finding berries.  It was getting a little darker and it was difficult to keep tabs on the bird and having thought I saw it fly off to the left I thought that was it for the day.  Stopping by the fisherman’s hut to spend a penny I heard 
and the close up view
some fairly unusual high-pitched calls close by and with luck the calls lead me back to the bird which was now feeding on rowan berries.  For once, I was honoured to be watching a hawfinch low down in a tree and, despite it now being after 4pm, I thought I would risk a few photos, if only I could find the bird in the gathering gloom.  It carried on feeding for a few more minutes before once again disappearing into the denser stands of cherry trees – time to go and check out that bioluminescence!  Thankyou Mr Hawfinch.

The big effort this month though has been ongoing work with those good old aspens.  Following on from the meeting to discuss how to try and get more aspens established I managed to have meetings with the owners of two local aspens stands, both of which are important for the lichen populations they support.  At both sites, stock fences had been installed 10-15 years ago with the aim of getting regeneration established, the next generation of trees to hopefully provide homes for lichens and other dependent species.  A great idea and a project that had been very positive in its aims, but within the fences very little has happened, something I was well aware of as I had been visiting the sites to 
One of the fenced aspen plots
record species.  The big problem had been the fences kept out the sheep but not the deer and though there were lots of ‘suckers’ sitting there, constant nibbling by deer had stopped most from growing.  A lack of follow-up monitoring also failed to identify and address the problem.  The suckers, growing from the underground aspen roots, has been the way aspens at most sites locally have regenerating for probably thousands of years because the trees produce very little seed locally on a regular basis.  Hopefully, the new project being discussed would allow these sites to be re-visited and produce some funding to allow the fences to be modified to keep out the deer, but this would require some work by yours truly to map and measure the fence-lines.  So, over the last few weeks, strainer post locations have been GPS-ed, fence lines measured and maps produced for the four existing plots ready for the next meeting to discuss the possibilities.  In addition, one of the owners is also keen to allow new fences to be installed to get more aspens growing so I just hope the powers that be are just as enthusiastic and that at long last progress to establishing new trees at just two of the many aspen stands is made.

The other aspen work has been to continue to visit the trees surveyed back in 2003 to record the rare mosses (Orthotrichum obtusifolium and Orthotrichum gymnostomum) and to see the current state of the host trees and moss populations.  On the 2nd I was down near Laggan and found the single aspen and large Orthotrichum obtusifolium population still intact.  Photos of this moss were shown in the 
Collema furfuraceum lichen
last blog. The bonus on this outing was finding Collema furfuraceum a strange foliose lichen with a thin membrane-like thallus, the leafy, tree-hugging part of the lichen.  The next site to be checked, on the 8th, was over on Deeside, and here the picture wasn’t so positive.  The host tree wasn’t GPS-ed at the time of the survey so I had to rely on being able to match trees in photographs with trees on the ground, not so easy at this site because many aspens had fallen over, possibly via gales.  Eventually I found the single aspen that supported Orthotrichum obtusifolium but sadly this was one of the trees 
Original photo from 2003 showing aspen/moss tree
Repeat photo with the aspen /moss tree on ground bottom right.
So many aspens have fallen in this wood that it now looks quite open
now lying flat on the ground.  It looked like the tree had been down for 4-5 years but despite this, and the tree now being completely dead, the moss was still present.  However, this situation was only likely to continue for another couple of years at the most as the bark, in places, was starting to fall from the trunk.  On the way back to the car a tall, Phragmites type grass caught my eye growing on the verge of the busy A93 Deeside road, close to Balmoral.  It didn’t look like Phragmites so the only similar grass it could be was wood small-reed (Calamagrostis epigejos) so a photo was taken of a 
Flower-head wood small-reed
flower head along with a sample for checking once home.  It was wood small-reed, in a very unusual location and not just that but the first records for this plant in this general location was by the famous James W H Trail way back in 1875.  On the 26 July in that year James Trail found the grass near Invercauld Bridge on the same road and this site was re-found around 1995.  On 27 July 1875 Trail also found the grass “near Balmoral” and wouldn’t it be nice to think that my find, some 142 years later, was from the same location.  The 2003 moss survey only visited a small selection of aspen woods so, having now got my eye in for one of the two mosses, I made a few outings to woods not 
The fallen aspen with the rare moss
previously visited but so far without finding any new sites.  On 21st I visited one of the key sites for the mosses in a wood close to Aviemore, the only site, so far in the UK, where both mosses were found during the earlier survey.  This site though was a key location for the rarer of the two mosses Orthotrichum gymnostomum where it had been found on 9 trees, and quite quickly I found it on two aspens.  I was again using photos taken in 2003 as a guide and it soon became apparent that one of the trees was now on its side though once again, the moss was still present.  Only one of the aspens supported both mosses but with a tiny population of O. obtusifolium and from the photos I could see that this tree along with all the others were still healthy and standing so I decided not to check out all the populations on all the trees, but to head off to another group of aspens close by that I knew hadn’t 
The Orthotrichum gymnostomum moss, top dry, bottom wetted
been surveyed in 2003.  Searching each of these new trees for the smaller, rare mosses in amongst all the other moss cushions took quite a bit of time and as I was running out of daylight I arrived at one of two large, fallen aspens.  Normally, I wouldn’t have bothered checking these but recent experiences suggested I shouldn’t ignore them – a very good decision.  I knew from an earlier visit that one of the trees had a good population of a wee pinhead lichen (Sclerophora pallida) and as I approached the rot-hole where they grew I was aware that some of the mosses I was seeing were small even though they were dry and closed.  The view via the hand-lens really made my day and as my excitement grew I realised that I was looking at probably the rarer O. gymnostomum.  Both of these mosses are small and of about the same size but once you have seen them both, and read the 
Close up of the moss leaves showing rolled leaf edges
book descriptions, you can see that this moss has slightly curled-in edges to its leaves whereas the other has leaves that appears much flatter.  Because this was a recording visit I thankfully had the better camera and tripod with me and, as the sun was setting behind the surrounding trees, I managed 
to get decent photos of the dry moss with closed leaves and then a series of photos as the leaves opened after they were gently wetted using water from a nearby small stream.  I was happy with the identification of what I was seeing but once home I sent photos of to Andy who had carried out the 2003 survey.  He was also 90% confident I had the right species but to be sure I would need to squash the leaves of the tiny sample I’d brought home and look for “the microscopic ID feature 
Microscope view of leaf 'papillae' - the twin circles (x1000 oil)
distinguishing Oo from Og is the number of papillae on the leaf cells.  Oo has 1 per cell, and Og has 2-3.”  Help, this was taking me into a world I’d never visited but, following his instructions, I could see the “papillae” in the leaf cells and thankfully there were 2 – a new site for Orthotrichum gymnostomum a new species find for me.  Papillae are small fleshy projection on a plant leaf, a bit like the sensory papillae on a human tongue.

The birds have been ‘getting going’ this month due to the spells of mild weather.  There were owls calling at the start of the month and a return visit to Nairn mid-month found brent geese still present.  Meeting a local birdwatcher we found out that, at times, they could be found feeding on the cricket pitch just behind the sea-front.  Our view though came late in the afternoon when about 20 birds landed on the sea close to the harbour entrance probably flushed from the rocks they were feeding on
Nairn brent geese

The 'early' curlew
by folk walking along the beach.  After about 15 minutes they were off again heading inland possible to roost?  Just up the road at the Tulloch Y-junction 6-10 waxwings were found feeding in juniper bushes dropping down to the road occasionally to drink from a puddle.  A single curlew in the flooded field down by the Spey at Broomhill was very early and probably realised so when the weather turned quite frosty for several days freezing over the pool.  Coat tits, blue tits and robins started singing mid-month and after attending a meeting in Strathpeffer late in the month I popped into the RSPB Tollie red kite viewing centre.  I got there just in time for ‘feeding time’ where a platform in front of the building is primed with food and the kites have to battle it out with lots of 
gulls to see who can grab the most food.  A buzzard appeared which put the gulls off for a while but once it left the gulls were back in force and within minutes all the food was gone.  Sadly, I only had the wee compact camera with me and it wasn’t the best option to capture the battle between the birds.  However, a couple of kites, out of about four on this visit, perched in nearby trees and weren’t at all bothered by the comings and goings of visitors.

The second LAFF was a much more serious affair than the first and was the culmination of several drafts of an article for Field Mycology written jointly with Paul Smith, bringing together our records of fungal balls growing on various species of sedges.  Paul is the BSBI Vice County Recorder for the Western Isles and like myself, has been recording these Anthracoidea fungi over the last few years.  
Carex bigelowii and Anthracoidea bigelowii
Late in the writing process we became aware of a series of specimens/records held in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh just in time for inclusion but also, importantly, showing that records of some species were ahead of our own.  In addition, a couple of sedge/smut combinations were new to the list giving a good list of species for readers of the article, due for publication late this month, to consider going out to look for during the coming year.  A link to the article, on-line, is given below.  The LAFF title links to the Kew Lost and Found Fungi Project where a couple of the species we had found had been listed, and asking folk to keep an eye open for them.  That’s two articles for journals completed during 2016 and, to go for a hat-trick, another one was written for the Hardy Orchid Society showing photos and giving a description for the hybrid orchid found during the annual 
The hybrid orchid
Flowerfield orchid count.  The hybrid is a combination of the small white orchid (Pseudorchis albida) and the heath spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata) and going by the wonderful name of x Pseudorhiza bruniana (Br├╝gger) P.F. Hunt).  By producing this write up it is again hoped that people might just remember to look a little more when in areas where the two parents are present.  Currently, the hybrid had only been found in two locations prior to the recent find being recorded from Ullinish Point on the west coast of Skye, last recorded in 1994, and Stenness on Mainland Orkney, last recorded in 1977, so any new finds would be most welcome.

Sorry for the delay a wee stonefly took up a bit of time recently but more about that next month.

All the best enjoy the read

Stewart and Janet

James William Helenus Trail (1851-1919)
James W H Trail
Field Mycology paper – scroll down to “Having a LAFF”
Dinoflagellates
Hardy Orchid Society
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

Janet's latest tweed cards
Hair ice top and the tiny holes created by a fungus from which
the ice is exuded in the bottom photo
Turnstone Nairn beach



Photos © Stewart Taylor and  © top Bioluminescence Will Boyd Wallis