Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Bye-bye waxwings hello February reds

Waxwings remained good value until towards the end of the month but, as the local supply of cotoneaster berries became depleted, the group of 40-50 disappeared, probably shifting over to eating juniper berries.  The birds local to the house were certainly feeding in the juniper bushes by the pony field in between raiding local cotoneaster bushes and once they had more or less disappeared there 
Fun with the waxwings
were reports of birds in juniper bushes as far away as Tulloch.  In the end the local birds didn’t seen too bothered about us moving around and on one occasion, as I was clearing snow for Rita at the end of our road, 40-odd birds were perched in the rowan tree above me before descending en masse to quickly swallow many cotoneaster berries before returning a few seconds later to land again above my head!  The waxwings were fairly easy to see and folk were stopping their cars on the road to view the birds when perched in the tree tops, but not so the hawfinches.  I’ve not managed to bump into them again but chalet guests Peta and Richard found three birds in the conifers to the Abernethy end of the Dell Road and a recent reported sighting suggest they are still in that area.  There are even reports of a singing bird in the Grantown area.  During February, the temperature ranged from -9.80
Hungry long-tailed tits
Even hungrier goldcrest
to +100C and on the warmer days lots of birds locally started to sing.  Whether it is down to the relatively mild and almost snowless winter I’m not sure but the number of wrens singing close to the house seems much higher than normal and the groups of long-tailed tits coming into the garden for food also seems higher than usual.  An unusual sighting though was a tiny goldcrest down on the ground probably picking up bits of food scattered around by other feeding birds.  This is something I can’t remember seeing before feeding on the ground in the garden, though there is a chance that the 
Iceland gull
bird wasn’t well and was desperate for any kind of food.  Our chalet guests also reported seeing a glaucous gull in the fields near to Aviemore as they arrived and also told me that they had heard about Iceland gulls visiting the rubbish dump in Aviemore.  Popping in to the dump in passing the next day I saw at least two birds though there were reports of up to four. 

Work carried on linked to the future of local aspen stands through to mid-month when the next meeting of the discussion group took place.  Mapping out current fence lines and wandering into other parts of the aspen and hazel stands in the Tulloch area makes me realise even more the immense value of parts of these woods, particularly where there are well established older specimens of both tree species.  Whilst not finding anything new in the rarer lichen line I continued to find more 
One of the ancient hazels
populations showing that it’s not just the odd tree supporting them.  At some stage a map will need to be produced showing just what is where lichen-wise, which tree species is the host and just how often each has been recorded.  And that would just be what I was finding with my limited lichen knowledge, goodness knows what else would be added should there be a fuller survey by the lichen experts.  So far the progress to implementation of additional fencing protection measures has been delayed due to an injury to the person who needs to visit the sites to agree what might be possible with the current funding package but hopefully that will be resolved soon.

Just a year ago, a planning application for three chalets close to the nationally important Flowerfield orchid site was withdrawn but early in the month a new application was made for just a single unit on the site where a single chalet was proposed first time around.  To me this application doesn’t pose the same threat to the orchid field as the earlier one so my visit to it was just to ensure the environmental survey reports were correct and nothing had been missed, as far as my knowledge could ascertain.  I have a real problem with the way many of these surveys are produced, tree species are mapped and 
T16, second tree from left
identified but then there are negative additions like “a tree has dead branches” or “there were many bracket fungi present” giving the suggestion that despite the site being on the Ancient Woodland Inventory, these trees may need work doing to them.  There is even a box to fill giving the suggested lifespan remaining for each of the trees!  One of the problems reported for tree T16 was that it had a hollow at its base and that there were bracket fungi present.  What the surveyor hadn’t seen was that the very natural actions creating the hollow trunk and the sap-run as a by-product of the fungi was a potential site for the rarer pinhead Sclerophora lichens.  Sure enough, there they were (S. peronella), 
Some of the badger holes
goodness, how naughty of the tree to create all this symbiotic co-habitation in its old age!  The survey also suggested that evidence had been found that badgers were present in the area but that the information supplied by HBRG wasn’t too clear about exact locations for any badger setts.  I checked my Mapmate records and of course the HBRG information was mine, complete with accurate grid references.  So, just to ensure they were still present, I re-visited the grid reference location to find that there were around 30 holes (not all in use) spread out over about 50m and were located about 200m from the proposed chalet site.  I don’t think this is a problem, the badgers will just go about 
The pinhead lichen Sclerophora peronella
their business and might even visit the chalet to see if there are any tasty tit-bits.  Why therefore not be honest with what is where and let the planners decide if the location is okay.  Now the planners have three letters telling them about the badgers (and one about the lichen) making it look like they were trying to hide or ignore their presence.  I do, at times, wonder if these surveys are undertaken totally independently of the developer/applicant.

The same little pinhead lichen was found to also be possibly under threat when I managed to make my repeat visit to the River Dulnain shingle site.  The track from the road to the river winds its way through a nice bit of birch woodland, the track doubling up as one of the Sustrans cycle routes (No. 
7).  I am always worried when I see bright paint spots on trees and this was the case on this visit when one of the two most ancient birches by the track was displaying a recently applied orange spot!  A bit of a lean over the track, and obvious bit of dampness on one side (home to the pinhead) but, overall, the tree looked fairly healthy so hopefully, not for the chop.  Will, from the Estate didn’t know why the tree had been marked so possibly a health and safety person from the Sustrans organisation, but Will is checking to see what is planned.  It is quite sad to see a habitat like the birch 
My first female northern February red stonefly top and another
showing the wing banding more clearly, x3 bands and dark tip to wings
tree, which has taken probably a hundred years to grow to its current size possibly being considered for removal.  Hopefully not.  This visit though had a dual reason for undertaking and it followed a message from Gus from the local conservation group about a stonefly that he was seeing by the River Spey at Boat of Garten.  Over the years I had heard about an unusual stonefly and, with little knowledge, had checked rocks along the side of the River Nethy in Abernethy Forest.  Gus’ message though made the possibility of seeing one fairly straightforward, “they are on the fence-posts by the River Spey at Boat of Garten”.  The stonefly is the northern February red (Brachyptera putata), a priority species in the Cairngorms Nature Action Plan, so the following afternoon I was down by the Spey staring at fence posts!  Thankfully, I had taken a picture of the fly with me from the Buglife 
One of the other regular stoneflies Protonemura meyeri
paper, because there was more than one stonefly present, but the size, and the markings of the one I was looking for made identification of the target species fairly straightforward once I’d checked a few fence posts.  This stonefly is an endemic freshwater species, found in the UK and nowhere else in the world.  Adults are active in February, and nymphs require clean, fresh-flowing water.  The adult females are about 8-9mm in total length and the males about 6mm, and reliable identification is easiest with the adults: the female has three dark bands across its wings, as well as dark wing tips, whilst the male is short-winged with two bands and unable to fly.  On this first visit to the Spey the weather was a bit damp with occasional light showers but as I visited each post I was starting to find more and more, so much so that I counted numbers and fence posts.  However, I was only just getting to grips with the wing markings and was fairly confident that all the flies I was seeing were males and this was confirmed a little later when I found a longer fly walking along the barbed wire, again with bands across its wings, but with three distinct bands compared to the males two.  The more interesting actions though was watching the flies obviously feeding on whatever was on the posts, a 
A male northern February red stonefly, the two wing bands are just visible
greenish algae or fungus on the tops and sides of many of the posts.  Was this good news?  These fence posts were fairly new having been installed just 2-3 years ago, and, as is normal with these wood products, all would have been pressure treated to slow down decay.  A bit more work to do here to check on the chemicals used in the treatment.  Most of the flies remained fairly static on the posts apart from the jaws ‘munching’ away so I planned to return the next day with better camera and tripod.  Next day there seemed to be even more northern February reds and as I photographed the mostly males, I started to count as I went along the fence.  I also made videos of the flies feeding on the substance on the posts so that there was no doubt that food was the main reason for their visit.  On the 38 posts visited I counted 71 mainly male stoneflies with 9 on one post being the highest count.  
A gathering of male stoneflies feeding on the 'growth' on top of fence post
Over the next few days checks were carried out on the River Nethy in RSPB Abernethy Reserve (Protonemura meyeri only), the River Dulnain between the village and the Spey where a male and a female northern February red were found and the River Feshie between Feshiebridge and the Spey were a female was found, all new locations.  Craig Macadam at Buglife had done quite a bit of searching over the last couple of years but after making contact he said he would welcome any new records plus photos/samples of any other stoneflies that I might find.  Happy to help and I await the names of the other species found during all these and other river visits.

The visit to the River Feshie and Spey confluence looking for the stonefly was quite an eye-opener.  I’ve visited this area several times before looking for plants and butterflies usually across the consolidated sands and shingle to the east of the Feshie, but as I followed the fence running by the Feshie I became aware that the river, behind the flood-bank, was at a higher level than I was in the 
The 'new' River Feshie river course
Aerial view of Feshie/Spey confluence before recent addition.
The new channel runs approximately through the red Feshie arrow
field below.  A little further on the Feshie had burst through the flood-bank and was making another mini-river running across the sandy area deep enough in places to be difficult to cross.  I would assume the water would normally flow in this area at a time of spate, but this was at a time of reasonably calm and dry weather.  This rivers ‘fan’ as it meets the Spey is pretty amazing and can only be appreciated when viewed from the air.  With so much new sand (mainly) deposited it will be interesting to see how the plants and insects react over the coming seasons as they once again adapt to the forces of nature.

A few first sightings also occurred during February.  A visit to the butchers in the village had me pointing out a group of moths on the window to Mike.  At night, the ultra-violet insect zapper inside the shop continues to operate and this being close to a window acts a bit like a moth trap.  On the outside of the window were three moths attracted from the previous night, quite a big species, which, 
Pale brindled beauty (Phigalia pilosaria)
being early in the year would have to be pale brindled beauty moths which were confirmed once 
outside to check.  This was the moth way back in 1974 which got me started with a moth trap when a couple were found in the porch of our house on the Isle of Rum.  In 1975, 190 species of moth were recorded/identified with most being released unharmed from the 3961 moths trapped via the UV moth trap.  It’s amazing how these things start!  I digress.  Whilst out and about Janet kept pointing out any distilleries we passed or were close to so that we could pop in to see if the buildings and trees were covering with the sooty-looking whisky fungus Baudoinia compniacensis.  About 5 new sites 
One of the blackened distillery buildings
were added to the UK map during the month.  Aspen stands were also visited to re-check for any of the rare Orthotrichum mosses but without any finds.  These outings though do produce other finds and whilst in an aspen stand near the B9007 road some black dots of the leaves of the plant herb robert (Geranium robertianum) were worth further investigation and once home and viewed under the microscope the spores of the Coleroa robertiani fungus were found.  This fungus seems to only 
Coleroa robertiani fungus on herb robert leaves
Coleroa robertiani spores x1000 oil
grow on the leaves of the plant that over-winter.  On the 19th I also saw my first toad of the year but no frog or toad spawn so far.  The visit along the B9007 road saw quite a few roadside trees being felled ahead of the road being closed for a month so that everything could be got ready for the towers and blades for the highly controversial wind-farm on the moors near to Lochindorb to be delivered.  
1st toad of the year
Infinergy applied for planning permission for 17 turbines on these wildland moors in August 2010 and Highland Council rejected it.  They appealed and a three-week public enquiry followed and once again, in June 2013 the Scottish Government overturned Highland Councils decision.  I’m getting whiffs of those unpleasant smells again!  Ah, but there will be a reduction in the number of turbines (17 to 13) but they will stick out from the landscape by an extra 15m growing to 
No caption needed!
125 metres in height to the tips of the blades.  There will also be 18km of new 5m wide tracks, 13 x 600 tonnes of concrete per turbine base (ca. 8000 tonnes in total) pumped around about 13 x 80 tonnes of steel reinforcement (ca. 1000 tonnes in total) and another industrialised wildland site to go with the other two nearby. 

At least it’s the Spring Equinox as I type when day and night are the same length and we thankfully head off into summer.

Enjoy the read

Stewart and Janet

Northern February red stonefly
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

Hazel catkins
Emerging winter aconite flowers

Photos © Stewart Taylor