Monday, 22 May 2017

Two Stars of Bethlehem but a right Royal Edinburgh wins

Visits to some local woods regarding the ‘help the aspen’ project continued with a major discovery in the hazel world.  Checking some work one of the farm owners was due to undertake, led to a wander along a small wooded burn which turned up something pretty amazing, the oldest hazel trees I have 
Just one of the ancient hazels
seen in this area.  So not only is the quote in the last blog about this area having “Scotland’s largest aspen dominated woodland” important but, add the ancient hazels to the mix of aspen/hazel woodland, and we really do have something quite special on our doorstep.  However, as you will read later, this doesn’t stop the wood being vulnerable to exploitation/damage so all we can do is work with the owners, impress on them the importance of what they have, and keep our fingers crossed for the future.

Pursuit of new locations for fungus growing on yellow star of Bethlehem plants (Gagea lutea) continued, and when I heard of a new location for the plant on the side of Loch Ness at Drumnadrochit I headed north.  A notice on the A82 as I left Inverness warned of ‘slow moving lorries today’ as chunks of wind turbines made their way to a new site and, sure enough, I caught up with one of these about 5 miles before my destination.  The 90 degree turn in the centre of Drumnadrochit, complete with traffic bollards was a test, but with the back-end of the trailer having rear-wheel steering the convoy continued its journey down Loch Ness-side.  My destination was 
Urquhart Woods, a small 23 ha ancient semi natural woodland reserve owned by the Woodland Trust and with two small rivers running through it, is classed as one of the best examples of a surviving ancient wet woodland in Europe.  The path I followed made its way through lots of mature ash and alder trees and looking down I was initially thrown into thinking the leaves I was seeing belonged to the Gagea plant.  Wrong!  Having not yet been to check the other yellow star of Bethlehem sites in 
Yellow star of Bethlehem leaves top, bluebell bottom
the Morayshire area to re-familiarise myself with the plant, I was mistaking the very similar leaves of the not yet flowering bluebells for the other plant.  Lesson one, bluebell leaves have one obvious vein on the underside of their leaves whilst the Gagea has three.  This is quite an important feature because at many Gagea sites there are often lots of leaves but few flowers and, with little real information about the size of the current population, I was checking lots of plants as I walked.  Eventually I came upon a set of leaves by the path that looked right and, if there had been flowers, the flower-less stems showed they had either been picked or eaten.  The fungus though wasn’t present.  I widened my search from this first group of about a dozen plants into the woods away from the path and despite lots of searching I only found one more plant, complete with flower but no 
Bluebell leaves with Uromyces muscari fungus
fungus.  This isn’t unusual and from the dozen or so Gagea sites I’ve visited in Morayshire, only one had the Vankya ornithogali fungus present.  However, I wasn’t too disappointed because the wood had lots of other interesting things to see.  The woodland floor had the bright red scarlet elf cap fungus (Sarcoscypha coccinea), an indicator of lying deadwood and bluebell leaves had their own distinct bluebell rust fungus (Uromyces muscari).  Primrose flowers were just appearing and there were lots of moschatel (townhall clock) in flower complete with the rust fungus Puccinia adoxae.  After this visit, I received photos of the yellow star of Bethlehem in flower in this wood and thinking that I had missed another population I made a second trip to check out the plants.  I didn’t mind making another visit because the trees looked like they had some impressive lichen populations and it would be useful to check out a few of these.  The same sign warned of slow moving vehicles on the 
Parmeliella triptophylla.  The small 'blobs' are apothecia something not
commonly found with this lichen
day of my journey but thankfully they were avoided.  Entering the wood there were lots of willow warblers singing and a couple of blackcaps along with swallows overhead.  I was also carrying with me a print of the photo showing the flowering plants and details of where several of the plants had been seen, though most of these comprised just a single plant.  The grid reference for the photo location was different to any I had taken on my earlier visit so using the ‘Go-to’ facility on my GPS I started to count down the metres as I approached the location.  It was getting very close to where I had been previously but nothing was found at the exact grid ref so I wandered back to where I had 
Fertile Fuscopannaria ignoblis  top and spores x1000 (oil) below
seen the dozen or so plants on my first visit.  Once there I checked features on the ground and close by in the photo and found I was staring at the same plants from my first visit.  In the few days between the photo having been taken and my first visit, all the plants had lost their flowers, but there was no doubt that they were one and the same!  So, time for a bit of staring at tree trunks and they didn’t disappoint.  Being a woodland influenced by a more westerly climate there were many trees with the leafy lungwort lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria) and quite a bit of its close relative L. scrobiculata.  A fertile, crustose type lichen though had me a bit stumped, something similar to one I see a lot of in our area Parmeliella triptophylla, but it wasn’t quite right so photos taken along with a small sample to check once home.  A wonderful name though started to enter my head - Fuscopannaria ignobilis, a lichen I had only seen a couple of times before and something quite rare 
Ground elder leaves top, Aegopodium podograria fungus close up
middle and spores x1000 (oil) bottom
in my home area.  As more trees were visited more of the un-named lichen kept appearing making me doubt that I had the right name.  A large patch of ground-elder (Aegopodium podograria) leaves caught my eye particularly when some were covered in orange spots, something I’d not seen before and on a few of the other trees a small green growth had me wondering about lichen or fungus so more photos and a small sample to look at once home.  The orange spots turned out to be Puccinia aegopodii, a fungus with few records in our area and the green growths were found in Frank Dobson’s lichen book and turned out to be Normandina pulchella first found in the same wood in 1974 by notable lichenologist Francis Rose.  An excellent wood and worthy of another visit in the future.

Early in April I was about to empty our kitchen compost bucket into the big garden compost bin when I suddenly remembered about someone in Orkney finding an unusual fly, in huge numbers, in their bin last year.  So, carefully I lifted the lid off and quite a few small spiders started charging around to try and find cover but there were also lots of small black flies running around the inside of 
Black compost fly (Scatopse notata) and wing details
the lid and down the inside of the bin.  Was this the ‘compost fly’?  Knowing very little about the world of flies I had to catch a few to check under the microscope where I could see the distinctive white marks on the both sides of the thorax.  At a higher magnification I was also able to check for the distinctive veins in the wing confirming that this was indeed the black compost fly, Scatopse notata, and just the 10th UK record but going off my experience a fly that is probably under-recorded.  Please check your compost bins and see if you can add to the list!

Another very strange but amazing thing happened to yours truly this month – I was presented with an award!  A little while ago I was emailed to ask if I would be happy to receive an award for volunteering from the people I used to work for, the RSPB!  This was their Gold Award and was in recognition of 40 years of volunteering covering the period from when Janet and myself arrived at 
Loch Garten in 1976 through to present.  Wow, quite an honour and covering probably the ‘extra’ work undertaken when out with beetle expert John Owen and fungus expert Peter Orton and also picking up on the many years of involvement in the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme since its inception in 1976 and the recent work on tooth fungi, green shield-moss and other important Abernethy Forest species.  Tea and cakes also accompanied the presentation of the award so a big thank you to all concerned.

The frosty nights mid-month saw a big increase in the number of birds visiting the garden feeders, particularly siskins.  Generally dry but cool weather was probably slowing down the natural opening of the Scots pine cones and the release of their seeds calling a halt to sorting out nesting territories in 
A grumpy sparrowhawk top but happier with breakfast below!
the surrounding woodland.  Chaffinches, greenfinches, goldfinches and members of the tit family ensured the feeders were regularly empty by 10am and with so many birds around the garden/feeders our local sparrowhawk was also a regular visitor on the look-out for an early breakfast.  Two captures in about half an hour one morning was pretty amazing, testing out the ability of the x30 zoom on the wee Panasonic camera to the full as I tried to photograph it on its plucking post.  Two bramblings were also regular until mid-April and it was interesting watching a pair of bullfinches tucking in to last year’s seeds on the garden honeysuckle.  We also had a first for the feeders, at least two redpolls, 
Redpoll on seed feeder
targeting the sunflower hearts.  A fall of snow between 24th and 26th of April also delayed the arrival of some of our summer visitors the biggest dump of four inches falling on the 25th.  Despite the weather there was one resident I wasn’t too keen to see – my first tick though mine was a couple of weeks after Janet’s first blood-sucker.  On the days when the sun did appear wood ants became very active with, initially, huge gatherings of ants on the top of their nests.  Checking one of the nests 
Wood ants and queen
whilst taking a photo I noticed several much larger ants wandering about and these were confirmed as queens.  Checking another nest led to the finding of a couple of capsules of the brown shield-moss 
Brown shield-moss on wood ant nest top and UK record details below
(Buxbaumia aphylla), a ‘substrate’ that seems to be utilised quite regularly by the moss.  Checking the new NBN Atlas for this moss is quite interesting.  This new site allows the records/data to be interrogated easier than the old NBN and when all the records came up I did a bit of analysis and the table below was produced.  Linked to my searches for the green shield-moss have been quite a few finds of the green shield-moss which, currently, is probably rarer than its ‘protected’ cousin.  It would appear that all the records since 2007 are mine!

An outing we made to Kingussie and Newtonmore led on to a nice walk into Glen Banchor, the track running close to the River Calder.  This area to the west of Newtonmore has lots of evidence of farming practices from the 1700-1800s with several ruins still visible in the landscape.  Our outing though was to wander just as far as a few more recent farm buildings one of which was probably 
Glen Banchor
vacated just in the last 20-30 years.  I’m getting quite bad at forgetting to take my binoculars with me (more often it’s my hand-lens around my neck) and when Janet saw what she thought was a bird of prey land in a tree about a hundred metres away we debated about it probably being a buzzard.  Out came the Panasonic camera and once I knew roughly which part of the tree the bird had landed in I zoomed in to reveal – it was a buzzard!  We had coffee and sandwiches at the first ruin where Janet lifted sheets of corrugated iron to reveal voles living underneath.  As we approached the second building we had to cross a wooden bridge over the Allt Fionndrigh and I just had to check the wooden posts and rails for any stoneflies the posts having been nicely wetted from recent rain.  A couple of the smaller, usual suspects were present but then a bigger fly was found on one of the adjacent fence posts which, to me, looked like the Northern February red that I had searched for quite a bit in the last couple of months.  So, time to take a few photos as Janet wandered over to look at the 
The old Ewbank carpet sweeper which brought back many memories
buildings.  The old farmhouse showed all the evidence of modernisation over the years with open stonework, cemented over stonework, roof height extension and modern chimney pots along with the standard TV aerial.  It then started to rain so we sheltered in one of the outbuildings where Janet found something that linked to my first job and apprenticeship after leaving school.  In amongst the wood and wire was a very rusty Ewbank carpet sweeper – the old push and pull type which, I gather has a modern relative still in production today.  So there was me wiring the factory and overseeing all thing electrical as part of the electrical team before moving into the drawing office where I remember working on drawings for pressing out of the metal cover of the model in front of us.  Once the 
Brachyptera putata top Brachyptera risi bottom, a
bit more obvious when seen together!
drawings were completed they progressed to the tool room for the dies and punches to be made which then ended up on the factory floor, where my dad maintained the huge presses that did the work.  What an amazing difference between factory (now an Asda supermarket) and final resting place of just one of the carpet sweepers!  Once home I checked the stonefly photos and realised it wasn’t the Northern February red (Brachyptera putata) so had to check with Craig at Buglife who confirmed my thoughts and supplied the name Brachyptera risi (February red), a fly with just a single record nearby from the River Spey at Kingussie.

On the day of the 4 inches of snow we were up early and down to the railway station in Aviemore to catch the 7.30am train to Edinburgh as part of a birthday present to Janet from daughter Ruth.  Quite different to sit back and watch the scenery go by rather than concentrating on the car(s) in front.  The 
Aviemore station at 7.15am
early start was to allow us time to have the whole of the first day in Edinburgh, day one of three!  First we found our ‘Hub’ accommodation 10 minutes from the station, to drop off our bags, before heading off towards Holyrood and the Scottish Parliament.  We planned to spend quite a bit of the day seeing the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and try to piece together where we went within the building for our meeting with Her Majesty the Queen in July 2012, but along the way we thought we would pop in to the Parliament to see what was on for the day.  We forgot about security!  Bags through 
A sneaky photo from inside Holyrood Palace

scanner, belt off and walk through people scanner.  I set the alarm off so was drawn to one-side to empty pockets where my Swiss Army Knife had to be left behind, to be collected later.  We find that MSP’s will arrive at 2pm for the day’s debates so we quickly head over the road to visit Holyrood.  Entry fee paid (it was free the first time) and with Janet equipped with a handset to provide 
2017 top and 2012 bottom!
information as we wander, off we go.  Amazing wall-hangings, huge paintings and lots to see but on our whole journey through the building the only place we truly recognised from the first visit was the Great Gallery, one of the most famous rooms in the Palace.  This is the largest room in the Palace and is where Scottish residents who are awarded an honour in either the New Year’s Honours List or The Queen's Birthday Honours List receive their award at an Investiture ceremony.  Exiting the maze of rooms we wandered around the Abbey and gardens, headed to the tearoom to grab a quick cuppa 
An empty parliament top and debate time bottom before my
camera was banned!
before heading back to go through the security procedure once again before taking our seats in the Parliament to listen to the afternoon debates.  On the way up the stairs to the public gallery we came across a George Wyllie sculpture (Ruth’s husband, Lewis’s grandad) another amazing piece of art.  Slowly, after 2pm the MSP’s arrived and by about 2.30 most were in their seats and the main debate got underway.  People came and went from the public gallery throughout our stay, including quite a few groups of school children.  An interesting day and time to retreat to the Hub to unpack and relax for the evening.

Day two saw us walk up to Princes Street to hop on to a bus to go to the Royal Yacht Britannia at Leith.  Whether you are a royalist or not this is an attraction well worth visiting, there’s lots to see, a lot to hear about (via the handsets) and the Royal Deck Tea Room is also well worth a visit – yummy!  The most confusing bit of the visit is finding your way through the Ocean Terminal 
Male eider
shopping and dining complex, it is huge, and, if you have the time there’s probably lots to see and do.  From the top deck, we had excellent views of male and female eiders and out across the Firth of Forth to the Fife coast.  The visit to the Royal Yacht was good but so was our next adventure.  Before our trip, Janet had found that quite a nice walk links the yacht with the outskirts of the centre of Edinburgh called the Leith Walk and that this would be a nice way to make our way back to our digs, probably catching a bus for the last bit of the journey.  The weather was perfect so, once we managed to find the start of the walk (signed then not signed), we were on our way.  Our first stop was to watch a pair of swans doing a good imitation of Swan Lake, with both birds pirouetting round and round, and us waiting to see a mating and then the amazing paddle across the water.  It didn’t happen 
Oxford ragwort
so we crossed the bridge and got on to the footpath proper.  The first thing was saw that we didn’t expect was big populations of few-flowered leek, and a ragwort, the name of which kept troubling us turned out to be oxford ragwort (Senecio squalidus) and it was important to get the right name because a few flowers had Puccinia lagenophorea fungus on stems and leaves.  Eventually the path took us to Canonmills where, worryingly, we saw a couple of plants of giant hogweed showing just how widespread this alien is spreading.  We then had the choice of trying to find a bus or just continue along the roads that headed for Waverly Station.  We chose the latter and seemed to slog our way up a long hill before dropping down to the station and back to our digs.

 Our last day saw us visiting the famous Edinburgh galleries, National Gallery first then a short bus journey to the Gallery of Modern Art, the former having some pretty amazing paintings on its walls.  
Rev. Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch
by Sir Henry Raeburn
Monarch of the Glen by Sir Edwin Landseer
Again, we decided to walk back and should have diverted a little to have a proper look at Dean Village, a World Heritage Site.  However, we missed the best way in and could only view the houses from the road we were walking along…next time.  We crossed Princes Street and followed a road round the back of Edinburgh Castle before climbing several flights of steps to reach the castle esplanade where everyone around us were stood with backs to the castle whilst they took their ‘selfies’.  It was then back to The Hub for a cup of tea and to pick up our bags before hopping onto the train back to Aviemore at the end of an amazing few days.

Trying to work out what might be feasible in getting some new aspen trees growing at a couple of the sites we have been working on involved me making a trip to Elgin to chat over any farm grant implication for any works that might be carried out.  Along the way this trip allowed me to pop in to check out the best flowering population of yellow star of Bethlehem in this area, but as before, there were plenty of flowers but no leaf fungus.  A couple of distilleries were visited along the way to see if there were any black buildings (whisky fungus) and two more were added to the list.  After the 
Common star of Bethlehem and Puccinia liliacearum fungus
positive meeting with David at SAC Consulting (part of Scotland’s Rural College group) I headed off to see Ian who had emailed to say that the leaves of a patch of common star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum subsp. campestre) near his house had a fungus growing on its leaves (Puccinia liliacearum).  This plant is classed as an “alien neophyte”, an introduced plant that escaped into the wild after the year 1500, so its arrival in Britain was probably as a garden plant.  This group of leaves (no flowers and like the other star of Bethlehem it’s a shy flowerer) had heavy infestations 
Yellow star of Bethlehem and Vankya ornithogali fungus
of the fungus so no searching around was needed, just a few photos and a sample for Kew.  Whilst in this area is seemed sensible to go and check the yellow star of Bethlehem that had displayed the fungus over the last two years and though there were less leaves and stems infected, it was there once again.  Phew, enough visits to Bethlehem sites for one year.

Once again, I’m sad to report, that yet another important Scots pine wood locally has been badly damaged by unsympathetic managers.  Curr Wood near Dulnain Bridge was, until the early 2000s, one of the best small woods locally for its population of twinflower (Linnaea borealis).  When the local estate sold the wood in 2001 a heavy felling took place ensuring the small population of capercaillie moved out and also putting some of the twinflower patches under threat because of opening up the canopy.  Whether it was because of this heavy thinning or not the site became known as important for its population of pine hoverfly (Blera fallax) a fly which depends on old trees some of which will have heart-rot; the central heartwood of the tree decays softened by the rot fungus Phaeolus schweinitzi, whilst from the outside the tree will look quite healthy.  I would have to assume that in old Scots pine woodland there might be a very small population of the fly, the adults somehow finding a way into the rotting centre of the standing tree via branches falling off, the brackets created 
Pine hoverfly (Blera fallax) top and a potential breeding site
exposed by recent felling of old Scots pines.
by the fungus growing on the bark etc, to lay their eggs.  The fly larvae live in the soft, rotting wood before emerging as adults one to three years after hatching.  Sometimes these trees snap and fall over partly as a result of the heart-rot fungus and in some instances the rotting heart of the tree remains moist enough for the flies to breed.  The earlier heavy felling in Curr Wood left some stumps with these rot holes clearly visible and the hoverfly probably reacted and the population increased making use of these easy access breeding sites.  Currently, Curr Wood is the only known site in the UK to support the hoverfly.  However, successive fellings mean there are less of the old trees with the potential rotting hearts and as the wood becomes more commercial in its outlook, trees will not be 
Trees up to 140 years of age were clearfelled in one area
left to grow long enough to provide the breeding sites whether natural or man created.  What happened on the 10th April 2017, under the forest management of the Bell Ingram land managers was another heavy thinning of the wood but, more damaging, an area of clearfell of just over 4ha.  The clearfell is hugely damaging because this wood is classed as a heritage wood which, up until recently, had been managed using the shelter-wood system, a method which leaves a scatter of seed trees across the managed site to enable seed to fall and for the wood to regenerate itself naturally.  This has happened across this wood since it started life as a planted wood in the late 1700s.  How were they allowed to do this work when a felling licence is required and in that process bodies like the Cairngorms National Park, RSPB and possible SNH, will be asked if they have any concerns about the management planned?  It is now becoming apparent that the requests for comments never reached these organisations and for some strange reason Forestry Commission Scotland didn’t query why no responses had been received and just signed off the felling licence.  To my mind there is something fundamentally wrong when a body like FCS doesn’t have notes in its files highlighting the importance of the wood.  Interestingly Bell Ingram and the woods owner Billy Martin received the 
Trees felled where twinflower grows
prestigious Hunter Blair Trophy at the annual Scotland's Finest Woods Awards in 2013 for “their sympathetic management”.  To put what has happened into perspective, trees, that were up to 140 years of age, have now been removed by a timber harvester and probably at the rate of one every five minutes.  Patches of twinflower have been run over and trees felled from one patch and all to maximise the income generated without too much worry about the damage being done to the heritage and natural history importance of the site.  All very sad.  I await with interest the content of the Freedom of Information Requests I have currently with FCS.  Sadly, the damage is done.

The PSA prostate readings have again increased so summer activities might be a little curtailed as I go to say hello to oionising radiation over six of the busiest weeks of the summer.  Body scan 29 May and the first radiotherapy on the 19 June with the comforting news that I won’t be radioactive!  Roll on mid-August.

Enjoy the read

Stewart and Janet
Urquhart Bay - Woodland Trust
Black compost fly
UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme
NBN Atlas
NBN Atlas Scotland (as above but just Scotland)
Ewbank history
Palace of Holyroodhouse
George Wyllie Foundation
Royal Yacht Britannia
Blera fallax the pine hoverfly
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

Grandson Archie's photo of the grand-folks
Pine marten supper time
Bent tail showing long-tailed tit nesting locally
Photos © Stewart Taylor

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Buxbaumia heaven but what are the red blobs!

I think I’m retired!  However, aspens and names of a group of local farms appear with such regularity in my diary during March that you would think I was involved in a paid contract.  I’m not.  My outings have added hugely to our knowledge of some of our less recorded lichens found on aspens and hazels and a picture is starting to develop about which of these woods might progress to seeing active management in order to secure their future.  Along the way, I managed to get a copy of a student’s PhD thesis completed in 1997 covering, in great detail, the genetic and clonal distribution of aspens in a wood that I have recently spent so much time in.  He visited this wood and others in 
The amazing aspen wood
Scotland and one statement really brings home to me what I have thought for quite a long time “That [this wood], in Strathspey, is Scotland’s largest aspen dominated woodland” not only that but a lot of the wood is a mix of aspen and ancient hazel, a real rare mix locally.  So, the time and effort is well spent if, at the end of the day we manage to get some new trees established, the first in seventy-odd years, to ensure the future of the wood and the important species they support.  It is also encouraging to have owners who are keen to see new trees in their woods, setting examples that others might follow.  Watch this space.

In one of these woods I made an effort to visit all the aspens to check their lichen populations, well the species I know, and, walking from tree to tree most hazels were also checked.  The rarer species regularly encountered were Schismatomma graphidioides, Fuscopannaria mediterranea and Degelia plumbea but the single tree that took the prize was a small but mature hazel with F. mediterranea, D. plumbea, Parmeliella triptophylla and Sticta limbata a lichen with few records for the site and in the 
The very important wee hazel with amazing lichens
The lichen Sticta limbata
local area.  Another aspen had a big population of Leptogium saturninum a new lichen for the wood.  Sitting having my jam butty lunch I spotted something small and orange had fallen into my lunch polybag and on closer inspection I found it was the orange ladybird (Halyzia 16-guttata or sedecimguttata) a species with only one nearby record.  On another tree, I was just about aware of a moth resting on the trunk of the tree, blending in very well with its surroundings, and checking my 
Orange ladybird
The engrailed moth
photos once home I found it was the engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia).  Another one was found later in the day.  Many of the crustose lichens like Fuscopannaria mediterranea, have to be checked quite closely via my hand lens and in amongst the leafy bits of the lichen I could see several small red ‘blobs’ all with spiky hairs.  Were these fungi?  And if so, could they be parasitic on the lichen?  A small group of the ‘blobs’ were removed and carefully tubed up to check once home.  All around there were the first leaves of primroses along with those of pignut, possibly the roots of which were responsible for quite a bit of badger digging.  Under the microscope the squashed red blobs had, what looked to me like spores, but checking with invertebrate expert Stephen, the suggestion was that they 
The mystery 'red blobs'
A spider mite on the same type of lichen - a possibility?
might be spider mite eggs.  The red blobs that remained after my checking were kept damp and in a glass petri dish but after several days of checking no eight -legged mites had appeared and checking with Craig at Buglife also failed to find a name.  On one of my visits I had heard chainsaws and machinery working.  A neighbouring property was being fenced off to exclude deer to allow new woodland to be created by planting and also with some potential benefit to the broadleaved trees around the edges of the sheep grazed fields.  On another visit the fencing contractors had reached the boundary between the one with the aspens I was checking and the one being fenced off so I went to say hello just in case they got a little worried by a strange man staring at trees!  To install this new fence, which was to full deer exclusion height, quite a few trees had to be removed or cut back and it was on another visit several days later that I thought the rising sun was melting frost from a few birch trees because of the regular drips I was seeing.  It wasn’t drips of water but almost a slow flow of birch sap running from stumps of the branches cut from the mature trees by the now completed 
Birch sap drips
fence.  All around the same thing was happening, the branches having been cut back at just the same time as the sap was rising in the trees to herald another growing season.  In the distant past Janet and myself also made use of this ‘sap’ by drilling small holes onto mature birches, banging in a rubber bung with plastic tube running through its centre and running the other end of the tube to a demijohn bottle down on the ground.  Over a couple of days enough sap had been deposited in the bottle to allow us to take it home and go through the process of making birch sap wine.  Sadly, I can’t remember how good or bad the outcome was (not due to inebriation! - but Janet remembers it as being very pleasant) and for many years you could see the same technique being employed by the now defunct Moniack Castle Wineries from near Beauly, as they ‘tapped’ many birches locally to make Silver Birch Wine on a slightly more industrial scale.

Mid-month I received an email from staff at Mar Lodge NTS, to say that some logs we checked for the green shield moss (Buxbaumia viridis) a few years ago were being very productive this year, despite some of them having been moved around a bit by the floods of late 2015/early 2016.  When the figures 100+ and 90+ were mentioned I thought this was worth a trip over the tops to see them.  So, it was over the now snow-less Lecht and over the tops to Crathie on Deeside before following the River Dee all the way to the Linn of Dee before parking up to find the first tree.  The tree with the 
The green shield-moss tree and some of the 135 capsules
moss capsules was the only one of three enormous conifers that had fallen during a gale many years ago.  The tree was almost a metre in diameter towards the base and had about eighteen metres of a much longer trunk that looked suitable for the moss.  Only an Abernethy Norway spruce tree host came anywhere near the size of this tree, but in that case, everything was about a third of the size of what was in front of me on this visit.  Thankfully, about half of the tree was in touch with the ground otherwise it probably wouldn’t have provided the right amount of damp wood for the moss to grow.  So, slowly, I started to work my way along the tree using white plastic plant labels to mark out the next one metre of the trunk to search.  As I progressed the tally marks in my notebook started to add up and once I had worked my way along one side of the tree and back down the other side my count 
New and old capsules top and the tiny log with capsules below
was 135 capsules.  In addition, there were about 20 stalks (seta) where the capsules have been lost (eaten?) along with a few old capsules from last year.  Wow!  The Mar Lodge staffs count and my own were quite close providing the biggest green shield moss population yet counted on a single substrate.  The bulk of the capsules were found on about seven metres of the trunk.  On my way back down the road I stopped again to visit the other high capsule count site and the comparison with the first site couldn’t have been more different.  At this site there were good numbers of small sections of conifer logs and at the end of checking all five the tally marks this time totalled 96 capsules.  The most amazing log was just 6-7” long and about 4-5” in diameter and was home to 7 capsules, by comparison one of the smallest pieces of substrate I have ever seen to be home to the moss.  Thank you Shaila and Jonathan Mar Lodge Estate ecologists.

Congratulations to the staff at RSPB Abernethy Forest NNR, the winners of Nature Reserve of the Year in the BBC Countryfile Magazine Awards 2017.  The reserve was nominated for the award by 
Brett Westwood, naturalist and BBC Radio 4 presenter, and Jeremy and staff were presented with the award on 17 March on a slightly damp day down by Loch Garten.

The search for the northern February red stonefly continued, the searches being a good excuse to visit areas not usually on the visits list.  Early in March I headed off to the River Tromie running along the edge of the RSPB Insh Marshes Reserve and despite lots of other stoneflies being found on the first 
Female northern February red stonefly (Brachyptera putata)
One of the others males (left) and female Capnia bifrons
kilometre of fence posts heading down river from the B970, the February red wasn’t one of them.  However, after about 1.5km of fence posts, and just where the river became ‘flat’ water without rocks, there was a male and after another hundred metres a female was found.  I wasn’t too surprised when another male turned up where the River Tromie joined up with the Spey because the Spey is a well-known river for this fly.  Visits to the River Avon at Tomintoul and the Findhorn at Tomatin failed to find any but having finished checking the latter I drove into Tomatin and on to check the 
Whisky fungus at Tomatin Distillery
distillery on the edge of the village to see if there were any black buildings.  As I drove up the road towards the buildings the blackness was visible everywhere, another site to report with the whisky fungus, particularly on the bonded warehouses where the barrels of whisky were maturing.

Our outings of late have seen Janet and myself heading towards the Moray Coast near Nairn for a bit of sea breeze but also to see nature progressing towards spring probably 2-3 weeks ahead of progress around Nethy Bridge.  Janet has become expert at spotting whisky distilleries with their tell-tale signs of whisky fungus as we drive along but is also a big help to me getting my brain into gear with plant names as the new growing season progresses.  Wandering by the River Nairn we were puzzled by 
Yellow anemone and wood anemone
Danish scurvy grass
seeing the normal white flowers of wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) growing side by side with what looked like the same plant but with yellow flowers.  Once home the books told me that this was indeed a different flower – yellow anemone (Anemone ranunculoides) and that it is a naturalised, introduced species growing in several localities in woods near to human habitation.  On the way back to the car we found a big population of one of the coastal plants now moving inland thanks to the spreading of salt on our roads in winter – Danish scurvy grass (Cochlearia danica).  On another outing, we wandered through the amazing woodland adjacent to Cawdor Castle, well the areas not being swamped by rhododendron bushes.  Parking by one of the ‘back entrances’ we wandered along the track following the Allt Dearg river, spotting nice clumps of hard shield fern (Polystichum aculeatum) along its banks which I stopped to GPS.  Eventually we reach the castle itself and wandered through its grounds to follow the Riereach Burn back towards the car, or so we thought!  Wandering through the rhododendrons I spotted something I have been trying to find for a couple of 
Hard shield fern
years now, a black fungus growing on the un-opened flower buds.  The large black pinheads were all over many of the flower buds so time for a few photos and a sample to take home to check where it was confirmed as Seifertia azaleae or in some books Pycnostyanus azaleae, also known as rhododendron Bud-blast, a good descriptive name.  It was shortly after this that the ’lost in the woods’ fun started, particularly as I hadn’t put the map in the bag thinking that with the heavy rain at the start we wouldn’t be going too far!  Following our noses didn’t work and after following a couple 
Seifertia azaleae fungus on flower buds top and
spores x1000 (oil) below
of dead-end tracks I resorted to my GPS using the Go-To facility to take us back to the fern location.  This didn’t work either which had me really puzzled.  Just then a dog ran past us and as the shouts of the owner got ever nearer we were able to get directions from him to the footbridge where the fern had been seen.  Once there I did a re-take of the GPS location only to find the original one was out by several hundred metres something I can only put down to us being near the flying area of the RAF jets from Lossiemouth and that for some reason the GPS readings had been made a little bit inaccurate for a time.  Who knows, but our walk ended up about twice as long as it should have but all ended okay in the end.

An outing to try and re-find an old twinflower location had a very different outcome which, for now, means the location won’t be given.  Over the last few years, particularly with my link to twinflower and the leaf fungi it supports, a few locations popped up that remained on my ‘to visit’ list.  The morning outing had taken me to the local nurse to have my ongoing blood sample taken to monitor the after effects of the prostate operation a year ago.  A little worryingly the readings which should have said PSA zero, whilst very low, were going up, but after the visit I headed off to the area where the twinflower patch had last been seen in 1954.  As I wandered back and forth across the wood I realised that I was actually looking for a ‘needle in a haystack’, the wood was just too big to try and walk lines just a few metres apart.  However, lady-luck was with me and, in a dampish bit of the 
Sample of twinflower leaves taken to check for fungus
wood which didn’t look too promising, there it was, not too many runners but visible over a few square metres.  Not just Linnaea borealis (twinflower) but one of the leaf fungi Metacoleroa dickiei, was also present.  It would be a little unusual for there not to be more twinflower patches so I carried on wandering back and forth across the wood.  As I was looking down I came across the remains of a hare and as I looked up I saw another dead one.  This hare was in a semi-circular cage on a leaning tree trunk, fixed to the trunk but above a large gin-type trap, set, and also attached to the same trunk.  Everything looked a little large to be legal so photos were taken and before leaving, the trap was sprung knowing that there were red squirrels in the wood.  If it was legal, then I couldn’t be accused of damaging property by removing it.  The whole set up looked like it was a trap for catching pine martens and when I made enquiries once home, this proved to be the case.  Photos and location were passed on to the police wildlife liaison officers who, I gather, removed the trap.  Interestingly, once home, I checked the few details available for the earlier twinflower find and realised that the older record was in a different OS grid square which had to be a minimum of 300 metres away!  Oh well, a good excuse for another visit.

That’s it for another month – a bit too much on the go hence the delay
Enjoy the read

Stewart and Janet

Tally Marks
Mar Lodge Estate NTS
Birch sap wine
Danish scurvy grass moving inland
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

Fuscopannaria mediterranea lichen
A wee roe deer
A starling indicating that the breeding season is almost up on us!
Photos © Stewart Taylor and RSPB Award photo  © Graham Hazlegreaves Photography