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