Friday, 30 June 2017

What a ‘pig’s ear’ of a month

The month of May started with a brilliant outing to the River Findhorn close to Logie Bridge.  Every time we have driven over the bridge we say “we must have a walk down river one day” and on the 1st it happened.  A leisurely stroll, in warm sunny weather, and the first leaves of many plants testing out the old grey-matter as to what was what.  Yellow celandines, white wood anemones, creeping wild 
Tiny gall midges just about visible
strawberries and the four-faced flowers of moschatel – appropriately named ‘town hall clock’ in some books.  A scatter of aspens and birches with alders by the river led us into an area of very mature oaks and as Janet unpacked the butties I dug out my hand lens and went off to stare at a few of them.  On the first oak trunk, there were lots and lots of tiny flies running around on the bark, more flying and quite a few landing on me; and from the photos taken they were identified by Stephen as gall midges from the Family Cecidomyiidae and the Genus Macrodiplosis.  Without a body though it 
One of the ancient holly trees & perfect seat for Janet
wasn’t possible to give a full name but if by chance I was to make a return trip later in the year M. roboris usually folds oak leaves between lobes to create galls and M. pustularis folds the end of lobes.  The oak bark was also home to the lichen Schismatomma graphidioides along with many oaks with the yellow, powdery (Leprose) lichen Chrysothrix candelaris.  One of the other aims of visiting this area was a tip off saying that there was an ancient group of holly trees probably hundreds of 
Mating Andrena bees, something I'd not seen before
Distinctive sanicle leaf (Sanicula europaea)
years old, so after lunch we went in search of them.  We weren’t disappointed.  A row of twelve trees, possibly once part of an avenue of trees leading from a large estate house to the river, were all of great age and bigger than anything else either of us could ever remember seeing.  On the way back to the car a pair of mating bees (Andrena species) were found on a dandelion and the leaves of a plant growing in a track-side flush had us scratching our heads but once home their distinctive shape lead us to sanicle, a plant with just a scatter of records locally.  That evening the tatties were planted as the veg patch started to fill up with goodies.

The next day wasn’t quite as pleasant.  A hospital visit to see the Consultant.  My request to leave everything until the autumn didn’t go down very well and as he explained everything about the increased PSA readings, and the operation in February 2016 to remove my prostate failing to remove all the cancerous tissue, he convinced me that the need was a little more urgent than my timetable.  However, I explained that we had a holiday in Yorkshire booked for the first two weeks of June including a visit to see Janet’s mum so we agreed on a timetable of scan before leaving and the radiotherapy starting immediately on our return.  With the treatment starting on the 19 June and requiring 33 sessions with the machine (5 days a week with the weekends off!), we would unfortunately have to cancel our planned holiday to South Uist in early July.  The scan, on 29 May was pleasant enough but saw me leaving Raigmore with three tiny tattoos, one on each hip and another near bellybutton, to allow the machine to line up correctly on each of my 10-15 minute sessions.  Okay, I have tattoos but please don’t class me in the league with David Beckham – yuk!

The name Curr Wood pops up a few times in my diary early in the month, mainly still trying to gather information on who knew what before the very damaging fellings.  Apart from the felling licence application appearing somewhere (Forestry Commission website?) it would seem that there was no 
Ichneumon fly on fallen deadwood Curr Wood
consultation on the proposals with people at a local level who had been consulted over the Forest Plan (still in draft so why the felling?) right up to the Cairngorms National Park, RSPB and SNH.  There is something quite odd about this work and once I get round to reading the reply to my Freedom of Information request which arrived on 31 May, perhaps there will be some explanations though I doubt it.

I’ve been continuing to re-visit aspen stands to check the trees for the rare Orthotrichum mosses but so far without any additional new locations.  However, being out a-looking always turns up something as happened when visiting a site which produced good lichens a couple of years ago.  The first unusual find wasn’t natural history based though it was being checked for things growing on it – an old sheep-dip!  This structure, which looked like it was made of concrete or block-work with a cement skim, had been built slightly into a shallow sloping hillside and with a bog area below it 
The name and date top and the sheep dip bottom photo
which would have been used as a water supply, but via buckets.  Goodness knows what happened to the sheep-dip liquid as the sheep were dipped and released, or the remaining liquid at the end of the dipping process.  I digress.  As I checked the structure, mainly for mosses and lichens, I became aware of a bit of graffiti on the inside wall of the structure, which, on checking, turned out to be a name, Hay, and a date, 1909, putting these agricultural artefacts to a much earlier date than I was previously aware.  The bog below the sheep-dip had populations of cranberry (Vaccinium microcarpum) and the flowering heads of cotton grass, and the small craneflies buzzing about turned out to be Tipula subnodicoruis, many of which were mating.  As I headed to the next aspens I decided to follow a sheep/deer track up a slight hill and at the bottom I came across a fungus which looked 
Gyromitra leucoxantha fungus as found
just like the pig’s ear fungus I found a few years ago (see blog May 2014).  Photos were taken and the fruiting body collected so that I could be sure I had the right species when I got home and the photos in the book looked right for Gyromitra ancilis/Discina ancilis, the pig’s ear fungus.  I also decided to put the fruiting body on a glass slide so that I could get spores to photograph for the next blog.  After a few days, I could see the slide was well covered with dropped spores so I threw the fungus out but it wasn’t until the next day that I put the spores under the microscope to photograph and just as a check I looked up the fungus and spores on the internet.  Hmm, something wasn’t quite right, Gyromitra ancilis has ‘pointed’ ends to its spores whereas my sample has flattened ends.  The description from described exactly what I was seeing “Mature spores 28-40 x 12-16 µ; with one or two oil droplets; smooth or roughened; with blunt, "scooped-out" apiculi at each end” – perfect.  And the name, Gyromitra leucoxantha?  Something quite new to me and one I 
Gyromitra leucoxantha spores x1000 oil
would need to check with the team at Kew because there are just four records from the UK!  The one big problem though – no specimen, despite searching the bin and the compost bin for the remains of what I threw out.  I did though have the glass slide with lots of spores and checking with Brian at Kew he said that this might be acceptable but would need to be checked by one of the experts.  As I type an email arrived from Brian confirmed that the slide with the spores had been checked, the species was confirmed and the glass slide would go into the Kew Fungarium in lieu of a specimen.  Brilliant, but big lesson learnt and I also now know that Gyromitra ancilis grows with dead conifer wood whilst Gyromitra leucoxantha tends to be with heathland type plants as mine was.  The day 
Criorhina ranunculis hoverfly
wasn’t quite finished yet and as I reached the next aspens a strange bee-like fly was resting on the tree trunk, then on the grasses, then back on the trunk resting just long enough to get a decent photo of what I was thinking was a big hoverfly.  Photos sent to Murdo and back came the name Criorhina ranunculis, a hoverfly with few records locally.  This bumblebee minic is the largest of the Criorhina group and its larvae are associated with rotting deciduous wood.  The good luck though didn’t hold right through to the end of the day and despite winning 3-1 Blackburn Rovers were relegated from the Championship. (Sorry about the blue typing).

The next day saw Janet setting up her craft tent as part of the Nethybridge Spring Gathering, another well attended event but not blessed with the best of weather so the sections of tent had to be hung out 
Janet with display of her craft produce at the Spring Gathering
to dry the next day.  A couple of days later and with a dawn frost of -40C I was off on the first BTO breeding bird square outing, but as the sun rose the frost eased and the birds got on with singing.  Nothing too unusual recorded in the bird species line but on my way back along the road for the return one-kilometre, I encountered a number of crossbills.  I eventually caught up with them but 
Crossbills in birch trees, bottom one eating lichen
several of the half-dozen or so were perched in birch trees and were eating lichens from the branches and trunks something I think I’ve seen before.  They flew off further down the road where I caught up with them again and some were on the ground eating something I couldn’t see.  Again, the birds in the trees were eating lichens and more remarkable I managed to get a couple of photos but I will leave you to decide on which crossbill species!  Later the same day we had a real local rarity in the garden – collared dove, something we don’t see a lot of in the village currently.

Work has been ongoing with trying to get something sorted to help protect some of the local aspens to aid regeneration.  After visits to a couple of sites it was agreed that sections of a couple of fences could be raised to deer height to give the aspen suckers (regeneration) a chance of growing through to the next generation of trees.  Less than one hectare out of the hundreds of hectares locally but at least it’s a start and gives us a trial plot which can be used as a demonstration site.  I just need to find a local fencing contractor willing to take on what is quite a small job.  Mid-month John and Patrick 
visited one of the key aspen sites to trial a new way of checking the wood to identify the different aspen clones – from the air!  This wood has important lichen populations and it would be good to try and tie in whether certain aspens clones support one group of lichens whilst a few metres away the same aged trees don’t have them.  The bark chemistry of one clone might be more suitable to the lichens than a neighbouring one.  John planned to fly a drone over the wood to photograph the trees via several visits as the aspens started to come into leaf, some clones leaf up early and others quite a bit later and by carrying out about three flights over a couple of weeks it was hoped that the leaf-burst periods would become obvious.  This work might tie in with other, on the ground surveys, which identified the various clones but the maps produced are just not clear enough to show which clone was where. 

Mid-month we took daughter Ruth to Rothes to pick up her car and carried on up the road to Fochabers and Gordon Castle to check on the progress of the re-vamp of the 8 acre walled garden.  Fortified with a couple of scones and coffee in their café we progressed to the garden and as we walked I became aware of a couple of pairs of oystercatchers getting quite agitated as we approached the far end of the garden.  As we made our way back towards the café and greenhouses there, below 
Oystercatcher nest, note the pieces of gravel brought in
by the birds from adjacent paths
the cordoned fruit trees was an oystercatcher nest with three eggs and when we mentioned this to the head gardener he was aware of the birds nesting, up to three pairs he thought, and informing us that before the re-vamp started the birds used to nest on the gravel paths.  He was a bit worried that as the season progressed and more visitors came to the garden the birds could get too disturbed and he thought they may restrict access to that part of the garden.  I did suggest that they might try installing a few trays, filled with gravel, on top of the gardens wall, as far away from the main visitor routes as 
Andrena bee
possible in the hope that the birds would continue to nest there.  A similar nest ‘tray’ was installed on a bungalow roof in Nethybridge a few years ago and was used successfully for many years.  A walk round the wider estate produced another two locations for the evergreen Holm oak (Quercus ilex); found Andrena bees nesting in a roadside wall (possibly nigroanea but body needed) and in the sunshine green-veined white, orange tip, red admiral and peacock butterflies on the wing.  In the hope of seeing a passing dolphin we then drove up to Spey Bay and on the way found three singing corn 
Poor photo through car windscreen of corn bunting by the road
Spey Bay but no dolphins
buntings which was a pleasant surprise and not sure if unusual, but under the ever-darkening sky, out over the sea, no dolphins were seen.  The next day saw Janet and craft tent trading in Aviemore and between helping to put up and take down the tent I popped in to check a group of aspens on Rothiemurchus Estate.  On the way in I was tempted to visit a few ancient oaks and following recent strong winds, there were many twigs with newly emerging catkins/flowers on the ground.  Checking the first twigs I became aware of galls in amongst the catkins so photos were taken and a sample taken for checking once home.  The aspens didn’t produce anything new though it was nice to see 
Andricus quadrilineatus galls on oak catkins
primroses coming in to flower, but the galls from the oak catkins turned out to be Andricus quadrilineatus, something I’d not seen before despite most of the fallen twigs with catkins having many galls.  Perhaps a good year for this particular wee gall wasp.  In amongst the galls were several round, green/reddish galls which were currant galls (Neuroterus quercusbaccarum).  It is amazing the number of gall wasps our oak trees support.  With the Andricus quadrilineatus galls being new to me I thought it would be worth checking out some of the few oaks in RSPB Abernethy Forest, and on a couple of the lower branches, there it was, a new species for the reserve.  However, a more significant find was about to be made from a patch of twinflower (Linnaea borealis) growing nearby.  This 
Metacoleroa dickiei (big spots) & Ceramothyrium linnaeae top
and Septoria linnaeae bottom photo
All 3 twinflower  leaf fungi as found, small black spot
fungus right-hand green leaf
population had, in the past, had the commoner Metacoleroa dickiei fungus on its leaves.  Then, the much rarer Septoria linnaeae was found, at only its second known UK location.  The closer I looked at the plants I was fairly certain that a third leaf fungus was also present, the smaller black-spotted species, Ceramothyrium linnaeae, so a few samples were collected for checking under the microscope.  When I checked the leaves, I was certain that all three species were present so I sent the specimens off to Martyn at Kew for confirmation because this would be the first time in the UK all three species would have been found from a single twinflower population.  Martyn agreed with what I had found and also confirmed that all three species had been found on just one plant.  Amazing.

On the way back from our Gordon Castle visit Janet spotted something I had been noticing, lots of pollen falling from the Scots pines.  As we drove along the minor road parallel to the very busy A95, the pinewoods above the A95 were being gently buffeted by a south-westerly breeze and every so often the pollen clouds would rise up above the woods.  Too windy and the spectacle wouldn’t have 
Clouds of Scots pine pollen top and tracks on road bottom!
been visible but the gentle breeze was just enough to hit the trees and their flowers and lift the pollen upwards.  A few days later Janet was driving back from Grantown when she saw the same thing happening in Craigmore Wood but by the time I had got to the spot the wind had dropped and nothing was visible.  All around though the cars, house windows, lochs and roadside puddles had yellow evidence of the annual pollen release and it was only driving up to Forest Lodge in Abernethy Forest one evening that I realised the road was covered in enough pollen to allow tyre tracks to be visible along the road surface.

After picking up grandson Archie from school one day, and with the sun warming things up nicely, I suggested donning wellies and wandering up to the small pool by the Speyside Way, complete with butterfly net and pond-dipping net, to see what was about.  With the water-level fairly low it was 
possible to wander across quite a good section of the pool, looking as we walked, upwards for any dragonflies and downwards for anything moving in the water.  Despite getting close to a four spotted chaser dragonfly, I failed to net it but we had more luck with a common blue damselfly which let me take its photo before capture.  In the water, we came across quite a few frog tadpoles allowing Archie to pop a few into his jam jar along with one of the freshwater shrimps we saw.  Newts were seen but proved elusive to amateurs with pond-nets but we had more luck with one of the larger dragonfly nymphs (probably Aeshna juncea – common hawker), but only after 2-3 attempts with the net.  Having extracted the nymph from the net on to my hand I suggested that Archie should hold it with 
Common blue damselfly above & typical exuvia below
the confident suggestion that ‘it won’t bite!’  A few seconds later that is exactly what it did but thankfully before it had made its way to Archie’s hand.  In several places we found exuvia (the skin left behind as an adult dragonfly emerges from its nymph stage) the one photographed (possibly four spotted chaser - Libellula quadrimaculata) at another site was found on a twig sticking from the water.  After an hour in the hot sun it was time to ensure all captives had been released before heading home for a cooling drink.

As the month end drew near, and with the holiday in Yorkshire due, it was time to walk the second BTO breeding square survey, followed the next day by the last of the woodcock surveys, a little early but better early than late into June.  Before I had reached the count site I had a bird roding overhead and before the start time of 21.45 arrived a bird had already passed overhead calling followed a few minutes later by two birds chasing in an edge of territory dispute.  Just by chance I had my camera out and fired away in the hope of capturing a woodcock roding, something attempted in the past but without any success.  On this occasion however, there was an element of success and the two chasing 
2 roding woodcock
birds were just about caught in flight before disappearing behind the trees.  The evening count, which ran until 23.00 produced ten contacts, another good result to go with the two earlier ones.  On the day when I visited the Abernethy oaks and twinflower I heard lots of calling from within the aspens I was passing through and this had to be young great spotted woodpeckers.  Eventually the nest hole was found just below an aspen bracket fungus (Phellinus tremulae) and close by I could hear an adult 
calling so I retreated to a reasonable distance from the nest tree – and waited.  Within minutes one adult appeared with food, and clinging to the side of the tree it walked round and fed the youngsters.  This was followed a few minutes later by the second bird, a sequence that was repeated about five minutes later.  On my way into recording the woodcocks I heard the same young woodpecker calls and the nest hole this time was in a mature birch tree, a find repeated a few hundred metres further on along the track.  Three active woodpecker nests found over the course of a few days, not bad.

A worrying bit of information came via our chalet guests mid-month, a female roe deer in the woodland at the rear of the chalet!  Having made most of our house plot reasonably deer proof I hadn’t allowed for the low fence along the boundary with one of our neighbours.  The rest of the property is stock fenced which deer can jump and with an open gate to the road through which the deer can enter their garden.  As the roe deer population increases we are seeing more animals on the roads around the houses and as you drive more and more carcases lying on roadside verges.  With the growing season in full flow,  Janet’s flowerbeds looking brilliant and the veg-patch fully planted, and the pair of us just about to leave the house empty for a couple of weeks – how could we stop a raid by our unwelcome guest?  After mulling over possibilities for a couple of days we decided to ‘go electric’ and install a temporary summer fence through the trees behind the chalet.  So, something 
new to get to grips with, but to save on linking the fence to the mains supply in the garage, we went for a solar powered unit to charge the fence.  Over a couple of days a few supporting wooden fence posts were installed before installing the lightweight plastic ones between them. Next the wires, the earthing post close to the fence and finally the solar unit itself, which ticked away quite happily as it sent out the electrical pulses. Touching the fence I was assured there was a reasonable charge pulsing through the wires, so fingers crossed that would do the trick and protect the various sections of garden whilst we would be away.  In other work, I have seen electric fencing used to keep deer at bay particularly round small areas of new woodland and RSPB have just installed one in an area where exotic conifers were felled and they want natural regeneration to take place assisted by a little bit of planting.  It would appear the deer sense the electrical charge and steer well clear of touching or jumping over.  The same effect was also seen during our round of aspen site visits back in March where an electric stock fence near Newtonmore, next to a group of aspens, displayed an obvious ‘no-go area’ close to the fence where, for a distance of about two metres, aspen regeneration was starting to appear.  Watch this space.

Enjoy the read

Stewart and Janet

Gyromitra ancilis/Discina ancilis spores
Aspen clones - description
Dragonfly from egg to adult
Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group
Mapmate recording database
NBN Atlas
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

Orange tip in garden
White faced darter newly emerged
Worrying change of mind by Scottish Ministers re
wind farms
Photos © Stewart Taylor