Sunday, 29 January 2017

Two Near Misses

Wow, it's been a whole week without a blogpost. Sorry about that, dear readers (both of you...) I've been busily gloss painting indoors the past few days. Mostly my fingers, my hoodie and my hair, plus on the occasional bit of woodwork every once in a while. Gotta love gloss-work. Here's a bit of a long, meandering post covering this week's sightings.

It's been pleasantly mild most evenings this week. We've been doing nightly checks of the security lights/laundry room lights for winter flying moths. In all honesty it's been fairly pants, despite the white walls offering seemingly ideal conditions. Best moth this week (pretty much the only moth this week...) was this Pale Brindled Beauty, the first one I've seen for several years.

Pale Brindled Beauty (Phigalia pilosaria)
This is a male - check out those feathery antennae. These act in a similar fashion to the prongs on a TV aeriel, they offer lots of surface area with which the male moth 'sniffs' the air in search of pheromones being released by the female moth. The other obvious clue are the wings, the female is apterous - which basically means she doesn't have any. She just sits there, usually up a tree trunk or fencepost, wafting her scent into the darkness awaiting a visit from a nearby male. This 'loss of wings' is a familiar energy-saving theme amongst the females of several of our winter-flying moths. I should probably make an effort to search the tree trunks by torchlight one night, see if I can find one.

Yesterday was a nice sunny day and I took myself down to the beach via Uig Woods. A pair of Collared Doves on overhead wires was a long overdue first for the year. Abax parallelepipedus, a common and quite large Carabid, was discovered beneath loose bark. A nearby log was covered in Lophocolea bidentata, an aromatic liverwort which was throwing out sporophytes in profusion.

The long white stalks are called seta. The black tips are spore-laden capsules. The whole is called a sporophyte.
The beach was pretty quiet. Wigeon numbers have halved to just seven birds present, a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers just offshore, still no white-wingers in the gull flock. Aimée had wandered off towards the pier (outside of the square, the girl's gone crazy) and when we later met up again back indoors she broke the bombshell that she'd been watching an Otter frolicking by the old slipway - just a few hundred metres outside my square - ooof that hurts!!! I already knew Otters were on Skye (we watched three playing together near Carbost last November) so I had hoped one might visit the square someday - but I hadn't planned on being gripped off by my own missus! Ouch, eyes peeled from now on. 

I also managed to find some Egg Wrack bladders with fungal spots showing through. These spots belong to a marine lichenicolous fungus called Stigmidium ascophylli (=Mycosphaerella ascophylli) whereby the fungal mycelium is found throughout the seaweed and the fruit bodies show up as tiny black dots on the bladders. So, does this mix of a fungus and an alga mean that Egg Wrack is actually a lichen? There's a great explanation on this page which explains the situation far better than I ever could. My photo was awful, so here's one I took last spring (it's still awful...)

The black dots are the fungus. (Image taken in Cornwall last April)
Today was a beautiful day, it was cold but slowly warmed up and it almost felt as though Spring had arrived. The Snowdrops on the lawn are starting to form white carpets, flies were out basking on sunlit tree trunks, and the woods were full of folk. Darnit. Rarest sighting of the day was another birder, that's a yeartick! I soon got chatting to Martin and his lady, Joy. Turns out he's the fella who found the White-billed Diver and Ivory Gull at Uig Pier. He's seen nine species of gulls on the beach, Med Gull being the only absentee amongst species regularly recorded on Skye. They are just back from 6 weeks in Spain which explains why I haven't bumped into them before now. And they live in Uig too, well within running distance of the square should I find anything decent. Which I will (he says...)

I've been playing a little game with mysef since moving up to Skye. How long can I go without seeing a Woodpigeon? Well today that game came to an abrupt ending, two Woodpigeons burst from the canopy and disappeared up the valley, by my reckoning that's TWO MONTHS to the day since I last saw one. Incredible considering they breed across Skye. Next on the agenda is clapping eyes on an eagle, both species are supposed to occur up here after all. How long would that take?

The woods were looking just glorious, I don't think I've posted any pics of the area of woodland west of the A87 (what I refer to as the Lower Woods) so here's a few for you. I reckon there's got to be some decent birds pass through here at migration time. Probably been the odd Yankee or Sibe in there over the years! Or at least Redstarts, flycatchers, the odd Firecrest etc. Martin reckons not, but I bet there is. Not that I've ever been here at migration time, (or even seen leaves on the trees) but I reckon, yeah. Anyway, here's some pics

As you can see, the woods west of the A87 have some large trees but they are generally well-spaced and the terrain is very flat. Stark contrast to the woods east of the A87 which are dark, ridiculously steep and usually wet. But I like this contrast, offers me two very different habitats to explore with their very different species assembledges. Plus there's the beach, the sea, the scrub, the reedy area, the  rivers, the open hillsides...happy days for a Pan-species Lister! 

There were a few flies basking on tree trunks and it was whilst sneaking up on one such fly that I noticed movement, it was a rather small Megabunus diadema, one gorgeous harvestman if ever there was. 

Aimée was somewhere on the beach ahead of me, trying to refind the Otter and grip me off once more no doubt. I scanned the beach, found her sitting behind rocks and then noticed the very large bird soaring above nearby Idrigill Point. No mistaking what it was, I was staring at my first Golden Eagle since moving here two months ago. Sweet, Aimée was oblivious and too far away for me to shout "Look Up!!!" so I carried on watching the eagle soaring around, seemingly just enjoying the good weather.

In the five minutes it took me to intercept Aimée the eagle didn't disappear, it was still soaring around above the point maybe half a mile away. I'm not sure Aimée was massively impressed (she's seen White-tails before) when suddenly it was almost overhead, and within a ten second glide of entering NG3963 airspace!!! Oooh, now that would be awesome...just head that way a bit more, yeah and a bit more...oh FFS no not that way...and it was gone behind a hilltop, never to be seen again. Dammit, Otter AND Golden Eagle just outside the square. Hmmm...just have to keep my eyes open, they'll both put in further appearances I'm sure. Here's a coupla pics of the eagle, taken by holding my clickamatic up to the eyepiece of my binoculars. Not ideal, but you can see what it is (and no it's not a Rook) 

Golden Frickin Eagle!!!!!!!
Final near miss of the day was the Woodcock that flew along the outside of a hedge, across a field and into cover down by the shore...about 50 metres outside my square. Of course. 

EDIT: I was just about to Publish this page when I heard about this from Birdguides:

Highland, 2 Killer Whales off Neist Point, Skye, late afternoon

Outer Hebrides, 3 Humpback Whales, 2 Minke Whales and 5 Killer Whales off Tuimpan Head, Stornoway, Lewis, this morning. 

Haha, I've had a full day of misses and near misses it would appear!

As a very special delight, here I am throwing together my very first venison casserole. I may or may not accidentally swear once or twice. Sorry 'bout that. Feel free to switch off at any time!

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Birthday Treats

Woke up, had a stupendous fry up for breakfast, saw the sun was shining and was out the house at the crack of midday. Well, it IS my birthday. 

I'm a bit crap to buy presents for. Chocolate is always good! Otherwise I generally compile a list of books that I'd like and request one or two from the list. Anyway, I sneakily found out which 'one or two' Aimée had ordered and promptly ordered myself a shedload more. And some of them arrived on time. Here's the latest installment to my (quite frankly) ridiculous collection of simply-must-have PSL-orientated literature

Just had this pic described as "sad lol" on Facebook! Some folks eh?
So they're the ones that made it on time. The others include such diverse gems as keys to Freshwater Bryozoans, four books/keys covering British weevils, one on Blowflies (although I was subsequently sent a link to Falk's blowfly key which looks simply phenomenal) and a big book on lichens. I need all the help I can get with those buggers. Oh, and I got chocolate too, happy days! 

The above books are an attempt to get to grips with some of the species that abound up here. Well maybe not charophytes and nickar-nuts (bit hopeful with those!) but the rest are definitely going to come in very handy now that I've relocated to Skye. Plus I need to start getting my head 'round these groups anyway. The stonefly key is an original from 1958, seemingly still the only key to British species out there?!? We found a nymph in the river the other day (I thought it was a mayfly at the time, now I know it was actually a stonefly) so it'll come in useful soon enough. Sedges and grasses? Well, I just need to sit down and start studying them properly, may as well have a couple of decent books dedicated to the subject matter to hand. I have Stace and the Veg Key with me, plus the usual Collins guide etc, but the BSBI guides have distribution maps and lots of clear illustrations too. And the illustrations and level of detail in the Liverwort and Moss floras are just incredible. I'm very definitely going to be using those on a regular basis, in conjunction with my beloved (haha...) Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland: A Field Guide which may finally help me overcome my inate dislike of moss identification. 

But before all this we went out for a walk through the woods and along a bit of the shoreline. I finally found a lichen I've been looking out for here, Rhizocarpon geographicum. I expected to see lots of it here, yet it's taken me 7 or 8 weeks to notice two patches growing on a drystone wall. Too busy looking at everything else all the time! 

Rhizocarpon geographicum the Map Lichen
Plus there was this, which I think is probably Lecidea lithophila although I ought to check it microscopically to be 100% sure of that.

The rust-stained white thallus strongly suggests Lecidea lithophila.
In the woods I found a galled Usnea. I remembered seeing something about a lichenicolous fungus that causes galls like this on Alan Silverside's brilliant Images of British Lichens website but it turns out that it isn't Biatoropsis usnearum at all. This is what I found

Possibilities include the lichenicolous fungus Cystobasidium usneicola - as suggested by Jenny Seawright.
Jenny really knows her lichens, so I listen when she talks. She suggested I contact Brian Coppins (lichen recorder extraordinaire) to see if he can ID it for me. I emailed him, no reply yet. I'll keep you updated in case it turns out to be something significant. 

I took a rubbish pic of Physcia leptalea a few days ago, one I've not seen before. Today I took another rubbishy pic of another clump growing on a hawthorn twig

Physcia leptalea growing amongst the yellow lobes of Xanthoria parietina.
I successfully clambered up the extremely steep slope that runs from the River Conon up to the zigzag road above without killing or maiming myself in the process (although I did have one nervy moment when I stood up straight after examining a liverwort and nearly toppled over backwards such was the angle of the ground beneath my feet...) Check out the contours in this map, I clambered the section that runs directly north of the weir up to the the yellow road. Damn, I totally nailed that slope!

Remember each square represents 200 metres at this zoom!
And it wasn't in vain either, a quick scurry of movement just below me was soon tracked down to a Field Vole (Microtus agrestis) beneath a log. I didn't really expect it to be Field Vole, I thought Bank Vole more likely in this habitat. But apparently there are only Field Voles up here and they occur in woodlands too. Weird but true. So that's the fourth mammal for NG3963 and the second rodent. 

A singing Greenfinch was the first I've recorded this year and I finally noticed that the buds on a large tree were unfamiliar whereby Wych Elm was belatedly added to the list too. 

Back home I started trawling through my new collection of books with childlike glee. I noticed Aimée disappear with a chunk of Ramalina that earlier I'd been examining beneath my microscope which puzzled me. I soon discovered why she nabbed it though...lights off and all together now... 

Note the 'locally gathered decorations" - including my bloomin' Ramalina, ha! 

And no, sadly I'm no longer 18 years old. The candles lie.

Friday, 20 January 2017

I'm such a slut

Had a bit of a happening the other day, it was mildly traumatic and I don't really want to talk about it...but talking is good, right? I mean, this is my blog so I can write pretty much whatever I like. OK, deep breath. At approximately midday on Wednesday the 18th January I left NG3963 for the first time this year. It was only into the adjacent square and only for a few hours but yep, I am a traitor and a cheat to NG3963. I hope it can forgive me. It was all Aimée's fault (bizarrely she's gotten bored wandering around the same 1000 metre x 1000 metre area) and she wanted to go to the pier. Yeah, crazy huh? Women...there's just no understanding how their brain works.

So it appears that there's a nice, wide, south-facing grassy verge full of Lesser Celandines and a few Primroses in flower plus an escapee Early Pampas-grass within the boundaries of NG3863. My square doesn't have any of that. Oh it has Lesser Celandines and Primroses alright, just not in flower. I'm not sure there are ANY south-facing verges in my square (opposite side of the bay, you see). NG3863 also had the biggest cluster of Jew's Ear Fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae) that I think I've ever seen.

Modern day PC says this is now Jelly Ear. Yeah fine, but check out that scientific name....
Plus there's a cafe. A really good cafe with a surprisingly extensive second-hand book collection within. So I may find myself 'wandering' from NG3963 on a slightly more regular basis from now on. I feel so dirty.

I snuck back into my square, saw a few Primroses that I'd walked past a hundred times plus a few Bluebell tips freshly emerging amongst the Daffodils

Bluebells pushing through
Today I had another try at some tree-hugging liverworts and surprisingly managed to identify three Frullania of which two were new for me! Frullania dilata is common up here, huge great patches on many tree trunks. But Frullania tamarisci with its pointed leaves and row of diagonal modified cells was a lifer as was Frullania fragilifolia (roughly translated as the fragile-leaved Frullania) where the leaves come away if you rub them with a moist fingertip, earning it the common name of Spotty Fingers (see my thoughts on giving bryophytes common names in this post.) I took some pics but they were all crap so I'll spare you. 

I found this stunning beetle under bark, it may look like a particularly vicious weevil but actually this is Salpingus ruficollis, one of the Tenebrionids. According to the NBN Gateway this is only the 6th record for Scotland. I know the NBN isn't'accurate', but even so it appears that this beetle is a damn good find this far north. 

It's picked up some gunk from inside the pot, ordinarily the upperparts are clean of scuzzy bits.
I also ventured down to the beach where I found huddles of mites under stones at the top of the wrack-zone. Once again, the substrate beneath the best stones is sandy as opposed to the usual coarse gravel or pebbles. I see a theme developing. Here's a pic of the mites in situ. I have a bunch of them in a pot, I think I shall have to send them off for ID. Way beyond my capabilities! 

Any thoughts? Bottom pic is massively cropped. Actually so is the top one.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Cor blimey - a moff!

Just popped up to the laundry shed with Aimée, allegedly to see if the clothes were dry yet, but actually on a mission to look for moths. It's a relatively mild night here right now (9 degrees, feels like 6 and just a light southerly airflow) and there's a very light mizzle going on too. Nice, we simply had to skore. No moths on the white walls beneath the security lights, though Aimée managed to find several Tree Slugs (Lehmannia marginata) and a few flies that I (rather sensibly) declined to pot up. 

Up at the laundry shed I found a long dead Magpie Moth (Abraxas grossulariata) in a cobweb and then spotted a gorgeous Mottled Umber (Erranis defoliaria) sat low on the wall inside the building. I papped a few shots, potted it up and released it on the wall outside. This was the ungainly landing position

Mottled Umber - this is a male. The females are wingless.
So, moffs are finally off the starting blocks this year! Took 'em over two weeks, but always a thrill seeing these midwinter species turning up like silent phantoms out of the cold. Beats me why they fly this time of year as opposed to summer (no predatory bats I guess) but they certainly brighten up a gloomy time of year. 

Mottled Umber is my 231st species of the year for NG3963. I've enrolled in Andy Musgrove's mad 1000 species in a 1km square challenge which may or may not be a clever idea. So far there are only three of us taking part, but I know a few more are lining up getting ready to join the fray. I managed 800 species in 2013 but quit after moving house in July. I have no idea if I can see 1000 species this far north, Surrey woodland seems so much easier by contrast.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Buried Treasure!

Spent the afternoon on the beach with Aimée. Not sunbathing, not holding hands whilst walking in the surf, not building sand castles, not even beachcombing. No, we were digging for worms! We were armed with a spade, a rake, a hand trowel and an empty ice cream tub. The tide was out as far as I've ever seen it and, wonder of wonders, there was a lovely flat sandy area free of rocks and rubble. We made a beeline for it and followed the tide all the way out. 

I started digging and Aimée started raking the soft muddy sands. A mother and her couple of young kids materialised nearby, seemingly intent on seeing what we were up to. So far we'd seen nothing, then a sudden jet of water shot out of the sand by my feet! I dug the spade in and cleverly sliced a large bivalve shell into two halves, just in time for the mum to ask, "did your spade do that?" Flippin great, at least I had brilliant views of the animal inside. We showed the kids a few worms, showed them the broken shell and let them have a go with the rake. Turns out they live just next to the beach and the mum told me about the urchins that lay exposed in the weeds at low tide just off from Staffin, big purple ones (ie Edible Sea Urchin, one I've yet to see!) They were a nice bunch, I'll probably bump into them again seeing as I'm often on this beach. 

Back to the digging - this is the large bivalve (well, what's left of it...) that I dug up

At least the animal itself wasn't damaged. Might need a new side wall though.....
The siphon that caused the jet of water. Impressive!
This is the Sand Gaper (Mya arenaria) and a lifer for me. Sadly I have destroyed half of the shell which will allow predators an easy access. This mollusc's days are numbered, I feel quite bad about that. Apparently they are good eating, not something I was tempted to try. Talking of good eating, these are locally collected for the pot too - this is the Striped Venus (Chamelea gallina) and a lifer.

The best-marked one we could find, most here are really quite plain shelled
Other bivalves found in the sand included Common Mussels (Mytilus edulis) and quite a few Thin Tellins (Angulus tenuis). But what of the worms, I hear you cry! Calm down, I was just getting there. 

We dug up loads of worms, mostly small slender things that I really didn't fancy trying to identify. But we found absolutely masses of Sandmason Worms (Lanice conchilega) including this one of which I managed to take a truly awful image.

Seen here with the beginnings of its latest tube
The biggest worms by far were this big fat Blow Lug (Arenicola marina)  

Three (not two) annulations between the 2nd and 3rd chaetigers
and this big brute, eventually identified as Arenicolides ecaudata with its feathery gills and tail end as fat and robust as the head end. Note the lugs have head ends much fatter than their tail ends. 

A rather moribund Arenicolides ecaudata back indoors, fully 6 inches long.
Plenty of these smaller worms in the mud, this is what's known as a Catworm or Nephtys hombergii. Catworms have a hugely diagnostic means of locomotion when swimming, they thrash the tail back and forth which sets up an ever-increasing wave up the body towards the head. These things can disappear into soft sand as if it wasn't even there! It took a bit of microscope work combined with habitat knowledge to come to that ID. Note the lovely pearly iridescence along the upperparts

  Nephtys hombergii - much paler and pearlescent in real life!
There was this distinctive-looking thing too. No clear annulations, I did wonder if it was a sea cucumber and not a worm at all. I still don't know, it has yellow tubercules very similar to the huge Arenicolides so may be a young one of those? Maybe. 

Ugly bugger whatever it is. A tad over 2 inches in length.
Also found were numbers of sand eels. I'm not sure which species yet, but suspect Lesser Sand Eel

Most were less than a quarter the size of this one
And how did we find all of these magnificent creatures, I hear you ask. We dug holes and trenches (which was most successful) and raked the top couple of inches of wet sand (which was less successful). Here's a pic of me doing just that - soon after this I ripped the carapace off a crab. I never knew this sort of thing could be so destructive!

It had been mizzling on us for some time and the tide had turned against us. We headed further up the beach and had a look around what looks like an old disused slipway. There are lots of rocks there and huge numbers of Common Mussels all over the place. There were a good many patches of a yellow encrusting sponge, but without a compound microscope to check the spicules it's a bit pointless trying to figure out which species. Beadlet Anemones were new for the year and a sudden wriggle between rocks turned into a very dapper Butterfish (Pholis gunnellus) which was quickly followed by a second individual. They lay their eggs amongst rocks in shallow water at this time of year so these may have been gravid females.

I've only seen a couple of these fantastic fish before, so it was a real treat to find more!
We were wet but happy to have finally found a few things in the sand. I plan on doing plenty more sand digging in the near future. Hopefully Aimée will too - once we get her some proper wellies!

Thursday, 12 January 2017

It's Snowing!

For the second day running I saw a break in the weather and legged it to the beach only to be caught out again. This time it was snow. But this is Skye, so the variety we get up here is known as Sideways Snow. I took a quick video of it arriving at the beach at almost precisely the same time that I did.

It didn't settle, the ground was too wet, but it looked good for about five minutes. The gull flock was facing directly into the wind, hence all I could see were a bunch of hunched shoulders with wingtips. Annoyingly I needed to be at the other side of the beach to be able to scan through for white-wingers. I huddled my way through Uig Woods and came out on the other side of the river. The snow had stopped although the wind was still bitingly cold. I made good use of a bunch of pallets as a windbreak, I shall name it Gibster's Hide. Until someone takes them all away again. 

So that's protection from the north and west winds. Should have thought of this earlier!
This is right next to the stack of pallets. I have no idea what it is, I keep meaning to ask someone. I call it the Glove Totem. Maybe it's a shrine to those lost at sea or a tourist attraction for rubber fetishists. I really don't know. 

Thoughts anybody?
Sheltered now from the wind I began to scan the gulls in earnest. Maybe 150 birds out there, my hopes were high...but no, just Herring Gulls, Great Black Backs and a few Common Gulls. Again. Six Red-breasted Mergansers were close inshore, the males throwing their heads up in courtship displays. One way to keep warm I guess. I threw my head about a bit too, but no luck. If there were any ladies in the vicinity they kept well away from me. 

One thing you may be able to see from the above pictures is that the beach is very flat. And black. There aren't any rockpools to explore, so I have to turn rocks in search of stuff. One thing that I really really really must do is remember to bring a bucket and pitchfork down here! Just look at what I'm missing! 

All empty and all untickable. The live ones are buried out of sight.
Apparently a rake works pretty well too. I have all of these items in the garage. All I gotta do is remember them! The tides are very low this coming weekend. As you may have guessed from the frequency of my blogging, I haven't been working at all so far this year (hotel is closed for a month at the mo while builders tear the whole frikkin' place apart upgrade a few minor amenities...) but I'm starting a bit of extra work at the weekend, typical that it coincides with these very low tides. Never mind, I'll remember that rake/pitchfork one day and scoop a bucketful (literally!) of lifers. 

I checked on the dead sheep one more time. Still dead. It too was trying its best to keep warm, buried under a huge mound of seaweed. Something has been munching away on it, something I haven't found yet. 

Wild sheep marinade anybody? Seaweed on the side?
I was still cold so I wandered back via the woods. A huge surprise addition to the NG3963 List was a Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) that I unintentionally spooked from beneath a bramble clump. It promptly scampered up and over a 4ft drystone wall and sped off across an open sheep field. I had no idea we had Rabbits here, I thought the farmers would have shot them all by now (they do that kinda thing up here). Cool, at least it was something new to the list. I papped and potted a few more lichens but haven't grilled them yet. 

I'm finally moving out tonight, builders are taking over for the next week or so. Aimée gets back tomorrow evening and we don't move back in here until about 20th/21st Jan. Luckily we're only moving up the hill a bit, and I'm working for my keep so it won't work out too expensive. To be fair it'll be bloody nice to have heating and a decent hot shower again as opposed to scooping icy water out of pots to wash myself, which is what I've been doing this past few days.'s certainly one way to wake yourself up in the mornings!

Oh, and it's snowing again. And settling :) 

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Sticta the roads...

There was a slim chance of sneaking out today and not getting rained upon, and I took it. And indeed I didn't get rained on - I got hailed on instead. Plus nearly blown off my feet at the beach. The winds last night were unrelenting, gusting at over 50mph and coming straight in off the sea. Several times I had to dash out to save a clattering dustbin or plastic crate or some other random blowing debris from smashing itself up the side of the building. The wind was almost like a solid entity at times. And it hasn't really dropped very much today. 

I spied a flock of gulls on the beach and gave them a thorough scan for Glaucs or Iceland Gulls, both are being reported with slowly increasing regularity on the Outer Hebrides. I hunkered down behind a bit of discarded farm machinery and braced my hands and face on the edge of a big metal wheel. Tears tracked sideways across my face and the wind tried its hardest to batter my binoculars into my eyesockets, but eventually I satisfied myself that I hadn't overlooked any white wingers. They'll be there one day, just hope I'm there to see them too! That's when I stood up and was side-swiped by a huge gust and sent spinning into the road. Luckily the traffic was typically 'light' - basically there's about one car every hour along this track! I must've looked a right prat though.

Here's a quick bit of video taken as I was walking down the hill towards the beach. It shows sideways hail gusting up the valley maybe quarter of a mile away. It doesn't really do it justice, but I reckon it was moving at over 40mph. Luckily it missed me almost entirely, I just caught the very edges of it.  

I headed into the woods for some shelter and decided to climb over the bridge and jump down to the far side of the river and explore some new ground. Never been in this bit before and I could see a nice looking cliff face ahead of me. That looked very interesting! I slip-slid my way across the slope using fallen trees, logs and so forth to pick my way across to the cliffs. On the way I found this crazy fungus.

Xylaria polymorpha, same as last week's specimen but much more handsome!
There were also some Scarlet/Ruby Elf Cups (Sarcoscypha sp) growing from a dead twig, half-buried in the moss. If I had 300x zoom I would be able to make out if the hairs around the outside of the rim were straight and matted as in Sarcoscypha coccinea or corkscrewed as in Sarcoscypha austriaca. However I don't have that kind of magnification and colour/distribution don't help either. Annoyingly I had to leave them unidentified. I also spotted a nice patch of Pyrenula. This is Pyrenula macrospora with a green thallus, large black perithecia and obvious white pseudocyphellae scattered throughout. 

Oops, I forgot we were meant to be having a few days off from lichen pics!
Eventually I scrambled my way to the base of the cliff, wow - it was covered in big chunks of Sticta, nothing like the small discrete growths I'm used to seeing on mossy tree trunks, this was on a much larger scale. I did take a load of pics of close-ups but they all came out annoyingly blurry, like this

Here's a pic of part of the cliff-face with the Sticta growing all over it.
Turns out to be Sticta canariensis, and a lifer for me. That means I have now seen Sticta canariensis, S.limbata, S.fuliginosa and S.sylvatica - a full house! All I need now is a nice, bright day and I can go photograph them all in natural light (rather than using flash) and knock up a nice little montage. Cool. 

I say full house but as this page explains, recent developments show that there is more to Sticta fuliginosa than meets the eye. Had to be really....

Sticta canariensis is my 23rd new lichen since moving to Skye at the start of December, and the 4th one this year. My British lichen tally stands at a whopping 81 species. Clearly still very early days (and I need to get myself a couple of books, some chemicals and a compound microscope before much longer...) but the important thing, for me at least, is that I'm finally taking an interest in them. Seriously, the turnaround in my mind has been amazing. I used to just frown at them and walk away. 

And that is the incredible thing about Pan-species Listing, it actively encourages you look at things you wouldn't otherwise attempt to identify. Or maybe even look at. Have I improved as a naturalist by showing an interest in lichens? And if so does it even matter? Hell yes! And hell yes again! Yes it does matter, not only have my eyes been opened to the beautiful forms of (some) lichens, but I now appreciate the different niches they occupy and can have a guess as to why that should be. And I can record things I've been unable to record before, or at least a small selection of them, which is better than none. As my recognition levels improve so will my accuracy of identifications and I'll be able to send through more records with a greater level of confidence. And I'm not just on about lichens, I mean everything - this is a way of life for me. If I can break into lichens I feel I can break into about anything. This year I'm really going to try and tackle dipterans and hymenopterans, both being groups where I'm currently very weak.

There has been a modest amount of interest from a few PSLers to come visit me this coming summer. Bring it on, I say. Let me introduce you to the world of the Celtic Rainforest and its lichens! (Now there's something I never thought I'd say). Then you can show me those flies, bees and wasps I was just mentioning...ta muchly!

Keep off the moors...

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Lithobius sp.

I was recently contacted by a chap called Tony Barber. He runs the Centipede Recording Scheme in Britain, has done for a long time. He also wrote various books and keys that centipede enthusiasts use. (That sounds a bit geeky, like bird-spotter instead of birder. Should I write chilopodist maybe, or myriapodist?) So when he asked me to have a good hard look at the centipedes up here on Skye I was partly thrilled and partly daunted. Apart from good numbers of Strigamia maritima under rocks at the beach, I'd only managed to find three individual centipedes (and two of those got away!) despite checking beneath countless stones, rocks and logs. Millipedes by the bucketload, but centipedes? I hadn't even found Lithobius variegatus yet (and that's the one that's everywhere!) The one centipede that I did manage to successfully pot up and check turned out to be Geophilus insculptus, which is the first record for Skye. You can read that particular post here.

However, I wasn't having any further luck finding more centipedes. Until yesterday that is, when I found a medium-sized Lithobius under a log, plus a small one in standing dead wood which I haven't looked at yet. Problem is that I'm not sure which species I've got. I ran it through the keys a good few times, it heads off to Lithobius melanops every time. But comparing my specimen with the images on the BMIG website it seems that the shape of the forcipular coxosternite is all wrong. Which leaves me a bit stumped. I'm not about to 'make it fit the key' and push a record through (although in fairness it does fit the key, it just doesn't match the pic!) and I rather doubt BMIG have put up a wrong image. Is there a degree of variation in melanops? Is it an age/sex thing? Mine is female if that means much? I just don't know. I've asked a friend for help, he knows about these things. 

Check the shape of the deep cleft between the 4 teeth in the middle, and of the shoulders to either side of the teeth.
BMIG's image from their website (same link as above). Check the teeth, cleft and shoulders - quite different!
Mine's right at the top end of the size recorded for Lithobius melanops (17mm), so it's not a youngster that has yet to 'fill out'. I dunno, looking at it now my one seems pretty close to the BMIG specimen. Maybe there's nothing in it and I'm just being paranoid. Skye feels like uncharted territory for invertebrate recordings, it really is a bit like a Lost World, and I feel that folks are almost expecting me to unearth a few good myriapod records. Basically I guess I really don't want to balls it up. 

Here are a couple more pics of my centipede. All of poor quality, naturally! 

Detail of ocelli - I think there are ten on each side.
Head viewed from above
Coxal pores are round not oval or slit shaped
Female gonopod spurs 2+2
Rather annoyingly this specimen has no ends to its back legs. I must have damaged it somehow in the process of capturing it. The key suggests it should have a double claw. Luckily I have the tops of the legs and can see there are no extra accessory spines between VpP and DpP which rules out Northern specimens of L.borealis a species very similar to melanops, although ruled out in this instance by the greater size of my centipede. L.borealis is stated to top out at about 12.5mm so I need to check any smallish examples for that. It has been recorded from the top end of Skye before, so I look forward to finding it too at some point.

EDIT: I'm now satisfied that this is indeed Lithobius melanops. Since capturing this individual I have found and keyed a second individual which is also Lithobius melanops (11th Jan from under a stone in woodland). 

Monday, 9 January 2017

What's in a Name?

The sun came out (briefly) today! I sped out and down the hill, checked the birds at the beach as per usual. Six Great Black Backed Gulls and 14 Wigeon at the mouth of the river and 5 Grey Herons hunched over facing into the cold wind. Not a single Herring Gull to be seen, that's got to be a first. Plenty of Hoodies dropping shells onto rocks as per norm. It was below zero with windchill today, due to get colder later on this week. 

I figured Uig Woods offered me the best shelter from the wind, deep into the valley. Yup, but it was cold anyway seeing as sunshine barely penetrates at the best of times. I had a look at lichens (it's impossible not to here), couple of weird-looking ones that I haven't sussed yet. I've decided to give us all a few days off from looking at my rubbish lichen pics. It makes sense. Anyway, I tackled a couple of liverworts and, for a change, I managed to identify them - huzzah!!  This was on a rock face near the entrance, I've walked past it loads. This is the liverwort Saccogyna viticulosa. It's pretty common all up the west side of Britain and Ireland, bit of a stonking rarity in the east though.

The opposite leaves narrow this down to just a handful of species, handily!
Microscope pic of the distinctively-shaped underleaves. Crap innit!
The underleaves! This is from my copy of British Mosses & Liverworts by E.V.Watson (1968)
I'd forgotten that I'd brought this book up to Scotland with me! I was looking at images online thinking "I wish I had the books these drawings come from" so I Googled them in case any are still available and suddenly thought, "hang on that looks familiar!" Duh, what a complete donut! Nice to have back-up for the BBS Guide. Anyway, one liverwort down and one to go. 

Looked pretty diagnostic so I grabbed a bit to identify back in the warmth.
This chunky looking liverwort has been given a rather unflattering English name. I try not to use the common names of bryophytes, I have a hard enough time trying to remember their scientific names never mind the (quite frankly) ridiculous names they've recently been given. This is Aneura pinguis. Or as it's also known, Greasewort. Sad, very sad. Time for a quick diversion.

I used to spend a lot of time in the field with Jim Porter of moth fame. Used to spend quite a lot of time in his study too, trying to get my Phyllonorycters set half as neatly as his in twice the time. (Quick tip for setting the really tiny stuff - the clear wrapper that cigarette packets come in is perfect to use as setting strips as it allows you to actually see what you're doing!) Anyway, he compiled a set of English names for all of the microlepidoptera on the British list. I even helped, a few of those names are mine! Once published, his list was generally scoffed at by serious entomologists and scientists. It just isn't done, it's alright with something like butterflies (70 odd species on the list and even the smallest is relatively large and noticeable) but not with stuff you need to gen det or DNA to identify. Jim's idea was that if his newly invented English names helped newcomers to break into the world of microleps then it had to be a good thing. Well yes, I agree. But it still isn't done. Nowadays I believe that if an invert/fungus/lower plant is to be given some sort of a protected status then it must be given a common name. Makes no bloody sense to me. So I guess there are reasons for this recent craze to give everything a common name. Some are rough translations of the scientific name (hence the truly awful Spreading-leaved Beardless-moss) but how about the über-catchy Lesser Cow-horn Bog-moss? Actually, flicking through my BBS Guide I see there's one called Skye Bog-moss (Sphagnum skyense) which is one I shall definitely have to make an effort to see. I didn't know Skye had a near-endemic Sphagnum, get in!!!  :)

Meanwhile, back in the real world....

I crossed over to the other end of Uig Woods and had a quick rummage around under rocks and in fallen logs. Found a handful of inverts which I potted up. There's a big patch of Elder growing near a drystone wall on the edge of the woods. It's a bit of a sun trap and fairly sheltered from the wind, but even so I think this particular Elder is in for a nasty shock in a few days time! 

Haha, crazy damn tree!
Those leaves have only just opened up in the last week, there were just the very first signs of greenery on New Year's Day.  A nearby Alder was under attack from a bizarre-looking resupinate fungus. I have no idea what it is, a quick flick through my fungus book didn't throw up anything too similar. Not sure where to start online either. So unless someone can tell me what it is (unlikely, I realise) it's just going to have to stay a mystery. Smart though, whatever it is!

(EDIT: Andrew Cunningham suggests Phlebia radiata, which looks like a good call to me)

Flaccid and rubbery to the touch. The branch is about 5" diameter and covered with this fungus on the underside.
And so for the second day in a row you get no lichen pics! Apart from the incidental background ones in the image above. Sorry 'bout that.