Friday, 31 March 2017

Beware the Tides of March

So the lowest tides of the spring are here. It takes me about a ten minute amble to get to the beach, door to...er...sand. I'd been looking forward to a crazy tickfest of goodies over these two days of lowest water. Day one was rained off before it got going, day two was far better weatherwise but I had to hustle back for a workshift. Oh well, there's always the next time. 27th April is the next really low tide, I shall try again.

There aren't any rockpools here as such, just wet bits beneath and between small boulders
I did manage to find some fish though, 3 Shore Rocklings and 37 Butterfish. 40 fish under rocks! Pity the diversity wasn't a tad higher though. Here's a pic of one of the Shore Rocklings

12x less common here than Butterfish. Scientific FACT!!!
A flock of 40 or so Common Gulls had formed a long skirmish line across the beach and were following the receding tide across the sands. I could see them picking things from the water. Every once in a while a Herring Gull would fly off with something in its beak. Eventually I flushed them off in order to have any kind of a chance of finding something myself! It's a big enough beach, they settled a hundred metres away and continued their work. Four summer plumaged Black-headed Gulls were new arrivals, I've had a handful of 1st winters but these were the first adults I've noted here. I'm not really sure where they're heading to, Black-headed Gull is a passage migrant in small numbers on Skye. Two adult Lesser Black-backs were also new in, again just passing through on passage though they also breed in small numbers. Despite quite a bit of searching I only managed a rather pathetic two species new for the year including this young Common Starfish

Common Starfish Asterias rubens - I managed to beat the gulls to this one!
I quit the beach disappointed that I couldn't replicate the mass of goodies that the Sussex Boys had found a couple of days before. March tides suck. Maybe the summer lows will be more productive.

A big pile of well-vegetated road planings offered up another yeartick in the form of Field Horsetail, the fertile fronds thrusting upwards. Somehow these always put me in mind of a scarcely remembered, but obviously important to me, picture of the Carboniferous Period - a time when ferns were truly huge, horsetails were a hundred feet tall and club-mosses were as tall as trees, sharing the world with giant dragonflies, pelycosaurs and the early amphibians. These plants have been doing their thing for over 600 million years, pretty much unchanged in all that time, though just a wee tad shorter nowadays! Anyway, here are those fronds

No sign of the fearsome Eryops lurking in the undergrowth...
In the woods I finally got around to ticking off Milesina carpatorum on manky brown Male-fern pinnules. The underside of a rotten log revealed my next lifer in the form of an intricate looking slime mould. I did a lot of image searching and figured I had it nailed, putting the images up on the Facebook group confirmed my guess. This is the slime mould Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa, apparently a frequently encountered species though I can't recall seeing it before.

Known as Coral Slime on account of the finger-like protuberances
And that was it until I finished my shift at 10pm. It had started to rain at about 9pm, reducing to a drizzle by 11pm. I went out checking the security lights on site and, amongst absolutely masses of the black millipede Tachypodoiulus niger, managed to find a single Hebrew Character tucked into the corner of a door frame, a male of The Engrailed in the laundry shed (that's a good moth here on Skye) and a couple of the rather smart craneflies Tipula rufina also in the laundry shed. I captured an Amaurobius that was wandering around - they seem to have suddenly become very common in the outbuildings and corridors here - and it checked out as Amaurobius similis, no big surprise there. 

Tipula rufina - patterned wings and a big black line across the thorax to under the wings
The Engrailed - I may have to paint the walls a slightly more photogenic colour...
I was really hoping to hit 450 species by the end of March, pretty much a full month ahead of when I hit 450 in 2013. But did I manage it? Yes, yes I did. I'm on 453 species in NG3963 for the year and it's still only March (for another 2 hours...) I'm pretty bloody chuffed with that. 45% of the way into the 1000 in the first quarter of the year, fkk yeah I'm very happy with that!

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Rain stops Play

Despite the past week's worth of blazing sunshine, today soon clouded over. By early afternoon it was raining and by mid-afternoon it was chucking it down. This seems a little perverse to me, because mid-afternoon today is the precise time of the lowest tide of the spring here at Uig and I was all ready for rockpooling fun. I've been really stoked for finding all kinds of amazing goodies, especially after hearing about the Sussex Shenanigans that occurred yesterday. Apparently Graeme Lyons squealed like a girl when a Lobster nipped him. Haha, I'd love to have seen that (but mainly coz I still 'need' Lobster).

I took a sneaky half-day at work and shot off, planning to follow the tide out and praying the weather forecast was wrong. Lots of the usual stuff, it wasn't actually too bad. It's just that I quit before lowest water which is a bit galling. Luckily the forecast is better for tomorrow, just cloudy with little in the way of rain. Tomorrow I shall strike gold!  

Quick run down on what I found today, none of these are out of the ordinary here. I find this lot most times I look. Common Limpets, Beadlet Anemone, Dog Whelk, Edible Periwinkle, the two Littorina Flat Periwinkles, Green Shore Crab, Edible Crab, Sandmason Worms, the tubeworms Janua pagenstecheri, Serpula vermicularis and Spirorbis spirorbis, the hydroid Dynamena pumila on Serrated Wrack, the encrusting bryozoans Membranipora membranacea and Electra pilosa, Common Mussels, Breadcrumb Sponge, Butterfish and lots of Orchestia gammarellus. I also found this thing clinging to submerged wracks - took me a moment to figure out exactly what it was!

Rather gruesomely this was still alive and crawling! Any ideas yet?
This is the arm of a starfish. I don't know which species, but it's the first echinoderm I've seen since I moved here. Whatever it is/was/will be. 

Common Limpet Patella vulgata amongst barnacles
Breadcrumb Sponge Halichondria panicea being all weird amongst barnacles
Edible Periwinkles Littorina littorea discussing life by some more barnacles
Anyway, the rain swept in whereupon I swept out. I spotted a clump of garden plants growing from in the middle of a pile of dumped boulders. I see this species in many gardens locally, I think it is London Pride, a hybrid species that has become well naturalised throughout much of lowland Britain. It's already been recorded from several parts of Skye according to this BSBI hectad map

London Pride Saxifraga x urbium persisting in a pile of dumped rocks
I remember getting massively excited when I found several clumps of St Patrick's Cabbage growing in a ditch somewhere just south of Drumnadrochit whilst walking LEJOG a few years back. Then, back home and after checking the hundreds of photo's I'd taken, I realised it was London Pride and not mainland Britain's sole relict population of St Patrick's Cabbage after all. Poop. But London Pride is 'new' for my square, so it was kind of (almost) exciting after all. 

I jumped a low stone wall and checked the small area of woodland that runs between Cuil Road and the Conon River (the area I previously thought was an overgrown garden). Lifting rocks from the woodland floor I found really good numbers of the millipede Tachypodoiulus niger and large numbers of the woodlouse Porcellio scaber too. Then I lifted a stone and found this thing

It was a bit pinkier-looking in real life
This is the largest flatworm I've seen up here so far. I thought it was something new, and it may well turn out to be, but I now think it's a fully grown Microplana scharffi, easily over an inch in length. The ones I usually see are barely a centimetre in length. The pinky hue would indicate it has recently eaten an earthworm. Against all expectations a nearby rock had another one beneath it, this one whiter and hence presumably less full of earthworm than the first. I potted them up anyway, I now have a friendly contact at the Terrestrial Flatworm Recording Scheme who is happy for me to send him specimens.

The woodland ground layer here is comprised of Lesser Celandine and Ramsons. That's it! This spot is going to look and smell absolutely divine in a few weeks time. I shall be keeping a close watch for the Ramsons Hoverfly Portevinia maculata sitting on the leaves. I shall also be looking out for the sole microfungus associated with Ramsons leaves, namely Botryotinia globosa - though there is another associated with the bulbs which causes rot. Maybe I ought to surreptitiously dig a few up and check? 

Ramsons - probably my favourite garlic!
By now I was feeling rather damp so headed back up the hill once more. Tomorrow will be better. Or drier, if nothing else.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Numbers Game

Two blogs in two days, what's going on here then? Nothing too exciting - I've been playing around with numbers this evening and thought I'd share. This will prove of absolutely no interest whatsoever to anybody but myself, but it's my blog so you'll have to just 'shut up and put up' as my nan used to say.

By now you have probably realised that I'm taking part in a challenge to try and see 1000 species in my chosen 1km square. If this has somehow passed you by (where have you been?!?) click here to visit Andy Musgrove's beast of a PSL site and gen up.

The idea is to find and identify 1000 different species in a calendar year and all within a single 1km square, or monad as it's technically known in OS parlance.  Anything over a thousand is a bonus, but to be fair I'd be very happy to find anywhere near 1000 species in NG3963 (the square around which this whole entire blog revolves). The species all have to be wild, no garden plants or crops, no domesticated or captive animals/pets. Humans count as long as they are wild (and up here they're definitely of the 'wild' variety) as do nits or species of Tinea living on aforementioned wild humans. But only if you fancy getting that intimate.

So there are several ways to approach this 1000 species challenge. You could just go out there into your square and bimble along noting things as you come across them. You could target specific habitats or groups of organisms and concentrate on those. You could run a light trap and hope for 800 species of moth, leaving you a piss-easy 200 of everything else to casually find. Or you could plan your whole year with military like precision, compartmentalising your square into different habitat zones and work your way through them hunting specific species as the seasons progress. Me? Bit of each I think, though I don't have a light trap. Yet.

Anyway, I'm anal enough to have categorised my hoped for 1000 species into different orders and added a target number for each. I did this about six weeks ago, I have the species breakdown scribbled onto a piece of paper which is pinned to the side of my wardrobe just above my laptop. No-one gives a monkey's arse about seeing this but here it is anyway, re-arranged into descending order of projected target completion

Algae - target of 25. Seen so far 25 (100%
Bristletails - target of 1. Seen so far 1 (100%)
Lichens - target of 60. Seen so far 53 (88%)
Fungi - target of 50. Seen so far 44 (88%)
Platyhelminths - target of 7. Seen so far 6 (86%)
Bryozoans - target of 8. Seen so far 6 (75%)
Molluscs - target of 50. Seen so far 35 (70%)
Bryophytes - target of 60. Seen so far 40 (67%)
Myriapods - target of 15. Seen so far 10 (67%) 
Birds - target of 90. Seen so far 59 (66%)
Plants - target of 140. Seen so far 89 (64%)
Crustaceans - target of 20. Seen so far 10 (50%)
Springtails - target of 4. Seen so far 2 (50%)
Sponges - target of 2. Seen so far 1 (50%)
Fish - target of 10. Seen so far 5 (50%)
Annelids - target of 15. Seen so far 7 (47%) 
Mammals 0 target of 10 species. Seen so far 4 (40%)
Cnidarians - target of 5. Seen so far 2 (40%)
Arachnids - target of 20. Seen so far 7 (35%)
Orthopteroids - target of 4. Seen so far 1 (25%) 
Coleoptera - target of 70. Seen so far 11 (16%)
Small orders of Insects - target of 20. Seen so far 3 (15%)
Diptera - target of 60. Seen so far 5 (8%)
Moths - target of 140. Seen so far 7 (5%)
Hemiptera - target of 40. Seen so far 2 (4%)
Odonata - target of 3. Seen so far 0 (0%)
Butterflies - target of 6. Seen so far 0 (0%)
Reptiles - target of 2. Seen so far 0 (0%)
Amphibians - target of 2. Seen so far 0 (0%)
Echinoderms - target of 5. Seen so far 0 (0%)
Tunicates - target of 4. Seen so far 0 (0%)
Slime Moulds - target of 2. Seen so far 0 (0%)
Protists - target of 5. Seen so far 0 (0%)
Unexpected extras - Nemertean Worm - 1 seen, none anticipated. Bonus!

So what does all this tell us? Well, it shows that I under-estimated how many species of algae, lichens and fungi I'd see in NG3963. Three quarters of the year is still ahead of me and I'm going to exceed expectations on all three. The bristletail target has been met, but that's no surprise and no great skill involved either. I'm very pleased with the platyhelminths tally and I hope to exceed the target in this group too.

At the bottom of the table come the groups where I've yet to see a single species. This is expected for Reptiles, Butterflies and Odonata - it's still very early in the season for them. But I'm a tad worried about Amphibians, I'm not even sure there ARE any in the square! Maybe somebody has a garden pond I can look into? Echinoderms and Tunicates are out there, and the low tides are happening now, so I hope to find some of those very soon. Protists were a last minute add-on that I optimistically threw in when my compound microscope arrived. I think I probably set the target too high, by about 5. Moths, flies, hymenopterans and bugs will only increase from here on in as the weather improves. 140 moths is probably impossible without a light trap, I may have to make one before much longer.

So, of 1000 hoped for species I've seen 439. Well, Skylark is a 'heard only' record so far, but I'm sure I'll see one soon. Which essentially equates to 44% of the way there in under a quarter of the year! I think that's pretty bloody fabulous. Christian Owen is doing even better - he's on 46% already and Ali is at almost 40%, probably will be by end of March.  

Me at the beach during January's lowest tides. Gonna be even lower this week!
Lots of lovely exposed black sand - be nice if the weather is like this tomorrow (though rain is forecast)

Tune in tomorrow night to see what I found out there!

Monday, 27 March 2017

Late Blog for Late March

Firstly apologies for the lack of blogging this past week, it's been very busy here and I've been pretty busy exploring the deepest darkest corners of NG3963 when not at work. One good bit of news that I discovered yesterday (whilst chatting to a tree surgeon who was 20ft above me in a large Beech at the time) is that a fair chunk of unexplored land I assumed was an overgrown back garden is, in fact, part of the Uig Woods complex and owned by Woodland Trust. Cool, I'll be mooching my way through there in the very near future! So, as hinted at the end of the last blogpost, the weather has taken a turn for the better, culminating in my wearing just a t-shirt at the beach this afternoon (clearly I was also wearing jeans and boots, the locals are a nice enough crowd but they ain't ready to see my arse hangin' out just yet!) Here's proof that the weather can be absolutely lovely in Scotland

Holy batshit, I actually live here - just look at that view!
Have to say, I still pinch myself sometimes. I'm incredibly lucky to be enjoying myself up here. I have Pixie Girl to thank for this, bless her. I like my job, love the flexi-hour approach, the bosses and staff are proper sound and NG3963 is treating me well. Well, I say that now, let's see what I reckon once the midges get going - "aaarrgghh, get me outta this hell-hole!!!"

Blah blah yeah, but have you seen anything worth mentioning this past week I hear you cry. Patience dear reader, I'm just getting there.

I've been back and forth to the beach at Cuil Road, always checking the gull flock for white-wingers. Still nada but nice to see a couple more Lesser Black-backs in the flock. Pied Wagtails are getting to be more and more noticeable at the top of the beach, acrobatically leaping after flies. Grey Wagtail has also been seen quite regularly here, but no other passerine migrants noted though other than a slight overhead passage of Meadow Pipits, surely it can't be long until there's a Wheatear perched on a rock at the top of the beach or flitting around in a sheep field? And Twite should be here too sometime soon, perched on a wire fence I'd imagine. Fingers crossed. Then Corncrake will be arriving! I've seen Corncrake before but never heard one, I'm almost wetting myself in anticipation of hearing their song. They alone will prove that I'm in a truly wonderful part of the world. Offshore the Black Guillemots have all moulted into full breeding plumage, apart from one individual which is stubbornly holding onto its winter attire. Wigeon are down to just four birds, Red-breasted Mergs down to 5 or 6 birds, usually all trying to court the single female bird still present. Today a female Goosander was just offshore, the first I've seen for over a week. Cormorants seem to have dispersed elsewhere, just a few Shags remaining out in the bay. I'm enjoying watching the turn-over of bird numbers and species here. Remember I've only been on Skye for four months, I have no baseline data of what to expect. But that's fine by me, it's all one big adventure after all. But by hell am I ever impatient for those Corncrakes to arrive!

Just for Christian Owen - a truly awful pic of a Great Northern Diver!
The tides have been positively crap all week, hence I haven't spent much time on the beach itself. But there are several exceedingly low tides in just a few day's time. Tune in later to see what I discover. 

In the woods I continued turning stones in search of slimers. Nothing new or particularly exciting, though a couple more Microplana scharffi were nice to see. Incidentally I sent a batch of flatworms off to a lab a few days back. The lab guy is off to America for a 10-day break but promised to get back to me afterwards. With the warmth come insects, most of which are beyond my abilities to identify. There is a single solitary willow along Cuil Road that is full of catkins. Plenty of small flies but nothing I could realistically hope to name. Bit like the willow itself until the leaves come through.

I keep checking this lone bush for all sorts of amazing Diptera and Hymenoptera. Nothing yet.
But there are bees and flies out there. Here's one very distinctive-looking midge that was quickly worked out to species thanks to a helpful chap on the Dipterists Forum. Incidentally, I've always thought that should be the Dipterist's Forum (note the apostrophe) but who am I to say?  They seem to know their flies better than their grammar

C'mon, admit it - this is the best looking midge you ever did see!
The image above is of a female Macropelopia nebulosa, a gorgeous wee thing. Just check out that stunning wing patterning! Unsurprisingly this was a lifer for me, Diptera Dude that I am. 

I successfully targeted various ferns for their associated Milesina microfungi. On Common Polypody I found Milesina dieteliana, shown here in all of its glory

The tiny white fluffy specks? That's it. Cool stuff huh?
Hart's-tongue Fern and Hard-fern have their own associated Milesina. If I ever get around to sorting out the various Dryopteris ferns present on site I can add at least one more Milesina. It's all about the host with these things. Saw my first ladybird of the year too, not one I expected either

Sunbathing Larch Ladybird (you ready for this?) - Aphidecta obliterata, coolest scientific name ever?
Rather a tenuous addition to the list, seeing as it is situated at the bottom of a garden plot, this is Flowering Currant. It's a pretty abandoned corner, bottom of a steep slope. I expect it is naturalised and definitely not planted whatsoever. Yeah definitely *cough* *it's on my list* *coughs again*

100% good to count Flowering Currant. Deffo. Tag? What tag? 
Back in the woods I scrambled from the River Conon up to the zigzag Glen Conon Road for the second time in my life (and didn't kill myself in the process also for the second time) and I'm glad I persevered because the steep slope - understatement of the decade - faces south and acts as a brilliant suntrap. Lesser Celandines carpet the ground here and I managed to add a good few Golden Dung Fly Scathophaga stercoraria and a single Melangyna lasiopthalma to the tally. Not the most tasteful pic in the world, but here's the Melangyna as seen under the microscope

Coupla confusion species to rule out first - hence the taking of this specimen
Also in the woods I noticed a good number of fallen beechmast and started digging through the leaf litter in search of part-buried mast. Bingo! Came up trumps with this highly distinctive fungus, one that only grows on the husks of fallen beechmast, would you believe? 

Xylaria carpophila Beechmast Candlesnuff. Nice!
I had a good search for Mycena capillaris, the Beech Leaf Bonnet but failed to find any. I suspect that they'd have been wiped out by the numerous hailstorms/sub-zero temperatures we've experienced lately, though it may be too late in the season regardless. That's if they even occur up here. Staying with fungi for a moment longer, I found this growing out of a fallen tree trunk

It's a fungus, right? Umm...well, kind of...
I have to admit I was a little bit over-excited when I stumbled across this fruitbody (safe terminology) growing out of a moss-covered trunk. I recognised it as a basidiolichen, a lichenised Basidiomycota which is a fungus and not a lichen though it grows from a lichen matrix rather than from fungal hyphae. Sort of a halfway thing maybe?  The dark-tinted apex of the stipe is a really strong feature for Lichenomphalia umbellifera, a species I've never knowingly seen before. 

Down by the River Conon the undergrowth is positively bursting into life. Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage remains stubbornly opposite despite the signboard mentioning Alternate-leaved being present. Great Wood-rush is coming into flower and looking particularly fine on the wet woodland floor as well as up rocky crags

Great Wood-rush Luzula sylvatica - as yet unblemished by its associated microfungus Puccinia obscura
The river itself is, of course, chock full of invertebrates. I had several moderately large stoneflies land upon me, they proved to be Protonemura meyeri. Here's one on my finger

The adults have vestigial gills under their neck which look very much like tiny fat fingers!
Rather excitingly I spotted three water crickets on a small backwater. They scattered underneath overhanging vegetation and evaded capture, I'll nail the species soon. Better than that though, I spotted a tiny something battling its way across the water surface. It looked like a tiny pondskater crossed with a springtail (!) and was easy to scoop up into a pot. Whacking it under the microscope my suspicions were confirmed, this was a Microvelia! It quickly keyed through to Microvelia reticulata, my first Minute Water-cricket and a brilliant wee thing to watch as it battled through the meniscus, dried itself out and settled down allowing some fine viewing opportunities. Then I dumped it rather unceremoniously into the burn...here's a pic. The whole thing is under 2mm in length!

Microvelia reticulata - a tiny, but perfectly formed, semi-aquatic hemipteran
Clambering (without dying) up the ridiculously steep slope I reached daylight and civilisation (a single track road with passing places...) once more. The weather was just stunning! 

The coconut scented flowers of Common Gorse. I shall have to bash these for inverts soon.
A Raven called overhed, no big deal as they are always calling overhead. But this one was calling an insistent soft 'prukk-prukk, prukk-prukk, prukk-prukk..' which I hadn't heard before. Looking directly upwards I saw the Raven straight away. Above and ahead of it was the target of it's attention - a full adult GOLDEN EAGLE soaring majestically over my head!!!! Fuckaduck! A fkkn Golden Eagle! In my square! Wow! I watched it through my binoculars for however long it took for it to disappear over the crest of hills to the north. I just stood there with a sloppy, smirky grin on my face. Fkkn Golden Eagle hell yeah! Some things in life just make you stand there with a smile on your mush and there could be a lorry beeping at you to get out of the way, or a dog pissing up your leg and you just wouldn't notice or care. It was about then that I noticed the car beeping at me as I stood in the middle of the road...

A different individual from nearby last month (and it definitely is NOT a Rook....)
I clambered the hill from the river to the cemetery a couple of times this week. I still puff a bit at the top but at least I'm unlikely to topple to my death if I stand up too quickly. So saying, I did slip over and slide down a small section on my back. Ha, what a twat! Up at the cemetery I checked under a bunch of stones and potted up a Tachyporus, a very distinctive genus of rove beetle. Everybody with half a brain cell knows that roves are bad news. They're the domain of masochistic coleopterists, general crazies and the desperate. I was the latter. I have 299 species of beetle on my PSL. This was clearly something new, hence number 300 for me. Dammit I would not be denied! I found a long-lost key by Roger Booth who I first met maybe 13 years ago. He's a really sound fella, I like him a lot. Crazy dry sense of humour, and a genius coleopterist. Anyway, using his key I managed to run my beast through to Tachyporus chrysomelinus, except that isn't known from up here. The almost identical T.dispar is though, but that wasn't mentioned in his key. Long story short, dispar is a cryptic species hiding in amongst chrysomelinus. A close look at my specimen showed there to be four (not three) hairs on the anterior edge of the elytra. And that's the difference. Roger split them a few years after writing his key (he the man!) as a beast new to science. The male genitalia is also slightly different between the two species. That tiny fourth seta on my beast's elytra secured Tachyporus dispar as my 300th beetle. Phew!  

Tachyporus dispar - c2mm long!
My ever-so-scientific representation of the elytral setae presence and positioning
Last thing of note was a Ruby Tiger caterpillar that was wandering onto the A87 outside the hotel yesterday. I figured I'd be doing it a favour by relocating it into a wide grassy verge, the open roadway not being the safest place to pupate. I popped this image onto the Skye Moths Facebook page where it generated a fair bit of interest as it is seemingly the first record of Ruby Tiger from the northern half of Skye.

Why did the caterpillar cross the road..?
Somewhat more mundane, though just as welcome to see, was a male Common Quaker to the security lights here one night. I'm surprised I haven't seen more of these so far this month. Must get a trap.

Sure beats the usual 'sitting on an eggbox' shot
Add to that lot a few flies, lichens, a singing Skylark and a handful of newly emerged plants and my yearlist for NG3963 is over 440 species. Not too shabby for March.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Big Year WP Birders

I've been keenly following the exploits of three Swedish birders who, possibly for the first time ever, are going for a properly organised Western Palearctic Big Year. They began the year in Kuwait and have trotted across to Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Western Sahara, they even turned up here in Britain for a bit of impromptu twitching! Plus they've birded Sweden whilst back home between trips. They've just embarked on a long trip (over 100 days duration) scooping up what they can where they can. They can be followed on their page at Big Year WP 2017

So why am I blethering on about these lads on my 1ksq blog? Well because their total for the W.Pal and my total for NG3963 are very similar. They're just about to hit a huge glut of returning summer migrants, I'm hoping for a modest glut of invert activity. I still haven't seen a bee here yet.

As of today the Swedes are on 408 species of bird this year and I'm on 413 species of everything. If you'd like to see how the bunch of us attempting our own 1000 species in a 1ksq are coming along you can check it out here. There's a new numero uno on the scoreboard and County Durham has now joined the action too.

Come 31st December who knows what the figures will say? Will they (or will I) burn out and chuck it all in before then? Will events dictate that we scrap our plans? Or will we both come home in a blaze of glory, new records having been set, that'd be nice. Maybe I'll find that Glaucous-winged Gull in late December and they'll come across for me to show it to them...haha!

No pics I'm afraid but I have a day off tomorrow and (wonder of wonders) it's actually meant to be dry and sunny, though only 5 degrees. I'll take that thank you very much, I was spreading salt last night!

Friday, 17 March 2017

Duckin' and a Divin'

The weather has been pretty awful here lately, ridiculously sudden and devastating hailstorms, briefly blue skies and then more sudden, violent hail. Changeable, I think you could call it. The wind hasn't eased up for days, been a sustained 35-40mph WSW gusting to well over 50mph. But today that changed. I woke up and the wind had gone (took me a moment or two to figure out what was different) and a light drizzle had replaced the sideways hail. I have outdoor painting to do, but not in drizzle, so I quickly switched my days off, donned the wet weather gear and headed down to the beach to see what had been blown in. 

A whole shedload of seaweed is what has been blown in, great piles of the stuff forming distinct strandlines along the beach. I picked through it (one new sheep carcass...) and found lots of a large brown seaweed that I have seen before but couldn't name. It must be a relatively deep water species for I only ever see it after storms. Here it is 

Pretty distinctive huh? Big too.
The frond was very slimy and slippery, even the midrib felt kind of buttery to the touch though it was pretty tough. It was also very flattened, wide but low like an elongated rectangle in cross-section. The stipe itself had small nubs along each edge. Back indoors I quickly figured it as being Dabberlocks Alaria esculenta and amazed myself by discovering that it was a lifer. Really? I'm pretty certain I've seen this before, guess it's slipped through the gaps until now. On a nearby washed up Cuvie stipe was another marine alga that I've been looking out for, please excuse the truly terrible pic! I should do better with this species as the season progresses and it becomes much more noticeable

Truly atrocious microscope pic of Melobesia membranacea, an epibiont red alga
So this is the mighty Melobesia membranacea (and my 60th species of alga!) From what I hear it is likely to prove very noticeable as the summer progresses. It generally smothers various stipes, fronds and blades of larger seaweeds, I've undoubtedly seen it before but not realised what it was. But what was that word used in the caption: 'epibiont'. What's one of those then? An epibiont, I recently learnt, is the term used to describe a living something growing on top of a living something else (in this context, named the basibiont). Epibionts cause no harm to the basibiont, hence are not parasitic. In this instance it is a red alga that is growing on the surface of a Cuvie stipe. But doesn't that make it an epiphyte, I hear you ask? Well yes, sorta. As far as I can ascertain epiphytes are plants growing on other plants, clearly seaweeds are not plants as such. At least not the reds. Or is it the browns? So are the greens classed as plants, can they be epiphytic? No, coz they're all alga not plants. Though I guess alga are in fact primitive plants...hmmm. You know what, I think I'm gonna just leave this topic and start a new paragraph, pretend it never happened. Who'd like to hear about some birds that I saw? Good. Birds are easy. Bloody seaweeds ffs...

In the three and a half months I've been here I've seen just one diver in the bay, a solitary Great Northern. Today I improved upon that with not one, not even two or three, but four Great Northern Divers in the bay! Only one of these was actually in NG3963 (ie inside 'my' square) but after days of strong winds and choppy waters these birds had come inshore to feed. Divers hunt by sight, if the water is murky and turbid (and believe me after 3 days of strong WSW winds it really is...) they simply can't see the fish to catch them. So they come into shallow waters to catch crabs, which they can locate by touch. Currently it's a very bad time to be a crab. But along with the Great Northern Divers I also found a pair of Black-throated Divers and a single Red-throated Diver. Superb! With a gang of Eider, a Black Guillemot, several Red-breasted Mergansers plus a pair of Goosander that I carelessly flushed from the mouth of the River Conon, it was pretty busy out in the bay today. Everyone busily feeding on fish and crabs. Much further out I spied a bunch of Gannets plunge-diving through a raft of gulls. Cormorants and Shags were seen flying low over the water towards the feeding mêlée. It was all easily a mile and a half away but I watched through my binoculars for a long while, just praying for that breach of a Humpback, even a Minke would suffice. But alas it was not to be. Not today anyway. Here's a completely pants shot of the Black-throated Divers. They pair up again in the wintering grounds (maybe France, maybe Cornwall) and migrate north towards the breeding grounds together. Who knows how they locate each other on the wintering grounds. Not me.

I know, awesome shot isn't it. Clearly we can rule out Pacific Diver - just look at that clean throat and crown shape!
Back to kicking through the wrackline, I found a few bryozoans on stipes and kelp blades. Mostly they were the usual Electra pilosa and Membranipora membranacea but I found a few others too. Back indoors I checked them out through the microscope. Some I could do but others were beyond me. Ideally I need the FSC Keys to help me with the bryozoans I encounter,  but there are several books in the set and with prices like this I think I may just skip it and continue to be baffled. Despite this, I managed to identify two new ones for me - Callopora lineata (photos are too shockingly poor to share here) and Disporella hispida as seen here

Disporella hispida alongside the three-ridged tube of Janua pagenstecheri
Very noticeable were the receptacles of Egg Wrack. This is one of the more dominant seaweeds her at Uig, barely a patch of midshore beach is without a whacking great patch. But it was the receptacles that caught my eye - just look at these! (In fact if you look really closely you may even see a few tiny black dots that are the marine fungus Stigmidium ascophylli)

It's almost that time of year again!
Egg Wrack is a long-lived species, many clumps are believed to be several decades old. Sexual maturity is at 4 or 5 years of age. I could blether on at length about what is happening here, but why not have a quick read of Jessica's blog page instead. She goes into all the nitty-gritty in a way that surpasses my blundering abilities. Of interest (to me at least) was a ball of Common Whelk Buccinum undatum eggs, all empty and hence uncountable for my 1000 species Challenge, but nice to find regardless.

Whelk egg case. The few that hatched will have eaten the remainder as their first meal. Lovely...
I headed inland next, through the woods to see what I could find. First up were these small fungi, only a millimetre or so across and scattered across a tree trunk. I have no idea what these are despite a bit of detective work. I initially thought they may be related to the Cannonball Fungus Sphaerobolus but I don't think so now. Do you recognise what they are? You wanna let me know?

There were hundreds of these across a couple of tree trunks. Ideas?
Finally, I've been a bit slack with my microfungus IDs. There are several species that cause reddish leaf spots on Rumex (docks) and until recently I had presumed they were all Ramularia rubella. Lazy. Today I collected an infected leaf and grilled it properly. This is what I found

Macro shot of the infected area. Note the concentric rings of black fruit bodies - I can ID them via those!
I did a microscope squash of the fruit bodies, here you can see the spore-filled asci (200x mag)
The individual spores - still can't believe I now have the kit to see these!!! Amazing :)
Looking through my copy of Ellis and Ellis it was an easy process to narrow my leafspots down to the very common Venturia rumicis. Very common but still a lifer for me, my fifth of the day!

It'll be a few days now until I can grab another free day. Still living in the hope that it'll start to warm up and the inverts will show their faces. And I can impress the locals with my butterfly net skillz....

Thursday, 16 March 2017

400th of the 1000

Rapid blast down to the shop after work (between the preposterously heavy hailstorm showers that have been pulsing through all day) gave me all of five minutes at the shore scanning through the gull flock. And there it was...number 400. Here's the only pic I managed of it, just in the nick of time as it flew off!

adult Lesser Black-backed Gull
400 relates to the number of species out of a hoped for 1000 that I've seen so far this year in my home 1km square of NG3963. The idea is explained on this page and there's plenty of room for anybody who wants to join up and have a go at their own square.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Honey, I Shrunk the Wildlife

Been out and about a couple of times the past few days, no great leaps in the 1000 Species Challenge tally although I'm fast approaching the 400 species barrier. I'll be there before the end of the month is out. First up, who wants to see some really, really tiny creatures? Good, here you go...

This is (probably) the young stage of a Daphnia, called a nauplius. Moves around in great big jerks. Very small.
This is a rotifer, probably from the genus Euchlanis or Lepadella and really very small indeed
This is a diatom, a unicellular alga that slowly motors along all by itself. From the genus Cymbella. Very very small.
This is another diatom (a unicellular alga) possibly from the genus Pinnularia. Ridiculously tiny.
And this is Meridion circulare, the smallest thing on my PSL by a long, long way. Ridiculously teeny-weeny!
All of these were from a single fingertip-sized clod of filamentous algae I pulled out of a shallow roadside ditch. Mostly I enjoy just watching them doing their thing, eyeball glued to the microscope  waiting to see what will swim into view next. I'm so far removed from their tiny microscopic realm that it almost makes me feel as though I'm a god or something! Watching the minute animals and alga interacting with each other (alga that move around all by themselves fer cryin' out), eating and being eaten, acting in bizarre fashions, all utterly unaware of my presence. Guess it appeals to the voyeur in me. (He feels like a god? And he's a peeping tom? Who is this fella whose blog you've been reading? Somebody needs to call the police...)

Meanwhile, back in the real world.... the flowers are coming up now, it's no longer just Daffodils and Lesser Celandines. I found a nice wee patch of Coltsfoot erupting from beneath dead grass. The flowers come up long before the leaves, which is fairly atypical amongst our wildflower flora. Seems to me that a large proportion of early Spring flowers are yellow. There's probably a good reason for this but I'm afraid I don't know it. Maybe an attractant to Diptera seeing as there aren't many other pollinating insects out just yet. I've still to see a bee this year.

Coltsfoot - a firm favourite of mine, host to various microfungi, moths and more.
The woodland here is in places carpeted with Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage (yet another early Spring flower with yellow petals, though ridiculously tiny ones at that) and I've been keeping my eyes peeled for two microfungi that grow on its leaves. Finally my luck was in and I found several leaves infected by Puccinia chrysosplenii, a lifer for me. Apologies for the utterly soulless image that follows, I did take a few pics in the field but they were all out of focus. You're looking at the small pale patch, squint hard and maybe you'll see the dark flecks within. That's the fungus in question. Amazingly underwhelming huh? Well I was pleased to find it anyway. The second microfungus on this plant is far less impressive, yeah really!

Puccinia chrysosplenii in all of its staggering glory!
Sticking with microfungi for just a few more seconds, I found this covering many dead stems of Dryopteris ferns. It looks a lot like Bracken Map, but clearly the hostplant is different so the fungus probably will be too. More research required with this one

According to my Microfungi Book (Ellis & Ellis) there are quite a few possibilities. Hmmm....
Ok, so we've done microscopic stuff, we've done microfungi, so how about something big? I think so too. I thought I saw a Phyllonorycter mine in a dead Beech leaf laying squashed into the damp soil. I picked the leaf up (it wasn't a mine) and found this on the underside

Picture taken through my 10x handlens. I lied, this is very small too.
I recognised what it was straight away, Argonemertes dendyi. All I desperately needed was for it to not auto-digest/explode/implode/dissolve before I could pop it into alcohol, then to send off for confirmation. I think it may be the first record for the Highland Region, possibly even for Scotland. Back indoors I was pleasantly surprised to find it still very much alive and intact, I even managed a microscope pic to show the eye arrangement

I'm pretty bloody chuffed with this image!
And, before it had an opportunity to self-destruct in some shockingly unpleasant manner, I whacked it into a tube of alcohol. Judging by the fully extruded proboscis it didn't like the taste very much

Death by whisky, it's a regular theme up here on Skye
I didn't get out today but still managed to add Bullfinch to the list of birds I've recorded on Skye. I only heard it passing through, I was in the garage painting a picnic bench at the time. A flock of eight Rooks noisily careened across the sky too, only the second time I've seen them in NG3963. I heard Pied Wagtail several times, possibly the same bird flying around but also just as likely to be passage migrants. Had the first one quite recently, hearing them daily now. Might be able to sneak off for an hour or so tomorrow afternoon, hope the weather plays ball.