Friday, 28 July 2017

Horsetails of the Unexpected

Earlier this week I received a message from me ol' mate John Martin (of birding and botany fame) saying that he was staying at Portree for a few days, did I fancy coming out to play and do some botanising with him and the gang? Hell yeah, that sounded rather awesome to me! Turns out that John is up here as part of an organised Wild Flower Society 3-day field meeting. From their website:

Tuesday 25th – Thursday 27th July 2017 Isle of Skye. Leader: Ian Green

I hope to see most of the interesting species found on Skye including the Arabis alpina (Alpine Rock-cress) and Koenigia islandica (Iceland-purslane). We will be going up several mountains and will climb to at least 700m, although it could be more, so the days will be fairly long. The longest walk I think would be to see the Arabis alpina which is at least a 9km round trip. There will be lots of climbs but nowhere really dangerous, although the going can be hard at times as there will be scree and rocks etc. to climb up/over. Anyone coming would certainly need to be hill fit. 

To cut a long story short, John asked if it was alright for me to gatecrash the final day, in return I could show them the Mitella ovalis. Thankfully Ian agreed, I was pretty much hyped to the max about seeing John again and becoming acquainted with a few good plants!

Anyway, throughout the course of the day we were rained upon, wind dried and rained on again in an almost endless cycle. At Duntulm we were nearly blown away whilst keying through some tiny Euphrasia marshallii and my fingers turned blue whilst checking various Potamogetons in Storr Lochs. Fairly typical late July Skye weather, to be fair. But I had a blast and it was great to be a part of some hardcore 'en masse keying' using both Stace and various BSBI Handbooks. As with most things, it all made a lot more sense when watching experts at work, talking you through the keys, pointing out the features. We had an interesting time with hybrid horsetails, it took me a while to really see some of the critical features, plus I kept being distracted by various beetles, galls and my first Scotch Argus butterflies of the year, but eventually the day's tally of Equisetum consisted of Field Horsetail, Marsh Horsetail, Shady Horsetail, Water Horsetail, Giant Horsetail, hybrid Marsh x Giant Horsetail and hybrid Field x Marsh Horsetail, the latter being the trickiest to find amongst the parent plants. John and I even twitched the Magpie at the beautiful Ellishadder Art Cafe though we failed to see it (Magpie is a mega vagrant to Skye!) That's twice I've been on a twitch with John (first time was for a Veery on Lundy way back in May 1997) and twice I've dipped. At this rate I shall next twitch with John in September 2037 and we shall dip yet again!

Coupla pics just to break up the text...

Potamogeton alpinus, perfoliatus and natans being checked with the BSBI Handbook
Shady Horsetail after being properly keyed through and confirmed
The vigorous hybrid between Marsh and Giant Horsetails running rampant across a roadside slope
This one really was a real deal Euphrasia marshallii
Floating Bur-reed Sparganium angustifolium at Lochan nan Dunan
Chaffweed and Water-purslane also at Lochan nan Dunan
EDIT: Just realised that Water-purslane isn't known from Skye. So what is it???
Grass of Parnassus - what a stunner with its crazy stamens!
2ND EDIT: I emailed the putative Water-purslane pic to the local BSBI Recorder Stephen Bungard, who promptly replied with

That looks very convincing to me.
First for Skye but you do not quite hit the VC jackpot as there two old records, one for Canna  (1950-1969) and one for Muck (30 May 1982).

Anyway, nothing so far has anything to do with my square. By 4pm the group had gathered together and began saying their goodbyes when I asked if anybody would like to see Mitella ovalis at its only known wild site in Britain. Hell yes they would! So we drove in convoy down to Uig, my suggestion of parking at the shop turned out to be a nightmare - the usually near-empty car park was full. Cue some amazing Whacky Racers style u-turns and 'inventive' parking! A few minutes later and everyone was able to admire this plant in a wild state. Pictures were taken, accounts of my finding the plant were re-told and a jolly time was had by all :)

Possibly the largest number of botanists to ever descend into Uig Woods!
I think there were 12 or 13 of us decided to check the Mitella. No longer is this an exclusive club! The guy in the middle of the image staring straight at the camera is Ian Green, BSBI Recorder for Moray. He was our glorious leader for the duration, I have to say that he really does know his stuff when it comes to horsetails (as well as everything else, but he shone especially bright with his horsetail IDing skillz). He's also surveyed every known Arabis alpina site and discovered a new one in the process, so he's clearly fit as a fiddle too. 

I spotted a chunky caterpillar on a half-eaten Nettle leaf and took it back indoors to ID

Larva of The Spectacle Abrostola tripartita - smart moff whether larva or adult
By the end of the day I'd seen a whole suite of decent and cryptic plant species, a few hybrids, some nice inverts and had been a part of a proper botanical group. Even the less knowledgable members of the group were head and shoulders beyond my botanical capabilities, hence I thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to join in with the fun. Special thanks to John and to Ian, you're a coupla stars. And brilliant botanists. 

Highlights of my day, with lifers in bold - 

The pondweeds Potamogeton alpinus, gramineus, natans, perfoliatus and praelongus along with Floating Bur-reed and Spiked Water Milfoil.

The horsetails Field, Marsh, Water, Giant, Shady, Marsh x Giant and Field x Marsh.

Grass of Parnassus and its associated microfungus Puccinia caricina, finding and instantly recognising Chaffweed (plus finding Water-purslane...or whatever it actually is..), having Salix x multinerva features explained to me, chasing several Scotch Argus, watching John photographing his first ever Nemastoma bimaculatum for over ten minutes (!), keying several Euphrasia at Duntulm but only managing to hit Euphrasia marshalli once *glad I sat in for that one!* and sharing Mitella ovalis with a bunch of lovely people. Happy days. 


  1. I gate crashed a WFS field trip at the Lizard once, just bumped into them. I was welcomed along and shown a number of species that I would have otherwise over-looked. A good day!

    1. I'm gonna join up, that's how impressed I was. I know 'professional' botanists tend to look down their noses at the WFS, but that's just crazy. Loads of expertise from what little I saw of them.