Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Storm Tony

Last week was spent in the company of my old buddy Tony, we reckon we've known each other for a bit over twenty years and are both madcap keen Pan-species Listers. I think I probably first met Tony whilst doing fieldwork for the Smaller Moths of Surrey, part of the amazing Surrey Atlas series. We both, along with a great many other folks, put in a good many hundreds (thousands?) of hours over the course of several years, the resulting book is a masterpiece. In the words of Sir David Attenborough himself, “…quietly authoritative… a delight to have on my shelves”.  I expect he particularly enjoyed the section that covers the Psychidae (I had quite a large input in that part, y'see...) 

Some of the greatest members of the mothing community EVER. Plus Tony and myself...
There really are some legendary moth folk in that image. John Langmaid, Jim Porter, Graham Collins, Sean Clancy, Tony Davis obviously. I spy a very young Vlad the Impaler in there too! Anyway, whilst I was down in England this February, I met up with Tony and he mentioned coming up to Skye for a short break. True to his word, last week he arrived. Somewhat dead on his feet by the time he finally got here true, but he was here. What a guy! We've put up with the Beast from the East (Parts 1, 2 and 3...) for long enough. Now it was time for the Beast from the South to do his worst! 

Time and space (plus your attention span) dictate that I cannot possibly do justice to the whole week in one blogpost, so I shall just mention the highlights of each day and whack in a few pics. Tony has his own brilliantly wry blog and is currently blogging the events on a day by day basis. Click here  to read his version. Right, here goes...

Day 1 - Sunday 25th March
Tony arrived late afternoon after a 17 hour journey broken up by less than two hours kip in the car. He looked a bit kinda wobbly, haha! After he'd dumped his gear in the room, we headed straight out and headed down to Uig Woods for a couple of hours. Nothing too amazing, though Tony was quite blown away by the amount of Tree Lungwort Lobaria pulmonaria hanging off most of the tree trunks, limbs and rock walls. He was also very pleased to find a solitary Water Cricket Velia caprai in a pool down by the weir - apparently this was very high (maybe at the top of?) his Skye Hit List of species he particularly wanted to see. Tony managed a mere 24 lifers on this short outing...!

Water Cricket - photographed earlier in the month at the same pool. Maybe even the same individual.

That night, Tony quit early and caught up with a big chunk of beauty sleep. Bless him :) 

Day 2 - Monday 26th March
I had to work today, so Tony headed off to a monad the other side of Portree in search of flowering Purple Saxifrage, a plant high up on his Skye Hit List. Unfortunately he missed them, though he did sweep a few flies and other inverts. That afternoon, once I'd finished work, we took a wander through a different part of Uig Wood and across the hilltop by the cemetery. Only 13 lifers for Tony this time, must try harder tomorrow!  

Poor ol' Tony, still not quite mastered the art of using a net....
Day 3 - Tuesday 27th March
Today was the day it rained. I had the next two days off work, so we decided to do a bit of travelling. Yes, dear friends, I left the square. Tragic, I know. Lots of strong drink, soft music (thrash metal, in this instance) and quiet contemplation allowed me to gradually recover from leaving my beloved NG3963 for the day. But I'm glad we did, because we found some great stuff!

We headed up to The Quiraing in search of a moss almost endemic to Skye, the aptly named Sphagnum skyense. Neither of us had seen it before, and neither of us are particularly proficient at keying Sphagnums. We grabbed enough samples of likely-looking stuff to make a decent sized ghillie suit, and headed back to the car and out of the rain

The very common Sphagnum notreallysureii with photobombing Crowberry
Not sure if he's taking a pic or pissing over this particular patch of Sphagnum
I had a secret site for a secret species that I was keen to show Tony. I've tried for it once before, but had duff gen and failed. This time I had a better idea of where to search. So, we drove onwards and didn't stop until we were parked up alongside a river. Tony walked downstream, I walked upstream and within ten minutes I'd found a whole bunch of what we were looking for. I won't say that Tony sprinted the several hundred metres that separated us, but he made bloody good time across boggy, uneven ground!

Freshwater Pearl Mussels - get in!!!!!
At this particular site it is very easy to see these rare molluscs just a few feet from the riverbank. It's very simple to poke your camera underwater and take a few pics without disturbing them in the slightest. "Charismatic mega fauna", as Tony described it. Or, "a pebble sitting there with its gob open" as I described it... Call it what you like, we were both very excited to encounter Freshwater Pearl Mussels, especially Tony who had no idea they were even present up here. Nice, very nice. 

The rain wasn't letting up so we headed back to go through the Sphagnums we'd gathered. Unfortunately, once back at The Lab (Room 6 in the hotel), we failed to convince ourselves that we had anything other than Sphagnum capillifolium and Sphagnum subnitens. Arse. I have three bryophyte books that I use. Two were written before skyense was split out as a species, hence it isn't in their keys. The third book is the BBS Guide which does have skyense in the species accounts but...doesn't have it in the keys. FFS, what the hell??? Anyway, we went online and trawled through countless sites and images. Eventually we jacked it in as a bad idea. S.subnitens was new for me, I think Tony just closed his eyes and refused to tick anything. 

Almost as an afterthought, I squeezed a few drops of water out of a Sphagnum strand and whacked it under the compound microscope. Tony was quietly chuckling away to himself, shaking his head in disbelief at the ridiculousness of it all - until I showed him the first of the SEVEN lifers he ticked from those few drops! I even managed a new one for myself too, this bizarre looking thing

Xanthidium armatum - looking rather like one of those WWII mines they used to blow up ships
On the back of this quick session at the compound, Tony has just ordered himself a copy of The Freshwater Algal Flora of the British Isles - it's not exactly a cheap book, so I guess he's hooked! 

Day 4 - Wednesday 28th March
My second day off work, we began by looking along the beach before heading off towards Dunvegan area, which is an hour or so away. Tony has been on a fair few seashore safari events, yet has some strange gaps in his marine fauna. Edible Periwinkle, Common Mussel and Breadcrumb Sponge for starters. So we spent a short while plugging some of these holes in his lists, plus found some proper decent stuff too. The undersides of rocks embedded in coarse sand are a profitable place to search for littoral species, we jammed into most of them including hundreds of Strigamia maritima (centipede), several Halorates reprobus (spider), quite a few of the tiny carabid Aepus marinus (beetle) and a few Thinobaena vestita (staphylinid beetle). On the rocks were barnacles (which Tony ticked) and some were covered in the marine lichens Collemopsidium foveolatum and Collemopsidium sublitorale, both of which Tony also ticked. Sheesh!

We headed off and accidentally ended up in the carpark for Coral Beaches. I became rather excited at the sight of a swan on a small lochan, turned out it was a poxy Whooper Swan, rather than the hoped for Mute Swan. Remember, things are weird on Skye. I'd probably kill (or at least maim) anybody who got between me and a Coot or a Moorhen up here!

The tide was already coming in, so we only had a short while on the shore. Tony obviously managed yet more lifers, we almost tripped over this fella as we walked along the track

Fox Moth Macrothylacia rubi larva - a big one too!
We headed into Dunvegan Woods in search of dipteran interest, seeing as the sun was shining and the day had started to warm up a bit. Still frigid, as Tony was keen to point out, but sunlit tree trunks are always profitable places to scan for flies. The woods were dark and dank. But we're a couple of PSL nutters, so we made the most of it and found what we could

Sarea resinae - a small fungus that only occurs on resin runs! Seemingly new for Skye...
Also quite a lot of Phytophthora ramorum on the Rhododendron ponticum bushes, never a nice thing to see. Personally I wouldn't mind if it wiped out the Rhododendron, but it also devastates Larch and whole plantations have been cleared in an attempt to stop its spread. In the States it causes Sudden Oak Death, thankfully the oaks native to Britain are largely resistant to it. Hopefully. 

We also encountered what I think is a New Zealand Broadleaf tree. The Skye Nature Group are holding a walk in these woods in mid-April, so hopefully I'll get confirmation (or otherwise) once Stephen Bungard has cast his eye across it. 

Back at The Lab that evening, we keyed a mayfly that Tony swept as Baetis rhodani, after a bit of discussion regards interpreting a few parts of the key we were using. Pretty happy that we got there in the end though. 

Day 5 - Thursday 29th March 
I love my bosses (just in case they're reading this...) I cheekily asked for a few more days off so I could spend them with Tony and they said yes, no worries!!!! Bloody lovely folk, so they are :) 

I'd been emailing Stephen Bungard back and forth regards gen for Purple Saxifrage and Downy Currant, two top targets for Tony with the latter being a lifer for me too. Eventually we settled on heading down to a site near Neist Point on Friday. Which left today to do some proper rockpooling stuff (very low tides for the next few days). Tony had brought his ultra robust aquatic net, seeing as I'd already broken his old one whilst chasing fish at Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset. Ahem... He also had wellies and waded straight out in search of "stuff", which he kept bringing back to deposit into the tub I'd brought along. Blow me, but off he went and came straight back with shrimps! I've never even seen a single shrimp up here before! 

Common Brown Shrimp Crangon crangon
We had to examine the tail end of this shrimp to rule out a similar species, but Crangon crangon is (rather unexpectedly) a lifer for me!

So cute! Until you try running it through the keys. I failed. Miserably. 
Unbelievably, he then brought me a couple of hermit crabs, both Pagarus bernhardus and also new to the square. Then he really took the piss and began chasing a shoal of fish through the shallows!

Distance between snout and eye is approx 1.8 eye diameters - which makes this a Lesser Sandeel
After a while the tide turned and we were pushed off the beach once more. We headed into Uig Wood in brilliant sunshine and Tony quickly spotted several small flies on Daffodils. "Seth, tell me what these are" he demanded. Umm...oh! Hang on! We'd earlier spent a while moving various ID keys and pdfs from Tony's laptop onto my memory stick and we'd looked at a fly family called Sepsids. Very small, but distinctively shaped. Thankfully I recognised the flies on the Daffs as being Sepsids straight away. Tony took a couple and they keyed to Sepsis punctum - new for the square and for me. Tony was suddenly on a mission to repay me for all those lifers! We'd noted a small millipede with orange ozadenes which narrowed it down to two species. But which one was it? We went back and found more

Atrocious crop showing the tiny setae at the rear edge of each body segment
The whole millipede is maybe 1.5mm diameter, so you can imagine how tricky it was to get a meaningful shot of the setae on a moving animal! Anyway, job done and Boreoiulus tenuis has been added to the square and to our lists. Excellent. I took Tony on a tour of the rocks in the woods, most of which we turned in our search for flatworms and other exciting beasties. One that I've not encountered up here before was this tiny bundle of fluff

Newteadia flocossa Ensign Scale Insect - flipped onto its back (otherwise it just looks like a tiny blob of fluff!) 
Not sure how many lifers Tony managed today, a few I would say :) 

Day 6 - Friday 30th March
The Big Day Out - we met up with BSBI Recorder Stephen Bungard who had kindly agreed to lead us by the nose to some good plants out by Neist Point. We briefly detoured to check on a reported patch of American Skunk Cabbage that has escaped a garden and is slowly working its way down the banks of a river. We counted twenty plants, not something anyone with half an ounce of sense would wish to see successfully naturalising in the wilds. Hopefully the gardener may be talked into digging them up whilst they are still easily manageable. 

Once at Oisgill, we headed cross-country in an attempt to relocate Carline Thistle, last seen here in the mid 1960s (would be overwintered deadheads only at this time of year, assuming they're still attached and haven't blown off in the wind). Upshot was that we failed to find any, not a huge surprise really. Have to try again in the summer months. Tony had mentioned that he wasn't great with heights, this is the terrain we were working

One slip and it's Game Over!
I have to admit, if I came here by myself there's no way I'd be scrambling over that slope! But Stephen was a man possessed and was merrily striding along with no apparent concerns. I did my best to keep up whilst Tony figured he'd wait on the flatter area we'd just traversed. Flatter, as in still very steep but not ridiculously so! 

Failing to find Carline Thistle, we headed back. But not before Tony and I found cushions of Moss Campion growing in the short turf and around small boulders, a lifer for both of us. Suddenly Stephen gave a mighty "A-ha!" and pointed at the base of the towering cliff face just above us. Purple Saxifrage in full flower! Lots! Hell yeah, finally Tony had his plant

Happy days!!! We saw masses more after this, in fact this was probably the puniest clump that we found.
Soon after that, Stephen gave another "A-ha!" and we were clambering through and around large boulders in an effort to see our first ever Downy Currant plants. Downy Currant twigs, if I'm brutally honest. 

I can see leaves! Honest I can! 
This whole area was thoroughly surveyed for Downy Currant just seven years ago, there are about 60 plants here. We saw probably ten, the largest being in hollows between boulders and standing maybe three or four feet tall and being maybe two or three decades old. Difficult to say, I guess? Downy Currant is a rare plant on Skye, these 60 or so plants make up the huge bulk of known specimens on the island. I shall have to come back at some point and see them in flower.

We all three had some sort of a minor mishap whilst botanising this area. I fell over into mud whilst jumping a ditch, Tony got snagged on a barbwire fence we were clambering across (short-arse bugger, lol) and Stephen slipped on a wet rock in a stream, which could have ended very badly had he broken anything. Thankfully nobody slid uncontrollably down the slopes and into the sea far, far below - but it drives home that botanising isn't always the gentle pastime that folks might think. Stephen did mention at the very outset that it's a clear choice between wearing drab greens (as Tony and I were) and blending in with the landscape or wearing a bright red jacket (as he was) in case you need to be rescued. It's a very valid observation. 

On the way home we detoured into a roadside quarry, which is disused apart from being a fine spot to dump all manner of household items from washing machines and fridges to carpets and bedframes. Most things were rusted, but did offer good opportunities for lifting stuff in search of goodies. The very first thing I saw under the very first bit of debris lifted (a railway sleeper) was this beast 

So I'm a bit of a flatworm enthusiast (ha, never thought I'd say that in public!) yet have never seen a New Zealand Flatworm before. Which is bizarre, because they're one of the most frequently encountered flatworms in Britain, especially up here in Scotland. They are a biological menace, highly invasive and should be eradicated, which is an impossibility in itself. They are disgusting and abhorrent. I have often wondered how I would react when I did finally clap eyes on one. Well now I know...I quite clearly jump about waving my arms in the air yelling "New Zealand Flatworm! New Zealand Flatworm! YES!!!! Finally, yes!!!! Wooo-hoooo!!!!" before falling to my knees to pap the hell out of it. Man, it's been a (very) long time coming but finally I've seen the bugger. And did I do the right thing and kill it? Nope, I gently lowered the sleeper back over it and walked away. 

Tony found his second ever Water Cricket in a yucky puddle, surrounded by rotting fridges and abandoned doors, thus shattering his pre-conceived ideas that Water Crickets only occur in pristine waterways in beautiful tranquil settings. Haha, sorry bud! We also found a Palmate Newt, several Field Voles and a handful of Garden Snails Cornu aspersum, which are really very few and far between up here. Stephen explained that they were originally a sand dune species before moving into people's gardens. Weird. 

Stephen has found various strange plants growing in the quarry, presumably the quarry is used to dump garden waste as well as white goods. He showed us a shrub which has him baffled (we were baffled too) and a bamboo which he hasn't named yet, plus a vigorous bramble which was Rubus cockburnianus and new for both Tony and myself. 

Tony was clearly on a high and wanted more! We bade farewell to Stephen and returned to Uig. I showed Tony the Sphagnum bog (we studiously ignored them!) and he ticked Chara virgata in a ditch before asking me if the Common Cottongrass seedheads held Glyphipterix haworthana. What? Shit, I've never thought to check! Completely off my radar, in fact. I opened one head and found a larva - sweet! I took a pic and put it back. (Later - via Facebook's Skye Moths Group - I showed the pic of my "new to VC104 Glyphipterix haworthana" only to be told that it looked more like a parasitoid than haworthana, though the seedheads looked right. Arse!

Tony still hadn't had enough - he wanted me to get my 500th species for the square this year by the end of March. I had a dozen or so to go to reach that tally. So, after dinner, it was down to the woods again, lamping for moths on tree trunks, though it was quite bitterly cold and we didn't see a single moth. However, we did see this big girl

Nuctenea umbratica - first record from Skye since 1991
The Spider Recording Scheme have an online submissions form for various species, this being one of them. Happily they added a dot to Skye the very next day. Also found after dark was this little lady

Female Steatoda bipunctata - one of the false-widows
According to the Spider Recording Scheme's maps, this is completely new for Skye, Unfortunately they don't have an online form for this species, I have to go through the forum to get it added instead. No response yet. 

Day 7 - Saturday 31st March
Tony was heading back to Hampshire after breakfast, it was a sad moment. I've really enjoyed having him up here, it's great to spend time with a mate who's also into nature as much as I am. And who knows more about many species than I do too, flies for example. I have a memory stick full of keys and pdfs now, just need the weather to actually turn warm and I can start using them! 

We didn't go out to try for any last second lifers, I had work to crack on with and Tony had a bit of a drive ahead of him. 

To bring the haworthana fiasco to a close, I went back up to the bog that evening and collected several seedheads. Ordinarily, Cottongrass seedheads fall apart as the seeds come loose and are blown around the surrounding area. Hence intact heads are usually non-existent at this time of year. But the larva of Glyphipterix haworthana binds the head together with silk and spends the winter period hollowing out the tasty seeds. So, intact seedheads in the spring should, in theory, contain a tiny, fat larva. First one I checked produced this rather rotund chap

Glyphipterix haworthana - the real deal, this time! New for Skye too :) 
Thankfully I have now redeemed myself with the Skye Moths FB Group, my second new to Skye moth in two years (Mompha propinquella last year, swept from the garden!) The next day Tony texted me to say that he'd gotten back a little after 1am (good going that!) and that haworthana would be a lifer for him! I believe he has several seedheads in a pot, so he should strike lucky.

By my reckoning, Tony added about 90 species to his PSL over the course of his time on Skye. Plus he has shedloads of stuff in pots, so it'll be well over 100 by the time he's finished. Excellent, and he's on about coming back for another short break in the summer too.......


  1. Nice write up but did you have to use that picture? Jeez, neither of us has worn well!

  2. Psychidae, your fav micro moth group then?. Never seen one but from what I can gather they lead a very strange kind of life!

    Seriously though, a great update and looks like you both had an excellent time.

    1. Well I'd love to show you some, but not having much luck thus far! You'll definitely have Luffia ferchaultella and Psyche casta where you are. Probably a few others too, but those two are ubiquitous (ubiquitous down south at least!)

  3. I've been meaning to say I am open to wandering outside your square ... just in case there may be other worthwhile things not too distant!

    1. How very dare you! Leave the square indeed, I've never heard such utter nonsense ;)

      Though if you extend your visit by a day or two.....