Friday, 15 June 2018

The Biggest Day

On 10th June last year I took part in a 24-hour PSL Bioblitz Challenge, midnight to midnight with the object of recording as many wild species as humanly possible before time ran out. There were several teams across the country, but I was the only participant going solo and the only one to restrict themselves to a single 1km square. I like to be different, y'see...

Anyway, on last year's attempt it was cold, windy and it rained for 16 or 17 of the 24 hours. This year it rained the lightest drizzle for a short while before dawn, then cleared and ended up a relatively cool morning into the middle part of the day before turning decidedly warm by late afternoon/early evening. Personally speaking, I start to flag in the heat so these conditions suited me well. Unfortunately, I neglected to go to bed the previous night, so my energy levels relied on a steady stream of Red Bull, Relentless, chocolate bars and coffee. I sugar rushed my way through to about 2pm then hit a wall. At 5pm I returned to the hotel for staff dinner, had a shower, changed into fresh clothes and hit the square feeling a whole lot fresher. At about 9pm I retired to my room to tackle a few mystery specimens in pots and to go through the many images I'd taken with my camera. I collapsed into sleep around 1am, some 42 hours after waking up. By heck, it sure was a great feeling peeling off my socks and boots after 21 hours in the field.

I'll run you through the day as it happened, in an abridged form obviously! As is customary, I took a pic of the sky at the stroke of midnight

It never gets completely dark up here at this time of year, even at midnight! 
Quick change of plans, I figured I needed to answer a call of nature before setting off into the wilds. A'hem... But it wasn't wasted time, we hardcore PSLers are always primed and ready for recording, and the best of us can find stuff in the most unlikely of places. Even, as in this particular instance, whilst sitting on a toilet seat...  Species number 1 (White Ermine) attained at 0001hrs

Species No 1: a White Ermine on the bathroom wall
Species No 2: Pholcus phalangioides by the skirting board below the sink
Species No 8: Endrosis sarcitrella in the laundry shed (it stays lit well into the night)
Naturally, I had my light trap running in the back garden. In strict disobedience of last year's Rules I'd turned it on ahead of the start of the 24 hour period. Sod it, I didn't check it until after midnight,  so what's the difference? I had a star moth in the trap, yet I didn't know that at the time and hence only took a single crappy record shot. I wish I'd have posed it nicely, but I didn't realise the significance until later the next day.

Brussel's Lace - just the 3rd record for Skye following two at a Sleat site last year!!! 
Beautiful Golden Y - what a stunner of a moth!
I headed out into the woods with my torch and net, all kitted out and ready for action. Plenty of moths flying around, unfortunately they all seemed to be of just one species, Common Carpet. I tried to ignore the plants everywhere, telling myself that they'd still be there in daylight and that I needed to concentrate on finding inverts. The female Steatoda bipunctata was still in her web in the corner of the shop window, seemingly still the only Skye record for this spider. The track through the woods was absolutely littered with huge great slugs, the vast majority being large Leopard Slugs Limax maximus with a few Black Slugs Arion ater thrown in for good measure. On tree trunks I added several lichens along with plenty of Tree Snails Balea sarsiiTree Slugs Lehmannia marginata, a few Common Earwigs Forficula auricularia plus the lightning-quick predatory fly Tachypeza nubilis Species 100 (Sessile Oak) attained at 0210hrs

Suddenly I realised that I was no longer alone in the woods, I could hear footsteps sneaking about on the gravel track quite close by. I instantly killed the torch and froze, wondering how best to tackle whoever it was trying to creep up on me. I had my net handle, could be a useful weapon. I had my torch, I could suddenly dazzle them in the face and make my move. And then we met, face to face and all alone in the middle of the woods

Species No 119: Holy crap - it's a womble! 
Wild and wary, just wish I could have gotten a bit closer...
I think I must be the only person in Uig who hasn't seen a Hedgehog in the woods at one time or another. I was beginning to think everybody was having a big joke with me. Well, it may have taken me almost 18 months, but I've certainly seen one now!

It was getting lighter all the time, I barely needed my torch by 3am and it wasn't long before Robins and Song Thrushes added themselves to the tally, Tawny OwlsOystercatchers and a noisy Grey Heron being the only birds heard in the darkness.  

I headed back to the hotel, checked a few bits I'd potted up and took another look at the light trap. No more surprises, though a huge male Poplar Hawkmoth was a lovely addition to the tally alongside the first Rivulet I've recorded here

Species No 143: Poplar Hawk - been getting a few of these lately. Or the same one over and over again.
Species No 145: The Rivulet - a lovely wee moth
After a brief indoors interlude, I was straight back out and into the woods once more - this time in daylight. A Cuckoo called from somewhere up on the hillside, they've been a bit sporadic of late and I'd worried about missing them entirely, so it was a relief to hear one so early into The Challenge. As it happens I heard them throughout the day. 

I suddenly realised that the Alder I'd just walked by was covered in bits of white fluff...what??? A closer inspection revealed lots of woolly aphids. An even closer inspection revealed them to be psyllids not aphids. Woolly psyllids? That's a new one on me! 

Species 180: Psylla alni the Alder Woolly Psyllid. Cool stuff!
Staying with psyllids for the moment, a good hard stare into a patch of Rosebay Willowherb soon turned up this wee chappie. 

Species No 204: Craspedolepta nebulosa the Rosebay Willowherb Psyllid
This is the very species that I found new to Scotland last year, the Highland Biologiocal Recording Group (HBRG) now have a whole page dedicated to this beast, which you can check out by clicking here. Species 200 (Oxeye Daisy) attained at 0440hrs.

Also in the same patch of Rosebay Willowherb were six of these

Species 203: Mompha raschkiella, a rather smart moth presumably about to lay eggs on the foodplant
I've recently been granted permission to wander through a meadow. Technically, this being Scotland, I'm free to wander anywhere pretty much willy-nilly anyway (gotta love the Right to Roam Laws up here!) But I feel happier knowing that the landowner says I can wander about, regardless of what the current tenant may think. So saying, what with it being a bit before 5am, I suspect the tenant would still be fast asleep. Anyway, this meadow is just brilliant! I soon added approximately 100 Chimney Sweepers, thirty or so Timothy Tortrix, a handful of Grass Rivulets, a few Greater Butterfly Orchids and the only Rabbit of the day amongst others. 

Species No 206: Aphelia paleana the Timothy Tortrix - a firm favourite of mine
Species 233: Chimney Sweeper Moth, and an immaculate one at that! 
Low tide wasn't until 1227hrs, it was still only just about 6am. Nevertheless I took a quick wander along the water's edge and added a fistful of common seaweeds and watched Green Shore Crabs swimming in the shallow water. I entered Uig Wood again and spent a bit of time lifting stones and boulders in search of molluscs, beetles, crustaceans and flatworms. Unfortunately this was not a very profitable use of my time, after nearly three weeks without rain even the undersides of part-buried rocks were dry. I don't know where the inverts I sought found shelter, but it wasn't beneath the rocks I checked, though I did find a few bits and bobs. I did see quite a few leafmines though including several that I haven't recorded here before. Species 300 (Narrow-fruited Watercress) attained at 0743hrs.

Species No 298: Phytomyza angelicae on Wild Angelica
I headed back to the hotel at about 0900hrs, checked a few more bits in pots and wandered down for staff breakfast at half nine. I'd already asked Ivan the chef to rustle me up an extra large veggie omelette with beans. Bless him, he made me an eight egg omelette. Best chef ever. It was whilst I was breakfasting with the waitresses that my boss wandered through and asked me how I was doing, what number was I on so far, and did I already have the fly on the window? Much merriment ensued as he tried to show us the 'bluebottle' he'd spotted but that had mysteriously vanished into thin air. Poor chap's getting old. Early dementia was our immediate (and highly vocal) evaluation. But then, bless him, he really did spot a fly on the window right next to me. It quickly went into a pot, I could see it was a small soldierfly. Back in the lab I checked it more closely - Microchrysa polita and new to Skye, new in fact to the Inner Hebs and adjacent mainland! My boss was soon telling everyone that he'd found a fly new to Skye and he was SO proud of himself, haha! That was species number 345 and I was soon out the door and in search of more species. 

Species No 368: Black Snipefly Chrysopilus cristatus
Species No 376: Micropterix aruncella, I saw three of these within five minutes
I took myself back down to the shore seeing as the tide was finally heading out. Much turning of boulders added some good littoral stuff including the centipede Strigamia maritima, the staphylinid Thinobaena vestita and a very, very, tiny carabid for species number 400. Species 400 (Aepus marinus) achieved at 1210hrs.

Species No 411: Saltmarsh Rush, a new one for the square! 
I then spent a good long while searching for fish beneath rocks. And by heck I found them too, including two species completely new to the square! Plenty of Butterfish and Shore Rocklings, these being the usual suspects that I find here. Bizarrely I've never had a Blenny here, but that all changed as I heaved one large stone over - yes! Finally! I've never been so excited to see a Blenny, so excited in fact that I forgot to take a pic of it... Happily I managed to catch and pot the next new fish, though I hadn't a clue as to what it was at the time. The hugely long second dorsal had me completely flummoxed, and it was only after zooming in on the photo's afterwards that I noticed and counted the barbels - that's when the penny finally dropped! 

Species No 427: the smallest Five-bearded Rockling I have ever seen. So cute!
I headed up the River Conon and into the Chasm of Doom. The river is running very low at the moment and it didn't take much searching to find several Brown Trout in a deeper pool and a male Three-spined Stickleback holding territory over his nest. Various new plants, bryophytes and aquatic inverts were quickly added including Polycelis felina (a flatworm) and Electrogena lateralis nymphs (a mayfly) plus lots of River Limpets. A flyby Dipper was a real bonus, I hadn't realised they were resident here, presumably breeding just upstream of my square, probably up by the waterfall. 

Possibly my biggest 'miss' of the day was Portevenia maculata, the Ramsons Hoverfly. I found it new to Skye last year, new to the Western Highlands, in fact. Just a few days back I counted over thirty of them in the carpets of Ramsons that cover the valley floor here. Today I noted the Ramsons, I noted the associated fungi Puccinia sessilis and Botryotinia globosa but not a sniff of the fly. I even did a bit of sweep netting. Nada. Truly bizzare. 

I clambered my way up the southern face of the gorge, it's actually quite difficult now that the vegetation has grown up, I almost fell off a couple of times! Once at the top I emerged into blazing sunshine and associated heat (off with the jumper!) and was straight into invert action with various hoverflies sunning on Ivy leaves. I'm amazed that it's taken up until now to see it, but finally Episyrphus balteatus fell for the year, alongside dayticks Syrphus ribesii, Eristalis pertinax, Eristalis horticola, Helophilus pendulus and Calliphora vomitoria (a surprisingly late entry at number 466). Two Rooks high overhead were a good addition, I'd probably have missed them if they hadn't been calling. 

Eventually I descended back down to the hotel for dinner, a shower, a change of clothes and duly departed with a much needed burst of renewed energy. I'd been avoiding the Sphagnum bog area until now, I fully anticipated a fresh suite of additions to the tally. What I wasn't expecting were the clouds of hungry horseflies that descended on me as soon as I set foot into the grazing lands that surround the bog. It transpires that the cattle have been moved elsewhere leaving an entire swarm of Notch-horned Clegs Haematopota pluvialis in a desperate search of blood. Oh lucky, lucky me... Species 500 (Marsh Cinquefoil) attained at 1807hrs.

However, the bog is a very good habitat (even if it is looking decidedly dry at the moment) and I was soon racking up new species including these beauties. 

Species No 502: Round-leaved Sundew
Which were soon eclipsed by these bigger beauties

Species 510: Great Sundew - entirely new to the square and absolute stunners! 
I had at least four horseflies on me when I took this pic, which is why it's somewhat squiffy and out of focus. I even managed to hit myself in the head with my own net several times whilst using it as a giant fly swatter. Horsefly bites don't actually hurt, it's just a small sharp jabby feeling (though technically they saw through your skin rather than jab with a proboscis) but I just don't like them. I could have let them take their fill, but through sheer numbers they could have bled me dry. So I swatted and swiped and repeatedly hit myself in the face and eventually scampered off in a quite undignified manner. Today I learned that the lady down the shop lives in the house that overlooks the bog. She was watching me seemingly catching all sorts of flying insects with my awesome net skillz. Nope, I was just swatting at clouds of horseflies, but thanks...

Just above the bog is a natural outcropping of stone amogst the grazing pasture. It has Field Gentian (couldn't see any though - probably too early) and a few other nice plants, so I gave it a bit of time. I found these

Species No 492 - a Swedish Whitebeam seedling!
The parent trees a good 100ft away
I've still to key these through properly, but they look like Swedish Whitebeams to me. One for another day. 

Species No 495: Heath Fragrant-orchid
Finally I saw a butterfly, just one mind you, a Green-veined White. It was soon followed by a Four-spotted Chaser and a few Large Red Damselflies. Still no grasshoppers though, which I find mightily strange. I had intended to grab a water sample from the ditch, but it was dried up. In fact, I manged to walk across what is ordinarily quite a deep water-filled ditch. No idea if the tadpoles managed to make it to froglet stage before their home dried out. I didn't see any. 

After donating a substantial amount of blood to the horseflies I quit and headed for the safety of the woods once more. I'd yet to work my way up the Glen Conon road, I had a particular species in mind which I've never seen anywhere else in my square. Bloody hell, but I was putting in some serious legwork today! 

Once up the Glen Conon zigzags I bunked over the crash barrier and descended into the wooded area above the river, north face of the gorge this time. I soon found my target species - European Larch and covered in Woolly Adelgids Adelges laricis. Nothing else worthwhile though, until I spotted a thick Alder limb covered in Hazel Woodwart...umm??? 

Hypoxylon fuscoides - very few records for this in Britain and new for me too - huzzah! 
By now I was proper whacked. Too many hills, too many Red Bulls, not enough real fluids and not enough sleep. I ambled and bumbled for an extra hour or so but in the end found myself heading back up the hill to the hotel where I grabbed a fistful of beers from the bar and retired into my room to try and make sense of what I'd collected in pots and on my memory card. 

My final tally is of 546 species, I've never seen that many species in a single day before. Success! 

As an aside, I was meant to be doing this today. Thankfully I have been keeping abreast of the weather forecast and knew today was going to be wet n' wild. Here's a very short clip of the trees outside my house this morning. I'm so glad I held my Biggest Day early!

Taken at midnight at the end of my Biggest Day. 

I'll compile a breakdown of the species seen in the next post. For now, it's almost 1am and I think I still have some outstanding sleep to catch up with. Night y'all....


  1. Sounds like an excellent day. Are you sure about Narrow-leaved Watercress (presuambly Cardamine impatiens)? Not trying to be a pain (who needs to try?)but only previous Skye record is 1958 anonymous and unlocalised in NG47.:-)

  2. No, definitely not that, it's a Nasturtium not Cardamine! I typo'd Narrow-leaved when I meant Narrow-fruited. It's the stuff you saw when you came to look at the Mitella ovalis, growing alongside it in the same ditch, in fact.

  3. Very good going Seth. 546 species would be a good total anywhere but in a square with only a couple of species of butterflies and dragonflies and other easy insects its amazing.
    Plus 233 plants in a day is a notable effort I would think.

  4. No doubt I'll be scanning this a few times before the weekend! Curious that we should both be looking at saltmarsh rush. Wonder if Machaerium is there (see my last 1k entry).