Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Yep, I'm still alive out here!

Apologies for the lack of blogging of late, two weeks it would seem. 

I trust you all had a nice break, haha? 

So the world has gone mad, Swallows and House Martins are back already, butterflies flitting in droves and temperatures peaking at over 20°C - all down south, obviously. But we've had it crazily mild up here too, it topped 10°C the other day and one (presumably mental) guy reckoned it hit 16°C coming over The Quiraing! Needless to say, no hirundines or butterflies here, though there have been a few moths

Mottled Grey - first recorded on 16th March last year
A male Pale Brindled Beauty (females are essentially wingless)  - I've been seeing loads of these lately
Rather annoyingly, my light trap is still languishing in a friend's garden some miles away. I really must get it back, he was only meant to be borrowing it until October.... 

My Challenge 2019 is bumbling along at a slow but steady rate. Bugger all in terms of flies or bugs, but I've found a few beetles to keep me quietly ticking along. 

Loricera pilicornis with its crazy antennae and dimples down the elytra
Paranchus albipes - a common ground beetle up here, usually found near to running water
No pics, but tonight the head chef called me into the kitchen to identify a beetle he'd found beneath a fridge. It was Dermestes haemorrhoidalis, the so called Black Larder Beetle. The genus is pretty much cosmopolitan nowadays, the larvae feed on all kinds of organic waste from vegetable clippings to dried produce, from other dead insects to animal hides. Not ideal in a kitchen, but definitely one of the more benign denizens of dark corners. Happily, it was alive and so was duly added to the tally. 

By far my favourite beetle so far this year was found in a rotten log laying amongst mosses in Uig Wood last week. Here's a pic and a short video clip of it

It may not look it, but this is a staphylinid!

Using this 65 year old key I determined that I had an exceedingly pale Olophrum piceum, a lifer for me! It's a species that has been regularly found on nearby Raasay, plus there are a couple of records from elsewhere on Skye itself. I figured it was a teneral individual yet to colour up. Indeed, I carded it that evening and the next day the head and pronotum had started to darken towards a chestnut colour - despite the beetle being dead, which I found interesting. So is it almost an oxidation process rather than biochemical? I honestly don't know, but I really didn't expect a dead specimen to darken up. 

Whilst messing about in fallen logs, I manged to add a couple of springtails to my PSL. Despite being 'very common throughout' I've never knowingly seen this beast before

Neanura muscorum - 2mm of bumbling cuteness
This drops out of the key right near the very start (always a joy) being one of just two hairy, fat, grey blobbies lacking a furcula. Three ocelli per eye names the species as Neanura muscorum - wow, I wish all collembolans were that simple. Typically, I saw maybe six or seven more after this. Got my eye in now! The very (very) common Entomobrya nivalis was another springtail that I'd never knowingly seen before. I then saw lots. 

So many, in fact, that I couldn't be arsed to take a single pic that was in focus....
It's amazing what you can find whilst checking beneath rocks and fallen branches  

A not-very-well Woodpigeon
I managed to approach to within about four feet of this adult Woodpigeon. Despite the mild weather, it held its feathers fully fluffed up, clearly feeling the non-existent cold. It's possible that it had survived a Sparrowhawk near miss, but I suspect this is just an old bird who's time was almost up. I felt quite sad watching this bird, I backed off a respectable distance to limit any distress I may have been causing it. It didn't move in the 15 minutes I spent watching over it, I quietly departed and didn't look back. Doesn't matter if it's a slime mould, a hawthorn bush, a woodpigeon, your best friend or a mighty whale, they're born and they live and then they die. Of course, nobody weeps when a slime mould dies. 

But life! What about life? Today I found three of these tenacious plants growing amongst barren rocks along the edge of the car park down by the pier

Looks like Hedge Veronica (Veronica elliptica x speciosa = V. x franciscana) though there are other alternatives that need to be discounted. I pinged a few pics to the BSBI Recorder, he agrees that it looks to be Hedge Veronica, though he's going to look more closely in the morning. I may have to grab a bit and key it through. I've noticed several bushes of the stuff in gardens around the village, but I have no idea from where these three plants originated. 

Talking of colonising plants, 'my' patch of Mitella ovalis in Uig Wood has made its way into the brand new edition of Stace, which is quite probably the only time Uig is mentioned in its masterful text!

Mitella ovalis - my first plant new to Britain   :) 
And here's a pic of the stuff in question, it's positively flourishing

Very happily naturalising its way along the watercourse
Down at the beach I made an amazing discovery. Here's the Habbo pic

Henderson's trashed yacht, clinging onto the Old Slip for dear life, haha! 
That yacht suddenly began sinking some weeks back, the lifeguards that were called out apparently told the owner he was using the pump all wrong - he should have been pumping water IN not OUT, haha bless 'em all. Anyway, you see the large rocks in the foreground? Well I didn't check beneath those (weigh a bloomin' tonne!) but I did check beneath the smaller stones embedded in the grit and dirt all around them. And this is what I found

I found good numbers of these on the underside of rocks embedded in the narrow strip of saltmarsh, I was quite taken with them too. To the point of making a few short video clips, in fact...

I did a bit (ha, more like two hours' worth!) of internet trawling and have come to the conclusion that this is Uteriporus vulgaris, a marine flatworm that also occurs well up saltmarshes, hidden away beneath stones and foreign matter. If anybody out there can offer up a better identification, I'd be very pleased to hear it. 

Other than faffing about with nature, my spare time is currently revolving around a pooch that goes by the name of Leon. His poor owner is ill with some sort of plague at the moment, so I've taken over dog-walking duties for the morning shift. Leon loves me, we're rapidly becoming best mates. Tonight I learned that he's "a traitor and a bit gay" - that from the owner who is obviously feeling a bit left out at the moment....

Leon the Black Lab - he told me that he wants to be an otter when he grows up :) 
I'll make an effort to blog more often, work should be a bit quieter for me during the coming few weeks and the days are lengthening at last. Roll on Springtime!

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Hairy Knees

Whilst at the beach yesterday, I spotted a newly washed up log. Clearly this particular log has led a pelagic existence of late, totally decorticated and covered in marine alga on the underside. I spun it over to reveal the submerged side and noticed several small (2-3mm long) isopods huddled together. Through the handlens I could see that they appeared to be Jaera and their very small size suggested that they were either immature or males. I hoped they were males, as that would allow me to key them through to species. I popped four into a pot and hoped for the best.

Back indoors I discovered that one had promptly died in the tube. Whacking it under the microscope allowed me to confirm that it was indeed male and hence keyable to species - good stuff! 

By using the FSC's Intertidal Marine Isopods and with further reference to The Handbook of the Marine Fauna of North-West Europe I quickly confirmed that it was in the genus Jaera, then had to check the shape of the preoperculum. The preoperculum is a plate found on the underside of the male's body, it lies just beyond the centre of the last abdominal segments, in effect the underside of the 'tail segment'. It can either be narrow and pointed or wide and T-shaped. Mine was the latter. Here's the pic from the book

And here's an image of the dead specimen as seen down the barrel of my microscope

What a beautiful match
This takes us away from Jaera nordmanni with its pointed preoperculum and points us towards the Jaera "albifrons" group, comprising several very similar species. 

Rubbishy pic showing the "sparse fringe of spines" on the abdominal plates
Next I had to take a very close look at the rearmost two pairs of legs and examine them for bulges and tufts of setae, or lack of. In the end I had to kinda dismantle the legs, it was just too difficult to see what was happening in amongst the tangle! 

No bulging lobe on the carpus, which was good news because that ruled out Jaera albifrons - the only species of Jaera I've previously recorded. Next up, I had to examine the upper part of the leg for a cluster of curved setae (setae are strong, bristly things that look a lot like hairs). Here's the pic from the book, very helpfully arrowed

Patch of "knee hairs" on the outer face with three diverging, curved hairs on the inner face
And here's what the rear leg of my beast looks like

That looks about right to me!

Happily, there's only one species in British waters that exhibits a "cluster of curved setae on the distal portion of the ischium" and that is Jaera ischiosetosa, a lifer for me and also (obviously...) "new" to Skye! 

There's a great photo gallery of the species on Dave Fenwick's Aphotomarine page which shows a lot more detail than my images do. 

Whilst manhandling 2mm isopods from the log into a pot, I noticed what looked to be a tiny leech crawling across the wet log. I popped it into the pot, just in case I could do anything with it. Well guess what, it wasn't a leech at all!

This 4mm cutie is an immature Limapontia depressa, a small sea slug that browses Vaucheria alga (a green seaweed) in saltmarshes. Technically I was slightly below the saltmarsh, but it's a dirt common species and supposedly abundant. Immatures can be found crawling across the surface of mud, clearly I need to spend more time with my knees wet and nose pushed down into the gloop!  I've never seen Limapontia depressa before, so deciding to have a quick look at that washed up log turned out to be a good move. 

Anyway, I have a day off work today and it seems that (miracle of miracles) the rain has pushed through and the afternoon could be mostly dry. Ish. Time to go find me some more goodies! 

Monday, 11 February 2019

Third Rock from the Sea

For the first time in a week, it wasn't raining after I finished work - huzzah! I headed down to the shore in order to have a quick peek beneath a few rocks embedded in the gritty sand. First up, though, was this beast

A beached Blue Jellyfish Cyanea lamarckii
Not sure I've seen a jellyfish in February before, though Storm Erik certainly hit us hard here in Uig. For instance, it blew the side door clean off the hotel, tearing chunks out of the doorframe where the hinges had been attached (naturally, even though all of this happened quite close to my window, I slept right through it). Come daylight, we had a right giggle fitting an emergency replacement door in the strong winds, a three man job in fact, immediately followed by almost as much fun painting it up before the next band of rain hit (gotta love it when the wind blows the black paint off your brush and all across the adjacent white walls...)


By now, you all know (you DO all know, right?) that I'm undertaking my Challenge 2019 and, amongst other things, this year I'm focussing on beetles. I've already had a brief, unsuccessful search for one particular species so far this year. Would I have more success today? Here's the habitat

The larger rocks are partly submerged at high tide - note they're festooned with Channelled Wrack
Seems a daft kind of place to look for a terrestrial beetle, but would you believe there's an entire air-breathing ecosystem surviving beneath each of these rocks? Well, there is - incredibly

Halorates reprobus - male (L) and female (R) on the underside of an upturned rock

Strigamia maritima - an exclusively littoral species found beneath rocks on the beach
And, thankfully, the star of today's show - 

Aepus marinus - a 2.5mm killing machine! 
At high tide these creatures survive in naturally occurring air pockets beneath the rocks. I've found that large rocks with a generally flattened underside situated on coarse gritty sands are far and away the best places to check for Aepus marinus. If the beach gravel is too fine they don't occur. Likewise, you won't find them if the substrate is too stony or comprised of cobbles. The rock has to be bedded into just the right particle size of grit, presumably suitable air pockets won't form if the conditions aren't correct. If the whole thing gets swamped, they will be inundated with seawater and drown. I do suffer a degree of guilt every time I upheave a boulder, I know it won't fit back into place quite perfectly, have I doomed everything beneath to a salty death? Surely some must succumb anyway whenever a storm hits and dislodges boulders. It takes the phrase 'living on the edge' to extremes! 

Aepus marinus, along with the very similar Aepopsis robinii, are believed to hunt tiny springtails. Their eyes are reduced and they are flightless, neither being necessary to a lifestyle of chasing prey through the cracks and crevices of grit and across buried rock faces. For a long time I suspected that mites may form a large part of the diet of these tiny beetles, for there are always many more mites present on the underside of the rocks than springtails. But, thinking about it, I now suspect that the outer cuticle of a mite would prove too tough for such a tiny beetle. Food for thought. 

Just in case anybody out there is wondering how I fared during my first week of walking my way back to fitness, I totalled 32 miles. That's not including however far I potter around during the course of work hours, I'm on about proper sustained walks. 32 miles sounds a lot, but if you average it out, it's less than five miles per day. I'm going to start walking to the pier and back before work as well as after work. Plus a long walk at least once per week. Though I really do wish it would stop raining every time I head off into the distance!

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

These Boots were made for Walking

So I'm probably as heavy as I've ever been in my life and I have a definite 'gut thing' happening nowadays. It's disgusting, I don't really notice it on a day to day basis, but if I stand in front of a mirror I can clearly see that I need to lose weight. I went from a 28 to a 30 inch waist when I hit thirty (despite eating as much junk food as I liked) but now I'm wearing 34 inch trousers, though to be fair I do need a belt to hold them up. Why don't they do a 33 inch, that would fit me just fine? Anyway... 

I well remember one night, laying in bed with the lass that I used to live with, when she put her arm across me and said, "are you getting a paunch?" I was mortified! I was only thirty, I still remember it vividly. Now, I've never been to a gym in my life but I used to have a six pack (abs, not beers) just through having a physically demanding job. I used to have decent arm and leg muscles too. 

Sun's out, gun's out! Me wrestling a giant pineapple on Tenerife in 2008. 
You really wouldn't wanna take a right hook from that fella! Course nowadays I'd need to do at least fifteen minutes of stretches and warm ups beforehand just in case I injured myself... 

Fast forward a few too many years and I now have a cushty job where I rarely need to flex a muscle or break a sweat, though sadly I certainly do break sweat quite often. My internal thermostat is basically shot, has been for several years now. Anything over 16 degrees and I sweat! 

Nowadays I have the biceps and triceps of a half-starved Gollum. That soft, floppy gut is fairly accurate too...
So where am I going with this? Have I stumbled my way into a midlife crisis? Maybe... 

I've decided that I need to be more active than I currently am, my nickname (Walkabout, not The Gibster) is a bit of a joke nowadays. On Monday I walked across to The Quiraing and back, a tidy 14 miles - give or take a few hundred metres. The following day I wandered down to the shop, through the woods, down to the pier and back, up the Chasm of Doom, through the cemetery and back down to the hotel (approx three and a half miles). Today I was on a training course, so spent the day essentially immobile, sat on my arse trying to fit in with the crowd. But afterwards I wandered down to the pier and back, racking up another three miles. That amounts to around about 20 miles walked in the last three days. 

I have it in mind that I ought to do one decently long walk per week and that I should be marching myself down to the pier and back on a daily basis. It's a modest start, but if I do a ten mile walk once a week, and visit the pier daily, that should add up to around about 30 miles a week. Not enough! I'm gonna aim at 35 miles per week, that's not including any of this shite 10,000 steps a day nonsense that folks go on about, just by wearing a watch on their wrist. You could rack up just by bumbling around the house all day. No, I mean 35 miles worth of walking. Last summer I did my pier march before and after work, so that's six miles without counting all of my 'incidental steps' throughout the day. If I do that 5 days a week, plus my long walk, I'll be topping forty miles walking per week. That's quite a lot! So saying, I was doing that every two days back when I walked Land's End to John O'Groats - and that was with tent, clothes, bedding, food, water, maps and cooking gear on my back. Mind you, I lost over two stone in the process...! 

I have to 'fess up, even though I've been moderately repulsed at the sight of my own body for quite a wee while now, a lot of the impetus for this change has come through reading the brilliant DMC Journal, so hat's off to you buddy, for the push to make a change in my lifestyle. 

And for those of you expecting to be shown some sort of nature shizzle....

Best I could do at short notice! 

"I've got more Chins than Chinatown" haha! I mean, oh dear oh dear....

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

What Lies Beneath

After yesterday's long walk, I was pleased to find that my legs still worked just fine and I wasn't suffering any throbbing, stiffness, aches, pains or blisters whatsoever. In fact, I felt that I could walk for miles and miles again today - but I knew the weather was meant to deteriorate this afternoon, so I kept it local. 

I headed down to Uig Wood and set to heaving over boulders and rubble behind the community hall car park area, always good for large numbers of Tandonia budapestensis and Deroceras invadens amongst smaller numbers of Deroceras reticulatum and the odd Boettgerilla pallens or Limax maximus, neither of which I saw today, though plenty of the others were present. Slugs aside, I was mainly looking for beetles in an attempt to bump up the tally for my Challenge 2019.

I managed just one beetle. Not one species, I mean just one individual! Dunno where all the carabids were today, all I found was this one staphylinid

Quedius fuliginosus - 13mm in length and one I've recorded from here before
My first impression was that it was going to be somewhere in the Philonthus/Quedius area, and indeed it keyed through to Quedius fuliginosus, one I've had here before and already known from the Inner Hebrides.

I also found a few fly larva on the underside of boulders, which was a bit surprising. Usually I only ever find these things in leaf litter. Or perhaps I'm just getting better at finding them, now that I'm actively looking for them?

Syrphidae hoverfly larva - possibly from the genus Epistrophe 
Edit confirmed now by Nicola Garnham on the UK Hoverflies Larval Group Facebook Group
Fanniidae (lesser housefly family) larva. Something like 60 species in Britain (Fannia and Piezura)
Some sort of mysterious fly larva, I guess?
I also found this tiny thing beneath a boulder in long grasses at the top of the beach

An ensign scale, probably an Arctorthezia sp.
It appears that Arctorthezia cataphracta is the likely species, but I found this online paper which has added a couple of species to the genus. I need to grill this beast properly under the microscope to be sure. Newsteadia floccosa is the only other confusion species as far as I can tell, but this doesn't appear to be anywhere near as 'ornately' scaled as that species. Going through the keys, this doesn't happily drop out anywhere, either I'm being a dolt (likely) or it's not on the British list (unlikely!)

One last insect of interest (to me, at least) was this hopper nymph found beneath a bit of mossy bark laying on the woodland floor

I still have absolutely no idea what it is, but I find these fluffy-tailed beasts quite often, always beneath large trees in established woodland. And invariably sheltering beneath debris/boulders part buried in the soil.

SO...basically a whole bunch of unidentified/unidentifiable stuff - this is not the way it was supposed to be! It's a pity the fly larvae aren't quite so readily identifiable. Maybe I should attempt to rear a few through.

Today's song is very special to me. Not because I'm a huge Beverley Hills Cop fan, but because about ten days back the plumber cut off the hot water and heating to my annex. Today he's fixed it, I have warmth again! This means I can finally start using my microscope again, it had expanded internally in the cold temperatures, rendering it completely unusable. After a brief nervous breakdown, I put it into storage in a heated building elsewhere on site. Much to my relief (you have no idea just how much!) it realigned itself once warmed up, but it's stayed offsite until now. Happy days indeed :)

Monday, 4 February 2019

First Long Walk of the Year

Yesterday, a lass at work asked me if I'd ever walked up to The Quiraing before. Well I haven't, though I've driven through it a few times. Today we put that right and took a wander up the hills, complete with a friendly pooch who seemed to revel in splashing through the slushy puddles and wading chest deep through flooded gulleys. The snow cover was minimal, but meltwater had produced some impressive icicles as it ran over banks and overhangs 

Eventually we arrived at The Quiraing car park which, for a wonder, was not filled to bursting point with cars and minibuses. We wandered up to a natural platform and were rewarded with spectacular views over the east side of Trotternish right across the waters to snow-covered Applecross. 

I did a short 360° video, apologies for the wind noise, it was just a tad blustery up there! 

Anyway, I liked it

Doesn't seem that long ago that I noticed the first grey hair in my beard - sheesh! 
Now, you may recall that this is a nature blog and are probably wondering where all the wildlife pics are. Well...um...so we didn't really find very much in the way of life out there! Ravens yeah, and a Hoodie, other than that it was just sheep and a couple of cattle. Though I did spot quite a few small Holly bushes around Idrigill (still no sign of the leaf miner, though - this must be the only part of Britain without it!) We also failed to spy a single eagle, quite incredible really seeing as we walked more than ten miles through the hilltops. I suspect foul play or a jinx, there's no way I've spent that amount of time in prime territory and not seen one before, not up here anyway. 

However, here's one I prepared earlier. This is from just a few days back, proof that they are here!

Massively cropped pic of a noisy Golden Eagle 
Door to door, I walked a smidge over 14 miles today and I feel great for it too! I'm going to get walking fit again, live up to my nickname once more. I hope to undertake at least one long walk per week, I might start up my 'to the pier and back' marches too, only three miles but at proper marching pace. My best time last year was 44 minutes, which is slightly faster than the US Army quick march pace. 

Though come tomorrow this may well be my theme tune!