Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Turns out that pigs do fly

Yesterday was spent out and about in the woods, swishing my net at anything that looked promising or interesting. By contrast, today I've sat at my desk for several hours, working through the specimens collected, running them through the keys and have slowly racked up a few more additions to my PSL. It was all going quite well, no real issues with any of them - and then I picked up a small hoverfly. Suddenly everything went pear-shaped.

Fairly innocuous looking chap, shouldn't prove too tricky to ID
I didn't recognise the family, but that's not very surprising seeing as I'm pretty poor when it comes to hoverfly ID. I ran it through the family key and went wrong. Ok, so I'll just flick through the pictures shall I? That enlarged hind femur looks pretty darn distinctive...

I stuck with the keys and this time dropped out at Neoascia. Obvious once you know it, I mean just look at those right-angled veins in the wing membrane! Turns out there are only six species of Neoascia in Britain, this was going to be a doddle. Or so I thought. An hour came and went, I still hadn't nailed the bugger to species. 

There are a whole bunch of features to help get you to species in this small genus, loads in fact. But no matter which route I took through the keys, I couldn't get a conclusive ID, one that ticked all the right couplets in the key.

So...let's do this together. Maybe you can see where/if I'm going wrong.

Firstly, two subgenera have been proposed, separated by the presence or absence of a band of chitin  running side to side across the underside of the body, just behind the rear legs. Two species have this complete band, 4 have a broken band with a membrane present along the midline of the abdomen. It's a complete arse to view and all but impossible to photograph - but here's my effort

Paler membrane separating the two dark plates of chitin

These are the two options, pics taken from the key. The black area is the chitinous band, the white the membrane. The pair of curved shapes at the top of the black patches are the hindmost coxa

Continuous band of chitin running side to side just behind the rear legs

The band of chitin doesn't meet in the middle - wide membrane running in between

So the six species of Neoascia in Britain are geniculata, interrupta, meticulosa, obliqua, podagrica and tenur. Two of these, podagrica and tenur (proposed subgenus Neoascia) have a continuous band of chitin, so we can lose those two straight away. The remaining four (proposed subgenus Neoasciella) shouldn't take too much effort. He said.

To the key, at last (abridged version)

1 - upper and lower marginal cross-veins infuscated (darkened) - 2
These veins clear - 5

They were clear (first pic) So I went to 5.

5 - Face projection blunt. Front and mid femora and tibia extensively yellow - [N.annexa]*
Face conical, apex pointed. Front/mid femora often dark, or at least dark shading in the middle - 6
* - not yet known from Britain but included in the key as a likely coloniser in the future

Conical face with a pointed apex, bit of dark shading visible on front/mid femora - go to 6
6 - Third antennal segment scarcely longer than wide - N.geniculata
Third antennal segment more elongate, almost twice as long as wide - 7

Clearly the third antennal segment (the big, oval part) is about twice as long as wide, so on to 7.

7 - Hind femur narrowly yellow at tip - N.meticulosa
Hind femur entirely black at tip - N.tenur

Quite definitely entirely black at tip
So there we have it, Neoascia tenur, I turned to the species account and read "The chitin bridge across the hind coxa is always well-developed" and that it occurs in "marshes, fens, is particularly abundant beside eutrophic lakes on southern heaths...frequently associated with beds of bulrush and common reed". Arse, well that sure ain't right! 

I'm very glad I checked the presence/absence of the chitin bridge, it's not taken into account in the main key, just mentioned beforehand and in the species accounts themselves. So, where had I gone wrong?

Back to the start of the key

1 - darkened cross-veins or clear? At this point I notice some further text warning that the common N.podagrica may have these darker areas faint. I looked at the wing again - yeah! Faint darkening along the cross-veins! I'd missed that the first time around, this must be Neoascia podagrica - I turned to the species account which said, "The infuscated outer cross-veins are normally apparent but could be overlooked in pale specimens. Thus it should be noted that the third antennal segment is elongate (at least twice as long as wide) and the male normally has bands on tergites 2 and 3" - aah, that makes a lot more sense, I had a pale specimen is all. Furthermore, "whilst it can occur at marshes, compared with other Neoascia it is perhaps more typical of hedgerows, wood edges and even gardens". Perfect, mine was in open woodland.

Then I recalled that N.podagrica has that unbroken band of chitin behind the rear coxa. Oh FFS! Arse, what the heck is wrong with me tonight??? HOW do I keep messing up this damn fly?

Back to the start. Again.

1 - veins darkened or clear? Ok, vaguely darkened. More dark than clear. Go to 2.
2 - third antennal segment short or elongate? Elongate, definitely elongate. Go to 3.
3 - Tergite 2 black or with pale marking? It has markings. Go to 4 (new ground...ooh!)
4 - Tergite 2 with transverse yellow band. Tergite 2 little more than twice as long as wide, alula particularly narrow (narrower than longest fringe hairs) - N.podagrica
- Tergite 2 with oblique yellow bars. Tergite 2 three times longer than wide. Alula not as narrow (width wider than longest fringe hairs) - N.obliqua

Alright, so there's a few more options for us to check through. Tergite two - does it exhibit a transverse band or oblique bars?

Oblique bars, no two ways about that!
So that in itself should make it Neoascia obliqua. Let's continue checking the other features though.

Alula particularly narrow or not as narrow? Here's a pic of the fly's alula, which I've highlighted in red dots

That's a very narrow profile for an alula!
But is it wider than the length of fringe hairs? No, it really isn't. Well that's just bloody great, that puts us right back at Neoascia podagrica - which it can't be because of that bloody chitin bridge behind the rear legs. Arse!!!

Oh, and tergite 2 is approximately twice as long as it is wide, which also makes it Neoascia podagrica

In desperation, I whupped its nads out in case there was a determining spine or curve or teeth or anything. I was reaching desperation point!

Neoascia nads. Marvellous.
I was seemingly going around in circles. Maybe the key was wrong (yeah right, what do Stubbs and Falk know about flies...) I needed more literature. Happily, I found some online which threw more spanners in the works. 

I managed to access a paper by Martin Speight entitled Neoascia podagrica in Ireland, with a Key to Distinguish it from Related European Species. Well, that was handy. It readily informed me that the mighty, trusty, weighty British Hoverflies (Stubbs and Falk) wasn't actually giving all the facts regards variation in abdominal markings and the chitin bridge. There are exceptions which display the wrong set of characteristics, leading, the author insists, to commonplace misidentifications! 

Variation in T2 markings - obliqua 1st row, podagrica 2nd row
It also states that N.podagrica occasionally has the chitin bridge interrupted, in which case the membrane width is less than the width of the base of the rear femur. N.obliqua always has the membrane present and it's always far greater than the width of the base of the hind femur. Looking at the image of the chitin bridge in my specimen, I'm undecided - seems to fall somewhere between the two options. 

Likewise the patterning on T2 doesn't quite match the options in the key or any of the variations noted in the online paper. 

Maybe it's new to Britain. To top it all, I knocked it's head clean off whilst manipulating the fly in an attempt to photograph some part or another. I didn't see where the head went. Hopefully I won't need to rely on frons dusting to clinch that new to Britain. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

"Get away from her, you bitch!!!"

After yesterday's high jinks and shenanigans finding Black Fern Aphid in the wild (not something that's supposed to happen in Britain), I simply had to go back and do a full survey of all the Hart's-tongue Ferns I could reach. Coz yeah, quite a few of them grow halfway up wet cliff faces and are simply beyond my abilities to reach. Plus I had that nagging memory of seeing a cluster of pale aphids on a frond, potentially being the second species known to occur on Aspleniums. I had to check. 

First up though, I spent a pleasant couple of hours sweep-netting through the undergrowth in Shore Woods, interspersed with staring at the sunlit trunk of a large Silver Fir - a veritable magnet for sunbathing flies. Still several Gymnocheta viridis very much in evidence, though looking decidedly brassy-coloured rather than fresh green. It was whilst staring at the tree trunk that I spotted movement

Loensia fasciata - a magnificently patterned psocid (or barkfly, if you prefer)
Well that was a nice start, I've not seen Loensia fasciata before, it's a huge brute of a beast too. I swept a number of empid flies that were either dancing in midair (males) or sitting on fenceposts (females). I'm looking forward to keying them through; they're a new family for me, whatever they are. Brilliant looking things up close. I probably should have taken a few pics, ho hum. 

What I did take a pic of was the arse-end of a lacewing that I netted and then keyed through today. It keyed through like a dream, the confirmatory feature in males (this was a male) being what the text describes as "cat's claws" on the underside of the final abdominal segment. I think I actually grinned when I saw them for myself - poor pic below. Look like cat's claws to you?

Micromus paganus - maybe the Devil's Claws rather than a cat's?
I also netted a second Micromus paganus, which almost caught me out by exhibiting one wing with just four (instead of five) branches on the radial vein. That would lead to Micromus angulatus, a species that doesn't occur in Scotland. Lacewings are well-known for having 'missing' veins, so it's always a good idea to check all four wings when keying them through. This second individual was female, hence lacking the diagnostic cat's claws of the male. I had to divide the length of the wing by its width and take into account the roundedness of the wing apex to convince myself that it really was an aberrant M.paganus rather than an out-of-range M.angulatus. This too was a lifer for me. 

I spotted my first Rhagio scolopaceus of the year, a common and distinctive fly around here with a habit of resting head-down on vertical surfaces. Usually a tree trunk or fencepost, but also my legs from time to time. Shy they ain't!

A sure sign that summertime is about to begin
After yesterday's Beris chalybata, a small but perfectly formed species of soldierfly, I was pleasantly surprised to find several more sitting on leaves in the dappled shade beneath the large Wych Elms that grow here. Best of all, I even found a pair in cop!

Beris chalybata - female (small eyes, wide frons) on left, male (huge eyes) on right
I quickly returned to the hotel to disgorge various tubes and pots from my pockets, did a quick bit of pinning/carding and, after lunch, headed straight back out to survey the Hart's-tongues for aphids. Within fifteen minutes, I was clambering over rocks in the river to reach the area in question. Five minutes later and I found aphids - pale ones!

Stunning, right...?
Here's a wider angle showing the plant in situ on the rockface. If you look very closely, you can see the aphids sitting on the upperside of a frond. Of note, maybe, the Black Fern Aphids were on the underside of a frond.

I've certainly seen healthier bits of Hart's-tongue, it has to be said
A quick scan of surrounding ferns revealed these pale aphids to be present at low frequency throughout the ravine. I took a few home with me and managed a series of awful images/vid clips. Believe it or not, these are the 'good' ones...

This is an adult on the leaf surface
Whilst this one was wandering around the pot I popped it into
Very obviously, these are a different species to yesterday's oval black jobbies with rows of white hairs across the body. These are Amphorophora ampullata, which I hereby dub the Pale Fern Aphid as opposed to yesterday's Black Fern Aphid (a name already in usage). Also seemingly new to Scotland, at least there are no records on NBN. For what that's worth. But they are at least known to occur outdoors in Britain, unlike the Black Fern Aphid. My RES Handbook to Aphids states that the species is widespread in Britain, but that "populations occurring on Lady-fern have a different chromosome number (2n = 10 as opposed to 2n = 12 on other ferns) and hence are probably a biologically distinct but morphologically very similar taxon." One to look out for!

Buoyed with success at finding the second fern-feeding aphid, though this being somewhat tempered by the fact that I utterly failed to find any new Black Fern Aphids, I ascended the south face of The Chasm of Doom, didn't fall to my death, and tried to ID some lichens for when The Telf and The Rylands arrive next week. Ooof, you know I was mentioning the lack of rain for the past few weeks? Well, everything has reduced to crisp patches on trunks. I tried to string a patch of Pannaria rubiginosa for Protopannaria pezizoides, but had to admit it was merely desiccated and unhappy rather than being a lifer

Pannaria rubiginosa enjoying the "rainforest" habitat. Not.
I have a cheap mist spray bottle that I picked up in Boots a couple of years back. It's very useful for bringing dried up bryophytes back to life in the warmer summer months. I could try it on the lichens too, I guess. Then again, if it continues like this for much longer, I think a Kärcher pressure-washer might be more appropriate.

You may be wondering why the blog title. You remember that scene from Aliens, the one near the end of the film where the queen alien has snuck aboard the shuttle craft and is now in the main spaceship, gleefully chasing the little girl around the hangar? Well today I netted a queen wasp, a huge booger. I'm fully aware that this means I've deprived an entire colony from even starting, but I saw others in the woods - they aren't exactly uncommon up here. At lunchtime I gave it the ethyl acetate treatment, pinned it and labelled it all up. This afternoon I noticed it had moved diagonally across its plastazote strip, she was still alive. I popped her back in the killing jar for a second dose of death. Tonight she came back to life yet again! So now she is back in the killing jar (for her third time today!) and she's staying there overnight. If she's still alive in the morning, I swear I'm gonna jettison her out the airlock a la Ripley style!

Edit - the wasp, Vespula rufa, stayed dead third time around. No face-huggers seen either, all good.

Aphid New to Scotland?

I took myself down to the woods after work, intent on undertaking a spot of sweep-netting through the undergrowth. I also need to get my eye back in regards Celtic Rainforest lichen ID - Mark Telfer plus Kev and Debs Rylands are dropping in to say hello in little over a week from now, there's a big fat fistful of lifers for each of them up here and I don't want to let them down. So yeah...I ignored the lichens and swished my net through the carpets of Ramsons, Meadowsweet and Nettles instead.

Doli flies are just coming into season up here, I saw several sitting on low vegetation and swiped a couple for (hopeful) later ID. I was quite taken by the almost luminous green eyes on this beast - what an absolute stunner! 

Probably something near Dolichopus popularis - note the adorned middle feet
Eye-catching though these Doli flies are, I did a proper double-take when I spotted a dark green soldierfly hunkered low over a nettle leaf. I thought I knew what it was, once it was in the tube I could at least confirm the genus. Took a bit of microscopy to nail the species though; it's one I've recorded from here before

Beris chalybata - a female with smoky wing membrane and wide frons
Also sitting out in the open was this large Tipula species. I didn't have a pot big enough for it, so took a pic on the vague offchance it's do-able by wing venation/patterning. Anyway, it's female, so I'd never manage to ID it even if I did have a large enough pot. 

Mystery Tipula - sensible suggestions welcomed
Edit - Tipula luna looks a likely candidate
I noticed that quite a few of the Bluebells had an opaque whitish bloom on the flowering stems, I don't know if this is usual or if it's fungal. I need to investigate further (and grab a sample next time too!)

Probably nothing, but it caught my eye nonetheless
The river is quite ridiculously low at the moment, we've had very little in the way of meaningful rainfall for a few weeks now. It was child's play to hop my way from rock to rock onto the opposite bank, where there was a wet rockface that I was keen to explore. 

There are a little under 4100 species of beetle in Britain, of these over a quarter are in the family Staphylinidae. There's a small, but highly distinctive, group of staphylinids that belong to the genus Stenus, around 75 species in all. They're characterful and distinctive and I'm quite fond of them. In this part of the world, waterfall-splashed rocks provide a good hunting ground for Stenus so I figured the wet rockface was worth a few minutes attention. As is my wont, I was immediately distracted by something else and Stenus went straight out of my mind...

Just above head height was a rather battered-looking Hart's-tongue Fern. Out of habit, I gave it a cursory glance for Psychoides larval cases amongst the sori on the underside (Psychoides don't occur on Skye - but I still keep checking) and for the mine of Chromatomyia scolopendri on the upperside (also unknown from Skye...yet still I check) What I did find hit me like a complete curveball - I love it when this happens, reinforces how little I actually know about nature!!!

Aphids! Aphids on a fern! I had no idea aphids utilised ferns, none at all :) 
Ordinarily I would walk away from aphids, but last year I treated myself to the RES key to Aphids which has an extremely helpful aphid-hostplant association table. If you know the hostplant, the battle is almost won. Sometimes. Anyway, I took part of the leaf blade away with me and soon found myself in an unexpected pickle. 

The key states that there are only TWO species of aphid that feed on Asplenium. Wow, this was going to be a doddle! I Google Imaged the first (a pale green thing - nope) and then the second (oval black thing with rows of pale tubercules), a perfect match. Happy days - that was easy! Better just check a few facts about my new lifer, just in case there are other possibilities. I mean, it's not like I even keyed the damn thing through properly...

Distinctive beasts!
First thing I did was read the species account in the RES key: "The genus has only one species" (sweet!), "It's almost cosmopolitan in distribution, but in Britain, Ireland and the rest of northern Europe* it is only found in glasshouses or other indoor situations"....bugger, so much for that. 

*plate tectonics, I guess?

Yet I persevered. So what was it I had found? 

Now I've never tried keying out an aphid. Never. The very first couplet in the family key requires some serious magnification, talk about being thrown in at the deep end! It also requires the specimen to be immobile (ie dead). Ho hum, here we go... There are exactly 100 couplets in the family key. Mine took just six couplets to drop out at Idiopterus. I feel I was let off lightly. But...dilemma, because this backed up one of the two suggested species that feed on Asplenium and yet took me to a species not known from outdoors in Britain. I did some internet trawling and, rather reassuringly, came across Dave Appletan's blog whereby he discovers an outdoor colony of Idiopterus, high fives, then discovers that they don't occur outdoors and reaches for the literature. Basically, he followed the exact same route as I did, but a few months earlier. I also found a detailed description of the species on a New Zealand site, complete with high quality images (better than mine for sure) which can be viewed by clicking here.

After all of this, I felt quietly confident that I had, in fact, stumbled across a naturally occurring population of Idiopterus nephrelepidis, the Black Fern Aphid - something that shouldn't occur in Britain yet seemingly does. Coolness!!! I took a barrage of videos, most of which would leave the most stalwart sailor suffering seasickness. Here's one of the steadier versions for you to gawp at...

And one more, you lucky people you... 

I whacked a few pics and video clips on the catchily named Aphids, psyllids, scales & allies (Hemiptera, Sternorrhyncha)

Facebook Group and hoped a grown up would see my post and put me right. Couple of comments and Likes, but no corrections thus far.

As far as I can see, Idiopterus nephrelepidis would be 'new' to Scotland and just one of a handful (possibly just two) occurrences of it being found thriving outdoors and well away from any indoor/artificial habitats. For once, I'm glad my OCD-ness forced me to check that Hart's-tongue frond. In my memory, I seem to recall half a dozen pale green aphids huddled together on a different frond. Ooh heck, the first option on Hart's-tongue was a pale green jobbie...

Guess where I'll be heading back to tomorrow.

I've been listening to some fairly aggressive-sounding stuff lately. It all started with hed(p.e.) and somehow morphed into American Head Charge via several other bands you're possibly not overly familiar with. hed(p.e.) have been through the mill a few times, changing band members, scene and sound, but their early stuff is simply sublime - in a noisy kinda way. I've certainly played this a few times this week!

plus a bit of this, if hed(p.e.) tickled your fancy

rounded off, after over two hours of noise, with this gem

All of these albums come with Parental Advisory stickers, so be warned. Personally I think they're amazing. (Next week I'll probably be heavily into jazz...)

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Ramsons, "probably my favourite garlic"

It's a long-standing quote of mine, "Ramsons, probably my favourite garlic!" I don't really know why, maybe because it's one of the few plants that even my poor sense of smell can detect, possibly because there's not an awful lot that can beat the sight of an undulating woodland floor carpeted in its broad leaves and delicate white flower heads. Possibly because in a previous life I've foraged the stuff and added it to my meals, possibly because it has the perpetually charming Ramsons Hoverfly associated with it. I'm not sure, but I feel a deep connection with the stuff. Just call me weird, I don't mind.


Uig Wood has a very healthy number of Ramsons plants and they're ever so slowly starting to burst into life. And death. Yesterday I went (sans butterfly net FFS...) into them thar Ramsons and found Portevinia maculata the Ramsons Hoverfly in small numbers. I love this fly! Its entire life revolves around the Ramsons plant. The adults nectar at the flowerheads, the female scrabbles about beneath the leaves, the males sunbathe and hold territory from the upperside of the leaves, somehow they find each other and mate, the female then lays her eggs on the leaves. The resulting larvae tunnel their way through the stem and down into the subterranean roots, the bulb itself in fact, which they then consume. They then pupate in the soil and emerge as adult flies in late springtime to begin their Ramsons love affair all over again. Without the plant, this hoverfly would simply cease to exist, a frighteningly fragile relationship if ever there was. Happily, the foodplant is flourishing very well here in Uig and the hoverflies with it. 

Fairly typical bit of woodland floor in Uig Wood. The lanceolate leaves in the foreground are all Ramsons
I've never really understood why we call the stuff beneath our feet 'floor' if it is indoors and 'ground' if it is outdoors...unless it's in a woodland, most of which (in my experience) occur outdoors. I work with a bunch of non-Brits, they all tell me English is a complicated, sometimes stupid language. In this instance at least, I can only agree. 

But Ramsons has more to offer than just Portevinia maculata, it has the utterly delightful rust Puccinia sessilis that grows on the leaf surfaces. Here's a pic

Puccinia sessilis in all of its glory
In other parts of Britain, Puccinia sessilis also affects Lords and Ladies. Up here, on the outermost rim of the known universe, we have no Lords and Ladies. Nope, not known from this part of the world at all, a bizarre but true fact. I suspect they may grow Italian Lords and Ladies in the gardens of Dunvegan Castle but, essentially speaking, Skye is an Arum free zone.  Yet Puccinia sessilis perseveres, as does the delightful Botryotinia globosa, which I've snazzily dubbed Ramsons Rot. Here's a pic, you can see where I got the name from.

Botryotinia globosa, another entirely Ramsons-dependant organism
So yesterday I neglected to bring my net, today I made sure it was close to hand. Not too many flies on offer, though I think I swiped at most of the more sizeable individuals. My Backlog Box is now full, something I was aiming to avoid. I now need to sit back and ID some of the trickier stuff I've collected. Trouble is, I've done all of the 'easy' stuff, from here on in it's new territory for me. Well, I guess I do have a few carded beetles that I could nail without too much difficulty (Bembidion - boo!) But many of the flies belong to families that I have zero experience with, hence they are daunting and scary. I need to reduce this backlog of specimens ASAP. 

Backlog Box at full capacity...
In other news, the colony of Mitella ovalis is looking extraordinarily healthy. This is the plant I discovered growing in the wild for the first time in Britain two years ago. It's going from strength to strength with many of the flowerheads having gone to seed already. Poor pic of some seeds for you

One raindrop splash and they're off! 
Here's a pic of an entirely random one metre stretch of the Mitella ovalis colony. As you can see from the number of flowering spikes, it's doing rather well for itself.

Wall-to-wall Mitella. Coolness!
It's less than three weeks until I lead my Skye Nature Group Walk through Uig Wood. I've led this walk before, indeed the very first SNG Walk was led by myself at this very venue, but this time around I'll be playing host to good friend and PSL God, Mark Telfer himself. Plus Bradley...sore loser at LEGO aeroplane wars but generally a great kid. I need to start honing my lichen and freshwater algae ID skillz in preparation for their arrival, it's been a while. Three weeks to go, I can do this.. Maybe I'll just hide in their campervan and chat bats with the lovely Jo. 

Bats = vampires = Lost Boys! (alright, so let's see you do better at short notice). It's a great song from a great flick, I mean just look at the cast! Ok, so best you don't look at the cast, but it's still a great film...

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

The X-Flies

I made a poor judgement call this morning. The forecast said northerly winds and rain, so I didn't bother bringing my net out to play. Typically, the weather stayed sunny and dry throughout my time spent in the field and, in the more sheltered spots, was moderately warmish too. Naturally, there were flies basking absolutely everywhere, even landing on my face at times. They're so bloody brave when I don't have my net with me. But I did have my camera! By now you should be used to my rubbishy pics, today's offerings are no different. 

I've managed to name some of these, but there are others I have no clue as to their identity. And just try catching flies without a net. If anybody wants to suggest some IDs that would be just great. 

 Firstly, the ones I do know (or think I know...)

Mesembrina meridiana, a large muscid. I added this to the Skye list in 2017
Xylota segnis - a hoverfly. Note the large, well-spaced bristles running the length of the hind femur
Bibio leucoptera - a male with its enlarged eyes and milky white wing membrane
Eristalis pertinax - a male with the enlarged eyes and very tapered abdomen. First two pairs of legs have pale tarsi
Portevinia maculata - a female (well separated eyes), I don't often find the elusive females
Portevinia maculata - a male, characteristically holding wings in delta-fashion and perched on a Ramsons leaf
Tipula vittata - a pair in cop.  This is a LIFER for me!!! 
Tipula vittata - the smaller male. Note their 'locked on' genitalia! 

The following images are of flies that I haven't been able to identify just yet - and without specimens I probably never will. But, like I said, suggestions most welcome!

No idea, possibly a Fannia???
edit - Hydrophoria sp (Anthomyiidae) but needs gen detting - cheers Ali! 

Not sure, I think probably Fannia

A rather rotund muscid. Plenty of these sunning themselves today, I'll have to go back with a net soon
edit - Muscina prolapsa (pubulorum) - cheers again Ali! 

Stunning hoverfly, probably a Cheilosia of some sort or another
edit - Ali agrees, need a specimen though to get to species

I had thought female Eudasyphora cyanicolor, but vein M1 seems far too angled?
edit - Calliphoridae, not Muscidae, check that M1 angle! Cheers Ali. 

I did manage to sneak a tube over a Helophilus pendulus and a Syrphus which will probably be vitripennis - just setting it now with a wing splayed out so I can properly examine the microtrichia in certain basal cells. As you do. (Later...yep, it was Syrphus vitripennis with areas of wing cells bare of microtrichia).

In non-fly news, there's a male Sedge Warbler taken up residency in the reedbed at the top of the shore, though it's in poor voice. Not much in the way of whistles and squeaks, just a lot of chatter and repetition. I pished it in just to double-check, yep it's definitely a Sedge Warbler alright. There was a Reed Warbler recorded on BirdTrack from here a couple of days back, that's a damn fine bird in this part of the world (just one previous record of a bird trapped and ringed in 2004!) so I suspect it was an unsuspecting visiting birder who strung the Sedge for a Reed, though I'd be delighted to be proven wrong. Plus I have now decent gen on the local Corncrake too. Turns out it's definitely outside the boundaries of my square. Arse. 

Any excuse to play this track is gladly taken...

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Failing Azalea...

Way back in 1982 or so, somebody stumbled across Trailing Azalea on a mountainside high above Sligachan. The BSBI Recorder duly checked, found it and confirmed the record, leaving somewhat 'vague' directions for her immediate successor, the current VC104 Recorder Stephen Bungard. But it takes more than mere vagueness to put Stephen off. Two years ago, he and a few friends tried to refind it, firstly in order to obtain a recent record for the forthcoming Atlas 2020 and secondly to pin down a proper 8-figure grid reference for it/them. You can read about that attempt here.

Today, five of us ascended "the east ridge of Sgùrr nan Gillean" (vague, huh?) in an attempt to find (and tick, in my instance) Trailing Azalea. Views were gobsmacking right from the outset and only improved the higher we climbed. Blue skies, a lovely fresh breeze and not a hint of rain made for excellent mountain climbing conditions.

The concave ridge to the left of the highest peak was our destination...bit of a schlep!
Getting closer...but still some way (and height) to go
Sooner than expected, we were still miles away... 

But then quite suddenly we were starting the climb up the ridge. I have to say, fresh breeze or not, I was sweating like a beast but Bill (aged 80 with 'new' knees/hips and wearing huge coat and binoculars) kept gently egging me along, insisting we were almost there and reminiscing about his days as a jet fighter pilot as two Typhoons whizzed up the valley low overhead. 

Halfway up we started encountering Alpine Lady's-mantle, growing in the ever-thinning clumps of grass or on ledges beneath boulders. I suddenly remembered that I'd recently read about a rare microfungus that grows on dead leaves of Alpine Lady's-mantle, small black dots as I recalled though the name escaped me entirely. Stephen had read the same account on the Lost and Found website, click here to see their page on it. 

Alpine Lady's-mantle. See those dead leaves in the middle....
See those two tiny black dots on that dead leaf from the middle...!!!
I was convinced that we'd successfully found the rare fungus, whatever it was called, and Stephen was inclined to agree. I popped a few dead leaves in a tube, I'd check for spores under the compound microscope once back indoors. Meanwhile - back to our ascent.

Eventually we were up the steep face and formed a rather ramshackle skirmish line across the plateau, which was the area that Stephen felt deserved our full attention. Trailing Azalea is a scarce plant on Skye with just a handful of known sites, though it's common in mountains on the mainland. Stephen was the only one who had seen it before, we were all keen to clap eyes on those small pink flowers nestled in their dark green cushions. He recommended we search along rocky outcroppings paying close attention to gravelly areas and to stop stringing Wild Thyme (my bad...) and get on with it. We split up, within 15 minutes I lost sight of everyone. Two hours later I still hadn't found them. Or the Trailing Azalea. Sheesh...

All alone, on top of the world, loving every moment in this incredible, magnificent landscape. I took a quick vid, though it really doesn't do it justice in the slightest

Eventually paranoia set in, clearly I'd wandered too far and lost myself. I had a map, but no compass or GPS. I knew which direction led to civilisation again, but from my vantage point I seemed to be stranded at the top of a cliff that just fell away 500ft to the valley floor below. Hmmm. I started to descend anyway before realising it was just too damn scary steep. Just then, whilst I was sat on a ledge trying to see how steep it was beneath me, Stephen phoned! "Where are you?" we both said at the same time. "I don't really know" I replied. "Look at your map!" "Yeah...I still don't know where I am..." Lame, I know. Anyway, the others were seemingly much further south than I was, so I clambered back up to the plateau and studied the map a bit more, figured I was a bit too far south to attempt a manageable descent and headed north some more. Then I spied the track we'd taken along the valley floor, yeah I was still easily 500 metres too far south. Confidence (and relief) duly boosted by finding the route off the peak, I started down - the others were a good 30 minutes behind me, I'd take my time and let them catch me up at the bottom. 

Sometime during my scramble back down to the valley, the sun disappeared behind clouds and the wind picked up. I sat on a rock scanning the ridge for a sign of the others, but eventually I figured I was feeling cold and a Greenshank had begun alarm-calling at me. I started moving again and never did glimpse a sight of the rest of our merry little band. 

Health and safety guidelines safely ignored :)  
Back indoors, I popped the dead Alpine Lady's-mantle leaves under my microscope and had a close look at what we'd found. It still looked remarkably underwhelming.

I made a fungal squash from these two largest fruitbodies - see below for the result
To give some sort of scale, each blackish dot is about a quarter to a third of a millimetre in diameter. Massive huh? To prepare the fungal squash, I carefully removed each 'dot' from the leaf tissue, placed it on a microscope slide, added a drop of water, ever so carefully lowered a coverslip on top of the drop and then repeatedly tamped it down with the end of a matchstick. This effectively squashes the fruitbody and, hopefully, jettisons out some spores into the surrounding drop of water. Spore size, shape and colour, plus maybe a few other bits and bobs, will help identify the species involved. I was hoping for Anthostomella alchemillae, here's a reminder of what its spores look like (pic taken from the website I linked above)

Taken by a professional using a professional piece of kit
 And here's my version....

Taken by an idiot with a rather less than professional piece of kit
So there you have it - Anthostomella alchemillae confirmed and undoubtedly grossly under-recorded rather than ridiculously rare. Sweet. Pity about that blooming Trailing Azalea, but it was a superb outing all the same, I can see why some folks need to keep returning to the peaks, it is kind of addictive. Best of all, I didn't even fall off and die - yay! 

This track is just awesome, there's over three minutes of intro for crying out! I'm certain I've featured it before, but you can have a second dose for free. Enjoy!