Friday, 27 September 2019

Push the Button

Yesterday was a Skye Botany Group outing into the hills west of Kirkibost. We were searching for a number of plants not recorded this century, though known in the vicinity from earlier. One of those plants was Holly Fern, one I'd not seen before, one I was keen to clap eyes on. 

We set off into what can only be described as muggy conditions, I heard several folk mention thunderstorms and the oppressive atmosphere. I was glad to note that I was not the only person sweating freely, especially seeing as I was blabbing about running next year's half marathon. Ha, breaking out in a sweat walking up a small hill indeed...

Spiderman enjoying the view, roughly halfway towards our target area
It was a good wander across and through hilltops with a lovely series of pools and burns to cross. Me, being my usual self, found stones to turn, even midstream stones

Possibly the nymph of Perlodes mortoni, a HUGE endemic stonefly
We finally reached the correct tetrad, kinda guessed the height we were supposed to be targeting and set to finding stuff. To be fair, Stephen Bungard had already amassed a fair plant list even before we hit the main area. I don't yet know how many of the target plants we managed to cross off, and how many entirely new records we made, but Stephen seemed satisfied that we'd pulled our weight. 

It was whilst mostways up a steep hill that I discovered a new feature on my camera - the Vivid Mode!!!! Take a look, this was the view across the valley and bothy way below us

Nice enough, I guess. Bit boring though
One push of a button and...

Holy crap! I could sell that for a bloody fortune!!! 
 Not content with a Vivid pic if the valley, I swung my new-found button upwards

Does my bum look big in this valley?
I was really quite taken by this new button, what could I take pics of next, I wondered? Well, no more pics of Caroline's bum for starters, I'd hate to get myself a bad name! Luckily Nick 'Mossman Chronicles' Hodgetts came to the rescue...

The rather lovely Myurium hochstetteri - a proper oceanic moss
Nick comes out on maybe half of all Skye Botany Group outings, where he can normally be found skirting the edges of wherever we happen to be visiting, relentlessly hounding his long-legged way through undergrowth, willow carr, moorland flushes or across craggy outcroppings. Boundless energy and boundless enthusiasm, but seemingly happy to be the loner on the fringe of it all. I really like Nick, undoubtedly he uses the SBG outings as an excuse to get into remote habbo and to survey the bryological fauna that occurs there, and he does mostly come across as the softly-spoken Lone Wolf with an important mission in mind. I still think he's great, and I try to show enthusiasm for his chosen subject matter, even though it's something I know far too little about. I mean, surely a Sphagnum is a Sphagnum, yeah? Even if it does look very much (to me) to be the ubiquitous Sphagnum squarrosum (though in this instance it was the far less common Sphagnum strictum, more uniformly pale green and with far smaller stem leaves - and a lifer to boot). I aspire to be somebody like Nick, somebody who throws themselves whole-heartedly into a niche slice of biodiversity and who then utterly masters it. To my eternal shame, when he called us upslope to check out a 'beautiful' moss, I was expecting just a bit of green scuzz amongst yet more green scuzz. But what I was shown was, in truth, a pretty darned cool moss! I mean, just look at the overall structure, the neatly overlapping planes, those hair tips, the whole 3D effect. And Nick was proper stoked at finding it, I shared a degree of that, it was properly exciting!

I may not know what I'm looking at half the time, but I can appreciate and share in that sort of a genuine reaction from anybody, especially when that anybody happens to be a national expert! Happily, I think most of us came to check out Nick's 'rare moss' and went away happy that we'd seen it, at least. But I was there at the start, I saw Nick's eyes shining, I heard the excitement in his usually calm voice. Have I been just a little bit bitten by the bryological bug..? I've certainly found good (non-bryological) stuff in the past and it feels good to be able to share those findings with others. 

This is the NBN map for Myurium hochstetteri. As you can see it's an incredibly oceanic species, known worldwide fom western Scotland, western Ireland, Madeira and the Azores, that's it!  

Another view up the valley above Loch na Creitheach

As Caroline mentioned just once or twice - it's very steep, how will we get down again?

Nick, Stephen and most of Deirdre on a typically steep slope. We were up in the clouds! 
One last pic, this too grabbed Nick's attention - a pair of small cushion mosses on a mid-river slab of rock. We just had to go investigate!

A tightly packed cushion of Grimmia funalis, Nick's second highlight moss of the day!
Now my books say you need to study these things under a microscope, yet Nick calls them at two metre range! He explained that I needed to see the rope-like stems hidden amongst the broader stems in this cushion, and I saw actually saw them too! I have no idea how he does it, legend.

No Holly Fern (yet again) - but I'll find it one day. Along with Oysterplant. 

In other news...this rates as one of my ALL TIME fave tracks. You know what I'm talking about, Armadale Lass.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

'Appenings in Armadaleshire

Well hello, been a while! Sorry about that, I've been kinda busy of late...

August ended with a rock-pooling session at Broadford Bay with the Skye Nature Group, it was a great day with a decent turn out, 'lucky thirteen' of us as it happened. As previously mentioned, my camera is pretty much ker-nackered, too much damage to the lens has resulted in a dismayingly high number of none too sharp images. I actually do need to replace it, now. Sad times. Anyway, here are a few pics from the rockpools

15-spined Stickleback - a long awaited lifer, get in!!!!

The scaleworm Harmothoe glabra - also a lifer!!!

The sea squirt Ciona intestinalis - yep, yet another lifer!!!!
It was a grand day, we endured a very cold rainstorm which passed through pretty quickly, followed by glorious sunshine, there was a pretty cool rainbow and we all enjoyed wading wellie-top deep in the surprisingly warm sea, watching hermit crabs racing across the seabed with Two-spot Gobies shoaling just a few feet away from our legs. It was a brilliant day, made all the better, in my instance at least, by the presence of a certain rather lovely lass. I say lovely, but in all honesty I think breath-taking is nearer the mark. We all said our goodbyes after the walk and I found myself wondering if/when I would see her next, same as on each of the previous three occasions we've met. Pity she lives miles away and I have no good excuse to hassle her into meeting up again, that would probably creep her right out, in fact. So I stood there and watched her wander off (well, wheelspin away with much horn honking and waving actually!) with a small smile and the feeling I'd missed a once in a lifetime opportunity, one I'd regret for a long time to come.

And then, somehow dear reader, and for reasons not entirely clear to your author, that certain lass began texting my number, which soon developed into a bit of a texting marathon lasting several days. The upshot of all this was that I found myself borrowing a car and heading way down into sunny Armadaleshire for a day exploring the sites and...well, and whatever else might come of it. 

Magically, what came of it were kisses. Lots of kisses, then I was scrambling back to Uig hoping to make it back in time to start my nightly sleep-in fire marshall duties. I made it back at 12:30am, phew that was close! I don't think I slept much that night, my brain was way too wide awake for that! But I did manage rather a lot of smiling. I woke up feeling pretty damned good at this unexpected turn in my life. 

Spoiler alert - rapid change of direction occurring: It's now been two years since my da died. A month or so back I booked a few days off work in order to visit his headstone and meet his wife with whom I felt the need to settle some bad history. So I hired a car and, with a day to spare before hitting the cemetery, headed east towards Inverness in search of plants

First up was a woodland near Culloden, which held plenty of these

Lots of self-seeding Red-berried Elders all over the place - lifer!!
Very long, narrow leaves and usually 7 per rachis (though only 5 here)
Note the tiny, glandular stipules - Elder doesn't have any at all
That was pretty easy, probably three quarters of the Elder I checked were Red-berried Elder, though sadly the berries themselves were all long gone. It's a nice wood, I may well come back here a bit earlier in the season next year. I drove northwards, across the Black Isle (where a couple of wheeling Red Kites were nice to see) before arriving at Cadboll with its shingle beach. This was, I hoped, going to be the end of a long botanical wait, for Cadboll Beach is a great spot for Oysterplant, a declining shoreline plant that I've wanted to see for many years now. I'd found online images from July this year, so I knew they were still here. Excitement levels were increasing with every passing mile, I spotted quite a few Red-berried Elders in hedgerows, and then - finally - I parked up at the beach and headed north on foot. This was gonna be great! 

I walked northwards along this beach for about an hour and a half

Sea Rocket - very nice, but it's not Oysterplant is it?
Would I find Oysterplant at the end of the rainbow?
No, no I bloody wouldn't. Arse. I had no drink, no food, no grid ref, no Oysterplant. Arse. I stared at the sheep in a field. I glared at a Curlew on rocks. I glowered at the skies. I dared anyone or anything to mock me. Robbed. Bloody robbed. Brokenly, I slowly trudged back to the car. Oysterplant remains very high on my Wish List. One day. Someday. Somehow. 

I'd lost a lot of time on that beach, I hustled my way south and kipped in the car that night. It was cold, my sleeping bag's zip is broken and wouldn't seal. But I love kipping in cars, it was ok. Next day I was at the headstone, I met the person I needed to talk to. Job done, I'll never see her again now and I don't know if I'll be back at that graveyard ever again. Maybe. Who knows? 

I headed north again and managed to find a plant I've driven by countless times, but this time I knew to look out for it. Using Stephen Bungard's gen, I drove the approach road to Fort William at a slow pace and soon spotted my target. 

This is Japanese Knotweed, a fairly typically-sized leaf. It's an all too common, invasive weed in Britain.

And THIS...this is Giant Knotweed!!!! Wow - and a lifer!
I have no idea how I've never spotted this monstrosity beforehand, I've certainly driven right past it enough times! Subtle it ain't. And it's spreading too...

Day of The Trifids! I swear they were a edging a little closer every time I turned my back on them

It occurred to me that if I just slammed north I could be back with Armadale Lass by early evening, and hence could potentially spend the night in her company. I'm not sure whether or not I set a new land speed record, but it must've been a bloody near thing if not.

I remember music. I remember an empty bar followed by a not very empty pub. I remember meeting lots of lovely people. I remember a good deal of drinking and feasting followed by much merriment. To be fair, I don't actually remember much of the walk back through the woods, but I do remember the next few hours back at her house. Vividly. But those are memories between Armadale Lass and myself, you're on the wrong website if you're after those kind of details. I did get kicked quite soundly in the face at one point, I'll share that much, at least... 

The Skye Nature Group have twice been to Dalavil, I've missed it on both occasions, so when Armadale Lass suggested we go there for a wander I jumped at the chance. It's a pleasant if soggy meander from the roadside down to the loch, we managed to lose the path a couple of times and had to cross a few small burns, but it all added to the adventure. Here's the wee lass herself proving that she's one step ahead of the rest of us - walking on water, no less! 

Such elegance, such grace, such beauty. And such a big tongue!
I know exactly what you're thinking; how does someone with the ability to walk on water and exhibiting gazelle-like grace manage to have quite that much mud up her leg. Yup, kinda surprised me too. Well, y'see - there was this tiny hole in the ground. Tiny but really deep. Haha...I think I very almost wet myself I was laughing so hard trying to haul her up again!!! 

This is a continuing romance, very much still in its infancy, but it is a romance. I do think she might actually be a bit deranged, fancying an old duffer like me, but I've not felt further from despondency or apathy or confusion or anger for a very long time now. That's gotta be a good thing. 

However, my PSL is suffering! So is my blogging, my record keeping, my interest in anything other than this crazy hot lass that has so forcibly hurled herself into my world. I don't care, I'm really happy right now. 

Anyone out there want to sell me a car? It's one heck of a walk down into Armadaleshire from up here in the frozen wastes of Trotternish.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Blue Whale in Devon

Whilst trawling Birdguides this evening, I could hardly help but notice the 7:11pm report of a Blue Whale from Devon. I no longer pay to subscribe to Birdguides. Those days, along with my RBA pager subscription, are long gone I'm afraid, hence I can't readily access the precise details. But fuckaduck, there's a report of a BLUE WHALE from Devon!!! I just so happen to know a handful of Devon naturalists, plus another handful from neighbouring counties both westwards and eastwards. I can only hope that they managed to find time to attempt a sighting of this brute of a beast. Silly buggers to them if they didn't and it was just loafing offshore...

In these days of seemingly perpetual doom and gloom, it's heartening to see increasing reports of larger cetaceans in our waters. Humpback Whale was relegated to near mythological status when I was in my 20s, yet nowadays it's being seen around our coastline every year, in groups of up to 4 or 5 if recent Shetland sightings are to be believed (and the camerawork would certainly imply those numbers are correct). Purely mind-blowing, from this old school naturalist's perspective at least. But these events (which is how I'd class them) are becoming ever more commonplace. In my head, I'd love for this to be attributable to a cessation of whaling in The Atlantic and a robust bounce back in cetacean numbers. In my heart though, I fear otherwise. 

Whatever the reason for this current visitation to Devon's coastline, I hope the beast is in rude health, finds plenty of food and continues on its way unmolested. Assuming, of course, that it really is a Blue Whale and not one of Biscay's overly large Bottle-nosed Dolphins popped up to say hello...they are a lot bigger than you'd expect, trust me!  

Only one song springs to mind, again from my 20s when the world seemed much simpler and dodgy hairstyles were the norm

This video doubtless goes a long way to explaining my long standing fascination of ladies wearing big boots. Note also the original Usain Bolt pose at 1:08... 

Tuesday, 27 August 2019


Last week the Skye Nature Group visited Dorothy Jackson's croft at Tokavaig as part of an ongoing survey of the species that occur there. This is the second time Dorothy has hosted SNG, already we are raring for a return visit sometime in the late spring next year. She has over 60 acres of herb-rich grassland interspersed with oak, hazel, rowan and birch woodland, heather and wetland areas. The whole thing has deer-proof fencing around the perimeter and already there is noticeable regrowth of young trees (and less Deer Ticks Ixodes ricinus than we'd ordinarily encounter in this habitat). So saying, I  did have my first Deer Ked Lipoptena cervi of the year land on me, bloody hateful things. Seeing as this may prove to be the only hippoboscid fly I'll encounter this year, I really should have potted it up and pinned it instead of swiping it away in revulsion. I don't have a single specimen from the superfamily Hippoboscoidea in my collection. 

I don't have an image of a deer ked, so here's one I nabbed off the internet of a different hippoboscid

This is a species of bat ked, rather than a deer ked. It's still pretty repulsive though. 
But there's nothing else repulsive about Dorothy's croft. Plenty of leaf-mining moth records including this one on Downy Birch

Oval cut out of the moth Heliozela hammoniella
Locally, this is still a damn good find with hardly any recent records. There are a mere handful of serious moth-ers up here on Skye, all of whom record what comes to their light trap rather than from purposeful fieldwork. None are particularly genned-up on microleps (or the associated feeding signs) either. This isn't intended as a slur towards them, I'm just stating how it is up here. I suspect there are a good many microlep species still to be found on Skye, it just needs more folks knowing what to look for in the field. A project for the future, perhaps.

Ridiculous as it may seem to anybody reading this in the south of England, the following pic is of another damn fine find for Skye

You're looking at the tiny spider below its spiky white egg case
This is Paidiscura pallens, the 'sputnik' egg cases are by far the easiest way to find this tiny spider, though they are not always in attendance. I've always found that the underside of oak leaves is by far the best place to look for these spiders. It's really pretty uncommon this far north-west, the Spider Recording Scheme page does show several Skye records, but they are all dated from before 1980! The flying saucer galls in the image are caused by Neuroterus quercusbaccarum, a tiny wasp which is also quite uncommon this far north-west. NBN shows a handful of Skye records, mostly in the south, which nicely mirrors the distribution of oak woodlands on Skye.

I was armed with my net and a beating tray (which I managed to break traversing The Ravine of Death, more later...) and quickly set to tonking various large limbs and dead snags beneath oak. Surprisingly little in the way of beetles, but plenty of Porcellio scaber, the Rough Woodlouse, and one other which got me all excited!

Philoscia sp. and it isn't muscorum!
This, I firmly believe, is a female Philoscia affinis. But, being female, it lacks the spur on its hindleg, the shape of which would distinguish it from Philoscia muscorum. As it stands, Steve Gregory (official British expert on woodlice) agrees that it does look to be affinis but I need to find a male to confirm. So that's two females so far, one from Dorothy's croft and one from my local woods, but no males. Yet. Third time lucky? I've had it suggested that leaf litter sieving may be a better bet for finding the males. However, in known populations of affinis it does appear that males are far less common than females.

Naturally, if I ever do find a male it will be a new species to Skye.

I also beat a couple of leaf beetles from the Hazel understorey, they turned out to be Gonioctena pallida, a lifer for me though I've seen G.viminalis and G.decemnotata before in Surrey, leaving G.olivacea (unknown from NW Scotland, though the Inverness area seems to be a hotspot for it) to complete the genus. Gonioctena pallida would seem to be new for Skye, a 2011 record from Raasay being the first published record for The Hebrides as a whole. Clearly the oak/hazel woods on Dorothy's croft are well worth future investigation! 

Adrian Fowles has been in touch with various Skye-based organisations and is after weevil records for the National Recording Scheme for the Coleoptera: Curculionoidea. I, in turn, have been approached by the local records centre asking if I had weevil records that may not have made it onto NBN, and could I make a special effort to find some on this walk. Well, despite much beating and tonking, I didn't actually find that many - but several appear to be 'good' records insofar as there aren't many dots on the maps for them yet. 

As if all that wasn't enough, I tapped a moth from Rowan onto the beating tray and boldly proclaimed it as the Honeysuckle Moth Ypsolopha dentella. To be fair, there was honeysuckle right next to us, low stuff scrambling through the woodland floor. 

Ypsolopha dentella - courtesy of Stephen Bungard (coz my pics were absolute rubbish!)
Guess what - it's completely new to Skye too! 

Leaving the woods, we entered an open, grassy area where we quickly racked up sightings of various butterflies, moths, dragonflies and hoverflies. We then headed to Ant Hill, site of last year's ant sighting. I know, exciting or what? Well actually it kinda was, in a way. Stephen had collected a single ant from an outcropping of rock when we were here last year. He'd then sent it off to Murdo at HBRG who said it could have been one of two species, ideally he'd need to see several more to confirm which. So we set about trying to find 'several'. I spotted one and that was it for quite a while. Eventually a second was seen. Clearly this could take some time... Thankfully, Neil then found the nest and we filled our boots (well, tubes). I took two which I determined as Formica lemani. Dorothy had several and also thought lemani. Steve had a couple but wasn't sure. Stephen had a barrelful and passed them on to Murdo who then confirmed them as Formica lemani. Phew, job done and we even agreed on the species too! 

Pots, tubes and barrels being filled with Formica lemani
We had a look at the map that Dorothy had provided. Stephen, first and foremost here with his plant recording hat on, was keen to explore the ravine. Having been on quite a few of his botany walks now, I understand the attraction. Grassland, woodland and moorland are all fine and well. But if you want to inject a bit of species variety you need gorges, ravines and other dangerous habitats. Dank, gloomy, wet ledges are guaranteed to hold plant species you won't find in sensible places. And everyone loves a ravine anyway, we had to go check it out. 

Awful pic, but hell yeah - that's definitely a ravine alright!
I know it appears that the image is tilted, but it isn't. The whole fissure is lopsided, one side is steep and the other one completely impossible without ropes and anchor bolts, which we didn't have. However, we leapt and slipped and stumbled from rock to rock, clung like spiders to the cliff faces where we ran out of rocks and slowly but surely made our way up the river. 

On one logjam we found the largest, wettest looking Beefsteak Fungus I have ever seen. Just look at the birch leaf for scale!

A grisly looking hunk of Beefsteak Fungus if ever there was
I was doing pretty well in my not-very-waterproof-after-all hiking boots, but eventually a partly submerged rock tilted and I went in up to my shin. Dammit, that's one squelch that isn't going to dry out anytime soon (four days, as it happened). Pretty soon my other foot was wet too. I noted the others slowly working their way upstream in wellies. Fool boy!

Then I caught my beating tray in a wedge between a vertically fallen tree trunk and the cliff face. I turned the tray and tried again. Nope, still caught. I twisted some more, still caught! What I should have done is backed all the way out, collapsed the tray and carried onwards. Instead, I twisted some more, felt the net pull free and surged forwards. And snapped my tray. Doh! Neil was just looking at me with a look of incredulity on his face, shaking his head and laughing at my stupidity. I think the clever use of some steel rods should soon fix it, I'll have to get back to you on that one.  

Eventually we could progress no further on foot. Neil (aka Spiderman) seemed reluctant to accept defeat, but eventually agreed we really could go no further, at least not dressed and equipped as we were. 

"Aye, the water is a wee bitty deep, if only I had ma thingme..."
The alternative was to backtrack and zigzag our way up the left side of the ravine. Which we did, making the best of what appeared, potentially, to have been a hedgehog trail. Halfway up Dorothy spotted a dead fly, initially this sounds less than enthralling, but there's more to it than just that!

Note the outspread wings and legs
The fly is Calliphora vicina (pale basicosta, orange anterior spiracle, black hairs on the genae) and it has been controlled and then killed by a fungus known as Entomophthora calliphorae. Because yes, there are fungi out there that infect the brain of various flies, controls their actions and then kills them! And no, I'm not making this up. Nature is, at times, both gruesome and breathtakingly complex. If only nature could come up with a similar fungus that infects MPs and presidents...

Anyway, we made it to the top and found ourselves on the wrong side of Dorothy's deer fence. But the road was just ahead, we had almost completed our loop back to the cars. With the fenceline on our left and maybe ten feet of overgrown verge between us and the edge of the ravine, progress was good. Then the edge came closer and closer, soon we were on a trail no more than a metre wide with the drop getting ever closer. Dorothy had mentioned the fenceline met the edge and that we may need to cling to the wires with our hands whilst we crossed the narrowest part. Well guess what - the fence met the lip of the ravine, actually overhung it, for maybe five feet. Luckily Neil, Stephen and myself are all six footers, but Dorothy is far less tall. Gripping the fenceline in a deathlike grip, I inched to the gap in our trail and stretched across the void until my foot hit the other side. Then, very carefully, shifted my weight onto my arms and clambered the rest of the way across, ignoring the plunge beneath my feet. Spiderman was fine, obviously. Stephen is used to falling off of mountains, nerves of steel that man, so he was fine too. Dorothy, bless her plucky soul, just clawed her way across the fenceline until she was back on terra firma (remember - the firma the ground, the less the terra). I'm well into my forties, slowly closing in on a significant number in fact, but I'm by far the youngster in this group. Hardcore doesn't come close to describing these nutters! I hope I'm still clambering fences and ravines and trees in twenty years time. 

Back at the cars, we gave our thanks to Dorothy for hosting us yet again before heading off on our separate ways. Neil and I decided to drop in to Waterloo for rock-pooling shenanigans. I mentioned the all 'round general gung-ho-ness of the folks that attend the Skye Nature Group walks and he laughed. "You mean Gung-ho-itty!" Now I don't know if that's a genuine word, but I do know that there's no way the namby-pamby softy southerner's nature groups I used to tag along on would ever get up to the type of shenanigans we do up here on Skye! All I know is that these walks are simply brilliant, I love 'em!

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Hunting Aliens

If there's one aspect of biological surveying that I actively enjoy, it's getting in a car and square-bashing on a grand scale. Today's assault of the squares was devoted to the genus Crocosmia and was entirely inspired by Stephen Bungard's latest blogpost.

Montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora) is a widespread plant up here, well-naturalised across many suitable areas. At this time of year great clumps of the stuff can be seen gleaming pale orange in roadside verges and near habitation, where it has usually managed to escape from a garden or two. A couple of years back, a visiting BSBI county recorder informed me that not all Montbretia up here is the hybrid, some of it is one of the parent plants, Potts' Montbretia (Crocosmia pottsii). He had one of the latter in his grasp and explained the differences. Obviously something stuck because to this day I keep an eye out for Potts' amongst the hybrid. Clearly, it is by far the less common of the two (hybrid swarms do kinda tend to...well, swarm) but there are a couple of clumps of Potts' Montbretia close to where I live, so I can keep my eye tuned in to the differences. 

Anyhow, today I decided to square-bash the entire north end of Skye in an attempt to discover which monads hold what montbretias. I took the coast road clockwise around the entire Trotternish peninsular but decided to forgo the Quiraing road; firstly because it's pretty inhospitable moorland and unlikely to be populated by any Montbretia, and secondly because I just couldn't stomach enduring the campervan mayhem that is The Quiraing in August. 

This is the BSBI map for Montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora) on The Trotternish (data as of yesterday)

Dark red squares are recent (2010 onwards) records
As you can see, it's a fairly common plant up here. The interior of the Trotternish is mostly high moorland or mountains, with no roads going east to west (apart from the Quiraing road) hence inhospitable to Crocosmia in general. 

And here's the dots where I found Montbretia today. Some are duplications of those already recorded on the BSBI map, but others are new (or at least I hope they are). I deliberately ignored all Montbretia that were growing in gardens or immediately adjacent to gardens, only naturalised plants were counted. Admittedly, some of these may have been planted at some stage in the past, or more likely chucked out as garden waste but, by and large, Montbretia is a well-established plant across much of Skye and is probably only going to become more common in the future.

Dots are all at monad level (1km square)
I also found a few clumps of Potts' Montbretia (Crocosmia pottsii) in the general vicinity of habitation, often close to gardens. However, bucking that trend are the roadside verges at Staffin which are full of properly naturalised plants spreading along maybe a two mile stretch of the A855. Clearly it isn't anywhere near as widespread as Montbretia (yet!) but it is holding its own decidedly well in the grassy verges at Staffin. 

Here is yesterday's BSBI map for Potts' Montbretia in The Trotternish

The two upper squares are my records
And here's the map of today's sightings of Potts' Montbretia

Dots are all at monad level (1km square)
To my mind, there's a bit of urgency regards getting this genus mapped. Whilst flowering they are relatively simple to tell apart from one another (and to spot from a moving car!) But in another month or so these plants will lose their flowers and return into obscurity, yet more greenery in a sea of green. So we really at the last chance saloon for recording Crocosmia on Skye if we want to get it into the forthcoming Atlas 2020. Should there be a future national plant atlas, and I hope there will be, it probably won't be until about 2050. By then I suspect drones and DNA sniffers will be doing almost all of the fieldwork, plus I'll be an old fart, if not dead already, by then. Hence I need to make the most of this Atlas 2020 square-bashing project while I can. Pity I've come to it so late. Anyway, that's several more dots on the map for pottsii.   

There is just one other Crocosmia that has been recorded from Skye, one I've only ever seen growing planted in gardens. This is Aunt-Eliza (Crocosmia paniculata), which is the second parent of Montbretia (Potts' Montbretia being the other parent plant). Today, I spotted a few gardens that had Aunt-Eliza growing as feature plants either in large pots or in flowerbeds, maybe a dozen gardens in all. But then, as I was driving along the minor road through Achachork, I did a double-take, hit the brakes and backed up a bit. Fuckaduck - a great big healthy patch of Aunt-Eliza growing maybe fifteen feet back into an overgrown verge! Hell yeah, that's a lifer for me and a damn decent find too!  

Ok, it's a crap image. But you get the general idea! 
I thwacked my way closer to the plants and took a few more pics, before ripping up one whole plant to take back and key through properly. Despite looking as though this is the middle of nowhere, there are several big houses with well maintained gardens just the other side of this narrow road. Within another few hundred feet I'd spotted Montbretia and Potts' Montbretia in the verge and in gardens, plus several clumps of Aunt-Eliza a few hundred metres further up the road (in a garden). Almost certainly, this verge clump would have been dumped as garden waste at some point in the past, although I couldn't immediately see any other obvious garden plants in the ditch. However, it seems unlikely that somebody would have deliberately planted it outside of a garden, and in such an extensive stand, without introducing other species and then tending to them afterwards. It appears to be spreading by itself, vegetatively I presume. 

Huge, wide, heavily ribbed and pleated leaf blades

You can see which parent plant Montbretia gets it's zigzagging flowering stem from!
Oh! Note the stamens slightly protruding from the corolla mouth. That's not right...
I now find myself in a bit of a quandary. The material I took home with me appears to differ slightly from the material in the last two images. Right at this very moment, I feel I may need to change my initial identification. Purely from looking at these two images, despite checking what I physically have on my desk in front of me. How so, I hear you ask? Well...

I used Stace 4 and Poland to key through my specimen. Poland doesn't go by flower characters, Stace does. Between them I thought I had this nailed as Aunt-Eliza. Here's a pic of the plant I brought back

Using Stace 4 (features of the flower)
  • Perianth-lobes c 1/2 as long as tube or less, erecto-patent; stamens shorter than perianth > paniculata
  • Perianth-lobes c. as long as tube, widely spreading; stamens slightly exceeding perianth > masoniorum

Clearly, going by the flower in the above image, the perianth is a lot shorter than the tube, it's laying over on its side and there's no sign of any projecting stamens > paniculata (Aunt-Eliza)


looking at the images I took in the field, some of the lobes look to be quite long in comparison with the tube, and some of the perianths are spreading. And I can definitely see stamens poking from the end of the perianth too. But not all. So it somewhat fits Aunt-Eliza, but not perfectly. 

Well guess what, there are other options. There's a thing called Giant Montbretia (Crocosmia masoniorum) which I had never heard of before this evening. Intriguingly, it has been recorded from several parts of the adjacent mainland. So is that what I have? Well, Stace's key would suggest so. But Poland has this to say regards the actual leaf blades themselves - tough > paniculata. Tender > masoniorum. Well, I have to say it's a comparative thing, and I have nothing to compare it with, making it a somewhat tricky thing to decide for sure. But after quite a bit of pulling, twisting and yanking, the leaf blade stayed intact, so I'll have to go with 'tough' over 'tender'. Which puts me back at an Aunt-Eliza that isn't quite right. 

Luckily (perhaps), the final option is one put forward by Stace himself. "C.paniculata x pottsii is probably the identity of most plants of so-called C.paniculata grown in gardens, and therefore of those naturalised". Which was the exact point that Stephen Bungard queried with me several hours ago. He's good that fella.

So it seems that I may have been a bit rash in claiming Aunt-Eliza, it may be a hybrid Aunt-Eliza. An Aunt-Potts' in fact. Well whatever it is, it will still be there tomorrow. And the next day. But I do need to get back to it before it stops flowering. Stephen will want a definitive answer one way or the other. As do I.

Best not get me started on the agrimony I spotted whilst square-bashing, it seems a bit kind of inbetweeny too. Must be something in the water up here.

Lowest spines spreading horizontally or ascending (ie not reflexed) > Agrimonia eupatoria

Some of the petals are definitely notched > Agrimonia procera

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Numbers - Just for Fun

During an idle moment late last night, I found myself wondering just how many insect species I've ever seen. Insects in the true sense of the word, if I were to expand it to include other 'creepy crawlies' such as spiders, millipedes, woodlice etc I'd have to categorise them as arthropods. Insects are just one subphyla in the huge entity that is Arthropoda. I'm on fairly safe ground so far, I understand what an insect is. I know what an arthropod is too. 

But then I got to wondering about whether or not I could include algae in with the plants. Surely freshwater algae, of which I see plenty up here, count as primitive plants. Don't they? Yeah, must do. But what about seaweeds? I know that marine algae, as they are properly called, are divided into red, green and brown categories. And I know that one of them is very different to the other two, only very distantly related, in fact. I thought probably the browns. Or perhaps the reds. Anyway, could I include any of them in with my plant tally?  

Eventually I clambered out of bed to check whether any algae, freshwater or otherwise, were classed as plants. They aren't. Cool, so what are they classed as then? hour or so later, and with about 50 tabs open on the laptop, I came to the conclusion that I should have just stayed in bed. 2am is for sleeping, not sitting in the dark, failing to comprehend what I'm reading on a small screen whilst being eaten by midges. 

Anyway, this evening I cranked open the laptop and tried again. There are a surprisingly large number of versions describing how life is categorised on this planet. Essentially, nobody knows, that's the simple reason. Going back to the arthropods as an example, see if you can wrap your head around the following short paragraph (and this is only from Wikipedia, it gets a whole lot more complex the deeper you dig!) 

"The phylogeny of the major extant arthropod groups has been an area of considerable interest and dispute. Recent studies strongly suggest that Crustacea, as traditionally defined, is paraphyletic, with Hexapoda having evolved from within it, so that Crustacea and Hexapoda form a clade, Pancrustacae. The position of Myriapoda, Chelicerata and Pancrustacea remains unclear as of April 2012. In some studies, Myriapoda is grouped with Chelicerata (forming Myriochelata); in other studies, Myriapoda is grouped with Pancrustacea (forming Mandibulata), or Myriapoda may be sister to Chelicerata plus Pancrustacea." 

Hope we're all crystal clear on that, at least? By the way, I'm loving that word Pancrustacea. I haven't quite figured how to casually drop it into everyday conversation yet, but I will. Somehow.

And so, after much head scratching and jiggling around with various unrelated phyla, I have come up with the following breakdown for my British PSL
  • Protista (all algae, slime moulds and protists) - 111 species. 
  • Fungi (encompassing both true fungi and lichens) - 562 species.
  • Plants (bryophytes and vascular plants combined) - 1486 species.
  • Molluscs (your typical slugs and snails plus squid, bivalves, chitons etc) - 138 species.

Now for the ever-so-slightly iffy bits...
"Selected Seashore Stuff" (ie randomers that don't really work elsewhere). I've thrown all sorts into here, including the tunicates which really should be elsewhere, plus the catch all that is "Worms". Ho hum.
  • Selected Seashore Stuff (Sponges, Comb-jellies, Cnidarians, Bryozoans, Echinoderms and Tunicates) - 62 species.
  • Worms (including true annelids, leeches, peanut, platyhelminth and nemertean worms) - 46 species.
OK, and now we're back into the not-quite-so-iffy bits
  • Arthropods excluding insects (sea spiders, arachnids, myriapods, crustaceans, springtails etc) - 299 species
  • Insects only - 2345 species
  • Vertebrates - 576 species. 

Well that was fun, and it all correctly tallies up to 5624 species. So just another 376 to go in order to attain another nice round number. I'm probably not gonna manage that this year, not at this rate anyway (248 so far this year). Should make it sometime during 2020 though. 

So what, if anything, has this wee exercise accomplished? Nothing really, nothing at all. Thanks for reading.



Well actually, it does provide me with some extra impetus to hit a few nicely rounded numbers. 299 species of arthropods (excluding insects) is an exceptionally niggling number, just one more will put me at a far happier number. And those 1486 plants? 1500 must be easily attainable, so there's another target number to aim for. 

Now then, what about those 576 vertebrates. Hmmm, yes I do like that one. I need 24 more to hit a pleasing 600 species, but finding new vertebrates doesn't come so easily nowadays.  In fact, since January 2016 I've added 13 fish, 1 bird and 2 mammals to my PSL vertebrate tally - that's just 16 in the last three and a half years! I can stake out the odd bat roost (Greater Horseshoe is an 'easy' one) and I could always twitch the Loch Lomond wallabies or the reintroduced beavers. To be utterly honest though, neither of the latter two species appeal in the slightest. Harvest Mouse, Yellow-necked Mouse, Hazel Dormouse, rare birds and fish - now they appeal! Oh, and there's a fistful of amphibians that are all perfectly gettable too: Natterjack Toad, Pool and Perez' Water Frogs, Alpine Newt and Midwife Toad all beckon. Just a case of my being several hundred miles too far north for all of them. Well, I can add fish from here, but not the rest. 

Pancrustacea just doesn't come much better than this! And yes, that's my hand in the pic :) 

I'll end this silly post with a suitably silly song. It'll all be back to normal again soon....

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Telfer the Tonking Terror!

Continuing on from yesterday's post, I'd joined The Telfers on an overnighter into Speyside for some seriously hardcore beetling, the likes of which I've never experienced before or since. Time spent in the field with Mark is always pretty damned hardcore, but also extraordinarily rewarding. Watching a master coleopterist in action is something to behold. Trust me, I learned more in a day than I ever would in a year by myself. It also showed me just how poor I am at natural history. Still, I did manage to find a couple of things for myself. Just a couple mind you...

30th May - Skye to Speyside
We arrived in Aviemore mid-afternoon. Jo and Bradley set up basecamp whilst Mark and I hit the forest in search of...well, anything really! First up was an extensive tract of woodland a few miles east of Loch Garten where we ambled along a snaking trail beneath lichen bedecked pines, pressing ever onwards through knee high Bilberry and Cowberry until we came across an area with some very special plants indeed

I'd spotted several of these small plants but didn't know what they were. I knew what I hoped they were, but stupidly I'd left all my plant ID guides back on Skye. Luckily Mark found a few slightly more developed plants which confirmed our suspicions

Note the paired buds at the tip of the stem
Yes! This was none other than Twinflower, or 'Twinbud' as it was quickly dubbed. It should look glorious in a fortnight or so. Sadly I was only here until tomorrow, but a Twinbud is better than no bud at all. Not too far away we found more unfamiliar plants

These are the basal leaves of Creeping Lady's-tresses
We did find a couple of Creeping Lady's-tresses that were starting to push up a flower spike, but my pics of those are blurry - low light levels were clearly to blame rather than any incompetence on my part. Yup.

Bryoria fuscescens, or horsehair lichen as I named it
A snakefly was perched out in the open, only the third or fourth I've ever encountered and always a thrill, they are such bizarre looking beasts!

Female Atlantoraphida maculicollis. Pure monster.
Back at the car, Mark wandered off down a rough track and told me to drive along behind him. I cautiously followed, wondering just how rough the track might get. I was borrowing a colleague's car and I was pretty sure he'd want it back undamaged. Soon enough though, I drove into a large clearing, the site of a disused sawmill. For many years now, I've wanted to sneak around an old sawmill, hidden deep in an ancient forest. In my mind's eye I've envisioned a high-roofed wooden mill with huge stacks of logs outside, all crawling with Giant Wood-wasps and Timbermen (both of which are very high on my Wish List) with just the calls of Parrot Crossbill and maybe a furtive Pine Marten for company. Sadly, what greeted us was a big old pile of sawdust with a few discarded offcuts and planks laying on top, all sat in the middle of maybe an acre of open space. Still, it's gotta be better than nothing and we soon set to overturning anything big enough to harbour potential goodies. Mark was muttering about it being a shadow of its former self, a tragedy, a real loss etc etc. I spotted ants under a plank - whoop. But Mark has keen eyes, he soon noticed that this ant colony comprised small black ants and larger wood ants, all mixed in together. Clearly this was a species of slavemaker ant with its slaves, and the only slavemaking wood ants in Britain are Formica sanguinea. In this instance, the slaves were the far smaller Formica lemani. Formica sanguinea typically rush around biting things in defence of their colony. Here's a slightly blurry pic of one doing just that

Blurred due to some impressive high speed running around by the ant 
Check out those mandibles, I'm glad none of them managed to latch onto us! Meanwhile, Mark was busily extracting a beetle carcass from beneath a plank of wood. He was pretty crestfallen that it was dead. Here's the pic. I'd be crestfallen too...

Cantharis obscura - not a very common beetle. Not very tickable either.
We very briefly called in to a site for Deschampsia setacea (far too early really, just a recce so I could see the site) where I spotted a bunch of what I initially thought were click beetles in grasses. A closer look revealed them to be winged males of Formica lugubris - absolutely huge, they positively dwarf the workers! Quitting the forest we detoured to a shallow sandy bay on the edge of Loch Garten itself where Mark did a bit of water beetle sampling. Happily, I spotted an elmid beetle, absolutely tiny and hence massively appealing to the mighty Telfer (the law of decreasing size equating to increasing interest levels clearly applies) and I also proffered the correct suggestion of Oreodytes for another small water beetle, one which seemingly I have as much experience of as does Mark (they aren't common in his part of the world, I have them in the local river). 

After an ever so slight misunderstanding regards that evening's dinner arrangements, we skulked off to the local takeaway for grub before quickly returned to basecamp. I think I added about 300 species to my PSL that afternoon.

Mark promised me that tomorrow was going to be awesome (though today was hardly dross). I kipped soundly and awoke with a sense of anticipation. And a need to pee.

31st May - Glenmore Forest - hell yeah!
I had the car, Mark was leaving his campervan in the prison campsite, so I drove off and parked up at the end of a long loop through the hills and walked back to the campsite where the Telfers were just about ready for a day on the trail. Mark had a hand axe. He looked as though he meant business. He also had beating tray, pooter, pots, pockets bulging full of kit. I had a butterfly net and 15 pots. Epic fail. To make things worse, my camera battery died. Thankfully Mark had a spare battery, what a guy. 

We began by heading up the wrong track. Happily Jo, at least, knew the correct way. Mark mumbled something about us not being lost already, secret shortcuts, etc etc before falling into line with the rest of us. Bradley was an absolute star, pointing out the coloured posts we were meant to be following (takes after his mom, that boy) and never once flagging on the upward yomp into the trees. 

It wasn't long before Mark started pointing out beetles. Weevils on the birches (various Phyllobius, all new for me), Pine Weevils on fence posts and fallen logs. One large felled pine held a couple of smart longhorns

Loads of Phyllobius weevils, all new for me (didn't have the book last time I encountered them)

Rhagium bifasciatum - a very smart beast indeed
Beneath the loose bark we found pupal chambers of Rhagium inquisitor, though sadly not the beast itself. 

The 'palisade' edging is apparently diagnostic of Rhagium inquisitor
We then had a fun twenty minutes or so wheedling bark from a huge fallen pine. My fault, in a way, because I spotted this

See that pile of fresh frass poking out from beneath the bark...
Mark suddenly unlimbered his axe and put it to work ever so carefully slicing away at a piece of bark in a determined effort to find the beetle below. It looked quite easy, but I think I would have lost at least one finger if I'd tried it. A short while later and we had one in a tube (the beetle, I mean - not one of my fingers), soon followed by two others (again, beetles...)

Tomicus sp. - 3mm of sheer excitement!
Mark wasn't sure, but felt that we may have stumbled across Tomicus minor. He then quietly announced that he wasn't aware of any living coleopterist that had seen this species in Britain. Shit a brick, pass me that tube! (Sadly, so to speak, they were later determined as Tomicus piniperda). Still, can't say I've ever witnessed a 3mm long beetle being extracted (still intact) with an axe!

We'd temporarily lost Jo and Bradley, but we could hear Bradley somewhere up ahead. We caught them up and took a lunch stop beneath a particularly awesome, craggy old Scots Pine. Several broken boughs were dead, dead and within reach of Mark's axe... "Have you ever tonked a tree before, Seth?" he casually asked. I briefly worried that I'd been lured into the back end of nowhere to perform some weird sexual perversions upon a tree, thankfully (for the tree) I was mistaken. Here's Mark 'tonking' a tree with the blunt end of his axe. Turn the volume up, or better still listen with headphones. Definitely a decent "tonk" going on there! 

A multitude of tiny brown bodies littered the beating tray, the larger measuring maybe 3mm. All disappeared up the spout of Mark's pooter. In some areas the tree bark had fallen away, revealing many distinctive feeding galleries. Each gallery originated from a very shallow Y-shape and immediately branching out horizontally (circumferentially as Mark said it) across the diameter of the branch. Paralleling these linear galleries were a series of holes. All in all a highly distinctive mine! And, without a doubt, belonging to the near-mythical Tomicus minor that I mentioned earlier. The obvious snag being, by the time one finds the galleries the beetle has long departed. Randomised bark removal of very freshly damaged boughs may be the best bet of finding this beetle in the flesh, certainly it is here!  

You can clearly see the shallow Y-shape in the centre of one gallery (2nd from right)
Typical size of some of the stuff Mark was pootering up. I was a bit flabbergasted at the time, but have since successfully carded these myself. 2mm of perfection, more or less. 

One that I took away and successfully carded. And this is one of the larger ones....
I pulled back a bit of loose bark and found myself eyeballing a small, elongate weevil. "Mark, I've got a weevil, looks like a short, fat Euophryum confine but with a blunter rostrum" I threw at him. "That'll be Rhyncolus ater, I ticked it here last year" was the immediate response. And it was too, impressive recognition or impressive description? I suspect the former. 

Rhyncolus ater, exactly like an obese Euophryum confine. Though much scarcer
Bradley was busily telling off some fast disappearing cyclists (we were on a no cycling trail) when Mark and I found a freshly fallen pine bough. The scent of resin was heavy in the air and incoming saproxylic beetles could be seen winging their way through the tree trunks! I had an Otiorhynchus scaber land on a trunk beside me and other beetles quickly disappeared into the freshly fallen branches. We started potting up specimens, more arriving as we did so. Our timing was perfect, the beetles were assembling before our very eyes, species after species was called out and identified, I've never experienced anything like it before. Mark dubbed it the tree that kept on giving, and indeed as soon as we thought we were done something else would crash land into the branches and another species would be added to the tally. A small selection: Polydrusus pilosus (landed on me), Otiorhynchus singularis, Otiorhynchus scaber (several), Strophosoma melanogrammum, Rhizophagus depressus, Quedionuchus plagiatus, Oulema melanopus, Ampedus nigrinus, Meligethes aeneus ("like finding a rat turd in your packet of chocolate buttons"!), Gastrophysa viridula, Magdalis duplicata and Magdalis phlegmatica. Plus other, commoner stuff we'd already seen. A Juniper Pug larva was noted, there was also a dogshit moment that is probably best not talked about. I was commended on my ability to keep a straight face and not take the piss. First time for everything.

Eventually we caught up with Jo and Bradley by a blue lochan. Starting our return towards the car we entered a heathy area. Mark was soon pointing out a foraging Bilberry Bumblebee, one I've not seen before. Somehow he tempted it onto his hand for photo opportunities

And this from a man who reacts badly to bee stings! 
By now we were almost out of the forest and back to the car. Last stop though was a large Scots Pine in an open area of grass and scrub. A couple of years back, a rare beetle was found here. Word obviously spread because some dolt had recently been here ahead of us and ragged the shit out of all the loose bark, There were great piles of it beneath the branches. I can't say that I blame Mark for being dismayed when we discovered this, not because it meant we now had little chance of finding the beetle for ourselves, but because the rare beetle's habitat had been utterly trashed.

I guess if you've travelled a long way to see something, you really don't want to leave until you've seen it. Leave no stone unturned, or loose bark unpeeled in this particular instance. But surely common sense would tell you that enough is enough at some point (ie before you run out of loose bark to peel away)? Obviously not. I can sympathise, and I hope the chap did get his beetle, but he's still a fucktard whichever way you look at it.

However, this is an exceptional area of Caledonian pinewood and a bit of peeled away bark could not lessen that. We managed several really decent species from this one pine including my only arachnid lifer of the day (well, that I could identify).

Salticus cingulatus - cousin of the more familiar Zebra Spider
Plus a selection of beetles typical of this part of the world. Almost all lifers for me, obviously.

Cimberis attelaboides - ignore the antennae, it really is a weevil! 

Anthonomus phyllocola - pretending to be a seed head perhaps?
And I almost forgot to include this bad boy from near the start of the trail, the spectacular Ant Beetle trying to take a large chunk out of Mark's finger

Thanasimus formicarius - gorgeous but with a bit of an attitude problem
I needed to hustle my way back to Skye for work in the morning, so had to quit Speyside early. A short detour to Carrbridge allowed me to claw back Fairy Foxglove from myself. Let me explain - I'd last visited Carrbridge maybe 15 years back, which was long before I knew about the existence of a thing called Fairy Foxglove. I went in the summertime, so there's no way I would have missed seeing this exotic plant (it's all over the bridge!) yet I have no actual recollection of seeing it. So a return unblocking visit was required. I just took a long time doing so. But I have now, and a lovely wee flower it is too.

I can't recall what time I eventually fell into bed that evening, but I'm pretty certain my dreams were filled with beetles, the smell of resin and the sound of an axe tonking into tree trunks. Many, many thanks to Mark for showing me just how exciting beetling in a prime Caledonian pinewood can be. Cheers buddy, you're one heck of a guy.