Tuesday, 16 March 2021

A New Tick!

A new tick? But aren't all new things a tick, I hear you ask. Well yes, but this was an actual new tick... just read on.

Today was lovely and sunny, the first sunny day for at least a week (and the forecast suggests the last sunny day for the rest of the week), so I simply had to grab my net and get straight out there in search of flies!

Obligatory view across Uig Wood towards Beinn Edra. I'll take a different view next time

What I hadn't taken into consideration was that the weather forecast had the wind direction completely wrong. It suggested a NW breeze, which is why I hit this southern slope of the woods. Unfortunately the wind was sweeping in from the south west and hence straight through the trees I was scanning for sunbathing flies. Bugger, that dropped the air temperature from 9C to 6C hence I struggled to find many flies, though I did find a handful. 

I changed tactics because let's face it, swiping at flies with a net that is full of wind is never ideal. Despite owning a proper sweep net, I never bring it out with me - I just use my butterfly net to swipe through the vegetation, which is how I spent the rest of my time in the woods. In this instance I targeted the grass tussocks growing beneath the tree cover. Within a few minutes I'd gathered a few small flies, a handful of spiders, a couple of caterpillars and small wasps which went straight back, plus a tick. My first tick of the year, I popped it into a tube and brought it back indoors for a closer look. 

Also new for the year was Pignut, a common plant on Skye. Pignut is one of a handful of plants that I've become particularly fond of, Ramsons tops the list but Pignut isn't too far behind it. Why? Because it's an edible and I'm quite partial to it, that's why!

This is the best time of year to eat the 'nut', it loses taste as it puts energy first into producing the leaves, and then the flowers and seeds. But catch it early and it's quite tasty! I always chew the first couple of Ramsons leaves of the year and the same goes for Pignut tubers. The outer layer comes away with a bit of scraping with fingernails and it's good to eat just like that. There's a very scarce plant in southern England called Great Pignut. I've sometimes wondered if it's scarce just because it tastes so good "Oh man, this is great pignut!" Probably not, but hey you never know.

Anyway, getting back to the tick I potted up. Every single tick I've ever checked closely has been Ixodes ricinus, the Deer Tick. There's a pretty decent key to British ticks that I refer to when studying these things and that's precisely where I went today too. Here's the beast in question.

Conscutum covers almost all of the abdomen, so this is a male

First impressions were that it was a lovely walnut brown colour and that the 'bunny ears' (actually the palps) appeared shorter than normal. Ooh, might this actually be a different species??? I hit the key to find out.

Underside view. Check that arched anal groove, this is an Ixodes

Taking the key to male Ixodes, I ran through several features until I dropped out at a species. 

The arrowed 'plate' is a certain shape which gives the species its name.

Hopefully you'll agree that the arrowed plate isn't shaped like a circle, or a triangle, or a square. It's not the best image, but shows a symmetrical shape that everyone should be familiar with.  

Couple of features to look out for here; there is a long vicious-looking black spur on the inside of the front coxa and a smaller triangular spur on the rearward facing edge of each of the remaining coxae. Also of importance note the shape of the foreleg at the top of the image, ignore the flappy 'foot' at the tip and check the stepped outline of the tarsus. Cropped versions below 

Large front spur and three smaller mid and hind spurs arrowed

Stepped outline of front tarsus arrowed

These features all point to my tick being Ixodes hexagonus (yep, that plate is hexagon shaped) which is a lifer for me, my second species of tick finally falls after all these years of checking. This is my 190th species of arachnid, soon be at 200 I hope!

The day had one last pleasant surprise for me though. This was the view from my window this evening, though I was standing outside when I took this. No filters, no adjustments, no cropping, just straight off the card. 

Red sky at night, pan-species lister's delight.....

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Spring is Springing

I took a walk down to the local bit of shore to release yesterday's sea spiders and noted a veritable profusion of plantlife starting to emerge along the verges. None of these were out a few days back, apart from the Snowdrops which have been out for two or three weeks now.

Coltsfoot - just one flowerhead pushing up through the mosses

Primroses - still tiny yet perfectly formed

Ramsons and Bluebells - I just love the taste of young Ramsons, so peppery and garlicky!

Ramsons with Sanicle - I had no idea Sanicle grew in this part of Uig!

Lesser Celandine - for me this plant, along with Wood Anemone, represents Spring's arrival

Daffodils - barely six inches tall, but I can see the flowerheads ready to unfurl soon

Snowdrops - been out for ages already but always a delightful sight

The weather has cooled off again, highs of about 5C but feeling like 2C in the easterly breeze. Temperatures are falling below zero of a night, so I'm not expecting much in the way of insect activity over the next few days. And then the rain is due to arrive again, hopefully it will warm up and dry up by the middle of next week. I do have plenty of spider identifications to be getting along with in the meantime. Oh, and work from time to time I suppose. 

Over the next few days I shall be listening out for Chiffchaffs in the woods, not a very common bird in Uig, and watching out for White Wagtails and Lesser Black-backed Gulls at the shore. I thought I heard a Pied/White Wagtail at the beach last week, but it was just one call and I couldn't see the bird. My wagtail yearlist so far comprises just a single flyover Grey Wagtail. I might even pick up a Meadow Pipit if I'm really lucky!

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Holy Wow!!!

I'd been looking forward to today in fairly equal measures of anticipation and trepidation. Neil has a double kayak and has been threatening to take me out on the water in it sometime. With the tides being as ridiculously low as they have been over the past few days, and with the wind dying down to a mere breeze ('gusting' to 6mph according to the weather forecast), now was the perfect time for me to get out on the open sea with him. Gulp. I've kayaked around a lake before, but that was nine years ago and I've not picked up a paddle since. And I've certainly never been on the sea in one before, ever!

Ok, so here's the back story. I tried snorkelling in the sea once, about fifteen years back I guess, the full wetsuit, flippers and mask combo. It was ok for the first few minutes, but then my mask started filling up with water and I realised I couldn't touch the bottom to stand up and tip the water out. That's when I had what I can only describe as a mild panic attack. I started breathing too heavily and headed straight back into the shallows, which is where I stayed for the rest of the time I was in the sea. My mind was telling me I was being stupid and I was fine, which clearly I was, and I knew that too. But my mind was also telling me that people drown every day and to stay exactly where I was, clinging onto a partially submerged rock for dear life. Eventually I manned up and started snorkelling again. As long as I could touch the bottom I was quite happy and it was brilliant watching fish swim through the swaying weed, but that's about as far as I progressed and I've not been in the sea again since, other than up to my shins whilst rock-pooling. I've bungee jumped and I've skydived with no fear whatsoever, I've been on small boats in huge waves and I've powered across waves in powerful RIBs, but actually into the sea itself? Nah, that's not for me, thanks.

Me - not at all phased at falling 120mph at 16,500ft. Plop me into six foot of water though...

Fast forward to today and here I was carrying a kayak to the water's edge with Neil, then shoving my head into a life jacket and being shown how to use a paddle properly. I had a slight 'I'm about to die moment' clambering into the kayak as it wobbled back and forth under my weight whilst I settled into the seat. Happily, seeing as I was only in about eight inches of water at the time, I soon settled down and within moments we were powering out into the open sea with eelgrass and then kelp beds passing below. Really quite fantastic! 

Seventeen feet of pure sexiness

I think Neil did most of the actual paddling, I just kind of splashed water all over everything, but it was fun and I was looking forward to journeying across to Harlosh Island, situated an entire half a mile or so offshore. Then we cleared the coastline and hit open water for the first time...oooh, suddenly I found myself outside of my comfort zone and with no contingency plan. Neil probably wondered why I'd fallen strangely quiet, but then I saw the beach we were heading for and regained my composure once more. My paddling technique had by now improved and a short while later we were riding the surf onto the beach and clambering out onto Harlosh Island itself. Made it, thank fook for that...

We did a bit of a tramp over and around the island, I caught a female Scathophaga calida and noted lots of young wolf spiders and a large Field Vole scurrying through the undergrowth. 

Young Piratula sp. having a close encounter with my finger

We did a quick bit of rock-pooling finding the diving beetle Hydroporus nigrita in a pool that was surely salty, but really we were just loitering until the tide fell far enough for us to take advantage of the super low levels. The area of high pressure currently sitting over Skye possibly helped lower the sea level even further than expected, which sounds a bit daft but could actually be true. First mystery species, one which I've still to try and identify, was this encrusting weed growing in the upper rockpools. It seems to be parasitising the rusty coloured stuff, I'd be glad to hear any thoughts regards a determination in the comments. 

I tried a bit. Tasted salty...

By now the tide was really starting to drop away, so we headed back to the beach and hit some nearby rocks and the exposed kelp beds bigtime. It didn't take us too long to start finding some proper decent sublittoral species. I started strongly with this beauty, a lifer for both of us

This is the sea spider Pycnogonum littorale 

Same individual, but lit by LED lights back at my desk that evening

I've only seen one species of sea spider prior to this, and only three individuals in total. So I was really rather thrilled to find that species here too. In fact, it was here in numbers with maybe a dozen or more seen during our time in the exposed sublittoral zone. Even Neil finally got his eye in and started finding them!

Nymphon gracile aka 'The Gangy Lancer' with the Pycnogonum littorale

I heaved one large rock over and found FOUR Nymphon gracile on the underside! Quite ridiculous really, I took two home to confirm the identity seeing as there are two very similar species that could occur here. They wander around like a slo-mo Pholcus, roughly the same size too. They have the cutest ocularium, much like that of a harvestman, and are fascinating creatures to watch as they scrabble and tumble around in a pot of seawater. Of all the animals I've ever seen, I think sea spiders may be the most alien-like of them all. 

Here's a (poor) video clip of a Nymphon scrabbling around on the underside of a rock I just heaved over. The voice is Neil watching a skeleton shrimp in a glass pot, he was completely unaware that I was filming - excuse the camera shake as I start giggling! 

And here's a quick clip of the Pycnogonum clawing at its temporary prison back on my desk. Sorry for the music, I just let YouTube auto-play whatever it likes when I'm at the microscope. I think it's Dream Theater by the sounds of it.

Dream Theater with sea spiders, now there's something you don't get to experience every day! But there were plenty more species awaiting discovery amongst the rocks and kelp, the curious and the wierd, the plain and the sublime.

Trivia monacha - the Spotted Cowrie amongst a bed of hydroids

A nicely coloured Long-clawed Porcelain Crab Pisidia longicornis

A Peanut Worm (Sipuncula) - probably Phascolosoma granulatum which is common up here

This is the Orange-clubbed sea slug (Limacia clavigera)

Caryophyllia smithii, the Devonshire cup coral. We found quite a few of these under rocks

Worm Pipefish, a close relative of the seahorses

Unusual yellow form of Botryllus schlosseri the Star Ascidian

The sea slug Doris pseudoargus with Desmarestia aculeata, the latter a lifer for me

Neil amongst the rocks with exposed kelp bed behind him

Eventually, sea spidered to the max, we once again hit the kayak in order to visit a rockface that is ordinarily five metres below the surface. Our target was Harlosh Skerry and I was VERY excited at the prospect of encountering a certain species that dwells there. 

To my eternal credit, I refrained from bursting into the Hawaaii Five-O theme tune (du-du-duu-duu-DUUH DOOOO....) as we powered towards the skerry. Probably just as well too, otherwise Neil would have heard the gulp I took as we cleared Harlosh Island and were side-swiped by huge waves that I swear were almost seven inches high - wowzers, this was proper scary shizzle all over again! Somehow I managed to largely ignore the fact that we were almost certainly going to capsize and die in the fierce swell, and a few minutes later we were safe and sound in the leeward side of the skerry. And wow...I mean WOW!!! I found myself peering upwards at a vertical cliff face that rose maybe thirty or forty feet above the sea with Edible Sea Urchins somehow clinging to the cliff way above my head height! Ha, how crazy is that?? The rockface I was bobbing up against is ordinarily several metres below the surface, this was a rare opportunity to view an otherwise hidden world and its denizens. Man, this was spectacular! 

Plumose Anemone colony with an Edible Sea Urchin and a small Spiny Starfish to the left

Edible Sea Urchins - somehow attached to a vertical rock face!

Dead Man's Fingers Coral with a wall of Jewel Anemones beneath!!! Note the drips...

Here we were, gently rising and falling with the waves, in an overhang full of corals and anemones and urchins - this completely blew my tiny mind! The fact that I only had to extend my arm to touch a coral that is normally hidden several metres below the surface...wow, just incredible! I felt really privileged to be here at a super low tide. Even Neil, who has been here before, had never been here at such a low tide and it was the first time he'd seen the luminous green Jewel Anemones too. It took me a couple of minutes of careful squirming to dig the camera out of my pocket, still attached by carabiner and cord to my belt hoop, but I'm so very glad I was able to record this amazing scene. Oh, I did a bit of an impromptu video too...

Despite what I said on that clip, I think Neil meant something else and not the Beadlet Anemones that were smothering the rocks. Trouble is that it's not massively easy to turn around in a kayak, so I'm not convinced we were looking at the same things. Gratuitous overhang pics now follow...

You can see the coral's open polyps beneath the surface in this last image

Finally we had our fill and swung back out into the open water. It seems the corals only grow along this one short section of rock face on the north side of the skerry, maybe as filter feeders they require the protection from fast currents that is provided on the leeward side of the skerry. We did a quick paddle to the exposed southern tip where I was delighted to find a huddle of four Purple Sandpipers up on a ledge. I bet they weren't expecting to see humans today! 

A mile or so later and we were back at Harlosh slipway, slowly edging our way through the kelp and hidden rocks in less than a foot of water. Then, having effectively grounded ourselves in the shallows, our adventure was over. Man alive, that was a fantastic introduction to sea kayaking! Many thanks to Neil for the invite, what a guy and what a day! 

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Nicely Bodged, Gibster!

Much to my surprise, Leica have been utterly quiet today. Not a single email, not a single call, nothing. I'm very much doubting I'll be receiving the replacement parts for my microscope anytime this week. That's assuming I can even afford whatever they quote! So I had a think and came up with a temporary solution - gaffer tape! The way I see it, if it's good enough for NASA it's good enough for me. I just happened to have a roll laying around, so this 'fix' has cost me nothing.

First of all I reassembled my microscope, there was a small degree of faff involved when it came to sitting the housing for the focussing mechanism back onto the focussing rack, but with a bit of jiggery pokery it went back together again. As soon as I fitted the microscope to the arm that connects to the focussing rack it began to slowly slide downwards all by itself. What I needed was something to pack it out, add a bit more tension. A single layer of gaffer tape later and...

Well that was ridiculously easy

Note where the teeth on the drive unit have compressed the gaffer tape against the focussing rack

Magically, this worked perfectly! However, the whole assembly now has a little bit of front-to-back movement on the focussing rack, the result being that I now have to steady the microscope with my hand when focussing, just to stop the image falling out of focus. But that is something I can live with until Leica decide to get back to me and send me the new parts. The important thing is that The Telferscope lives to fight another day and I can crack on with identifying the specimens I collected at the weekend. This lot for starters - these are just the specimens in alcohol.

Arachnids, millipedes, springtails, wingless wasps, 3 beetles, a fly and apparently a woodlouse too

So all in all I'm really rather relieved. Good ol' gaffer tape haha! Being employed as the maintenance man here, I've picked up lots of useful tips and learned a few tricks that have come in handy from time to time. Allow me to share with you this useful flowchart, admittedly it is a little bit complicated and technical but stick with it because it's worth taking the time to learn it all the same. 

You're welcome  

Final couple of images of The Telferscope. And yes, I tidied my desk just for this photoshoot - usually there's all sorts of crap and debris and wine glasses strewn across it. 

Note the missing wheel on the left side...

Ready for action - this makes me very happy :)