Tuesday, 13 July 2021

More Smutty Nonsense

Following on from last week's very successful Small Adder's-tongue expedition to Raasay (see this post), I took myself up to a headland just north of Camas Mòr this afternoon in search of some Skye-based Small Adder's-tongue action. Sadly no joy, the composition of the clifftop sward is quite different from that on Raasay, hence no Ophioglossum were found. However, it was still an enjoyable stroll around the top of the cliffs, looking down onto the nesting Kittiwakes, Shags, Fulmars and auks beneath me. Still no sign of any Killer Whales out to sea. My time will come....

Spot the cute wee chick poking its head out to the left of pic

I swept a few flies including three clegs in one swoosh of the net (never try to land on an entomologist wielding a butterfly net, damn fool flies!) and then found a nice male Araneus diadematus on a rock. This is not a common spider on Skye, I very rarely see them at all apart from on coastal rocks and cliffs. Thinking about it, I don't think I've ever seen one on Skye that was more than about 100 metres from the coast and I've certainly never seen one in a garden (the vernacular name is Garden Spider, but I reckon Coastal Rock Spider would be more appropriate up here). Edit: Scrap that, I've also seen them around the base of Needle Rock up by the Old Man of Storr, which is a good mile and a half from the sea (and quite a height above it too). 

Male Araneus diadematus scurrying at speed across a rockface

I'm sure at this point Skev will want to know what the pale lichen is in this pic. Which is a pity, really. (Ha, at a guess I'd say Ochrolechia parella, but I'm really not sure buddy). There were patches of Sea Campion scattered around the clifftop, most of it a little too far down the cliffs to be accessible, but I did manage to gingerly lower myself to a few clumps in order to check them for anther smut. No luck this time, just like the orca that'll be one for another day. 

Sea Campion - growing at the base of the small stack in the image above this one 

Away from the clifftop I found a smut I've been chasing for a couple of weeks now. This one grows on the anthers of Ragged-Robin and I've been randomly checking the flowers for sign of brown anthers without joy until today. Behold!

This smut is Microbotryum coronariae - uber sexy or what!?!

There's a recent set of publications that cover various microfungi, I have four of them as hardcopies and the fifth I have saved as a pdf. The one that covers Smuts is also available as a freely downloadable pdf. You can access it by clicking here and if you scroll down to page 39 this is what you'll see

Yep, I'll go with that for a perfect match! I took the infected flowerhead away with me so that I could check the spores under the microscope. I don't have a measuring graticule, something I ought to rectify at some point, but you can see the spores are essentially the same as the image shown in the pdf.

I'm doing quite well for finding lifer microfungi this week; Puccinia commutata on Common Valerian found whilst sat on a wall eating an ice cream on Saturday, nothing on Sunday, then Ramularia valeriana var. valeriana also on Common Valerian yesterday, followed by Microbotryum coronariae today. Cool beans! I also found a patch of Meadowsweet infected with an extensive powdery mildew

Being a smug dimwit, I didn't bother collecting a leaf to check beneath the microscope. I already knew this was Erysiphe ulmariae, something I've seen lots of here on Skye. Once back indoors I checked properly and now realise that although it could be Erysiphe ulmariae, it's actually more likely to be Podosphaera (Sphaerotheca) filipendulae. Arse. I'll have to grab a selection of leaves from a selection of sites this summer, find out whether we have the Erysiphe and/or the Podosphaera up here.

Last fungus for today, and one that is super-ubiquitous here, this is Septoria scabiosicola, the common leafspot that occurs on Devil's-bit Scabious leaves. 

Right, enough fungi for today I think. It's time for me to check those clegs I swiped earlier. I've recently discovered that, despite their being present in plague-like numbers at many sites across Skye, there are hardly any dots on the NBN map for them. I think I need to start making inroads into that oversight.

Oh, and I swept a pair of sarcophagids from Raasay last week. The scheme recorder is very interested in them. I need to set the male's genitalia properly, but he's wondering if they may be a species new to Britain. Watch this space.....

Saturday, 10 July 2021

Funky Fungi

Today was warm and muggy, by Skye standards at least. It was 17 or 18 degrees, but felt decidedly warmer when the sun emerged partway through the afternoon. I took advantage of the lack of rain and hit the rear lawns with a vengeance. Two lawns in and it started raining... Happily it soon stopped and by the time I'd finished mowing, strimming and faffing around, the back of the hotel was looking quite a bit neater than before. After work I headed to the local shop and treated myself to an ice cream, why the hell not. I plopped myself onto a low wall and enjoyed my Magnum, or whatever it was, whilst staring into the lush undergrowth on the other side of the wall. I soon spied a large number of Dasineura pustulans galls on Meadowsweet leaves, my first sighting of it this year. Ordinarily these are far outnumbered by the other Meadowsweet gall-midge Dasineura ulmariae, but oddly enough I couldn't see any of those at all.  

Early-stage galls of the midge Dasineura pustulans, looking like tiny green fried eggs

And then I nearly dropped my ice cream in surprise. 

There's a lovely looking rust fungus that I've been half-heartedly keeping an eye open for ever since I learned of its existence a couple of months back. I say 'half-heartedly' not because I didn't want to find it (I really did!), but 'half-heartedly' because I never expected to see it on Skye. And yet here I was staring at it growing very merrily just a few feet away! I took my usual barrage of pics without realising I was on a wrong setting, so none of the images came out particularly brilliantly. Hey ho.

What a complete beast of a rust!!!

This is Puccinia commutata which infects Common Valerian, a common enough plant in damp and shaded places across much of Skye. I'm fairly certain I've never seen this rust fungus before today, not even unwittingly, despite its host being widespread and common. I do like the rust fungi and there's just no way I wouldn't have chased this one down had I seen it before. 

For anybody into their rusts (and I mean who wouldn't be?!?!) have a look at this fantastic pdf and scroll down to page 33 to read a little background info on Puccinia commutata. They list it as Near Threatened, though they also note that it may be spreading and has recently been found to be present on Red Valerian along the south coast of England. We don't have Red Valerian on Skye, but if I ever make it back down south I'll be checking for the rust on that too. Red Valerian also hosts a nice psyllid that we don't get here. 

Pleased to have stumbled across this lovely rust, I continued on my way back from the shop and soon spied an even more spectacular rust, though it's one I do see quite often. This is on Common Nettle rather than Common Valerian and is quite probably in a nettlebed near you too.

Again, it's a bit of a beast for a rust fungus!

This is one of the Puccinia urticata complex, of which there are several. Each species in the complex alternates between using nettle as a host and using one of several sedge species as its other host. The problem for folks like myself is that the fungus is only identifiable when it's on the sedge host. Whilst on nettle they're just not distinguishable from each other. It's all a bit meh, really. 

Sticking with weird-looking fungi, this is from earlier in the week when several of us caught the ferry across to Raasay. This is growing on Blackthorn at the edge of the car park, as spotted by Neil.

Won't be making any sloe gin with those manky things!

These sloes have been infected with the fungus Taphrina pruni and there's a nicely informative page about it here. There were an abundance of these galled sloes in Uig Wood a couple of years back, I ought to go check if there are any to be seen this year too. 

Out on the open hills, Star Sedge is a sometimes common component of the 'scary' (ie sedges, grasses and rushes) element of the ground flora. Some years are definitely better than others, but something to keep an eye out for is the black smut on Star Sedge. Other sedges have their own species of smut (Carnation and Flea Sedges for starters), but they seem far less common. I've never seen either yet. Here's Anthracoidea karii the Star Sedge Smut as seen on Raasay last week

Quite eye-catching really - and a good way to ID the sedge!

The last fungi for this post concern some small black dots that I found growing on dead leaves of Crowberry. The first lot of dots were collected from about 1200ft up Stockval nearly a fortnight back. I'd provisionally identified them as one thing, but Nick had identified them as something else entirely!!

The second lot of Crowberry dots, also growing on dead leaves, were collected from near sea-level on Raasay earlier this week. Nick hadn't gotten much joy finding spores from his sample. Last night I finally got around to doing some spore squashes in an effort to figure out what I'd collected from both sites.

These are the Stockval fungal dots and a (rather enlarged) image of a single ascus from it

You should hopefully be able to see that the blackish fungal fruiting bodies are sitting proud on top of the leaf surface. Underneath a miroscope it's easy to see that they resemble tiny shrivelled 'jam tarts' (to nab a description from the lichen folks!) These are what's known as apothecia. Each of these fruiting bodies is around half a millimetre in diameter, so not exactly large...

And these are the Raasay fungal spots, rather different from the Stockval specimens in several ways

Just like Nick, I too couldn't find any asci or spores from this sample

Compare the black dots on these leaves to the black dots in the image further above. Hopefully you'll agree that they aren't sitting proud of the leaf surface and that they don't resemble tiny shrivelled jam tarts. They are still fungal fruiting bodies, but these have essentially pushed their way through the leaf surface and are still immersed inside the leaf tissue itself. These are what is known as epiphyllous perithecia, somewhat different in structure to apothecia. There's a very good lichen-orientated page showing the differences between apothecia and perithecia here. Don't be confused that I'm sending you to a lichen page to learn about structures in fungi. In this particular instance they're all the same thing anyway ;-)  

There are several different species of fungi that grow on the dead leaves of Crowberry. Figuring out which we had required a bit of tenacity and much cross-referencing my various texts with online wisdom whilst trying to keep track of the taxonomical upheavals that have occured of late. I was convinced that the Stockval dots were Phaeangellina empetri. Nick however had already identified them as Physalospora empetri, which have epiphyllous perithecia and not the apothecia that my sample so clearly exhibited. I couldn't understand how we'd independently arrived at two very different species.

The Raasay sample I narrowed down to two species: Physalospora empetri or Botryosphaeria hyperborea, the differences being that P.empetri has a refractive ring at the apex to the asci whereas B.hyperborea doesn't. Seeing as I couldn't find any asci, I couldn't progress any further than that.

I put all of this into an email and pinged it off to Nick late last night. This morning he replied - 

Ah that's interesting, because I do not have any of the Phaeangellina empetri. I can see the difference between the two clearly from your photos. Instead I have the Physalospora/Botryosphaeria from both Stockval and Raasay! I'll have another look to see if I can find apical rings.

That neatly solved the puzzle of how Nick, a very accomplished naturalist with oodles of microscope work beneath his belt, couldn't tell the difference between an apothecia and a perithecia! Here's my final pic of the two different dots side by side. The larger Phaeangellina empetri to the left (0.5mm diameter) and the smaller Physalospora/Botryosphaeria on the right (0.2mm diameter).

So there you go, had I not treated myself to that ice cream this afternoon, this post would never have happened. Serendipity at its finest.

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Botanical Delights

June came and went without my finding a Rose-coloured Starling, though I did try for one at Staffin a couple of times. In a way I'm glad I failed on both attempts, seeing as the whole idea was to find my own and not to twitch somebody else's bird. My self-found Pink Stink will have to wait a bit longer, though I've previously found a juvenile bird in Dorset (record accepted, largely thanks to Martin Cade's excellent images) hence I'm not exactly rabid about finding another one just yet. 

But it wasn't all crap birdwise. I jammed into a singing Common Rosefinch at Kilmarie, though I then had to leave it and drive ten miles up the road in order to gain phone signal so I could put the word out. Nobody else had it that day, but two guys managed to photograph it the following morning, after which it was never seen or heard from again. This image, courtesy of local birder Ian Hinchcliff, perfectly captures the sheer beauty of my rosefinch. Ha!

Young male Common Rosefinch - they very rarely come any drabber than that!

If ever you've wondered why rosefinches are sometimes known as grotfinches, well there's your answer. Luckily the song is very distinctive and quite pretty, because this individual really doesn't have much else going for it. Phil Knott had one a week or so earlier in another part of southern Skye. It's entirely likely that this is that very same bird, hence the finder's accounts for both sightings have been submitted together, the SOC can decide for themselves if one or two individuals were involved.  

I'm starting to lose a small degree of enthusiasm for capturing and identifying inverts just now. I'll look at a fly and question whether or not I can be arsed to capture it, knowing that it will probably just sit on a pin for weeks until I drum up enough interest to run it through the keys. I'm definitely in the doldrums regards miscroscopy, and this is having a significant knock-on effect on my wanting to net flies/beetles/bugs/spiders etc. I think I'll just ride it out, see what happens. There's no point in my amassing hundreds of specimens and then staring at them in a state of mild horror, knowing I'll be at the microscope for days on end. So I'm deliberately holding back and not chasing anything that doesn't catch my eye. 

Happily, there are plants to be searched for or stumbled across. This is Skye, the island where there's always something unexpected to be found!

Orange-ball Tree Buddleja globosa

This sprawling patch of Orange-ball Tree is growing opposite a large house with a well-tended garden. It's quite a mature patch and has obviously been there for a number of years. It is also surrounded by fresh grass clippings leading me to believe that it has been thrown out, either as lopped branches or in its entirety, at some point in the past. Happily, in a way, it has survived to become a magnificent bush and is the first one I've ever seen that is (more or less) tickable. I ticked it anyway, tart that I am. My own personal thoughts are that folks who flytip garden waste, or allow their gardeners to flytip garden waste, should be heavily fined in all instances. But on the other hand, it does certainly juice up the local botanical interest at times. Purist? Moi? Hell, I have Lady A Pheasant on my list, you don't need to talk to me about ticking dodgy shit.

Pick-a-back-Plant (Tolmiea menziesii) forming carpets along a roadside verge

A single bush of Yellow Azalea found growing in the middle of a woodland

But it wasn't all about ticking plastic crap and slum botany. I found some 'real' plants too

Rough Horsetail (aka Dutch Rush) alongside Wood Horsetail in a roadside ditch

Northern Buckler-fern Dryopteris expansa beneath a boulder up a high hill

There were several dozen ferns growing amongst the rocks, not all of which were Northern Bucklers. In fact, this wasn't even on my radar and it was Nick who brought the possibility to our attention. We oiked a couple of likely looking fronds out into the open and pored over the latest fern guide. Some plants didn't conform, others did, several seemed a bit kinda intermediate. In all honesty, I'm not entirely sure if the fern in the image above actually is a Northern Buckler-fern, but if not another close by certainy was. Northern Buckler-fern is a new plant for me, so I should have taken better images including some to highlight the diagnostic features. But I didn't. However, that could just be your first clue as to something I plan to attempt in 2022.....

Alpine Clubmoss Diphasiastrum alpinum. Not sure I've ever seen its fertile cones before...

Dwarf Willow. Seen for the first time a month ago, this patch was on a different mountain top 

Scots Lovage with Roseroot (sounds like a soup flavour!) growing on a clifftop near Kilmuir

All of the plants above were found in June. In the first week of July I've been looking at yet more plants, including one that, for me at least, is very special indeed. But first I need to show you my Green Tiger Beetle pics. Not because it's a rare beetle, but because they turned out really well and I'm stupidly happy with that. I promise you right now, these are straight off the card and I haven't altered anything, they're not even cropped! 

Green Tiger Beetles. I'm actually pretty damned chuffed with those images! 

For the beetles playing piggyback, I set my Olympus TG-6 to 'microscope' stack mode, dropped the ISO to 150, turned the LED and flash off, spot-centred the focus, slowly edged the camera to within about 10cm from the beetles, zoomed in a little bit and pressed the button. And that was it. Most of the time I use my TG-6 for record shots, but with a little tweaking of the settings it really can produce some pretty decent images. I should probably spend a bit more time trying out different modes and settings rather than continue with the 'point, shoot, hope for the best' technique I ordinarily rely upon. After all, I'll need to start using it properly for my 2022 plans.......

Right, back to plants. 

Despite the fact that this next plant isn't particulary common on Skye, it won't impress any of you southern readers. This is Enchanter's Nightshade, a familiar sight in many woodlands throughout England. It has a gorgeous stiltbug associated with it, sadly that doesn't occur this far north and it's been a good few years since I last saw it. But anyway, here's the Enchanter's Nightshade for you

Enchanter's Nightshade - note the smooth leaf margins

I found a small patch growing near the woods in Portree, and immediately knew it was a damn good find for this part of Skye. Grinning from ear to ear, I took a barrage of pics intending to pass on the news of my find to BSBI Recorder Stephen Bungard. I went home afterwards, leapt onto the BSBI database only to discover that some bugger has already seen it in Portree earlier this very year! Gah!!! (insert well-known phrase concerning wind and sails, maybe something about stolen thunder too). Turns out that bloomin' Bungard fella had beaten me to it by a matter of days. He can be consistently annoying like that, at times. Here's a pic of the 'usual' enchanter's nightshade that we have on Skye. This is the hybrid between Enchanter's Nightshade and Alpine Enchanter's Nightshade, dubbed Upland Enchanter's Nightshade. How many more times can I insert the words 'enchanter's nightshade' into this paragraph? None. 

Upland Enchanter's Nightshade - note the obviously toothed leaf margins

I have absolutely no idea how this plant gained its vernacular name but I bet there must be a great (if fanciful) explanation. 

Three years ago I heard talk about there being a colony of Lesser Butterfly-orchids on a certain grassy verge at Sligachan, here on Skye. I also heard talk about Greater and Lesser Butterfly-orchids being lumped into one species, so I essentially put very little effort into tracking down the Lessers, even though it was a (sub)species I'd never before seen. Greater Butterfly-orchid is fairly widespread in rank grasslands on Skye. It grows here in Uig and has even popped up in an area of the hotel grounds that I'm slowly turning into a hay meadow. Up until a week ago, it appeared that Skye was enjoying far fewer orchids than usual. And then they all appeared en masse. I headed to a patch of grassland and went in search of any orchids that weren't Heath Spotted, which is the default orchid across much of Skye. I found a few...

This is Greater Butterfly-orchid with its obviously divergent pollenia

And a few miles away, in acidic grassland, I found three plants that were clearly similar but different...

And these are Lesser Butterfly-orchids with their parallel pollenia

These Lesser Butterfly-orchids were very noticeably less robust than any plants in the Greater Butterfly-orchid colony just a few miles away - though there is known to be a considerable size overlap between the smallest Greaters and the largest Lessers. On this occasion though, the Lessers were distinctly 'lesser'. The flowering spike held less flowers, resulting in a more open look. The spurs behind the flowerheads were held more horizontally than the Greaters (which curved downwards). In fact, the whole jizz of these plants was very different to that of the larger Greater Butterfly-orchids. Lesser Butterfly-orchid is one of four orchid species I'd hoped to see for the first time this year, the others being Frog Orchid, Bog Orchid and Small White Orchid. I'm still hopeful of seeing at least one of the remaining three, but I'd need very great luck (or gen...) to scoop all three this summer, I think. Time will tell. 

I'd heard that Ophioglossum azoricum (Small Adder's-tongue Fern) occurs on Raasay in good numbers. It's a plant that is occasionally known from the southern part of Skye, as well as a single solitary spike from Earlish in 2014, Earlish being up here at the Top End. I had it in mind to make the effort to track the plant down this summer. Stephen Bungard, BSBI Recorder and professional botanist, lives on Raasay, hence it didn't take me too long to formulate a plan. We (...I) plotted into the dead of night, eventually the day of reckoning drew close. Nick and Neil joined me this morning as we boarded the ferry across to Raasay where Stephen was patiently waiting to take us off on The Great Ophioglossum Hunt. An hour or so later, we were at a clifftop and searching the cropped grass for our target plant. The more eyes the merrier, I say and within a few short moments Stephen had effortlessly located the small colony to be found on an unassuming stony outcropping. I quickly pushed my way to the front of the scrum and shoved my camera into the midst of my first ever Small Adder's-tongues. How very bloody marvellous! 

Small (but perfectly formed) Adder's-tongue Ophioglossum azoricum with fertile spike. Huzzah!!!

I was pretty chuffed with that, but within ten minutes we were all on hands and knees gawping (well ok, probably I was the only one gawping, as such) at the sight of hundreds upon hundreds of Small Adder's-tongues poking up through the short grassy sward. I may have taken a couple more photos.....

These two plants have fully mature fertile spikes. A delicate tap of the spikes resulted in a tiny cloud of spores being released, I'm not sure why but I found this quite magical. Nobody mention small minds being easily amused...


It quickly became apparent that many plants were growing in pairs, something I've never seen occur in the larger Common Adder's-tongue (Ophioglossum vulgatum). Stephen explained that Small Adder's-tongue does typically grow 'in pairs' and that the plants were connected to each other "at a quite surprising depth, often several inches below the surface". We took stock of our surroundings and guestimated there to be easily a thousand Small Adder's-tongues within an area maybe 20 ft by 10ft. Even within this area there were obvious 'bare' patches yet there were several spots with a density of maybe over a hundred plants per square foot. Quite incredible. Nick had the bit between his teeth and determined to find a new colony. An hour later he did precisely that, with seven or eight plants huddled together beneath a rock outcropping. Soon after that, I decided a certain patch of short-cropped, westward facing bit of grass was too good to bypass, clambered a few rocks and self-found a brand new colony of Small Adder's-tongues new for the maps! 

It has to be said that at this time of year the leaf blades are fading from yellowy-green to a purer yellow colour, which makes them stand out a little more obviously than they would earlier in the season. It still takes a while to get your eye in, but once you have I believe these diminutive ferns are relatively straightforward to pick out in the short turf. They seem to loosely associate with Early Hair-grass, English Stonecrop and Heath Bedstraw with westward-facing slopes being the ideal spots for them. I'm definitely going to be searching various Skye coastal grasslands for it later this week. 

I think this may be my favourite image of the Small Adder's tongue. It's a great plant (if you're a plant nerd!) and I'm so happy to have finally clapped eyes on it and added a new site for it too. Many thanks to Stephen and The Musketeers for yet another hugely enjoyable day.


YouTube doesn't appear to have much in the way of Small Adder's-tongue related music, so have these three tracks which, between them, kind of have it covered.