Sunday, 31 December 2017

Adios, 2017

It appears that many of the blogs I follow are signing out of 2017 with the customary "review of the past twelve months" or "plans for 2018" postings. Well, it is that time of year, to be fair. I'm not gonna do that, though. I've already written about my plans for 2018 (which were met with varying degrees of ridicule and astonishment, but all in good humour naturally) and you can read them by clicking here

Despite saying that my next day off work would be the 1st January, it appears that I've already met my hours for this month, so (apart from fitting a couple of door latches) I skived out of work and headed down to the beach where I could see the gull flock loitering by the river mouth. The weather was pretty grey and miserable, with a bit of drizzle that turned to sleet, but thankfully no wind to speak of.  

It took me a couple of scans, but I soon found the Iceland Gull bathing just offshore where the river spills into the sea. I took another barrage of pics but they were ALL crap, apart from this one, which shows the spread wings quite nicely. In a blurred, crappy kinda way

Lucky timing, I was just clicking away and hoping for the best!
Suddenly the gulls scattered, I looked up expecting to see dogs or walkers on the beach but no sign of anybody. Odd. Then I looked properly up and saw this beast cruising overhead

Massively cropped full adult barn door - and there were two of them!

oooOOOooh, look at that, a pair of adult White-tailed Eagles directly overhead! I've only seen their youngster flopping across the bay and into NG3963 before, this is the first time I've seen the parent birds here. They nested a couple of miles away on the wooded cliffs across the bay, I occasionally see them at long range. They did a bit of wheeling around before slowly drifting off southwards and out of my square. Smart buggers. 

A Black Guillemot, a pair of Black-throated Divers and the usual Grey Seal, Eider and Red-breasted Merganser combo constituted interest in the bay. The Wigeon flock was back up to 15 birds. I suspect they never really did drop to 13, I probably just missed a couple amongst the rocky shoreline where they tend to hang out. 

Last pic of the year from me, this is the habbo at the top of Uig Wood slopes. Sycamore with some Downy Birch and Hazel along the edges with a screen of planted Sitka Spruce bordering the open sheep pasture. I'll be up here often next month, what with it being my Bryophyte Month. There's a good selection of mosses on the branches of the larger trees and quite a decent array of liverworts on the smoother trunks. There's also a complete and utter lack of people up at the top. No footpath and a steep ascent helps. So I don't have to worry about being stared at or challenged by anybody whilst "hiding" behind tree trunks....

The quieter part of my playground   :)

If I may take just a moment more of your time, I'd like to offer a heartfelt thank you to all you guys and gals who visit this blog, especially those of you who leave such lovely comments. And I'll try not to have any more three month gaps between posts... Happy New Year to you all, if you set any resolutions or challenges I hope you do well with them. 

Oh, speaking of challenges - now is the perfect time to sign up for the 1000 species in a 1KSQ Challenge. You just need to drop an email or tweet and that's it. Find out about it all here. The guy to contact is Andy Musgrove, you can do that by emailing him at andy at bubo dot org, or tweet @andymus1 (obviously put the email address together properly first) and that's it. Easy.

Right, catch you's on the other side, folks. Countdown is initiated!

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Eagle Fly-by

Took myself off for a wander today, the sun was out and most of the ice has melted away. Still plenty of snow up on the hills though, looks pretty raw up there. 

I sat myself down to watch the gulls come in for their daily wash, preen and loaf routine. Sat there for quite a while, endured a light hailstorm and eventually quit with cold fingers. No sign of any Iceland Gulls today, though a first winter Black-headed Gull was a pleasant find. They really aren't at all common up here, despite the fact that I've counted over 60 down at Portree. 

Out in the bay I could see several birds on the sea, all very distant but at least two of them were definitely Great Northern Divers. A few Shags, Eider and Red-breasted Mergansers summed up interest. There was a flock of 28 Curlew in the sheep fields which is by far and away the largest count I've had here. A clear sign of cold weather movement, I guess. I still wanted to get a closer view of the birds on the sea so made the (rather rash) decision to quit the square and view them from the end of the pier.

Once on the pier, some heavy scanning produced two Grey Seals, a few more Eider, a Black Guillemot and a Black-throated Diver of interest. Up against the clouds I spotted a White-tailed Eagle wheeling about, massive yet somehow awkward looking with its huge great wings producing a rather ungraceful, ponderous look. 

Heading back towards my square I spotted another huge raptor soaring across the bay, spooking the flock of Wigeon into flight (down from 15 to 13 birds, it appears). Raising my bins I was thrilled to note it was a Golden Eagle - and heading my way! I tried digi-binning it but couldn't find it in the bins, eventually I just held my camera into the air and rattled off a few images. This is what I managed on full zoom

Golden Eagle
Nothing awkward or clunky looking about this fine fella, I expect it could probably fly rings around that White-tailed Eagle. A Buzzard on a telegraph post brought the raptor tally to a close. 

Back in the woods, I studiously ignored the mass of bryophytes all around. I'm just biding my time now, my next day off work will be 1st January 2018. January is my Bryophyte Month, if you haven't seen it yet, and don't know what I'm talking about, have a look through the Plans for 2018 tab which can be found just below the header image above. 

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

And another Iceland Gull

First and foremost, I watched the Jason Bourne films back-to-back last night, what a truly brilliant way to spend an entire night! If you haven't seen them (and why the heck not???) I urge you to give them a try. I thought the Bourne Legacy was just a spin off, so didn't bother with that. Now I realise I need to go back and watch it, so that's tonight's entertainment sorted. (Edit - shouldn't have bothered after all. Mediocre spin-off at best, though the wrestling with a wolf was kinda unexpected). I don't usually mong out in front of the screen, but the Bourne films are just so fantastic. Much better than my previous filmfest which consisted of watching the Matrix films back to back. Man, I must have been desperately bored on that particular night! 

Here's Bourne right at the beginning of the first film, after being plucked out of the sea, unconscious and with two bullets in his back, with no recollection of who he is, what he does, or where he's going next
And here he is nearing the grand finale of the final film, haggard, weary, worn but every bit as relentlessly unstoppable as ever
And no, I most definitely do not have a man crush on the Jason Bourne character. Even though he is kind of ridiculously amazing and I wanna be just like him. Ahem.

Meanwhile, back in the real world...

Nipped out to the beach after a sneaky half day at work (though I was soon roped into doing an evening shift, so it's all swings and roundabouts) and managed about an hour's worth of half decent light. A quick scan through the gull flock saw me quickly pick up another Iceland Gull, this one a first winter jobbie. I even managed a better than usual pic through the bins. Still crap, but better than I hoped for. 

Nice pale 1st winter bird, easily aged by virtue of the dark eye and mostly dark bill
I've tried to knock up some sort of a montage of all three Iceland Gulls that I've found here over the past fortnight. It hasn't really come out too well, the originals were all pretty poor, but it does at least show them side by side

L > R   1st winter (15th Dec), 2nd winter (21st Dec) and today's (27th Dec) 1st winter Iceland Gulls
All taken in different lighting conditions and at different distances, but I think the two 1st winter birds are clearly different individuals, the first one (left bird in the pic) had a noticeably dark breast which showed up in profile views too. Today's bird has a much cleaner-looking breast. 

Wigeon were up to 15, the highest count I've had here so far this winter, with not much else happening to sea. The overnight snow is still laying in the hills but has mostly melted and turned to ice down here at sea level. My first job this morning was to salt the driveway, car park, paths, steps etc and that'll be my last job tonight too, thanks to the midday thaw washing it all away again. Tomorrow is meant to be cold but dry, could well be worth getting out again.

Here's a Mottled Umber that I spied sitting beneath a security light a couple of days back, first one I've seen since February. I still find it weird that some insects have actually evolved to be winter active, just seems wrong.

Male Mottled Umber - the females are entirely wingless (though they can scramble very well indeed!)

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Waiter, there's a sheep in my garden!

I've not felt massively well this past week or so. Probably too much time at the laptop and not enough in the fresh air. I think I've caught a bug off my housemate, despite airing the house as much as possible whenever he's out. Meh. As for sleep - hell yeah, I remember that. Vaguely.

The weather was pretty decent today, still quite cold but the wind has dropped and not a hint of rain was forecast. Right, to the beach it is! But first, what the hell is making that noise outside my window? Sounded like someone creeping around out there, making weird chewing noises. The heck? I quietly crept across my room and cautiously leaned out of the window - and watched a sheep jump three feet into the air as it noticed me, crazy bastard thing!

Caught quietly contemplating the meaning of god, life and the sad disappearance of 80s thrash metal, I expect...
Anyway, I shooed it out of the garden and headed down to the beach. On the shop wall I somehow noticed this chap, almost invisible such was the incredible depth of camouflage exhibited

Male Winter Moth (the females are all but wingless so, er yeah - it's a male innit)
After being quite heavily stared at for taking a pic of a shop wall from a distance of about 4 inches (bloody tourists, about time they all pissed off I say), I bolted for the relative safety of the woods and the beach. Non-naturalists ought to be made to see the error of their ways. Or beaten almost to death. Maybe both. You laugh, but think about this - how different would this whole world of ours be if the folks running the planet were all mad keen naturalists rather than capitalist bastard scum corporations dealing in chemicals, pollutants, resources and oil? 

Anyway, full of hatred for mankind, I trotted into the woods and spied the gull flock out on the beach. A quick scan and I picked up an Iceland Gull again, sweet! The distance was too great to say for certain whether it was the same bird that I found last week or a different individual. I took a battery of images through the bins and hoped at least a few would turn out. They didn't. This was about the best of a bad lot
As you can see, the light wasn't great!
Zooming in real close, I think this is actually a 2w bird. My bird from last week was a 1w, so this is the second individual here in just under a week. Nationally, there has been a southward movement of Iceland Gulls over the past few days. My first bird could be in Stranraer right now, or maybe across in Ireland. This particular bird may have been in Shetland last week, or maybe just up the coast a bit at Ullapool, who knows? It was a delight to find anyway, just need that big bruiser of a Glauc to pitch in with the GBBs next. Oh, and another Ivory Gull would be quite nice too - whilst local birder Martin (finder of the last Ivory Gull) is still on holiday in Spain. Looking at a bloody Lesser Spotted Eagle, would you believe!

I watched the gulls right up until they spooked and scattered in all directions. Lowering my bins I noticed two people and their dog wander across the beach, reach the point where the gulls had been settled, then turn around and walk back again. You know how I mentioned beating non-naturalists almost to death.....

Got another mystery shroom that I need help with. Very similar to the other mystery shroom of last week, except these are a decidedly warm orange colour rather than a mottled grey-brown. Just as slimy too. Seriously folks, all suggestions welcomed, even rude ones (heck, especially rude ones!)

There's a female Tawny Owl making a lot of noise outside my window as I type this. There's no wind, it's relatively warm. I think I know what's on her mind tonight. Today has been the shortest day, so presumably tonight will be the longest? Hope the male Tawny makes it through to dawn in one piece, she really does sound rather insistent!

1000 Species Breakdown

Back near the start of this year I signed myself up for the 1000 in 1KSQ Challenge. In a nutshell, the goal of the challenge is to record 1000 wild species in a chosen 1km square during the course of a single calendar year. Naturally I chose NG3963, what with it being the 1km square this whole blog revolves around. On 19th December, after a late dash for the finish line, the 1000th species for the square finally fell. Whoop whoop for me! It was a 4mm long water snail, one I'd not seen before. Nice.

In all seriousness, 1000 species is a totally respectable tally for my first year on Skye. I'm now living a long, long way north and diversity just isn't what it was down south in warmer climes. So saying, a tremendous amount of pace and enthusiasm was lost halfway through the year. My nadir was probably September/October/November when enthusiasm for getting out there and identifying some of the more obscure species was very decidedly lacking. Even the blogging fell by the wayside for three whole months. However, December proved to be an absolute life saver, with a good chunk of species secured in a short space of time. What was lacking in 2017 was 'A Plan of Attack'. After a full year in the square, I now have that plan - but more about that in the following blogpost.

I've broken the species seen in 2017 into categories and tallied up how many were seen for each. I've also shown my projected tallies as they were at the start of the year. Plus I've chucked in how many of those were lifers for me. Without a doubt, this will prove both stupefyingly boring and uber geeky to everybody but myself. Ho hum, you know the rules - my blog, sucks to be you...

Algae - 45 species (25 predicted) 33 lifers!
Slime Moulds - 2 species (2 predicted) 1 lifer
Protists - 1 species (5 predicted) 1 lifer, it being my very first protist
Lichens - 55 species (60 predicted) 16 lifers
Fungi - 96 species (50 predicted) 37 lifers
Bryophytes - 55 species (60 predicted) 22 lifers
Vascular plants - 273 species (140 predicted) 19 lifers
Sponges - 1 species (2 predicted)
Cnidarians - 3 species (5 predicted)
Molluscs - 40 species (50 predicted) 8 lifers
Bryozoans - 8 species (8 predicted) 2 lifers
Annelids - 9 species (15 predicted) 4 lifers
Platyhelminths - 6 species (7 predicted) 2 lifers
Arachnids - 26 species (20 predicted) 4 lifers
Myriapods - 12 species (15 predicted) 2 lifers
Crustaceans - 10 species (20 predicted) 1 lifer
Springtails - 4 species (4 predicted) 1 lifer
Bristletails - 1 species (1 predicted)
Odonata - 1 species (3 predicted)
Orthoptera - 1 species (4 predicted)
Hemiptera - 22 species (45 predicted) 11 lifers
Hymenoptera - 12 species (40 predicted) 10 lifers
Coleoptera - 37 species (70 predicted) 19 lifers
Diptera - 62 species (60 predicted) 32 lifers
Butterflies - 5 species (6 predicted)
Moths - 93 species (140 predicted - assuming use of a light-trap, which I didn't have) 12 lifers
Other Insects - Lacewings 1, Stoneflies 3, Caddisflies 1 = 5 species (20 predicted) 4 lifers
Echinoderms - 1 species (4 predicted)
Tunicates - 0 species (4 predicted)
Fish - 7 species (10 predicted) 2 lifers
Amphibians - 1 species (2 predicted)
Reptiles - 0 species (2 predicted)
Birds - 94 species (90 predicted)
Mammals - 10 species (10 predicted)
Others (Nemerteans) - 1 species (1 predicted)

Total of 243 lifers out of 1000 species

The Losses -
Despite being full of hope for tackling beetles, bugs and aculeates this year, I really didn't do very well with them at all. And it's not as though I anticipated high totals for any of these groups. What a flop! Though a quick squint at the numbers will show that well over half of the handful of species I did see were lifers for me. Massive gains could be had in these three groups alone. And expecting 5 protists, was I actually mad? The complete lack of reptiles was a surprise, I felt certain I'd at least see a Common Lizard at some point. Odonata and orthoptera are two other groups mysteriously scarce up here. One of each is just shocking! The sea itself proved surprisingly disappointing, I fell short on each of my cnidarian, tunicate, echinoderm, crustacean, fish and sponge targets - but this was most probably down to my own lack of effort in low tide explorations. They're all out there, I just need to try harder. The other big under-achiever was moths, but that's entirely expected seeing as I anticipated using a light-trap and never actually did. 

The Gains -
I completely and utterly smashed my predicted tallies for plants and algae. The plant total was almost double that which I'd given at the start of the challenge, likewise the algae tally was not far short of being double the predicted total. I surprised myself with attaining almost 100 species of fungi, though a disproportionate number were host-specific micro-fungi. The macro-fungi are still largely beyond my abilities. Arachnids were slightly ahead of the predicted tally as were birds whilst diptera was at almost exactly the anticipated total. 

The Future -
I now know that 1000 species can be attained by blindly fumbling and bumbling in circles throughout the year. Having only arrived on Skye four weeks prior to the start of this year, I had no previous experience to work from, no insider gen, no real idea of what to expect. I only had one really decent session at lowest tides, way back in January when the lovely Aimée Pixie Girl was still here. March was the first time I'd seen flowers starting to bloom on the woodland floor. April was the first time I'd seen leaves on trees. It was May before the summer migrant birds started returning. I didn't discover the Sphagnum bog until late July. But now I have twelve months experience under my natural history belt - and that 'masterful plan' as mentioned in the previous post. So yeah, I have some thoughts regards the coming twelve months. 

2018 will be like no other year in natural history, not that I've ever experienced anyway. Only another ten days to go.....

Here's a short video of a tardigrade found hiding in a Sphagnum sample last week. Tardigrades are proper hardcore little beasties. They've been frozen to absolute zero and revived, been subjected to intense radiation and survived, been squished by huge pressures and come bouncing back, they've even been put in an absolute vacuum and come out the other side fighting fit. My own thoughts are that tardigrades are not indigenous to this planet, but are panspermia travellers. They've already been rocketed into space and been subjected to solar radiation, proving that life can exist out there.

However, as this clip shows, flip one onto its back and it's fucked!

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

1000 Species Challenge Complete!

Done. Dusted. Over. Phew!

Today I found my 1000th species in NG3963 for the year, and so have finally made it to the finish line in the 1000 in a 1ksq Challenge.  Species no.1000 was a lifer for me too, hence was a doubly pleasing find. Here it is, in all of its, er... 'glory'

Jenkin's Spire Shell Potamopyrgus antipodarum - an invasive non-native freshwater snail
I found this beastie quite by accident, there were several of them in the fine sediment attached to some water-weed I had collected in the hope of finding more microscopic algae. I didn't even notice them in the pot until I'd removed the weed and found them motoring around the edges of the container. Only 4 or 5mm in length, with several even smaller specimens mixed in, this is a species I had never heard of before today.  

A quick bit of online research informed me that this shallow-water Australian sea snail has successfully invaded much of the planet, soon moving into brackish waters, then freshwater. It can tolerate both low and high temperatures, can survive limited desiccation, can occur in huge numbers (several hundreds of thousands per square metre in parts of North America), is happy in running or still water, even surviving in sewerage, and can clog water pipes and turbines with its sheer numbers. And it's taken me until now to find...bloody amateur! It has a very widespread distribution throughout most of Britain as this NBN map shows. Here's the habitat where it occurs in this particular part of Skye.

Small, nutrient-enriched stream with associated area of boggy woodland floor
This stream comes out from a grazing field, currently home to a few sheep and young cows. It travels just 150 feet or so before leaving the cover of woodland and spills into a channel at the top of the saltmarsh above the beach. It's a very different type of water chemistry to the one I've been recently checking up at the Sphagnum bog, so I had high hopes for a different suite of micro-algae. Unfortunately, all I found was a single unidentified diatom and a few nematodes. I think that standing water is going to prove far better than flowing when it comes to micro-algae colonisation. 

But anyway, I've hit 1000 for the year - huzzah! 

My next post will be some sort of a breakdown of those 1000 species into various categories. At the start of the year I made some projected guesses for how many species I hoped to find in each taxonomical category. I think I hoped for 90 species of birds, it's actually 94 so that's pretty close. I hoped for something like 170 species of plants but have ended up with over 280 species, so my guesswork was way out that time. I have even bigger plans for 2018, but you'll have to wait until after the next post before I spill the beans. It's a masterful plan though.

(Leave 'em on a cliff-hanger, yeah that's the way to do it...)

As an aside, I've just submitted this years' moth records to the CMR. I never did get a light-trap running, hence only managed to drum up a tad over 90 species, but it did include a few microlep records (for which he was most happy seeing as his database is almost devoid of micro records) including one which is new to Skye. That "masterful plan" for 2018 WILL include a light-trap with associated "trap notebook". It's been a very long time since I ran a trap and I'm looking forward to it immensely. Not quite so keen to experience the "midges an inch deep in the bottom of a trap" that I've heard talk of though.

Friday, 15 December 2017

End of the Rainbow

Had to get out today, if only to clear my head of micro-algae and stuff. I headed up to the cemetery and was treated to this damn fine sight

Seems to terminate at the beach, would I hit gold at the end of this rainbow?
Whilst up there, I had a quick peer at a gravelly track that leads to a storage barn, plenty of New Zealand Willowherb everywhere, leaves looking like leafy chains sprawling across the ground. I noticed some tiny, glaucous-looking rosettes growing in the mossy turf, looked rather like a small Polytrichum to me. Here's a pic of it in situ

Pogonatum urnigerum - one I've seemingly and repeatedly ignored many, many times!
I keyed this through using all three of my bryophyte books (something I plan to do for all mosses and liverworts from now onwards) and even managed to take a cross-section of the leaf! Being a Pogonatum (previously Polytrichum) the leaf is multi-layered, as opposed to most mosses which have leaves only a single cell deep. According to the books, the uppermost cells are papillose, which is to say they are covered in tiny bobbles. Here's the worst pic you will ever see of a cross-sectioned Pogonatum urnigerum leaf

Awful innit!
Anyway, the dark matter is the leaf, the grey is just background. Note that the rounded lumps at the top of the leaf are covered in numerous circular bobbles. These are the papillose cells the keys mention. In all honesty, if you can make sense of this image then you're a star, because it's shockingly poor! But I tried, I'm really attempting to properly nail my bryophyte IDs now, some of my previous records will be mis-identifications, I know this. But I'm trying to be as thorough as I can now that I have the literature and compound microscope. Anyway...back to that rainbow...

I headed down to the shore, trusting that the glorious multicolored arc made by light striking water droplets would indeed reveal my metaphorical pot of gold. And by buggery it did too! First scan and BOOM! - Iceland Gull in the bins!!!

Massively cropped 1w Iceland Gull, patch gold!!!
I've been scanning the gull flock for just over a year now, obviously comprising innumerable short scans rather than one hugely long one, and finally something decent! The dark eye and largely dark bill age this as a bird born this summer, from all the way over in Greenland. That's quite impressive, I'm pretty sure I couldn't have managed that sort of a journey when I was just six months old. Technically it's pretty much still in juvenile plumage, Iceland Gulls barely moult into their next age plumage. However, in this day and age saying "juvenile" will just get you a condescending look even if, as in this case, it's pretty accurate. 1cy Iceland Gull is a safe bet though, so let's stick with that!

Ridiculously cropped and enlarged image of the 1cy Iceland Gull
Not entirely unexpected, to be fair. Local birder Martin Lumb has had Iceland and Glaucous Gulls on the beach in previous years. He also found this Ivory Gull that took up short-term residency here a few years back, jammy bugger! But this is my first 'white-winger' for the patch and my 95th species of bird for NG3963. Maybe the 100th will be something mega, Willet would be kinda pleasing (!)

I wandered through the woods, hoping to flush a Woodcock or two. I managed one, always better than none. Upturning a few large stones in the woodland floor I came up trumps with the rather striking flatworm Kontikia andersoni, this being the 3rd or 4th I've had in these woods this year. 

At well over 1.5cm long, quite a large individual - if rather pale and insipid
And finally, this mystery fungus found growing on a moss-covered fallen log. Largest cap was approximately 3"x4" growing on the sheltered side of the log in overlapping tiers. Very slimy cap, smelled very strongly of mushroom (no surprise there...) and should be obvious. But I can't match it. Suggestions/answers welcomed, folks!

I shall be returning to the microscopic algae blogging soon, seeing as I have a few more pics and IDs sorted. You lucky, lucky peeps.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Little Stars

Continuing on from last night's blog post - it seemed that the tiny drop of water I'd collected from the edge of my local Sphagnum bog was absolutely hotching with microscopic plant life. Some of these don't exactly grab my attention by the jugular, but others do - especially the desmids! One family was very well represented in my bog water sample - Micrasterias. I've never even clapped eyes on one of these until midnight last night, but I'm really quite taken with them now. The mighty Freshwater Algal Flora of the British Isles introduces the family as follows -

Cells strongly compressed so that almost always observed in face view, approximately circular in outline and multilobed appearing like small, dissected leaves or little stars as the generic name indicates. 

If that wasn't cute enough in itself, the author gushes on with this rather unscientific prose - 

Micrasterias includes the most striking of all desmids, if not all plant and animal cells.

Wow, that's saying a lot! I can see why Alan Brook, the author of this section of the flora, is quite so taken with the genus. They're marvellous little things. Enough waffle, have some pics. I'll explain each species' diagnostic features as we go along.

Micrasterias rotata
So what you're looking at is one alga divided into two broadly symmetrical halves called subcells. Each subcell is itself divided into lobes which radiate outwards from the centre point, the middle (polar) lobe and two lateral lobes. Each of the lateral lobes is further divided halfway towards the outer edge, and again three quarters to the outer edge. Finally, these small divisions are also divided just before the outer margin. 

In order to determine which of the 18 British species you're looking at you need to run a set of characters through the key. Mostly this concerns the shape of the polar lobe's margin, how closely divided the lateral lobes are, extent of divergence of the lobes from each other, whether or not there are teeth present on the margins, spines or granules on the cell and the overall general outline shape.

The species in the image above is the commonest one in my sample. The key feature to look at is the polar lobe - see how it projects beyond the lateral lobes? Add to this the retuse shape of the polar lobe - it has a distinct notch on the margin - plus a few further details (such as the pronounced bidentate angles, deep constriction of the isthmus, linear sinus, narrow incisions between the lateral lobes), and that tells us we're looking at Micrasterias rotata. Sweet! 

Polar lobe extends beyond lateral lobes and has a retuse (notched) tip = Micrasterias rotata
The relevant text in the Flora says Subcosmopolitan, widespread in the British Isles in acid habitats, especially amongst Sphagnum and in the weedy margins of nutrient-poor lakes.

Next up, and the second commonest of the Micrasterias in my sample, is this chappie

Micrasterias denticulata
Note that, unlike M.rotata, the polar lobe does not project beyond the terminal lobes in this species. It also lacks the sharp angles to the lobe tip, hence exhibits a smoothly rounded rather than toothed appearance. The whole body of the cell is rounded rather than ovoid and the margins are smooth rather than toothed. This is Micrasterias denticulata and the flora has the following to say

Cosmopolitan, one of the most common and widespread of the British species. It can sometimes be obtained in almost pure gatherings especially amongst Sphagnum in small bogs, ditches or boggy springs. 

There is a very similar, closely related species which is also common and widespread and needs to be ruled out. The whitish circle in the centre of the alga is the nucleus. The undivided inner part of the alga surrounding this nucleus is known as the isthmus. Note it appears pretty much devoid of features. Also check the length of the polar lobe. It starts roughly halfway towards the outer margin. Agree with those two features? (I hope so!) Ok, so the lookalike species is M.thomasiana, which is also common and widespread in Britain. But...M.thomasiana shows three elaborate protuberances at the base of each semicell and isthmus (ie around the nucleus). There is a sneaky "variety" though which has reduced protuberances, so could easily be mistaken for M.denticulata. However, the polar lobe of M.thomasiana (both vars) is much longer than that of M.denticulata, starting well before halfway to the outer edge. 

At this juncture you may be thinking, "gee, this guy really knows his stuff!" Well guess what, looking at a couple more of my "denticulata" images, I think I may have thomasiana too. I've literally just seen it, if it is. I wasn't expecting that. I'm going to have to go back to the microscope and play around with the focus wheel, twisting it back and forth changes the depth of field. My 2-D images aren't good enough, I need a 3-D look at them. Here's one of the 'problem' specimens - check out the length of that polar lobe, well over halfway to the isthmus isn't it?
Could this be M.thomasiana var.notata with the reduced protuberances????

I'm wondering of the pair of darker green patches to either side of the nucleus are the protuberances. It would probably help if I had previous experience of these things. Or a grown-up to help me out. I need to pay attention to the minute detail of the polar lobe margins, there should be a couple of tiny, tiny teeth (or sometimes just one tooth) on the outside edge of the notch. Plus the lobe tips are meant to be different, though I suspect it's a sliding-scale interpretation difference, not a clear cut thing.

So, er...stay tuned folks. More madness and mayhem coming your way soon!

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Frozen North

The weather has turned bitter of late. First we were severely thumped by Storm Caroline, though thankfully we didn't lose power or roofs this time. Then we had hail, followed by snow for a couple of days. But today it dawned bright and calm. Well, I'm assuming it did. I didn't actually wake up until after 9am and it was certainly bright and calm by then. Still some snow on the ground but fading fast, I grabbed my hat and headed up the hill towards the bog area. I wanted to gather some more samples and have another look for microscopic algae. Unfortunately, I hadn't really thought it through too well

Right. I might just leave the aquatic sampling for some other time...
Still, the view across the bay was really rather pleasant

I have a brand new camera, an Olympus TG-4 which should outperform my battered two year old £70 jobbie. It has several settings I like the look of, including an image-stacking option on the close-up setting which could come in very useful for photographing lichens, mosses, inverts, flowers etc. I was keen to try it out so headed for the cemetery with its lichen-festooned walls and headstones.

None of these images have been manipulated whatsoever, not cropped or adjusted, just straight off the card unaltered. I'll change from JPEG to RAW next time, JPEG seems to soften everything. I used the image stacking option for a greater depth of field and chose subjects that receded away from the camera lens. I'd have spent a bit longer composing slightly more interesting backgrounds, but my fingers were raw from the icy cold wind - I definitely should have brought gloves!

Not too shabby for first attempts
I was keen to get out of the wind, so hustled down into the woods for shelter and some bryophyte action. The bryophyte workshop earlier this week has inspired me to tackle the little bastar beauties once more, though I've decided to change my methods for collecting them. Usually I grab a couple of dozen samples, pot them up individually, fail to identify the first couple and throw the rest in the bin. From now on I think I'm just going to take four or five examples and really try to key them through properly. Which is exactly what I did today. 

Dicranum majus - a nice easy one with leaf length of well over 10mm
Dicranum majus is a lifer for me, despite it being common as muck across the wooded slope between the A87 and the cemetery. The large size rules out others in the genus. We keyed this one through at the bryophyte workshop, but I certainly wasn't about to lifetick someone else's moss that they'd brought in a pot! This was my first lifer of the day. 

Pogonatum altoides - check out the calyptra on that!
Acrocarpous mosses produce a spore-laden capsule which is normally raised above the leafy parts on a long stalk called a seta. This capsule often has a protective covering called a calyptra, visible here as the (rather blurry) pale things projecting out above the greenery. These are what caught my eye and drew my attention to the moss beneath. A closer look revealed the leaves to be thickened and opaque, unlike most mosses which have leaves only one cell thick. My time at the bryophyte workshop served me well, I knew this was probably a Polytrichum. Once indoors I whacked the leaf under the microscope, noting the chlorophyll-free basal cells and thick green laminar cells covering the rest of the leaf apart from a narrow border maybe 2 or 3 cells wide that ran around the outer margin. Really quite distinctive! The uppermost part of the leaf was toothed, several cells per tooth whilst the capsule itself was papillose (covered in minute bobbles) which ruled out a close lookalike. All of this allowed me to key it through to Pogonatum aloides which used to be in the genus Polytrichum, so I was almost right!

Margin of leaf composed of a layer of single cells, everything else covered in laminar cells several rows deep
Bird's eye view of the calyptra. If a bird was looking down from above, that is.
Plagiothecium undulatum sprawling across a rotten log
This great big beast of a moss is Plagiothecium undulatum, one that I've recorded from here before. It's pretty darn distinctive, with those long, pale "rat tails" draped across rotting logs on the upper slopes of Uig Woods. Nice thing really. 

That should be pretty easy to key through! 
Yep, it certainly was too. This from the BBS key. "Pleurocarps with leaves strongly curved or turned downwards or to one side" Couplet 1 - stems red, robust, rigid, irregularly pinnately branched - Rhytidiadelphus loreus. Ha, nailed it at the first couplet! It looks even better under the microscope. This proved to be my third new moss of the morning. 

Again, looks fairly obvious (do I detect a trend...)
This one turned out to be Neckera complanata, though without the stringy thread-like shoots it's supposed to have. Microscopic examination of the shape of the cells in different parts of the leaf helped clinch the identity. I thought I'd seen this before, but apparently not, hence this was my fourth new moss of the morning! Deciding to quit mosses whilst I was ahead, I wandered down to Shore Woods and found a couple of microfungi I didn't recognise. 

First up was a rather boring leafspot on Foxglove which was Ascochyta moelleriana (not molleriana as Ellis & Ellis spell it) followed by a much nicer looking thing on Primrose leaves

Phyllosticta primulicola colony on underside of infected Primrose leaf
The upperside of the Primrose leaf exhibited a distinct yellowish patch, it was this that initially caught my eye. This bad boy was all over the underside of those yellow patches. Note that it actually holes the infected tissue too. I've never knowingly seen this fungus before, so that's a total of six lifers today! It reminded me of the microfungus that occurs on Herb-Robert, though that occurs on the upper surface of the leaf, not the underside. I had a quick search until I found some

A particularly heavy infection of Coleroa robertiana on Herb-Robert

LATE NIGHT UPDATE: managed to grab the tiniest sample of bog water whilst I was up there. A quick peek through the microscope at midnight revealed many of these beautiful things

I've yet to look at them properly, but I suspect I have several species of Micrasterias. I think they may include M.rotata, M.denticulata and M.thomasiana, but I'm going to have to wait until tonight before having a proper look at them. Glorious wee things though!

So there you have it. Nearly four months of nothing followed by two blogposts in three days. Yes folks, I'm officially back! Bookmark this page, I expect to see you back here again soon.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Microscopic Freshwater Algae

Yeah-yeah, so it's been a while. I know this. I have a huge backlog of weird happenings, crazy tales and amazing new species to share with you, dear reader. In all fairness, you deserve an apology for my atrocious lack of blogging. Which is a shame really, coz I'm just not the apologising type. Sorry 'bout that...(What? No way, I was tricked - dammit!)

Yesterday I attended the first indoor workshop of the recently formed Skye Nature Group. Yep, we've formed a new club, but more (much more) of that at a later date. Nick Hodgetts is the local bryophyte expert, he's actually a national expert too, and rather handily lives just a couple of miles away from here. He led yesterday's bryophyte workshop and has very kindly loaned me his copy of the huge Freshwater Algal Flora of the British Isles. Hell yeah, I've been wanting to have a look through this book for quite some time now! First impressions are impressive. I may have to treat myself.

I'm not known for my petite thumbs - this really is a chunky ol' book!

Lumpy old beast isn't it! It covers over 1700 species (out of approx 2200) though unfortunately doesn't include the diatoms. Anyway, I have a folder of freshwater algae images on my new laptop, some of which were provisionally identified. This mighty tome has allowed me to correct one misidentification and name another species, plus put a few more to family level. So here's a set of images of the microscopic wonders I hauled out of the bog at the top of the hill in mid-September. All came from a small sample of Delicate Stonewort Chara virgata, which stunk my room out with the most awful garlicky smell - I really wasn't expecting that! Bear in mind that these were taken down the barrel of my microscope and are somewhat massively cropped, hence the less-than-mediocre (ok, so let's just call it crap) image quality. 

This is the ultra-funky Euastrum oblongum, amazing isn't it! About a billionth of a mm in length, roughly...
Another Euastrum oblongum with an unidentified (and presumed) Closterium sp. Just so cool. 
EDIT - it's Netrium digitus, not a Closterium at all
This is the very common Euastrum didelta, and not E.humerosum as I initially thought.
Closterium sp - there are over 60 species in Britain, I haven't much hope of nailing this from the pic though.
Probably in the genus Cosmarium. Many similar species, so not a hope of getting further with this individual
Desmidium grevillea - encapsulated in an almost invisible gelatinous sheath, can you see it yet?
I wondered if this was a Cosmarium. Probably not though. Check out that swanky ol' sculptured surface!
Pediastrum angulosum colony - the book sussed this for me, I had no clue!
Despite looking very distinctive, I have not a clue as to what these buggers are!
Staurodesmus convergens - shame it is so badly out of focus. Looks like mating Manta Rays to me...
No bloody idea - looks like a halved cucumber and ought to be obvious. I'll check the book again later... 
EDIT: checked later and came up with none other than Netrium interruptum, cool!
I have to admit that I absolutely love scanning through ditchwater for micro-organisms. It's a real fascination for me to quietly observe the life in a few drops of water, slowly moving around and cautiously bumping into each other whilst a tiny something whizzes past as a spinning streak of motion. And it's genuinely very satisfying when, after a few hours online, I manage to place these tiny lifeforms to genus, maybe even to species. Then to look them up in the Algal Flora and have it confirmed that you can confidently get some individuals down to species. Now that - well, that makes me happy. Naming something that I can't even see with the naked eye, whatever next? Damn, but I love this Pan-species Listing craic!