Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Failing Azalea...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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