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.
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... 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. To me, it still seems most peculiar to see plants merrily gliding around all by themselves. I mean c'mon, they're plants! Plants don't actively swim around! Haha, 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 bizarre 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 brings me such a sense of achievement, it actually makes me happy. Naming something that I can't even see with the naked eye, and not even with a handlens, whatever next? Damn, but I love this Pan-species Listing craic!

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Kellogg's Barkfly -They're Gr-r-reat!

Just a very brief post, one without any images too. 

I managed to break my laptop a wee while back and am now using an old Samsung Chromebook that a member of staff kindly let me take off his hands. I'm kinda struggling with the way it works though and uploading images is a complete 'mare. So until I figure a quicker way of doing things, this is all you're getting. Sucks to be you...

The weather here has been either wet (when I'm not working) or lovely (when I'm on shift) so I haven't seen too much of note lately, though I did blast out today and added a few new species to my 1000 Species Challenge. I'm up to 869 species now. Would be nice to hit 900 by the end of the month, but that's probably about as likely as a Yellow Warbler turning up on my bird feeders.

I found a very small, very fast, hairy thing on the underside of a rock today. I somehow chased it down and popped it into a pot. Turned out to the uncommon psocid Pteroxanium kelloggi (what a cracking name!) NBN shows just two records for Scotland, the Barkfly Recording Scheme states that it is uncommon in Britain and Ireland. I emailed a set of images to the Highland Recorder, once I'd figured out how to find them.

Anyway, that's quite enough bitchin' from me. Hopefully normal service will be resumed fairly quickly. I'll try and make it a good one for you :) 

Click here if you would like to see what a Kellogg's Barkfly actually looks like!

Saturday, 5 August 2017


A few weeks ago I found myself chatting to a local chap who's somewhat into nature. He happened to mention that the local postman had photo's of a stork he saw in a field last year, a field where there are often herons standing out in the open. So I didn't precisely rush to follow it up. 

Yesterday I was chatting with the postman and asked if he was certain it was a stork and not a heron he'd seen. "Well I don't really know myself, it looked different so I took a few pictures and then Andy thought it was a stork. Let me get my camera and find the picture for you..." Several minutes later he showed me the set of images. Boom! Today he handed me a hardcopy of one of the images, he'd printed it out and written a few details on the back. Top man!

This is by no means the best shot that he took of the bird, in some pics it's almost full-frame. But he felt this image gave a good idea of the behaviour he witnessed. The farmer is Willie, he's ploughing in potatoes and the stork is on the look out for exposed food items. On the Continent this could be frogs, mice, lizards or grasshoppers. Here in Uig it was probably leatherjackets and worms. Each time the tractor created a furrow the stork would walk in and investigate, then walk back into the field as the tractor passed by, before returning once more to the disturbed earth. Nice sighting. Amazing, actually. Great that he had his camera with him in the van!

Now that I was happy with the identification, I needed to notify the local and regional bird recorders, White Stork is a proper Skye Mega! According to Bob McMillan's Skye Birds book there is only one previous record for Skye, one at Broadford on 21st April 1977. The Uig bird was seen on 22nd April 2016, exactly 39 years and a day after the first! 

I emailed Bob (Skye bird recorder), who brought in Peter Stronach (Highland Region bird recorder) who advised that despite this not being my record, I still need to fill in the description form. The photo's are conclusive, the time of year is perfect for a spring overshooting migrant. Job's a goodun, they just need a record to be submitted. I've never submitted someone else's bird before. Seems a bit weird, but Bob says it's fine. 

In other news, the local Buzzards fledged one youngster which has been pulling some crazy aerobatic antics in the evening sun. They nested just across the road from the hotel, much to the annoyance of the local Hooded Crows, so I see them daily. Tonight I watched the parent birds and the youngster engaging in mock battles, all necessary skills for a youngster to learn and master. Here he is right outside my window

Kids, with their perfect, undamaged flight feathers. The poor parent birds are looking a bit worse for wear, tatty secondaries and nicked primaries, one is missing part of its tail. 

Anyway, here's a toon for the masses. Holy crapsters, this song is 23 years old, HOW did that happen??? Please, enjoy

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Potty about Montbretia

Last week, whilst gate-crashing the Wild Flower Society field meeting, I learnt of the existence of a plant called Potts' Montbretia  (Crocosmia pottsii) which apparently grows wild on Skye. Ian Green, BSBI recorder for Moray and our glorious leader on the day, had found a clump the night before (in/near Portree, I think) and had brought a plant with him to exhibit to the rest of us. Happily it appears that I actually took in the relevent details, for this evening I spotted a large clump of a suspicious-looking 'montbretia' growing along the verge at the top of Cuil Road. I've seen it before but had always assumed it was bog standard Montbretia. I grabbed a plant and brought it home with me. 

This, I believe, is Potts' Montbretia. Note the short flowerheads which are held in a more upright position and are of a deeper reddish-orange colour than the usual Montbretia.

Note also that the stem between the flowerheads is far straighter than the zig-zag effect of Montbretia

And finally, unlike Montbretia, the leaves are very upright and spear-like, not at all floppy or droopy. Also note that it is now August and I am wearing a thick jumper. The weather up here is a fickle ol' thing. All I know is that the midges were positively teeming this morning and again this evening. Maybe one day I'll be able to identify them to species level.

I'm off plant-bothering with the Skye Botany Group tomorrow. I shall be bringing my Potts' Montbretia with me, see if between us we can't put a few more dots on the map for it. I'll also finally be meeting Steve Terry, a Broadford based naturalist who seems to know his stuff. Let's hope it stays dry...

Monday, 31 July 2017

The Beast of Boggy Creek

You may recall that last week I discovered a Sphagnum bog in my square. This came as a delightful surprise, a new habitat means a whole new suite of species. And indeed I did add quite a selection of bog-loving plants and a few inverts too. But, being the kind of PSLer who is never happy with what he's got, I needed to get back up there and try for more boggy stuff. I had one near-mythical creature in mind, The Beast...

But before all that, whilst doing the mowing, I managed to see my first Scotch Argus of NG3963 (the lines on the lawn may have gone a bit awry at that moment) followed by a Common Hawker in the hotel grounds, which quite unbelievably represents my first odonata of the year in Uig! No pics of either though. 

After work I headed up the hill in the early evening light and entered the bog in search of The Beast. Due in part to the recent rains, and part because it's a bog anyway, it was just a tad moist underfoot

Makes a fantastic noise though!
Lots of Marsh Cinquefoil, Bogbean and Sphagnums are the giveaway signs to it being somewhat wet underfoot. I went bog-hopping, never standing still for too long (else I began to sink) and aiming for any tussocks where available. Probably be a good idea to bring my wellies next time. 

I stumbled into a fine patch of Lesser Clubmoss including several bearing cones. It's a rather diminutive plant but one that I'm becoming fond of, with its spiky leaves and weird fruitbodies. 

Habitat shot amongst sedges, sundews, heather, tormentil and Sphagnums
Microscope pic showing the cones nestled amongst the spiky leaves
 Another locally dominant plant was this bad boy

Common Cottongrass Eriophorum angustifolium amongst Lesser Spearwort
Suddenly the sedges immediately ahead of me moved as something large and heavy pushed its way forward. I froze, could it be....could it really be...that I had found The Beast of Boggy Creek? I quietly shlurped my way forward through the muck. The sedges moved once more as the hidden creature surged powerfully away from me. Shiiiiiiit, I couldn't lose it now! I ran forward, camera at the ready, desperately keen to record the existence of this elusive creature. My adrenalin levels were racing, my heartbeat was pounding in my head, I began to sway with the tension of it all. The sedges moved once more, my quarry had given itself away for the last time. Like a ninja I leapt, camera thrust forward...and there, in all of it's terrible glory stood The Beast itself! Far larger than I could have ever expected, possibly a giant amongst giants. It fixed it's baleful eye upon my stunned visage and it was all I could do to press the shutter button and hope for the best as it loped off once more into the depths of the bog. Had I captured it's image where so many others have failed? Fkk yeah!!!

The Beast...proof for all you non-believers
I didn't quite know what to do with myself after that. Still shaking with disbelief, I could hear it crashing further and further into the bog, smashing down sedges and shaking the earth as it departed. It's not every day one comes face to face with such a creature. Indeed this was my first encounter in the square this year. Maybe one day, at an unexpected moment, I may encounter The Beast once more. Maybe. 

Quitting in the evening light, I turned around and witnessed something truly special

Behold - the grave of a leprechaun...
 This film scared the shite out of me as a child and began my lifelong interest in Sasquatch. I'm gonna watch this tonight for the first time in about 37 years...