Saturday, 31 December 2011

2011 review

2011 has been the wettest year on record, and for Co. Donegal, that's saying something.

The year started in deep frost, which had quite a severe impact on the winter moths: for many of them the local population had a season that lasted just a few days. There have certainly been very few seen locally this year, although whether that's due to last year's frost or this year's rain is difficult to estimate.

April was unseasonally warm and dry, which brought out many insects including the Small Tortoiseshell, Orange Tip, Green-veined White and Speckled Wood butterflies, so the spring was strong and early and I had great hopes for a good year. On May 1st we had a very strange storm which raged for a few days. The cooling effect was so powerful that the emerging leaves on trees were destroyed on the westerly side of most of them. That defoliation was evident all the way through to autumn, when most trees lost their leaves unseasonably early. In between April and October I counted no more than a handful of days where it didn't rain for at least part of the day, and it was touch and go whether my annual fungal foray to Ards forest would be cancelled due to the constant downpour. When I eventually did make it to Ards, the season proved to have been very short (not enough heat?) and most fungi had already gone over.

We had a spell of decent weather in November, but by then the insect population had already hibernated for the winter, so my sightings of anything but plants were few and far between in 2011.

Despite the doom and gloom, I managed to add around 30 new species to my list, two of which are new records for Ireland, and I managed to find associations between two leaf mining moths and Salmonberry, one of which is a first for Ireland (and for the British Isles as a whole) and another is new to Europe (and perhaps new to science). That kind of discovery is what keeps me searching and photographing: as species move around - either through introductions or due to changing weather patterns - new associations will have an opportunity to arise and it's amateurs who will find them.

In 2012 I hope to study mosses in more detail, to continue to search for new and interesting species of all kinds, to search for and report interesting stories about the wildlife around us and to work on the illustrated book which I have been writing for far too long.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Two stragglers and an early starter

After a couple of frosts and a bit of snow (now gone) things have slowed down dramatically and the verges are rather bare and dull. One or two late plants have started to flower, probably as a result of cutting quite early in the season: those plants never got a chance to bloom in their main season, but they still push ahead and produce flowers long after the normal flowering period is over. Meadowsweet, Cow Parsley and Hogweed are examples that I have recently seen newly in flower.

On the other hand, there are some plants that seem to linger on and continue to produce flowers much longer than expected, even after a long season of production. While I was out on a particular chase the other day (more of that later), I spotted Meadow Buttercup:

Meadow Buttercup
And a (rather bedraggled) specimen of Ragwort:

Although the leaves of this Ragwort look like Common Ragwort, the location (stream verge), number of petals and the uneven ripening of the seedhead make me think that this might actually be the hybrid between Common Ragwort and Marsh Ragwort, both of which are present near this location.

The main reason for my trip was to see if any early specimens of Lesser Celandine were in flower. There is one location where I regularly find flowering specimens months ahead of the normal schedule. I cannot fathom why this location should produce unseasonal flowers: it's at a reasonably high altitude (I live in the highest town in Ireland) and although it's a bit sheltered by overhanging Ash trees, it's also dark under their shade. It does, however, receive direct sunlight from the south.

Bang on schedule, I found a few specimens in bud:

Lesser Celandine flower bud

If the usual pattern is followed, these winter buds will never open, but will die off still in a closed state. I have no idea why a spring plant should produce flowers in the dead of winter, but it only happens (as far as I know) in this precise location, and it has happened for at least the last five years.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Ards revisited

As you will know, Ards has become a favourite place for me: the ancient forest with clean, western air is a wonderful resource for anyone who wants to find real treasures. I hoped to find fungi, but we can never be sure what we will find, given their ethereal nature.

From the outset it was clear that the recent cold weather had reduced the numbers of large mushrooms, but there is always plenty to see if you become sensitive to the smaller 'stuff', so I switched my attention to smaller things.

First is a species of Collybia that I have only seen a few times: Collybia aquosa. This is distinguished by its bulbous stipe. Cap is 25mm diameter.

Collybia aquosa
When I got the photographs back to the study, I had a closer look at the beastie on the gills and found this:

Psocid on Collybia
It appears to be a Psocid, or 'bark fly'. These are from a family of insects that eat bark in wild situations, but have become partial to paper in domestic situations, especially with regard to books.

Fungi and mosses are tightly associated: both like damp and darkness. This is Plagiothecium undulatum, which is very readily identified by the almost fish-like appearance of the shoots.

Plagiothecium undulatum
Mosses are very difficult to identify at first encounter, but once the relevant identification steps have been taken (microscopic analysis is essential), they are readily identifiable in situ. One of the identification features is 'leaflets mostly curving in one direction'. This feature is easily identifiable in the field, but less easy to show in a photograph:

Dicranum majus moss

This portrait shows the feature more clearly:

Dicranum majus close-up
I found this minute Waxcap specimen, and although it's far too young to identify, I'd make a decent stab at the Blackening Waxcap, Hygrocybe nigricans, which will turn orange, then red, then black:

Juvenile waxcap
Myxomycetes, or 'Slime moulds' have always been seen as part of the fungal family, but recent research has begun to associate them more with amoeba. They are certainly mobile, and they react to light.

Slime mould
They reproduce by spores and decompose vegetable material, but their mobility and reaction to light make them seem more like animals. These fruitbodies are about 1mm in diameter:

Slime mould close-up

Perhaps a Trichia sp.

On the way back to the car I spotted this grassland Panaeolus sp.:
Panaeolus sp.
And a festive sprig of Holly:
Holly berries

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Spot of bad luck

I took a quick spin round Drumboe woods and found a few things worth noting.

This is a good time of year to find mines of Ectoedemia sp. micromoths in 'green islands' in fallen Oak leaves: the leaves you want are quite easy to identify due to the green part contrasting with the brown of the fallen leaves. These micromoth larvae extend their feeding season by blocking off the chlorophyll return valves in the leaf. This ensures that a supply of food continues to be available even after the leaves have fallen from the tree. The specimen shown below had a bit of bad luck, however:

Ectoedemia micromoth mine in 'green island' in Oak leaf
The mine starts at point A (near the midrib and on a sub-vein of the leaf) and follows the sub-vein for a while before beginning its blotch mine at point B. This is all normal procedure and has so far worked well for the larva. Unfortunately, the point chosen for the blotch happens to be exactly at a place where the valve-closing has failed, and the chlorophyll is gone, making that part of the leaf useless as food. The mine has been aborted at this point, probably because the larva has starved. Leaf-miners follow some fairly complex rules when making their mines to help ensure that:

  • they don't fall out of the leaf
  • they end up at a part of the leaf that contains enough food for their growth and development
  • the mines don't cross themselves, which would force them to encounter (and eat) their own dung

Some of the rules involve following veins, others force a change of direction after a certain amount of time; other decisions are made by the female when she lays the egg. The rules don't always work, but I find that the vast majority of mines are successfully completed. I'm guessing that in this case the rule to turn away from the sub-vein is timed and the location was just plain unlucky.

You can see a normal mine here:

I found a few fungi including this Clitocybe vibecena:

Clitocybe vibecena
And a very gone-over Scleroderma citrinum earthball, resembling nothing so much as a piece of orange-peel:

Scleroderma citrinum earthball
Earth-balls disperse their spores by breaking down the outer surface, enabling the spores to be wind-distributed. The outer crust of the fungus is conveniently structured with fragile fissures which make this break-down much easier.

Even dead and now-useless parts of plants can have innate beauty: this empty seedhead of Hogweed was worth photographing:

Hogweed seedhead

Sycamore leaves are covered in their tar-spot fungus Rhytisma acerinum:

Sycamore tar-spot fungus, Rhytisma acerinum
As usual, this fungus is spread by wind-born spores. Notice that most fungi try their hardest to maximise the area available for spore production: the surface of the fungus is wrinkled and domed.

We have had solid rain for the last two weeks and I haven't seen a single moth in that time. The last night, in pouring rain, a single specimen of Red Sword-grass came to light. The Red Sword-grass hibernates as an adult, so something must have stirred this one from its hiding place.

Red Sword-grass
 Red Sword-grass has a mostly western and northern distribution and is found mostly near bogs or heaths.

Sunday, 20 November 2011


Timing is very critical for our wildlife. Leaf miners need leaves which contain enough fresh green matter to keep them fed until they mature, so they can only exist in summer. Flowers need flying pollinators to transfer pollen from one plant to the next. Birds need caterpillars to feed their young. Sawflies need fresh leaves for their larvae to feed on. Frogs need warm water for their tadpoles to develop. Parasites need their target species to be present before they can be parasitised. All species need their pre-requisites to be in place in order to feed/pupate/hibernate/survive.

Some of these timings are pretty relaxed. For example a bird can find larvae of suitable species for all of the breeding season, which might be all of 6 months long. But other timings are much more critical. If you consider that many mushrooms exist for only a few days, then any dependant larvae must grow from egg to maturity in that same short timeframe. Taking that further, any parasite that needs the larva to be present must also be around during those few short days: their opportunity to parasitise might be as short as 2 or 3 days in a year. Synchronisation is crucial.

When I was considering all of this, I noticed a specimen of Lawyers Wig - Coprinus comatus - on my lawn. I know that these tend to last perhaps 48 hours at a maximum, so I thought I would try to capture the life and death of this specimen over time.

I set up a platform for the camera and took shots every 2 hours. Sadly, the days are very short now, so I didn't get as many shots as I wanted. I should also point out that lying in very wet grass for even short periods is not a pleasant experience.

This is the shot at 11am:

By 2 pm. things had moved on a little:

And by 4 pm the light was fading and I got this shot:

Next morning only the stipe (stem) was left.

The Coprinus family of fungi reproduce by liquidising the spore-bearing gills, dropping the spores very locally (and very quickly). This is a double-edged sword: the spores don't get distributed very far, but there is also very little time for a hungry larva to consume any of the spores.

Timing is again of interest in this shot of the December Moth:

December Moth
I took this shot on 16th November, which is two weeks before December. It is well documented that this moth now appears from late October until January, but it must have originally been named December Moth for a good reason: it appeared in December. Phenology (the study of timings of appearances of species) shows that species are appearing at times which vary from the recordings when the species were named 2 or 3 hundred years ago. This applies mostly to plants and insects, but bird migrations are also changing. This variation in species timings is one of the reasons that global warming was detected: it might not tell us why we're warming up, but it certainly confirms that it's happening.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Sun, light

The weather has actually been quite reasonable since the start of November, with a few bright days. Early sun after a chilly night leads to only one thing: dewdrops on plants. So I grabbed the camera and went out to see what I could find.

I like the way that dewdrops act like tiny lenses, magnifying whatever lies behind them:

Dewdrops on grass leaf
 The drop on the end of the leaf on the right caught my eye:
Dewdrops on grass
Here's a close-up:

Dewdrop as a lens

Spider's webs and mosses also catch the water:

Polytrichum moss with water droplets
(Notice the new capsule forming to the right of the picture).

The forestry was a bit damp, but I found this fascinating mushroom growing on moss on a piece of Spruce bark left over from the harvesting a few years ago:

The size (15 mm across the cap), shiny cap and domed appearance immediately made me think of Panaeolus, and the gills were suitably grey, but the yellowish stipe (stem) didn't fit with anything in the books. I took a spore print, fully expecting to find a black spore deposit, and was astonished to find that the print was white. Back to square one. Repeated keyings led me to Mycena, but I had never seen a Mycena specimen like that. Suddenly I remembered Mycena epipterygia, which I have often found nearby, and which has a stipe with a pronounced yellow base and yellow top. It seems that this specimen, which was a good deal larger than usual, had dried and had perhaps also been slightly frosted. Every day has a surprise.

I also found a single specimen of Crepidotus variabilis on a fallen twig:

The big surprise about Crepidotus is that they have brown spores, and there is a hint of this under different lighting conditions:

Crepidotus showing a slight pink in reflected light
Crepidotus in slight light
Crepidotus in setting sunlight
I think fungi can be extremely beautiful if you look at them closely.

Monday, 31 October 2011

It's all about scale(s)

Each evening thousands of rooks and jackdaws fly over my house on their way to an overnight roosting spot about 3 miles away. Yesterday they flew over just as I was putting the camera into the car and I snapped this shot of some of them:

Swarm of rooks and jackdaws heading for roost
I thought then that they could easily be mistaken for a swarm of midges.

As soon as I parked the car at the hedgerow, I looked up and saw a cloud of midges:

Cloud of midges.
And I thought to myself that they could easily be mistaken for a horde of rooks and jackdaws. It's all a matter of scale.

Halfway along the walk I spotted this scaly mushroom on the rear bank of the ditch:

Shaggy Parasol - Lepiota rhacodes
A quick look underneath showed the large double ring and the cream gills:

Shaggy Parasol - Lepiota rhacodes
I'm making a spore print, but I have no doubt that it's the Shaggy Parasol - Lepiota rhacodes. Again, it's all a matter of the scales.

The underside of the mushroom was home to dozens of microscopic insects, and I got a decent shot of this Springtail before it ran for cover between the gills:

Scale? The Springtail is about 2mm long.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Long-term mystery and an opportunistic shot

For the past few years there has been a great deal of discussion on various e-fora about a mysterious jelly that can appear in all sorts of locations such as paths, moors, tree stumps and even the tops of fence posts. Many wild suggestions have been proposed for its origin, including animal sneezes, fungus, heron regurgitations and 'space jelly'. The jelly is colourless and odourless, has no structure, and yields no information when subjected to DNA analysis. Here is a shot I took earlier in the week:

Jelly chunks
The size of each 'chunk' is roughly the same size as an ice-cube.

I think I have solved the problem (or at least the problem as far as it occurs in my patch).

About 2 days before the jelly appeared, I found the remains of a dead frog in the same location. All that remained were a few scraps of skin, some parts of the digestive system and a ball of black egg nuclei (about 15 mm. diameter.) My deduction at that time was that a female frog had been killed and selectively scavenged. I did, however, wonder briefly where the jelly had gone. On revisiting the spot 2 days later, the frog bits had disappeared, but the jelly was there instead. (I should point out that it had been raining heavily during the interval. No surprise there.) My deduction was that this was indeed the jelly from the spawn, but where had it been hiding? If you consider that the volume of spawn laid by a single frog far exceeds the volume of a frog, we must deduce that the spawn expands after it is laid. This expansion takes place on or after exposure to the water that the spawn is laid in. I then thought about an egg-laying process that has become very familiar to me recently: the development of a hen's egg. The nucleus (yolk) is created first in the ovary and then passes through the oviduct where the jelly (albumen) is added as a coating. So at an early point in the process, the nucleus and the jelly are separate from each other inside the body of the frog. That must have been the point at which the frog was killed. The jelly was actually present when I saw the frog for the first time, but was minutely compressed and not visible. On exposure to the rain, the jelly expanded and became visible as the jelly lumps in the shot above. That's my theory, anyway.

No matter where I go, my camera is always with me: you never know when you'll get an opportunistic shot. Yesterday I visited a garden centre for a meeting and there were a few opportunities to look around and take a few shots. The weather was extremely variable with speeding clouds, occasional rain and some rare periods of sunshine. My radar went on to 'red alert' when a heavy shower was immediately followed by bright sun. I wandered over to where I had seen some mosses and saw that some of the capsules had indeed been soaked and there were a few with water droplets on them. This is the first shot:

Funaria hygrometrica capsule with water droplet

It's ok, but that horizontal brown seta in the middle of the shot is spoiling it. I knew the sun was very fleeting, so I had to act quickly. I pulled out the Swiss Army knife, opened the scissors and snipped off the offending seta, full in the knowledge that any excessive shaking could dislodge the water droplet (the brown seta was actually touching it). As soon as I took the following shot, the sun disappeared behind a cloud:

Water droplet showing peristome teeth

If you look closely, you can actually see the peristome teeth on the capsule (there are 16). These are used to open and close the spore capsule to allow or prevent the spores from being scattered, depending on humidity. Just for scale, the capsule is about 2 mm. across.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011


At the end of August I was dismayed to find that my favourite (and most fruitful) piece of hedgerow had been thrashed deep into the trunks and down to ground level: all vegetation had been removed, leaving nothing but a mulch of dead plants and sawdust. I realise that all hedges need to be maintained, but August is simply the wrong time to do it: moth and butterfly caterpillars are still feeding and many sawflies are only starting their season in autumn. That's one of the reasons that it's illegal (in Ireland) to cut hedges between April and September (which I think is still too early).

I went back today to have a look, and was pleased to note that many plants had made a valiant attempt to produce some new growth and some species had even produced a few flowers. The fern growth particularly interested me, as the next few shots will show.

This is a brand-new frond of Lady Fern (notice that the growth is pale green and that there is no feeding damage, indicating that the growth is indeed fresh):

Lady Fern
I had one of those "turn it over" moments (I suspected what I was going to find) and confirmed that the frond was completely sterile: there were no spore-producing parts:

Lady Fern, showing absence of sori
It appears that the fern had realised that there was no time left to produce ripe spores, and instead of wasting energy on making sori, had simply made fronds without them. Why bother? Well, ferns are perennials: they produce new growth from the same base each year. The overwintering rootstock needs as much stored energy as possible, so it makes sense to throw out some new green growth in a desperate attempt to catch the last rays of sunlight before winter sets in.

Broad-buckler Fern was exactly the same:

Broad Buckler frond
Sterile Broad-buckler underside 

Hard Fern and Male Fern had also made a little new growth:

Hard Fern sterile frond

Male Fern

(I didn't check the Hard Fern frond for spores because very few of them are normally fertile. The fertile fronds have narrower pinnae than the sterile ones, they are more brown than green, and are much more upright.)

Many other perennials had made some new growth. Here's the gallery:

Barren Strawberry

Bush Vetch

Cow Parsley
Common Dog Violet





Germander Speedwell (and gall)

Willow (too late for the sawflies)

Herb Robert....

And its flower

It's great to see that a number of plants have made some kind of recovery, but it's sad that too many insects lost their opportunity on this stretch of hedgerow in 2011. On a more positive note, it is clear that plants are the basic resource for much of our wildlife: plants dictate which insects are to be found in a particular location. Although insects are beneficial in terms of pollination, plants seem to be a stabilising influence since they are more resilient in the face of damage.