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