Monday, 17 December 2012


A bit of sun today, so I went out to see what was happening.

A check of the usual ditch turned up a single flower of Lesser Celandine along with a few buds:

Lesser Celandine flower and bud
This area is sheltered by Ash trees, so I suppose it will be a bit more exposed next year or the year after.

Most fungi have been killed off by the recent frosts, but a few are still emerging. This little Mycena arcangeliana was growing through moss at the base of another Ash.

Mycena arcangelicastri

I spotted a new liverwort on a dead branch nearby:

The liverwort Radula complanata
It keyed out quickly to Radula complanata, which is described as 'epiphytic on wood in areas of high rainfall'. Bang on.

New to my Species list.

In my last post, I mentioned that some lichens reproduce by growing on unstable substrates, such as crumbling soil on embankments. This specimen of Lepraria incana is growing on the surface of moss:
Lepraria incana on moss
I took time to update my Species list with the recent new additions, and the grand total is now 1461 species. I suppose the magic 1500 might arrive next year.

Species recorded by year

The rise in number of species is remarkably constant since 2006, when I started to record everything I could identify.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Lichens and leaves

Just when I thought the season couldn't get any more odd, I spotted a Willow making new leaves on a couple of shoots:

New Willow leaves
This is the same Willow specimen that has the opening catkins on it, so it has obviously been thoroughly confused: the leaves on this specimen of Willow normally appear after the catkins, rather than at the same time. I have received reports that Daffodils are making good growth in a nearby location, so something odd is happening.

This is a good time of year to have a look at lichens. Although they are present all year round, they are often hidden by leaves and plants, so they are now more visible and accessible.

Lichens are a combination of a fungus and a photosynthetic partner. They are usually described as a symbiotic relationship between the fungus and either an alga or a cyanobacterium, but I see it more as a boss-victim relationship for reasons that I have previously explained numerous times. Either way, lichens can be found in wildly varying shapes and colours and are very important as pioneer species, converting wood and rock into soil over time.

There are several reproductive strategies used by lichens: some create fruit bodies which are purely fungal, and eject spores into the atmosphere in the hope that they will land on a nearby victim in order to create a new specimen. Others create little packages of fungal material combined with trapped algae which are ejected as 'starter packs' of lichens ready to go. Still others grow on fragile material such as soil and simply fracture into a new specimen.

Some lichens use more than one of these reproductive techniques, and can therefore be found in different states, depending on which strategy they have currently chosen. This specimen of Hypotrachyna(Parmelia) revoluta is very unusual, in that it has produced purely fungal fruitbodies. One is visible just to left of centre:

Hypotrachyna(Parmelia) revoluta with fruitbody (orange)
Hypotrachyna revoluta is very much a western species and can be found mostly on wood, but sometimes on rock. New to my Species list.

Ramalina calicaris, on the other hand, regularly produces fruitbodies, and they can be seen here as little cups on the tips of most of the branches:

Ramalina calicaris

The orange material to the lower left and upper right of the branch is the alga Trentepohlia, which is one of the victims of choice used as part of many lichens. It is no coincidence that Trentepohlia and lichens are often found in the same location, since the lichen has probably formed principally due to the prior existence of the alga in that precise location.

Evernia prunastri is readily identified by the bifurcating branches, which make it look like antlers:

Evernia prunastri
The upper surface can be grey or green, but the underside (shown) is almost white.

Platismatia glauca is another new species for me. It is usually found on the upper side of horizontal branches:

Platismatia glauca
New to my Species list

Lecanora chlarotera is a very common lichen on Willows. I think there are few trees without some of this somewhere on the trunk:

Lecanora chlarotera

I love the colour of those fertile fruitbodies, somewhere between olive and brown. Notice how straight the line of fruitbodies is on that sample. I have a strong suspicion that these lichens are spread by slugs, perhaps even after the spores have passed through them and been left in the trail they leave behind.

Peltigera sp. lichens have very leafy structures and can grow very large. This specimen has been tentatively identified as Peltigera lactucifolia, but the orange fruitbodies seem to be the wrong shape (round, rather than elongate). Research ongoing by the good and great, but I think it's actually Peltigera horizontalis.

Peltigera cf. lactucifolia

Pannaria rubiginosa is a very attractive lichen with a distinctive appearance:
Pannaria rubiginosa
The victim in this case is the cyanobacterium Nostoc, which can often be found as a green/brown jelly on paths and carpark surfaces.

That's another two species for my species list, which must be nearing a total of 1450. I'll update it before the year runs out.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012


Each year, species come and go with the seasons: in spring we have the early flowers, such as Snowdrops and Primroses. In summer we see a wide profusion of insect life, and in autumn we find fruits and fungi. On this grand scale things are pretty much set: we won't find many butterflies in mid-winter and few fungi are seen in spring. But within this fixed schedule there is much fine-tuning: each year has different weather, leading to different temperature and humidity on any particular day in different years. This difference can cause annual variations in flowering and emergence dates, so although the general trend is predictable, the precise dates of first (or last) sightings are not: each year is different. Within this variable environment, however, all is not random: we have synchronisation to consider. Synchronisation is a fundamental driving force in our wildlife: when there is a strict dependency between two (or more!) species, they must be together at the correct time. For example, if a larva eats the leaves of a particular plant, then the larva needs to hatch when the leaves are available. The larvae of many moths and butterflies fit into that category. This synchronisation can be quite 'soft' - a few days won't make much difference to availability of the correct food - but other species need a much tighter synchronisation. If a parasitic wasp lays its eggs into the larvae of flies that eat particular fungi, then:

  • the fungus needs to be in place
  • the fly needs to have laid its eggs in the fungus and 
  • the larva must be nearing full size.

Considering that the life of a particular mushroom specimen can be as short as a few days, we can see that the synchronisation required for this parasitic wasp to be successful is extremely tight: its annual opportunity is measured in hours.

So what governs this synchronisation? On the grand scale, we have the year: the amount of time it takes for our planet to go once round the sun. Most lifecycles are governed by this unit of measure. Then we have the day: the amount of time it takes the planet to turn once on its axis. These units of measure are absolutely consistent (within the lifetime of our observations). But what is much more variable is day length. The shortest day is 21st December, with the longest being 21st June. The day length follows a sinusoidal curve between those dates and is the major indication of time of the year. If you know the day length, you know that it can only fall on two particular days of the year. And it's this dual identity that leads me on to the first of today's pictures.

In springtime, I expect to see Celandines and Willow catkins as the first signs that a new year has begun. Over the past few years, I have seen Celandines in late November. This is clearly the wrong time of year, since winter is just arriving: ice is imminent, which will cause flower damage and there will be no insects to help with pollination. But if you look at the 'proper' flowering time (February around here), you will see that the 'proper' flowering date and the 'wrong' flowering date are an equal distance from the shortest day: the day length is roughly the same in each case. So the plants have detected that the day length is correct, but have failed to notice that the overall trend of day length is decreasing rather than increasing. Something is causing confusion.

When I find the early Willow catkins, the first pollinators to be seen are queen bumblebees and early solitary bees such as Andrena clarkella. These bees need Willow pollen to get their annual nests started: their larvae will feed on this pollen, so the bees are stocking up from the only pollen supply that is available. (I should point out that Andrena clarkella is a prime example of synchronisation: the female gathers only Willow pollen, so she can be seen only during the Willow pollen season, which is around 60 days long. When it comes to the bumblebee, the synchronisation is tight for the queen, but more relaxed for the workers, since many flowering plants will be available when they hatch.)

I previously mentioned that I had seen a queen Bombus terrestris gathering pollen on two occasions recently, and wondered where her workers were going to get pollen over the winter. This weekend, I found out:

Willow catkins

Willow catkin opening
I have never seen Willow catkins opening before February, so this was a huge surprise. Queen Bombus terrestris have been known to make overwintering nests in the south of England, but I was still very surprised to make two sightings of a working queen this far north in late October and mid November. It appears that both the bumblebee and the Willow have been triggered by the same stimulus and have both synchronised at the wrong time. It will be interesting to see how this all develops.

Moving on to things at the 'right' time: now is a good time to look at mosses. Most mosses need microscopy to identify for the first time, but once the initial identification has been made, most species can be readily identified in the field. I spent some time photographing specimens on an old wall at the south of the town.

Homalothecium sericeum can be identified by the pale, pointed growing tips:

Homalothecium sericeum

Tortula muralis can be found growing on wall tops:

Tortula muralis (with Grimmia pulvinata in background)
The setae ('stalks' that hold up the capsules) catch the light very well. I'd love to think that they act as light pipes to drive sunlight deep into the base of the plant. I have previously covered the complex lifecycle of mosses, (here and here) but for now I'll point out that the setae and capsule are not wholly from the original plant, but are partly a junior generation that is parasitic on an older generation.

Most mosses have setae that carry capsules well clear of the parent plant in order to maximise the opportunities for spore dispersal. Grimmia pulvinata continues to puzzle me by its insistence on burying its capsules under the leaves of the parent plant:

Grimmia pulvinata showing 'drooped' capsules
Orthotrichum anomalum can be tricky to identify due to its extreme similarity to other mosses, and also due to a high degree of variability when wet or dry:
Orthotrichum anomalum
Growing on the same wall, I found:

The lichen Caloplaca flavescens, which normally dies away in the centre, although I think this specimen has had some assistance from molluscs:

Caloplaca flavescens
And Ivy-leaved Toadflax, which I think flowers here all-year round, now:

Ivy-leaved Toadflax

Just to add to the absurdity of the flowering Willow, here is a shot of Galerina clavata taken on the same day on my lawn:

Galerina clavata with frost

Monday, 19 November 2012

Smaller things

I was wondering how the queen bumblebee from October 28th was doing, and this morning we had a gap in the rain. Sure enough, at around 10 am, she was back at the Lavatera in the garden. (Well, I'm assuming it was the same one. Either we have two queens, each making a winter nest, or one queen working hard at getting her winter nest established. Either way, it's a notable observation.) I had hoped to follow her flight, but she went quite high and flew south so, sadly, her nest isn't all that close to me. It will be very interesting to see if we start to get B. terrestris workers in the next few weeks. Having said that, we had the first frost of the year last night. It was only a couple of degrees below, but a frost all the same. Here's a shot of the roof of my car:

Frost patterns

When the weather is on a bad run it's time to gather some samples and do some microscopy and deeper research.

There's a little mushroom that appears on my lawn several times a year. I know it's a Galerina, but today I decided to get it to species:

Galerina clavata
I put a specimen on a glass slide and waited overnight for a spore print. Here's the print on the slide waiting to be examined under the microscope:

Galerina spore print on the microscope
You can clearly see the brown spore print in that shot. (The blue column is the light shining up on the underside of the slide.)

We need to examine spores at a magnification of at least x400:

Galerina spores at x400

These spores are described as 'almond-shaped'.

I noted that the base of the stipe on the specimen was woolly white, so that makes it Galerina clavata, a common mushroom in association with mosses in lawns.

Liverworts are amongst our most overlooked plants. They are mostly tiny, and many could easily be assumed to be mosses. An in-situ shot would show nothing recognisable, so I took this shot (sample size about 3 cm. across) on paper in the study.

Liverwort sample about 3 cm. across
There doesn't seem much to work with there, but once you get a sample under the microscope, everything becomes clear. This sample is mounted on a slide ready for the microscope:

Liverwort sample on slide ready for microscopy
Note that the individual leaves have no central vein - a clear indication for a liverwort. There are no underleaves, and the leaves look to be entire, without lobes or teeth. Microscopy, however, reveals that the leaves are very slightly toothed - more so in the lower leaves - and that the teeth contain very few cells:

Cells in leaf tooth
All of this leads us to Plagiochila porelloides, which in this case is the predominant plant on the rear wall of the ditch where I found it.

I'm currently working on lichen microscopy. This is a specimen of Xanthoria parietina, an extremely common lichen that can be found on wood or stone and even on glass:

Xanthoria parietina
Lichens are an association between a fungus and a photobiont (either an alga or a cyanobacterium). Since the fungus is the only part of the organism that reproduces freely, I refuse to see this as symbiosis: I consider that the fungus (which needs the photobiont in order to survive) is virtually parasitic on the alga (which can and regularly does live happily on its own, without help from the fungus). This shot at x30 shows the circular cups which are the spore-producing, reproductive part of the fungus:

Fruit bodies of Xanthoria parietina

Friday, 9 November 2012

Brave new moth

Our moths have a wide range of breeding and overwintering strategies: some overwinter as eggs, others as larvae, still others as pupae and a few as adults. These patterns are largely governed by the availability of foodplants, but are also affected by the length of time that the larva takes to grow to full size. That latter aspect will be further complicated by the nutritional content of the food and the efficiency of conversion by the larva of leaf into flesh. Some larvae mature very quickly, giving rise to the possibility of multiple generations per year, but the majority of our moths have a single generation each year. This is quite convenient for those of us who try to identify moths: we can usually eliminate some possibilities due to the month when we find specimens but, again, there are complications. Heat clearly plays a part in this cycle, and some species are bivoltine (having two generations) in the south of the country but only one in the north, and as we are warming, the interface between the univoltine populations and bivoltine populations is slowly moving further north, so identification strategies are having to change over time. Add to that the fact that some previously univoltine species are now becoming bivoltine in the south of the country, you can see that we are constantly having to reconsider matters that were previously facts, but are now merely indications or simply wrong.

The Red-green Carpet has a cycle where the larvae feed on leaves of trees during the year and then pupate to emerge around now. The adults mate and the female goes on to overwinter, but the males die off. When the new leaves arrive in springtime, the female will come out of hibernation to lay her eggs and next year's single generation will be under way. So in this case we have the unusual 'seasons' where both adults are found from September to November, but with the female also being seen in March to May.

Given the very short breeding season, I suppose it's not all that surprising that this species will fly when others refuse to endure the rain or cold, and yesterday I found this specimen on a door-frame just as we arrived back from walking the dogs:

Red-green Carpet - Chloroclysta siterata
Red-green Carpet can usually be identified by the reddish streaks that run along the wing, but these are sometimes absent, and we have to rely on other features, such as the white 'chevron' near the trailing edge. The above example is a female.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Drumboe Wood

Whilst Ards is a rare, ancient, coastal forest, Drumboe is perhaps even more unusual: it's an old woodland in a central urban setting. Shops, main road, schools, church, hotels and a GAA football ground are no further than 100 m. distant and thousands of people pass it every day with no idea of the rich biodiversity just a stones-throw away.

This shot show shows the River Finn with Drumboe to the left:

River Finn: Drumboe to the left and Ballybofey to the right
The woodland is maintained by Coillte, and the management plan shows a strategy of at least partial replacement of Spruce with native broadleaf trees when the conifers are harvested.

I only had time for a quick visit, but I managed to find a few interesting specimens:

Scleroderma citrinum is a common earthball with a surface criss-crossed with sharp grooves which will eventually act as fault lines for the skin to split along when the fungus is ready to disperse its spores. This specimen is about the size of a golf ball:

The earthball Scleroderma citrinum

Phycopeltis arundinacea is an algal infection that looks very much like a fungal rust:

Phycopeltis arundinacea on Ivy
I find it mostly on Ivy, but I have also found it on other plants with shiny leaves, most often Rhododendron.

Lycoperdon pyriforme is one of the more common puffballs in this area. They can often be seen to form long rows, seemingly growing on the ground, but they are actually following the line made by buried dead wood:

Lycoperdon pyriforme
Leafy liverworts are very often mistaken for mosses, but their habit and form are very different. I spotted this specimen (sample shown about 8 cm across) and suspected it was something I hadn't seen before:
Liverwort growing with moss in damp bank
I took a sample back to the microscope and saw that it has two tiers of leaves (large ones on top and small ones below). The presence of underleaves is unique to liverworts, although not all species have them. This microscope shot of a single frond (12 mm long) shows the view from underneath:

Calypogeia neesiana
It keys out in a couple of keys to Calypogeia neesiana, which is new to my Species list.

This shot shows two mines of the micromoth Stigmella aurella on Bramble:
Two mines of the micromoth Stigmella aurella on Bramble
These mines usually grow quite long, so they are usually found at a maximum of one per leaf; perhaps the second egg was laid by a different female. Each mine progresses quite normally from its starting point, but they eventually meet just left of centre. The mines then become very confused, with much to-ing and fro-ing in the left part of the leaf before they separate and at least one has matured safely (top left). I'm not sure what happened to the second, though.

Bumblebees have historically been summer-nesting species, with the queen making her nest from March onwards. But in recent years, southern queens of Bombus terrestris - the Buff-tailed Bumblebee - have been observed gathering pollen in autumn and they have successfully created winter nests. Presumably we have reached a critical temperature due to warming, since winter nests are common on the continent.

Yesterday I spotted a queen gathering pollen from the Lavatera in my garden:

Queen Bombus terrestris gathering pollen 29/10/2012

This is quite a surprise. I knew of southern specimens trying to establish a nest at this time, but it's not something I would have expected to see this far north. Granted, we did have a few days of sun, but I tend to think that she isn't confused and has decided that it's worth a try this year. So here is a rash prediction, based on a single queen bumblebee: "Mild winter ahead".

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Ards revisited

My previous trip to Ards a couple of weeks ago was slightly disappointing, so I went back again on Sunday. This was a much better trip, with lots of interesting specimens, and it has taken me the better part of two days to get all the identifications as close as I can, since quite a few of the species are new to me.

In no particular order:

Gymnopilus penetrans is a decomposer of coniferous wood: the central specimen is shown still attached to its substrate:

Gymnoplius penetrans on coniferous debris
New to my species list.

Waxcaps are very colourful fungi that are mostly found in grassland, although one or two favour the edges of paths or verges. This is Hygrocybe conica - the Blackening Waxcap. It starts off bright red, fades to yellow and then turns black as it matures:

Blackening Waxcap in the early stages
Late edit: 'Gibster' has just pointed out that the black dots on the Laurel leaves at the bottom of the picture are Trochila laurocerasi. So that's another addition to my species list.

Hygrocybe pratensis is one of the larger Waxcaps. I like the fine detail on its gills:

Gills of Hygrocybe pratensis

Another new species of Waxcap for me: Hygrocybe reidii - the Honey Waxcap - smells strongly of honey, especially at the base of the stipe (stem).

Hygrocybe reidii - Honey Waxcap
New to my species list.

This small but distinctive species glories in the longest name of any in my species list - Inocybe geophylla var. lilacina
Inocybe geophylla var. lilacina

Russulas are another colourful family. They are characterised by bright caps, white chalky stipe and very brittle gills and flesh. Russula ochroleuca is one of the most common species, found under broadleaf trees and conifers:

Russula ochroleuca

This one took a little more time to identify, but I just got my copy of Geoffrey Kibby's excellent new monograph on Russulas and it keys out to Russula sardonia:

Russula sardonia
There are many features used to identify fungi. In addition to appearance and smell, we also sometimes use taste, especially when it comes to Lactarius species, where we often taste the milk (more of this later). I wanted to confirm the identification of the above Russula sardonia and broke of a couple of pieces of the gills and tasted them. The description says that they taste hot and acrid...."sometimes alarmingly so". I can confirm that the gills are the hottest taste I have ever encountered: my tongue is still tingling 24 hours later. Taste with caution.

I hasten to point out that the tasting of fungi has to be done with some guidance: tasting the gills of e.g. Death Cap could have fatal consequences.

New to my species list.

Sulphur Tuft must be one of the most common species: I find clusters of it on every trip I make at this time of year:

Sulphur Tuft

The archetypal mushroom as depicted in countless fairy tales is Amanita muscaria - Fly Agaric:

Fly Agaric
Fly Agaric gets its name from the old practice of putting some in a saucer of milk to attract and kill flies. It has a serious narcotic effect.

The Cantharellus family has some of the most delicious mushrooms, including the Chanterelle - one of my favourites. This is the closely-related Cantharellus infundibuliformis:

Cantharellus infundibuliformis - Girolle

And the Horn of Plenty is another delicious member of the same family:

Horn of Plenty
I usually smell those before I see them.

Earlier on, I mentioned tasting the milk of Lactarius species. they get their name from the 'milk' which exudes from the gills when the flesh is cut. The colour and taste of the milk is an important factor in making an identification. The appearance of this one, allied with the milk, which slowly develops a bitter and slightly hot taste leads me to Lactarius chrysorrheus, which is an Oak associate:

Lactarius chrysorrheus
New to my species list.

I rarely give specific names to Mycenas: I'm still waiting for a monograph to be published. but I'm happy that this one is Mycena galericulata. It grows on dead wood and stumps, and has a very springy stipe which is difficult to break:

Mycena galericulata with flash
This second shot is in natural light:

Mycena galericulata in natural light

Turkey Tails are another decomposer of dead wood. They can be seen in tiers along dead branches and stumps. Colour can be very variable:

Turkey Tails on dead branch

Finally for today, a shot of Candle Snuff fungus - Xylaria hypoxylon:

Candle Snuff fungus

Not a bad page, I think.