Nature Notes from Skye
(and occasionally other places)

Tue 9 Mar 2004

Another day of cloudless skies, with the sun warming one side of your face while the breeze chilled the other.

Some real flowers today instead of just leaves.  The Varragill estuary scrubland ground flora seems more advanced than in Scorrybreac, unless it's just the difference 24 hours makes.

Ranunculus ficaria   Potentilla sterilis

On the left, a Lesser Celandine, the only one seen all day, and on the right a Barren Strawberry, from a patch that had several in flower.  The smooth narrow leaves seen with it are those of Bluebell.  But the area where it grew was dominated by the scent of Wild Garlic, though there was little more to see of it than crowds of tiny grass-like blades.  One or two of its leaves were more advanced and had opened out, such as the one below left, shown from the rear, emerging from its sheath.  The still rolled-up younger ones can be seen next to it.

Allium ursinum, emerging leaf   Primula vulgaris, bud

Back down to where scrub meets shore, this lone Primrose bud (above right) was a further sign of Spring, but a few more of them would have been welcome. 

Veronica officinalis, trailing stems   Caltha palustris, young leaves

The runners of Heath Speedwell (left) snake across an old log, while the bright leaves of Marsh Marigold (right) burst through a mush of wet leafmould.

Ramalina farinacea   Usnea subfloridana

These two similar-looking lichens were on the same Willow tree.  On the left, Ramalina farinacea, on the right Usnea subfloridana.

There were a few Jack Snipe hiding in the saltmarsh runnels but it was impossible to see them until they took off from almost under your feet.  No matter how carefully you note the place where they land, you can see no sign of them as you move towards it, until once again they explode into brief existence and vanish again a hundred yards further on.

The Gorse and the Coltsfoot have both been in flower for some time, so here they are in close-up.

Ulex europaeus

Tussilago farfara

And now for a real beauty.  This stonking bracket fungus, growing on a fallen birch, was 29 cm from end to end and was made up of two brackets joined in the middle by a tubular piece.  I gouged a bit out of the underside, and found that it was solid, and stretched like rubber when you pulled at it, and was almost as difficult as rubber to break apart.

Probably Piptoporus betulinus

Probably Piptoporus betulinus


Probably Piptoporus betulinus


Probably Piptoporus betulinus

The left hand picture shows the underside in situ.  The middle picture shows a gouged out bit of underside, showing that its surface is covered with tiny pores.  The right-hand picture shows a vertical cross-section of the interior.  A horizontal cross-section of the interior looks completely smooth, although you can see the pores under a lens, and it feels like putty to the touch, but is as stiff as thick rubber.  Later found out this is the Birch Polypore.

Rumex acetosella   Plantago lanceolata

Near where the river enters the sea, an area of bank has fallen away, obviously quite recently, as the vertical face left behind is mostly bare of vegetation.  The exceptions are Sheep's Sorrel (left) and Ribwort Plantain (right) both of which appear frequently down as far as 120 cm from the surface.  These plants are clearly growing from roots which were in the soil when the bank broke and which then formed shoots when exposed to the air.  In many places you can see the hanging root with the leafy rosette on the end of it.

On the top of the bank there are a variety of grasses and other herbaceous plants, but only these two kinds seemed to have roots going at any distance into the soil.  Their closest competitor is Heather, which occurs in one place at 70 cm depth, but nowhere else.

From what is on view here, then, one gets the impression that all the other plants on the surface are shallow-rooted, but that Sheep's Sorrel and Ribwort Plantain have roots to incredible depths.  Of course, the other plants may have deep roots but may not be capable of forming new vegetative growth from their roots.  This is certainly true of many if not all of them; however there was very little sign of any exposed dangling roots, other than of these two species, that had snapped off when the bank fell.  So one has to assume that the roots of other plants, if they were exposed, then withered.

Thinking about all this now, I feel vaguely suspicious that I'm missing some other explanation.  OK, Sheep's Sorrel we know spreads by long wiry roots that travel great distances along the soil surface and possibly do the same in a downward direction, though the ones that go downward can never expect to get the chance to produce vegetative buds.  But Ribwort Plantain?  I didn't know it spread via roots, and the books don't say so.  Yet there they are, sticking out of the soil at 120 cm below what was once ground level, with rosettes of leaves on the end.

The only getout I can think of is that the bit that fell away might have been very steep so that the now-exposed area was only a short distance horizontally from a vegetated near-vertical surface.  In that case, the roots left behind were completely severed from their parent above-ground parts, and have grown new ones, which is perfectly possible.

Narthecium ossifragum, previous year's capsules   Hypericum pulchrum

Up onto the moorland now where there is really very little sign of Spring at all, but the subdued winter colours are very attractive.  The fruiting spikes of Bog Asphodel (above left, with Cross-leaved Heath) go through a range of colours during the year, including bright yellow in flower and bright red in fruit; now they are strawy but still very conspicuous on the moors and pleasing to see.  On the right we have something slightly greener, Slender St John's Wort in the shelter of a boulder.  This plant grows among the heather in the drier parts of the moors.

While up there I had the familiar shock of a pair of Red Grouse clattering away from right under my feet.  The noise is so startling, in a place where you can see for yourself that there is no-one about, that it can give you quite a fright.

Found yet another Drinker Moth caterpillar (see 8 Mar and 14 Feb).  This one, like the first, was on dead grass, but was very active.  Why a caterpillar should walk about on dead grass stems and leaves when there are live green ones just below is a mystery to me.  All 3 that I've found have not been on any edible vegetation; two were on dead grass, one on moss.

I also found another of the Willow galls reported on 21 Feb.  This one was on Eared Willow, which may have been the species the other one was on.  It had a small neat exit hole.

There are in general no more insects about than there were 3 weeks ago, due to the cold weather no doubt.  But I noticed swarms of gnats or midges in several places.  I don't know if these were the kind that later in the year take to feeding off us.


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