Unfortunately the person who was going to be training us today couldn’t make it, so we decided to head out into the field anyway. We went to Hadfast valley SWT reserve, just to the SE of Edinburgh:http://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/reserve/hadfast-valley/ It is a small reserve with scrub and mixed deciduous woodlands on the slopes of the Hadfast valley just outside the village of Cousland.
First of all we checked out the birds on the bird table at the house just next to the reserve, and were a bit surprised to find that all the sparrows feasting there were Tree Sparrows. This bird has declined significantly in recent decades, mainly attributed to changing farming practices. They are easily told from the commoner House sparrow – both sexes have an attractive rufous cap, which is grey in the male House sparrow.
We walked down into the reserve and were swotting up on our bird calls, listening to recordings on the ipod, then listening to the calls of a winter tit flock around us and trying to work out which were Blue, Coal and Great – tits have an amazing array of different calls, and then Nathan spotted a fox. It was quite relaxed and trotted off up the bank on the opposite side of the valley. Our entomologist Glenn was looking at some Scaly male fern (Dryopteris affinis) when he spotted a cryptically camouflaged Hawthorn shield bug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale), his first insect of the year (apart from house flies). http://www.britishbugs.org.uk/heteroptera/Acanthosomatidae/a_haemorrhoidale.html
Then, we were just checking out some Orthotrichum moss growing on an elder bush – you need to find the capsules (or sporophyte) to be able to identify it to species - when all of a sudden a Roe doe came crashing through a bramble clump heading straight for us, only to swerve at the last minute and go hurtling off.
We were still looking for the elusive capsules when a Cock pheasant burst out of some hawthorn scrub and came flapping towards us. It didn’t seem to be flying too well and crash landed about 10m from us. Well, who came trotting up the valley towards us next but the fox. When he saw us again he decided to look for a different lunch and went back the way he had come.
We wandered up the bank, and had just stopped to try and decide whether the luxuriant Hypnum we could see covering some rotting logs was indeed H. lacunosum or good old H.cupressiforme, when a shrew started darting about in front of us, as we looked we could see its tiny runs pockmarking the mossy carpet. We carried on through the wood, refreshing our memory about such mossy stalwarts as Atrichum undulatum; Plagiomnium undulatum; Hypnum andoii; Thuidium tamariscinum; Kindbergia praelonga; Homalothecium sericeum; Brachythecium rutabulum, before we found some little acrocarps clumped on another log. These can be devilish to key out, so it was with some relief that we were all able to agree relatively quickly that (at least one of the clumps!) was Zygodon viridissimus. A Greater spotted woodpeckers staccato tik tik call pierced the silence.
A bullfinch brightened the afternoon, feeding on the last of the haws. And then as we made our way along the valley bottom, Mr. Fox put in another appearance. A cottontail disappearing into the wood showed what he now had in mind for a late lunch. We found an Ash carpeted in Orthrotrichales, this time obligingly with capsules. After much squinting through our hand lenses, and counting and recounting of outer peristome teeth, we decided that it was Orthotrichum affine, the commonest of these attractive little mosses. All was not lost however, as through our peering we had spotted a thallose liverwort growing on the bark. Much of this unsurprisingly turned out to be Metzgeria furcata, which is common on base-rich bark, like that of Ash. Further peering showed a Metzgeriale with gemmae (little bulb like structures which break off the plant and allow it to reproduce vegetatively). This could not be M.furcata, so there followed the discussion about whether the gemmae were grouped at the end of the leaves or spread along the leaf axils. After some debate and re-examining we all agreed that the gemmae were at the ends of the leaves, which meant Metzgeria fruticulosa, which was nice. We also took some pictures of a large foliose grey-green lichen which was growing luxuriantly on the same tree, in the hope that it was one that we might be able to identify.
As we wandered back to the bus the woods had gone quiet, but there were several elders to check for Orthotrichales and Ulotas, and we discussed how to tell these two similar genuses apart, a conversation that would be familiar to anyone setting out in bryology, and baffling to anyone who wasn’t – it comes down to capsules again.
So, our impression was that Hadfast valley was literally bursting with wildlife, and we thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon there. Even on cold January days there is plenty to marvel at.
P.S. We’ll try and remember to post a photo of the lichen, and its name if we ID it (Suggestions welcome!).