Little Assynt: a walk in November
A sunny if, at times slightly chilly, walk around Little Assynt on 2nd November, with Gwen’s collie Jess, yielded several sightings of interest. We started at the main car-park and followed the Loop Path and then Ken’s Path to the viewpoint overlooking Loch Beannach. The tree cover on islands in the loch still retained some of its autumn colour, which was quite a sight back-lit by the low winter sunshine. We had our lunch at the viewpoint and were admiring a rainbow in the north-west, when the squally shower causing it suddenly caught up with us. Fortunately we were in full ‘riot gear’ i.e. waterproofs, so hurried off to the comparative shelter of the old settlement.
Leaves of common alders beside the path at NC151253 were conspicuously patterned by blotch mines. There were several to each leaf, neatly squeezed between the side veins, not far from the mid-rib. A specimen was later identified by Stephen Moran as the work of the caterpillars of a micro-moth, the common alder midget Phyllonorycter rajella [Photo 1]. Several species of micro-moths mine alder leaves, and the key feature of this one is the pupae, which we could see on holding the leaves up to light. They are situated at the outer end of the mines, surrounded by the larval frass, perhaps for protection. The moth is small, but strikingly patterned in black and white. The mines are apparently widespread on alders, but this is the first time we have come across them in Assynt.
A little further along the path, at NC147262, were groups of large dark cup-fungi, up to 3cm across, tentatively identified as the bay cup Peziza badia [Photo 2]. The fruiting bodies typically appear in late summer and autumn on soil, often alongside paths. This species has been previously recorded in Assynt, and the dark cups, with water from a recent shower reflecting the bright sky, were very attractive.
Not far from the viewpoint on Ken’s path, at NC147263, we spotted two bright orange-red fruiting bodies, less than 2cm tall, of a relative of the cup fungi, the scarlet caterpillarclub Cordyceps militaris [Photo 3]. This fungus has an unusual life style, being parasitic on the larvae or pupae of moths, the remains of which are buried just under the peaty soil, invested by the white threads of the fungal mycelium. The clubs are slightly roughened and born on paler stems. The species is not uncommon in Assynt, but may be overlooked.
Birdlife was a bit sparse, predictably for this time of year, although there was a dipper perched on a rock in the River Inver opposite the car-park and we flushed a red grouse. Moles had been busy beside the path, which provides a well-drained site for their feeding tunnels, near the viewpoint, and we found a dead common shrew, which had probably come to the natural end of its short life, which lasts for just over a year. Large plants of groundsel Senecio vulgaris were still in full flower in disturbed soil alongside the path in several places, a new locality record for this common garden weed. Given the time of year, a good haul for a three hour walk.
Ian Evans and Gwen Richards