Inverkirkaig: an intriguing miscellany

January 21st 2023

Inverkirkaig: an intriguing miscellany

Days out and about in Assynt often yield something out of the ordinary, but a visit to Inverkirkaig (NC0719) in June 2022 was exceptional.

On 9th June, Ian had a phone call from botanist Sue Murray of Pollan, who was standing beside some unfamiliar small yellow flowers at the northern end of the beach at Kirkaig Bay (photos 1-2). Sue had been told about them by a couple of visiting naturalists she met at Achmelvich and had gone over to check them out.

Yellow-eyed-grass

They had small fans of iris-like leaves about 6mm wide and six-petalled flowers about 10mm in diameter. She later emailed him a set of photos taken on her phone, and suggested they might be a species of Sisyrinchium.  This is a large genus of blue or yellowflowered American plants in the iris family, with one species probably native to Western Ireland, and several more occurring here as garden escapes.  

We went to Inverkirkaig on the rainy afternoon of 14th June, and found the plants, after a short search, in a wet runnel below a large clump of yellow iris (photo 3, NC078198), although that day most of the flowers were closed (photos 4-5).  A specimen was collected (photo 6), which enabled us to name the plant as yellow-eyed-grass Sisyrinchium californicum; it was later pressed as a voucher for the record.  As suggested by the specific name, it is a native of Western North America, ‘grown [here] in gardens and naturalised in damp grassy places near the sea and on waste ground’.  

A likely source is the garden of the late Mary Ross (nee MacAskill), a keen gardener who lived in the house just across the road, but since the plant is now established in the wild, it is well worth recording.  NBN has only one other record for the species in Highland Scotland, near Dornoch (NH78), as long ago as 1950.  

Bracket fungus

On the roadside verge, just across a small burn from the yellow-eyed grass, there is the base of a big old sycamore that died and was felled (photo 7).  In the hollow stump we noticed the fruiting bodies of a substantial bracket fungus, tarry black above and pale grey below (photos 8-9).  It was later confirmed by Bruce Ing as the willow bracket Phellinus igniarius, a parasite on deciduous trees, including sycamore, which had almost certainly caused the death of this tree.  It is described as causing intensive white rot, with very hard and woody brackets, concentrically ridgedrusty brown when young, later grey, finally black (Phillips, 2006).

John Blunt recorded this bracket fungus just once in Assynt, on a stump, possibly alder, in the grounds of Glencanisp Lodge (NC1122), on 9th May 2007.  

Brown algae

It is a pity to miss any chance for beachcombing on the shore of Loch Kirkaig, since it is one of the richest locally.  The tide was a little way out, exposing an area of muddy sand with scattered wrack, shallow pools and loose stones, which we wandered across (photo 10).  Our attention was caught by several brown algae that were not the usual wrackand kelps.

The first was quite a robust species, with spiny branches, Desmarestia aculeata (photos 11-12), which also goes by the unkind name of landladies wig. Earlier in the year it is densely clothed in hairy branchlets, but these are shed by late summer.  

The second was a series of simple, flaccid and hollow, unevenly contoured tubes, about 20cm long and up to 5mm wide, attached to a loose stone (photo 13).  This later keyed out, in the very useful Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland (Bunker et al., 2010), to thin sausage weed Asperococcus fistulosus, which may not have been previously recorded from local shores.

Mermaid’s tresses or something else?

There were also patches of an extremely fine brown alga, up to 30cm across, which we had not before seen, and thought might, with imagination, be called mermaids-tresses (photo 14).  A specimen was collected, examined later under a highpower microscope and sketched (photos 15-16).

It had quite a complex structure, with ringed main stems and paired hair-like branches, and was covered with a fuzz of what appeared to be single-celled organisms, which we were unable to assign to any particular group, a reminder of our profound ignorance of microscopic marine life.  The alga is probably one of the thin branched browns in the work cited above, possibly tubular net weed Dictyosiphon foeniculaceus, but putting a definite name to it requires a more detailed text than any we have.

At the other end of the size range were the familiar, but nevertheless decorative, detached fronds of sugar kelp Saccharina latissima, one measuring over 3m in length (photo 17).

Shells and their adherents

Loch Kirkaig is a good place to find some of the larger bivalve molluscs that live around the coast of Assynt, including washed-up shells of the sand gaper Mya arenaria. They are robust and become colonised over time by smaller organisms.  One example had been used as a substrate earlier in the year by spat of the northern rock barnacle Semibalanus balanoides, well grown by June (photo 18).

A surprise in a shell

Another sand gaper shell had a greenish finely-textured deposit, which puzzled us (photo 19), so we took it home in some seaweed to keep it moist. Under the low-power microscope (60x), the particles resolved themselves, to our great surprise, into a tightly-packed mass of developing fish eggs, each containing a larva with two large eyes staring up at us (photo 20).  We later returned them to the shore.  

A recent excellent book, The Essential Guide to Rockpooling (Hatcher and Trewhella, 2019), has a section on eggs, including those of the tompot blenny, which looked quite similar to those we found.  However, they are said to be laid in crevices and underneatrocks, so not likely.  

However, we struck gold with Gwens copy of a much older book in the Readers Digest Nature Lovers Library, the Field Guide to the Water Life of Britain (1984).  On page 186 (photo 21), there is an account of the life of the common goby Pomatoschistus microps, with an illustration of its eggmass in the shell of a sand gaper. More than ten species of goby occur round the coast of the British Isles, and we cannot be absolutely certain of the species, but that will do.  

Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards

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