Monthly Archives: September 2010

Two wild walks at the end of September

This weekend of 25th-26th September was one of two halves – Saturday was mostly sunny, warm and bright if a little breezy, and Sunday was foul. Cold northerly wind, 100% low cloud cover and plenty of rain were the order of the day, so my two outings to the countryside were rather different. 

On Saturday I spent a couple of hours wandering around Milton Country Park which is a great place to see wildlife of all types. There were lots of mushroom species on open grassy areas and others in the leaf litter and some splendid brackets sprouting out of fallen trees. Many trees and bushes were providing support for enormous growths of old mans beard and brambles with tons of blackberries, so my fingers were purple when I got back to the car. 

Trees at Milton Country Park covered in old mans beard

My main aim this weekend was to photograph birds such as mute swans, coots, moorhen, mallard, canada geese and great crested grebe. All these were present in numbers this weekend so I got a chance to take lots of photo’s.  

Male mute swans are fiercely protective where cygnets are involved and this magnificent chap was reacting with alot of aggression toward another swan which got too close to his offspring. He chased it off at high speed, paddling so hard I could hear him moving through the water.

There were lots of people in the park so woodland birds were staying in the tops of the trees. Consequently I caught plenty of fleeting glimpses of small brown things flitting around up high but they were impossible to identify. At least by me!

 In direct contrast there were darter dragonflies everywhere, hunting low to the ground round the bottom of bushes. They were all keen not to land so I gave up trying to photograph them. 

Due to the foul weather on Sunday it wasn’t a particularly good day to see birds, but in the fields north of Histon the flock of around 200 rooks rooks which I call the Churchyard Posse were on the ground feeding and indulging in the kind of devilment that members of the crow family are famous for:  

Rooks – the Churchyard Posse – around 10% of it

 A small flock of around 25 lesser black backed gulls were mingling with the rooks along with hundreds of wood pigeon which seem to have had a good breeding season this year. Most of the fields have now been ploughed but in those with cover skylarks have returned after the harvest. In one small corner I counted ten rising out the scrub, chasing and wheeling at low level. Others were constantly rising up in small groups of two, three and four, apparently playing tag before disappearing rapidly into the grass again. The hedgerows were mostly silent and the only songbirds to be seen were reed bunting. Because of the poor light they were extremely difficult to photograph, so this picture is one I shot a couple of days before, she sat proud on top of the hedge and allowed me to approach to within 30 feet and capture a reasonable shot:    

Reed bunting in Histon

It’s now getting dark before I can get out walking in the countryside so until about March 2011 my meanderings will be mainly in the morning, but I’m looking forward to seeing our winter visitors such as redwing and fieldfare arriving in the next month or so.

Fungal foray

Now the weather has turned cooler and damper all types of fungi are appearing in fields and woods. As well as providing something fascinating to look at, and wondering if they’re safe to eat, they can be fairly challenging to photograph. They are often to be found lurking in long grass or in the undergrowth in a wood and getting down to ground level is usually a requirement for getting half decent pictures. Here are a couple I’ve taken in the last few weeks:

                   Amanita citrina

Fungi are extremely interesting from a biochemical viewpoint too. They sequester by-products of metabolism (secondary metabolites) leading to some properties which you need to be aware of before eating them. Whilst very few can kill you there can be unpleasant side effects lying in wait for the unwary e.g. members of the Coprinus genus, such as the shaggy ink cap, or lawyers wig (Coprinus comatus) which is very good to eat, contain a toxin called coprine which only makes its presence felt if eaten whilst drinking alcohol. It induces vomiting, and unfortunately it can do this for up to a week after eating the mushrooms. Drinkers beware!

Small quantities of Amanita phalloides, the aptly named death cap agaric, can be fatal, and it resembles some other edible species. It contains a toxin called phalloidin which destroys the liver… and there’s no antidote – to be avoided at all costs.

Other species are hallucinogenic, such as those containing psilocybin, magic mushrooms (those outfield cricketers staring at the ground might not simply be bored), and another Amanita species called the fly agaric (A. muscaria) which legend has it was eaten by the Vikings before going into battle, with well documented and fearsome results.

Panaeolina foenisecii is a small brown field mushroom growing gregariously in grassland which may also be hallucinogenic if eaten in large quantities.

                     Panaeolina foenisecii

Many species of small mushrooms can be found by simply walking through any grassy field at this time of year. But I think the really interesting ones are to be found in woodland growing as parasitic brackets, saprophytically feeding on dead material or symbiotically swapping nutrients with tree roots.

If you’re going to collect them to eat be cautious, most of them aren’t dangerous and alot make extremely good eating, but the bad ones can be deadly. I’m fascinated by fungi so I’ll probably post again in the near future about interesting species I come across.

Autumn is on the way

 As we move from summer to autumn there are plenty of changes to be seen in the gardens and countryside. The high pressure system hovering over us is giving us some lovely warm end-of-summer weather with chilly, misty  mornings and the evenings closing in so it’s getting dark around 8pm.  The harvest is almost in and the wildlife is showing signs that the year is advancing. My niger seed feeder is constantly abuzz with activity from families of goldfinches, the fledglings still without their crimson faces. Many species of butterfly including the common blue, meadow brown, gatekeeper and brown argus have all but disappeared leaving mainly whites to be seen fluttering round ragwort flowers in the fields and buddleia bushes closer to home.

Goldfinch family feeding on niger seed in my garden

A host of other garden birds including blue tit, great tit, dunnock, collared dove, wood pigeon, greenfinch and chaffinch are regularly visiting the feeders and in the wake of the reported outbreak of the Trichomonas parasite, which has been reported to be killing large numbers of greenfinch and chaffinch, it is good to see regular appearance of healthy individuals of both species in the garden. 

Greenfinch male on my apple tree

An early morning walk along the street can also be a rewarding experience just now. Hedgerows topped with blackberries are festooned with spider webs laden with dew and illuminated by the low early morning sunshine; architectural wonders which impress not only by their complexity but by the sheer number of them too. Numerous swallows are swooping over the fields feeding up on insects prior to their migration to sub-Saharan Africa. It’s always a source of wonder to me how such a tiny creature survives such a huge journey at such a young age, only to repeat it in reverse in six months time. Dragonflies and damselflies of various types are to be seen chasing, hawking and darting over fields and gardens, species such as migrant hawker and the common darter and common blue damselfly.   

Common blue damselfly

Migrant hawker dragonfly, female – the male is blue

I will keep watching and photographing the changes as we progress through autumn and post the most interesting ones here.