Category Archives: Fungi

Mushrooms, toadstools and moulds

An honour and a privilege

When I passed my O levels back in 1980 my Dad bought me a present. It was a Nikon EM 35mm SLR. I was only a kid and I couldn’t afford other lenses until I was a tad older, so I had to make the most of the 50mm lens that came with the camera. But where I grew up was adjacent to some old woods which at that time were full of many species of fungi, and as my passion for all things wild went back to when I was a youngster the fungi in the woods captured my imagination and provided plenty of subjects for some challenging photography.

Amanita citrina – the false death cap

One of the main challenges for anyone trying to photograph fungi is the lack of light in the leaf litter of a deciduous wood so I saved up and bought a flash gun for my new SLR. So very weekend I’d spend some time rooting around in the undergrowth trying to find species of fungi I’d never seen before, and I eventually amassed a sizeable collection of some pretty funky fungus pictures.

And then after my O levels I transmogrified rapidly into a stroppy teenage wastrel and almost failed my A levels, but I just managed to retrieve the situation in time to salvage my 6th form years. But only just.

Mucilago crustacea  – a slime mould

And that was largely as a result of weighing up my options with the biology teacher at my upper school who convinced me to stay back for another year to get an A level in biology to strengthen my application to do a biochemistry degree. His name was Alan Wright and he was incredibly encouraging and recommended that I squeeze the two year course into one year and apply for university straight away. Alan was one of those brilliant teachers who simply new what made clueless teenagers like me tick, so I did the A level in a year and went on to do my biochemistry degree.

My school had been a grammar school until the year I went there and a relic of it’s past was the annual prize giving. Alan, who had heard about my photography, told me that if I put together a written project based around my photographs he would put my name forward for the ‘Wake Natural History Prize‘, donated by Sir Hereward the Wake, hence the name. I did, he did, and I won the prize, which was a £15 book token. I spent it on a copy of Jacob Bronowski’s ‘Ascent of man’ which was presented to me at the prize giving by Lady Wake. (I lent that book to someone in the 1990’s and I never got it back and now I can’t remember who borrowed it. So if it was you can I please have it back!).

I still have the project and one day I’ll scan it and either post it here in it’s entirety or add a link to it.

Birch bracket on a silver birch stump at Backwarden in Essex

I got my degree, and then my Ph.d. and ended up working in Cambridge where I get down to the annual Cambridge Folk Festival as often as I can. And about 10 years ago I just happened to bump into my old biology teacher, Alan Wright. Meeting ones old teachers may not always be a pleasurable experience, but this was a man who I was really pleased to meet again and we hooked up at several Folk Festivals after that. We had lots to talk about and he was always keen to hear about the stuff I was doing at work.

Then in April I had an email from him to ask if I was going to the festival this year because he was being treated for lung cancer and was not expected to make it through the summer. This was shocking news and I hoped we would get the opportunity to meet up one more time. But alas, it didn’t come to pass, Alan died last week before we had a chance to get together.

Amanita muscaria – the fly agaric

A large chunk of anything I’ve achieved is a result of the encouragement and assistance from Alan, at a time of my life when I needed a good kick up the catflap. He was passionately into the science and only weeks before he died we swapped emails when I told him about a paper I’ve been working on, about which, even in the plight he was in, he showed huge interest, and he was very enthusiastic about The Naturephile too. He’ll be massively missed by an awful lot of people, I’m sure there are plenty more like me who have benefited from crossing his path.

So Alan, this post is for you. It was a real honour and a privilege being taught by you, and then latterly to know you as a friend. Go in peace wherever you are!

Essex adder challenge

Danbury Common near Chelmsford in Essex is a National Trust site that is a mixture of woodland and heathland and is renowned for reptiles, in particular teh European adder (Vipera berus). The weather for the last 2-3 weeks has been ideal for resurrecting hibernating reptiles so myself and my friend, Dave, who is a very accomplished nature photographer, went along to try to get some pictures of adders. They are the only venomous reptile native to the UK and their preferred habitat is heathland. Dave originates from Essex and is familiar with Danbury Common and assured me that we would definitely see adders, so I was rather excited as I’ve never seen a wild one before.


The heathland terrain was perfect reptile territory, there are substantial areas of gorse and heather intermingled with bracken

Unfortunately two events conspired against us: the weather on Saturday morning was the coldest it has been for weeks and with 100% cloud cover there was little warmth to entice the adders out of their burrows, and secondly there had been an accidental fire right over the main hibernaculum, all of which resulted in the total absence of adders and any other reptiles!

Despite that, the Common is a great place for wildlife so we wandered around to see what else was in residence and were rewarded by the first blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk) and chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger) sightings of the year for me.


A male blackcap, one of a pair

Until recently blackcap were considered to be summer migrants to the UK, spending there winters in sub Saharan Africa and as far down as South Africa.  More recently they have been winter residents too and it is thought this is the result of westward migration of birds from eastern Europe and also from the Low Countries, not our summer residents staying put. They disappear from my regular haunts around Histon in the winter, but my friend who lives on the other side of the village, just half a mile away, has been hearing them sporadically through the winter.

I heard several chiffchaff and saw a couple too, but they didn’t come close enough to photograph, but the woods were full of great tit (Parus major, Dansk: sortemejse) which were more amenable to pose for a portrait:


Male great tit feeding on pussy willow. The tree was busy with at least four great tit, a pair of blue tit and a long tailed tit

Backwarden nature reserve and Danbury Common are bisected by a road and Backwarden is an area of woodland containing sycamore, oak, birch and willow similar to that on the Common. Many of the trees were hosting various fungi including moulds and these brackets growing out of the stumps of felled trees:


…and this amazing mass of gelatinous psychedelic slime mould which I thought resembled candle wax:


I’ve never seen anything quite like this before but it appeared the sap had welled up out of the felled tree and the sugar rich solution was providing a glut of nourishment to opportunistic fungi.

The highlight of the trip, in the absence of snakes, was a weasel (Mustela nivalis) which bounded across the path and stopped to scrutinise us for long enough to take a couple of photographs. It’s years since I’ve seen weasel and we had to zoom in on the pictures to decide whether it was a weasel or a stoat (Mustela erminea). The stoat is around 30cm long so is bigger than the weasel which is around 20cm, and the stoat has a black tip to its tail which our little creature didn’t. Stoats go completely white in the winter except for the black tip of their tails and it is the pelts of the winter stoat which are used to make the ermine gowns of members of the UK House of lords.


Momentarily distracted by our presence

Then probably a potential prey item. Ready…

Set…

Go!

And he was off, like a brown furry exocet, at quite phenomenal speed. The pictures aren’t very good quality, but you can clearly see what he is and it may be a good few years before I get to photograph another! I’ll try to get to Danbury again over the summer and if I manage to take some pictures of an adder I’ll post them here.

More signs of Spring

The weekend before last, the 3rd/4th of March, was generally pretty murky and grey and generally not very pleasant, but a stroll around the fields and meadows of Histon showed up some encouraging signs of Springtime. To start with, several birds including blackbirds and house sparrows were plucking nesting material out of the shrubbery in my garden.

And in the meadow the buds of the willow, ‘pussy willow‘, were bursting out

…and amongst the buds was this little dunnock singing his head off. Dunnock (Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv) make a big sound for such a small bird. You can here the song here.

And other birds which are all adding to the avian orchestra around here at the moment are the green woodpecker (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) whose striking call I posted a link to a short while ago:


Not just one green woodpecker, but a pair. There are lots of these in the meadow but it’s seldom I see two together, and even more seldom they let me photograph them!

And this delightful wren who sat high and sung loud

I was very pleased with my wren picture because I rarely see them in a suitable place and they’re usually flitting in and out the undergrowth and don’t stay still for long enough to photograph. And even though it was very murky that morning and I had to use ISO 400, I like this shot. Like dunnock, wrens also make an amazing sound for such a small bird. And wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdesmutte) really are tiny, they are 4-5cm long and weigh approximately 10g but they make a huge sound which is easily recognisable as it’s punctuated by short stretches of ‘whirring’ which differentiates it from other small bird song.

And the last thing to catch my eye on this trip was this tree bark. I couldn’t tell what type of tree it is so I’m waiting for the leaves to open so I can give it it’s proper name, but it has some wonderfully textured bark which is covered in a white mould:


I had to get down and crawl through the leaf litter to get to the base of the tree

Lots of early Springtime phenomena were going on, from pairs of green woodpeckers to singing wrens and blackbirds collecting nesting material. More Springtime firsts next post.

2011 – That was the year that was

Every month of the year has different conditions which create environmental niches that favour different flora, fauna and stages of life cycles. So as 2011 rushes headlong to its wintry conclusion, for my last post of the year I was going to select a single photograph to represent the month to month changes in our wildlife throughout the year. And that was of course impossible for a number of reasons, mainly because it was impossible to represent any one month with a single image, and also because I have lots of images that I like and I want to share. I eventually managed to whittle the number down to an average of two per month which include a wide range of our native creatures in the UK including birds (migrants and natives), butterflies, moths, flowers, amphibians and fungi. I hope you like them!

January

Every autumn  lots of bird species vacate our shores to head to warmer parts of the world while we endure the cold of winter, and they’re replaced by other species which come from the north to the relative warmth of the UK in winter. Last year the autumn and winter weather in Scandinavia was ferocious and consequently many birds arrived here in larger numbers than usual, including the gorgeous waxwing. Along with the waxwing, redwing and fieldfare came too, as they do every year, and remained until the spring, providing some welcome colour.

On a bright cold January day a lone fieldfare perched in a tree

February

February was cold and the middle of the month saw us taking the children to the coast for our annual spring half term excursion, and this year we headed to the Suffolk coast at Dunwich. Dunwich is a really interesting place for lots of reasons, not least because the wildlife there is rich and varied. One of the harbingers of springtime which I look forward to every year is the flowering of snowdrops, and the woods on the edge of Dunwich were covered in them:


A carpet of snowdrops in the woods at Dunwich Greyfriars

March

By March many flowers were blooming and the fauna was turning it’s thoughts to matters procreational. And this dunnock was no exception:


A dunnock serenading the ladies from a bramble stem on Cambridge Science Park

Dunnocks have a rather to-the-point approach to the art of regeneration. They don’t get together in pairs as most birds do, they form small groups and mate with multiple partners and the males go as far as to remove packets of sperm from the cloaca of females who have been inseminated by rivals prior to passing on their own DNA. No nonsense!


A robin singing for a mate in an alder tree, also on Cambridge Science Park

And of course the birds aren’t the only creatures to get the urge in March. For the past 2-3 years a guided busway has been built between St Ives and Cambridge and as it approaches Cambridge Science Park it passes alongside a lake that is a spawning ground for thousands of toads which live in the adjacent woods and fields. The busway has therefore cut off the toads from the lake and, driven by the unstoppable instinct to reproduce, this pair were trying unsuccessfully to negotiate the sheer walls of the track. For a week in March I would get off my bike every morning on the way to work to help as many of them across as I could find.


The male toad is hitching a lift on the back of the much larger female on the way to the water to spawn

The male toad locks onto the back of the female with his front claws around her chest and he’s not at all keen to relinquish his grip until they’ve reached the water and he’s fertilised her eggs. After which armies of lone toads can be seen heading back the other way.

Fortunately for the toads Cambridge City Council funded the installation of toad tunnels under the busway so next year they should be able to negotitate the track and avoid the carnage which would otherwise have ensued. Hats off to the Council!

April

This month was a real wildlife fest and many types of creature allowed me to take some great photographs. The trees now have shooting leaves so everywhere has that lovely green colour from all the fresh growth.


Windswept male yellowhammer in the top of a hawthorn tree

The yellowhammer is a species which has become less and less common in recent decades as a result of hedgerow destruction and other modern farming methods, but we’re lucky to have plenty of hedgerows still in situ on the outskirts of Histon, and consequently, good numbers of these lovely yellow buntings. The hedgerow this one is on is mature and has old oak and ash trees in so it plays host to alot of bird species including blackcap, chiffchaff, dunnock, common whitethroat and green woodpecker, to name but a few.

Whilst sitting watching TV late one evening in March, what I initially thought was a bat emerged from behind the sofa I was sitting on with my wife. There had been no prior warning of its presence and myself and my wife both levitated off the sofa uttering something along the lines of “What the heck was that!?”. It fluttered into a lampshade where it staid long enough to get a photograph, and it turned out to be an emperor moth:


Our emperor moth inside a lamp. I though creatures like that only lived in tropical rainforests!

Unfortunately, a couple of days later I found her dead (she was the female of the species) still inside the lampshade. I extricated her and measured her and she was 7cm wingtip to wingtip. A magnificent beast.


A willow warbler beautifully framed by new leaves and blossom of the blackthorn tree

These little warblers which weigh on average around 9g have just arrived from southern Africa. I think bird migration is one of the most amazing natural phemonena – how does such a tiny creature navigate and survive a flight across the Sahara and then the Mediterranean? It’s absolutely incredible.


A pair of great crested newts getting ready to mate in a shallow pond – male on the left, more slender female to the right

The great crested newt was probably the highlight of my year. I’d never seen a newt before and in this pond there were great crested, palmate and smooth newts. I turned the flash power down and used an 18-55mm lens and got some reasonably good photographs of the newts underwater. And that at 1am after a few hours in the pub!

May

I’ve spent many a fruitless hour chasing orange spot butterflies up and down the hedgerows of Cambridgeshire, but they never seemed to settle for long enough to get a photograph. But one morning in May I must have timed it just right, they were in the mating mood.


Female orange spot announcing her availability in somewhat unambiguous fashion to a passing male who was just out of shot


Common whitethroat – these warblers also migrate to the UK from sub-Saharan Africa

The common whitethroat breeds in my local fields in good numbers. It’s easy to identify by its song and the way it perches on brambles and low scrub and then flits almost vertically up into the air to alight a few seconds later close to where it took off from and continue singing. This one is a male, he has a blue/grey head whereas the female has a brown head. As well as avian migrants from warmer climes, at this time of year many species of dragonfly are emerging:


Scarce chaser dragonfly at Milton Country Park

I like dragonflies. In the days of the dinosaurs there were dragonflies with a 75cm wingspan! They are fun to photograph (and often, not too difficult) they look awesome, and they have very interesting life cycles. My scarce chaser sat on a seed head for several minutes whilst I stood a few feet away photographing other dragons and damsels, occassionally he took off to circle the pond before returning to the same spot where he let me get to within around 50cm to capture his portrait.

June

In a normal year the weather will be warming up  nicely by June and flowers and insects and birds should be in abundance. But 2011 wasn’t a normal year, April was unseasonally warm which kick started everything, but the rest of spring and summer were cold and this had dire consequences for many butterflies and other species. One of the few that I did see in reasonable  numbers this year, although not as many as last year, was the large skipper.


Large skipper feasting on the nectar of a thistle

The marsh woundwort is so called because it has been applied to wounds to assist the healing process. I don’t know what the medical basis for that is, maybe it has antispetic properties. It  has a beautiful flowerhead and is one a good number of wild flowers growing in the drainage dikes on the local farmland around Cambridge.

Marsh woundwort poking it’s lovely head out of a drainage ditch which is full of various wild flowers every year

July

I found this splendid looking cricket lurking in the grass in a field on the edge of Histon. I first thought it was a very green grasshopper until I looked more closely at the photograph, and it turned out to be a Roesels bush cricket. It is an introduced species from mainland Europe which until recently was only found in the most southerly parts of England. There are two varieties and this is the long winged one which can colonise further afield faster than its short winged cousin, and is now as far north as Cambridgeshire and beyond.


Long winged Roesels bush cricket

This was the first of its kind that I’d seen and a few days later another one appeared on a blind in my house, so I guess thay can’t be that uncommon in this region now.

A pair of juvenile linnets

Before I got out walking in my local countryside around Histon I can’t remember the last time I saw a linnet, but they breed here in good numbers and in the winter flocks of many tens to hundreds can be seen on farmland around and about Histon. Linnet are finches which feed on seeds and the adult males are splendid with a cerise breast and a crimson spot on their foreheads.

August

When I was at school, many years ago, my Dad would feed the birds in the garden and it wasn’t particularly unusual to see the occasional bullfinch.  But mainly as a result of persecution their numbers declined dramatically through the 1970’s and 80’s and I didn’t see one for years. The males are beautiful birds and I’ve been after a good photograph of one for a long time. And finally…


A male bullfinch crunching seeds at RSPB Fen Drayton

I love this picture – so far it’s the first and only half decent one I’ve managed. Hopefully I’ll get a few more to share with you in 2012.

Later in August, we were on holiday in Northumberland, and amongst the many gulls and other seabirds on the beach at Seahouses was this redshank. I think it’s nature at it’s aesthetic best!


A lone redshank looking for nourishment in the rockpools at Seahouses

September

The biggest garden spider I’ve ever seen – she was around 4cm across

Another of natures harbingers, this time of autumn. My garden fills up with these polyocular purveyors of terror in September, and this lady was huge. She was 4cm across and was big enough to distract my son from a telling off. ‘Dad, there’s a big spider in my window‘ was an imaginative and very effective way to divert my attention from the misdemeanour of the moment. I ran to get my camera and I had to lay horizontally out of the bedroom window to take this photograph, as a result of which I couldn’t stay still for more than a few seconds!

October

After the coldest summer for 18 years we then had a mild autumn which meant that many creatures could be found out and about long after they have normally  migrated or hibernated, or died off. Swallows and swifts were still being seen into October and a bumblebee flew past my lab window one day last week. During a visit to Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge, on 28th October, to see what winter wildfowl had arrived, there were some winter visitors including tufted duck, gadwall and widgeon. But the pontoon I was stood on had around half a dozen common darter dragonflies on it along with several species of damselfly in the surrounding reedbed and a lone migrant hawker patrolling the air which took a common darter and butchered it on the wing right over my head. Dragonflies can be seen late in the year when the weather permits, but even so I was surprised to see so many at the end of October.

A pair of common darters mating in the late autumn sunshine

November

One of my November excursions took me to RSPB Fowlmere, between Cambridge and Royston, which is renowned for its water rails. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before but I was tipped off by a fellow naturalist that there was one in front of a particular hide, so I headed off there and there it was, busy foraging in the pond for the whole hour I sat there. It was very murky so the photographic conditions were difficult, but I managed to get a couple of decent pictures and I particularly like this one:

A water rail in the primeval swamps of Cambridgeshire!

And another of my trips in November was to Norsey Wood in Essex which is a very different ecosystem to Fowlmere, consisting of ancient oak, beech and birch wood. So in autumn the forest floor is a really good location for fungi and this fly agaric was one of a large group growing out of the leaf litter.


Fly agaric mushroom amongst the fallen beech leaves of Norsey Wood

December

And finally, a wildlife success story is the long tailed tit. Until the last 10-15 years I only saw these occasionally but they now seem to be common, in direct contrast to so many other species of bird whose numbers are declining. I regularly see flocks of long tailed tits on the feeders in my garden and in the hedgerows and woods around Histon. They’re gorgeous little birds and I love watching a flock of them follow each other one after the other along a hedgerow before bunching together when they have found a food  source and then heading off again in line astern.

A long tailed tit in the hedges along Guns Lane in Histon

I stood quietly for several minutes watching the flock of around 15 birds that this one belonged to and they didn’t seem at all bothered by me as they picked insects from the trees.

So there you have it. 2011 in pictures. If you had the stamina to get this far, thankyou and I hope you enjoyed it.

Best wishes for a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and successful New Year from The Naturephile!

Forests and fungi

Norsey Wood is a small oasis of ancient woodland situated on the edge of Billericay in Essex.


Beech and birch of Norsey Wood in Autumnal sunshine

It’s a lovely fragment of forest left over from the days when the kings of England had hunting grounds where they would hunt wild boar and red deer, and it consists predominantly of oak, beech and birch. It was devastated by the hurricane in 1987 and many of the trees are still leaning at some rather unnatural angles.

Hurricane damage

I attended a nature photography day at the Wetland and Wildlife Trust at Welney in Norfolk a couple of weeks ago where four top flight professional photographers talked about their work. I was inspired by all of them, but one in particular, a guy called David Ward, made me really think about how I take pictures. He called it ‘making‘ rather than ‘taking‘ a picture, which turned everything on it’s head for me. Previously I’d viewed photography in a rather scientific way as a means of creating a record of an exisitng phenomenon, but the concept of ‘making‘ a picture by focussing down on a small part of a subject to create something more abstract and thought provoking was a  notion which I really like. And there’s nothing like an ancient English wood in the autumn sunshine to suffuse me with paroxysms of artistic fervour!

So I tried to use a similar thought process when I was taking these photographs of the woods. I gave rather more thought to the composition, and as it was quite dark under the tree canopy with intermittent bright sunlight above it, the conditions were tricky. Technically I could have done better, but experimenting with new  thought processes was alot of fun and I hope you like the results!

Layers of light

In the ‘hurricane damage’ picture I wanted to capture the angles of the trees that were blown over against the uprights of the undamaged trees, and in the ‘layers’ picture it was the sunlight on the four layers of yellow leaves against the mysterious darkness deep in the wood that captivated me. I think these images are OK and hopefully they convey a little of the atmosphere amongst the trees. If you agree – or indeed if you don’t – or you have  any other thoughts please post a comment and let me know.

If you’re still reading, thankyou for indulging me through my artistic interlude, but now I’ll return to the more familiar and prosaic territory of documenting my wildlife encounters. Going back alot of years to when I was sixteen and had just acquired my first SLR I took alot of ribbing about my fascination for fungi. But I still think they make great pictures and inbetween trying to shoot the trees of Norsey Wood I was capturing some of the amazing variety of fungi growing on and amongst the trees.

The floor of the wood was covered in a deep layer of multicoloured leaves which changed as the sun waxed and waned and poking through were tree stumps and dead branches plastered with bracket fungi,

I think this bracket is an ‘oak curtain crust’ (Hymenochaete rubiginosa)
And this resupinate is the toothed crust fungus (Basidioradulum radula)

The oak curtain crust grows on other trees than oak, in this instance a silver birch stump and the toothed crust is growing on a dead birch branch. Fungi are biochemically fascinating and they specialise in extracting nutrients from wherever they grow, in this case dead wood, but it could also be live wood or even live humans, as either parasites such as athletes foot, or saprophytes which extract nutrients without harming the host, or in a symbiotic relationship where the association with another live organism is mutually beneficial.

The most recognisable fungus which adorns many a Christmas card and childs drawing is the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). So called because in days of yore in central Europe it was mixed with milk and used as an insecticide to kill flies. The specific name ‘muscaria‘ is derived from ‘musca‘ which is Latin for fly.


The bright red cap of the fly agaric. The gill structure, the ring on the stem and the white flecks on the cap are also diagnostic, but the flecks can be washed off by heavy rain

The fly agaric is generally considered to be poisonous due to a compound called muscimol, which also has psychoactive properties. Because of this, myths and legends have been ascribed to this mushroom including the use by the Vikings to induce the berserker rages in which they went into battle. Apparently, parboiling it deactivates the toxins and renders it edible, but I reckon if I served it up to my wife she’d suspect nefarious intant!


A group of fly agarics of various ages and sizes, and all of them have been nibbled by other inhabitants of the wood

Rotten borough, wonderful wildlife

I spent the last two days in Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. Dunwich and its surrounding countryside is a very interesting place from a political and natural history viewpoint. A paragraph about the political history first:

Until the Great Reform Act of 1832 Dunwich was classed as a ‘rotten borough‘, this was a parliamentary constituency with a very small number of voters for which the parliamentary seat could be bought and sold by wealthy patrons. Prior to 1286 Dunwich was the capital of East Anglia and a thriving sea port but in that year the first of several great tidal surges destroyed a large part of the town, sweeping it into the sea, reducing it to a small number of houses and therefore residents and voters. As a result of its earlier preeminence Dunwich had two parliamentary seats and despite it’s sudden demise retained these seats, with a very small number of voters, until the Great Reform Act was passed, (interestingly, it was his opposition to parliamentary reform which ended the premiership of the Duke of Wellington after he lost a vote of no confidence in November 1830). In the early 18th century the seat was held by Sir George Downing, 3rd baronet, whose grandfather (1st baronet) had built Downing Street in London. He was succeeded by his cousin, Sir Jacob Downing, who died childless and whose fortune was used to found Downing College, Cambridge, in 1800. An awful lot of history for a tiny village on the Suffolk coast.

Moving on to current natural history, the weather on the first day there was horrendous, rendering nature watching pretty much impossible. But on the second day the weather changed completely and was warm and sunny. The woods around the ruined friary were looking delightfully spring-like with snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) covering the ground.


Snowdrops growing in profusion amongst moss covered dead wood from fallen branches around Greyfriars at Dunwich.

A pair of goldcrests were very busy feeding in a bush at the edge of the wood which was good to see as they are not a common sight during my regular walks around Cambridge. Heading to the beach to the north of the Friary a pied wagtail (Motacilla alba)  was bathing in a puddle:

And a flight of four mute swans (Cygnus olor) flew by, heading south towards the lakes at Minsmere RSPB reserve:

Later in the morning a walk in Dunwich Forest was eerie. It started in a pine plantation which was all but silent, no birds were singing and there were few other signs of wildlife. Leaving the plantation behind I entered mixed woodland which was still quiet but  more diverse, with a mixture of predominantly pine and silver birch trees (Betula pendula). Birds were singing here but not in the profusion I’d hope for. Many of the pines were exuding aromatic sap:


Sap oozing from a wound in the bark of a pine tree. This stuff was extremely sticky but had a gorgeously delicate scent of pine resin.

The exudate was running down the trunks for several feet and in some cases from multiple places on their trunks, the aroma on a warm spring morning was lovely. A mixture of the earthy smell of well rotted compost and pine trees. Gorse bushes (Ulex europaea) were in flower here too, adding the scent of mild coconut into the mix.

Gorse bush in flower

The ground under the trees was littered with dead wood and moss and numerous fungi including puffballs, parasitic birch brackets growing on live trees and other brackets growing on dead branches, most of which defy identification by anyone who doesn’t possess the requisite expert knowledge. Which, alas,  includes myself.

After the forest I ventured to Dunwich Heath, parking by the lighthouse at the top of the cliff where gangs of black headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) were wheeling around the carpark and magpies (Pica pica) were bouncing along the ground around the cars scavenging scraps discarded by picnicers making the most of the glorious spring weather.


Black headed gull looking for leftover crumbs in the carpark at Dunwich Heath lighthouse…

… and a magpie using a signpost as a vantage point.

Leaving the carpark I headed down towards the reedbeds which I skirted for several hundred metres. The habitat here is varied with the reedbeds, scrub woodland, heath and waterways.


Looking east over reedbeds at the sourthern edge of Dunwich Heath between the heath and RSPB Minsmere, the sea is a thin grey line in the distance.

Consequently I was hoping to see a diverse range of wildlife. There was evidence that otters are in residence and sheets of corrugated iron had been placed on cropped bracken presumably to provide shelter for reptiles such as adders, grass snakes and lizards. The sun was shining and I was  sheltered from the wind so the conditions for a stroll were nigh on perfect for a February afternoon and plenty of birdlife was to be seen. Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) were hopping around the undergrowth and a flock of around 40 lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) passed overhead whilst numerous blue tits (Cyanistes caerulius), great tits (Parus major) and chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) were busy in the trees lining the path.


Cock chaffinch sitting high in a tree singing for a mate.

A single long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus) also flew by and landed very close allowing me to take some photographs:


Long tailed tit providing a rare opportunity to take some close-up pictures.

The area around Dunwich is a great place to see all kinds of wildlife, the Dingle reedbeds running north to Walberswick are the largest in England and there are large areas of heath and woodland and the salt water lagoons at Minsmere to the south all providing a huge area of diverse habitat. It is also ideally located for migrants from mainland Europe in the winter.

And right in the middle is The Ship Inn where you can get a pint of Adnams  beer to slake the thirst after a days walking. Dunwich is very high on my list of favourite places to explore.

 

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.