Tag Archives: birch

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.

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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