Tag Archives: Fungi

The Inbetweeners: a short story of seasonal change

There is a transition. A point in-between seasons that is neither one nor the other. A chronological no-man’s land, so to speak. A seasonal limbo of…

…This is nonsense of course. Seasonality is a human construction to assist us in making sense of the passage of natural time; applying order to the highly relative flow of change.

Nevertheless, a riddle could be written: ‘when are there many swifts, but at the same time… none?’. The answer, of course, sits in the middle of our ‘summer’ holidays, but many, many weeks after the solstice. The locally breeding swifts have departed, or mostly, and the gathering flocks of swifts in the sky are passage birds.

Other birds are moving too. A south-bound Wheatear has been seen, and a number of bright Willow Warbler have been found on the patch. Far more than the one or two pairs that we believe have bred locally.

I was looking out for these, and hoping to see other passage migrants – perhaps an early returning flycatcher – when I heard a strange two-tone disyllabic call from within the lime trees in our SSSI area of the Wanstead Flats. I heard it again and again, from within the trees. I even videoed the sound (click here).

And then the tiny bird emerged from the foliage. In the morning light I thought it was a young Willow Warbler with a very odd call and missing some tail feathers, but studying the calls, it appears to be one of the young Chiffchaff from the patch.

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Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

As some birds leave, and others pass through, other creatures hold on to the last strips of summer. Peak butterfly time has been and gone. But luckily not all of them have disappeared yet. I saw my first Brown Argus on the patch on Saturday (my 25th species of butterfly here) and photographed one again today…

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Brown Argus (Aricia agestis)

The diagnostic black spots on the forewing are clearly showing in this photo, which help distinguish the argus from the similar looking female Common Blue. Of course, no such difficulty exists with males – also still on the wing.

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Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)

Seasons change. Or so we imprint on the natural flow. If you need further evidence that Autumn is coming, you should have seen some of the giant fungi that have sprouted up recently, including these:

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Unknown fungi

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A Tale of Two Patches (I’m a fungi to be with)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

It was the best of times: a shrike on the patch! The first Great Grey Shrike on the patch in 39 years. I wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye when the last one was seen. And, I’ve never even seen one (I’ve got three species of shrike on my lists and ‘Great Grey’ ain’t one). Brilliant! Except…

It was the worst of times: I didn’t see it.

I had been out the night before and may have had a drink or two. I missed the calls from Jono alerting me to the Shrike, and woke up too late. It had gone. A fantastic find by Tony and well deserved, but devastating to dip.

Nick and I searched hard, but didn’t find it. There were points on my walk around the patch when certain bushes seemed so promising as a shrike-perch that I almost built myself up into a frenzy of expectation and optimism. But it was simply not to be.

I hit a low searching the patch of grassland known as the Forbidden Triangle, which resembles the Bermuda Triangle in that anything with wings that might visit the area disappears and is never seen. But even that was not to be the nadir…

I scraped the barrel by walking into the City of London Cemetery. It was like Piccadilly Circus at the gates with flower stalls doing a roaring trade from the bereaved and hearses gliding past with large entourages. I looked at the three paths roads stretching away in-front of me which, then, in turn, split again like some fractal nightmare of labyrinthine infinity, and I just gave up. I nipped between a processional cortège like a green-clad funeral crasher, and escaped back out of the gothic gates without having seen so much as a robin.

“…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

By the time I reached Wanstead Park, my optimism of finding the Shrike had all but evaporated.

My mood was poor as I entered the wooded darkness of the dell. I knew I was leaving any likely habitat for a Shrike-stopover.

But as I entered the woodland, my funk was pierced by what sounded like a thousand ultra-high-pitched whistles. As the trees encircled me, it felt like I was surrounded by legion invisible Goldcrest. And, albeit not quite literally, I probably was. Our resident reguli (I feel like Alan Partridge insisting on referring to the plural of his car make as ‘Lexi’) have been swelled enormously by Eastern passage migrants.

It was the age of wisdom: In a better frame of mind I began to see things that were there, rather than hoping to see something that was not (profound no?!). And those things were mostly of a fungal nature.

Autumn can so easily seem like a season of death. But with death comes decay, and with decay comes a bloom as impressive as any Spring floral display. I was surrounded by mushrooms, toadstools, and slime moulds.

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From the large…

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… to the truly minute (I found caps that were just a few millimetres in diameter).

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I found and photographed at least twenty types of fungi. Exhilarated at the prospect of looking them up and listing them somewhere, I longed to thumb through my tome of Collins Fungi Guide and tick off everything I had seen. But the reality was to be somewhat different.

It was the age of foolishness: The Collins guide illustrates over 2,400 species of fungi. It boasts that it is the most complete field guide available, although there are believed to be well over 17,000 species of fungi growing on the British Isles. I hopelessly failed to accurately identify anything – even with photographs and a guide book.

Other than having a broad sense of fungal families seen: Inkcaps, Parasols, Chanterelles, Agarics and the like; I flailed with the scale and similarity of the possibilities. The very fact that this blogpost is posted somewhat ‘after the fact’ (to take a line from Eminem) is a clue to the reality that I spent two nights flicking between photo and guide picture largely fruitlessly.

“…it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”

It was the epoch of belief: I realised once again what many birders have noted before; birding in Britain sits in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of wildlife hobbies. Enough variety and variation for challenge, but not so much that it becomes a hard science rather than a pleasurable hobby. There are about three hundred species of breeding and regularly visiting birds in the UK, and about three hundred more possibilities of scarcities and vagrants.

It was the epoch of incredulity: Compared with 17,000+ British fungi (it is believed that science has named less than a tenth of the fungi in existence on earth: likely to be in excess of a million species), birding is positively ‘Duplo’-like simplistic fun. I know there are people who will  examine gill filaments and spores of a fungus under a microscope, or indeed the genitalia of a moth, for the sake of identification, but… I prefer birding: “definitely a Chiffchaff. It just went ‘chiff chaff‘”.

“…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness…”

It was the season of light: Being in a somewhat philosophical frame of mind off the back of my fungal forays (and still blissfully unaware of the ID enigma I was to encounter at home) I did my best to cheer Nick up over a couple of pints of beer at our patch pub (and failed rather miserably – Nick finds more on the patch than most of the rest of us put together, but was clearly gutted by the GGS dip). [OK! I realise two birders drowning their sorrows is hardly an embodiment of the ‘season of light’, but I have committed to this ‘Tale of Two Cities’ theme now and I am damn well going to see this extended metaphor through to the bitter end! The pub is the ‘Golden Fleece’ after all (although the nearby ‘North Star’ would’ve been even better for my story)]

It was the Season of darkness: [This one’s back on track] The next day was so foggy, that attempting to identify any birds on patch was tricky and photography was virtually useless…

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Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) in broom in the fog


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European Stonechat (Saxicola rubecola) in the fog

“…it was the Spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

It was the Spring of hope: I whirled around the Flats from dawn to check in case our shrike had come back or come out of hiding. But to no avail. My Sunday of hope lay elsewhere: on another patch a few miles down the road (or down river to be more precise)…

A mere stone’s throw from the stone barges of Rainham, a little warbler was skulking around in some bushes. Another local birder, Shaun Harvey had played a blinder (almost literally) and found London’s second ever Dusky Warbler from its “took” or “teck” calls. Most of the Wanstead crew piled over on Sunday morning, along with many other birders to congratulate our neighbouring patch-worker and pay our respects to the diminutive dark phyllosc.

I stood in the twitch line looking at the tangle of gorse, nettle, bramble, and ‘thorn occasionally hearing the odd call from deep in the vegetation. A ‘tick’ from the ‘teck’, so to speak, but I wanted at least a glimpse as well. A Robin, a Wren, a Dunnock, and a Reed Bunting all popped up every now and then to show us how easy it is for a bird to perch in full view while our Asian visitor stayed resolutely hidden.

But eventually, through fence, branch, stalk, and twig, I got a view of an eye under a distinctive supercilium peering out from its thorny bower and then that brown phylloscopus-body moving between twigs. That is how life ticks are made.

It was the winter of despair: Winter is indeed on its way, and the season of crazy passage vagrant arrivals will soon be over, but it is no time for despair. For every fungus that cannot be ID’d, there will be another that can (maybe with practice); for every bird that is dipped, there is another that can be ticked. And with both comes a story to be told, even if not quite worthy of a Dickens novel.

 

Scottish sojourn: Part II (Wildwood)

First came the birches…

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Silver Birch (Betula pendula) wood in Highlands

…and then came the pines…

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Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris), Rothiemurcus

… and then the oak…

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Mixed woodland dominated by Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea), Taynish NNR, Argyll

This is a crude description of the order with which our island became re-forested after the last Ice Age eight or nine thousand years ago. As the ice retreated, the trees advanced. In the high mountains of Scotland, the pines were kings. Just about everywhere else, our lands were carpeted with oak dominated woodland. And so the Wildwood became.

To say that we have deforested our ‘green and pleasant land’ would be an understatement of spectacular proportions. Only tiny fragments of ancient forest remain, and nowhere has it been untouched. Nowhere.

But… perhaps the closest we can experience to this original wild woodland is in Scotland. The temperate oak rainforests of the West coast, and the pockets of Scots Pine that remain in the Highlands. I recently visited both.

Taynish and the temperate rainforests

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Taynish NNR

The Taynish peninsula is the westernmost-but-one protuberance on the larger (famously phallic) Kintyre peninsula on the South West coast of Scotland. The main woodland area is dominated by two ridges (one of which can be seen above) and a marshy valley in between (also seen above). Water surrounds. The lochs are fished by Osprey (which I saw there) and Otters (which I didn’t – although I had seen them on Mull the day before).

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Shores of Taynish and Loch Sween

This is one of the few areas believed to have been continuously covered in woodland since the last Ice Age with soil pollen records showing only a dip in the Iron Age when man felled some of the trees and again in the 18th-early 20th Century when the woodland was heavily, albeit largely sustainably, coppiced. For the last fifty-plus years the woodland has been allowed to gently revert, edging closer (even if never reaching) its original pristine state.

The woodland is called temperate rainforest because of the volume of rainfall (well over three times the amount of rain that falls in London), the relatively mild climate (as a sheltered peninsula in the South of Scotland), and the number of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts etc) and epiphytes (that grow on other plants also including moss, lichen, and ferns). It actually reminded me more of Cloud forest (that I have seen in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru) rather than rainforest. It is magnificent; I am not sure I have been anywhere in the UK that feels so alive.

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Oak with ferns, mosses and lichens growing on it

The understorey is rich and varied. The diversity of fungi, mosses, lichens, grasses, liverworts, slime moulds, ferns, orchids, and other higher plants was just staggering.

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And while I was there, I watched both Spotted Flycatcher, and Pied Flycatcher amongst the tits, treecreepers, thrushes and other common woodland birds.

When out on the heathland and flower-rich carefully grazed areas, I walked amongst more Meadow Pipits than I could count, as well as Lesser Redpoll, Corn Bunting, and Skylark. Apparently Spotted Crake have been recorded here, but they did not show for me. And things get even better when it comes to the invertebrates, with a particularly broad range of butterflies and moths: It is an important site for the Marsh Fritillary, although I was there too late in the year to see them, but was happy with a life first Scotch Argus:

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Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops)

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Common Carpet (Epirrhoe alternata)

I visited other temperate rainforests along the coast while I was there, and can say with some conviction that it is my favourite British habitat. I was at Taynish on a Saturday morning and did not see a single other person until I returned to my car. I cannot recommend a visit to this area highly enough.

The Scots Pine woods

Unless you have seen it, it is difficult to emphasise the contrast between the denuded highlands, or the lifeless timber plantations with the wonderfully rich habitats of true Scots Pine wood. Like the ancient oak woodland, these are tiny remnants of the once mighty Caledonian forest that cloaked much of Scotland until a few hundred years ago.

Unlike the semi-natural linoleum of dead needles that cover the floor of dark spruce plantations, the naturally-growing pine forests are carpeted with an array of ferns, juniper, grasses, and mosses. The understorey is teeming with life.

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Forest stream in Rothiemurcus

I came across huge Wood Ant nests, garish fungi, and some rather more familiar life-forms up above the forest floor:

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Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

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Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

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Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

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Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

But I didn’t go up to Scotland to see Coal Tit. I had other quarry in mind and I got one of my pine forest ticks at the beautiful setting of Loch an Eilein.

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Loch an Eilein

High up in the pines I heard, and then saw, a bird I am used to seeing in the Pyrenees, but had never come across in Britain; the wonderful Crested Tit.

But above and beyond ticking off birds, was an opportunity for me to reconnect with something we have all but entirely lost: our great forests, the wildwood, and quite simply… the wild. My emotional state reflected the woodland I visited; I felt alive.

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Fallow Deer doe (Dama dama)

 In search of the source. Not quite the Nile.

The City of London Cemetery is enormous.

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At 200 acres, it is one of the largest cemeteries in Europe and has a network of roads making it seem like a town of death. I understand that around one million people have been buried here and there are about 150,000 graves. If the maths of those two figures doesn’t add up to you, that is because the bodies are, literally, buried on top of one another.

The cemetery is not as interesting historically as some of the other London burial sites like Highgate, but it is of interest to me as it is a huge green space almost surrounded by my local patch – with the Eastern end of the Flats on one side and the Roding, Old Sewage Works, and Wanstead Park on the other.

It is full of manicured lawns, gardens, tree-lined avenues, and grave stones by the many thousand ranging from little wooden crosses to enormous, and often very gaudy, monolithic mausolea. But there is also a small corner that is not tended neatly by the groundsmen – a grove of trees clustered by the boundary fence near the Roding – known as the Birches nature reserve:

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X marks the spot of the wild area. Thanks to Google for the map

This small section of woodland is wonderfully wild. I presume that very few people indeed ever visit – partly because those of us likely to be interested in it would have to walk very far out of our way to get there as there is only one entrance to the cemetery and the fence is  high. In fact, it is so poorly known that I can only find one one reference to the fact that it is a nature reserve at all. 

Everything was wet. The leaf litter is so thick that walking around on the mulch is like walking on pillows. With all the mosses, fungi and ferns, it felt like I was experiencing the original Atlantic Oakwood temperate rainforest, not some small sub-urban plot re-wilded a decade ago (although this is wonderful evidence of how quickly nature can take back over if given the chance to thrive without being overly ‘managed’).

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Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)

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The edible Jelly Ear Fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae)

Indeed there was a lot of water in this grove, but I knew that from often peering through the fence just visible to the right in the photo below:

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That water collects as a pond and is the beginning of the poorly known Alders Brook. I had come in search of its source, and with limited thrashing about, I found it… sort of:

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Culverted source of Alders Brook

The concrete culvert pipe runs through the ditch that I understand was once part of the ‘Great Canal’ dug for the Manor of Aldersbrook. This is the first opportunity to see the Alders Brook. It presumably trickles down from the higher land off the Wanstead Flats (maybe including any overflow from Alexandra pond) and through, or hopefully beneath, the catacombs and graves of the cemetery.

The Alders Brook then flows under the fence and splits North and South. The Northern stream is a dead-end and so the water is stagnant, but South it flows into the Roding.

The Birches reserve is a known site for Woodcock and Snipe – the resident Woodcock seemingly roosts in this area and then flies out in the evening to feed on the Ilford Golf Course at night. I didn’t see any Woodcock and, actually, never have on the patch, but I intend to make an effort this year to tick it off.

I am indebted to Paul Ferris’ excellent Wanstead Wildlife website for much of the background information and history presented in this post.

All photos were taken on my iPhone and for some reason are lower resolution than usual – apologies.