As someone who works from home 9-5, I have to break up my days and get exercise through one or two short walks a day in the daylight hours. I often pass through a cemetery on one of those walks. Last week I noticed a double gravestone which was acting as a green wall. It was absolutely dripping in moss. I tweeted about it:
The best moss images I’ve managed to take have been in the New Forest National Park. This is juniper haircap moss, which I caught just as the evening sun was slipping away:
I liked the mossy cemetery scene so much, and even though I stepped in dog poo at the time, the next morning I headed back. This was the photo I had in mind:
I had about fifteen minutes and this was the best I could do at the time. I really need a tripod and more time to get this right. Nevertheless, when I looked closer at the stone itself, I noticed a herd of miniscule invertebrates:
I recognised them as globular springtails. This is possibly my first attempt so hopefully I can get a clearer image in future. There’s a helpful guide to them here. Springtails are found in huge numbers in soils and are a key part of soil biodiversity. Apparently they also enjoy graveyards.
I think what the springtails are particularly interested in here are lichens. Thankfully, I am also interested in lichens and we’re about to move into that season. I was so enamoured with the springtails that I went back at lunchtime. It appeared then that the springies were actually grazing the lichens.
This is not over. (Technically for this week it is, but you know what I mean). Hopefully more springtails next week.
There is something special about woodlands in December. For wildlife, they can be a forbidding and barren place, which is why so many birds now move to warmer urban areas for food and shelter at this time of year. I’ve spent a good amount of time in woodland recently and the amount of fungi was a pleasant surprise. The gills in the Sussex Weald (a local name for a stream, plural) were gushing after lots of rain. They kept good company on their edges – mushrooms.
I spent a couple of hours following the edge of a network of Wealden gills. I found a number of smaller mushrooms along the edges of the gushing gills, like this very dapper looking mushroom with a wood sorrel bowtie. You may also notice a tiny springtail on the plant! The word gill is also used in Scotland and northern England, where it’s often spelled ‘ghyll’.
Something that really caught my eye was the work of this wrinkled crust fungus, which is its actual name.
Fungi’s main function (fungtion?) in a woodland is to break down organic matter into soil and other minerals and nutrients which can support other species. It was fascinating to see this fungus ingesting (perhaps) organic waste material in its path. In this case it was consuming a sycamore seed.
Nearby, another specimen of the fungus was getting to work on a sycamore leaf.
On a tree growing over the gill, this purply jellydisc looked like something out of a 1950s b-movie horror film. I think it’s the moss’s sporophytes that make it look so low-budget sci-fi.
I think you probably get what I mean.
I had my binoculars with me for this walk and they were very useful in, unsurprisingly, spotting things from a distance. Without them I would have missed a fallen birch tree that was covered in many species of fungi, as well as slime moulds and mosses. Above is a species of either trametes or stereum, two kinds of smaller polypore.
There was a helpful illustration of blushing bracket’s lifecycle, moving from a pale coloured fruiting body, to red and then something much darker. That’s a long blush.
Sulphur tuft is a very common species which seems able to tough it out through the colder months. I have seen so much of it recently.
Though it may look nice, it’s a toxic fungus, so don’t get any ideas.
Take nothing but photographs, in this instance. Give nothing but likes and nice comments.
I’m in the process of editing a third booklet of poems. It takes me something like 2-4 years to get one finished because things need to be left to cool and develop, you need time away from it. I have a ghost document of poems that don’t quite fit in. This is one about a walk on the South Downs between Firle and Itford in June 2019.
I really thought this one would work with the collection, but something changed and it’s going free.
As I progress towards finishing the third booklet, I’ll post some more of those which won’t be in it. Definitely interested in your views on them.
I did say this blog would make the odd appearance, outside of insect season. Here we go again! I’ve spent some decent stints in the woods recently. It always surprises me how much there is to see at a very small scale in woodlands at this time of year. That’s even before the frost, snow or ice has come into play. In southern England it looks like snow could be coming.
I was looking for fungi on both occasions but with less of a sense of expectation. It’s a better way to be, you’re more relaxed and open to finding new things. Though most plants have shed their leaves by December, there are many which are evergreen. Some plants look especially nice when there has been a bit of rain, with honeysuckle being one of them. This is a time of year when YouTube photographers will be posting videos about droplets.
Honeysuckle is a plant renowned for its scent, which is beautiful. I have fond memories of walking home from the train station at night in south London with the whiff of honeysuckle flowers coming from a local nature reserve. The leaves are tough, what you might expect from an evergreen plant. The cells are not allowing much movement of water molecules, or even gases, which means the water droplets sit on top. I may be wrong about that.
Oak leaves are not evergreen, but they are very tough. A fallen oak leaf is a great platform to find water droplets.
I think quite a lot about how weird some of the things I photograph are. I wouldn’t change that. Most of the well known photographers have massive tripods and are looking for the perfect light in some amazing landscape. Generally I am down in the leaf litter looking for the smaller things. It’s an incredible place to be.
You do find some very unusual things. I spotted this moth, species unknown to me, which had been predated perhaps, or had succumbed to the cold. It looked just like a leaf with an water droplet resting in its underwing. Leaf litter is such an important part of woodland, with the soil being the most important part of all. It’s where much of the magic happens. A UN report has warned about the need to protect soils without delay.
Soils are formed in woodland by decaying organic matter which is recycled by fungi, bacteria and invertebrates. Inside a fallen tree I found these slime moulds, another recycler and consumer of organic matter. I think these are a species of Trichia.
In Sussex we have now inched out of a national ‘lockdown’ and into more localised restrictions on hugs, walks and purchases. Not that fungi (if it could) cares a jot about any of these psychological blockades. They have enough on their hyphae feeding the world’s woods, trees and forests. I will admit that after seeing the mushrooms fading away into a typical ‘mush’ in my local woods (not actually mine) I had sweated on this post. Again, not literally. Temperatures are loitering around the five degrees Celsius mark (I learned this week that Celsius was an actual person) which means frost and therefore frozen fungi. Fungi are 90% water which means they can only really produce fruiting bodies above ground – it can be quite toasty in the soil, where they can remain active socialising with tree roots – when it’s warmer than this.
One thing I have noticed is that fungi are lingering longer in grasslands. Last week I saw inkcaps in golfing greens. Recently I passed a local cemetery and spotted some white mushrooms in the grasslands. On closer inspection I could see these were a white species of waxcap. Waxcaps are rare mushrooms which are largely dependent on ancient grasslands or those which are stable, i.e. not regularly ploughed up or disturbed. Among the white mushrooms I saw some stonking red ones – which iNaturalist helped me to ID as scarlet waxcap. I am put off identifying this family of shrooms because it is not always straightforward, a bit like webcaps, of which there are thousands of species, even in the nature-depleted UK.
These are gorgeous mushrooms. Cemeteries are a great place to find these fungi because the grasslands are sometimes as old as 300 years or more, do not suffer from the use of chemicals, and the lack of footfall out of respect, means the grasslands are soft and accommodating to species trying to move through them. There are lots of projects to monitor grasslands for waxcaps, such as this project from Plantlife and the very interesting charity Caring for God’s Acre.
My best find was this keeled-over meadow waxcap, fanning its gills like some feral peacock. It may have been the frost that has caused it to pose like an ancient tree, but it will probably help with the spread of its spores.
As you can see, waxcaps are incredibly beautiful fungi. If you see any on your travels please do submit species records to Plantlife or your local Wildlife Trust. You can also take a photo and submit it to iNaturalist or iRecord depending on your preference. Better still, inform the people who own the land – ‘do you know you have rare wildlife living on your land?’ – and ask them to take this into consideration when managing it.
Here’s a wider view where you can see just how big the meadow waxcap is! Those surrounding trees will not be great for the waxcaps due to shading, so for their benefit tree planting should be avoided and cutting of the grasslands is a priority.
It wasn’t just waxcaps though, I found something more suitably Gothic growing alongside a grave.
This is a species in a group known as the goblets! What a great name. I need to get myself a goblet.
It’s nearly over. Mushroom season 2020 has been a short, sharp shock of fungi in southern England. I spent some time this week scouring local woodlands and walking on the rural edges. I found little in the way of soil-based mushrooms. To me this is a sign that autumn is over and winter has made its claim. We’re entering into the Tier 3 of seasons.
A good sign that mushroom season is over is when you are only able to spot very small species on moss or in tree bark. There are micro-climates in trees and mosses that allow for humidity and the fruiting of some species. This is a moss bell in the family Galerina.
I did find some mushrooms on the woodland floor but they were mostly mush, collapsed in on themselves after heavy rain. I found one emerging blusher (Amanita rubescens) in an area of heathy pine woodland.
As you can see, most of the trees had shed their leaves but for younger silver birches which still held some colour.
I found most of my fungi on a massive fallen beech tree. Beech jellydisc was just fruiting.
It’s easily confused with jelly ear, which is usually found on elder rather than beech and grows much more floppy. Perhaps beech jellydisc is also more pale in colour.
I was pretty intrigued by this weird crust fungus, wrinkled crust. It was lovely and vibrant, with an interesting orange fruiting body appearing from its base.
December is a month when I really begin to notice slime moulds, maybe because the woods are growing bare.
Though not a fungus, this very small slime mould is a Lycogala, with the common name of wolf’s milk. You can pop it with your finger and liquid gushes out. It’s harmless and quite fun. That may also help the organism to reproduce.
The following day I went for a walk from my house and found these shaggy inkcaps trespassing on a deserted golf course. Golf, like other outdoor sports, has not been allowed during the UK’s recent lockdown. It was eerily quiet and I was the only person there.
I thought these mushrooms were charming, like a parent protecting its offspring all at sea in the grasslands.
Grasslands seem able to hold fungi later into the year than woodlands. I think that’s down to the leaf-fall in woodland, which may repress some species from being able to push through. Just an untested theory.
I’m confident this is a species of waxcap, perhaps snowy waxcap. Waxcaps are indicators of ancient grasslands and have suffered in Britain due to agricultural intensification. The chalk grassland of the South Downs is a great place for them, but churchyards and even some moorlands can be good, too.
One lunchtime I made a break for the woods, with much lower expectations than previously. I spotted this blusher pushing through in the cradle of a tree root. Only later did I notice that an ichneumon wasp had landed, in focus, on the cap of the mushroom. It was a complete accident. You can read more about ichneumon wasps in my Macro Monday blog.
A new find for me (and once again not a fungus) was this coral slime mould. It was spreading across a small piece of wood at the side of the path. Slime moulds are fascinating because they are something of a mystery to science. They are believed to show early evolutionary forms of memory and are not closely related to fungi. I still need to buy the ID book.
A few weeks ago I visited a favourite Sussex woodland renowned for its fungal life. Mushrooms were to be found everywhere. I was blown away.
I’m writing this a month later, having been taken out of the loop by illness for two of them (not Covid, thankfully) and now a national lockdown in England (Covid). Judging from a wintry woodland walk yesterday, I expect the trip will be my experience of the mushroom peak of 2020. So here’s how it went:
I knew it was going to be a fruitful visit when I turned into the reserve and saw mushrooms on either side of the lane. This amazing family of shaggy inkcaps provided a perfect autumn image. You can see the larger specimens heading into their state of deliquesce where the ink begins to form and drop, spreading the spores.
Across the lane these younger shaggies were just appearing from the soil.
There were puffballs in close attendance, including this very large pestle puffball. It appears that someone had been clearing the vegetation around it to get a better photo. That’s a bit of a no-no.
A more modest puffball was growing close by. I was testing out a new camera bought after trading in some underused camera equipment. I was using an Olympus E-M5 Mark 3. It’s a micro four thirds mirrorless camera, much smaller and lighter than my usual full-frame Nikon equipment. It passed the mushroom test with flying colours.
I have been thinking a lot recently about how photography may at times get in the way of my experiencing the outdoors. If you become weighed down with equipment, or perhaps distracted by other things, likewise with people, problems or other plans, it can hamper your ability to enjoy the moment. That was becoming an issue for me with photography. Taking photos required a lot of kit and much of it heavy. I have begun to question if it’s really worth it. Hence trying to lighten up both my equipment and my mentality.
In October there were a huge number of magpie inkcap images on social media. It has clearly had a good year. I wonder if in future that kind of data can be harnessed to understand the prevalence of certain species. A bit like open source investigate journalism.
Porcelian fungus has also had another solid year. There is one tree I head to, a semi-collapsed beech tree that is always home to these beauties in autumn. I like to photograph this fungus from below, sometimes using a light to illuminate the gills.
Porcelain fungus is translucent and glossy, so that helps it look even better in photos.
On the same log I found this mushroom, probably a bonnet. It was only later that I noticed the thread of silk running from the gills to the moss. That’s the beauty of macro photography, you don’t see everything straight away. It goes to show how poor our eyesight really is and how much we miss.
Further into the woodland I found this lovely cluster of shaggy scalycap mushrooms, just peaking and perhaps beyond their best. Here I used a tripod and an external LED to light them from underneath. I used a zoom lens and once again the camera was a winner.
There were mushrooms absolutely everywhere. It was probably the most mushrooms I have ever encountered in a single day. This stinkhorn is only the second I’ve ever found. Interestingly I had passed it earlier in the day and the black sludge that covers the top of the fungus had disappeared by about an hour or so later. I believe that is eaten by the insects you can see here, in order to spread the spores. It’s a gross fungus but utterly fascinating.
I know a pile of logs alongside the path that is always good in autumn for coral fungus. I was not to be disappointed. This could be a scene from The Little Mermaid or perhaps the ruins of some Bavarian mega-castle.
There were many fly agarics to be found, probably in the hundreds. One patch was in incredible condition. When I find scenes like this, it gives me an adrenaline rush, knowing I have a limited amount of time and opportunity to get the photo. You can see why I don’t take photos of birds or rare mammals, I would get far too excitable and probably drop the camera.
This fly agaric was untouchable. It’s the kind of thing I dream of all the year round. I love the way the leaves have been pushed up but still clamour at the stipe of the fungus. It was a perfect specimen. It’s the only place to end. I will be going looking for mushrooms this weekend but after weeks of torrential rain, I fear they may have been washed away. With colder temperatures coming soon with December’s arrival, it could be the end for our fungal friends. I’ll keep you posted.
The River Arun, Horsham, West Sussex, November 2020
Again we must stay close to home. The oaks are in their orange and gold phase. The bright sun catches in their leaves against blue skies, darkening their grey-black trunks. I stop to look out over the Arun’s water meadows. Two large white Sussex cattle rest on a hillock, doing nothing.
From the mature trees that edge the Arun, a bird swoops down into the rushy grasslands that spread away from the river. I can see from its size and underwing that it’s a buzzard. It returns to a perch in a bare ash tree on the river’s edge. I don’t have binoculars so I can’t see what it has, but it took something. Surely it’s too late for frogs or toads.
A man and a woman approach from behind me to share the view across the river’s wet edgelands. The woman has an orange bin bag and a litter pick.
‘Seen anything good?’ she asks.
I point out the buzzard, that it’s hard to see because it’s so well hidden.
‘No,’ she says. ‘I’ve just seen it because it moved.’
Impressive, but perhaps unsurprising for someone with an eye for litter picking.
I say that I don’t know what it has. She tells me that she only ever sees them soaring but never perched. She and her partner live on the edge of the farm. They see buzzards all the time.
All summer I heard a young buzzard calling from a nest along the river, It was incessant, persistent. Every time I visited I could hear it calling. Then I spotted a huge ash tree and saw it sitting up there, calling still. It was out on a branch, begging to be fed by its parents.
As an exiled Londoner, it feels an intense privilege to be able to walk ten minutes from home and happen upon the breeding ground of this great and prospering hawk. A fellow exile said much the same to me, that he had found buzzards roosting in trees across from his new home in Peterborough.
Our conversation about the buzzard dissolves in that awkward English way, and the couple head off in search of more litter. I stay on, wondering what it is the buzzard is having for its lunch.
Fly agaric, the most iconic mushroom of them all, is currently fruiting en masse in southern England. Looking at social media feeds, it seems to be the case across the UK. In the past week I have witnessed lots of these red and white amanitas in the Sussex Weald. It reminded me of the need to finally crack on and address the issue of fly agaric’s bizarre cultural history. It’s very weird and not something I can prove. But here goes.
The ecology of fly agaric
Fly agaric is a mycorhizzal species. This means it has a special relationship with trees that benefits both the tree and the fungus. The above troop of fly agaric are connecting to the roots of a silver birch tree. The red and white mushrooms are ‘the fruit on the tree’ of the fungus. Under the soil the spreading mycelium, a network of hair-like threads or hyphae, are connected to the root hairs of the birch. The mushroom itself is a massing of the hyphae. The birch is able to ‘direct’ the underground hyphae to reach certain minerals and nutrients it is unable to gather itself. Likewise the fungus will receive water and sugars in support.
It’s the wood-wide web.
Fly agaric is classified as a toxic mushroom to humans. Don’t eat it. As I’ve mentioned here before, it lives in a family of some deadly poisonous mushrooms such as the deathcap and destroying angel. One common use for Europeans has been to kill other insects (surprise, surprise), which is where it gets its name. The mushrooms were mashed into a paste or suchlike and left on windowsills to kill flies. Agaric is an old name for a type of mushroom. There you have it.
Was Father Christmas a mushroom-eating shaman?
That escalated quickly.
A couple of years ago some friends of mine went on a fungi foraging course in Wiltshire, south-west England. They came back with a story which I stole and haven’t stopped lording over unsuspecting acquaintances ever since.
In the coldest parts of northern Europe, places like Scandinavia or Siberia, where birch and coniferous trees are dominant, it was once a ritual for fly agarics to be consumed for hallucinatory purposes. The mushrooms are toxic but were picked and put in sacks that people carried over their shoulders. Then they were left in the, often coniferous, trees to dry out. When the fly agarics were in the trees to dry, they looked like what we in the western world consider Christmas decorations.
Fly agaric does seem to have strong Christmas symbolism, particularly in 20th Century German Christmas greeting card culture.
I don’t know where to begin with this. There are also horseshoes in both these images which are seen as a good luck charm. Their resemblance to a crescent moon is supposed to be significant in Celtic religions.
Back to the mushrooms: when the mushrooms in those Christmas-like trees had finally dried, they were used for hallucinogenic purposes by a shaman. It is said that the shaman arrived on a sled led by reindeer. He clamboured into the tent where people lived, through a hole in the roof where smoke could escape, and climbed down a birch timber used to keep the tent upright:
During the winter families would invite a Shaman to visit, they would arrive on a reindeer led sleigh and enter the yurt through the smoke hole (or chimney) and down the central pole, bringing with them a bag of dried fly agaric. The shaman would take the mushroom and go on a hallucinogenic journey gaining healing knowledge and advice from other realms to problem solve and help with concerns, a type of spiritual gift to be rewarded with offerings of food.
Furthermore, when people consumed the dried mushrooms, they had visions of the reindeer flying. Reindeer are also known to like fly agaric and people once used the mushrooms to herd reindeer. You should probably give yourself five minutes to let this all sink in.
For reasons other than Covid-19, Christmas may never be the same again.
It’s also home to rare breeding birds such as the bearded tit and marsh harrier.
Below is the blog I’ve written, which you can view here along with all the other Swanscombe Stories. Please sign the petition to save this special place and invest in its richness, rather than destroy it.
Swanscombe Stories #3 – Ode to a Pylon
I first visited Swanscombe Marshes in March 2015. Spring was in the offing, a cold wind blew off the Thames. My friend introduced me and a few other conservation-minded people from London to the Marshes. He was brought up in Kent and over the years developed a deep understanding of the North Kent Marshes. I can just imagine the way he sees the landscape in his head. He would talk of marshland either side of the river in a way that suggested he was poring over a detailed map in his mind. He knew where species like marsh harrier and the bearded tit nested. Sure enough, we saw both species on that blustery and grey Saturday in March.
Many other people could tell you in much greater detail how interesting this old industrial landscape is. They could tell you what the huts were used for, what certain imprints in the landscape indicate. I was very much a stranger to the place. But I could see the ecological richness, even in March, its interlacing with the industry of old.
Brownfields are pitifully misunderstood in Britain. Old industrial land which is left to be seeded with wild plants, the spores of fungi, and re-colonised by wild animals, makes up some of the most biodiverse habitat in the UK. Too many people in positions of authority are blind to this fact. The ecological value of brownfield is being ignored in return for a dim policy of building only on brownfield. In reality brownfield beats much of the agricultural green belt of England in species diversity because pesticides are not used, nature is given free reign. Their ecological networks are built by natural processes we are not able to replicate ourselves. No amenity or mitigation planting can ever match what special places like Swanscombe have made without us, or in our wake.
When I visited, my friend expressed his affection for a massive electricity pylon. Like you, I also thought that was a bit odd. He said it was because ravens were using it for nesting, and that pylons of this size were a rare thing nowadays. His interest in these pylons matched Swanscombe’s allure: a ruined landscape of old industry now rich in rare insects, spiders and birds. I was so impressed by one man’s love for a pylon that I wrote this poem:
The concrete and riverside
flip flop driftwood and rope
harrier haunting a level of reeds
some policeman of phragmites
of seedy beards that bend and shiver
to the breathing Thames
and its godlike pylon
with chickweed toenails
and ravens for lice.
It’s an icon of a time
when England created
for an age when
she will but consume.
you will be deleted.
A few months later we visited again in August. It was another grey and windy day but the grasslands of the ridge alongside the Thames were alive with wildflowers. The numbers of moths, butterflies, bees and other insects was astonishing. It was not something I had imagined back from that first visit in March.