Fungi Friday 3rd April 2020 (or Friday 9th November 2019)
I can’t get out to anywhere that has mushrooms to photograph and we’re also experiencing something of a dry spell in Sussex. That means that this week I’m posting about my fungal highlight of autumn 2019, which took place on Friday 9th November. Consider this a bit of a sporting or cinematic classics TV show, until we’re allowed to venture further and any spring rain arrives. The inconsistent nature of mushroom fruiting bodies means I may have to wheel this out again to keep it going every week.
It was mid-November with autumn at its peak. The colours of the beech trees were at their most explosive. In the woodlands of the Sussex Weald, there were millions of mushrooms. They seemed to be under every footstep and fruiting from every fallen tree.
It was clear it was peak mushroom time. The bonnets were out en masse and many leaves were still on the trees. I have come to think that fungi hunting is so much easier before the leaves fall. The leaf litter created by oak and beech is very hefty.
I would also consider using hazel as an indicator. When those leaves start to yellow and fall, you know it’s going to be more difficult. Winter is on its way.
Bonnets are some of the best fungi to photograph because they’re often elevated on the limbs of fallen trees, meaning you don’t have to scrabble around on the ground. It’s also a very nice height for a tripod. A tripod gives you the steadiness to use slow shutter speeds which makes it so much easier to take pics in a dark woodland in autumn. Also, mushrooms don’t move!
What I am looking for in general is a mushroom that can be isolated. A macro lens gives a very shallow depth of field, which means that the focus is thin and the background easily blurs. This kind of thing is perfect. I don’t focus stack images (a complex process of threading images together which have different stages of focus) but this would look really good with every aspect in focus.
This is also what’s so nice about elevated fungi. You can play around and get some nice bokeh (the circles in the background). This is created by daylight flooding through the leaves – can you see the wash of green? I used a small LED light to light the gills of the bonnets. They look almost like paper or plastic to me. The idea also occurred to me that the white bokeh circles look like the mushrooms, too.
These are probably more bonnets. Again, taking a photo of the gills underneath can create a really beautiful effect. I could have pulled the bit of dead wood off to reveal the other mushroom but I fundamentally disagree with damaging habitats for the sake of a photo.
A species I learned last year was buttercap (or at least I think I have). This is said to be a common species. I like the fairytale shape of the stipe as it bulges at the base.
The woodland was entering peak autumn colour. These beech leaves still held traces of their chlorophyll.
It was a beautiful day to be in the woods. I can’t tell you how much a woodland stream adds to the overall experience!
With what is approaching a lake, you’re spoiled rotten.
Back to the shrooms. I found probably the biggest fungus I have ever seen, though you could argue it is several fruiting bodies fused together. I even added some in-photo text to help explain the situation to you. Very advanced. This is a bracket fungus that looks more like a ray. It’s probably artist’s bracket, a Ganoderma species. Below it you can see some smaller mushrooms, these are all deceivers. They were just about covering the entire area here. It was almost impossible not to step on one. By the way don’t worry that’s my hand not a mushroom burglar’s.
All in all this was my peak mushroom experience in autumn 2019.
Three o’clock and the sun sinks in the east, casting long rays of light through the papery sepals and stems of knapweed and agrimony, summer’s relics. Threads of spider silk drift between these old frameworks, a material stronger than steel by comparison. The experts will tell you that at this time of year birds depart the highest open reaches of the downs, and there are few birds around. This is the perfect camouflage for a crow, the sun so low and dazzling there could be hundreds of them chowing down on the edge of the hill. One lifts up, gliding on the wind, hovering kestrel-like, remembering its place.
I came here with thoughts of waxcaps bright and beautiful, but two hours out here and I only find one picked and overturned. The life is being scraped from the downs by the raking wind, the tumbling temperature and coming dark, the slide into winter. Yet every seasonal change is the same, like a shift in human history, it is not one event that brings about the enclosure of darkness but several over time. You can find its waymarkers, indicators of something different on the horizon. Each season, like each era of civilisation, is a product of the ones which came before.
The cows graze the grasslands, their coats lit red by the sun setting behind them. Their breaths puff out like smoke as they chomp. It is a reassuring sound, grass uprooted and chewed over. They offer few glances to those of us passing by this morning. Pied wagtails, a bird I don’t often see here, perch on their backs and pick at their pats. In the scrub slowly being cleared from the downs by the City of London, redwing break between hawthorn and rose, their wings lit as they break cover. I know why this work is being undertaken, I’ve helped with it elsewhere on the North Downs, but I am losing my old signposts in this open landscape. The area where willow warblers once nested, where redwing and whitethroats used to feed up, a hawthorn where chafers fed one evening: all of it grubbed out, the soil lightly ploughed. This scrub is being cleared to allow the return of chalk grassland, one of Europe’s rarest habitats, much of which is found in England and a surprising amount in London. Our response to the clearance of trees is almost always emotional, that’s okay, but it’s important to know why it’s happening but equally important to ask why.
A woman passes me with a broad smile, covering her eyes from the sun to look at me. She stops:
‘Isn’t it wonderful,’ she says, her companion a little surprised that she has stopped mid-conversation. ‘Cows, fields and sunshine.’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘It’s like being in the countryside. Wait a minute, I think it is the countryside.’
‘I’m lucky, I live just next to it,’ she says, making her way.
I agree with her, she is lucky.
Up ahead a figure sits on a mobility scooter next to the millenium monument atop the hill. They are taking pictures of the sun disappearing behind the hill. Knowing I’m part of the photos I stop and ask, ‘would you like me to give a certain pose?’ She laughs and throws out her arms to suggest a stance.
‘What camera have you got there?’ she asks, my camera on its tripod resting over my shoulder like a bazooka. ‘I’ve got a Canon but haven’t used it in a while,’ she adds.
I don’t enter into the Nikon-Canon banter.
Her name is Tilly and she lives locally in Coulsdon. ‘Just down the road,’ she says. ‘Where are you from?’
I tell her that I’m not so local and I come here to get away from the SE postcode.
She asks what I’m here to photograph, ‘wildlife?’ She has it right, but there are a disappointing lack of mushrooms. ‘It’s probably the wrong time of year for that,’ she says.
It’s been the right time before but an anxious thought creeps in – does someone know the movement of waxcaps here in some kind of hyper-intuitive detail? Probably not, it’s just been a rubbish autumn for them. She recounts tales of campervan holidays out in the New Forest’s old military sites where she could bolt her caravan into the old RAF concrete and fly agarics fruited on her portable doorstep. ‘I’ve not been there for a while though,’ she says. ‘I was ill last year, and I’ve been ill this year, too.’ She nods as if admitting something.
The sun has left us now, a few scraps of cloud coloured by the glow.
‘I love the red of those clouds,’ she says. ‘Apparently there’s a green flash when the sun goes down.’
‘It’s called the green ray, there’s a French film about it called Le Rayon Vert,’ I say.
‘Oh, I’ll have to look it up,’ she says. ‘Watch out for the cow pats.’
Autumn 2015 in southern England began with a prolonged dry period reminiscent of 2011. This meant that a lot of fungus was late to fruit. Other than a September burst of honey fungus, there was little to see until the rain came and enriched the thirsty mycelia of British woods and meadows. Here is my year in mushrooms:
One of my favourite things to photograph is mushrooms, yet the act of closing the shutter is often only a small part of the experience. I can go looking for mushrooms and sometimes come away with very few photos. I have to walk until I find something, heading to the right place at the right time of year to find it. I know plenty of fungi enthusiasts who pick and cut mushrooms to identify them, a key process in understanding a species. As a photographer I see no reason for me to pick them. I’m much happier leaving the specimen where it is so someone else can come along and enjoy it, as short-lived as many fruiting bodies are. If it’s a fungal foray to raise awareness and celebrate mushrooms, picking them is great.
September to November is the right time to head out looking for the larger spreads of mushrooms, though they can be found all year round. I find enormous pleasure in that early autumn period when the moisture levels are right (fungal fruiting bodies are 90% water) and fungus abounds from every fallen tree, even the most barren of parkland funked out by funnels, inkcaps and fairy-rings.
I found a cep, Boletus edulis under a rhododendron bush in the New Forest in October. It didn’t quite match the images of bountiful porcinis (the Italian name for the cep, also known as the penny bun) but I still had no desire to take it home with me. Fungi engages people like very few wild plants or animals can, mainly because they are renowned for their edibility and their poison. From my understanding, mushroom picking is not as popular in England as it is in Poland, Estonia, the Czech Republic, France or Italy. Indeed, perhaps it is the Mediterranean influence over British culinary culture that has seen mushrooms become such a hot topic in debates about sustainable foraging. In Britain we lack the vast wooded landscapes of Transylvania, of the Tatras, Dolomites or Pyrenees. Perhaps our landscape is mycologically impoverished.
One thing that always interests me is a land manager’s attitude to foraging mushrooms. The City of London own many excellent nature reserves on the outskirts of the city and they have a no picking policy. Likewise many urban nature reserves discourage visitors from picking mushrooms. The Forestry Commission have a mushroom code, allowing only a certain weight of mushrooms to be picked and the clear message that only mature fruiting bodies should be plucked. It depends what your interest is, but as an observer I err on the side that fungi has an important role to play in an ecosystem and should largely be left alone, especially in urban nature reserves. At the same time I appreciate that it’s unproven that collecting mushrooms has any meaningful impact on the mycelium itself. As a conservationist, I tend to support the land manager’s picking only with permission, as difficult to enforce as it may be.
Fungi has a massive role in the health of woods. Species like beech, birch and oak have a strong dependency on fungi to provide them with nutrients and minerals that are otherwise impossible to retrieve from the soil. The mycelium of a fungus which fruits from the soil lives underground. The mycelium is made up of hyphae which extend through the soil, feeding on decomposing matter. The hyphae sheath the root hairs of a tree and a trade takes place between tree and fungus, a symbiotic relationship. The tree can delegate where the hyphae should extend in search of nutrients. The hyphae can then pass the nutrients into the tree via the root hairs. Water is often passed in return to the hyphae to nourish the mycelium and make the production of fruiting bodies (mushrooms) all the more possible. Experiments have been done to show that these mychorrizal relationships boost the growth of trees greatly. This is why the idea to dig up trees and replant them elsewhere to protect ancient woods is impossible. The soil is crucial. Trees are not everything.
Fungi has made me think very carefully about the camera equipment I use. The diversity of species means that there are an array of lenses and cameras you can use. There is no perfect set up. I use a Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro lens to capture the smallest of mushrooms. Lying on my stomach in the New Forest revealed many incredible things hidden away that I would otherwise not have noticed. A macro lens, though often a costly investment, can open up a new appreciation for nature.
Some of my favourite species to photograph are bonnets (Mycena) and parachutes (Mirasmius). They are so incredibly tiny but so common, simply searching for them is an adventure. Again, the best place for these is woods with a thick layer of leaf litter, but they can also be found on mossy logs, and even on the end of sticks.
At the RSPB’s Blean Woods in Kent I crouched for many minutes, fearful of dogs weeing on me, to photograph this twig parachute. It measured barely a few millimetres across. I found it because I knew where to look. My knees ache still.
Not all fungi is especially beautiful or in beautiful places. Many mushrooms are in poor condition because their time in the limelight is very short and they are affected directly by weather and other environmental factors. Slugs eat them, flies mate on them, people step on them. I found this orange peel fungus (Aleuria aurantia) on an embankment near Oxted, Kent outside a haulage company depot. The bank had been denuded of trees, their stumps poisoned. But the thing about nature is that it doesn’t care about how crap a place looks if the opportunity for propagation exists. This fungus looked more like some plastic debris half submerged in the ground.
Also not all of the beautiful fungus you find is actually fungus. One spot I return to each year, a dank log pile next to a path in some dark beech woodland, is lit up by Lycogola terrestre. This is no fungus but instead a slime mould. This is an extreme close up of one of the fruiting bodies which appears on a bed of moss in a very small area.
Another of fungi’s pleasures is an ability to surprise. Millions of spores are released by a single mushroom (30,000 million an hour by a mature bracket fungus) and so it is unsurprising to find mushrooms growing in the streets. At Camberwell Old Cemetery in south-London, four-year-old burial space has been a successful breeding ground for shaggy inkcap (Coprinus comatus). I used a 300mm telephoto lens to photograph the scene above. Seeing as the graves were newly-laid I didn’t want to intrude.
The best grasslands to find fungi are either ancient grasslands like Farthing Downs where I photographed this honey waxcap, or church yards. Waxcaps (Hygrocybe) are a strong indicator of the age of grassland. There are over 1000 species in the UK, their burst of colour in the winter doldrums add life to otherwise dormant meadows. The mild winter this year meant that waxcaps were fruiting alongside field scabious, knapweed and even yellow rattle on Farthing Downs.
In church yards the lack of grazing pressure and the ‘respectful’ management of the turf means that there are likely to be well established mycelia under the graveyard lawns. These are excellent hunting grounds for corals, Ramaria. The problem is they’re often so small it can be difficult to get a good image from a cumbersome DSLR. Instead I use my camera phone to try and get a closer look. It has a fancy in-built lens and can manual focus as if turning the focus ring of a DSLR lens by using the screen. The results were very pleasing.
The best places to find fungi are woods and meadows, generally those that are either ancient or relatively well established nature reserves which are sensitively managed. One of the new places I visited was Ashtead Common in Surrey. Ashtead Common is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and National Nature Reserve (NNR), mainly designated for its ancient pollard oaks. This collection of old trees means the diversity of fungal and invertebrate life is very high. The City of London manage their reserves very well indeed and Ashtead Common proved to be one of the best early sites to visit.
RSPB’s Blean Woods NNR is a wonderful place for wildlife in general, not merely fungi. It is a vast network of woods that flank the city of Canterbury adding a level of sylvan mystery. Blean Woods is broken up into different habitats, with spots of heathland, birch and sweet chestnut coppice which provide vital nesting opportunities for nightingales and enough light when cut to support common cow wheat, the food plant of the endangered heath fritillary butterfly. In October the woodland floor was covered by a sea of black mushrooms that, I discovered later, were horn of plenty (Craterellus cornucopioides).
It’s hard to say there is a best place to find mushrooms due to the transient way the fruiting bodies appear. My favourite place has to be the New Forest in Hampshire. The above image is of the Wildlife Trusts’ Roydon Woods NNR, an ancient broadleaved wood very close to Brockenhurst. The New Forest was probably like Ashtead Common in centuries past, with a structure more reminiscent of wood pasture (or savannah) where the trees were less close together and the grasslands were sunnier and luxurious. Roydon Woods has the feel of a landscape that is untouched by people, though such a thing does not exist today. It is possible to spend a day there and meet very few visitors but all manner of mushrooms.
Blue smoke plumes from the dreary Downs, the crack of piled ash trees cuts through the distant wash of the M25, and now the noise of chainsaws. This work is good fun. How many people panic at the sound of this machine, waking to find that their favourite tree is gone from the frame of their bedroom window. In the town I am always suspicious when their itch carries. But this is the restoration of the chalky meadows swallowed by the incoming of woods. We as a species have been trying to halt the loss of woods but at the same time deny new ones for thousands of years. This is a thousand-year-old view, the only change the exchange of machines for the pop of axes on heartwood.
Against a view of near leafless beech, a green woodpecker rises from the anthills, its flight reminiscent of a puppet tugged at intervals as it passes. Robins sing, gulls create the aura of the Sussex coast, and rain specks add a pinch of cool. In the now flattened meadows fungi can be found: a parrot waxcap plucked and left, yellow gills that ripple like flames around its stem. Puffballs are scattered across the path, little footballs deflated and unwanted. I press my toe into one, flattened and leathery grey, its brown spores puffing out like effluent. I definitely take them with me.
Standing on the track leading into Devilsden Wood I look to the ground for dryness, somewhere that hasn’t been soaked by this perpetual rainfall. I see fallen ivy leaves that appear like cuts of leather when really they are crisp under foot. Dog shit, too, the new waybread for the modern ancient footway. I hate the stuff. My waterproof sheds its load onto my jeans and it’s wait and become cold or move and receive woodland raindrops, some chucked from the canopy of mature yew, ash and beech, some fifty feet up. When they get behind glasses, these droplets shock the senses.
It’s fungi season, the signpost of falling temperatures, not too cold but a shift from the sultry summer. I gawp at log piles with an explosion of mushroom caps, marked by striping and shapes that would define them to those who understood them. But still, I spy an oysterling appearing from a rotting trunk and feel that in two years of woodland obsession I have at least learned something about this magical animal that appears so fleetingly it could almost be through the fabric of time, a monitor on how we’re doing. Checking the sole of my boot again, we’re crap. I wipe it off in a mud puddle. The rain has not lessened. I head back out from the dark, autumn-beckoning woodland and onto the wet warfare of the Downs. The change in mind is clear, the atmosphere of a woodland changes you. It is not like the open land, so much a canvas for human experimentation, our impact on woodlands is never so clear as the plough’s to the open landscape. A woodland to all but a minority could have been in that state for millenia, before human time. The wood is a wild city, with nature’s social housing, swimming pools and fast food. It was our home once, too. There is the semblance of a summer out here, yellow rattle not yet rattling, knapweed funked-out in pinkish purple, even a bit of scabious. These wildflowers have something of January’s left over Christmas decorations about them. A car passes along the lane. Woodpigeons are striking through the rainy sky, turning their wings and bodies at an angle – to avoid the direction of the rain? – always as individuals. These birds cut several different figures in a year – hurried, panicked on the wing, or else male birds cutting arcs out of the sky as they display to females long into the summer recesses. Now they could be migrating, they could be hunted. Mostly they are gorging on elderberries outside my bedroom window.
On the Downs a flock of goldfinch are startled into the sky like pieces of a broken vase put back, its smash rewound and fixed. They sit in a small hawthorn bush and I look more closely. On the end of a branch, clear and possibly not so fearful of man is a juvenile, all grey on the head, interested in looking but unaware of the perils of being watched. My advances fracture them once more and I’m left with a snapshot of their escape into the landscape captured on my camera.
By the Wisła the sun shone into my eyes, the great white bulb had me remove my winter coat. Wawel castle rested on the hill, overlooking the swoop of the river. I had been here in the thirty-degree heat of a Polish summer, Krakówians hiding in the shade of a tree on the riverbank. Now no one sat on the bank and my companion grimaced at the suggestion. The sound of footfall ricocheted from the medieval wall surrounding the castle as people walked briskly in the chill afternoon. The river gleamed beyond the slope of grass and winding paths filed by intermittent cyclists, their chains clicking.
From over the bank the silhouette of a large butterfly appeared in the ball of the sun, beating its wings against the cold. The insect flew over my head, its red and white bars flashing translucent from the glare. A red admiral. Mired in a deep, uncomfortable silence, the butterfly brought me back to life. Vanessa atalanta is common, and I’m glad to experience its dynamic coverage, to meet it there and then, when the thought of wildlife was far from my mind. This is a butterfly that tends to cross the channel to reach Britain from the Mediterranean and over vast tracts of land to appear in Poland. It hibernates in the south of England sometimes, with surviving individuals reappearing in March or April. Some red admirals linger until as late as December in milder winters.
A few hours later I stood on Karmelicka waiting for a taxi, the sun already set behind the buildings crouching around Kraków’s market square, the largest in the world. The red brakelight of a tram blurred in the new darkness. Krakówians were moving across the roads and broadly paved streets. The loop of ash, oak and lime which buffers the city’s heart had grown deeper and dark. Above the movement of electric lights the gloaming was purplish, accentuated by a channel of calling corvids. The jak-jaking of jackdaws cracked the noise of engines and voices. The birds were flocking in vast numbers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, en route to their nightly roost in a nearby park. A few pairs splintered from the gushing movement and disappeared onto the rooftops. The number of birds was so large and so constant, it was as if they were being drawn into a vortex from which they would not be returning from tomorrow.
Earlier I had watched with surprise at how these birds pulled worms from the sloping banks near the busy underpass leading to the train station, Kraków Główny. A pair had remained perfectly content with the humans but five-feet from them without a hint of anxiety. I thought back to the same birds I had lived alongside in Dorset. They would drag themselves to the wing with little encouragement, a glance from a watery blue eye. In Kraków, as we prepared to leave the grand old city, I felt the heavy blow of the flocking birds.