Fungi ๐Ÿ„: amazing woodland unicycles!

A few weeks ago I visited a local woodland with high hopes for a summer burst of mushrooms. A couple of years ago in July this woodland was showing up some great soil-based mushrooms, species like blusher (Amanita rubescens) and the brittlestems (Russula). Though I didn’t find that this time, there were huge numbers of one species – twig parachute (Marasmiellus ramealis).

The image above is one taken with my camera’s in-built focus stacking, as illustrated below. It takes several images at different focus points and blends them to provide an image which is completely in focus (I don’t know why the halo-effect is happening, for info). With this cluster of mushrooms it’s able to tell the whole story.

When I posted this pic on social media, a couple of people came back with their own descriptions: Julian Hoffman called them “amazing woodland unicycles”, which has to be my favourite. In respect to my aunt who may be reading this, she got there first with “bicycle wheels”.

The set-up needed to get this image is a camera like an Olympus E-M5 which has in-built focus stacking, a small tripod-like thing, some extra lighting and a remote shutter release. You also obviously need a mushroom. The remote trigger allows you to take a photo at very slow shutter speeds which are susceptible to blurring if there is movement. That’s the beauty of fungi and other stationary subjects, you don’t need a huge full-frame camera with exceptional low-light ability. You can just use slow shutter speeds instead.

Though it is of course not fungi, this was another focus-stacking subject on that walk in the woods. Alongside a footpath, on a piece of wood being used as edging, I found this dog vomit slime mould (Fuligo septica)… yes that’s its common name. It was in the process of covering the surface of the wood and extracting nutrients and minerals along the way. Look at the networks of slime as they build across the wood.

And here is another of the VIP behind the scenes phone photos. It’s nice to put the image in context. A vari-angle screen is also incredibly helpful in these situations. If you want any advice on this kind of fungal or slime mould photography, do post a question in the comments and I’ll happily let you know what works for me.

By the way, I was using a 30mm macro lens (60mm outside of Micro Four Thirds camera/lens config). You can actually see the settings if you look at the screen.

Thanks for reading.

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Fungi ๐Ÿ„: nipping to The Mens

Last week I dropped in on a favourite Sussex Wildlife Trust woodland. It’s a place I only ever visit when travelling to or from work. It’s a place with a funny name, The Mens. It’s even funnier when I tell others I’m going to The Mens after work. The name is said to derive from the word ‘common’, a place where local people would have had foraging and grazing rights in centuries past. It’s now a significant ancient woodland in the Sussex Low Weald, holding National Nature Reserve status. It’s special because of its naturally occuring beech and holly, though I’m no expert on its specifics. It is a uniquely beautiful woodland. It is highly sensitive, and when I go I do my best to treat it with a high level of respect and care.

It’s one of the few places in SE/central southern England outside of the New Forest, that I have visited, where moss and algae cover tree trunks. Above is the typical assemblage of mature beech, oak and a surrounding sea of holly.

You can see indicators of how many mushrooms are likely to be in fruit when you first enter a reserve. I saw the above within the first few paces. It’s is a mushroom called spindleshank Gymnopilus fusipes (to my knowledge, happy to be corrected), which grows around the buttresses of oak trees. In a separate recent walk, it was the most common fungus I saw, and so is enjoying a key fruiting period.

In terms of tree health, I wouldn’t say it was a ‘good’ sign because there is some decay going on and it is defined as a parasitic species. In a woodland like this, it is normal and part of the life of the woodland. It helps to disconnect ourselves from our normal notions of life and death when in woodlands, it doesn’t play out in the same way there. Dead and decaying trees are crucial to a woodland’s life and longevity.

Spindleshank is often first seen like the group below, bursting on the scene. It is probably attached to a root or piece of wood under the soil.

This was the only fruiting mushroom I found during the short walk but there was a large abundance of slime moulds growing on fallen wood and some standing trees.

These orangey-pink blobs are a slime mould known as wolf’s milk Lycogala epidendrum. It’s famous because you can pop it and it emits a gunk of the same colour. It’s quite cool.

You will find it on decaying wood that has been in situ for several years, often in shady and damp conditions.

This species looks a bit like slug eggs. As with most slime mould I find, I’m not sure of the species.

We have had a very wet time of it in southern England, which should be cause for celebration, really. This same species was making the most of the conditions.

Behind the scenes on the slime mould shoot

My camera is capable of doing in-camera focus stacking. This means it can take several images at different focus depths and merge them together to make an image with everything in focus. This is a dream come true for macro photography, especially when the subject is so tiny.

This is a species of coral slime mould. I have seen so much of this in the past few days spent walking in oak woodlands in West Sussex. It’s clearly striking while the woodland is wet.

And so is this little slug.

Thanks for reading.

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Postcard from the Dales

Hi everyone, No usual blogs from me this week as I’m away in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s been very hot here which makes walking more difficult (for me). The evening light has been absolutely sensational, though. Walked the Muker-Keld loop incorporating the Pennine Way in part. It’s such an incredibly rich landscape of natural and… Continue reading Postcard from the Dales

The Sussex Weald: the piping woodpunk

On the last day of May I set off on a walk into the High Weald not far from where I live. It was spring at its height, with warm weather more like the summer months to come. I waited until the late afternoon to head out for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I don’t love walking in the heat, secondly, the light is better for photography when the sun’s glare has softened.

The willows had begun to release their seeds, the ground covered in a coat of white fluff. This seed dispersal is what makes willow so effective. The catkins are pollinated by bees, flies and other insects, which then produce the seeds. The same effect comes from poplars, which are willow relatives.

Hawthorn peaks around the end of May and I always look for insects on its nectar-rich flowers. I didn’t have a macro lens at the time but with my zoom found this large sawfly nectaring. Sawflies are relatives of bees and wasps, though sawflies actually came first. Their reputation is usually defined by the behaviour of the larvae of a species which can eat roses. You can of course say the same about many other species, moths for example.

The High Weald is home to a lot of Scots pine, where it succeeds the once open heathland. I have always been confused by the ‘native range’ of pine, whether it is naturally occurring in places like the Weald. It was planted for forestry, especially on the heaths, though it is not being harvest in the same way here anymore. Pines are gymnosperms which came before the flowering plants (angiosperms). They evolved over 300 million years ago, whereas angiosperms ‘arrived’ 130million years ago.

A flowering plant I was hoping to find on this walk was lily of the valley. Last year I found this beautiful plant in the very same spot. Someone who works on this site told me that it may be evidence of earlier human settlement because it was once cultivated for perceived medical purposes. That would require a blog in itself!

Having spent several years working, walking and hanging around in woodlands, you become accustomed to hearing certain birds and learn about their behaviour. One call I’m unlikely to forget is that of the great spotted woodpecker nestling. I was walking along a track, mostly minding my own business, when I heard the piping of the little woodpunks. There didn’t seem to be many suitable trees around, but the birds were definitely there.

Continuing down the path I saw that a hole had been made in this standing dead birch tree. I could hear a nestling but also another woodpecker nearby, outside of a nest. I used the foliage seen here to hide for a while – still on a footpath – and see what would happen.

The nestling soon popped its little head out of the tree hole, calling for its next meal. They are beautiful little birds. I did once have the chance to see one up close after it fell out of a nest:

They are beautiful, reptile-like birds. I once said to a colleague who was also a herpetologist that they look reptilian.

He scolded me: ‘they are reptilian!’

The Wealden woodpunk did get its dinner after a while. A parent bird returned to pass food between bills. It was such an incredible thing to witness and all the more special because I had not expected to see it that day. It was also interesting to see the role of fungi in this breeding opportunity. The birch tree had been softened internally (if not actually ‘killed’) by birch polypore, a type of bracket fungus. I received several other examples from people in London of great spotted woodpeckers breeding in standing dead birch trees. It should be a lesson to people managing woodlands or birchy landscapes such as heathland – this is an important tree species in the wider ecosystem.

The first oak leaves were out in that lovely fresh green, which will soon turn more leathery and a deeper shade.

New holly leaves were appearing also, like little flames or woodpecker crests in the shade.

On the return home from the woods, I noticed these large spikes of orchids in a field. A new farm building had been built in the background. At the edge of this field, alongside the footpath I was on, the landowner had tried to plant leyland cypress and laurel, probably the worst things to plant in this landscape, next to rhododendron (which was nearby anyway). It seemed so mean-spirited to block the view of this expanse and its rare flowers for people passing by. Do people know how privileged they are to own land like this in England?

I know this beech tree agreed with me (yes, it’s been a long year). Or at least that’s what its facial expression seemed to suggest.

Thanks for reading.

The Sussex Weald

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Fungi ๐Ÿ„: fungus amongus – common mushrooms in England (Zoom talk)

Really pleased to share this 45 minute Zoom talk I did for Bell House, an educational charity based in London, earlier this month. All the photos here are mine (bar one).

The talk includes a general intro to the ecology and culture of fungi in the UK with a spin through some common species to find.

Thanks to Bell House for giving me the opportunity to speak.

Enjoy!

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Fungi ๐Ÿ„: spring inkcaps

Last week I went to visit a woodland that was for sale. I wasn’t buying and the woodland was quickly snapped up anyway. I hope it went to someone who will care for its wonderful ancient woodland wildlife, and that the badger sett within it will go undisturbed. Leaving this beautiful snippet of the Sussex Weald, I found some mushrooms growing in an area of grassland alongside more woodland.

Common inkcap

We have been inundated with rain in the past 10 days, after a very dry April in southern England. Things are leafing and flowering later than last year, and there have been no spring mushrooms from what I have seen. These were mushrooms that were so plain I really wasn’t sure what they were. I took some photos and posted them on iNaturalist.

They are common inkcaps. I’m not sure how I’ve missed this species before, as this was my first known sighting of them. That wasn’t the final grassland inkcap I was to see in that week.

I have a small garden which is ‘managed’ for wildlife and gentle recreation. We’re currently in the midst of #NoMowMay, an initiative in the UK to let any grasslands grow so flowers can thrive, and all the life that comes with that. It’s not just about flowers, though. I was pleased to see (and nearly step on) a tiny inkcap in the lawn.

This is a golden haired inkcap, quite easily confused with pleated inkcap, I would say. The most obvious difference is the size, with the former much smaller.

After all the rain we’ve had, quenching the woods’ thirst, I’m hopeful of some more shrooms appearing in the next week or so. Fingers crossed!

Thanks for reading.

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Fungi ๐Ÿ„: witches’ broom

A deformity in the branches of a birch tree

For a long time I’ve noticed an explosion of twigs among the canopies of birch trees but never taken the time to find out what it was. Recently I read that this unusual grow pattern, if that’s what it was, could be caused by fungi. Last week I was out walking in a woodland not far from home when I saw a fine example of this strange occurence.

You can see how this could simply be confused with mistletoe, a similarly bushy growth high up in the tree. But mistletoe is caused by the sticky seeds of the plant becoming attached to a branch. The ‘deformity’ in birch trees looks all the more unusual. I took some photos and had a look online when I got back. When I submitted the record to iNaturalist for some help, I got the result of a fungus with the scientific name of Taphrina betulina. ‘Betulina’ relates to birch in Latin, Betula pendula.

A sunburst lichen with the ascomycete fungi visible in the form of the fruiting cups

This fungus is an ascomycete, related to cup fungi and the fungal fruiting bodies found in lichens. Unfortunately I couldn’t get close enough at this point to ever see those details on the witches’ broom.

It could easily be confused with random birds nests, and you have to wonder if they may actually form decent nesting habitat for some species, probably woodpigeons more than anything else. One thing I notice about the cultural significance of the species is its name – another reference to witches. It must be that anything which looked unusual in nature was referred to as the work of ‘a witch’.

Yellow brain fungus

In the fungal lexicon (is that a thing?) there are a host of jelly fungi which go by the name of witches’ butter. It may be in the case of witches broom that the cluster of twigs looked like the flying broom of a witch, as per the old folktale. That or Harry Potter, anyway.

Thanks for reading.

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Fungi ๐Ÿ„: are there *really* mushrooms on Mars?

It’s been such a dry spring that I’m starting to wonder if there are any on this planet! They’re probably not on Mars but it’s a nice idea. Here’s more info on that story.

While I have your attention, allow me to explain some changes to the way this blog works. I am moving from the fixed days of #FungiFriday or Macro Monday. If you’re a regular reader you may have noticed that already. Now I’m making a monthly podcast, I need more flexibility with posting, and I actually sometimes have more to post about on both macro and fungi than just once a week. Also deadlines of Thursday and Sunday are not ideal!

Back to life. After a barren period (no morels for me), I did manage to find a couple of species on a long walk the other day, hiding away in the shade of a country lane. Get ready for phone pics.

This is turkeytail, one of the most common fungi you can find, distributed across the world. It is sometimes used to make tea and extracts are used for their anti-cancer properties.

Dehydrated jelly ear, sometimes known as ‘wood ear’

In Sussex we have recently had rain after a very dry April indeed. If this is climate crisis related, it means that the British tradition of April showers could be confined to the past. Once again, wildlife can point to wider issues in the environment which we are often oblivious to.

In that not-quite-fungi-but-probably-animal category are the slime moulds, of which I found one on the same walk.

This is a great advert for fungi and slime mould because it’s so blatant. It’s a species you see cropping up on social media time and again, with many people intrigued by its presence, often on deadwood. It’s false puffball, a slime mould. Looking at iNaturalist, April seems to be its peak month.

In other news, I’m giving a fungi talk online on Tuesday 18th May at 19:00 (London, UK time) for Bell House, a charity that supports people with dyslexia. There is a suggested donation of ยฃ5 towards their work. You can see the full details and how to book here.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: online fungi talks this spring

There may not be many mushrooms around at the moment but I do have some good fungi-related news to share. In April and May I’m giving fungi talks on Zoom for two London-based charities!

On Tuesday 6th April at 18:30 I’m giving a talk entitled The Weird and Wonderful World of Fungi for London Wildlife Trust. This is part of the Trust’s Great North Wood festival. The talk is going to be focusing a lot on London’s fungal ecology in terms of woodlands, in keeping with the theme of the festival.

You can see more on the Trust’s website. The event is free but donations are welcome. London Wildlife Trust is a fantastic organisation dependent on the support of people who care about London’s wildlife, so please donate generously!

On Tuesday 18th May at 19:00 I’m giving talk for Bell House, a learning charity based in Dulwich, south-east London. This talk is entitled Fungus amongus: common mushrooms in England and will be about common mushrooms you can find in the UK. This will be more about the basic identification of species rather than the myriad avenues you can disappear off to in the world of fungi.

You can see more on the Bell House website. There is a suggested donation for this event of ยฃ5.

If you can’t make it don’t worry as there will be YouTube recordings to follow.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: scarlet elf cup

On social media in recent weeks one of the dominant fungi photographed has been a bright red cup fungus. This species is one of the most visually stunning, standing out like an elf’s sore thumb in a winter wood. I’m talking about scarlet elf cup.

I visited an area of woodland I have featured many times here, but a place I haven’t been to this year. I don’t know why, it’s close to home but usually requires a car journey because it’s awkwardly difficult to walk to. It’s a mixed ancient woodland with a stream running through it and heathland on its upper slopes.

In the UK heathland is a sandy habitat dominated by heather and pine. In terms, dry lowland heath is rarer than rainforest.

This woodland is managed with the support of volunteers. I don’t know the people who do the good work there but they clearly spend a good amount of time building what I know as dead hedges. These are barriers or piles of cuttings, branches, twigs and sometimes logs. They are there mainly to protect sensitive areas of soil where ancient woodland plants grow. It’s to keep people on the paths, which is best for the health of a woodland overall. These dead hedges also happen to be excellent habitat for wildlife like fungi.

From my experience in the woods and by looking at other people’s photos, I would say scarlet elf cups are happiest in damp, shaded areas. I would even say they are so keen on dampness that alongside streams and rivers is usually a good place to find them. This was a bit of a way from a stream but it ticked all the other boxes. You can see here that it’s growing from a small stick.

This is a nice example of this gorgeous fungus (not something you hear often enough). They grow on something similar to a stem but are a different set of fungi to the usual stipe-based mushrooms. Cup fungi are ‘ascomycetes’ (ask-oh-my-seets) and are spore shooters. ‘Basidiomycetes’ are spore droppers, most of them being the gilled mushroom types.

This area probably had hundreds of scarlet elf cups growing in this long stretch of dead hedge. It will be good habitat for lots of other species as well, including invertebrates and sometimes they’re big enough for small birds like wrens to nest in. The specimen above was snug as a shroom in a trug.

From what I know it’s an edible species, but I wasn’t about to clean out all these fungi from their wild habitat. I had mushrooms in my fridge that were a couple of days close to their best!

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: beard lichens

Fungi Friday 26th February 2021

This week’s encounters with the fungal kingdom (that I know about), are piecemeal. I am still sticking close to home, so no woods or wildernesses, if you even believe in the latter. You might think fungi can only be found in specific places, but we’d all be wrong about that. Let me tell you, fungi are everywhere. We’re the ones who are harder to find.

Stick of the week

On a walk at a local estate garden in the Sussex Weald, I found and nominated this lichen-encrusted twig for stick of the week. I’m not sure where the hashtag #StickOfTheWeek started but I think it has something to do with the illustrator @Bernoid.

It’s not common that I personally find any unusual lichens in south-east England. Usually you need to go west to Devon, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland or up north to Scotland. This massive oak tree had a sheath of moss growing on its trunk, which was then home to a colony of beard lichens!

I think these are a species of usnea lichen, species I’m more used to seeing in Ireland and on Dartmoor. I learned from a fellow blogger recently that you are supposed to say ‘on Dartmoor’, because ‘in Dartmoor’ means you’re in the prison. I’ve been to the prison museum and have no intention of being ‘in Dartmoor’ no matter how good to lichens are on its doorstep.

Velvet shank

On a lunchtime march from home I re-stumbled upon a gang of velvet shank (Flammulina). I was actually drawn to the site of the first cherry blossom of spring, when I spotted that this churchyard stump was still sprouting shrooms. This is fungus is hard as nails, in terms, because it has toughed it out through the snow and continued to put out fruit. It’s a prime candidate for snowcapped shrooms.

I have some exciting mushroom-related announcements to make in the next couple of weeks. I’m also about to start Merlin Sheldrake’s much anticipated Entangled Life. Have you read it, is it as good as everyone says? Maybe I’ll share some of it in the weeks ahead.

Thanks for reading and stay safe.

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Unlocking Landscapes podcast: south London’s ancient woodlands

https://mcdn.podbean.com/mf/web/z3ethg/UL_Ep5_SBT_CL_Master10ayke1.mp3 In this episode, I am delighted to welcome Chantelle Lindsay and Sam Bentley-Toon. Chantelle and Sam are environmental professionals who worked together on London Wildlife Trustโ€™s Great North Wood project. You can also listen via these podcast providers: Apple: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/unlocking-landscapes/id1551547335 Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/3fkXaryfdB1g0PVdz6WPMb Podbean: https://unlockinglandscapes.podbean.com Chantelle and Sam share their experiences of protecting and managing… Continue reading Unlocking Landscapes podcast: south London’s ancient woodlands