Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: City Nature Challenge 2021 (in the South Downs…)

In recent months I’ve become somewhat addicted to iNaturalist. It’s a website or app which collects species records but has AI which can identify a species from a photograph. It can be used by anyone and even has an auxiliary app called Seek which can scan plants, animals, fungi and other animals and identify in real time. It’s the way ecological monitoring is going. Nature conservation is dominated by too small a cohort of people and needs to find ways to open its doors to more people. I will never forget hearing of a lifelong species recorder who wouldn’t provide their sightings to science, and that they would rather be buried with them than share them.

It’s lamby time

Onto more inclusive ways of thinking, over this bank holiday weekend it’s the City Nature Challenge (CNC) where people the world over submit species records to iNaturalist and into the project. As of 10pm on Sunday 2nd May there have been 631,418 sightings submitted. Amazing!

I went to a part of the South Downs that was just about included in the Brighton CNC catchment. I used my zoom lens rather than a dedicated macro because I was doing general ‘work’ with creatures great and small. I used an Olympus 12-45mm lens which can still do macro to a degree (in normal camera terms it’s 24-90mm because I was using a Micro Four Thirds camera, which has a cropped sensor). It worked like a dream.

Xanthoria parietina, a sunburst lichen

I photographed each species once, rather than everything, which would never work – can you imagine? I’d still be there now. I really noticed how, even though I probably recorded about 100 species on the South Downs Way, it was dominated by a small number of species. Ground ivy was very common, as was hogweed, white deadnettle and nettles.

Another Xanthoria sunburst lichen

The most dominant species were nitrogen-loving, just like this golden shield lichen above which is able to deal with fertiliser and other agricultural pollutants. I wonder how different things might have been before the Second World War’s agricultural boom. The Downs is known to have lost a vast area of chalk grassland in the 20th century, one of the rarest and richest habitats in Britain.

Two ravens (centre) and a red kite

I will save you all the generic images of flower-less plants. I did manage to capture record shots of ravens mobbing a red kite, of which there were several. I love ravens, they are such intelligent and characterful birds. They are also not quite common enough to feel as familiar as crows or jackdaws.

A heath snail

One of my favourite encounters was with this heath snail which was curled up (so to speak) in the flower head of a dandelion or hawkbit. I instantly saw this and started talking to myself dangerously loudly about what a nice image it was. I hope you agree!

Hawthorn trees with the Arun Valley in the background

I inspected some old hawthorns that were dotted on the edges of the grasslands. I’ve heard they’re good places in the South Downs to find lichens. Though I found nothing outrageous, there were some beautiful species growing on the branches.

These are possibly the beard lichen Ramalina farinacea. iNaturalist has a weird name of farinose cartilage lichen. Farinose seems to mean mealy or floury. That’s a new one for me.

A small parcel of woodland atop the Downs

On this section of the South Downs Way there is a sudden square of woodland which the path cuts through. I had always thought this was perhaps planted or some recent woodland that had grown up on fallow land. But I found something that makes me think very differently about it.

Town hall clock

This is the first time I’ve seen town hall clock or moschatel. I was amazed to find it. It’s an ancient woodland indicator, which suggests that the woodland is far older than I had realised.

Cowslips flowering en masse

It was nice to witness the typical downland spread of cowslips. Last year we got locked down before this began, and now I’m just getting back here at the point that they’re peaking.

The view towards Amberley

The weather started behaving like something you’d expect in the Yorkshire Dales which cut my species recording short, bar a few desperate snaps in the cold and wet march back to the start.

I managed to capture this footage of a hunting kestrel, hardly macro, but worth sharing.

Thanks for reading.

More macro

Macro Monday: the mourning bee

In this post: garden bees, extension tubes and woodland lichens

The ‘Stay at Home’ message has ended in England but I’ve learned my lessons in this pandemic year. Macro is a time-consuming activity and the less time spent travelling means more time spent honing the skill and having a good time!

One person whose photos and work ethic I really admire is Penny Metal. Penny’s work is focused on a small park in Peckham, south-east London. She photographs species I would never have imagined possible in Inner London, where green space is a rarity.

The lesson for me here is: keep it local, have faith and you never know what you might achieve. From one of Penny’s accounts last week I saw a mourning bee and a comment that they were abundant.

Now, I’ve only ever seen this bee in rural Surrey near to Box Hill (for those who don’t know, Box Hill is probably the closest SE England will get to a mountain and is a hugely popular place). It seems Penny was capturing a trend – mourning bees were perhaps having a good spring.

And then, on one afternoon last week I encountered this bee in my garden. Mourning bees are parasitic on hairy-footed flower bees, a species my garden is very popular with. I was delighted to witness it feeding on the shrub I can never recall the name of.

That afternoon felt like a watershed moment. Though we have gone from 24 degrees Celsius one week to sub-zero the next, the spring bees are now on the scene. The above is a red mason bee (Osmia rufa), the first I’ve seen this year.

There were more bees, most of whom were not willing to be featured on this blog. To which I would say: whatevs.

This weevil seemed to think it was having a Lion King moment. I’m here for it.

And this yellow dung-fly. It may spend its days cavorting on cow pats, but if you’re willing to pose for a pic for me like this, I don’t care what you get up to.

Away from my garden hedge, I’ve finally bought some decent extension tubes. This is to give better magnification for my macro lens and peer even further into the wild world.

Needless to say, it’s not easy. The woods are not great at the moment, after hot and then very cold weather, the wildlife is a bit baffled. In my local Narnia I tested my new kit out on these Cladonia cup lichens. A nice person on iNaturalist identified this as Cladonia polydactyla. The red tips were so small they could not be seen without a macro lens and the extension tubes. Hopefully it’s a decent start to years of the greatest lichen images the world has ever known.

Let’s hope so.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: moss bells in the wintry Weald

Fungi Friday 18th December 2020

The temperatures have crept up again after a period of freezing cold and foggy mornings. During one of those colder December days I visited a favourite place to find fungi. I was surprised by just how much had managed to fruit, though it was mostly quite small.

My first find was this common puffball mushroom, looking well nibbled and past its pomp. Almost all of the mushrooms I found and spent time trying to photograph were growing in beds of moss. That says to me that the mosses were providing a warmer, wetter platform to fruit from, protecting the mycelium of the fungus from the cold beyond its fronds.

I had a lot of fun photographing galerina mushrooms, otherwise known as moss bells. One of the most famous mushrooms in this family is the funeral bell, for reasons you can probably guess. I am not at a point to identify moss well, but I do know this is common feather moss. And that is an old oak leaf.

I found some lovely moss bells as I worked my way further into the beech, oak, hazel and holly woodland. In England we don’t have much in the way of wooded ‘wilderness’ that North America or Russia is famed for. But in the south-east of England, the Sussex Weald is perhaps the closest thing we have to a vast woodland area. Woods in England are split up by private ownership and mixed land use, with many small woods cleared for agriculture or building. If you want to see what a fence looks like, come on over. However, the Weald to the east of Sussex is the most wooded area in England, and much of it is ancient, broad-leaved and ‘natural’ woodland.

Moss bells are actually parasitic on mosses, though they evidently do not cause it the kind of bother the word ‘parasite’ brings to mind. The submarine telescopes surrounding the shroom here are moss sporophytes, which release the spores to allow the mosses to reproduce elsewhere. Much like mushrooms!

Have a look on moss growing on fallen trees or on the trunks of trees. You might get lucky and find yourself a moss bell.

I’m annoyed with myself because I’ve seen this tiny mushroom with its Hellraiser-esque, spiny cap, but I didn’t take the chance to note it and now I’ve forgotten. It was growing in a crevice in a fallen tree. The veins in the decaying oak leaf show just how small it was. That’s the second time it’s made its way onto this blog without a name. Sorry no refunds.

Another fallen tree was covered in mosses, ferns, lichens and, of course, a community of mushrooms. Sulphur tuft is a winter stalwart. So if you’re reading this, sulphur tuft, thank you. There are some other interesting things going on here, with the decaying wood already beginning to turn into something like soil, and the roots of something trailing across and feeding on the substrate. That’s life.

The final species group I found on mossy logs was the bonnets. They also seem able to handle the cold weather in the way that ground-based shrooms can’t.

I always forget that September can be a good month to find fungi, if it’s not too cold. Hopefully this blog, which has now been running for a year, does go to show how many things you can find throughout the year. Autumn is not the only time to find fungi. It’s everywhere, all of the time.

This woodland is quite heavily dominated by holly. For many people in the UK, that’s seen as a bad thing, with the idea that woods should be nothing but light. In the Sussex Weald, holly indicates ancient woodland and holly is a key species. At least one woodland was protected because of its populations of wild holly. I absolutely love it, having worked with it for several years. It coppices very well and the timber is great for small-scale green woodworking like fencing and posts. Of course at Christmas it makes lovely wreaths.

The holly was providing protection for areas of the woodland floor that seemed to be very rich in smaller fungi. This bizarre thing is a yellow club fungus. It was part of a community of many more.

Though I’m not quite sure what this species is, probably a parasol relative of some kind, it was a surprise to see it. I wonder if the newly fallen beech leaves were providing a layer of warmth which protected the fungal mycelia in the soil from frost, allowing them to produce mushroom fruiting bodies?

I’ll end this week’s post with perhaps the most strange thing I found, down in the leaf litter again (but not without moss). Having looked at my massive fungus tome, I think this is a species of clavulina, which is not far away from a coral fungus. These fungi are ectomycohrizzal which means they have a symbiotic relationship with a plant. That means they have been able to agree a trade deal of things that they could not otherwise gain as standalone species. I hope the British and European toadstools in Brussels can take some inspiration. Though the trade between plant and fungus might have taken several million years to agree. Uh oh.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: the most mushrooms I’ve seen in one day

Fungi Friday 20th November 2020

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.

These fly agarics were some of the most vibrant I have ever encountered. Do check out my blog regarding the bizarre cultural tales about this fungus and the impact its had on our image of Christmas.

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.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms