One morning recently, I spent a couple of hours wandering around my local tract of the Sussex Weald. The bracken and beech were glowing as the sun edged its way up through trees. The sun had blown the world wide open. After a personal self-imposed Omicron lockdown to protect a significant event, it felt like the sun had ripped up that anxious feeling of being locked away. Life was in full flow:
Sun rising, melting the frost and ice in the woods. Winter bird flocks – blue tit, nuthatch, siskin, lesser redpoll. Great spotted woodpecker hammering to mark out its territory. The chirp of a skylark passing over the canopy, perhaps on migration, maybe heading to the South Downs.The hollow sound of the M23 and aeroplanes connected to nearby Gatwick. The strategic calls of crows. A jay screeching. Gunshots pop beyond the woods.
The light in January and February appears at a fairly sociable hour, and after frost the landscape glistens even more. At this time I seek out beech leaves, with their patchworks of fading cells and arrowing veins.
I was using my 12-100mm f4 zoom lens, with more a mind for landscapes, when I spotted this bracken frond dangling down with a droplet of water at its tip. The sun was creeping up through the pines in the distance. The melting frost in its path upon reaching the bracken providing the lush bokeh circles that bed the image down.
I read recently that the photons of sunlight that touch our skin take 200,000 years to travel from the sun itself. That’s around the time that our ancient Homo sapiens ancestors were evolving. So often we can barely see weeks or months ahead when the world we live in is so ancient in its making, it can feel impossible to comprehend. Taking the time to stop and think about it makes life so much richer.
At long last some time in the woods! Get ready for a mammoth mushroom post to celebrate the start of the season. I am so annoyed to have missed UK Fungus Day due to work commitments (no time or energy to do writing, visit woods or take photos) and also I have at least one other mushroom post that hasn’t made it to the surface yet.
In south-eastern England we have finally had some rain after a very dry summer. iNaturalist and social media have shown lots of autumn mushrooms popping up, including the first fly agarics. This week I had the chance to check things out for myself, and was not disappointed.
I am fortunate enough to live near a large expanse of ancient woodland/wooded heathland which is part of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This landscape is fungal heaven in places that have been wooded for more than 400 years. It’s dominated by birch, oak, beech and pine, trees that have strong associations with fungi.
The early signs were good as I discovered a beefsteak fungus growing at the base of an oak tree. This is a species which can be mistaken for body parts, and though it’s parasitic, its impact is said to work more slowly than a tree’s ability to heal itself.
Amethyst deceivers are a common species at this time of year, often found growing in profusion. I spotted this tiny one growing in moss at the base of a tree.
Recent storms had created a realignment of the woodland canopy. A beech tree had broken off in high winds, opening up the woodland to light. The concentrations of deer are high here, so it will be interesting to see how well the woodland manages to renew in this sudden clearing.
No, this is not an amphibian! I spotted this holly leaf covered in a species of wart-like fungus which I think might be in this family. Please add a comment if you know what it is.
Lurking behind a fallen log was what I think is a deer shield mushroom. I saw far more in the proximity of fallen wood, rather than in the open woodland floor. Perhaps the heavy rain recently has washed things away.
This mazegill-like crust fungus caught my eye.
This small polypore, which I have not looked to ID yet, was in fine fettle on a little birch stump. Not unlike a thought-cloud.
A reminder that it’s not just humans that enjoy fungi. Not that anyone is in any rush to chow down on this one.
This crust fungus interested me as it looked like a map of Scandinavian islands.
It’s always nice to find a bolete. This is probably a birch bolete as it was growing underneath birch trees. I moved the beech leaf but it fell into this position purely by accident. Lots of autumn happening here.
There were two moments during this two-hour walk that I let out some expression of joy upon finding mushrooms to photograph. I don’t know what family this, well, family of fungi, are in, but they are beautiful. I love to find fungi in this state, at this time of year, before the leaves have fallen.
Autumn appearing in beech, birch and bracken.
As a lone male visiting woodland, I am very aware of the impact my presence could have on women who are walking alone. I saw a woman walking and turned away to walk a different path to ensure she didn’t have to experience the fear of having some weird dude approach in a secluded area or pinchpoint of woodland. I also have my camera clearly on show. Sometimes I have considered getting a hi-vis vest with a mushroom emoji on the back. I would implore other men to consider how you are perceived in similar situations.
A pine tree had come unstuck and much of its bark had been pulled away. Looking more closely I could see some kind of root network. Now I’m not sure if these are aerial roots put on by the tree as it tried to consume its own decaying matter. Then again there was a lot of hyphae-like structure in among the roots, but the whole structure couldn’t have been all fungi. Here we have the foundation for much of life on earth, the partnership of fungi and plants.
It made me think of how Britain is faring at the moment. We cut our ties with our European neighbours in January 2021 (i.e. the wood-wide web), thinking we could grow taller and stronger alone. The truth is that everything is connected and we are diminishing in isolation because we need our nearest neighbours to thrive.
And then I found a mushroom I had never seen before – a webcap, probably violet webcap!
Seeing this mushroom sitting there took my breath away. It is a stunning fungus. The photographs just don’t do it justice.
Looking back at the photos I could see a spider using the underside of the cap as a place to find prey. It’s a smart move as many small insects and other arthropods are attracted to mushroom gills and caps.
One of the highlights of this walk, literally, were the spreads of yellow staghorn in the moss.
Their likeness to flames is really pleasing. I also love how they grow out of a tiny alcove in fallen wood as if from a little firepit.
Here is an example of how far and wide the little fires were burning.
Another week of some sun, some showers, and some temperatures that got close to freezing. That sentence may turn out to be a spring epistrophe, but more of that later. In Scotland it reached as low as -5C. April 2023 has been a mishmash of seasons. Here’s what I encountered in my garden on 22nd…
On a recent visit to the National Trust’s Nymans Gardens I spotted some big, cream-coloured things in the lawns near the car park. No, these were not scones or cream cakes, or even pasties discarded by visitors.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.