The Arun valley: gateway to the unknowable Downs

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time in the Arun valley, my local access point to the South Downs. At last some rain came and we watched it shift across the Downs, all the way over to the Greensand Hills in Surrey.

I remember looking at this view in April 2021 after a year of lockdowns and computer screens. I honestly did not believe it was real. Perhaps it was the veil of mist, or perhaps I had developed some mental or neurological disorder from so much time stuck at home.

The Arun valley around Amberley is a crossing point (or perhaps washing point) of the Weald and Downs – where the river that rises in the High Weald’s most westerly point cuts a course through the chalk hills. It has wetlands of international significance in Amberley Wildbrooks and nearby Pulborough Brooks.

Arun at North Stoke, page 71 Book about the Highways and Byways of Co. Sussex, England

Like the nearby Adur, probably better known to people because it passes through the very fashionable Knepp Estate, it used to be a much wilder and freer river.

Along the Arun is the village of Bury, likely to originally have been a defensive point preventing easy Viking access from the coast, up the Arun and towards London, a key trading point (obviously). I recently read a book about Anglo-Saxon England that included some information about King Alfred’s development of ‘boroughs’. These were defensive outposts alongside rivers designed to protect from Viking invasion, which happened so regularly and to great effect in Alfred’s time.

The churchspire of Bury village can be seen among the trees on the banks of the Arun (2020)

The boroughs were an effective means of defence, for a time at least. I can think of so many placenames that include a borough of somekind: Pulborough, Bury (Lancashire, too), Borough (on the banks of the Thames) and Middlesbrough being the first that come to mind.

The Arun valley at Amberley is a place I first visited through working in the South Downs National Park. My relationship to it is about to change as my time with the National Park comes to an end, but that mixture of professional connection and personal fondness has always been an uneasy one.

It’s the place you can get a train to, which is rare in the South Downs, and enjoy some of the most accessible downland walking. There are views to the North Downs and then south to the coast. The Amberley Downs have glow worms, junipers, barn owls, ravens and rare butterflies like the duke of bergundy. It’s also home to vast monocultures of ‘improved’ grassland that were once rich in communities of now rare plants.

A lone hawthorn on the Downs with the Arun snaking away in the background (2019).
Much of its floodplain has become grazing land

The South Downs was first floated as a National Park contender in 1929 but the devastation to its chalk grasslands from the need to plough it up for crops in the Second World War left it a poor relation to the seemingly untouchable Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and Peak District. It only got full ratification as one of the final acts of the outgoing Labour Government in 2010. The Conservatives who followed have begun to cut National Park budgets through flat cash settlements, despite the effect this might have on such a strongly conservative social make-up (‘the shires’ or ‘blue wall’).

The pre-war Downs were sold as one reason to fight for Britain’s sovereignty from Nazi Invasion in the Second World War. How ironic that they ended up being denuded by the very same need to survive. Once the Downs would have been roamed by shepherds grazing large expanses of chalk downland. Today the South Downs feels in some places like an outdoor factory of intensive agriculture, with miles and miles of fences. It is not a wild place in the way that people imagine American National Parks, which in themselves were not necessarily ‘wildernesses’ either due to prior Native American presence. But it is still an incredible place to witness England’s wildlife and geology,

Your Britain – fight for it now (Imperial War Museum/Frank Newbould 1942) – this is not geographically accurate, with the landscape being a splicing together of different parts of the Downs for artistic effect

In Rebirding, a sort of bird conservation polemic, Benedict Macdonald questions the designation of the South Downs as a National Park because of its rolling hills and chalk grasslands, having read this on the website. Ironically the South Downs is one of the most wooded in its tracts of the ancient Low Weald, and home to internationally significant wetlands like those along the Arun at Pulborough. Chalk grassland is also one of the rarest habitats in Europe. It is an astonishing range of habitats, with the dry lowland heath now very rare after the Victorian and 20th-century devastation of the ‘wastes’.

The whole 100 miles of the South Downs, from Eastbourne in East Sussex, to Winchester in Hampshire, has been in my thoughts most days for the past 4 years. The Arun valley now becomes for me that gateway that exists for so many people who don’t have to consider a National Park in its entirety, a psychological doorway into somewhere freer, better and more ‘wild’.

Looking east along the Downs from Chantry Hill, June 2020

In reality it is far more complicated than that.

Thanks for reading.

The South Downs

The fungus capable of mind-control ๐Ÿ„

In June I was down on the Sussex coast at the mouth of the river Cuckmere. During a bioblitz event I was supporting I discovered something I never expected to see. At the foot of either the first or seventh of the Seven Sisters cliffs, the fenceline and surrounding grasslands were alive with invertebrates. One large thistle plant was covered in all kinds of insects. I felt especially drawn to a beautiful orange and black ichneumon wasp clambering over the spiny leaves. But there was something else that caught my eye.

The fly as found

I noticed a dead fly in a quite unnatural position, a bit like an upside down koala. It was clamped onto one of the spines in a way that reminded me of the famous victims of the parasitic ‘zombie fungus’ cordyceps. Luckily I had my macro lens with me and could get a close-up of the fly.

The fly after I had bent the spine tip of the plant over

The body looked an unusual shade for this species and, looking closer, you could see it was kind of mouldy. I showed everyone I could, taking away the images and several questions I needed to answer for myself!

That afternoon I put the photos on Twitter and had a quick reply from Lukas Large, a known fungi expert in the UK. He said it was a species of entomophthora, a group of fungi that kill flies, just as this one had done. It does much more than that beforehand, however.

Somehow, the fungus enters a final stage of mummification where it ‘gains control’ of the fly’s brain and therefore control over its functions. The fungus is then able to make the fly move to a high position in order to disperse its spores from the dead fly. That is mind blowing in more ways than one.

Thanks for reading.

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The lackey in the Cuckmere valley ๐Ÿ›

I was out and about in the Cuckmere Valley in May and had the chance to learn a little bit about some of the species found there. Here’s a small selection of images, a blend of phone pics and some from my camera.

Once again I was treated to the sight of early spider orchids, a plant I blogged about only recently. This was a big surprise, having spent a lot of time looking for them elsewhere. This is a nationally rare plant and I won’t be giving away its location. I did get the chance to learn that the flower mimics the scent of the buffish mining bee. The male bee is lured in and attempts to mate with the flower, thereby pollinating it. In the photo above you can see the pollen grains that have been helpfully, accidentally, applied by the visiting bee.

The mining bees live in the nearest exposed areas of chalk where they drill their burrows. It’s a short commute to their deceptive orchid neighbours.

The blackthorn hedges were holding populations of moth caterpillars that cover the branches in webs of silk. This is the kind of thing that pops up in local newspapers as some kind of wild clickbait. The moth is known as the lackey in English. What the significance of that name (or any of the number of weird moth names) is unclear to me.

We found this proto-Mesolithic (Stone Age) scene, with a discarded King Alfred’s cakes fungus. The fungus had probably been used to maintain the fire of one or more disposable barbecues. The stones were littered across the scorched earth like the throwaways of some prehistoric stone mason.

On the banks of the Cuckmere’s static meanders are ranks of hoary cress. At first I thought they looked like a type of sedum but in fact they’re in the cabbage family. This is an introduced species.

A view back up the Cuckmere meanders, at very low levels for the time of year. Two little egrets can be seen here.

Thanks for reading.

More macro (my tags/categories seem to be broken at the moment – will try and fix them!)

The South Downs

Early spider orchids ๐Ÿ•ท๏ธ

Chalk grassland is an incredible habitat. It’s extremely rich in plants and animals, with high cultural value from the historical assosciations with human activity over at least 8000 years. In the UK it defines the downlands of Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and Wessex. Sounds like an episode of The Last Kingdom. Thankfully I was spared the sword (this time).

In early May I was fortunate enough to visit a chalk grassland site near Brighton with two people who knew the landscape extremely well. I had been invited to visit this area to help find early spider orchids 3 years ago but the pandemic got in the way of travelling there.

A landscape raked by stone, bone and iron

I visited on a sunny day in what was a very dry spring indeed (I hate how dry winter 2021/spring 2022 have been). We had heard of hundreds of orchids in recent weeks at the site but only found 3. It was baffling. Perhaps we were just too late and the dry conditions had brought an end to their season earlier than expected.

These orchids get their names from the fact their flower looks like a spider. You may be familiar with the names of bee, fly, man, lady, lizard and monkey orchids also.

They are truly beautiful.

During the survey a woman came over to talk about orchids. Her knowledge was incredible, with known locations across Kent and Sussex. She travelled by train from her home in north London.

She showed us a gentian, a type she said was only found at this location in the UK.

Perhaps the most abundant plant was milkwort, appearing in white, pink and blue.

This is some kind of daisy (probably hawkbit) with petals that look like hands shielding something.

There were a fair number of small beetles in the grasslands, including this click beetle (I think).

A nice surprise was finding a small blue, one of the rarest butterflies in the UK. This is a very small blue, though most of them in Britain are small anyway. They’re pretty much tied to chalk grasslands from what I know.

Thanks to Phillippa, Jan, James and Monica.

And thanks for reading.

More macro

The South Downs

Early spring at Petworth Park

A series of photos from a sunny late winter/early spring afternoon in Petworth Park. Though it’s located in the South Downs National Park, it’s a Wealden landscape of huge ancient oak and sweet chestnut trees. The views of the South Downs from Petworth are heavenly.

The oaks and chestnuts seen here are very old. The wider landscape contains some of the oldest oaks in Britain.

Photos taken with an Olympus E-M5 MIII + 12-45mm f4 lens, lightly enhanced in Adobe Lightroom.

Solidarity with the people of Ukraine ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ฆ

Thanks for reading.

The Sussex Weald

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

Poetry: Heavy metal orchids

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.

Mount Caburn is an Iron Age hillfort (which is no longer there).

If you want to see more of my poems or buy yourself a booklet please head over here.

Heavy metal orchids

 Barren Downs
 broken by sea
 tropical blue
 and the sinking hint
 of chalk reef
 ย 
 Newhaven onion dome 
 and brown lagoon
 toy town train services
 honking on approach

 up here you all look like
 ants who have
 gained human traits
 ย 
 a thirst for farming
 more than aphids
 ย 
 up here skylarks translating 
 the silence of masts
 stood in muted alarm 

 heavy metal orchids
 so rare theyโ€™re padlocked
 in barbed wire cages
 ย 
 at Lewes the ramparts
 of Mount Caburn 
 like a bowl cut 
 but you promised
 the reality was far 
 more blood-soaked
 ย 
 Ouse water a
 concrete slow worm
 with seaweed on the side
 and rusting iron cranks
 crawling with a sea
 of red spider-mites
 ย 
 hare barely 
 breaking barley
 her winging blues
 and tortoiseshells
 ย 
 the wooden bridge
 where the crow
 begs a toll like a child 

ยฉ Daniel James Greenwood 2020

Macro Monday: back to chalk

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Macro Monday 7th May 2020

I was on lockdown leave last week (the holiday you booked last year but aren’t able to go on, not that I’m complaining). One morning I was reading a book on the sofa – Horizons by Barry Lopez, which I haved really enjoyed – and I heard what sounded like very a noisy daddy longlegs entering the room. I looked up and a damselfly was resting on the wall. I ran to get my little camera and took some photos.

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It was a female azure damselfly, the second damselfly I’ve recorded in my garden this year. I helped it onto the tip of my finger and took it over to the window. It flew away and landed on the curtains. The light was beautiful and soft, helped by the curtains. In the end it slipped off into the sunny garden.

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Out there some hyper-goth-punk has taken residence in the raspberry patch. Really I think it’s a vapourer moth. This one will be worth watching. I’ll keep you posted. It’s a nightmare to photograph.

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The cranesbills are flowering now in my garden and they’re a good place to find spiders. They’re a bad place to find spiders if you’re an aphid.

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I’m not sure what kind of spider this is (there is a new book coming out in September that I’m waiting for) but I would guess it was a crab spider. Please let me know if you do.

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Spiders do make you realise how much of a nightmare they would be to sit next to on the bus.

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Ok, I know what you’re thinking: you have a nice garden. You’re too kind, but it’s not mine. This is the South Downs National Park. I visited the South Downs for the first time in three months with one aim in mind: macro.

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At one point this year I didn’t think I’d have the chance to visit the chalk downs. I was prepared for that, because I think the health of the wider populace is more important than getting to look at some flowers in a field, or a wood, whether or not they’re on my dad’s farm in Northumberland. Needless to say I drove the 30 minutes to the South Downs to check my eyesight. I believe I acted reasonably.

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Turns out my eyesight is good but not this good. To really get close to this chalk milkwort I need a macro lens. Lucky for me, I had one! The flowers of this very small plant look to me a bit like spiders, too.

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This rock rose was growing in amongst some of the drier grasslands, starved of decent rain for a long while. May was the sunniest on record. We need rain, so bad.

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It was a windy day up on the Downs and butterflies were having a tricky time of it. To be honest, I can’t remember it not being windy on the Downs…

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I’m fairly certain this is a brown argus, which I hit the deck to get closer to. It was having a wild thyme. I also saw brimstone, common blue and small heath.

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On the lane I picked up this cinnabar moth, a species which is lives on ragwort. They develop from the iconic orange and black caterpillars that you can find on a-plant-so-hated-someone-made-a-website-to-defend-it. In macro terms of keeping beautiful insects distracted long enough to have their picture taken, ragwort has been good to me. I’m a fan.

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You may know that chalk formed about 65 million years ago from the shells of molloscs in an ocean. That ocean is gone but I found a tiny piece of chalk in one of the dusty, dry exposed areas of the grasslands. I think the black spots may be the early development of a lichen. I thought it was so beautiful as an object, like a piece of cave art, its canvas so many millions of years in the making.

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This photo was taken with my macro lens. It was lovely to see a skylark again.

Thanks for reading.

More macro

 

 

The South Downs: the Sullington yew

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The Sullington Yew, Sullington, West Sussex

The South Downs is renowned for its ancient churches. Its chalk soils have also proven hospitable to yew trees. Some of the most extensive yew woodlands in the UK (if not Europe) are on the chalk of the North and South Downs in southern England.

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I had a couple of minutes in the village of Sullington at the foot of the South Downs close to Storrington in West Sussex. The village is made up largely of an ancient farmstead and the Church of St. Mary.

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The Sullington yew sits in the churchyard, supposedly 1200 years old. To me it looks like it could be younger due to its lack of hollowing in the heart of the tree. If it’s that old it would pre-date the church by several hundred years. It is true that many yew trees pre-date the churches they share a plot with. Yew trees hold strong spiritual significance to pre-Roman/Saxon Brits who were Pagan. Therefore churches came later, being Christian, on sacred Pagan sites.

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The church itself is built of flint, sandstone and other materials. Part of it is Saxon, meaning it survived the Norman Conquest of 1066. It is thought to originate from 1050.

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Here’s the tree on the Ancient Tree Inventory.

 

#FungiFriday: deadwood brings the disco

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Fungi Friday: 24th January 2020

A week of blissful winter sunshine and endless starry skies, cut short by low clouds. What is the point of January, many ask. If fungi asked themselves that question, they probably wouldn’t be here and therefore nor would we. Nature does not disappear completely in winter. The paucity of species can help introduce us to new ones we never knew existed.

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January to me is a good time to find slime moulds. Yes, I suppose this is two straight weeks of cheating after last week’s lichen love-in. But if this is the only way to raise awareness about slime moulds, I don’t think fungi will mind. I had an hour to look through the wooded slopes of an old estate in East Sussex, to find this week’s quarry.

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There was very little fungi of the mushroom kind, in fact, none. But one of the bad funguys had been making itself felt in the wood. Ash trees had been felled after becoming infected with ash dieback. I used to monitor a woodland at the time of ash dieback’s arrival in the UK and have, since about 2014, watched it rocket across the country. In Sussex it is killing lots of ash trees that are under 50 years of age and the landscape of the South Downs is losing a lot of its higher woodland.

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Here you can see the effect of the fungus, though of course many other fungal organisms will be benefitting from the decay caused by the disease. The rot has moved from the outside in through what are the softer layers of waste wood. Had the fungus weakened two thirds of the overall mass, the tree would probably have fallen down. Lots of people walk under these trees, so that’s why they have to be pushed before the wind shoves them.

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I have been exchanging emails with a fellow macro photographer this week who has been spending hours looking for slime moulds. One day this week he looked for four hours and found nothing. I was lucky enough to walk straight outdoors for a few minutes and happened upon this epic spread on the tree above:

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No, slime moulds aren’t fungi, they’re not even moulds, which are another kind of fungus. I still don’t have the slime mould ID book so any help is welcome.

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The thing that amazed me about these slimeys was that you could barely see them, even when I knew they were there. They camouflaged so well with the glowering winter light. The photos here have been taken with a flash.

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I could have spent all day with this spread but only had an hour and my small camera. Up close they look like little black kalamata olives. Nom, nom and nom. Though inedible.

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The land managers had left lots of standing dead trees which is excellent. There is some epic misinformation going around about deadwood in woodlands and their contributions to forest fires. It’s guff aimed to misinform people, appeal to people’s fears (what a surprise) and promote the destruction of these habitats. In Britain our native woods of oak, beech and so on, are far too wet to ever burn like a heath.

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The crevices seen above are the perfect places to find slime moulds in cold weather. This is because they provide microclimates and protection from the elements.

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Here I found some old stalkballs which are fungi (or maybe a species of slime mould, am not quite sure), plus the real life of the party:

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DISCO. I’m not sure which species of disco the blue cup fungi are, but the orange fruiting body is definitely a slime mould. They were few and I couldn’t get a good angle on them.

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Thankfully this blue disco brought the party on Fungi Friday.

Please do share your finds this week in the comments below. Also here are some fungi things of interest this week.

Thanks for reading.

First mushrooms appeared earlier than originally thought

More mushrooms