Fungi 🍄: 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.

More mushrooms

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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 🍄: 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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Macro 📷: this bee is Goodenough for me

One of the things I love about the insect season in England is the diversity. We are surrounded with doom messaging around wildlife in the UK – it really is too much – but that’s what you get if you only look for birds. The invertebrate world is far richer, more complex and fundamental.

In April and May the first of the nomad bees make their appearances. I spend a lot of time making a fool of myself trying to keep up with these solitary bees. They are extremely beautiful and very cool-looking. Twice in April I witnessed nomad bees in my garden and on both occasions they passed me by.

One afternoon while #WorkingFromHome I went downstairs for a break. I noticed an insect on the inside of the windowpane. It was a nomad bee! I couldn’t believe my luck. I grabbed my camera and attempted to get some photos of this now very slow bee (it was a cool, wet and grey day). I got some average images and then decided it was time to get this bee back into the wild. I ushered it onto my hand and found that it didn’t want to leave my skin. It gave me a great opportunity to take some better images. I’m not sure of the species, they are difficult to separate.

I had another bee-break but this time in my garden and on a better day. There was so much happening in the hedge I didn’t know where to look. I saw three nomad bees flying around and resting but never long enough for me to get a decent pic.

The sun dipped in momentarily and the cooler air forced the nomad bee to remain on this leaf. I got as close as possible. When I submitted the photo to iNaturalist someone suggested it was Gooden’s nomad bee. That’s… Goodenough for me. Now do people see why iNaturalist is so much more preferable to iRecord? You get help with your identifications, not just thanks but no thanks from our man in the shires.

What do nomad bees do? They’re parasites of solitary bees, with some species laying their eggs in the sites of others. Their eggs hatch and the larvae consumes the eggs of the host, before eating its food stash. Not nice in human terms (because we’re all so lovely) but definitely something that has been occurring for many millions of years.

Thanks for reading!

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The Sussex Weald: a nightingale sings at the recycling centre

Header image: Frebeck, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Horsham, West Sussex, April 2021

It was a quick lunchtime visit to the household recycling centre, the kind of thing that is exciting enough in a year of lockdowns.

Having been waved in and asked to mask-up, I got out of the car and began searching the options to recycle some fabric. A workman was collecting materials and asked me to make it easier for him and drop it straight into his dumpy bag. It made it easier for me, too.

It was a warm and cloudy afternoon with the sun breaking through. The air held that acrid whiff of landfill, like sickening vinegar.

Returning to the car, I was distracted by something. The one-way system that takes you through the recycling centre was edged by wrought iron fencing. Beyond that an old, overgrown hedge with brambles, hawthorn and perhaps willow, marked by a large oak tree. This area sits on Weald Clay, which I’ve learned was once known geologically as Oak Tree Clay, so common is the species in this landscape.

A bird was singing from somewhere along the hedgeline, mixing in with other bird calls and sounds. Typical late April in southern England, with the new arrivals from Europe and Africa breaking out in song after unthinkably dangerous and long journeys north. After resting, you would sing, too.

The song was being thrown around, I couldn’t pin it down. Then I heard the rapid, reverb-laden drip-drip-drip-drip-drip.

Nightingale.

I had heard this song a few times before in Sussex, with their stronghold at Knepp or else at Woodsmill in Henfield. In 2017 I’d honed my understanding of their incredible song while on a conservation study tour of the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands. Hearing this bird in little olde England is something else.

The song was unmistakable. I took out my phone and recorded a short clip. Just 20 seconds.

I had to drive along to the next bay to dispose of some cables and empty tins of emulsion. I wanted to tell the men working on there what they could hear if they listened, and ask if they already knew. They might have known. I asked one worker a question about solvents and he replied with eastern European-accented English. Nightingales are not so rare in that part of the world, perhaps he knew their song from his childhood.

It’s why I love John Keats’s poem so much (below), because he knew how important birdsong was to all people. Not just landowners who know how to welcome nightingales, those who can afford holidays to hear them, or those as privileged as me to live in this beautiful place. By that I mean Sussex, not the tip.

Thou was not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown

This bird had flown all the way from Africa in a time of globalised trauma, when they are disappearing from our island as a species. We are all connected, we just need reminding sometimes.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: the Saxon oak

The West Sussex Weald, February 2021

The final day of February. The seasons are exchanging but only in light. The first blackthorn flowers are breaking buds at the roadside. Two cyclists float past:

‘Do you really want Louis back?’ one of the women says to another.

They swerve away from two horse riders, one dismounted: ‘At least I know when to get off now. There’ no point pushing him if he’s so nervous.’

The light is golden, low. Birds are singing at spring levels, minus the continental recruits like blackcap, chiffchaff and willow warbler.

The ancient pond was frozen last week but now the water shimmers black and blue with broken reflections of the dark branches against the clear sky.

At the old road’s margins bluebells are leafing in patches. Beyond the shrubby edges the field opens out, home to a massive pine tree. Looking at the 19th century map of this landscape, the pine is there. It must be ancient but how old may not be discoverable.

Two jackdaws fly away from its branches, perhaps having found a suitable nest hole.

Winter is still here in the treetops at the field edge, where fieldfares chuckle, moving in small flocks deeper into the open field. Soon they will make their way north to warming breeding grounds. They feel like a treat, I don’t see or hear them that often.

A breeze rustle the oak leaves on the ground, building into a hush in the leaves of redwoods high above.

At the end of the lane stands an ancient oak tree, the Sun Oak. It probably marks an ancient boundary. A couple of weeks ago I was stood here admiring the tree and a man commented in passing:

‘Amazing, isn’t it? The farmer says it’s in the Domesday Book.’

I had always thought it was 800 years old. A refence to it in 1086 would mean it was already of significant size then. Could it really be over 1000 years old?

That puts it in the Saxon Age, a time so long ago it seems inconceivable. But that’s what makes these trees so special. They are living things that have, in their ecological existence, witness and processed so much time.

This tree, the Sun Oak, is of course on the 19th century map, too.

In the surrounding trees and woodland redwings are flocking, feeding and singing. It’s hard to describe the sound – like some distant chattering, a school playground carried on the wind perhaps. Whatever it is, it’s a sign of their need to gather. Along with the fieldfares, they will all soon be on their way and with them another season under the belt of the Sun Oak.

The Sussex Weald

#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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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 Trust’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

#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.

More mushrooms

The Sussex Weald: stars in a different sky

The Low Weald, West Sussex, January 2021

A second wave of Covid has thrown us back into lockdown in England. You can only leave the house for essentials and exercise. It’s much harder now that the night falls early and the window on experiencing daylight has narrowed. But the days are lengthening and spring is building in small ways.

At night the foxes are making their blood-curdling cries and other social calls. They are breeding, probably just outside the back door each night.

On clear nights I sit on the edge of the bed and, with lights out, can see stars. The three lights of Orion’s Belt shine bright, but not more so than Sirius to the south-east. It’s the brightest star in the sky.

Out on my exercise for the day, I stand in a frosty glade of bracken. Silver birches are clustered at the edges, ash branches have collapsed and fallen to the ground. Their twigs reveal leafy lichens, in some places known as oak moss. There are real mosses too, little green pin cushions with their sporophytes poised.

The birds are foraging for life in this time of scarcity. A jay moves between trees and shrubs, flushing white wing-bars as it flies. Nuthatches are dripping from the tree trunks in both number and sound. Further away the hooting of two tawny owls ruffles out of the trees, half-baked. Are these early territorial warning signs? Spring, indeed.

Alarm calls break across the branches and bare blue sky. It is a beautiful day. Knowing these alarm calls mean something is happening, I look up at the patch of sky over the clearing. From the north-west two birds fly close to one another, on passage. To identify them will take a process of elimination:

  • Wings too sharp for sparrowhawk
  • Too small and direct in flight for buzzard
  • Too big for merlin
  • Hobbies are holidaying in Africa
  • Tail too short for kestrel

They’re peregrine falcons, stars in a different sky. Perhaps they are returning to the South Downs and an early morning hunting pigeons in the towns. Maybe they’re a pair getting to know each other and seeking a place to breed. Wherever they’re going, bit by bit, winter is edging away with them.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: a winter springline

West Sussex, December 2020

A storm has passed through overnight and in the morning the Arun is near flooding. All summer the river has been low, stagnant where managed by mini-dams installed to slow the flow through suburbia. On one footbridge where usually dogs jump in, chemicals and all, the river floods sections of the path, submerging the recently exposed roots of bankside alders. Those roots need to be underwater most of the time, and the storm had righted that wrong.

I speak to a man and a woman, armed with optics, on the footbridge. The river’s power is cause for relief. Even in 2020 these reminders of nature’s prowess can still be welcomed, even longed-for. They advise me on ways to avoid flooded footpaths, but I’m heading for higher ground anyway.

On the slopes silver birches stand in their ornamental regiments. They look like a stage set with their white trunks and even size. They bring forward mental images of Russian and other Eurasian art, hunters in the snow, or the main character feeling their way through the woods in an Andrei Tarkovsky movie. Above their white bark it’s blue sky.

Out and across the open parkland, water sits in the grass like mini-marsh. A great spotted woodpecker arrives in the branches of an oak. Quiet, it sits in that semi-diagonal pre-creep. Long-tailed tits pass across the open plain, re-tangling in brambles that shield a private fence and garden.

The trees change from oak to dotted limes, a probably ancient sweet chestnut – where a woman with a dog lingers beside its massive trunk – and the collapsed limbs of a red horse chestnut. In the spring lockdown, when everything stopped, a workman chainsawed the fallen logs for a man who stood close by with his young son. They were all way too close to the saw and without any protective equipment. Above the noise I could hear the father earmarking the limbs and branches for future firewood. The workman carried on, loading logs onto a small trailer attached to his car.

The red horse chestnut might be ancient but it is most certainly veteran. The fallen limbs are a key part of that. It holds dead and decaying wood, plus the many places wildlife can move into. It has a single limb of young growth that will keep it living for as long as time allows.

Around it the fallen wood is covered in silver-leaf fungus, which is pleasing to look at more because of its purple glow. The fallen branches have created niches of long grass where mossbell mushrooms fruit, as well as a pale brown cup fungus (Peziza) that looks like an ear. I think the man marking up his future firewood lived in the converted mansion house a hundred metres away from the tree. I hope he can come back with his son, witness the fungi, and have a change of heart. These logs provide life for species that need them more than we need firewood.

Across the parkland old furrow lines lead to views of the North Downs, so much woodier than their sisters to the south. Here the hill drops down into a bowl, rising back up again, before dropping once more to where the Arun rocks and rolls.

At the foot of the first decline water floods and I look to jump over the deepest stretch without making a complete idiot of myself. But the pause to make a choice is a blessing. The nearby road roars with surprising levels of traffic, seeing as we are subject to severe restrictions on movement due to the Coronavirus. A higher pitch cuts the drone, however. Looking closer at the water, it is not still, it is bubbling up. It’s a springline. This is the first one I’ve ever seen in the ‘wild’ sense. Perhaps the overnight deluge has driven water up through the aquifer to create the rural equivalent of a bubbling sewer. It’s not something I know much about.

A few metres up the hill another spring pushes from below the surface, calming tremors tickle the surface like moving clouds. Further towards the road and the spring bursts up from a large pool that has formed, bubbles resting in its wake. Without pause, the water spits and splatters like a fountain. The sun falls behind the hill and this winter springline turns an oceanic blue.

Thanks for reading.

The Sussex Weald

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Macro 📷: the oak jumping spider returns

I came back from a walk yesterday and, customarily, went straight to wash my hands. Looking in the mirror, I noticed something small dangling from my hair. Having just been on a walk my nature senses were fine-tuned and I realised it was an invertebrate. Looking more closely and removing it from my hair with care, I realised it was, one – alive, and two – a jumping spider.… Continue reading Macro 📷: the oak jumping spider returns