Friday, 27 November 2015

BBOWT Guest Blog: My Secret Garden

You may have noticed that I have a bit of a 'thing' for a wonderful chalk grassland site called Yoesden. Bug Mad Girl and I visit regularly and write about the wonderful wildflowers, insects and birds that we find there. It has to be one of our favourite places, so I was delighted when BBOWT asked me to write a guest blog about what Yoesden means to us.

BBOWT raised the money to buy the site last year and are currently running an appeal to raise additional funds to extend the site. You can read more about the appeal here.

You can read my guest post on the BBOWT blog here, or a copy of it is below.

My Secret Garden

“And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.”
- Francis Hodgson Burnett

There’s a magical place that has felt like my secret garden since the first time I set foot in it. Beautiful, secluded and surrounded by stunning scenery, Yoesden is an absolute treasure. Loved by both myself and my daughter, it is home to the most amazing wildlife which we delight in discovering with every visit.
Part of its charm is that Yoesden is hidden away. There’s no shiny visitor’s centre or signs on the road. In fact, unless you knew where to look, you’d never know it was there. We always reach it by walking through a flower filled meadow, past a cowshed housing several swallows nests each summer. The path continues through the trees until the chalk grassland bank is revealed. It doesn’t matter how many times you visit, that first glimpse of the bank and the sweeping Chiltern hills is guaranteed to take your breath away. You’re suddenly miles from anywhere, shut off from the outside world, in the very best natural playground.
What strikes you first is the peace and tranquility, yet stay a while and you soon realise how noisy and busy it is. Wild flowers smother the bank all summer and on a sunny day they’re literally buzzing with a vast array of butterflies, moths, bees, beetles and flies. Green hairstreaks, small blues, chalkhill blues and dazzling adonis blues are just a few of the fabulous butterflies that make Yoesden their home.
Crickets and grasshoppers chirp and whirr all around and if your luck is in you might see an enormous great green bush-cricket (my daughter’s favourite because they’re “awesome”). Excited families of long-tailed tits flit through the bushes welcoming visitors, while a robin takes up a vantage point and serenades the spectacle. Green woodpeckers yaffle from the woods behind, red kites soar overhead and buzzards swoop along the length of the bank.
No secret garden would be complete without a floral display and Yoesden never disappoints. The delicate primroses and violets in spring are replaced by the elegant and showy orchids that carpet the bank in June. By late summer the Chiltern Gentian is the star of the show, followed by the purple haze of devil’s-bit scabious.

It may be our secret garden, but this is one secret we don’t mind sharing. Everyone should visit this enchanting nature reserve and fall under its delightful spell.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Weston Turville reservoir

I've always loved to be near water, whether it's at the seaside, walking along a riverbank or playing in a stream, so I was looking forward to visiting Weston Turville reservoir today. It was built in 1797 to supply water to part of the Grand Union Canal. The surrounding land, made up of woodland, marshy fen and reedbeds, is managed as a nature reserve by BBOWT, while the reservoir is leased to angling and sailing clubs. It's somewhere I've been meaning to visit all year, but never actually managed to get to, so I braved the drizzle this morning and decided to walk all the way around the outside.

Walking up the steps to the top of the bank around the reservoir, I was stunned by how peaceful and calm it felt. The view across the water was lovely, even in the gloomy weather.

There were lots of seagulls on and around the water . They're always a bit of a novelty for me as we're a long way from the sea, so I really enjoyed watching some of their antics. They seem like such funny characters.

Some of them were congregating around the floating buoys, with the boss bird sitting on the buoy shouting at the others.

They were chased off by a heron that wanted the buoy for himself, which didn't go down very well. The seagulls mobbed the heron, who seemed only slightly concerned, before the seagulls gave up and moved somewhere else on the reservoir.

The seagulls were very cross with the heron
The seagulls soon moved on and left the heron in peace
The bulrushes growing around the edge of the water reminded me of my childhood. My grandparents lived in a water mill and the mill pond was always full of them. I love it when the velvet brown heads burst open to reveal their fluffy white insides.
Bulrushes guarding the waters edge
The stuffing's bursting out!
I took the path all the way around the edge of the reservoir and a robin tagged along for part of the way. Masses of blackbirds feasted on the hawthorn berries and a couple of jays let me get fairly close to them. I also saw moorhens, teal, a swan, great tits and a grebe. I could hear a few unusual bird calls from high up in the trees (but I'm not very good at identifying birds by their call and couldn't see what they were) and there seemed to be lots of rustling in the reeds. It definitely felt there were lots of secrets to be discovered.
Great crested grebe in non-breeding plumage
As I carried on around the path I noticed all sorts of lovely treasures ...

A christmassy wreath of berries
A plant from the carrot family (not exactly sure what it is), but it
was still in flower at the end of November

A large bracket fungus looked like a rosette had been placed on this
fallen tree trunk
Lichen and sloe berries, with a sprinkling of moss

Balls of moss dotted the branches

Lovely spiky burrs - covered in tiny hooks, they're like velcro and I
managed to get some caught on my clothes even though I knew they were
there and tried not to get any attached
Before I left I had a quick look at the sluice gate controlling the level of the reservoir. There was some amazing ironwork protruding out of the side of it.

Sluice gate
I really enjoyed walking around the reservoir and will definitely have to go back again.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Hunting for treasure we found dog vomit!

I took Bug Mad Girl up to the hill fort on Pulpit Hill yesterday to see the huge Beech tree that fell down in last weeks storms. She wanted to have a hunt through the roots and disturbed soil to see if she could find any fossils or 'treasure'.

To be honest it was all a bit muddy to find much, but she had a good time looking and was ably assisted by the dog. The roots are so shallow that they barely look like they should be able to hold a huge beech tree up.

They didn't find any fossils, so moved onto a bit of tree climbing (considerably easier with the tree on its side!) and the dog enjoyed racing around with sticks.

We found some beautiful turkeytail nearby. It's a very common bracket fungus, but the amazing range of colours on it never ceases to amaze me.

There was also a wavy bracket fungus, which has the rather unglamorous name of hairy curtain crust. I think it looks quite pretty and probably deserves a slightly nicer name than that!

On the way back down the hill we spotted our treasure in the grass next to the path. This strange white fuzz is actually a slime mould called Mucilago Crustacea, which has the lovely common name of Dog Vomit Slime Mould. It's usually found in grass, unlike Fuligo Septica (also with the same common name) which is usually found on wood or mulch.

Dog vomit slime mould
It starts out as yellow scrambled egg (when it actually looks a bit more like dog vomit) and within 24 hours turns white and flaky, eventually revealing the black spore mass. The first one we spotted was definitely in the white fuzzy stage, which fell off like snow when we gave it a gentle shake. Nearby we found some that was slightly more mature and had turned black.
The more mature slime mould had lost it's white fuzz
Slime moulds aren't fungi. They belong to a group of single cell organisms that can live independently, but can also group together when food (bacteria, yeast and other microorganisms) become scarce, to form multicellular structures. They can even move en masse in search of food. Eventually this cluster of cells transforms into the spore-bearing fruiting body.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Storm damage and a snakeskin grisette

Storm Barney howled through last night, leaving us with a power cut for an hour (which the kids thought was great fun) and two fence panels blown down in the garden. It was still windy today, but much calmer than last night, so I headed up to the top of Pulpit Hill to see if there was any storm damage.

I love all the huge trees up there and they make it feel so atmospheric.

I was just thinking that there was surprisingly little damage when I walked into the Hill Fort and found one of the huge beech trees had been blown down.
It's such a shame that a big old tree came down, especially one from the Hill Fort. It leaves a big gap in the canopy, which will just let more wind in next time there's a storm, putting more of the trees at risk. It will make a good home to all sorts of creatures and fungi though, so it's not a complete waste.

The roots had been ripped up, which are surprisingly shallow for such big trees. Makes you wonder how the trees stand up at all. I may have to take Bug Mad Girl back up there are the weekend, as she'd love hunting for fossils in the disturbed soil. It's an Iron Age hill fort, so you never know what treasure we might find! 

 I carried on through the Hill Fort and spotted a snakeskin grisette sitting in the leaves. I've never seen one before and it's quite rare, so was quite an exciting find. It had an olive coloured cap that was darker in the centre and it had a striated edge. It was covered in thick grey remnants from the veil that initially enclosed it and the stipe had a characteristic scaly snake-skin appearance.

I also found this large funnel - not rare or unusual, but it was huge and I just liked the photo, with a slug underneath having its lunch.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The hunchback of Watlington Hill

One of my favourite things about writing this blog is that I stumble across all sorts of unusual and wonderful things. Sometimes, just by chance, a series of events fall into place and a story emerges. In this case it's the hunchback of Watlington Hill, the strange incident of an orchid photograph, a rare fly and social media at its best.

I was asked to write it up for the newsletter of the Soldierflies and Allies Recording Scheme and you can read the story on page 3 of the newsletter. Exciting to have one of my discoveries written up, even if I didn't realise what I'd taken a photo of at the time!

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Terracotta hedgehogs and earthstars

It's been one of those days when the rain never seemed to let up, but the dog needed a walk so I braved the elements and took her up to the woods where I found a couple of earthstars last week. I wanted to see if they were still there and I thought the trees might provide a bit of shelter from the rain (they didn't!)

I found the original two collared earthstars, plus another one, sitting in the leaf litter like little aliens. They are such unusual fungi and a real joy to find.

Three collared earthstars 

One of the original earthstars is starting to go over
I looked around under the trees and found lots of little orange fungi with teeth instead of gills. These are called terracotta hedgehogs (great name!) and are related to the more common wood hedgehogs. Terracotta hedgehogs are smaller, have an orange cap instead of beige and the teeth don't run down the stem.
Teeth hang down under the cap like tiny stalactites

Terracotta hedgehogs - 3 to 4cm wide  with an orange cap
The fungi around us have been a bit thin on the ground for the last couple of weeks, but there seemed to be a few signs that things were starting to appear again. I'm not sure whether the cooler temperatures have triggered things to start fruiting, but it felt like there could be some more interesting fungi around soon. For example, these coral fungi were just starting to grow again after disappearing for the last three weeks.

Coral fungi just starting to appear
The horn of plenty seem to be thriving and now cover a large area in the woods. I don't remember seeing them there last year, so I'm not sure whether they're having a good year this year, or perhaps I just missed them in the past.
Horn of plenty

Horn of plenty - looks like an old fashioned gramophone
Black horn of plenty cover a large part of the woods
I love the great common names of some of the fungi. You have to give top marks to whoever came up with earthstar, terracotta hedgehog and horn of plenty!

Monday, 9 November 2015

Pyrtle Spring in November

We went back to Pyrtle Spring yesterday to see how things had changed since our last visit a month ago. The leaves had dropped from the huge horse chestnuts that cling to the steep banks of the spring, making it feel bare and exposed. It was very different to the green fortress that hid the spring only a month ago.

Once inside we were excited to see whether there would be any water in the spring. I was hopeful there may be some as it seems to have rained a lot recently, but I guess the water table is still low after the summer, as the bottom of the spring was muddy, but had no water in it.

A dry spring is still fun and Bug Mad Girl and Rosie the dog had a lot of fun racing up and down the slippery banks, jumping in the mud and balancing on logs.

We found a few nice fungi growing in the spring. I was expecting to find more though as the damp conditions and fallen logs would seem to make it the perfect spot.

A delicate little fungus, possibly a pleated inkcap.
Jelly ear - such a descriptive name for a fungus!
King Alfred's cakes - named because they are supposed to resemble burnt
buns. You can see the newly grow brown 'cakes' on the right. These turn
blackand charcoal like when they mature, as shown on the left.
Fairy inkcaps hiding under a log
Coral spot

Bracket fungus growing all the way up a tree trunk
 Bug Mad Girl has her eagle eyes on and spotted a group of woodpecker holes right at the top of one of the trees.

As we were leaving we found a ladybird in the grass. I think it was probably a harlequin ladybird, but it had unusual black and white markings.

Then a flock of seagulls flew up from one of the nearby fields. We don't see many seagulls around here, so it was quite a site. I suspect a red kite had mobbed them and disturbed them as there were also several kites circling over head.