Saturday, 29 October 2016

Worth Trumpeting About

A few weeks ago BBOWT asked me to write a piece for them about the joys of walking through the Chilterns in Autumn. It was printed this week in the Bucks Examiner, which is a great honour and very exciting.

You can read the piece below ...

The autumn sunshine on our faces felt glorious as we set off, but far off in the distance an ominous Halloween storm was brewing. The wind had picked up, making the treetops roar, filling the air with ghosts and ghouls. The children were giddy with excitement, running up and down the steep sides of the path, landing with a satisfying splat in the middle of each muddy puddle. Arms outstretched, they walked along fallen tree trunks, leaping off at the end with joyful abandon. A majestic beech tree, recently downed in a storm, lay across the woodland floor. The roots had been ripped up, leaving bare chalk exposed, which proved too much of a temptation for the little treasure hunters, who dived into the gaping hole, hopeful of finding a prize.

My children are fascinated by fungi, particularly the macabre, poisonous and downright bizarre, revelling in the stories and folklore associated with them. Like truffle hounds, they spread out from the path, rummaging through fallen leaves, peeking around tree trunks and under rotting logs, letting out a triumphant yell when they make an unusual discovery.

Horn of plenty, said to look like black trumpets being played by the dead, poked eerily out through the leaf litter. Aptly named dead man’s fingers clawed their way out of the ground and black globs of witches butter clung to the branches of dead trees. A deathcap, one of our most poisonous mushrooms, skulked under the overhanging branches of a beech tree.

The children know never to touch any fungi they find (some could make you very ill, or even kill you if you ate them), but there is one unmistakable toadstool, the saffrondrop bonnet, which they are allowed to pick. It’s a delicate little thing, with a long, slender stem bursting with bright orange juice. We each picked one and wrote with it on the back of our hands. Then we found a clump of old puffballs and used a stick to poke one, standing back as clouds of spores puffed out of the top of the spiky ball.

Spider webs adorned every branch, slugs feasted on fungi and beetles scuttled away as we turned over logs. The rumble of thunder echoed around the hills as the wind whipped up further and the storm clouds were upon us.
The spell was cast.

We headed for home and the promise of hot chocolate in front of the fire, making it back just as the rain started.  

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Hoo's for dinner?

It's half term this week, so yesterday we headed over to College Lake. The kids love it there, peeping out of the hides to see what birds they can spot, following the trails through the woods and running about in the fresh air.
Living art ... joining in with the beautiful geese sculpture

Peeping at the birds on the feeders
College Lake have lots of great family events throughout the year and yesterday was what Bug Mad Girl described as the "best event ever"! We were there to dissect owl pellets and identify which small mammals, birds, frogs and even bats the owls had been eating. The pellets contain all the undigested parts of the owls diet, such as bones and fur, that the owl coughs up.  

We arrived a couple of minutes early so had a quick cuddle with Steve Backshall, who was very appropriately holding a barn owl!

The warden had seen a pair of barn owls flying over the reserve and heading into the tractor barn earlier that morning. He'd collected some fresh pellets from the barn, where they appear to be roosting, so we had a look at those. They looked a lot like poo, but they're definitely not!

Bug Mad Girl loved dissecting the pellets. She would happily have sat there all day picking out all the tiny bones and identifying them.

Picking though the pellet
Her brother took charge of identifying the bones and recording the findings on a white board. He seemed to find quite  a lot of frog bones (although I don't think we actually found any frogs!)

Not really into the pellets, but very keen on the white board and identification chart

(Picture from @College_lake)
We found several skulls, mostly voles, but also one shrew. You can tell the difference by looking at the shape of the teeth.

Vole skull
Vole skull on the left and part of a shrew skull on the right
There were also several jaw bones (complete with little rows of teeth) and hundreds to other bones such as leg, pelvis and rib bones.

Vole jaw bone

All sorts of other bones

Handy chart that we used to identify the bones we found
Needless to say we had to bundle up all our tiny bones in some paper to take home with us.

Afterwards they were so inspired that the little Barn Owl chased the giant bank vole along the path, eventually rugby tackling her to the ground!

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Autumn spotlights

Autumn is such a wonderful season. The days are getting shorter and the sun low in the sky casts long shadows and dazzling spotlights through the treetops. I can't help but explore the area that the suns rays light up, always hopeful that it's natures way of pointing out something precious.

Some mornings we wake up to thick fog that gradually burns off, filling the woods with an eerie Halloween atmosphere. Ghosts and ghouls lurk behind every tree ...

... no, really they do. Black trumpet shaped fungi called horn of plenty poke up through the leaf litter. They're said to be trumpets being played by the dead.

Horn of plenty
When they've finished playing their trumpets, the fingers of the dead try to claw their way out of the ground.
Dead moll's fingers
Not all fungi are quite as macabre though. These terracotta hedgehogs were hiding amongst the leaves on one of my recent walks. From above they look like little apricot coloured toadstools, but turn them over and you find an amazing set of spines hanging underneath the cap.

Terracotta hedgehogs
Hedgehoggy spines
Fungi are fascinating. You can walk the same path through the woods from one day to the next and see different fungi each time. They pop up over night when the conditions are just right, often forming large colonies. There are so many different shapes, sizes and colours to look out for. 

A sulphur tuft forest

Coral fungus

Shaggy parasol

Stump puffballs
Some of my favourite fungi are the inkcaps, particularly the magpie inkcaps with their distinctive black bell shaped cap that's covered in the remains of a white veil. They're so elegant, but you have to be lucky to see them as they start to break down within a day or two of appearing, with the cap literally dripping away.
Magpie inkcap
Snowy inkcap, covered in white flaky scales

A delicate little inkcap
The leaves have finally started to change colour, and soon they'll be setting the Chiltern hills alight with copper, bronze and golden flames. Definitely something to look forward to!

The first signs that the beech leaves are changing colour

Sunday, 9 October 2016

UK Fungus Day #UKFD16

Today was UK Fungus Day, so Bug Mad Girl and I had a good snuffle around our special area of woodland. It doesn't look like much, but there always to be something special hiding out under the beech trees.

A few weeks ago there were huge devil's bolettes growing over the site, but they've all turned to mush and disappeared in a cloud of noxious gas. Today's big find was ashen chanterelles. They're little grey trumpets, very similar to the slightly larger, black horn of plenty that grow nearby. I've never seen them before and my book says they are uncommon to rare. Quite a find, and not easy to spot!

The chanterelles seem to be having their 'moment' as we also found the normal chanterelles that people love to eat and what I think are newly emerged trumpet chanterelles.

Chanterelles - highly prized by foragers


I think these will grow up to be trumpet chanterelles
There seem to be a lot of poisonous deathcaps around at the moment, as well as false deathcaps.

Deathcap, with a smooth olive cap

False deathcap, with remnants of the grey veil still attached to the cap
We also found plenty of other fungi, including beechwood sickeners, charcoal burners, puffballs, inkcaps, blushers, wood blewits and some lovely coral fungus (that really does look like it should be in the sea).

Charcoal burner

Wood blewits
Crested coral fungus
We spotted lots of lovely snail shells while we were hunting, including little spiralled shells and some pretty pink ones.

There was also some bright yellow dog vomit slime mould on a tree stump. Slime mould is fascinating stuff although you have to wonder who named it as both slime and mould are hardly attractive terms!

Another lovely hunt through the woods. Happy UK Fungus Day!

Friday, 7 October 2016

Catching up and getting outside

It's been a while since my last post, so this is a bit of a catch up on the last few days, which have been rather lovely here in the Chilterns.

We've all celebrated Bug Mad Girl's birthday. It's her last year at primary school, so we've been visiting lots of schools trying to decide where the best place for her to go next would be. She took the 11+ (a difficult test that decides whether you can go to grammar school or not) a couple of weeks ago, so a lot will depend on the results of that (which we get next week).

One of the schools we visited had the most amazing sweet chestnut tree in the car park. I couldn't resist picking up one of the spiky cases that had fallen onto the ground. I instantly regretted it as it was very prickly, but managed to bring it home anyway.
Very prickly sweet chestnut

Whistlejacket and his wife both seem to be well and sit in their tree (whistling at any other kites that stray too close) most days. I took this photo of them from our back door a couple of days ago as they looked so stunning in the sunshine and their copper colour really showed up well. This years babies are long gone and we only ever see the two of them in the tree now.

I planted a teasel seedling next to our patio in the spring of 2015, in the hope that it would eventually attract the goldfinches a little closer to the house. It flowered this summer and now the spiky seed heads are doing their job. I saw the first goldfinch feeding on the seeds this week and managed to take a photo out of the kitchen window. Another plan that has paid off!

They seem to have a single baby this year (or at least I've only seen one young goldfinch about). It watched the parent on the teasel, but wasn't quite confident enough to have a go for itself.

Watching from a distance
Out in the hills, we've had a bit of rain recently so there are some more fungi starting to appear, but still nowhere near as many as this time last year. The devil's bolettes that I found a couple of weeks ago have completely disappeared back into the ground. As they turned to mush and disintegrated, they let off a pretty awful, chemically smell, a bit like ammonia, that hung in the air. They've been replaced by the emergence of the first puffballs, pretty pink rosy bonnets, amethyst deceivers and great clusters of inkcaps on rotting wood. They're all common enough fungi around here, but they've been notable by their absence so far this season.
A fresh common puffball - as it ages, the scales will wear off and a
hole will open in the top to release the spores
Amethyst deceivers - these were newly emerged and looked like little purple
nails sticking out of the ground
Amethyst deceiver

A rosy bonnet being eaten by a slug - looks a pretty colour, but it's poisonous

Glistening inkcaps
We've come across some other interesting fungi while we've been out in the woods. You quite often see wood that's been stained a bright green colour by fungi (in fact this green wood was used to make decorative Tunbridge ware furniture), but occasionally this fruits to produce these beautiful little green elfcups. They've got to be one of our more colourful fungi.

Green elfcups

Green elfcups
Deathcaps are some of our most poisonous fungi (one toadstool could kill three people), but there are also fungi called false deathcaps. These are still poisonous, but are less dangerous than a deathcap. They have the same bag around the base of the stipe that they grow out of and the same large ring around the stipe, but the cap retains pieces of the grey veil that covered it when it first appeared (unlike the deathcap which has a smooth cap). I found a patch of about a dozen of these in one small area.

False deathcap, with a yellowish cap covered in grey veil remnants
Dead moll's fingers are black club shaped fungi that grow out of dead wood and are said to resemble decayed fingers scratching their way out of the ground. These caught my eye as they appeared to be making a rude gesture instead of trying to claw their way out.

Dead moll's fingers

The kids have been enjoying walks in the woods, jumping in muddy puddles, balancing along logs and looking for insects.
Muddy puddle jumping

Walking the plank

A beetle called a snail hunter - it uses its narrow head to stick into snail
shells and eat the flesh! This one appears to have a mite on its thorax
The cows are out on Grangelands and the sheep are on the Rifle Range, busy keeping the grass at bay so that next springs orchids and wild flowers can thrive. We'll stay away with the dog for the next few weeks while they're there and stick to the hills.


All is well here, but I'm thinking of all my friends and family in Atlanta and North Carolina, hoping that hurricane Matthew heads out to sea and misses them. The remnants of it may eventually make its way to us, so we could be in for some wild and windy weather in a week or two.