Monday, 31 October 2011

It's all about scale(s)

Each evening thousands of rooks and jackdaws fly over my house on their way to an overnight roosting spot about 3 miles away. Yesterday they flew over just as I was putting the camera into the car and I snapped this shot of some of them:

Swarm of rooks and jackdaws heading for roost
I thought then that they could easily be mistaken for a swarm of midges.

As soon as I parked the car at the hedgerow, I looked up and saw a cloud of midges:

Cloud of midges.
And I thought to myself that they could easily be mistaken for a horde of rooks and jackdaws. It's all a matter of scale.

Halfway along the walk I spotted this scaly mushroom on the rear bank of the ditch:

Shaggy Parasol - Lepiota rhacodes
A quick look underneath showed the large double ring and the cream gills:

Shaggy Parasol - Lepiota rhacodes
I'm making a spore print, but I have no doubt that it's the Shaggy Parasol - Lepiota rhacodes. Again, it's all a matter of the scales.

The underside of the mushroom was home to dozens of microscopic insects, and I got a decent shot of this Springtail before it ran for cover between the gills:

Scale? The Springtail is about 2mm long.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Long-term mystery and an opportunistic shot

For the past few years there has been a great deal of discussion on various e-fora about a mysterious jelly that can appear in all sorts of locations such as paths, moors, tree stumps and even the tops of fence posts. Many wild suggestions have been proposed for its origin, including animal sneezes, fungus, heron regurgitations and 'space jelly'. The jelly is colourless and odourless, has no structure, and yields no information when subjected to DNA analysis. Here is a shot I took earlier in the week:

Jelly chunks
The size of each 'chunk' is roughly the same size as an ice-cube.

I think I have solved the problem (or at least the problem as far as it occurs in my patch).

About 2 days before the jelly appeared, I found the remains of a dead frog in the same location. All that remained were a few scraps of skin, some parts of the digestive system and a ball of black egg nuclei (about 15 mm. diameter.) My deduction at that time was that a female frog had been killed and selectively scavenged. I did, however, wonder briefly where the jelly had gone. On revisiting the spot 2 days later, the frog bits had disappeared, but the jelly was there instead. (I should point out that it had been raining heavily during the interval. No surprise there.) My deduction was that this was indeed the jelly from the spawn, but where had it been hiding? If you consider that the volume of spawn laid by a single frog far exceeds the volume of a frog, we must deduce that the spawn expands after it is laid. This expansion takes place on or after exposure to the water that the spawn is laid in. I then thought about an egg-laying process that has become very familiar to me recently: the development of a hen's egg. The nucleus (yolk) is created first in the ovary and then passes through the oviduct where the jelly (albumen) is added as a coating. So at an early point in the process, the nucleus and the jelly are separate from each other inside the body of the frog. That must have been the point at which the frog was killed. The jelly was actually present when I saw the frog for the first time, but was minutely compressed and not visible. On exposure to the rain, the jelly expanded and became visible as the jelly lumps in the shot above. That's my theory, anyway.

No matter where I go, my camera is always with me: you never know when you'll get an opportunistic shot. Yesterday I visited a garden centre for a meeting and there were a few opportunities to look around and take a few shots. The weather was extremely variable with speeding clouds, occasional rain and some rare periods of sunshine. My radar went on to 'red alert' when a heavy shower was immediately followed by bright sun. I wandered over to where I had seen some mosses and saw that some of the capsules had indeed been soaked and there were a few with water droplets on them. This is the first shot:

Funaria hygrometrica capsule with water droplet

It's ok, but that horizontal brown seta in the middle of the shot is spoiling it. I knew the sun was very fleeting, so I had to act quickly. I pulled out the Swiss Army knife, opened the scissors and snipped off the offending seta, full in the knowledge that any excessive shaking could dislodge the water droplet (the brown seta was actually touching it). As soon as I took the following shot, the sun disappeared behind a cloud:

Water droplet showing peristome teeth

If you look closely, you can actually see the peristome teeth on the capsule (there are 16). These are used to open and close the spore capsule to allow or prevent the spores from being scattered, depending on humidity. Just for scale, the capsule is about 2 mm. across.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011


At the end of August I was dismayed to find that my favourite (and most fruitful) piece of hedgerow had been thrashed deep into the trunks and down to ground level: all vegetation had been removed, leaving nothing but a mulch of dead plants and sawdust. I realise that all hedges need to be maintained, but August is simply the wrong time to do it: moth and butterfly caterpillars are still feeding and many sawflies are only starting their season in autumn. That's one of the reasons that it's illegal (in Ireland) to cut hedges between April and September (which I think is still too early).

I went back today to have a look, and was pleased to note that many plants had made a valiant attempt to produce some new growth and some species had even produced a few flowers. The fern growth particularly interested me, as the next few shots will show.

This is a brand-new frond of Lady Fern (notice that the growth is pale green and that there is no feeding damage, indicating that the growth is indeed fresh):

Lady Fern
I had one of those "turn it over" moments (I suspected what I was going to find) and confirmed that the frond was completely sterile: there were no spore-producing parts:

Lady Fern, showing absence of sori
It appears that the fern had realised that there was no time left to produce ripe spores, and instead of wasting energy on making sori, had simply made fronds without them. Why bother? Well, ferns are perennials: they produce new growth from the same base each year. The overwintering rootstock needs as much stored energy as possible, so it makes sense to throw out some new green growth in a desperate attempt to catch the last rays of sunlight before winter sets in.

Broad-buckler Fern was exactly the same:

Broad Buckler frond
Sterile Broad-buckler underside 

Hard Fern and Male Fern had also made a little new growth:

Hard Fern sterile frond

Male Fern

(I didn't check the Hard Fern frond for spores because very few of them are normally fertile. The fertile fronds have narrower pinnae than the sterile ones, they are more brown than green, and are much more upright.)

Many other perennials had made some new growth. Here's the gallery:

Barren Strawberry

Bush Vetch

Cow Parsley
Common Dog Violet





Germander Speedwell (and gall)

Willow (too late for the sawflies)

Herb Robert....

And its flower

It's great to see that a number of plants have made some kind of recovery, but it's sad that too many insects lost their opportunity on this stretch of hedgerow in 2011. On a more positive note, it is clear that plants are the basic resource for much of our wildlife: plants dictate which insects are to be found in a particular location. Although insects are beneficial in terms of pollination, plants seem to be a stabilising influence since they are more resilient in the face of damage.

Monday, 24 October 2011


I can't begin to describe the weather we've had for weeks now. Let's just say everything is sodden, including my poor hens, who forget to come out of the coop even in the rare dry moments.

At times like this I work on background research, e.g. looking for identifications for species that I didn't manage to name previously.

So it is with great pleasure that I have found the name for a leafhopper that I photographed on 8th July 2007:

The leafhopper Eupterix urticae - a nettle associate
Not the best of shots, but enough to identify it as Eupteryx urticae, which is associated with nettles. Over 4 years for an identification, but better late than never.

The original page can be found here, and I can confirm that it is an adult, and not a nymph, even at 3mm. long.

At this time, I also work on my powerpoint presentations for next year. I make two different wildlife talks for each year: one for adults and the other for schools. (I also have one that I use for talks for photographic societies). I like to make my talks as interesting and useful as possible, drawing on the photographs that I take and the research that I carry out. If you have found anything on my website to be of particular interest, then drop me a comment and I'll see if I can include it.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

More from Ards

As you can see from previous posts, Ards forest is a wonderful place for fungi, but it doesn't stop there: the Ards peninsula is based on limestone. This is of particular interest to me because my local soil is very acidic and  soil type has a major influence over which types of plant grow in any particular location. Following on from that, many insects are dependent on particular plants, so plants are a major factor in controlling which insects are to be found in a particular habitat (and also which fungi, for that matter). So it can be seen that underlying geological composition has a major impact on the range of wildlife that can be found in any location.

If I have time when I'm at Ards, I take a slight detour from the trees and wander down to the grassland area near the sea and have a look at plants which I rarely see.

The Harebell is the 'Bluebell' of my youth in west Scotland:


Lady's Bedstraw is closely related to Cleavers ('Sticky Willie') and the other Galium species, but is the only one with yellow flowers:
Lady's Bedstraw

Thyme grows at the fringes of the grassland and on the dunes. I'm always tempted to take some home for the kitchen, but I find its smell is very muted when compared to the cultivated versions:
Wild Thyme
Grassland is also home to a number of Waxcap mushrooms. I found this specimen of Hygrocybe langei shining brightly through the grass:

Hygrocybe langei

It's worth mentioning that this wide, flat area of grassland between the forest and the sand dunes is a particularly defined habitat known as Machair: a habitat type unique to western Ireland and Scotland.

As I was walking back to the car park, I noticed this larva of the White Ermine moth digging in a depression in the sand. It appeared to be making no effort to leave the shallow hole and actually appeared to be making the hole larger. Most odd.

Larva of White Ermine moth
This was above the high water mark, so perhaps it was simply looking for somewhere to pupate.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Ards at last

With the fungal season being well under way, I have been waiting for a gap in the rain to go to Ards. Everything came together on Sunday, so off I went with a smile and an empty memory card in my camera.

Ards forest is an ancient mixed woodland on the west coast of Donegal. First landfall from the Atlantic and the ancient trees combine to form a perfect environment for fungi (and lichens), and it never fails to deliver something interesting.

In no particular order we have:

A tiny pair (3 cm. tall) of Snowy Waxcap, Hygrocybe nivea:

Snowy Waxcap

At the other end of the scale, a huge (20 cm.diameter) Cortinarius purpurascens, which formed part of a large ring:

Cortinarius purpurascens

In the deepest and darkest part of the forest - in what was the quarry that sourced the stone for the nearby monastery - a fresh example of the wonderful Polyporus badius:

Polyporus badius
At 4 cm. across the cap, it's hard to believe that this fine little cup is closely related to Polyporus squammosus, the Dryad's Saddle, which can reach almost 1 metre across.

New to me, and a first record for Co. Donegal of Humaria hemisphaerica. There are a couple of previous records from Ireland:

Humaria hemisphaerica
The inside surface (which is the spore-bearing surface) looks almost like porcelain.

I'm always glad to see the extremely rare Phellodon melaleucus in its usual location. This fungus has a strong smell of fenugreek when dry:

Phellodon melaleucus

Ards is one of very few places that I have found the Death Cap - Amanita phalloides:

Amanita phalloides - Death Cap

As its name suggests, the Death Cap is deadly poisonous: if you consume any part of this fungus, death will follow - within 72 hours - from liver and kidney failure. There is no cure.

A couple of Entoloma sp. (identification still under way):
Entoloma sp.
Entoloma sp.
There are hundreds of Entoloma species, and separation usually involves microscopic analysis. They are readily recognisable due to their radially-striped caps and finely-constructed gills, which are often lined with the cap colour:

Entoloma sp. gill edges

Their spore print is pink and the spores have a very unusual and distinctive shape:

Entoloma spores at x 400

The Amethyst Deceiver must be one of our most recognisable fungi: 

Amethyst Deceiver

The name 'Amethyst Deceiver' comes from the closely-related Deceiver, which varies so much in colour that it closely resembles many other fungi. No such problem with the Amethyst version.

This Cortinarius has been giving me a bit of bother. I think it might be Cortinarius semisanguineus. Identification awaiting confirmation.

Cortinarius ?semisanguineus
Here's a shot of a young specimen:

Cortinarius ?semisanguineus

Tiny Marasmius rotula specimens were dotted all over dead twigs, looking like little gems in the darkness:

Marasmius rotula

The coral-like Ramaria stricta forms large specimens grouped together to cover large areas of ground under Beech and Spruce:

Ramaria stricta

Whilst walking along the beach, I spotted this excellent shot of the patterns of sand left by the tide. The light was dropping, making this shot look monochrome, but it's in full colour.
Sand patterns on the beach
The pattern reminded me of the Entoloma gills shown earlier in the page, and both will probably be gone by tomorrow, never to return.


I'm taking this opportunity to announce the launch of my new food-related blog over on If you like food and cooking, then you might find a visit worthwhile.