Friday, 30 August 2013

Fascinating fungi

Tony Leech, NWT Trustee and County Fungus Recorder

Bulbous Bonnet Mycena stylobates growing on a pine twig shows
that small can be beautiful. Photo: Tony Leech
Forays are oversubscribed; TV chefs extol their virtues and field guides (some of them good) proliferate. In the past, fungi have either been feared or ignored, but at last they have come out of the closet and as you get to know them they reveal themselves as amazingly beautiful and wonderfully interesting. The ephemeral nature of most, and their apparently magical appearance in unexpected places, only adds to the fascination. But the ‘magic’ arises simply because we cannot see the bulk of the fungus which is a mass of thread-like hyphae, each much thinner than a human hair, branching through the humus, wood or dung etc. on which the fungus is feeding. The part of the fungus we do see is just the ‘fruiting body’, which, like the fruit on a tree, produces and releases the agents of dispersal.
Dune Waxcap Hygrocybe conicoides is one of about 30 fleshy
fungi found only on sand dunes. Photo: Tony Leech
With over 10,000 species recorded in Britain, the diversity of form and colour surprises the beginner and delights the more experienced mycologist. As well as toadstools, there are brackets, cups, stars, balls, spindles, crusts, rusts and smuts (even I have to admit that not all fungi are beautiful!). Nearly 3500 species have been found in Norfolk which has a long history of fungus-recording; by 1884, Charles Plowright had listed 1500 species. From the early 1930s until the mid-1980s, Ted Ellis added many more, especially microfungi growing on plants, and in 1976, Reg and Lil Evans returned to the county and spent the next 25 years assiduously recording fungal distributions. Since 2001, members of the Norfolk Fungus Study Group have carried on the work, and over 250 species have been added to the County list in the past ten years.
Devil’s Claw Clathrus archeri, an Australasian fungus that has become
naturalised in a few places in Britain. Photo: Tony Leech
For many, the first step in getting to know the fungal world is an autumn foray. Fungus forays are fun!  Adults and children alike enjoy them but, in my opinion, a successful foray is one where the expectations of participants have been transformed from harvesting a basketful of good edibles (rarely possible in this country) to the excitement of finding different kinds – as many as 100 species on a good autumn day. 

To identify a fungus it is almost always necessary to pick it. Should this concern us? Not really, for we are only picking the ‘fruit’ and it will probably already have released literally millions of spores. But whilst collecting a few fruiting bodies for identification or the pot is may not be considered a conservation issue, collecting large numbers for commercial purposes probably is.

Scarlet Elfcup Sarcoscypha austriaca, a cup fungus that adds a
splash of colour to a wet wood in early spring. Photo: Tony Leech

Since colour and form are the most obvious features you will first be drawn to matching your specimen with a picture in the field guide. To avoid frustration it is essential that your field guide illustrates a large number of species; both Mushrooms* by Roger Phillips and the Collin’s Guide* by Paul Sterry and Barry Hughes manage this. Because fungi can be variable in form, and sometimes in colour, the big difficulty is knowing whether your specimen falls within the range of variation for a particular species and the virtue of Phillip’s book is that for most species he illustrates a range of specimens, showing undersides and stem details. The photographs in Sterry’s book, however, are of specimens in natural surroundings and their stunningly high standard is more likely to trigger recognition.  You might need both!

Weather Earthstar Geastrum corollinum. One of the rarer of the earthstars, the outer
skin of which splits and curves back to elevate the spore-sac. Photo: Dave Leech
The superficial appearance of your fungus may take you to the right part of the book but now you must look for clues and check them against the descriptions. Does it have gills?  What colour are they and how far apart? There are as many clues on the stem (if it has one): colour and texture; presence of a ring and shape of the base (make sure you pick the whole fungus).  Add to all these the habitat, smell and whether the fungus is clustered or growing singly and you should be getting somewhere. But from here on things can get trickier. Critical identification generally requires the use of a microscope and access to specialist literature. However, microscopes are no more expensive than the telescopes which many birders possess.
Cobalt Crust Terana caerulea. A rare but distinctive encrusting fungus on wood
which rapidly loses its intense colour. Photo: Jeremy Bagnall-Oakeley
Fungi have the reputation of being difficult to identify; they can be, but so can almost any group of organisms. Don’t try to identify everything you find; select a few specimens in good condition and look at them carefully. Don’t be daunted; count your successes not your failures and, slowly at first, then faster, your list will grow.

*Phillips, R. Mushrooms. 2006, Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-330-44237-0
Sterry, P. & Hughes, B. Collins Complete Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools. 2009, Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-723224-6

Monday, 26 August 2013

Encountering adders

Jessica Riederer, Seasonal Education Officer

If you are reading this, you must be inspired by wildlife in some way. Maybe you spend your days off like I do, wandering about Norfolk’s varied landscapes seeing what you can discover. I have spent most of the summer exploring Norfolk’s wetlands where I have been completely absorbed by dragonflies - their iridescent colours and the quick hum of their wings, the way they patrol the hedges and pond surfaces scooping up insects and chasing away intruders, the way some species – especially the Emperor, will zoom over, stopping to hover a foot away from your face, moving their powerful bulky bodies back and forth to get a closer look before zooming off to continue with their day. Dragonflies make me incredibly happy.  This weekend though, I was ready for another encounter. This weekend I was searching for adders.

I had not seen an adder since the spring. Cool, sunny, spring mornings are the best time to see them, as being coldblooded, they need to bask before hunting or searching for a mate. During the summer there is less need for them to bask and this makes seeing them less likely. But as we creep through August, blackberries are ripening, migrants are leaving England, and as much as I hate to admit it, there is now – more than occasionally - a bit of a nip in the air. In a month, adders will be looking to hibernate, so now could be a good time to look for them.
Lizard, photo by Jessica Riederer
On Friday, one of our volunteers, Kirsty Bailey suggested I visit Buxton Heath, a reserve I was unfamiliar with. When she informed me that a healthy population of reptiles – grass snakes, slow worms and adders could all be found there – and that the reserve was generally quite quiet, I knew this was the place for me. On Sunday morning I arrived at Buxton Heath just as the clouds were clearing and the sun’s rays were beginning to touch the heather that stretched across the reserve. It was just gorgeous. As I began to walk, I immediately started to search places I knew adders would be, and my best luck finding adders has always been amongst dead bracken. 

Adder, photo by Jessica Riederer
Anywhere bracken was piled amongst the heather, I would stop a few meters away and let my eyes skip, hop and glide back and forth and up and down over the piles. The dead bracken leaves are the same colours and make the same patterns as the diamond pattern on an adder’s back, and this is the reason they are so beautifully camouflaged amongst it. It was the perfect adder morning and I knew they were there, but as the first 45 minutes passed and I was still not seeing anything, I could feel my patience (and confidence) waning. I was quiet as could be, literally taking one step every minute, scanning and looking. Eventually, I saw a small, well camouflaged lizard and this boosted my confidence, and as I watched him flitting about I decided that if I could spot a lizard, I would spot a snake. It was then that I located my first adder, about ten feet away, curled up in the middle of a bracken pile. He was incredibly camouflaged and even though I knew I was looking at an adder, it was almost as if my eyes did not want to believe it as I had been looking for so long.
Adder, photo by Jessica Riederer
Oh the joy! What a gorgeous snake. This was one of the lightest adders I had ever seen, and not yet full grown. I slowly inched my way closer, got a few photos and then just stopped and watched him (her?). In a few seconds, his tongue flicked as he detected my presence and he slid oh so quietly back into his bracken home. I was blessed with two more adders on that lovely morning. One was tiny and spotted me before I spotted him, so I just saw his tail disappearing, but the other one was basking. This adder was much larger and much darker in colour - even her red eyes were almost black. This time, after observing her for a bit, I backed up and moved away before she detected me and so she was left basking in the late August sun.
I spent four hours at beautiful Buxton on Sunday and I look forward to my next visit. If you think your wildlife spotting skills are pretty good and would like a challenge and a reason to really slow down, head to one of our heathland reserves, such as Roydon Common or Buxton Heath and see if you can spot an adder. Please remember that adders are venomous so give them a bit of distance. Heading out with a group of people will probably not help you to find one – nor will your dog! If you have keen eyesight, patience and are light footed, you might be rewarded! Most importantly, please remember to keep your eyes and ears out for all the other splendours of the heath!

Buxton Heath is managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust in partnership with the owners,  Hevingham Fuel Allotment Charity.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

More wildlife caught on remote cameras at Fens wetland sites

Nick Carter, Conservation Officer (Fens)

Six remote cameras were set up at the Wissey Wetland, near to the Wissington Sugar Factory, by Arnie & Rosemarie Cooke, during July to record wildlife usage at the site. The advantage of the cameras is that they give a 24 hour, seven days a week surveillance of an area. Five of the cameras were set to record videos and one to take photos. Some of the results of the latter, set up on the edge of a wood overlooking a ditch, are shown here.

Red deer was the commonest species caught on camera with the picture showing a hind and two fawns in the ditch. Red deer were filmed day and night crossing the ditch but were most frequently seen in the early morning and evening up to midnight. Muntjac were also commonly caught on camera. The shot of a very young muntjac fawn swimming across the ditch may be unique. Both red and muntjac deer were more commonly recorded than in February. 

Grey heron (there is a small heronry close to the wetland) was the commonest bird filmed and there were several shots along this ditch. This shot is unusual in that it shows two mallard in the ditch with the heron. 

Other species videoed included an otter on the River Wissey hunting in the shallows at night time. Roe deer, fox, badger and brown hare were videoed but only occasionally. Other more unusual birds filmed included green sandpiper and little egret. The cameras add to our knowledge of the species on the site and how this changes as the site develops.

In order to raise local awareness of the site we (volunteers Alison, Ann, Bob & Ann; and staff Bethan and Nick) attended the Hilgay Show, 10-11 August 2013. New local contacts were made and the kids had a great time making dragonflies and learning about wetland species. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive with just one element of criticism concerning the loss of farmland to nature.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Purple haze

Chris Durdin, NWT Thorpe Marshes

“When I am an old I shall wear purple,” is an opening line to a poem that came to mind visiting NWT Thorpe Marshes in August. Looking up the poem, I found it actually says “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple,” but you get the idea.

Purple loosestrife with red-tailed bumbleebee and hoverfly

The ungrazed marsh at NWT Thorpe Marshes is at its most colourful best this time of year, and is dominated by purple and pink. Spires of purple loosestrife are the most obvious, but there’s a supporting purple cast of marsh woundwort, water mint and red bartsia, which is purplish, despite its name. The boldest pink is hemp agrimony and there is willowherb in profusion.

Upright hedge parsley bristles

A favourite of mine is the subtle pinky-purple of the hooked seedpods of the umbellifer upright hedge parsley. These need magnifying to appreciate, and a close-up photo is one way. Another is a hand lens, for which I find looking through the wrong end of binoculars is a good substitute.

Three in a row: peacock, comma and painted lady
There’s another purple flower which can’t be ignored – buddleia, the butterfly bush. The down side is that it’s an invasive alien and is all too common in the scrub that invades ungrazed areas of the reserve. But the butterflies on the big buddleias by the public footpath at the start of the reserve have been a delight this summer. With up to 100 peacocks among some 10 butterfly species, buddleia has been in the forefront of this summer’s line-up of purple plants.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013


Barry Madden, Volunteer Bird Guide at NWT Cley Marshes

So why would you fall in love with a particular place? What makes it so special? Why must it be cherished and looked after? 

Well, the answers to these questions and many others will be available for all to see and hear at the Forum in Norwich next month. Between 16 and 28 September there will be an opportunity to experience some of the sights and sounds of NWT Cley Marshes at a special exhibition in the Fusion Digital Gallery. A representative of the Forum Trust was at the site last week filming people to record their input for what promises to be a very evocative and interesting event. As I watched, I wondered how I would answer the question ‘Why is Cley so special?’

Curlews, photo by Barry Madden
It could be the amazing wildlife that abounds everywhere you look. Take today, when every patch of wild flowers had scores of bees collecting pollen, colourful butterflies and beetles probing for nectar whilst dragonflies darted through the air above hunting small flying insects or defending their territories. I was lucky enough to catch sight of a migrant clouded yellow butterfly as it purposefully flitted past me and parties of migrant whimbrel, curlew and sandpipers whistled, piped and trilled their way across a perfect blue summer sky.

It could indeed be those wide, open Norfolk skies that excite; dwarfing you and making you feel quite humble whilst amplifying the sense of space and light. Powerful cloudscapes frequently add a sense of drama, before multi-hued sunsets serve to soften the landscape and bring calm to a stormy day. Gentle breezes murmuring through the reed beds can have a soporific effect, but northerly gales churn the cruel North Sea into a multi-coloured maelstrom. Through it all the wildlife and people endure. No two days are the same.

Cley Beach in summer, photo by Barry Madden
And then there are the people. From hardy fishermen bobbing around on their tiny boats to winter reed cutters, from the groups of young students studying coastal erosion to the entrepreneurial guy who sets up his mobile café from the back of his van - all are woven into the fabric of this wild place. There are farmers, wildfowlers, birdwatchers, dog walkers, sun bathers, ramblers, photographers, shopkeepers, artists, and ice cream sellers. All have their part to play in this intricately entwined Living Landscape. And there is room for all; room for wildlife and people to flourish as long as the sanctity of the entire ecosystem is respected.

But personally I think it is the amalgam of all these things that makes Cley Marshes so special. It is only 20 or so miles from a large city, but take an early morning walk along the beach and you are a world away from all that hustle and bustle. Luckily it’s going to get better for both people and wildlife. Norfolk Wildlife Trust has great vision for the future of the site with both the acquisition of Pope’s Marsh, significantly extending the area under direct conservation management, and the development of the Visitor Centre to include a wonderful educational facility. These plans are still subject to securing the appropriate funding and planning approvals, but should they come to fruition will greatly enhance the Cley experience. 

So, why not pop along to the Forum next month and experience something of the magic for yourself. The event is free and will be most informative. Better still pay a visit to the reserve and immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of one of the best of Norfolk’s wildlife experiences. 

Monday, 19 August 2013

Rock pooling magic

Jessica Riederer, Seasonal Education Officer
What better way to celebrate marine week than to spend an afternoon rock pooling with incredibly keen children and their families.  

Pulling into the car park at West Runton beach on 7 August with colleague Seasonal Education Officer Bethan Painter, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself – it was going to be a very good day!  Despite over hanging cloud, the sea was calm, the tide was out and the rock pools with their stunning array of browns, oranges and greens were calling.  

 After handing out equipment and guides, more than 40 kids, parents and grandparents were eagerly gathered, buckets and nets in hand, ready to go. A few families had never been rock pooling before, but most knew what they were about to embark on and the energy emerging from the crowd prior to stepping down onto West Runton’s rocky shore was brilliant.  

I can never get enough of rock pools – their multi coloured wracks and algae, transparent common prawns and camouflaged (and incredibly quick) sand shrimp, paramoudras hosting powerful Cromer crabs, and bright read beadlet anemones peeking out from below barnacle-covered rocks – it all makes me incredibly happy. Despite the abundance of life, occasionally a family will say, ‘We are not finding anything,’ but when they are encouraged to crouch down low, or even sit next to a pool and just look - I love to see a smile creep across a face as one realizes that there is indeed so much to be discovered.  
Shore crab, photo by Georgina Dean
For many kids, it’s all about crabs. No matter how many times a child finds a crab it seems to fill them with immense satisfaction. From tiny dewdrop-sized transparent crabs to adult hand-sized Cromer crabs covered in barnacles – all are equally appreciated. Crabs are cool, I definitely agree – but it is the smaller majority that really fascinates me.  

Limpets for example, often get overlooked.  Limpets can live to be over 20 years of age to begin with, and that’s a long life for a snail that spends his days clinging to a rock. Did you know they remain on the same piece of rock for their entire lives?  When young limpets have found a suitable place to live, they will grind their shells into the rock to create a depression known as a Home scar.  When the tide is in, Limpets will leave their Home scar to graze on algae – but they will return back to the same place day after day, year after year.  Were it not for limpets, exploring our rock pools would be far more challenging as the rocks would be coated in thick algae.  

Tiny multi-coloured blennies with their bodies covered in their protective layer of slime are also a favourite of mine. These curious fish are fantastic to watch darting about in the pools. Why are they covered in slime? They can actually cram their bodies into rock crevices and can remain out of water for hours waiting for the tide to return.  The slime prevents their bodies from drying out.   
Of course, everyone has their favourite rock pooling bits to talk about, so half way through any two hour session we all gather to share and celebrate each other’s finds. Kids and parents clamber across the rocks with their buckets of wonder – every one eager to show us their discoveries.   Unfortunately we always have to mention that we are unable to discuss and celebrate all of our young scientists finds – otherwise we would literally be gathered all day – but we always choose a few species to discuss. One thing I learned really quickly is that it is very important to acknowledge the discoverer of any animal we choose to talk about. The pride a child feels when we discuss ‘his’ hermit crab or ‘her’ shrimp – and the opportunity for the child to tell us where he/ she found the animal is clearly an important part of their rock pooling experience.  

Scientists believe that more than half of the UK’s wildlife lives in our seas. Joining us for a rock pooling session gives children and adults the opportunity to discover and learn about just some of it.  We could all come up with a multitude of reasons why we need to take care of our seas.  Slowing down, looking closely, gently handling an animal, replacing it in its home carefully – and developing a sense of awe and wonder – these are all skills worth fostering in children. It never ceases to amaze me that despite being visited by families day after day, West Runton’s rockpools continue to host a spectacular variety of wildlife.  We can help ensure they continue to do so by moving carefully amongst them and always returning wildlife to the zone in which they were found.   

Our next Rock pooling sessions take place on Tuesday 20 August from 11:30 – 1:30 pm, Friday 23 August 2 – 4 pm.  We hope to see you there!