First field trip of 2020

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Don’t worry – it gets better than this. Everything of any value was removed from this wreck years ago and all that remains is a heap of rusting steel plus an empty can of cider in the boot. The sheer effort of getting it down a muddy track must have been a piece of heroic, almost Fitzcarraldo stupidity, and a fitting memorial to our culture I think. Anyway there was much more to enjoy today apart from my delight in collapsing sheds and old wrecks. There is nothing quite as exciting or challenging as going out on a field trip – OK a long walk – with some genuine experts on hand. Today we were spoilt for choice with a (county recorder level) botanist, a local historian and naturalist, a leading ecologist and an ex president of the British Mycological Society quite apart from some heavyweight birders and a botanical artist. Walking can get quite slow when the objects of interest are so frequent, and so it took us twenty minutes inspecting a passing stream for Signal Crayfish before we even set off. Apparently a local resident has perfected the art of trapping them and eating them for breakfast! – we found his creel lurking there, baited (we were told) with cat food.

From the outset we were away not with just one heron, but a whole heronry of about half a dozen nests with three birds perched high up in the trees overhanging a Honda car dealer. What was it I wrote yesterday about urban wildlife? As we walked on we saw (and heard) all the usual suspects like thrushes and robins, but also a young buzzard, a kestrel, nuthatch, goldcrest and to cap it all we were shown a nesting site for ravens at the end of the walk inside the Bath Abbey cemetery.IMG_20200105_125957

Within the plants, it was good to see rosettes of primrose leaves in the same graveyard (they’re brilliant places for wildlife – you need a PhD to walk through Smallcombe Cemetery with any intelligence). But there were Winter Heliotrope in full perfume for once, and a pair of Arum cousins, one a native – Lords and Ladies and the other its ornamental relative from Italy rapidly making a nuisance of itself in this country and called – surprisingly perhaps – Italian Lords and Ladies.

There were numerous other goodies around, but having someone on the walk who combined expertise on bryophytes and fungi kept us looking at the limestone walls and paths.  Incidentally, he was carrying a second pair of binoculars which he used for close scanning. I tried it on the carpet when we got home but neither of our binoculars would focus down below about 7 or 8 feet.    There’s no point in bigging up your knowledge under these circumstances, the best thing to do is watch and learn with your notebook at the ready. I know a few fungi, and they’re not plentiful at this time of the year but we spotted Wood ear and Yellow Brain fungi.  My photos weren’t very good because I had only taken my mobile phone.

But the biggest excitement of the day was getting close up to some bryophytes. Unlike most humans, they actually look more and more beautiful the closer you look. The thing is they’re often very small and inconspicuous so you tend to overlook them.  That’s not a bad strategy since I’ve just spent over an hour trying to identify one photograph because there are a great number of things that you might (I might) casually describe as ‘moss’, ‘fern’ or ‘liverwort’.  Actually until today I had very little idea what liverworts actually looked like, and there’s the best reason for joining a natural history society and going on field trips, because there will be someone that really does know and the chances are they’ll be a great teacher who’s only too keen to share their expertise. So here’s what a liverwort can look like very close up –

Aren’t they stunning? the textures are unlike anything you can see in most plants. I’m not completely sure about the Targiona hypophylla because I identified it myself, but the other was identified by a national expert so you can bet your boots on it. Even I think I’m sounding a bit breathless about all this but we had such a good time today among some lovely people, we learned a lot from them and, best of all, I discovered that there’s a whole world of winter lists out there to satisfy even my propellor headed tendencies.

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And below are a few things I didn’t manage to identify, apart from the Maiden-hair Spleenwort on the left. I was intrigued by the reason for it being so named.  A quick flick through Wikipedia suggests it was once used to treat diseases of the spleen, but I couldn’t find any corroborating evidence for that use, only for chest complaints and menstruation problems, for which there are many more commonly used treatments.  So it’s a lost etymology as far as I can see.  One other interesting fact popped up, though. There is another plant called maidenhair fern – whose leaves are exactly like miniature versions of the leaves of the Maidenhair tree – Ginkgo biloba. 

So here’s the rogues gallery of today’s unsolved mysteries.  I really like having a few of these because it keeps me going back.

Fatal temptation – looks like a free lunch!

I suppose this photo might have all sorts of hidden gems in it – there may be a rare moss or liverwort there but what caught my eye were the innocent loking Amanita phalloides var alba  which could look a bit like  ‘wild mushrooms’ but are really Death Caps.  They’re usually a vaguely yellow or greenish on the cap but this is  the variety that looks most like a field mushroom. Two things ought to warn you of danger immediately – firstly Field Mushrooms don’t have that name by accident, they grow in fields. Secondly, Death Caps have white gills, not brown.

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We were in Eskdale, walking back down from the spectacular Stanley Force which lies on on a tributary steam to the River Esk. “Force” seems to be the local name for waterfalls – and when you see one with this power it’s altogether appropriate. It’s about 60′ according to the guidebooks, but I’d put the depth from the lip at nearer 40′, maybe 60′ from the top of the gorge. Either way round you wouldn’t want to fall from there. When you look up at it there’s a tremendous sense of exposure, but actually the path isn’t nearly as bad as it looks, notwithstanding the warnings everywhere. The biggest challenge was driving rain; the whole gorge looked and felt like a chillly tropical forest. Fabulous bryophytes there.  I don’t know much about them except that when you look at them through a pocket magnifier they’re absolutely beautiful.  The last climb up to the viewpoint was a bit of a scramble but what with the noise and the height it was properly exciting. One of Wainwright’s favourite places, they say – but then everyone who wants to sell an ice cream in the lakes makes the same claim. There are a number of newish footbridges in place to cross the beck, and without them the whole enterprise would be a bit of a desperate scramble unless you were prepared to wade across. As we were walking up someone spotted a red squirrel, but despite moving as quietly as we could we never found any. On the way back we met a man who’d been up the fell in May and had found Mountain Ringlet butterflies there – sady, life’s just too short for me to do it all! The Western Fells are very beautiful, it’s a shame they’re so far from our home.

IMG_6074But that wasn’t all we did today because we’re staying in Ravenglass and that’s at one end of the narrow gauge Ravenglass and Eskdale railway line that runs up Eskdale to Dalegarth, the starting point of our walk.  We’d chosen to go today because it was forecast to be sunny and dry. However we’re in the Lake District which has its own climate, and it rained heavily on and off all day – luckily we took our waterproofs and enjoyed the challenge.We travelled up the line in a little carriage, but coming back we rode in one of the open trucks which was much more fun, open to the weather and the spectacular views. I was born and brought up next to the main line north from Bristol and the sheer smell of engine smoke and steam sets of a firework display of childhood memories.

 

An interesting find on the next door plot

Here’s a tiny cluster of fungi I noticed while we were talking to our neighbour on the allotments. I’m absolutely not a specialist in this field, but I had a look through the books and I think this may be Helvella leucomelaena – the Sooty Cup or White Footed Pixie Cup.  If it is, it’s not where it should be and it’s quite rare.  However, we use so much wood-chip on the allotment it could be one of those species that’s benefited from human activity. Any experts out there?

Something about flavour

2018-09-05 17.59.40I can’t remember when I ate my first wild mushroom – it was probably as a child, when we ate at my grandparents’ cottage, or rather smallholding, in the Chilterns. Because of her childhood my mother knew and talked about wild mushrooms but so far as I remember never picked any. The first I’m ever sure I picked were on the playing field at Beechfield House, then part of Bath Academy of Art. It was nearly 50 years ago and I blagged a job as assistant groundsman during the summer vacation. Continue reading “Something about flavour”