Midsummer Hillside

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Emerging from the shelter of the Woodland….

12:05 The steps lead up from the Woodland Trail and into an open sloping grassy space, whose character changes from year to year, largely according to the weather. The soil covering over limestone rock is very shallow and susceptible to erosion by the elements and by people walking over it; consequently it dries out rapidly when it’s as hot and dry as it was throughout this May. The grass is cut every year, sometime during the autumn or late winter and by now it would usually have grown quite tall again at the bottom end of the slope, but this year it is struggling to recover. A few days before I took this photograph, before the rain returned, it was completely brown and dry. There’s still time for it to pick up though, particularly if it keeps raining: plants that grow here are tough.

With no wildflowers there were of course no bees or butterflies or indeed anything much to tempt me to dither about here, so I carried on up the slope towards the trail that leads up to the summit. The view from higher up, looking westwards along the valley gives some indication of what a strange day this was. Low cloud hung as a heavy mist obscured the mountains from view and despite it being windy the warm air charged with moisture made it feel heavy and humid too. Traffic on the Expressway was still light compared to pre-lockdown days, but the sound of even a few vehicles can manifest as a roar at this height.

The nature of the vegetation on the exposed cliff-edge side of the Trail has evolved into an interesting area of what I think of as pre-woodland scrub, by which I mean it’s presently a mix of long meadow grasses becoming populated with patches of low-growing bramble, dog rose and young trees. I’m not sure if these trees are self-sown or were deliberately planted, perhaps a mix of both.

12:37 It was windy up here, which is by no means unusual, but there were butterflies and bees flying about, all keeping low and in the shelter of the vegetation. There were Ringlets, the first ones I’ve seen so far this year, some were chasing around not settling at all, but there was one that found a sunny spot on a low bramble leaf that it kept returning to. I couldn’t get a better angle for a photograph, but I was happy to get one at all.

Another first of the year sighting was a lovely Large Skipper that was much more obliging about posing.

Amongst the grass summer wildflowers are beginning to show, not in great amounts, but I think that makes them a bit more special.

On a Dog-rose briar were several shiny new 7-spot ladybirds and a Rose Sawfly. Adults of this species are distinctively coloured black and gold and have smoky wings. Female sawflies lay eggs in soft young rose stems and the emerged larvae are sometimes considered to be ‘pests’ in gardens as they feed on the soft tissue of rose leaves, leaving just the leaf ribs. Happily they’re safe from human interference here, although doubtless there’ll be predators awaiting future larvae.

A Meadow Brown butterfly intent on feeding on bramble flowers stayed put for long enough for me to take some photographs; opening its wings each time another insect flew close to it.

13:09 Back on the path I disturbed a Grayling that had been basking on the warm bare earth. There are never very many here on the Bryn, and there have been years when I haven’t managed to catch sight of one at all, so I was happy to see it, but sad I’d missed it. Fortunately it didn’t go far and after a fly around it landed back almost in the same spot. These beautifully-marked butterflies are so well camouflaged you can easily lose sight of them until they move or flash their eyespots.

Grayling-Hipparchia Semele

Rather than following the bend in the trail that climbs up to the summit of the hill, I  carried on towards the far edge of the cliff, watching out for more Graylings.

There were no more to be seen today, but a Small Tortoiseshell sunning itself on a rock, more than compensated for the lack of them. It was very restless, opening and closing its wings and adjusting its angle, but it stayed until a large dragonfly flew close over the top of it, then it took off and left at speed.

13:29 I turned around then and walked back to re-join the Summit Trail where it slopes down then up again, forming quite a deep U-shaped dip. I often look for reasons to spend a few minutes here as by the magic of its geology, it’s almost always sheltered from the wind and the only spot that I know of on the Bryn that somehow escapes the constant noise of the Expressway traffic. Today there was sound though, not traffic, but a constant and strangely muffled rumbling of thunder that was emanating from behind the distant cloud-covered mountains. Then to add to the already strange atmosphere of the day, the still air here held the briny scent of the sea; most peculiar! The grassy border on one side of the path here is one of the best spots I know to find numbers of lovely Pyramidal Orchids and they seem to be particularly abundant this year.  Traveller’s Joy, our wild clematis, seems always to be threatening to take over this ground, but thus far the orchids appear despite its encroachment.

The opposite side of the track, fronting a Blackthorn thicket, has a slightly different character. Not so dominated by the clematis, here there is bramble, Rosebay Willowherb and a few Ragwort plants, which could be why I was got a rare glimpse of a striking red and black Cinnabar Moth. It may have been a newly-emerged one as it was clinging upside down to a blade of grass. There was another Ringlet here too, feeding on bramble and holding open its velvety chocolate-brown wings.

Goat’s-beard-Tragopogon pratensis-Barf yr afr Felen

Walking on up towards the summit over the remains of what were once part of the defensive walls of the old Hillfort, I was keeping an eye out for a glimpse of a Dusky Skipper butterfly; I’ve seen them here before in previous years, but there’s so little in flower here now I guess there’s nothing to tempt them.

What there was though were the big round seedheads of Goat’s-beard.

The summit, which as you see from a distance, is gently rounded and surprisingly grassy and well-vegetated. There is a huge raspberry-bramble patch, which is always slightly later to flower than those plants lower down the hill, which was attracting the attentions of a Red Admiral and another Small Tortoiseshell butterfly.

13:46 I walked towards the summit edge to look at the view and passed more bramble, which had a big orange and black fly feeding on its blossom; a distinctive orange and black, very bristly tachinid fly – Tachina fera.

Heavy cloud completely misted out the view across Colwyn Bay. We get at least two types of mist here; there’s downwards mist that falls from heavy cloud moving over the mountains, then there’s upwards sea-mist drawn up from the surface of the water by warm air. I think it’s likely that today’s was a blend of both.

 

The trail carries on around the trig point and opens out again onto the other side of the hill. The view from here was fascinating, a thick band of low cloud obscured the Little Orme, moving across the headland and snaking wraith-like out over the sea.

14:40: On this side of the hill the steeply sloping open grassland is more exposed and open to the elements, mainly from the North and East. It was very windy and although it appeared that we were surrounded on all sides by misty cloud it was actually a very warm, almost hot afternoon. Days like this can sometimes be good for finding insects as in the wind they tend to be less mobile and stay closer to the ground. It helps that they still need to eat too; I spotted a female Swollen-thighed Beetle on a Rockrose flower and a lovely shiny green Forester Moth on Cat’s-ear.

Tucked down into the shelter of the grass were a Small Heath butterfly and another day-flying moth, this one a Six-spot Burnet.

This more open grassy part of the Bryn is also good for orchids, this time the pretty pink Common Spotted species. As with most orchid species, numbers of plants fluctuate from year to year, which can be for a number of reasons, but I wonder if there are less now as the character of the habitat is changing. A few years ago this slope was predominantly short grassland, but is quite quickly developing into more ‘pre-woodland’ grassy scrub with bramble, gorse and trees being left to grow. I had to hunt to find some today, then came upon this perfectly beautiful little group of them set amongst Cowslips going to seed.

I was hoping to see at least one Dark Green Fritillary butterfly here today and finally got my wish as I stood up from my orchid photographs. Their size, colour and speed of flight are pretty distinctive, so I recognised the one that galloped past in front of me, but it quickly disappeared into the middle of the scrub. I found a narrow track through which I followed in the hope of finding more of them within its shelter, passing by a bramble where a Painted Lady butterfly sat feeding and disturbing a Silver-Y Moth, both of which are migrants, so could have been recent arrivals.

14:20 I sat for a while in a clear spot amongst the scrub and did see more Dark Green Fritillaries, but they were very mobile and of course chose the most inaccessible parts of the vegetation to fly over. But at least I know they are out and about now, so can come back to find them another day. At the bottom of the slope there were more brambles and more insects. Butterflies: another Large Skipper, a Red Admiral and a Speckled Wood to add to my day’s list.

Below is a selection of other insects I photographed there:

15:36 The weather may have been a bit strange, but I headed back home feeling more than happy with the diversity of the wildlife I’d seen during the course of a few hours; then not far along on the path back through the woodlands, lying stretched out and motionless was a perfect Slow Worm. Looking more closely I could see it was lying belly-up and although it looked to be unharmed, I thought the poor thing was dead as it was making no attempt to move.

I couldn’t, and still can’t imagine how it had ended up in that position, but it was shady there and I wondered if it had got too cold to right itself. I picked up a stick lying nearby and gently rolled it till it was right-side up and to my relief after a few seconds it moved off into the vegetation at the side of the path. Thank goodness I reached it before a curious dog found it….

 

 

Midsummer Woods

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It had been a good while since I’d spent the best part of a day meandering around the whole rich patchwork of varying habitats that make up my local nature reserve of Bryn Euryn, so a sunny morning that was forecast to stay that way into the afternoon offered the perfect opportunity to spend a day outdoors.

09:59 – Woodland Path

Once outside I realised it wasn’t quite as warm as I’d thought it was going to be, but the air felt fresh, if slightly humid. The copious rainfalls of previous days have done wonders; plants that had looked sad and wilted a few days ago were perked upright and the leaves of the trees washed of dust and good as new. A Speckled Wood butterfly on ivy and the chirpy calls of foraging Blue Tits greeted me at the beginning of the path, which has also benefitted from the dust-settling cleansing rain.

The specialist woodland wildflowers of the early Spring have long-since finished flowering now and are directing their energies into producing seeds. There are a few later-flowering plants that can cope with the reduced sunlight though, including the beautiful Honeysuckle, one of my lifetime favourite plants whose fresh perfume I would happily fill my home with, if only someone could capture it perfectly.

An arch of Honeysuckle

It’s been a good year for this  fragrant twining-climbing plant which has given me cause to make even more frequent stops on my walks; the scent of it in the air, particularly in the cooler mornings and evenings is as much a highlight as anything I might see or hear. It has maybe passed its peak of flowering now, but there’ll be occasional blooms to enjoy for a while to come.

Also happy in partial shade and flowering now are Navelwort, which is usually more easily recognised by its distinctive round fleshy leaves and Wood Sage, which despite its name is not confined to woodland paths; it’s a tough plant that is equally as happy growing out on exposed heaths and coastal cliffs.

10:12 Covered with white blossoms and well-refreshed the bramble patch at the top of the first rise of the path, was my first stop this morning. Gradually being lit and warmed by sunshine, it was already busy with a variety of insects.

Honeybee on bramble blossom

A Blackbird was singing from a tree somewhere close by, his melodic, relaxed song lending an element of calm to the scene of frenetic insect activity. There were bumblebees: Tree Bumbles  definitely the most numerous, some looking fresh, their heads and thoraxes bright deep tawny brown others faded to a pale blonde, perhaps bleached out by the sun. A few smaller Buff-tailed workers are busy between them and there are a small number of Honeybees, some of the first I’ve seen this year.

Butterflies joined the party, two Speckled Woods, which must have been a male and a female as they behaved amicably together, feeding almost side by side until disappearing together to the privacy of the leaves of an overhanging Sycamore. A Large White scooted over but didn’t stop, but a Red Admiral, missing a piece from a hind wing stayed for the whole length of time I was there, only moving short distances between flowers.

Most interesting of all were the big yellow-and-black beetles, that for some reason don’t seem to have a standardised common name, so are  known to me as Strangalia maculata, (which is apparently no longer correct as they’ve changed it to Rutpela maculata!). In the midst of the tangle of bramble, honeysuckle and ivy stands the remains of a tree, which was snapped in a storm a few winters ago. I wonder if it’s within its damaged fabric that they spent their larval stage and from which they have emerged. For a while now I’ve seen them here each time I’ve passed by, several at a time. Until now all of my past and more recent sightings of these lovely beetles have been of them calmly feeding on flowers, so it was interesting to see them very active this morning, flying rather clumsily from flower to flower, not lingering for long on any.

The distant mewling of a Buzzard calling from above diverted my attention and I caught glimpses of it as it circled high above the trees.

This was the first one I’d seen in a while, so I wondered if it might appear back over the field, perhaps with its family, so moved on in that direction. It was a sun-in-and-out morning, surprisingly cool on the shady path when the breeze picked up.

Path edged with False Brome

Paths are edged with grasses, which are flowering now. False Brome predominates, covering large swathes of the woodland floor in places throughout this site, and there are lesser amounts of other species such as the distinctive Cock’s-foot.

 

10:40 There was nothing to see at this edge of the woodland except the wind rippling over the long grass of the meadow, and it was too cool to linger.

The sun came out again as I walked between the pine trees. This has become one of my favourite parts of the woods. I love the characterful Scots Pine trees with their tall, straight trunks crowned on high with heavy, strangely twisted branches in all seasons; but today with their rust-red bark still slightly damp and darkened by rain and highlighted by filtered sunlight they had a special glow.

There were no birds to be seen and for a while no sound of them either, until their silence was briefly broken once again by the Buzzard and the familiar contact calls of more Blue Tits working their way through the trees.

PATH EDGES

Nipplewort-lapsana-communis

Opportunistic wildflowers crop up randomly along the path edges, mostly of those species that seem to travel alongside the blackberry brambles, accompanying them wherever they go. In flower now are nettles, dock and delicate-looking Nipplewort.

All have value to insects in their way, either as sources of pollen and nectar or via their leaves which are either eaten from the outside or mined and eaten from the inside.

10:47 – My next stop is at the brambly-scrubby patch at the junction of three woodland paths. In recent weeks this has been buzzing with a variety of bees, in particular Tree Bumblebees that clearly have a nest nearby, or there may even be two. There have been a lot of Early Bumblebees too, but lesser numbers of other common species and so far I’ve only seen one or two Red-tailed bumblebee queens; no workers.

Predominately a raspberry bramble patch, which flowers earlier than blackberry, there is less blossom here now so is less of a draw for foraging insects now. There were a few Tree bumblebees about though, some working, one or two taking short rests on nearby sun-warmed leaves; poor things have probably already been out working for hours. This has been a great spot for hoverflies this Spring too, where I’ve  added a few ‘new’ species to my list. It was starting to get warmer, which doesn’t seem to bother bees, but hoverflies often seek shade under leaves, so I wasn’t too surprised there were few to see. Then I spotted one of the largest of our UK hoverflies, a Great Pied Hoverfly (Volucella pellucens) on some more shaded brambles. Not a new species for me, but I’d not seen one in this spot before. In contrast there were also a few of one of our smallest and commonest hoverflies about, little Marmalade Flies (Episyrphus balteatus).

10:46 A bird landed in an Oak tree a few metres behind the Sycamore tree, on first impressions quite big,heavy-ish landing so probably a Wood Pigeon. I almost didn’t take any more notice, but then it came to mind that this is a good spot to see Jays, which I am always keen to try to photograph as they are quite elusive, so I focussed on it and was excited to see it was neither Wood Pigeon nor Jay, but a dark handsome Buzzard. What a beautiful bird, and posing so nicely too.

The Woodland Trail

11:10 As I walked on, I remember thinking that the sighting of the Buzzard and managing to get a half-decent photograph of it was going to be the main highlight of my day. But then you just can’t predict what you may or may not see on any given day in this treasure trove of nature, as I later discovered.

Reaching the Woodland Trail, I crossed it to sit on the bench for a few minutes to enjoy the sunshine and to listen to what was around me whilst I wrote some notes. I’m always fully aware of the soundtrack of my walks, but unless I get lucky and can photograph or record a singing bird can’t always properly recall what I heard. This is what I wrote here ” … for 30 seconds, maybe a little longer there are no extraneous sounds; no noise from the road, no dogs barking, no human voices, only the sounds of twittering birds – most likely Blue Tits reassure me I haven’t gone suddenly deaf! A Robin’s just flown into the tree above me. It sits and looks at me for a few seconds before flying into the woods I’ve just left. I see a Small Heath butterfly; it lands but I didn’t spot it in time and it flew off, surprisingly rapidly for such a tiny butterfly, ditto a Meadow Brown!

As I got up to carry on I caught sight of a small gingery-furry bee flying over a fallen tree branch, which I thought might have been a Tawny Mining bee. I tried to focus in on it, but it was flying and although I pressed the shutter a couple of times I knew the bee wouldn’t be in focus, but may do as record shots. I can’t even begin to describe my feelings when I looked at those photographs on my computer later that evening. Expecting to see an out of focus bee, there too was also an almost perfectly in-focus lizard lying motionless and perfectly camouflaged along the length of the fallen branch which the bee was flying over. It had probably been watching me and wondering whether it should stay still or risk making a move. I’m grateful it chose the latter option.

Part of me was glad I hadn’t noticed the lizard, which is a Common or Viviperous Lizard, as I’m sure I’d have been so excited to see one in a position where I might get a photograph that I’d have fumbled with the camera and likely have missed it. But then I think it would have been nice to get a proper look at one rather than just a glimpse of a disappearing one, which is all I’ve managed so far in my years of tramping this hill! Mainly I’m just more than happy to know it was there and I have a photograph, however I managed it!

Being oblivious at this point to my lizard ‘capture’, and back in insect-seeking mode, I wandered along to the huge bramble tangle that once in flower has always been a brilliant place to spot a good variety of insects in a relatively short space of time with minimal effort. Years ago, this was the first place on the reserve that I recognised as an insect ‘hotspot’. There was a fair amount of activity here this morning, mostly from bumblebees, but there was also another Gt Pied Hoverfly, a Red Admiral butterfly, a Strangalia maculata beetle that only showed me its antennae and legs and a few different species of flies. Getting photographs was tricky, insects were constantly moving, the sun was shiningly brightly, but probably more to the point the path was getting busy with people and dogs and I got fed up having to keep moving to let them pass at a ‘safe distance’.

Tutsan growing alongside the bramble already has ripening berries. Its flowers hadn’t the same degree of appeal to insects as bramble, but I did catch a little Marmalade Fly visiting it.

The woodland is at the peak of perfection now, leaves are fully grown, in a myriad of shapes and uncountable shades of fresh green; climbers and ramblers are not yet over-reaching themselves to become sprawling and untidy and the plants along the path edges are not yet spilling over it.

 

Speckled Wood butterflies were stationed every few metres along the path, whether basking on the ground or perched on leaves overhanging the path. Constantly on alert, they readily explode into action to see off any intruders into their territory.

 

Trees arch across the path creating shady leafy tunnels

First wild raspberry

Generally birds are much quieter these days, apart from the Blackbird I heard earlier the only ones still singing to any extent are our summer breeders-Chiffchaff and Blackcap.

The closed canopy makes it too shady for there to be much in the way of ground-level plants for a while, so there are few distractions, other than Speckled Wood butterflies of course and the occasional sight of a Blackbird foraging in the safety of the dappled shade.

No matter how often I walk along this Trail, several times a week sometimes, each time I see it with fresh eyes. Looking up there are places where trees on opposite sides seem to avoid contact, leaving fascinating space between their contrasting leaves.

The same scenery changes according to the lighting effects; the varying cloud cover and the angle of the sun at different times of the day as the seasons progress all contribute, as do the weather conditions, particularly on days when there’s wind and how strong it is. On the ground, complex shadow patterns may be cast on the uneven canvas of the bare-earth path.

12:05: The steps up from the shady sheltered Woodland Trail lead into what could be an entirely different dimension….

a good place to take a break..

Tiny Tree-top Dancers

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Every year, from around about the end of the third week of April, I begin to watch out for the arrival and mass gatherings of insects I find particularly enchanting; the strangely beautiful day-flying Green Longhorn Moth. Their arrival and group dancing displays have become one of the highlights of the Spring for me, not just because they are entertaining to watch, which they are, but equally as this is an event that occurs at this same point in time each year. In changing times it’s reassuring to see that some elements of Nature’s complex pattern continue to repeat as and when they should, although each passing year I breathe a quiet sigh of relief when I see them for the first time, then feel the joy.

Green Longhorn Moths around an Oak tree

Seen individually and more closely, you could be forgiven for thinking this is some kind of a fly rather than a moth. Tiny insects; from outstretched wingtip to wingtip they might stretch to about 1½” (14-18mm).They have long black shaggy-looking hairs on their head and thorax, giving them a furry appearance and well-developed eyes. But then they brandish a pair of outlandishly and seemingly disproportionately long, white waving antennae, with those of males being longer than the females. Their beauty though is in their gorgeous iridescent wings. The basic wing colour is usually described as metallic green, hence the moth’s common name, but depending how the light catches them they can appear in a range of shades from bronze, through greens to violet.

There are several spots around Bryn Euryn where I have seen gatherings of the moths most years, that you could say are reliable. One is around Oak trees, which the insects are known to be associated with, and another is over an area at the edge of a Trail which is lined with more scrubby vegetation including blackthorn and gorse. Most noticeable in large groups dancing around the outer leaves of trees, sometimes high up, sometimes lower down, I have also found them in smaller groups in spots on woodland paths and even occasionally alone.

Ready for take off

My own best views though take little effort on my part, as the moths gather and perform in sometimes large numbers directly in front of my kitchen window, dancing in the sunshine around the top of the Wych Elm. I took the following video, which I think gives a much better idea of how the insects look and behave in action than photographs can. My videoing is not the best, but I think anyone that has never seen this little spectacle before will get the general idea! The dancing moths are accompanied by a Blackbird singing, with a few notes thrown in by a passing Herring Gull, plus a few creaks and squeaks from my zooming camera lens which is a tad bent out of shape since I dropped it….! You may also spot the odd hoverfly and a Speckled Wood butterfly.

(you can click on the video to make it bigger to get a better view)

Timeline 2020: This year I spotted my first arrivals in one small group on April 23rd. I think it’s safe to say, all males. Numbers increased over the next few days and I’m sure there have been more than in previous years, but they’d be very difficult to count! Numbers have fluctuated over the last few days, perhaps in connection with the cooler rainy weather we had earlier this week, and yesterday, May 2nd there are only a very few to be seen, in scattered small groups. But this morning they were back in force, with a lot of activity, then by 11am I couldn’t see any at all. I wondered if like with many small insects they need to stay out of the hotter direct sunlight.

Despite some careful watching, I don’t think I saw any females, for whom all of this frenzied displaying is for of course.  I definitely didn’t see any mating happening, but I’m hopeful it will have and that there will be more performances to look forward to this time next year.

 

 

 

 

The Birds and the Bee-flies

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Firstly I want to say I sincerely hope that you are keeping safe and well, are making the best of your self-isolation and/or social distancing and, most of all, that you are able to get outside to enjoy this Springtime, if only to your garden. I am desperately missing seeing my family, especially my little grandchildren, but I can honestly say I have never been more grateful for the location of my home! I live on the third floor of a small block of flats that has a communal garden, mostly lawned, but I chose this flat as it is right on the edge of woodland that fringes a Nature Reserve. For the last five years I’ve loved living here and have posted accounts of my local walks many times, but in recent weeks I’ve appreciated even more how lucky I am to be here. I can get outside for my ‘exercise allowance’ and

23/03/20-First Comma sighting

Since ‘lockdown’, the range of my outings has been much less than it would be in ‘normal’ times, restricted for now to the woodland I can easily access and wander around. Here I meet only the occasional local dog and their walker using the Public Footpath en route for the wider spaces of the reserve, and as we’re pretty well behaved up here, everyone so far has carefully observed the distancing rule. Tricky at times on these narrow tracks!

The walk, or more like meander, that I’m describing today is a ‘mash-up’ of two outings I took in the last week of March, during the spell of lovely Spring-like weather we had when it was sunny and warmish, and the skies were clear dark blue. Although I didn’t go far at all, there was a lot to see and now I know where to see it, I’ll be following a similar pattern in my meanders to check on the season’s progress.

Eristalis pertinax (f)

The first part of my path into the woods is dominated along one side by overgrown Cherry Laurels. They are reminders that this was once a shady woodland walk within the grounds of the grand house that stood here, long demolished and replaced much less grandly by flats, in one of which I live. The shrubs, or now small trees, can seem dark and gloomy, but they’re in flower now, lit up with candles of heavily-scented creamy-white blossoms offering up nectar to earlier-emerging insects. On bright sunny days like today, light shining through the leaves creates shadowy reflections of the flower spikes and gives away the presence of hoverflies enjoying basking on their sun-warmed platforms.

A few metres along the path I reach a patch I know to be a ‘hot-spot’ for insects. I’ve always been slightly mystified as to why it’s such a magnet for them, but I think it’s for a combination of reasons. Firstly, we’re almost 100m above sea level here, on the side of a wooded hill that that faces more or less South. A break in the line of Laurels exposes the view down the steeply-side slope, revealing there are very few large trees for quite a distance down, which has created a version of a woodland clearing. Shrubby trees have taken advantage of the space and light and filled the gaps, creating an understorey jungle of Holly, Hawthorn, brambles and of course ivy.

On the other side of the path is another patch clear of trees, about a metre wide, with a retaining bank or perhaps an overgrown wall, at its back. I wonder if this spot was deliberately created as a view point in the old garden and if a seat would have been placed here. It would have been a lovely spot to sit for a while. Facing more or less South, now it gets the benefit of full sun until about midday, after which trees begin to shade it out, but likely there were less then. With less impediments the view would have been across to the other side of the valley of the wooded hills with sloping green meadows. It would have been more peaceful too before the advent of the busy North Wales Expressway running along the length of the valley bottom!

All that I imagine was once here is long gone and the space has slipped into a somewhat scruffy, scrubby strip of rough vegetation that has become a great spot for the peaceful contemplation of an array of insects from early spring to late summer. Today there were a number of large hoverflies, Eristalis pertinax or Tapered Drone Flies, mostly males but there were one or two females too. They were flying briefly, zooming mainly from one sunny resting place to another.

One or two Buff-tailed bumblebee queens flew in low over the vegetation, zooming then off up into the woods; perhaps they were still seeking a good spot to nest, or maybe carrying pollen to stock up one already made. Another emerged briefly, then crawled back under leaf litter and disappeared from view. A Common Carder Bee queen emerged briefly from beneath dry leaves but quickly crawled back and I had a similarly brief view of a Tree Bumblebee. It will be interesting later on to see if there are signs that all, or any of them have made nests here

There were other insects too, a number of different species of flies, which I’m working on being able to identify, so maybe more of them in a future post, and the first of one of my favourite insects, a Bee-fly Bombylius major. They look cute and furry, but are actually a sneaky predators of hard-working mining bees.

A Wild Cherry tree marks the far end  of this patch and is now almost in full blossom and looking beautiful against the deep blue cloudless sky. The flowers offer another source of nectar to insects, particularly to bees.

A bit further on, where the path gets steeper for a way, I stopped to listen to a Wren singing and tried to find him. I caught a glimpse as he was perched on a thick branch a couple of metres above the ground, which I was happy with. I love these tiny little birds with loud voices that completely belie their size, and they’re not always easily seen. As I stood a pair of Jackdaws flew into a tree nearby. This is the first year I’ve seen Jackdaws this far up the hill and never in these woods before. Their nesting stronghold is the cliffs of the Little Orme, and then there are others further down the hill towards the village centre that gather around the roofs of houses throughout the winter, but until now our quieter, leafier part of the village hadn’t seemed to appeal. Then a couple of weeks ago I spotted a pair visiting the bird feeders in the garden next door and last week was surprised to see a pair perched together in a tree in the woods not far from where I was seeing them now. This has to be the same pair, and they clearly feel at home, as now they were gathering sticks to make a nest.

Most nests constructed from sticks look a bit haphazard and maybe a bit untidy, but birds such as corvids and of course Wood Pigeons are actually quite selective in their choice of twig. The Jackdaws were carefully scanning for one that looked right, which they then snipped off and gave further inspection. If they were still happy they carried it away, those that didn’t pass muster were dropped to the ground.

As so often happens when you stop to watch one thing, something else comes in to distract your attention. I spotted more movement high in a tree further back from where the Jackdaws were and it came back to me that I’d spotted a Nuthatch on that tree last year and had hoped it might be planning to nest in the hole there. I was sure some bird had worked on the hole though as it was perfectly round and its edges looked fresh. Maybe a Great Spotted Woodpecker had made it? But there were no further developments and as far as I know it remained empty.

Checking out the hole today was a tiny Blue Tit. Surely it wasn’t contemplating it as a nest site? The hole is way too big! None-the-less it was in and out and pecking around it as though checking its possibilities, but I think it more likely it was just foraging for insects.

I had another surprise flash of déjà-vu  when I got a better look at the Blue Tit; it’s one with a distinctive face pattern, different to the norm, with a white streak in its blue head cap and blue speckles in its face; one I’m sure I recognise as having seen in this very location last year.

Moving on I reached my next insect ‘hot spot’. Completely different in character to the last one, this is a little higher up and at the junction of two well-trodden paths. Still South-facing the downward slope is again open and missing large trees, some of which have succumbed to storms in recent years.

200323-1208-BEWP- (148s)-Platycheirus albimanus (f)

Platycheirus albimanus (f) on Greater Stitchwort

Two days ago I was standing here watching a small black hoverfly on the Greater Stitchwort flowers and from the corner of my eye I saw what I took to be a dog coming down the path towards me. I was preparing to move 2 metres further on as I thought to let its owner pass, when from behind the big Sweet Chestnut tree on the corner of the junction, trotted a Fox! Equally taken by surprise, for a split second our eyes met and we both froze, then it spun to its right and ran away beneath a Yew tree. Amazing! What a lovely animal. From now on I will always think of that path junction as ‘Fox Corner’.

A gorgeous Peacock butterfly landed on the ground in front of me. Another first species sighting of this year.

 

Bee-fly on Lesser celandine

In this spot last year there were mining bees, and where there are mining bees, prowling predatory nomad bees and as before-mentioned, Bee-flies. I supposed that the presence of several Bee-flies here today indicated that they had recently emerged from one of last-year’s mining bee nests. They are fascinating insects to watch.

More about Bee-flies and their relationship with mining bees here: Tawny Mining Bees & the Bee-fly

 

Orange-tailed Mining Bee-Andrena haemorrhoa

I had a good look around for signs of mining bees and eventually spotted just one feasting on a celandine. It’s difficult to tell from this photograph, but based on what  little I’ve learnt about these tiny bees and help I’ve had with identifying others found in this locality, it’s likely that this is an Orange-tailed Mining Bee.

Carrying on down the path I’m reminded of how much evergreen foliage there is here. In this photograph and just a little further back there is Holly, Ivy, Yew, Evergreen/Holm Oak and Spurge Laurel. I still can’t wait for fresh foliage though.

By its nature, a wander has no shape to it, so I can’t describe a trail to you as I often do, and to appreciate one fully takes a particular mindset. They are not for the impatient walker with an aim in mind, or for those whose idea of birdwatching is to see one and tick it off a list!

200323-1056-BEWP- (34)-Larch Tree-top laden with tiny cones

Larch-Larix decidua

This is typical of how things go with me: I’m wandering along the path in the photograph above and remember that the other day I noticed for the first time that one of the trees growing at the side of this path is a Larch, not a common tree here. So, as one of my aims this year is to try to identify as many of the different species of tree in this patch of woodland as I can, the tree is in my mind as one to investigate further. Larches are deciduous of course, but is this one, full of cones at the very top, but altogether very dry and brown-looking, alive or dead? Just before I reached it I noticed what I thought was a large branch that had fallen from said Larch, so I detoured slightly onto another path to get a better look.

As I was photographing (for future refence) the cones still attached to what is actually a whole, if skinny dead fallen tree, I spotted a bird fly onto the branch a few trees back from where I was standing. I knew straightaway that it was a Mistle Thrush and grabbed a quick snap in case I didn’t get another chance. I moved forward slowly to get a better look and although it had clearly seen me it stayed put. They are handsome birds, their upright posture giving them a strong confident presence, but they are also wary and always on the alert.

Their colouring and arrangement of their markings is highly effective when it comes to camouflage, sitting perfectly still in dappled shade they blend in perfectly.

After a few minutes I realised that the thrush had no plans to move far, which led me to think that it may well be nesting somewhere nearby. Mistle Thrushes are early nesters, so this could have been the male of a pair keeping watch over his nest and territory. The bird moved further back again, towards what I think of as the Pine Grove, where a dozen or so tall, wind-contorted Scots Pines are gathered at the edge of this patch of woodland where it meets an open field. Perfect Mistle Thrush nesting territory.

I thought I’d hang around for a while to see if the birds might give me a clue as to where the nest was. I headed for this sawn Scots Pine tree stump as a likely place to sit, but realised just in time that it was oozing beads of resin, so it must have been felled recently. I didn’t sit on it. Counting the rings from my photograph later on I reached somewhere around 60. I wondered why it had been felled as its wood looks quite strong and healthy.

This small patch of the woods is a favourite place of smaller birds too, especially tits and particularly Great Tits. While I was standing still I was treated to a song by the strongly-marked male above. I’m sure I photographed him last year, he’s quite distinctive, or is that heavy black genetic? I had lovely views of two Long-tailed Tits foraging up around the trees and along the field fence.

I was hoping to get at least a glimpse of a Nuthatch here, a few days ago there were a pair flitting about here exploring the top branches of the pines; I took a photograph, but  facing into bright sunshine it’s not great, but a record at least. I could hear a male calling persistently and loudly, but try as I might, I couldn’t locate him today. Finding singing or calling birds in trees is definitely not my strong point.

200319-1341-BEDC- (31a)-Nuthatch- 1 of 2 - in Scots Pine

19/3/20 – Nuthatch

Meanwhile, the Mistle Thrush had flown up to a tree branch and sat in full and open view with his chest feathers puffed out, making him look a completely different shape and much bigger; from a distance he looked a bit like a female Sparrowhawk. He was still fully alert though and quickly dashed out when a kafuffle broke out around a neighbouring tree. A Magpie had flown in and perhaps deliberately, must have got close to the nest. I assume the female had been sitting on it and launched herself at the Magpie, which was screeching loudly. Both Mistle Thrushes went on the attack, also calling loudly and saw the Magpie off. Peace resumed and the male went back to his perch, re-fluffed his feathers and sat quietly once more.

I’d been standing still in one spot for a good few minutes, then as I turned to continue along the path I was on to head back home, this lovely little Treecreeper flew onto a pine tree almost right in front of me. It spent a while exploring the bark of the tree, probing into crevices with that long slim wickedly-curved and pointed beak, moving around and slightly up before flying across to another one that had ivy growing up it.

Between watching the Mistle Thrush and the Treecreeper I’d stood and looked over the fence to see if there was any sign of Buzzards there. Two days ago I’d spotted one circling low over the trees here, that had flown in from across the valley. It was joined then by another and they both flew out over the field, circled around, high and low, then both landed in the big tree in the corner of the field. They didn’t stay for long, but I’m really hoping that they were prospecting for a nesting site and that they might choose one close by.

Today it seemed there were no Buzzards to be seen, but then, just as I was walking away one flew in low over the trees. I turned back and walked quickly back to the field edge where I saw it had landed on a tree branch. It was hunched over and peering down intently….

…..then it launched itself from its perch, flew low over the grass and dropped suddenly. It  had landed behind a hillock near the top edge of the field so I couldn’t see it on the ground, but it soon took off again and as it flew in my direction I could see it had something gripped in the talons of one foot. I couldn’t get in close enough to make out what it was, and my photograph doesn’t help with whether it was live prey or carrion. It was interesting that it carried it away too and didn’t eat it where it found it, which made me wonder if it was intended for a mate? Buzzards don’t usually lay till late April, so maybe a bit early for that. Another of life’s little mysteries.So much seen in a small patch of woodland and because I spent longer in each spot I feel the quality of my sightings was good too. Staying away from the main Reserve, where I would have expected to have met more people meant I hadn’t got close to my usual target of 5,000 steps, indeed, I hardly made it to 1,000! But if I’d continued as I would normally have done I’m sure I would have missed a lot of what I saw today. I’m looking forward to more restricted wanderings in the days to come.

Stay safe!

 

 

Kinmel Dunes-Twyni Cymnel

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Much of the sand dune system that once stretched along the eastern end of the North Wales coastline has long-since disappeared, flattened to make way for ‘coastal development’, but a small fragment survives at Kinmel Bay, which lies between Rhyl and Towyn on the Wales Coast Path. This active dune area is designated as a Local Nature Reserve, which means that its worth to wildlife is recognised, but that it is also an amenity area for people; a challenging balancing act for those trying to maintain it, particularly so in a small space that is also regularly severely battered by strong winds and powerful tides.

This was my first visit here, and my first impression was that although proudly and prominently signed as Kinmel Dunes Nature Reserve, this is firstly an amenity area for people. The large tarmacked car park placed at the centre of the dune area, effectively dividing the reserve area into two, was the first indication of that. Then there are toilets and a refreshment kiosk at the beach end of it, both firmly closed up for the winter. It is clear though that the Reserve area is valued and cared for and there are several interpretation boards informing about the dunes themselves and the wildlife that may be found there. There are also North Wales Wildlife Trust guides to things you may find on the beach and details of how to record anything you might find.

Later on it struck me that if you were walking the Wales Coast Path you quite possibly wouldn’t realise that you were walking past, or through a Nature Reserve here as there are no signs on the path itself at either end to inform you of that.

To get an ‘overview’ of the Reserve area I followed a track from the carpark to the top of a small hillock topped with picnic tables, which I’m fairly sure would have been man-made as a view point over this otherwise flat and otherwise featureless stretch of coastline.

The view above shows the North Wales Path/Wales Coast Path coming in on the right (east), from the direction of Rhyl, then passing the public car park and the beach café, which is currently firmly closed for the winter. In the forefront a surfaced path curves through the dune area, which attempts to encourage people to refrain from trampling across the fragile dune area itself. On the shore edge you can see where the surfaced Coast path has been cut through the dunes for part of its length and where they gradually peter out to be replaced by a shore of shingle.

Leaving the viewpoint on the other side, I joined the Coast Path, which is also marked as ‘The Dunes Trail’. Today the path was heavily strewn with sand either washed from the dunes by high seas or rain or blown out by strong winds. Probably a combination of all three. As usual I hadn’t formulated a plan as to what I’d do when I got here, so for no particular reason turned left to head towards Towyn, back past the car park and the firmly-closed refreshment kiosk. There are numerous notices, warning signs about the dangers of the sandy shore area, keep off the sea wall, no dogs from May to September and a life-saving ring.There is also one of the iconic colourful Cycle Network signposts informing me that I am 1¼ miles from Towyn and 1½ miles from Rhyl in the other direction.

It soon becomes clear that signs and warnings are to be significant features of this stretch of path as here too is the more traditional Wales Coast Path sign, informing that Pensarn is 3 miles away.

The path is long and straight and bounded by a wide low concrete sea wall. The surrounding landscape appears flat and quite featureless, but in front of you can see the not-too distant hills rising on the horizon and stretching all the way round to the headland of the Great Orme.

 

 

Countless numbers of times I have stood and looked at the view from points high and low across the other side of this expanse of sea, so it was interesting to be standing at a point I’ve probably photographed many times.

Out to sea are the turbines of Rhyl Flats Wind Farm, situated in Liverpool Bay. This started out as a modest 25 units back in 2008/9, but the ranks of turbines has since expanded greatly so that now there seems to be continuous lines of them stretching from one side of the bay to the other.

I find it amazing that any wildlife can survive, let alone thrive in harsh, well-trodden  habitats such as this, but it’s also a wild(ish) strip of land on the border between human habitation and the seashore, so although not ‘pure’ sand dune, it can be interesting and well worth exploring. I left the path when I saw the beginning of a sandy path wending its way through and around the dunes.

I got off to a good start – a few steps in I spotted a bird flying in towards where I was standing, and was treated to a display by a hovering Kestrel. It may have spotted some movement on the ground below as it lingered for a moment, but there was no downward swoop and it soon moved away.

I was facing into the sunlight, so couldn’t make out all the beautiful details of the bird, but there’s no mistaking that shape and seemingly effortless aviation skills.

The dominant plant of the dunes is of course Marram grass, of which there is plenty here holding everything together. I’m sure there will be flowering plants in amongst it later on, but today the star plant was, quite unexpectedly, lovely bright green moss. I’d never connected damp-loving mosses with dry sandy dunes, but I’ve since learnt that they are often found on their damp sheltered sides and are important stabilising plants in dune systems. I’ve said before that I’m fairly clueless about bryophytes (mosses & liverworts), but I do love to see and photograph them and am trying to learn to recognise at least a few. Going on its location, i.e. sand dunes, and its distinctive ‘starry’ appearance, this might well be Sand-hill Screw Moss – Syntrichia ruraliformis. Growing close by to this lovely spread was another smaller, similar-looking patch with fruiting bodies, which may (or may not) be Redshank Moss – Ceratodon purpureus. Apparently the two species often do grow close together.

To add to my identification issues, I found another patch that looked different again, but I think it’s the same Sand-hill Screw Moss, which protects itself from dehydration in dry conditions by rolling up its leaves around its stems, giving it a completely different appearance. I guess it’s this habit that gives the plant its ‘screw moss’ common name.

The path I was on soon met up with the surfaced path that I now realised had started from the car park, also marked as The Dune Trail.

An interpretation board at the end of this short trail, where it rejoins the main path, indicates it as a dotted red line. The board also shows the size and scale of the reserve and the proximity of ‘developments’, such as the Asda supermarket and its carpark.

All too soon I’m back on the main path and spot a length of chestnut post and wire fencing, (which in my mind at least, made a connection to my last post about the Sweet Chestnut tree).  I’m not sure if the fencing  is there to help stabilise the dune or to deter people from trampling over it.

Growing in the crevice between the path and the retaining sea wall, a flourishing clump of Buck’s-horn Plantain, clearly showing the leaf shape that gives the plant its common name.

Standing quietly atop the shingle bank behind the sea wall a Black-headed Gull. The birds’ heads are actually white in the winter with just a black spot behind each eye, then approaching the breeding season the head begins to take on colour as this bird’s is, darkening gradually to a rich dark chocolate brown; not actually black as in its name.

Black-headed Gull – Larus ridibundis

Also on the shingle, a patch of new Sea Beet leaves. The plants waxy-leathery leaves give it the protection it needs to withstand the tough conditions here.

More signs! This really can be a dangerous place for the unwary or foolhardy.

This coastline is reknowned for its many hundreds of mobile homes, most of which are actually static and available to occupy for 10 months of the year. I wondered if the intimidating fencing along the boundary of this site was designed to keep people out or in?

As a walk for anything other than fresh air and exercise this section of the Path, at least while the tide is high feels more like a corridor between mobile homes and the hard lines of the sea wall and the defensive rip-rap.

At the next bend I decided to turn around and head back the way I’d come. The backdrop to the houses is the Clwydian Hills.

The tide was beginning to recede. I wasn’t sure if the fisherman on the edge of the shingle bank was setting up or packing up and I wonder if he caught or will catch anything.

On the developed side of the path between the retaining wall and the houses is a wide strip of mown grass. On its edge there’s a patch of Rockrose with Ribwort Plantain growing through it.

Leaves of Common Rockrose & Ribwort Plantain

Lower down, in the sheltered crevice where the wall meets the path, more opportunistic plants are flourishing. A left-over, rather sad flower on Sea Mayweed; freshly flowering Groundsel; leaves of Dove’s-foot Cranesbill surrounded by new Chickweed sprouts and most surprisingly, several plants of Tree Mallow.

And here a lovely aggregation of leaves of wildflowers-to-come in a pretty array of shapes and shades of green, which includes Dove’s-foot Cranesbill, Common Stork’s-bill & Common Chickweed.

 

I wondered if the origins of the Tree Mallows might be this tall and seemingly well-nourished specimen.

Along part of the edge of wall where it meets the grass a line of Marram Grass has established and left to grow. As it is in a straight line, perhaps it’s been deliberately planted to protect the grass from some of the salt spray and wind. I wonder why they don’t just let it revert to its natural state? It would look so much better and wouldn’t need cutting.

 

 

If you look closer, the concrete walls aren’t totally featureless, there are patches of lichens growing there, which I’m not attempting to identify, other than to say some are greyish-white, others yellow or orange.

The skies brightened, showing up some of the green on the Little and Great Ormes through a lighter haze.

Sea Holly is another tough but beautiful plant that can handle these harsh conditions, evident for now by patches of dry stems with prickly leaves still attached, held in place amongst Marram stems.

I glimpsed a flash of a bird that dashed from the dune side of the path to land on the shore side, quickly disappearing into the cover of Marram grass. My first impressions were that it was small, brown and maybe a Rock Pipit. Fairly well concealed amongst the dry grass stems it carried on foraging amongst them, in no great hurry, keeping half a wary eye on me and allowing me quick glimpses as it moved further away towards the beach. Possibly because I expected it to be, I had convinced myself this was a Rock Pipit, but I’m very grateful to Tony, who in his comment below has given me the much more exciting identification of a Skylark!

Skylark – Alauda arvensis

I know much less about Skylark behaviour than of Rock Pipits, so it was great to know they are here and to get so close to one. I’ll have to go back later in the year to see if I can catch any singing.

Another bird flew in front of me heading from the shore across to the dunes; a Magpie which landed on top of a Dune Trail marked post. I didn’t realise until I saw the photograph later that I’d caught it having a poo (sorry!); it looks like this might be a favourite perch for the purpose.

The sun continued to shine and as it felt a bit warmer and being in no particular hurry, I decided to carry on for a while and walk towards Rhyl.

At intervals along the path steps, safeguarded with iron railings allow you to cross the sea wall onto the beach.

All of those I’d passed walking in the opposite direction had been closed off, but one here was open. Taking the opportunity to get off the long straight path I thought I’d have a meander along the strand-line to see what I could find.

Views along the beach: above towards the Great Orme and below towards Rhyl.

I’m surprised anything survives being pounded by waves against the stony bank, but there were seashells there as well as clumps of Whelk egg cases and the egg case of a Ray.

More random was a plastic bottle I found on the sea edge full of pebbles that I guessed may have been used to anchor something down and a sea-smoothed fragment of a house brick bearing part of its maker’s name.

 

some of my rubbish haul

 

As always there was the usual rubbish entwined amongst the seaweed, nylon fishing line, dried-out wipes, bottle tops etc. Also the wrapper from a packet of biscuits, nearby Asda store’s own brand & some sticky plastic tape. I picked up as much as I could stuff into my pocket as I’d come without a bag.

 

 

A Cormorant fly-past

I carried on until I could see Rhyl on the near horizon. The lifeboat was out and ready to go, hopefully not imminently and the landmark ‘Sky Tower’ that is visible from far across the other side of the bay.

Back in the car park a pair of Herring gulls were investigating the overflowing rubbish bin. They’d pulled out some to study further, but I don’t think there was much there to tempt them. I picked up a few more bits that had blown across the carpark and left them to it.

Sweet Chestnut

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Sweet Chestnut trees have become one of my favourite species over the last twenty years or so and I’m always drawn to look at them and of course to take their photographs. Until coming to live in North Wales I’d seen them only on walks around big Public Parks, Grand Gardens and in Arboretums, situations in which I might expect to find them, but here I’ve encountered them fairly frequently growing in wilder woodlands. There are three growing at different points along one of my regular trails around Bryn Euryn that stand out amongst the surrounding Oaks, Ash and Sycamores, and others in other woodlands and public gardens locally, some of which have been quite unexpected.

Researching this post I found that the ancient Sweet Chestnut at Bodnant Gardens was a nominee in the Woodland Trust’s annual Tree of the Year competition and that the winning tree in Wales for 2019 is the Old Sweet Chestnut of Pontypool, which confirmed that this was the perfect time to be putting the post together.

Sweet Chestnut in Bradgate Park, Leicestershire – September

The Sweet Chestnut, or Castana sativa is native to mainly mountainous regions of southern Europe, western Asia and north Africa and is considered most likely to have been introduced into Britain by the Romans. But these beautiful trees have graced our islands for many centuries and are considered honorary natives as they behave similarly to native trees; they propagate themselves by seed and are able to maintain levels of wildlife biodiversity similar to that of native broadleaved trees such as the related oaks and beeches.

Sweet Chestnut – Colwyn Bay, Conwy – early November

Etymology

English name(s): Sweet Chestnut, Spanish Chestnut Latin Name: Castana sativa Welsh name: Castanwydden Felys Family: Fagacaea

As the Sweet Chestnut is not a true native to Great Britain, there is very little mythology associated with it here, but the ancient Greeks dedicated the sweet chestnut to Zeus and its scientific botanical name Castanea comes from Castonis, a Town in Thessaly in Greece where the tree was grown for its nuts.

The Latin sativus is based on satus, meaning ‘sown’, perhaps implying the tree has been cultivated by humans. Also etymologically related is our native English ‘seed’.

The tree is commonly called the “Sweet Chestnut” to distinguish it from the Horse Chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum, to which it is only distantly related. Other common names include “Spanish Chestnut”, “Portuguese Chestnut” and “marron” (French for “chestnut”).

DESCRIPTION

Sweet Chestnuts have mostly straight trunks, easily recognised by their twisted rugged appearance and thick branches that start at a low height. Trees may reach heights of anything from 60 to 80 feet (20 to 30m) high and sometimes even higher; specimens of up to 110 feet (38m) have been recorded and they may live to an age of 500 to 600 years; cultivated individuals may even achieve a lifespan of 1000 years or more.  Some trees grow straight and attain great heights, particularly those in woodlands that have competition from other species, many others develop exceptionally broad trunks in relation to a lesser height and there are records from various parts of the country of trees with girths of over 25 feet (6m+).

Sweet Chestnut-Kew Gardens- April

BARK

A particularly distinctive characteristic is the tree’s beautifully textured bark, which develops deep evenly spaced fissures that spiral upwards from the base of the trunk. The fissures develop early on in the life of the tree and continue to thicken and widen as the tree ages. It is interesting that the fissures may spiral in either a left or right handed direction, and sometimes even both, with the fissures then creating a net-like pattern. The bark of the trees in my photographs below, both spiral to the right, that of the tree above, growing in Kew Gardens is spiralling to the left. (Being hugged by one of my granddaughters, aged two at the time.)

LEAVES

The leaves usually open out some time in April, they are large, sometimes as much as 10″ (25cm), mid to dark green in colour and slightly glossy. Sometimes aptly described as handsome, they are a simple lance-shape, are deeply indented and have large pronounced teeth evenly spaced around their margins.

I like the way the sun shines through them on bright summer days.

Sun through leaves-Bryn Euryn-August

FLOWERS

The Sweet Chestnut tree is monoecious, meaning that although it requires both male and female females in order to reproduce, both are borne on the same tree. In Britain it is one of the last trees to bloom, with flowers usually appearing from mid to late July or sometimes even well into August. When they do appear the groups of flowers are very noticeable, held on drooping stems that are some 6-8 inches (16-20cm) long.

The long, creamy pale yellow catkins arise from the axils of the leaves: those growing from the lower axils bear only male flowers. Those growing from the upper leaf axils bear both male and female flowers – the males at the distal (far) ends of the axils and the female ones nearest the axils. Individual flowers are simple; the male flower has about 10 stamens that are surrounded by 5-6 sepals. Female flowers are borne in groups of 2-3, with each group surrounded by a scale capule. Each flower has a single ovary surrounded with several styles. Pollination may be either by insects or by wind.

FRUITS

Following fertilisation each ovary develops to form a nut. The capule also enlarges to form a thick strong green and very spiny covering that encloses the two or three developing nuts.

Nuts collected in a hollow at the base of a tree-Ashton Court, Bristol- October

When they are ripe, the prickly capule splits and the brown edible nuts are exposed.

VALUE TO WILDLIFE

The flowers provide an important source of nectar and pollen for bees and other insects. Red squirrels eat the nuts and I’m sure Grey ones must do too. There are a number of micro-moths recorded that feed on the leaves and nuts.

SWEET CHESTNUTS AS FOOD

The trees were originally brought into Britain by the Romans with the intention of providing one of the fundamental staple foods of their armies’ traditional diet. (This was clearly a long-term plan; it can take 20 years for a tree to mature and bear fruit.) The nuts are high in carbohydrates, so high in calories. They would have been dried and ground into a versatile flour used to make polenta, porridge, bread and even pasta. In Italy today huge forests of Sweet Chestnut trees cover something like 400,000 acres of the country’s land, which are still grown and harvested for their fruits and continue to be widely used as a staple food in the same traditional ways and also as it is naturally sweet, to make biscuits and cakes.

As the flowers bloom so late there is not much time left in a typical British summer for the fruit to develop before conditions make it impossible. This is why Sweet Chestnuts that grow much further north than the Midlands seldom bear fruit. Here in Wales many of our trees do bear fruits, but the nuts are usually small compared to those that we import from mainland Europe, mainly the South of France and Italy. Our British nuts are equally edible, and it said that what our home-grown nuts lack in size they make up for in sweetness and flavour.

Chestnuts on the ground beneath a tree in Kew Gardens-early April.

I wonder why they are not foraged as frequently now as they used to be? Some nuts may be taken and distributed by animals such as squirrels, but often they are simply left on the ground where they fell. Chestnuts roasted on an open fire have been a  winter delicacy in Britain for generations. Chestnut stuffing was a traditional part of the Christmas Turkey dinners, particularly in areas where the trees grow most prolifically and nuts were gathered as a welcome seasonal food item. They were also one of the original ‘street foods’. roasted on braziers and served up by vendors piping hot in paper cones. This tradition has largely faded out here, probably something to do with ‘health and safety, but it continues to thrive in other European countries, particularly Italy, Spain and Portugal, where many festivals are held during October and November to celebrate the year’s harvest.

TIMBER AND COMMERCIAL USES

Sweet Chestnut wood is a light brown in colour and very durable. It is similar in appearance to oak and is sometimes used as a substitute for it. Sweet Chestnut and Oak may easily be confused in the identification of old timber.

Felled Sweet Chestnut tree regenerating-Pwllycrochan Woods-Colwyn bay

The main Chestnut area in Great Britain is concentrated in England, especially in the southern counties of Kent and Sussex, where extensive stands of commercial coppice, amounting to some 18,000 hectares were planted in the mid 19th century. Here Sweet chestnut trees continue to be grown commercially for the timber and to a lesser extent, the nut markets. Chestnut coppicing for the timber industry has been enjoying a revival in recent years and although these industries are small they are locally important, particularly in Kent. A well-maintained coppice can produce a good crop of tannin-rich wood every 12 to 30 years, depending on intended use and local growth rate.

The high tannin content of the wood makes the young growing wood durable and resistant to the elements, so is widely used outdoors as posts, piles, poles and Chestnut fence palings.

Chestnut fencing used here to help stabilise sand dunes

In other parts of mainland Europe the wood is used to make furniture, barrels (sometimes used to age balsamic vinegar), and roof beams notably in southern Europe (for example in houses of the Alpujarra, Spain, in southern France and elsewhere) (Wikipaedia)

ANCIENT TREES – in ENGLAND

Sweet Chestnut trees are capable of living to a great age and there are some wonderfully huge and significant ancient specimens in England and Wales. Credited with being the oldest of them all is the village of Longhope in Gloucestershire. This county can also lay claim to the biggest of all, the famous Tortworth Chestnut. An immense mass of wood formed of contorted trunk and convoluted branches, the tree is very much alive. Side branches have collapsed over time, but where they have made contact with the ground, all have taken root and continuously send up new shoots. The original tree has become a small woodland in itself, extending more than 30 yards (28m) across that has Bluebells, Ramsons and Dog Mercury growing within it. The original tree is impossible to date, but a plaque installed on a fence states ” This tree is supposed to be six hundred years old1st January 1800. May Man still guard thy Venerable form From the Rude Blasts and Tempestuous Storm. Still mayest though Flourish through Succeeding time, And last, long Last, the Wonder of the Clime.”

ANCIENT TREES in WALES

Tree of the Year 2019: Old Sweet Chestnut of Pontypool

“This amazing sweet chestnut tree in Pontypool Park is around 400 years old. There are many other sweet chestnut trees in the park but from an ecological perspective, this one is the most interesting as it is hollow and you can walk inside it.
Over the centuries, many children would have centred their games around the tree, particularly for ‘hide and seek’ – even when everyone knew where they were!
These veteran trees – and especially this one – are a visible reminder of our heritage. The park was owned by the Hanbury family until it was given to the people of Pontypool in the early part of the 20th century.” (Woodland Trust)

The Three Sisters, Llanrhaeadr, Denbigh, Clwyd 

In North Wales, beside the Ruthin to Denbigh road, there once grew three enormous Sweet Chestnut trees that had sufficient significance to be marked on OS maps. These ancient trees, known locally as The Three Sisters were planted in the garden by three sisters, the three daughters of Sir William Salusbury. One of the trees died, the remains of one was left for many years as a pile of dead wood, and one is clinging on to life, holding its own. This surviving Sister still inhabits the garden of the house now named after these trees (formerly the park of Bachymbyd). The girth of the tree was reported in 1781 by Pennant, and from that measurement it is estimated that it is now around 500 years old. It has a short bole and is hollow and open on one side. It was taped at its narrowest point between the burrs for the Ancient Tree Hunt in 2007. The girth of the tree, measured at a height of 90 cm, is about 42 feet (12.70 m): (2007, Ancient Tree Hunt (Rob McBride)). Its height is not known.

Bodnant Garden, Conwy Valley, Clwyd

As previously mentioned, the grand old Sweet Chestnut that graces the Top Lawn of Bodnant Garden was also a contender for the Wales Tree of the Year 2019 competition. One of the oldest at Bodnant Garden, this tree is a remnant of its early, Georgian past.
John Forbes built the original hall in 1782 and created a parkland around it in the Landscape style of the day, planting native trees.

Ancient Sweet Chestnut-Bodnant Garden-mid October

It has a gnarled, many-legged trunk since the main stem was blown out at some point in the past by a lightening strike causing the trunk to split. Over time several of the larger branches have layered themselves upon the lawn, giving the tree ‘legs’ and it is known as a walking tree.

“Having lost her top many decades ago, she started to ‘walk’ northwards. Beaten back by strong winds and chainsaws, she is now intent on a south-westerly route. A truly ‘walking tree’, she appears almost Elephantine without foliage, placing her trunk where she wants to go next. She has already layered daughters which are layering their own offspring and, given chance, they will layer theirs.” (gardener Dave Larter)

THREATS

Sweet chestnut blight is a destructive disease of Sweet Chestnut trees that is caused by the ascomycete fungus Cryphonectria parasitica. First identified in Britain in 2011 in Warwickshire, by 2018 the disease was identified at 37 sites in England and associated with trees imported before the introduction of the UK Protected Zone in 2014. This year a further small number of new outbreak sites were detected in London, West Sussex and Cornwall during surveys. Sweet Chestnut woodland is not widely distributed in the UK, mostly in England amounting to perhaps 2% of England’s wood cover and located mainly in the south, so any impact would be largely regionally and locally felt.

C. parasitica infection is usually fatal to European and North American Sweet Chestnut trees. It devastated forests in eastern USA during the first half of the 20th century, killing an estimated 3.5 billion trees after it was accidentally introduced from Asia, probably during the 19th century. Although losses have not been on the same scale, Sweet Chestnut blight has spread steadily throughout much of Europe, and tree losses have been regionally significant.

References: Books: Meetings with Remarkable Trees – Thomas Pakenham; Flora Brittanica – Richard Mabey Websites: Woodland Trust; Wikipaedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Appreciation of Trees

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The woodland of Pwllycrochan makes up much of the treescape that forms the beautiful and seasonally changing backdrop to the town of Colwyn Bay. Deceptively small in area, this woodland is long and narrow, surrounded and divided by roads into three islands that together occupy just 21 hectares of land. But what this remnant of ancient woodland lacks in ground area is made up for by the height and grandeur of the beautiful old trees that occupy it. Aged Oaks, Ash and Beech trees soar majestically into the sky, some so tall it’s almost impossible to see their crowns without craning back your neck as far as you can.

This has become one of my favourite places for a wander at any time of the year, but I think Autumn is the perfect time to appreciate the true owners of this woodland: the amazing trees that grow there.

Much of the original woodland that was once the formal parkland of the Pwllycrochan Estate is gone, but a good number of its beautiful old trees still stand, lending grandeur to the roadsides of this west end of Colwyn Bay. A formally clipped yew hedge marks the boundary between the school playing field and Pwllycrochan Avenue and just behind stands a glorious spreading Sweet Chestnut tree. The leaves remaining on the tree are slowly turning colour. Many have already fallen, no doubt  assisted by recent high winds and heavy rain and the pavement beneath is covered with russet-coloured leaves, prickly seed-cases and scattered nuts.Rounding the bend a little further up the sloping road, a sight that I remember took me by surprise the first time I saw it: a tree has been left to grow on a small island in the middle of the road. This is an old Strawberry tree, an exotic survivor from the past glory days of the aforementioned Estate.

Inside the woods it was peaceful and still. For a brief moment nothing moved. Not a breath of air stirred the leaves. There were no road sounds, no trampling chatting people or dogs, no bird sounds, not even a scurrying squirrel. Perfect peace.

The moment was fleeting, soon broken by a lady walking with her dog, but much appreciated. I wandered a bit further along the path, looking out for fungi. I wondered whether it was a bit late in the season for finding anything, but this has been a good place for them in the past and inspired by our recent foray I was hopeful. Checking a woodpile at the side of the path I found some bracket fungi, some pieces had grown quite large and gone woody. It was faded too, but the largest piece was a pretty scallop shape and there was some darker banding still visible, so it may be Turkey tail, but does it grow that big?

Oak

The ancient trees stand  tall and straight like sentinels on guard. Each stands alone,  reaching the high canopy without need to bend or twist to avoid touching another. Most have lost, or at some time in the past, had their lower branches removed.

As a managed wood historically, that may be for  one of several reasons. Timber was, and is a valuable commodity. As building material for houses or ships and boats, long lengths of straight wood are desirable, so lower branches may be deliberately removed, particularly from Oak trees, for that reason. The woodland would have been managed for game too, birds such as pheasants would have been introduced and shrubs planted between the trees to give them cover, again requiring the removal of low branches to allow sunlight to reach them.

If I hadn’t seen a scattering of small cones on the ground I may have missed the Scots Pine tree they had fallen from, despite the fact that its trunk was almost in front of my eyes. It towered so high into the sky I had to crank my neck back almost painfully to see its few remaining branches way up in the canopy. I find it incredible to think this giant had grown from a tiny seed once encased within a tiny cone such as this.

Scots Pine

There’s something quite magical about a woodland stream and this wood has two that flow down through deep dingles. The sound of this one was clearly audible some distance away; its sound would have been amplified by the rocky walls either side of it, but recent heavy rains have given it power and volume and it tumbled and fell rapidly down the rocky cliff quite dramatically.

Heading towards the pool that gives the woodland its name, the track passes by this tall elegant Oak tree, elevated further by the raised bank it grows from. It is holding firm despite the soil around its roots having been much eroded. It’s mostly Sessile Oaks that grow here, but the only ways I know to tell them apart from the English Oak is that the Sessile’s acorns are stalkless and the leaves have longer stalks. The leafy parts of this tree were way too high to tell and I think by now squirrels and Jays would have made off with any acorns there may have been.

On the shaded path below the tree, at the bottom of the bank, a layer of coppery dry leaves merges with bright green moss.

I stood on the bridge crossing the narrow exit end of the pool as I always do, trying to imagine how it may once have been. Pwll is the Welsh word for pool and crochan translates as cauldron. It is said that once the stream flowing into the pool was once much more powerful, causing the water in it to bubble and froth as it would in a boiling pot. I’m ever hopeful that one day the water might at least look a little more animated, especially after a period of heavy rain. But we’ve had that lately and the pool is well-filled, so I imagine changes or diversions of the stream along its course are the reason for the reduction in its force, so it’s unlikely it will.

 

Retracing my steps I spotted movement on a tree trunk some distance ahead. Although half-hidden by the vegetation in front of me, the squirrel that was running vertically down from a great height must have spotted me in the same moment and had frozen still, an acorn wedged firmly between its teeth.

There are some beautiful ferns here, whose fronds gracefully arch out over the paths. This one has ripening sori (seeds) on the back of its fronds and from their shape I believe this is a Scaly Male Fern.

Shallow steps wind their way up to a path on higher ground.

From that higher path there is a view looking down onto the pool showing where the water flows on under the bridge. Some of the water exits naturally as a stream, but some is diverted via pipes from which water pours rather inelegantly.

From a coppery sea of dry leaves rose a small bright green island of moss. Close up this particular moss always makes me think of miniature pine trees. Moss identification is not a strong point of mine, but I think this is a Haircap species.

This trail continues upwards till it meets the road. A magnificent Ash tree stands at the edge of the path here. Each time I see an Ash, especially one such as this, I can’t help but think what a tragedy it would be if it were to be targeted by the dreaded Ash die-back disease. Fingers crossed, but at this time it looks strong and healthy

and as ash are often amongst the last to put out their leaves in the Spring, its leaves are still mostly green.

Not wanting to leave the wood here I turned around to walk back downhill. A fly basked in sunlight on a fern frond. Just a Housefly, but I was oddly pleased to see it, especially on a chilly day. Is it just me, or does anyone else think there have been less of them around this year?Bluebottles and Greenbottles have been quite numerous, and I’ve seen the smaller Lesser Houseflies, but not the bigger ones that usually annoyingly invade the house.

Almost hidden behind a larger tree, I would have missed this Rowan if its yellow leaves and scarlet berries hadn’t caught my eye. I wondered if it was deliberately planted or was a gift from a passing bird.

There are a few small Christmas-tree shaped pines in odd places throughout the wood too. This one, very close to the base of another tree surely wasn’t planted there intentionally. I wonder if it’s sprung from a Scots Pine cone buried by a squirrel.

By the side of the path a number of wasps were flying in and out of a space in a pile of Birch logs. Focussing on the wasps I didn’t notice the colony of rounded charred-looking fungi they were flying past until I looked at my photographs. This is one I recognise as King Alfred’s Cakes, memorably named for the incident which is surely one piece of history many of us, including the person that named the fungus, remember from school history lessons. In case not, legend has it that King Alfred the Great (849-899), whilst King of Wessex, sought refuge from Vikings (886) in the cottage of a peasant woman. In return for her hospitality, she charged him with looking after her cakes (small loaves of bread) that were baking on the stove. He supposedly fell asleep, or maybe became distracted worrying about his Kingdom, and let them burn. Unaware of who he was, she apparently gave him a good telling-off. The fungus then is named after those burnt cakes. Tenuous, but memorable.

On the theme of burning, further on is another woodpile, fortunately in a clearing, which someone had clearly set fire to at some point, leaving many of the logs charred black.

Despite the damage to some of the logs I found some interesting fungi here including a nice fresh collection of Turkey tail, or Many-Zoned Polypore as it is also known

Strangely beautiful, I found Candlesnuff fungus growing through feathery green moss.

Venturing beyond the log pile along a track that comes to a sudden end – a rather sinister scene came into view: a tree that has been decapitated, its trunk left standing tall. Clearly rotting and bark peeling away, the trunk is blackened by a sooty ooze and is pierced with thousands of tiny holes. Large brackets of woody fungi project from the trunk; they too are blackened.

On a fallen log, looking like a bunch of small deflated balloons, I found a group of spent Stump Puffballs and nearby I found a few more, slightly fresher. Lycoperdon pyriforme to give it its scientific name is the only puffball species we have in Europe that regularly grows on wood.

Next to the fallen log a mushroom that looked and smelt like a Field Mushroom. Perhaps that’s what is was, but there’s no way I was going to take it home to try it.

Growing vertically from a split in a log I spotted this odd group of white fungi that to me look a lot like teeth, which I found both interesting and quite amusing: it doesn’t take much. I don’t know what it is, maybe a Coral or a Stagshorn species?

Nearby is one of the few large Horse Chestnut trees found here. I was fascinated by the patterning of its bark.

From the clearing the leaf-strewn trail is sloping and for a while the woodland has a different feel to it. It’s more open, there are noticeably less large trees and more undergrowth and ivy.

 

An tent-like arrangement of thin branches propped against a tree brought back memories of ‘camps’ we used to make in the woods around our home when we kids. We built similar tent frameworks, but then covered them with hessian sacks and camouflaged them with dry leaves and twigs, leaving an entrance space so we could get in and out. I can almost recall the earthy smell of damp wood and sacks as I think about it.

Hairy Curtain Crust – Stereum hirsutum

 

Growing on a branch near the edge of the path was more pretty bracket fungus. It looked similar to Turkey tail, but was more yellow-ochre-brown in colour and its upper surfaces were definitely hairy. Looking it up I’m fairly sure it is Hairy Curtain Crust, aka False Turkey-tail.

 

 

Sweet Chestnut

A tall Sweet Chestnut tree, its leaves turning yellow

 

I wandered off the path towards a grove of huge Beech trees. At least one of the trees was multi-trunked and all were mightily  tall.

A shafts of sunlight had cast the shadow of the leafy tip of a branch onto one of the almost-smooth trunks

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaf shadows on Beech bark

and highlighted patches of the carpet of leaves beneath the trees turning them to burnished copper.

You are on high ground here and through the trees there is a view over the edge of Colwyn Bay town and out over the Bay itself to the wind turbines.

The path begins to slope down; the ground falls steeply away on one side and is lined by a ferny bank on the other. I stopped here for a few minutes to watch a foraging party of Blue Tits, Great Tits and Long-tailed Tits, a few of the latter had come down into the Holly tree in the photograph and stayed within in it for a good few minutes. Other than Wood Pigeons, these were the only birds I saw while I was here.

The Holly had a good crop of berries, which you may interpret to be a warning of a harsh winter to come, or an indication of a good Spring past with rain and sunshine that brought forth plenty of flowers. Maybe both, we’ll soon see.

Enormous ferns arching of the path lend a lush, almost jungly feel to this last part of the path.

This Trail through the woodland comes to an abrupt end and brings you out onto the Old Highway, a short distance down from the entrance to the woods. Another path, raised above road level and parallel to the road takes you back there along the woodland edge, so you don’t have to walk on the road itself. The vegetation along the path is quite varied and I found an eclectic collection of plants still in bloom or bearing fruit. Flowers surprisingly included those at the tip of a very late Foxglove, Herb Robert and a Hogweed. I spotted Wild Raspberries still ripening, a few Blackberries and more Holly berries.

I’d collected a fair few items of rubbish along my walk and reaching in beneath a bramble to pick up a drinks can I was rewarded with my best fungus specimen of the day; although I don’t yet know its identity.

Then I caught sight of this old sign, now high up above eye level, nailed to the trunk of a large Sycamore tree. The Districts of Colwyn and Aberconwy merged to form Conwy Borough Council in 1996, so it’s at least that old, I would guess at quite a bit older again.

Ending as I began, a length of this path too is strewn with leaves and seed cases from a Sweet Chestnut tree.

More details about Pwllycrochan, including location here.

 

 

 

 

Forest Fungus Foray

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October 13th

The annual guided Fungus Forays are very popular guided walks organised by our Conwy Valley Branch of the North Wales Wildlife Trust, and this year there were two, one last weekend and the other today. The venue was the forest above Trefriw, located on the West side of the Conwy Valley and on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park. Trefriw village is popular with tourists, well known for its traditional Welsh Woollen Mill and is part of the Walkers are Welcome network, having several marked trails to follow.

12:45 Driving along the valley towards the village I could see that heavy cloud was obscuring the hills in front of me and by the time I got there they were shedding rain. Justly renowned as an area of great natural beauty and diversity, Snowdonia is equally famous as one of the wettest places in the British Isles and October is also one of the wettest months of the year. Forewarned and so forearmed, i.e clad from head to toe in waterproofs, our intrepid Forayers left the shelter of the veranda in front of the village shops, setting off like a moving rainbow to brave the elements in search of Fungi treasure.

13:15 A good beginning was this view as we crossed the road bridge that spans the tumbling Afon Crafnant. Flowing down from Llyn Crafnant located higher up the hill, it races down a series of falls through the village to join forces with the nearby Afon Conwy.

We turned left onto the road that leads up to the Lakes (Llyn Geirionydd and the afore-mentioned Llyn Crafnant), walked uphill to just past the end of the building in my photograph above, then turned left again onto a Trail that travels upstream alongside the river, approaching the top of the Fairy Falls. A fair bit of rain has already fallen this Autumn, adding to the impact of this series of falls, which become increasingly dramatic as you approach the main rocky drop.

Afon Crafnant – Trefiw

Named the Fairy Falls to appeal to Victorian tourists, who were enchanted by thoughts of fairies, this is one of many such beautiful locations in our area that are so-named. And why not? There is definitely a magical energy in the air surrounding a powerful fall of water.

Fairy Falls -Trefriw

Just beyond the waterfall, near the beginning of the trail that climbs steeply up through the woodland, a pair of sharp young eyes focussed in on our first fungus. Brightly coloured and close to the edge of the path, this was Hare’s Ear, cunningly camouflaged amongst fallen oak leaves. The fungus takes both its common and scientific names from the form in which it grows.

Then at the base of a pine tree, a bracket fungus called Dyer’s Mazegill. This was quite a large one and perhaps a bit past its prime, fresher ones are fleshier and more yellow, turning darker with age. We learn that this is a destructive organism that feeds on the roots of the tree it attaches to that will eventually kill its unfortunate host. The common name Dyer’s Mazegill comes from its use for dyeing yarn; the fungus’ fruitbody produces various shades of yellow, orange and brown, depending on its age and the type of metal used as a fixative. The Mazegill part is reference to the complex, maze-like arrangement of its gills.

Dyer’s Mazegill- Phaeolus schweinitzii

Next, one of the few fungi I recognise and can put a name to, the attractive and decorative Turkeytail, or to give it its more prosaic common name Many-zoned Polypore.

Turkeytail or Many-zoned Polypore – Trametes versicolor

Another bracket fungus, which as its name, Birch Polypore implies, grows on birch tree trunks or branches, whether they’re alive or dead. In the event a host branch falls from the tree, the fungus has the ability to ‘right’ itself, so its gills always remain beneath it and its spores can fall to the ground. Also known as the Razor Strop Fungus, Barbers used to ‘strop’ or sharpen their cut-throat razors on tough, leathery strips cut from the surfaces of these polypores.

Birch Polypore or Razor Strop Fungus – Piptoporus betulinus

Sulphur Tufts are a wood-rotting fungus feeding on both deciduous hardwoods and conifers. Fruiting on fallen trees or decaying stumps or, sometimes in the hollow trunks of living trees, they are often found in a mixed woodland from April through to the first heavy frosts. Gregarious fungi, they tend to appear in large groups so tightly packed that the caps may be unable to expand regularly.

Sulphur Tuft – Hypholoma fasciculare

The name Butter Cap makes our next fungus sound tasty, but then you find out it used often to be referred to as the Greasy Toughshank, which sounds much less appealing. The names refer to the colour and appearance of the cap. It’s a very variable fungus that occurs in all types of woodland, but is mainly associated with coniferous forests on acid soils, growing beneath even the darkest of canopies, often in groups or fairy rings. We came across it fairly frequently during our foray in a variety of sizes, numbers and forms.

Butter Cap – Rhodocollybia butyracea

We continued to climb up through the woodland and the rain continued to fall heavily, in fact it seemed the higher we got the harder it fell. Derek Brockway, everyone’s favourite Welsh Walking Weatherman had warned it would do that until about 3pm, so holding the thought he might be right, and it would eventually stop, we pressed on with our mission. The steeply sloping ground and the free-draining soil beneath a layer of pine needles meant at least the ground wasn’t too slippery underfoot.

More sensible members of our group were using the cameras on their mobile phones to capture images of our finds: I could have done that too, but I’d brought my ‘proper’ camera, carrying it carefully tucked inside my coat, so I persevered with it, hoping it wouldn’t suffer too much. The light in the woods, or rather the lack of it was difficult and raindrops on the lens were a bit of a pain, but I think the wetness of everything did bring an interesting extra dimension to images. Those that I managed to keep in focus, that is.

Obscured by raindrops

I only caught the tail end of the chat about this Oysterling mushroom, so I didn’t hear anything interesting said about it. Looking it up later I read that the genus name Sarcomyxa comes from the Greek word särkō-, meaning flesh, and -myxa (again from Ancient Greek via Latin), meaning mucus or slime. Slimy flesh-like mushroom that does look a bit like a shelled oyster would seem to describe it well enough to remember.

Olive Oysterling – Sarcomyxa serotina

14:04 Apart from the fungi, there was more that caught my eye, in the shape of ferns, lichens and mosses, but that’s not what we were here to see today. I did stop to photograph a Hard Fern, which I don’t come across often and looked nice with shiny wet fronds. Widespread throughout the UK and the rest of Europe, Hard Ferns are most often found in well shaded places, preferring moist, acidic, humus-rich conditions in woodland sites, so it’s very at home here.

Hard Fern-Blechnum spicant

This woodland, named Coed Creigiau feels like it’s always been there, but is actually a recovering woodland and a part of the Gwydir Forest. From 1850 till 1919 the mining of lead and zinc dominated the area and when it stopped it left behind a derelict industrial landscape with sparse natural woodland. The First World War had identified a national shortage in wood production, bringing about the Forestry Act of 1919 and the land was acquired from its former owners by the newly created Forestry Commission: planting of the forest began in 1921. Some natural trees would have been growing on the hills, but the majority of the original planted forest is conifer and includes Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, Japanese larch, Norway spruce and Scots pine. It’s likely that most of those original trees will have been felled as they have a plant-to-harvest cycle of 20-40 years according to the species, so those there now could be a second, third or even fourth generation.  Now managed by Natural Resources Wales, recent years have seen the increased planting of native broadleaf species such as Welsh Oak, beech and ash, but faster-growing conifers are still grown to meet commercial demands for timber.

Spending much of the time looking down to a) look out for fungi b) watch where we were putting our feet and c) avoid getting raindrops or drips from trees in our eyes, I was interested to find the prickly husks of Sweet Chestnuts scattered amongst the pines. I began to pay more attention to the presence of the trees they had come from and realised there are quite a lot of them. Introduced into this country by the Romans, the wood of the Sweet Chestnut is similar to oak but more lightweight and easier to work. Young wood has a straight grain but this spirals in older trees, so trees were coppiced and the new straight trunks used as support poles in mines.

We crossed a hard-surfaced track, and on the edge of the next section of forest, one of my favourite sights of the day, a group of weird and intriguingly named Candlesnuff fungus, growing with moss atop a Birch stump. Its name might imply it is something that once gave light but which has been put out, but I learned that ‘it is a bioluminescent fungus, and in a really dark place it can be seen to emit light continually as phosphorus accumulated within the mycelium reacts with oxygen and other chemicals in the fungus‘. (firstnature.com)

Candlesnuff-Xylaria hypoxylon

Stinkhorn -Phallus-impudicus (egg)

In a nest of pine needles, we spotted the ‘egg’ from which the phallically formed Stinkhorn Fungus will emerge.

Some Victorians were so offended or embarrassed by the appearance of these fungi that they’d go out at dawn and batter them with cudgels to stop them spreading their spores, and to avoid letting the Stinkhorns make a ‘bad impression’ on any  young ladies who might decide to take a morning walk in the woods!

Later on we discovered a fully grown specimen – led to it from some distance away by the truly bad smell it emitted, like that of a dead animal. You definitely wouldn’t confuse that one with anything else!

Stinkhorn-Phallus-impudicus

My main interest lies in the amazing array of shapes, forms and colours of the different species, then how they got their names and of course how photogenic they are. I’m too cowardly and way too inexperienced in the identification of most fungi to risk eating almost any gathered from the wild. However, this next one I do know well as one of the most sought after fungi, much prized by foodies and chefs. Pushing up through pine needles, twigs and cones we came upon this cluster of colourful Chanterelles, one I have eaten and may again, especially witht belt-and-braces id from an expert, as today.

Chanterelle – Cantharellus cibarius

AT THE RISK OF REPEATING MYSELF – PLEASE BEWARE OF THESE!! Around 10% of fungi species are poisonous and there are some you definitely must learn to identify positively if you’re a forager – death from eating any of these fungi would be a horrible way to go!

Growing just a metre or so away from the Chanterelles was a fungus to be avoided at all cost: the Destroying Angel, more likely to be encountered in the more mountainous areas of the British Isles as here, than in the lowlands.

Destroying Angel-Amanita virosa

Funeral Bell

I think (hope!) I’ve matched the right image for this next one as it’s another fungus to be avoided at all costs. The common name for this is Funeral Bell and pro rata its size, we were told it is one of the most poisonous of all fungi growing in the British Isles, containing the same deadly poisonous toxins that occur in the Death Cap. This notorious Funeral Bell appears on conifer stumps and occasionally on the stumps of broadleaf trees.

Back on safer ground, for people that is, the common-and-dreaded-by-gardeners Honey Fungus. I had no idea it could, and clearly does grow this big!

Honey Fungus – Armillaria mellea

There were several large mushrooms up here whose caps looked like they’d been trodden on and were covered in leaf-litter, pine needles and the like. We were told these are Large Rustlers, Russula sp. (I don’t know which one) that apparently push themselves up to the surface fully open, an unusual trait amongst fungi.

Large Rustler – Russula sp

15:10 From this point we made a right turn onto a track through the trees to begin our descent. This is where we smelt the Stinkhorn featured further back and where following our noses to locate it, we found another fascinating species, known as Piggyback fungus, so-called as it parasitizes other species of mushrooms. I’m claiming really bad light and a need to hurry on to catch up again as an excuse for this blurry image. You get the general idea though.

Piggyback fungus

Scurrying downwards we soon emerged from the forest onto a hard-surfaced track and, joy, it stopped raining and gradually, a mere 15 minutes or so later than Derek had predicted, the sun came out!

There were a few more fungi spots including more nice Birch polypores, clearly growing on a living Birch tree.

Birch Polypore or Razor Strop Fungus – Piptoporus betulinus

And to finish there was this attractive little fungus called the Wood Woolly-foot Gymnopus peronatus (syn. Collybia peronata); its common name refers to the lower half of the stem being covered in fine white hairs.

The last part of our walk back to where we started was pleasant, the sunny interlude allowing us time to chat, warm up a little and amble back rather than hurry to get out of the rain. But I hope this account goes to show that good outings can still happen in not-so good weather!

AFTERTHOUGHTS & ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Led by two of our members, Dave and Joan Prime, I was amazed at the number and variety of species found for us and about which Dave shared his extensive knowledge so generously and in such an entertaining way. This was my first guided Fungus Foray in Wales, many of the species were completely ‘new’ to me and I would have struggled to accurately identify them from reference books. Those I’ve included in this post are mostly the ones I took the clearest or most interesting photographs of and which I’m pretty confident I’ve matched the correct names to. We were actually shown more than I could properly record without missing out on information, a good reason to go back for more next year!

If you are planning to forage for fungi as free wild food, do please make sure you absolutely know without a shadow of a doubt which are the poisonous ones!

References: To find more information, scientific names etc for species I referred frequently to my own reference books, the First Nature website and also to Wikipedia for more general information. As always, if you spot any inaccuracies please let me know and I’ll amend them.

 

 

 

 

 

Sloe Picking down a Memory Lane

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Polebrook Airfield Then

Memories of childhood wanderings were brought back vividly the weekend before last as my sisters, niece and little great-niece headed out on a sloe-and-blackberry foraging foray around the old Polebrook Airfield in east Northamptonshire. Once a flat, open site used for agriculture, the site was commissioned for use by the RAF and then used by the US Airforce as a base for bomber aircraft during World War II. After the war ended it was decommissioned by the Air Ministry and sold back to the adjacent Ashton Estate. Most of the buildings were removed from the site’s surface, but below ground many concrete shelters and chambers remained, rendering it unfeasible to restore it back to use as agricultural land. The woodland of Ashton Wold was already a Private Nature Reserve and separated from the old Airfield only by a narrow country road, so their owner took the opportunity to leave it alone as a protective buffer zone between the Nature Reserve and the surrounding farmed land, interested to see what happened when nature was allowed to venture back in.

1960s

Way back in the mid to late 60s we lived at Ashton Wold and in my early double-figure days, I spent hours wandering around the woods and fields and sometimes ventured over to the Airfield. Then it was unfenced, easily accessed and without the warning signs that might pepper such a place nowadays. It was doubtless a potentially hazardous place for people, strewn with all kinds of crumbling, part-demolished buildings and underground shelters half-hidden by long grass and brambles. There was always the sense that you shouldn’t really be there, which of course added to its appeal. At that time I had no real idea about the site’s history or plans for its future. But I did know that in the Spring I could find Great-Crested Newts swimming in what I thought of as water-filled ‘tanks’, probably old concrete foundations or something similar, then later Lapwings (or Peewits as we knew them) nested here; hunting for their hidden ground-level nests is how I learned that the parent bird would sometimes feign an injury to try to draw you away from a nest. There were wildflowers too and I’m sure a great deal that passed me by in this burgeoning sanctuary.

AND NOW

The site now is almost, but to us, never completely unrecognisable. Part of the site is used by a Warehousing Company, part is once more farmed and most importantly the Northern edge of the site is now also designated as a Private Nature Reserve. A Bioblitz there, carried out by the Northamptonshire Biodiversity Records Centre in August 2015, resulted in an impressive species count that included 40 species that have a notable or protected status at National level, including 17 birds, 2 bats, 7 moths, 3 butterflies, 1 amphibian, 9 lichens and 1 moss species.

Today we were there to gather sloes and blackberries, but needless to say, even now on a cool, damp and intermittently sunny Autumn day, there was so much more to see it was impossible to keep focussed.

Blackberries and red berries of Black Bryony

Wide mown grass paths now crisscross areas of Hawthorn and Blackthorn scrub bound up with tangles of brambles and wild rose briars that are interspersed with rough grassland.

There were always Teasels here and it’s good to see them thriving still. It’s a native plant and an important source of summer nectar and pollen for insects – Bumblebees love the flowers and then in the autumn the distinctive prickly dried heads hold seed that is sought by birds, particularly Goldfinches.

Amongst the large patches of rough scrubby grass there were still a few flowers to be found, a sprinkle of purple thistles and a few plants of Common Centaury. The latter plant only fully opens its flowers in the sun, which was only intermittently shining on us, so I didn’t get to see them out unfortunately.

There are lengths of old concrete aircraft runways or service roads still in place, but now colonised by moss enriched by decomposed fallen leaves, they are concealed beneath a growing medium sufficiently deep for plants adapted to dry conditions to establish. In one such place we came across a spreading colony of Great Mullein, whose thick silver-grey felted leaves are perfectly adapted to potentially dry conditions.

Great Mullein-Verbascum thapsus

One plant stood out from the crowd as it had produced the most enormous leaves I’ve ever seen on this species. it was amazing and must have sprung from a seed that had fallen in an especially fertile spot.

It’s downy leaves, additionally warmed by sunshine were attracting insects too and must have made a cosy place for these Spotted Craneflies to couple-up.

Mating Spotted Craneflies

Flies paused to rest there too; I managed to catch a bright shiny Bluebottle and a golden-brown, or officially Orange Muscid Fly basking in a spell of warm sunshine.

Some Blackthorn looks old, and has grown into small spreading trees. Their brittle branches and tangles of twigs are mostly leafless and bear sparse fruits, but they are encrusted beautifully with lichen.

We wandered through the maturing woodland where the trees are mainly Ash and Oak with some Silver Birch. The ground beneath the trees is strewn only with fallen branches; it may be kept clear as there are numerous deep rectangular holes, their covers moved to the side and covered with moss. Quite hazardous if you don’t watch where you’re going. There are still intact brick and concrete-built shelters here too, their roofs are now camouflaged by vegetation, but the entrances are clear and accessible and it would seem watertight.

On a moss-covered fallen log, tiny mushrooms with pretty mauve caps were growing. I tried to persuade my 3 year old great-niece that they were stools for fairies or pixies, but she didn’t believe me! She just wanted to walk along the log! I don’t know the name, but have been advised it’s probably a species of Marasmius, commonly known as ‘parachute mushrooms’ because of the ribbed and domed shape of their caps.

We headed out of the woods and back onto safer ground to resume our berry hunt. Many were tantalising beyond our reach, like these that hung high above a twining rope of heavily-berried Black Bryony.

Beyond us, but all the better for small birds like this Blue Tit – one of a party that were travelling around, keeping up a companionable dialogue of contact as they foraged.

We passed by a huge spread of Knapweed, entirely gone to seed now, but it must have been a lovely sight back in the late summer.

Clusters of ‘keys’ dangle from Ash trees

Intriguingly a small iron-framed wooden bench seat has been set beneath an oak tree.

A rather beautiful yellow-green spider was finding the sun-warmed metal much to its liking. My picture isn’t great, but I think it may be a Green Huntsman Spider.

 

We reached the high dense Blackthorn hedge that forms an effective boundary with the road. There were sloes to be found here, but there distribution was a bit erratic; some bushes had a lot, many had few or even none at all.

A wild rose using the hedge for support is decorated with ferny-mossy Robin’s Pincushions, also known as the Bedeguar Gall. The familiar fibrous growths are the plant’s reaction to being chosen to host the larvae of a tiny gall wasp, Dipoloepis rosae.

Heading back I found clumps of aromatic Wild Basil in the long grass; this plant is a member of the Deadnettle family

and a little later I came across a close relative, a nice patch of White Deadnettle, whose leaves remind me of stinging nettles.

A lovely family wander which brought back happy memories for my sisters and me that I hope may be recalled and even better, relived by our children and grandchildren in another fifty years!

 

Party Season

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Party season has arrived in the woodlands once more: the time when many of the more sociable and colourful of our smaller bird species temporarily put aside territorial squabbles, joining together to form a foraging cooperative and sweep through the trees en masse on unified hunts for prey. Variously referred to as ‘mixed-species feeding flocks’, ‘mixed hunting parties’ or less formally a ‘bird wave’, all describe the structure and purpose of these entities, but none can convey the vibrant energy that accompanies the birds on their whirlwind woodland tours.

September 26th

Bursting out from the woods, scattering into all parts of the Wych Elm like popping corn, excited Blue Tits immediately begin picking their way around the leafy twigs. There are a quite lot of them, too tricky to count accurately as they are so mobile. Blue Tits are numerous here and you rarely have to go far to see or hear one or more, so this could well be several local neighbouring families that have joined forces.

Foraging party member-Blue Tit

Seconds behind them dainty Long-tailed Tits appear, much gentler in their approach but then suddenly they’re everywhere, there must have been at least 12, maybe more.

Foraging party member- Long-tailed Tit

I realise I’m being treated to a close-up, eye-level view of a travelling foraging party! I wish I could better convey the excitement and energy transmitted by these little birds that I felt even through my double-glazed kitchen window, it’s quite magical. I’d have been happy with just the Blue and Long-tailed Tits, but then there are Great Tits too;  only three that I can see, one of which is a smartly feathered juvenile, similarly coloured to the adults that arrived with it but not as brightly yellow. Again, probably a family.

Foraging party member- Great Tit

Birds continue to arrive, more Blue Tits, long-tailed Tits and then two Coal Tits, one of which perched on the end of a leafy twig and launched itself at the window, fluttering madly as it inspected its corners and joints for hiding insects or spiders.

Foraging party member-Coal Tit

Then just as I thought the last of the party members had arrived there are two Goldcrests. They are tricky to focus on as one seems to be chasing the other at speed through the tree branches. They may be our tiniest birds, but they’re quite feisty.

Most of the birds stay within the cover of the trees, but a few more adventurous ones venture over to check out parts of the building too. I already mentioned the Coal Tit coming to my window, but others were exploring the metal fire escape, which permanently in shade tends to have a coating of algae and lichens.

Blue and Long-tailed Tits tend to be the bravest, and where one bird ventures others follow to see what they’ve found, including a curious Goldcrest. Slightly below the level of my windows, I got to see the birds from some interesting angles,

FORAGING FLOCKS

These travelling foraging flocks typically have a core species around which others gather, typically Tits. Here I’m sure that Blue Tits are the central characters as well as being their most numerous members. They seem to lead or guide the flock and so are the first to arrive in a chosen foraging spot when they’re on the move. Other species accompanying or following them are known as attendants and they tend to join the foraging flock only when it enters their territory. Attendants may be other insectivores such as Nuthatches, Treecreepers and sometimes Woodpeckers.

Blue Tit in Wych Elm – leaves still covered with greenfly

The formation of mixed-species flocks is thought to benefit individuals by reducing the risk of predation; the more pairs of eyes that can spot predators such as Sparrowhawks and raise an alarm the better. On the same principal, it’s likely that their numbers and variety of feeding methods also increases foraging efficiency, the more pairs of eyes seeking insects the greater the chances of finding them. Differing sizes and methods of feeding allows the different species to forage in close proximity without conflict.