Too chicken for the chicken of the woods. Beech, bilberries and gravestones.
Well my excitement about the dragonfly nymphs has been slightly dimmed by repeatedly rushing down to the pond to find that… they’ve continued doing exactly the same thing. When it’s sunny, they congregate in the starwort to warm themselves, but either they’re sneaking out of the pond where I can’t see them, or they haven’t yet decided to emerge. Still, any excuse to gaze into the pond, and I’ve enjoyed watching the tadpoles getting steadily larger (no legs yet though) and getting regular glimpses of Gingrich the newt. I wonder whether he is a lone male or whether there is also a Ms Gingrich and some little leaf-wrapped Gingrich eggs or tadpoles? I assume that newt tadpoles (they’re called efts) are quite secretive too, judging by the habits of the adults.
One thing I did notice, with all my pond gazing, was a rather peculiar thing happening with the caddis fly larvae. The larvae of caddis flies are unusual in that they built themselves a case to shelter in as they grow. This is often a length of hollow stem, although some species construct some fabulously complex treasure troves involving bits of leaf, twig etc. Over the years I’ve become familiar with what bits of random twig are just that, and which are little houses. This week I was slightly surprised to see one sticking out at a right angle from the leaf of a yellow iris. It struck me as a bit odd – I wondered how it had managed to get stuck like that. Then today I realised that there were lots more little twig houses sticking at right angles to the water mint stalks. Some were just at the surface, and some were above the surface. It dawned on me that this must be intentional, and that presumably the larva is somehow attaching its case to a stem and then waiting patiently (with a good book perhaps?) for the plant to grow and lift it clear of the water. It can then metamorphose safely in its little tunnel before emerging into the air to fly away. Clever stuff!
We had a lovely walk on Sunday at Blackdown on the border of Surrey and West Sussex. I love this walk – it’s around the rim of a high hill with fantastic almost 360° views of Surrey, the Sussex Weald and Hampshire. You can see the sea glinting in the distance on a clear day. We heard some very raucous bird song and on looking through the binoculars saw two little birds with very sturdy finch-like heads and beaks. Their beaks seemed to be crossed at the end with an up and downward curve – they were crossbills; specialist seed feeders that dwell in conifer forests (so most commonly found in Scotland). Their beaks are adapted for extracting the seeds from conifer cones, so the conifer woodland that exists alongside Blackdown’s heath land is the perfect habitat for them. Blackdown is the highest point in the South Downs National Park, and has a wonderful example of a habitat found mainly on down land – the beech hanger. This is the term for a beech forest that ‘hangs’ on the side of a steep slope, cloaking the hillside with the vibrants greens and autumn oranges of (I think) one of our most beautiful trees. I love this walk at every time of year, but at the moment it’s particularly stunning, as the lime green beech leaves erupt from their buds. Standing under their canopy with the light filtering through the leaves gives everything an otherwordly green glow.
There are also thousands of bilberry bushes – Vaccinium myrtillus (or closely related species) – which look fairly nondescript as first glance but by late summer will be covered in small, black fruits similar to blueberries. At the moment they’re covered in tiny little bell-like red flowers which are easy to miss, but very pretty when you look closely…
Whilst looking around the internet a bit to try to clarify which bilberry species this is, I found a couple of historic references to bilberries growing on Blackdown. According to this book, published in 1830,
‘During the months of August and September the poor families in the vicinity of Hindhead and Blackdown of Surry [sic] and Sussex earn several hundred pounds annually by gathering the Bilberries for adjacent markets.’
It’s a fruit with both culinary and herbal uses, so guess where I’ll be with my foraging basket in a few months time. ;-)
On the subject of foraging, I saw a fungus in the beech hanger that I’m fairly confident was Chicken of the Woods – Laetiporus sulphureus. It was on a dead stump of wood some way down the very steep slope, and I was too chicken to climb down for a closer look. I took some pictures but without getting a look at the underside I can’t say for sure. Chicken of the woods is a popular edible fungus, considered a delicacy in parts of Europe. It is said to taste a bit like… you guessed it, chicken! I think this was probably past its best and it’s not a vibrant yellow (either that or I’ve got my identification wrong), and since it can cause digestive upsets in a minority of people I probably wouldn’t have chanced it even if I’d managed to scramble down to get some.
Yesterday I walked with my friend and our dogs, and we went somewhere new – Hydon’s Ball. It was a pleasant walk though mixed broadleaved woodland which became actively managed coppiced woodland. As I’ve explained in previous posts, coppicing is a woodland management system whereby the trees are periodically cut down to the ground and then resprout from the base – the ‘stool’ – to produce straight new growth that is useful for timber. This coppice is Sweet Chestnut – Castanea sativa – and we walked through various areas of young coppice (like entering a very stripy tunnel), more mature coppice, and recently harvested areas. The sight and scent of bluebells was blissful, particularly with the flash of yellow of the rape field beyond glinting through the trees. We emerged into that field and took the path curving through the garish yellow of the rape across to Hambledon church. We were struck by how pretty the church is, and by an unusual and beautiful gravestone in the churchyard. Mainly though, we were struck by how enormous the yew tree is which sits, squat and magnificent overlooking the church. Thought to be around a thousand years old, and hollow inside, it is an awe-inspiring sight. We’ll be going there again today, so more details and photos to follow.
Well I think that’s more than enough for now; here are lots of pictures from the last week.