Thursday 3 October 2013

Non-bird nature in Crab Wood

Last Sunday I took a trip down to Crab Wood, an area of ancient woodland that is managed traditionally using coppicing (and named after its crab apple trees!).  I’ve been birdwatching there for a few years now, but this year visiting has yielded few birds, especially as I keep visiting at quiet times for birds, like early autumn and mid-winter, when I’ve found the birds tend to be quiet.  I never got around to going during the breeding season this year!  Oh well, next time.

The birds may have been quiet, but that didn’t mean there was nothing to see by any means.  The damp, autumnal weather had caused fungi to burst out all over the place, ranging from tiny, weeny mushrooms on the thinnest stalks, to huge brackets growing out of the ground, each one more than a foot across.  I don’t know much about fungi at all, but there were two species present I could confidently identify: the first were the puffballs, little round balls growing out of the ground.  Some were unripe, but others when nudged with my foot released puffs of powdery spores.  There’s no need to feel guilty for squashing a puffball with your foot, all a ripe puffball wants is to be stepped on so its spores will be spread!  And they pop back into shape straight away, anyway.

The second one I knew was the one I believe is called something like King Alfred’s Cakes, which is a black, burnt-looking, roundish blob that grows on dead or alive wood.  It’s named after a legend of King Alfred being asked to look after somebody’s cakes and neglecting them so that they burned...and there’s probably more to the legend than that, but I couldn’t tell you, I’m afraid!  Though I should really know, as I’m from Winchester and King Alfred was the ancient King of Wessex, and there’s a statue of him right in the town. ^^ Anyway, the strangest thing about these fungi is they are quite flammable.  I remember back when I was a kid and was a member of Wildlife Watch, the local Wildlife Trust’s children’s group, one of the leaders lit one on fire to show us how it burned.  It’s absolutely fascinating, as you’d think of most fungi being quite moist to the touch, like a mushroom.  I didn’t go around touching the fungi at Crab Wood as I didn’t want to damage them, or get my hands gooey and/or poison-y (!!) but wouldn’t it be interesting if the King Alfred’s Cakes were dry and hard?  Anyone know?

The rest of the fungi was a complete mystery to me, but there was such a variety of shapes, sizes, textures and colours that I really, really wished I’d remembered to bring my camera!  Sadly I didn’t, so instead I will describe some of the other types I remember seeing:
  •  huge, wavy, light brown brackets growing out of the ground in a group- Edit (22/11/13) After some research I have IDed these as Giant Polypore!
  •    small, orange squiggles on tree- Edit (22/11/13): Wrinkled Crust is a possibility, though not sure any more.
  •  red and gooey looking, growing alone in a cleft at the base of a dead tree;
  •    bronze-black with rounded caps;
  •  small and white with thick stems;
  •  tiny, with long, very thin stems;
  •   a single, brown bracket growing on a tree with a texture like a bread roll;
  •   a group of brown brackets with white borders;
  •   small and pink, some with grooves around the edges, some without;
  • a single, large bracket which had coated the area around it with white spores.

My favourite of all, though, was a ball-shaped fungi I found on the ground that was covered all over in small, soft spines.  It was like a sweet-chestnut shell, though more the size of a conker shell, or like a tiny hedgehog that had rolled into a ball.  I gave it a gentle nudge with my foot and found it was attached to the ground with some sort of stalk, though you couldn’t see one among the leaf litter.  There were several around the area, of a range of sizes but mostly smaller than a conker shell, but I didn’t see any more in the whole of the wood.  Fungi seem to be strange that way!

My dad has a book about fungi which I borrowed when I got home, hoping to identify some of the fungi I’d seen, but because I didn’t have photos the only one I was able to indentify was the spiny ball.  It’s called a Spiny Puffball, which presumably means it’s a relative of the puffballs I’d seen earlier in the visit, but a gently nudge didn’t make it release any pores so maybe it works differently from those puffballs?  (I also found out the species name for the bursting puffballs: Soft Puffball.)

As for other wildlife, I was pleased to find...another badger sett!!  I’ve found setts before, but never one in Crab Wood, and in fact didn’t know there were any badgers there.  It’s not near any of the main paths, and it was only by exploring some of the smaller paths that go deeper into the trees that I found it.  Like the other sett I know about, there were several holes in a relatively small area, and the top was covered in loose earth, but this time there were impressively sized lumps of chalk in the earth as well- it must be hard work removing them, but the badgers were clearly equal to the task!  I didn’t find any dung this time, or badger hairs, but there was a large piece of dead tree lying over the sett and it was covered in dozens of sets of scratch marks, no doubt from the huge digging claws the inhabitants of the sett all boast.  That was a new thing to see!

On my way out of the wood, I came across another species I’d never seen in the wood before: hornets.  There was a long crack in the bark of a tree, and hornets were flying in and out all the time.  They were at least the size of a queen wasp, and I used to think hornets just looked like big wasps, but actually their markings are different.  They are less obviously stripy than wasps, and instead most of their abdomen is shiny yellow, with a little maroon on their heads and sides.  Another striking thing I noticed about them was that they didn’t come straight over to investigate me, as wasps tend to.  I really hate the way wasps get in your face, but the hornets couldn’t care less about me watching them, concentrating instead on what they were doing inside the tree.  And they didn’t buzz at all.  Their nests are big papery structures like a wasp’s nest, and the crack in the tree certainly wasn’t like that, so maybe they are going to overwinter in the tree.  Does anyone know how hornets spend the winter: do they all die except the queen like wasps, or do more of them overwinter?  I’d be fascinated to know!

Also, one important thing to remember if you encounter hornets: they may be bigger than wasps, but their sting is no worse!  It is good to think of that if you see any of these massive beasties. ^^

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