Saturday 25 November 2023

A Funky Fungus - 21st November 2023

I went to a beechwood on an autumn Monday, a wood that forms part of an estate that refreshingly is happy to welcome anyone to wander at will through its trees.

I had been here ten days ago with Peter on one of our fungi forays, having taken up a suggestion from another colleague that this wood was a good one in which to search for fungi.

We found various kinds and the day was considered a success.Toward the end of that day, tired and with concentration wavering I had casually glanced down to a tangle of leaves and grass at my feet and saw some unidentifiable fungi which looked as if they were well past their best and turning black as they rotted.

A casual glance and a dismissal. I thought no more of it.

Back at home, on consulting a guide to fungi I found an image of the supposed rotten fungi which informed me that far from rotten they were in fact a black fungus called Horn of Plenty or Trompette des morts (Trumpet of the dead).

The guidebook further informed me they are said to be occasional but where they do occur can be locally abundant and are highly prized as an edible delicacy, being found in the leaf litter of mainly beechwoods from late summer to late autumn. I resolved to return to the wood and look at them with the respect and enthusiasm that I had previously denied them, that is if I could remember where they had been in the wood.

A few days later I walked through an ancient churchyard and followed a track into the woods to be dwarfed by huge beech trees, their smooth grey trunks disappearing upwards into a counterpane of yellow and gold leaves yet to fall to earth. 

Below, my feet riffled through an orange and yellow mosaic of countless fallen leaves, so prolific the hard ground was rendered soft and yielding to my tread whilst not a breath of wind permeated this cathedral of colour. So overwhelming was the sense of tranquillity, I involuntarily stood in contemplation to embrace a rare moment of natural quiet and solitude. 

A Marsh Tit called, a sharp explosive note that broke the silence and ended my reverie. I resumed my quest for the Horn of Plenty, scanning the woodland floor, my world for now diminished to a circumference of a few metres as I searched. Kicking through drifts of leaves and thin trailing bramble shoots that creep across the ground to catch at your legs and trip you, finally I found what I was looking for. Black with maybe a tinge of midnight blue they looked as I had remembered them, an impression they were long past their best, rotting and slowly returning to the earth from which they had risen. Now I knew better.

I stooped to check my identification was correct and then indulged in a little gardening, removing dead leaves to better reveal the fungi, pulling back tendrils of bramble to expose the full shape of them. Like a black tulip head that has fully opened they sat, snug in their bed of leaves  with wrinkled wavy recurved edges encompassing an open mouth. The similarity to a trumpet there for all to see.

I chided myself for dismissing them in my ignorance and stood to now admire and appreciate them.

So unremarkable in their mute presence, anyone passing would surely be unaware of them, half hidden amongst the leaves and to be rewarded with neither a second glance or recognition.

The sense of achievement and delight at finding them was palpable and I went on my way with a lightness of heart at having discovered another of nature's inconsequential  treasures.


I deplore the popular trend these days to forage for fungi. At a number of woods to which I go, you now often encounter people with plastic bags stuffed full of fungi, far more than is necessary. I was glad my Horns of Plenty had escaped notice and remained to live out their natural cycle.

Sunday 19 November 2023

A Slavonian at Farmoor 18th November 2023

Saturday and plans to visit my local reservoir at nearby Farmoor were put on hold as, glancing out from the bedroom window, I could see nothing but an oppressive greyness and rain drops ricocheting off the road below.

Still there were plenty of those tedious tasks one puts off until the proverbial rainy day and now I had no excuse as here was that very day.

Towards late morning the sky lightened as did my mood, the rain ceased and so my thoughts returned to Farmoor once again. My mind was made up when news came through via the local Oxon Bird Log of a Slavonian Grebe being found at the reservoir.

Slavonian Grebes are a rare winter visitor to Oxfordshire, and, when they occur at Farmoor do so almost exclusively in the winter months, involving single individuals. They rarely remain for long, a few days at most and are probably making their way overland to the south coast of England where they spend the winter in sheltered areas offshore. Both Pagham in Sussex and Hayling in Hampshire are well known wintering areas. 

Farmoor Reservoir gets very busy on weekends with various watersports and fishermen, so often unusual birds such as the grebe get moved on by the constant disturbance on the water. The grebe was reported to be at the far end of the reservoir near to the central causeway,so was unlikely to be disturbed and depart prematurely as it was well away from the windsurfers congregating by the yacht club at the opposite end of the causeway, preparing to take advantage of the strenghthening wind. 

With camera and bins I set off to walk to the far end of the causeway and having traversed two thirds found the grebe swimming amongst a gathering of Coots and Tufted Ducks fairly close to the causeway. Sometimes they choose to settle far out in the centre of the reservoir but this individual was content to remain reasonably close to the causeway but was slowly moving further out and away from me. I followed it by walking along the causeway.

In winter plumage they are a shadow of their spectacular appearance when in breeding plumage. Overall they appear brownish grey and white, darker above and paler below, with a noticeable white breast and a head capped blackish brown and cheeks a contrasting white.The only semblance of colour are the eyes which are a demonic red. In size they are slightly larger than a Little Grebe.

Slavonian Grebes are a scarce breeding bird in Britain, nesting exclusively in the Highlands of Scotland  and since 1994 the population, which is prone to fluctuation, has fallen from 73 to 53 pairs and by 2016 there were only around 25 pairs on 15 lochs. Worryingly this long term downward trend of pairs breeding in Scotland has continued to date.There is however evidence of movements of birds between Scotland and Iceland, where over a 1000 pairs currently breed. Where our wintering birds, including the current individual at Farmoor, come from is anyone's guess, probably Scotland but maybe not.

I watched the grebe for twenty or so minutes, in the process discovering two Common Goldeneye amongst the Tufted Ducks and Coots. Goldeneyes used to be regular winter visitors to Farmoor but in recent years have become very scarce, so to see these two and so early in the winter was a pleasant surprise.They were both males, one in adult plumage and the other in transition from immature or eclipse plumage.

On reaching the end of the causeway I turned left and followed the perimeter track around the larger basin. The grebe was now swimming parallel to me.but a little far out for a reasonable photo. It slowed its progress and preened for a while and then sunk its head back into its shoulders as grebes do and went to sleep.

Not for long though as when a Little Grebe approached it became alert and began calling almost as if it had mistaken the Little Grebe for one of its own.

It ceased calling when the Little Grebe had passed by but then took to the air, flying low across the water.I followed its flight in my bins praying it was not going to rise higher and depart the reservoir. It continued flying low over the water and to my relief settled just off the distant southern bank of the reservoir.

I now had a decision to make, carry on around the reservoir, a  distance of around half a mile or call it a day.I chose the former. Arriving at the area where I thought the grebe had landed I could not see any sign of it. I walked further and there it was some way off from the bank, beyond one of the yacht club's pontoons. Slowly it commenced swimming towards me. It dived and surfaced literally just metres off the bank where I stood looking down on the water. 

I could hardly believe my luck. It must have been able to see me as there is no hiding place on the concrete perimeter track.Maybe it thought I was just another post!

Whatever the reason I made the most of this unexpected opportunity.

It dived again and surfaced with a Three spined Stickleback in its bill. However the fish, in defence had erected its spines which caused the  grebe some problem in swallowing it.The grebe swam around alternately dropping and picking up the fish from the water, uncertain what to do, persistently trying to swallow the fish but the spines stuck in its throat. Eventually the ordeal proved too much for the fish which succumbed and it was swallowed.

The grebe swam further out into the reservoir and recognising that I was not going to get any better opportunities I left to return the way I came, finding the wintering female Greater Scaup with the Tufted Ducks and Coots in a quiet corner at the top of the causeway. I cannot be certain but this may well be the same female that spent last winter on the reservoir.

A windsurfer came careering across the grey water and the whole gathering took to the air and fled in alarm. Sadly an all too frequent occurrence on the reservoir especially on weekends.In past times part of the reservoir was set apart for wintering ducks but now it is not so and on busy weekends the ducks have nowhere to rest and are forced to depart the reservoir.

It was lunchtime and by now the waters were host to a mass of windsurfers, their brightly coloured triangular sails scudding over the entire area of the reservoir. There would be no rest for the wildfowl or the grebe from now on so for me to remain any longer would be pointless.

There was no sign of the Slavonian Grebe the next morning. I was hardly surprised.

Sunday 12 November 2023

Worth it in the End 10th November 2023

It was still dark when I rendezvoused with Mark at 6.30am in front of a padlocked gate giving access to Linford Lakes Nature Reserve at Great Linford in Buckinghamshire. A rare Little Crake had been attracting the crowds for the last few days as it passed along a lake edge in front of the reserve's Otter Hide.

Great Linford is one of the villages now encompassed by Milton Keynes and Linford Lakes is managed by a charity called The Parks Trust, formed in 1995 and which is responsible for over 40 parks, woodlands and lakes within the Milton Keynes catchment area.

Access to Linford Lakes is by annual permit for which I paid £20.00 and once paid online I was given the code to unlock the padlock on the gate and the passcode to gain access to the Otter Hide.

Our reason for arriving so early was that we knew from earlier reports the small Otter Hide would be crammed full of people keen to see the crake and if we wanted to see and photograph it we had better get there very early to secure a place at the front.

Still groggy from a 5am start I fumbled with the padlock but finally got the passcode numbers aligned so we could open the gate, drive through and make our way to the reserve's small car park only to find it already quite full with cars. Others had obviously the same idea as us and had got here even earlier and my heart sank at the prospect of the hide being fully occupied.

After some uncertainty where to go we followed a muddy trail for several hundred yards to eventually come upon the hide.We punched in the four digit code and with some trepidation opened the door to find, as we feared, every seat occupied.So it was standing room only.

We stood behind those seated and looked out onto a large, now sunlit, reed fringed lake, its waters mirror smooth.

I  resigned myself to a long wait both for a seat and for the crake to be visible. With the light much improved, we variously sat or stood, waiting to see if the crake would reveal itself.

I have seen two Little Crakes before.The first was a female at Cuckmere Haven in East Sussex which remained in a wet ditch from the 6th to the 16th of March 1985 and was remarkably confiding, allowing you to approach it to within a few feet.The second was a juvenile female at Slimbridge WWT in Gloucestershire on 10th October 2015 which was less cooperative and necessitated a day long vigil in a hide to finally see it. The individual we had come to see today at Linford Lakes also appears to be a juvenile female.They are tiny, no bigger than a Starling and are rare vagrants to Britain with 353 having been recorded since the first way back in 1791, although its normally furtive existence in reedbeds may mean a number go un-noticed.

Little Crakes breed discontinuously from Spain eastwards to central Asia and normally migrate to spend the winter in northeast and east Africa, occasionally straying to west Africa, especially Senegal.

All the images I had seen of the Linford Lakes bird were of it obviously at the edge of the reeds right in front of the hide but it did not quite work out that way for us. Almost an hour had passed before someone behind me announced they could see the crake way over on the left side of the lake threading its way through the edge of the reeds.

Tiny and constantly active it was a job to follow as it scuttled along picking off prey from the dead and broken reed stems protruding from the water. It was the sunlight that highlighted its pale head and breast, betraying its presence as it moved along by the water's edge, the rest of its body brown, streaked, spotted and flecked with cream or white blended to perfection with the variegated hues of the reeds. 

During the hour's wait the hide had reached virtually maximum capacity so you can imagine the result when the crake was finally visible.

Bodies pressed uncomfortably against each other as everyone strained to get a look from the hide's viewing slats. I was obliged to contort my body and bend my back into a very uncomfortable position to stoop low enough to get a view across to the far reed bed  but despite the inconvenience I picked the crake up easily enough.Others wanted to get a photo, although to my mind it was a very long way off for any decent image but it's up to each what they consider acceptable.A man who had never seen one allowed his anxiety to get the better of him and insinuated himself in front of me. Hide etiquette forgotten. I considered saying something but let it go.There would be time enough to see the bird. I had all day.

The crake was visible on and off for the next twenty minutes, always frequenting the distant left side of the lake, hugging the edge of the reeds. It was heading in our direction but it would be a very long time before it got to us in the hide.I resigned myself to a patient vigil but when it  came to an obvious gap in the reeds, rather than cross the open water it reversed and headed  back the way it had come.


It was now gone from our sight deep into the reeds.Some people left the hide having seen it and I got to sit on a bench at the front with Mark. All we had to do now was sit it out and wait for it to eventually get to our side of the lake.Sadly it did not happen.

The hours passed very slowly as everyone scanned the distant reedbed but to no avail. Occasional bird activity alleviated the tedium. Two Great White Egrets, now no longer the rarity they used to be provided a pleasant distraction as they landed on the far side of the lake to fish. Flying on great bowed white wings that seem to gather the air to them, they flew with a leisurely grace, their all white bodies and wings startling against the varied blues of sky and lake. A scuttling Water Rail got someone very excited before they recognised their error and that it was not the Little Crake. A Great Crested Grebe, in front of the hide, surfaced with a large fish, either a Rudd or Roach that looked far too big to swallow  but did in fact disappear down the grebe's gullet after considerable effort. 

The hide remained full with a regular arrival of birders replacing those who left but with nothing to see, least of all the Little Crake. Slowly the sepulchral silence that had been evident since our arrival was abandoned as birders ceased concentrating and commenced chatting amongst themselves.It's a normal reaction and affects many of us as we find time to recognise familiar faces or chat to our neighbours to alleviate the boredom. We were joined by Louise, a friend of Mark and she squashed between us on the unforgiving wooden bench.

The wind had risen since the calm of the morning and as a consequence the hide, with every viewing slat wide open became progressively colder. Noon arrived but still there was no sign of the Little Crake and most people who had been here for some time had ceased looking in earnest,  leaving it to the newcomers, still invigorated with enthusiasm to take up the cause.

A spell of dissing a well known Buckingham birder prone to fantasy provided a rare moment of levity amongst most in the hide. 

Just after one o' clock the crake was seen again, very briefly, prompting a concerted surge to the appropriate viewing slat. Reassuringly the crake appeared to be heading our way and towards the hide but still with a fair extent of reeds to traverse if it was ever to arrive in front of the hide.

I looked at the time and realised I had been here for six hours for about  ten minutes of distant views of the tiny bird.

By two thirty in the afternoon, after the initial optimism of the crake coming our way had long since vanished I had all but abandoned hope and suggested to Mark and Louise we call it quits at four o'clock.Birders in extremis do this sort of thing, setting time limits to maintain a sliver of hope. Mark and myself  would by then have been in the hide for nine hours. 

The damp and cold in the hide had really begun to penetrate my bones and the bench seemed to have gained the unyielding consistency of concrete.My backside ached and much of my body heat had drained away with the hours of inactivity despite layers of warm clothing. 

Three o' clock arrived and still nothing. Eight hours in. Maybe the four o clock deadline could be brought forward? Where on earth was the crake? Surely it was heading in this direction? Almost comatose now I stared blankly at the lake.Only another forty five minutes to go and it would be time to leave.

At just after three fifteen a voice from behind me exclaimed

There it is!.It's just coming out from the reeds on the left, in the water!

All thoughts of cold and discomfort were forgotten, as in unison bodies both seated and standing became galvanised and lurched forward to view the crake. Seated by the central viewng slat we were in prime position to watch as it progressed along the water's edge in front of us

To say it was elusive would be an understatement as it progressed through the dead and broken reeds and stems at the water's edge.So tiny and the exact colour of the dead reeds and their reflections in the water, it was at times hard to discern as  it dodged erratically back and fore, its long toes curled prehensilely around the reed stems, never still for a moment and shunning any open stretches of water no matter how small. Like a miniature Moorhen it furtively slipped through the reeds which annoyingly always seemed to be in the way as they swayed in the strengthening wind, causing the camera to focus on them rather than the crake. 

Its behaviour was typical of a crake in that it didn't like being in the open and would take every opportunity to use the reeds to conceal itself. I did my best as did others but it was incredibly hard to focus on it.

The crake was in front of the hide for less than ten minutes, moving fairly quickly from left to right and then was gone from sight but the reeds ran out further to our right so it had to come back.Everyone tensed, waiting for this to happen and eventually the crake re-appeared heading back towards the hide but then, rather than walk through the reeds as before, it chose to fly with dangling legs across the water and disappeared into the reeds to our left.

It was clearly anxious about the hide and whether it was aware of us I do not know. What we had to accept was it would not be coming back anytime soon.Certainly not today

With utter relief I left the hide.

Maybe I will give it another try next week or possibly not!