adventure, Birds, Climate

To the Alamo and Beyond

Here we are, a group of intrepid British bird-watchers hunting the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brasillium) in Texas last month, in perishing conditions as a freak cold front swept the US. All wearing everything we had and me with socks on my hands we searched a ranch 1/6th the area of Wales for a little tropical owl at the far north of its range. Our guides were tenacious and cunning with their recordings of Pygmy calls and inside information about recent sightings, they had no intention of letting us go until we had seen this timorous beastie.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brazillium)

Here he is, about the size of a starling (but all puffed up), as intrigued by our strange appearance and beguiling calls as we were by him.

It had been even colder the day before when icicles were spotted dangling from the air-conditioning vent at breakfast. Here are the more robust members of the party looking for icebergs on Corpus Christi Lake.

As the more feeble fled for shelter in adjacent woodland we were treated to a view of this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) who had had the same idea.

As we climbed back into the minibus and fell upon the last of the emergency Worther’s Originals (the beauty of travelling with Grandads) a little bird flitted frantically in the bare branches above, looking for something to eat — a Black Throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) — a late migrant caught short by the Arctic blast.

Black throated green warbler — juv (Setophaga virens)

Fungi for Beginners!

This is the time of year when the Welsh countryside is in eclipse (in temporary decline), the leaves shrivel and fall, the berries drop or are eaten, the nuts hidden away by squirrels and jays, the swallows and martins are gone and the other birds have gone quiet. The waters are muddied by heavy rain and the clouds roll in from the west. Even the wasp’s nest in the shed falls silent.

But look again!

This is the season for fungi.

Honey fungus in the wood, bad news for this old hazel. Suddenly, everywhere there are strange fruiting bodies of the hidden silent mycelia that infiltrate the whole of our natural world and surround us.

We have been trying to identify just a few of the species we have seen recently and are accumulating vast picture files of “unidentified” fungi — so many, so transient, so changeable and so tricky to pin down but at least they sit still while you photograph them.

Some are easier to identify than others!

Stinkhorn — Phallus inpudicus

Like these Stinkhorns — the rude and smelly fungi of yore, still attracting flies who stamp their little feet in the glebal goo and spread the spores to other smelly places that flies frequent. Follow your nose and you will find they are quite common!

Not being an expert and only just starting it is the more easily identified fruiting bodies that will figure initially — these saprophytes and parasites are often named with a nod to their appearance, location and preferred host.

Scleroderma citrinum — Common Earthball

Scleroderma citrinum — Common Earthball (underside)

These balls grow in the earth attached at the base by coarse white mycelial strands. These were in the New Forest under beech trees.

Common Earthball — ruptured.

They rupture irregularly to release their spores

Genus Lycoperdon — Puffball

All the different puffballs are still a mystery, they differ from earthballs in tapering to a stout, stem like base but are many and varied and difficult to sort out! These were seen in the grave yard at the ancient cistercian abbey of Strata Florida in Mid Wales — if you recognize the type please tell me!

Lycoperdon utriforme — Mosaic Puffball

Here’s another conundrum — some sort of Cup Fungus from the New Forest but which?

Mystery Cup Fungus — seen in October
Cuphophylus (Hygrocybe) pratensis — Meadow Waxcap

Another common one is the meadow waxcap, in meadows (you see!) and with a very waxy appearance, as it matures it turns itself inside out and often splits and distorts giving it a spooky look — common around Halloween!

Happy fungus hunting!


Out and About with No Vomiting

When you live in one of the wetter parts of our planet it is no good saying “90% chance of precipitation today — I think I’ll stay at home!”

You have to buy decent wellies (with grip) and really good waterproofs and embrace the rain.

Never more so than in the glorious autumn when the quality of the light enlivens the golden palette of the forest floor, set rustling by busy squirrels. The sky between the trees is streaked with flashes of blue from nutting jays.

In the tops of the trees flocks of foraging siskins chatter.

But look under foot!

Parasol Mushroom — Lepiota procera

Nature’s bounty: you could fall over this one — something nice for supper! Fried in butter.

Also Field Mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) in profusion but my camera battery was flat so I’ll have to describe the wide ring of domed white delicacies, growing in our field where the sheep shelter, they have pink to brown gills (the mushrooms) so are not Avenging Angels or Death Caps (their gills are white) but beware the Yellow Stainer (Agaricus xanthoderma). These are one reason why you should always forage mushrooms by pulling them out to include the base which can give valuable information for identification. When you bruise a Yellow Stainer, as you might expect, they stain yellow and the flesh at the base is unmistakably bright yellow. They look very like their delicious and innocuous cousin but will make you very sick (thank you U-tube for saving us from that!)

Our Field Mushrooms were a little more watery than the ones you buy and had a faint tang of aniseed — very tasty with butter and lemon juice and no tummy ache!

Here’s another you should not eat: the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria)

At a distance, in shade, we thought this was a cricket ball.

The woods are magic at this time of year but beware the little people:



When you have lived in a place for a long time you can become accustomed to its variety, even as its flora and wildlife change week by week. Showing it to someone new is an opportunity to throw off that familiarity that blunts your perception and see through refreshed eyes.

We have been playing with a new bat detector — a little gizmo that lowers the frequency of the otherwise inaudible echo location calls of bats into the audible range producing a sound we can hear and a pattern we can recognize and use to identify the species of bat as it flashes past.

Around our house in Wales we have recently identified pipistrelle, common and soprano, and noctules. The sopranos have higher pitched calls peaking at 55kHz, common ones at 45kHz. The detector makes one much more aware of their presence especially in the trees where there is much more activity than we had thought. It helps to demonstrate just how many and how busy these airborne insectivores are.

To aid identification one individual stopped by in my bedroom. He seemed very torpid and I was able to transport his sleeping body to the woodshed where he rested for a suspiciously long time.

Further investigation confirmed his extremely poor state of health and we buried him.

The following week the local bat group came to look at the colony of bats that have recently occupied our neighbour’s log cabin. They came armed with state of the art bat detectors, deck chairs, counters, tea, coffee, biscuits and insect repellent.

445 Soprano pipistrelles exited the roost that evening which led our neighbours to seriously ponder the possible toilet arrangements of their new tenants.

Thus, despite our own personal experience, soprano pipistrelle bats would seem to be thriving, at least in Wales.

adventure, Birds, Wales

Bardsey Island Chough Hunt

I really want to see choughs in the wild. Delicate crows with fine scarlet beaks and feet. There are choughs on Bardsey Island, Enlli in Welsh .

Here is a wikimedia map of Wales to show the location of Bardsey Island, in the Celtic Sea, a couple of miles from the tip of the Llyn Peninsula.

Below is what you see as you set out from Porth Meudwy.

I had waited 4 days for the sea conditions to be suitable and now they were — I was off to hunt the chough.

Colin the boatman, a local farmer, told us that this year was the first for thousands of years in which no one had overwintered on the island. Not so many years ago the population was about 80 — now they are mainly summer visitors.

As we arrived the tide was coming in and the grey seals on the beach were starting to bob around in the rising water, the larger ones, I guess male, lolling in the ripples making a soulful siren call which reminded me of the spiritual reputation of the island where 20,000 saints are said to be buried — Celtic saints.

Until the time of Henry VIII there had been a monastery on the island and it was a place of pilgrimage, three visits to Bardsey were equivalent to one to Rome. Presumably punters paid well for such potent indulgence and being buried there was de rigeuer for anyone with ambitions of canonisation!

The boatman told us to climb the mountain for the views and I did — no one else did. It was steep and painful and the only other people I saw there were two separate elderly ladies who were staying on the island, both walked with sticks and addressed me in Welsh, pointing out the landmarks. You can see the Mountains of Wicklow and the Mountains of Mourne in Ireland on a clear day. I could see Cardigan Bay all the way to Pembrokeshire and the nearby Llyn peninsula with Snowdon in the distance and the burrows of the Manx shearwaters but no choughs. “What, not seen a chough! They are usually here — must be nesting.”

View of the island from halfway up the mountain

By 3pm the waters around the island were getting choppy and the trusted boatman would not risk our precious lives to view the puffins from the sea but seeing our disappointment he kindly took a detour and showed us the Ynes Gwylan Puffin Colony on the two little isles off Aberdaron.

As we approached the plump little birds started whizzing overhead showing the white flashes of their flanks as they flew ahead of us to land in the water and dive for sand eels.

Safely back on land I drove to the tip of the peninsula where I had been told that choughs hang out but all I found was a hungry herring gull and a farewell view of Bardsey Island.

Bardsey from Mynydd Mawr
Ecology, Wales

The biggest cobweb in the world?

Several years ago a couple of sections of hedge near here appeared to have been wrapped in the biggest cobweb I had ever seen. The sections were about 3-4 meters long — the length of a farm gate. At first I thought it was something to do with planning permission — as when farmers or developers wrap a section of hedge in green plastic netting to stop birds from nesting while they wait for permission to root it out for a new entry. Closer examination revealed something more interesting!

The net appeared to be a huge, quite robust, cocoon in the safety of which thousands of caterpillars were devouring the hedge.

Apocalyptic!” thought I, “That’s the end of that hedge and maybe life as we know it.”

But no, that section which was mainly bird cherry looked dead but the web eventually disappeared and the hedge recovered.

This year the phenomenon has recurred, this time in a hedge that is mainly holly with bird cherry growing through it and the caterpillars of the Bird Cherry Ermine Moth (Yponomenta evonymella), for these are the culprits, have ensheathed most of the bird cherry but left the holly unscathed.

The caterpillars are thriving protected from predatory birds and they appear to have eaten much of the foliage within their web nests already but below you can see them spinning new web to enclose more food.

Now we must wait for them to pupate and later for the adult moths to emerge — a ghostly white night-flyer with rows of black dots, an echo of the caterpillars…

Attribution: ¬©entomart

They are successful as a species — they’ve developed a clever biodegradable protective wrapper for themselves and they don’t even appear to come back to the same trees twice, they protect their food source — little eco-warriors.