Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A study in scarlet ...

We found these delightful specimens of scarlet elf cap (Sarcoscypha austriaca) along the Tees Railway Path between Romaldkirk and Middleton-in-Teesdale today. This small goblet-shaped specimen was only a couple of centimetres tall and growing on a dead twig.

The larger specimens - about four centimetres in diameter - were a deeper shade of scarlet with a very smooth inner surface. It's typically a fungus of early spring and was growing under old hawthorns, where another scarlet apparition .....

... was enjoying the spring sunshine and singing with the volume turned all the way up to 11.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

It was there when I pressed the shutter release ......

The most useful photographic advice I ever received was "if you want people to believe you're a competent photographer, never show anyone your failures". That's meant dumping well over 99% of my photographs, which is much easier and cheaper to do in these days of digital photography, when they disappear into the ether with the click of a button, at no cost. 

But digital photography also delivers its own special kind of failures, thanks to the phenomenon of shutter-lag - that interval between pressing the shutter release and the sensor capturing the image. So I've got plenty of pictures like those below, which looked really good when I composed them and pressed the shutter....

This long-tailed tit was sitting perfectly on that twig in the foreground, looking at me over its shoulder as I pressed the shutter release  ..... it must have taken off like a rocket.

In those last few milliseconds, this pigeon decided that it didn't want any publicity. Its feet came out well, though ...

.... and this guillemot was overcome with shyness at the last moment too....

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Depressed Woodpigeon

It's been a long winter. Earlier in the week there was spring in the air and this wood pigeon was courting a potential mate in our garden. Then, last night, it snowed again. And the bird food is under two inches of the snow on the bird table. 

I can't help thinking that this wood pigeon looks depressed.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Nature Tables..

Today's Guardian Country Diary is about nature tables in primary schools. After half a century, I can still remember the one in my village school, run by a kindly teacher called Miss Waghorn and stocked with various treasures that her pupils brought into school from the surrounding countryside.

At this time of year Miss Waghorn's contribution to the table was a jam jar full of horse chestnut twigs that she brought in for the class to draw over the days and weeks as they gradually opened. Her influence lingers on because, at this time every year, I like to have a horse chestnut twig with its glossy 'sticky buds' on my desk so that I can enjoy a preview of what is to come in spring. There's a one week difference between the first and second images below - as the buds swell and change shape they also produce more sticky resin.

I realise when I look around my desk and along the bookshelves in the room where I work that there are other manifestations of Miss Waghorn's influence lying around. Over the years, I've accumulated a nature table of my own - specimens and artefacts that I've picked up at various times and kept as natural mementoes. 

Looking around, I can see a fossil sea urchin that I've had since I was a kid, a piece of Whitby jet, a dead convolvulus hawk-moth, a guillemot's skull, the skeletonised fruits of bellflower, the exuvium of a dragonfly nymph that has hatched, a Faroe sunset shell and a painted topshell, various pine cones, a jay's feather, part of a tree wasp's nest, an ammonite, some granite pebbles from a beach in Dumfries and a tube full of preserved gammarid shrimps that I collected 1000 feet underground just before Wearmouth colliery closed and entombed their fellow shrimps forever. Every specimen has a story attached - or at least that's what I tell my very tolerant wife.

I blame it all on Miss Waghorn and her nature table.....

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim'rous beastie....

Unlike the animal in Robert Burns' famous poem To a Mouse, this character is a wee, cunning, devious, cocky beastie because it's taken me four days to catch it. On three separate nights it managed to take the bait from the live mammal trap without tripping the trap door, but last night it finally put a foot wrong and imprisoned itself.

Many of the threats to a mouse come from overhead, from kestrels and owls, and you can see here how well those bulging, upward pointing eyes and ears are disposed for detecting any threatening movements from above. That's a fine set of whiskers too, capable of detecting the slightest vibration and helping their owner to find its way around in darkness.

It was living in the cupboard under our stairs but this Houdini mouse has now been relocated to a local woodland, where wood mice belong. No more freeloading on sultana and peanut bait.

It seems to have been doing well on its luxury diet, judging from that fine, glossy coat - which it will need tonight; more snow forecast.

For more info on wood mice, click here

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Purple sandpipers on the river Tyne

These purple sandpipers have learned that they can continue feeding when it's high tide on the river Tyne by probing for gammarid shrimps and other small marine invertebrates that lurk in the crevices in the sea wall, beside the coastal path between Tynemouth and North Shields. They seem to have become accustomed to passers-by, so you can watch them at close quarters by just leaning over the railings.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Turkey Tail Tales...

I found these fine specimens of the fungus commonly known as turkey tail (Trametes [Coriolus] versicolor) along the Raisby Way disused railway line near Durham this afternoon. If you have a vivid imagination those concentric strips of colour resemble the bands of colour in a turkey's tail. 

It's a very common bracket fungus that has excited a lot of scientific interest in recent years, for several reasons. It has long been used in China to make traditional medicinal infusions and research over the last few years has identified components in the fungus that have promising anti-cancer activity. Also, the fungal mycelium that proliferates in dead wood, causing white rot, secretes powerful enzymes that break down woody tissue and may have value in biofuel production from wood waste, as well as in breaking down industrial pollutants. Not just a pretty toadstool, then....

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Decorated Capitals

I recently posted some pictures of embossed covers on old natural history books. Here are some more examples of Victorian or Edwardian book production - decorated capitals at the beginning of chapters. These came from some battered pages of a book of wild flowers, that was falling apart and had lost its covers, so I don't know the title, author or the date of publication. But they are delightful examples of decorated typography whose origins can be traced back to the highly decorated capitals in illuminated manuscripts and are an art form that is seldom seen in today's books.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Coral Spot

Some dead twigs on our pear tree have been colonised by this coral spot fungus Nectria cinnabarina

Coral spot is an interesting fungus because it exists in two forms. One is saprotrophic, only growing on dead twigs, but there's also a parasitic form that actively attacks and kills live plants that are already in a weakened state. I'm hoping it's the former rather than the latter, otherwise our pear tree's days are numbered. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Stained Glass Dipper

It's not often that you see native British birds portrayed in church stained glass windows, but you can find this delightful dipper in the window of St.Michael and All Saint's church at Hubberholme in Langstrothdale, in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The dipper is one of the characteristic birds of fast-flowing streams in the dale. I found these old photos, that I took 25 years ago, when I was clearing out a drawer. 

Must go back to Hubberholme for another look - and to take some better photos. 

The church's other claims to fame are a fine rood screen and the ashes of novelist J.B. Priestley which are buried there.

Well worth a visit if you are in the area.