Monday, October 30, 2017

Inkcap army and more

I found this army of small toadstools on the outskirts of Sedlescombe village today.

After suggestions from Clare Blencowe and Martin Allison of the Sussex Fungus Group it looked as though they are fairy inkcaps. Coprinellus disseminatus (there is a lookalike in Psathyrella pygmaea but the Coprinellus has minute erect hairs on the cap) so I walked back to the site and checked with both hand lens there and microscope later at home.  The hairs are present so it seems C disseminatus  is the correct species.

Fairy inkcaps are pale buff or white when young as in the picture below, which was taken a short distance further up the path.  Also they do not, like many other inkcaps, dissolve into black liquid as they age.

And here is a close up (though the hairs are scarcely visible).

Walking to the site I passed someone's front lawn with many blackening waxcaps (Hygrocybe conica) and a neat little ring of orange waxcaps (TQ783184).  Via a quick trespass I retrieved one of these (see below) but have found it impossible to name.  Waxcaps come in a variety of colours including yellow, orange and red and are quite variable.  I would call mine orange.  It has a dry cap and stipe and white edges to the decurrent gills.  The black is made by spores of other fungi.  Using the Quick Waxcap Key this suggests Hygrocybe pratensis, H. turunda or H. cantharellus.  It isn't pratensis and I am not convinced by the possibility of turunda or cantharellus so it will be left unidentified.

On the southern side of Brede lane as I headed home(TQ784181) I found several of these 'little brown jobs' of the toadstool world growing on the grass verge.  My books have dozens of species that look like this, so I am not even having a guess at its identity.

On the banks of the Gorselands Estate I found several waxcaps like the one below.  I suspect that they are meadow waxcaps (Cuphophyllus pratensis) that have had close encouters with a strimmer, but there are other possibilities.

Not far from these on a mossy lawn edge there were some tiny toadstools that, so far as I am concerned, could be anything.  Again the books have lots of pictures of these tiddley things, but much more is needed than pictures to make any progress I think.

My next encounter was at the corner of a field (TQ784185) where I was obliged to get out of the way of a rather savage-looking dog.  It looks like an ink cap, as it is starting to deliquesce, possibly Parasola plicatilis.

Carrying on with my impromptu foray I found this clustered species on one of the piles of woodchip left by the men clearing the transmission lines in the spring.  I ought, I feel, be able to identify them but, with so many unidentifiables already my brain was beginning to hurt.

Talking about brains, my last find was of a lonely coral fungus in Churchland Wood (TQ783188).  I managed to find a Fennoscandinavian key to this group, but clear determination was dependent on what the spores were like and I am not quite sure where to find the spores on fungi like these.  And even if I could I am not certain I would be confident of an unequivocal determination.  It does rather make me wonder how many fungi have been misidentified by people leafing through books of coloured pictures that normally contain only a selection of British, European or American mycoflora and no details of spores or other important structures.

Anyway, If anyone can suggest identities for any of the above, I would be grateful to hear from them.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Grassland fungi and books

As my list of waxcaps from our neighbour's lawn grows, I am becoming increasingly interested (again) in grassland and other fungi.  Working alone, as I do, I have to rely on literature and the Internet to identify what I find but I seem to be making progress.  One recent boost has been my investment in the new book Grassland Fungi a field guide by Elsa Wood and Jon Dunkelman (2017) and published by the Monmouthshire Meadows Group.  With the help of this I was quickly able to name the toadstools below as the yellow fieldcap Bolbitius titubans.

These were quite common by the footpath along the eastern side of Churchland Fields in Sedlescombe (TQ781188).  It grows on rotted dung and vegetable material and this area is a permanent pasture grazed by both sheep and cows.

When I think I have a handle on the identity of something like this, I always cross check with other literature.  The book I have had the longest - for over 60 years - is Handbook of the Larger British Fungi by John Ramsbottom and originally published by the Natural History Museum in 1923.  It is quite a slim volume of 22 pages and with only black and white line drawings, but it includes detailed descriptions of many of the species that feature in today's colourful literature.  It also often provides snippets of information that other books don't.  Of Bolbitius, for example, it says the name is derived from Greek bolbiton meaning cow-dung.  It also says, rather ominously, that there are about eleven British species, but I have so far failed to find details of most of these.  Grassland Fungi (q.v.) only features B. titubans.  Ramsbottom's book is still readily available for under a fiver.

My second oldest book is Common British Fungi by Wakefield and Dennis (1950).  My copy came from Foyles in Charing Cross Road and I must have bought it not long after it was published.  This gives detailed descriptions of a wide range of species and has wonderful painted illustrations, including drawings of spores, by A. C. Dennis and the authors.  Also regularly consulted is Michael Jordan's The Encyclopedia of Fungi of Britain and Europe (1995).  From the photograph there my Bolbitius would actually be B. vitellinus but, according to the National Biodiversity Network (NBN), vitellinus is a synonym of titubans.

Another big point of reference is Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain & Europe by Roger Phillips (1994) which also depicts what appears to be my Bolbitius as B. vitellinus and I nearly always look through Mushrooms & Toadstools of Britain & Europe Courtecuisse & Duhem (Harper Collins, 1995).  This lists and illustrates six Bolbitius species and again equates by titubans with vitellinus.

Thus it would seem that, given the usual taxonomic squabbles, the toadstool growing in Churchland Fields is best called B. titubans.  I often have to remind myself that scientific names are devices for trying to ensure that different people are talking about the same thing.  Bolbitius toadstools don't call themselves anything.  We are promised that DNA analysis will resolve all these problems, but I wouldn't mind betting that taxonomic arguments will continue to rage long after I am dead.

So far as the grassland waxcaps are concerned, all the books I have mentioned are helpful in varying degrees.  But there are two other cribs worth getting hold of.  One is the online Quick Waxcap Key by Patrick Leonard (2009) based on David Boertmann's book The Genus Hygrocybe published (expensively) by the Danish Mycological Society.  The 2-page Quick Waxcap Key divides Hygrocybe species up by cap colour and stickiness of cap and stem which guide one to mini keys of the likely species options.  The other crib is in the British Wildlife article (Vol 9 No 3 February 1998, page 164) Fungal Flowers: the Waxcaps and their World by Peter Marren.  Marren, also over 2 pages, lists 46 british species of waxcaps giving details of colour, key characters, habitats and distribution.  Both these 'quick keys' can easily be folded and taken into the field.  There may be more in Peter Marren's Mushrooms: The natural and human world of British fungi published by British Wildlife Publishing, but this is not a key and will have to wait, I fear, until Christmas.

And here's a picture of blackening waxcap Hygrocybe conica from our neighbour's lawn.   Not very conical but easy to determine from its predilection for turning black (which one of these did later in the day).

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Waxcaps and more

I have been inspired by Clare Blencowe's website 'Misidentifying fungi' to report on some of my own painful efforts to make some sense of what seems to me to be a taxonomic minefield.

Part of my inspiration is that our neighbour's lawn (TQ781288) has an interesting crop of waxcaps.  The lawn is regularly mown and the cuttings removed, but no fertiliser or weedkiller has, to my knowledge, ever been applied.  After 30 years or more this makes an ideal waxcap sward.

Although they are very attractive, waxcaps often seem to me to be hard to name exactly and there have been many taxonomic changes over the years.  I have the feeling that what is going on has not, in many instances, been settled yet, so in my case I can only say what I think I have found.  I do have lots of books on fungi with lovely coloured picture but most do not seem to give the definitive data that ensures certainty in an identification.  In her blog Clare mentions some of the no doubt excellent Scandinavian books, but they are expensive and, as I said, I suspect there will be more changes in the future.

So far as waxcaps are concerned though, there is a useful quick guide issued by the British Mycological Society:.

Perhaps the most obvious species on the lawn at present is the group below.

I think this is the meadow waxcap (Hygrocybe pratensis).  This is also often listed as Cuphophyllus pratensis or H. pratensis var. pratensis but I have not been able to discover the attributes of var. pratensis or any other 'var'.

Another firm identification was of the parrot waxcap (Hygrocybe psittacina).  This little toadstool has a distinctive mixture of red, orange, yellow and green colours, though this does not show up well in the picture below.  I will try to get a better one though I suspect there are several small waxcaps in the same area that have red or orange caps.

There is a number oif pale grey or white waxcaps on the lawn and I think the one below may be the snowy waxcap (Hygrocybe virginea).  And yes, well-spotted, it is a fallen leaf from a nearby wild service tree.

Then there are those which, as they say, need further work:

An additional pleasure in the waxcap area is that over the hedge in the neighbouring fields (which are in Countryside Stewardship), I have found one or two small groups of the blackening waxcap (Hygrocybe conica sensu Quick Waxcap Key).

Away from the waxcap theme our neighbour's lawn also produced a small colony of the apricot club (Clavulinopsis luteoalba) growing in an area that is more moss than grass.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Decline of flying insects

The decline of (flying) insects over recent years has once again hit the headlines following a study of 60 sites in Germany:

I, and many other entomologists, have been aware of this for a very long time.  In the early 1960s I lived on a farm at Robertsbridge in the East Sussex Weald and spent much of my time collecting and studying mostly flying insects around the fields, hedges, woods, ponds and rivers in the area.  In most weathers there were swarms, often very large ones, of non-biting midges, short-palped craneflies and other insects in sheltered places alongside hedges, in woodland rides and around the wetlands.  I must have come across several hundred species most of which, fortunately, I recorded in notebooks which I still have.

One very abundant non-biting midge was Smittia aterrima, a species that breeds in cow dung.  Mainly in the cooler months of the year this would swarm in the lee of the field hedges in one continuous band many metres long.  It must have been a boon for any birds, bats and spiders that were about and I imagine that the little corpses that would have littered the ground were much appreciated by shrews, ground beetles and I am sure other animals.  These in turn supply food for predatory birds and mammals.  This midge has gone into steep decline since the widespread use of ivermectins to control internal parasites in cattle.  It effectively kills most, if not all, the many insect species that would have bred in the dung.  It should also be remembered that many bee species are thought to be in decline because of the use of neonicotinoids as dressings for crop seeds.

In the late 1970s we moved to the Peak District in Derbyshire and made many journeys around the area and to Wales, the Lake District and Scotland.  As recently reported, the cars' windscreens were thickly spattered with flying insects after most journeys, but this no longer happens.

Flying insects have also declined elsewhere.  Due to work and family pressures I stopped my entomological work from the late-1960s until the late-1970s.  On my first foray back into the field in Brede High Woods in East Sussex, I wondered where all the insects had gone.  The large swarms that were so familiar a decade before had vanished, though there were a few familiar species hanging on in small numbers.

Since then I have occasionally found sites with a fairly rich insect life, but never like those places I was familiar with in my youth.  I have, however, noticed that one or two species seem to be suffering less than others.  Those whose larvae live in mud, for example, rather than in water, dead wood or dung.  I am not sure why this should be.  One little warrior I am very fond of, and which is still quite common, is the winter-flying non-biting midge Gymnometriocnemus brumalis whose picture I have posted at the top of this page.  It is sexually dimorphic with yellow females striped with dark brown, and black males.  It is thought to breed in wet fallen leaves.  It can be very common, especially in woodland, and I have often seen small swarms on sunny mornings after hard frost.  It also occasionally forms a small swarm, of the kind that now seem so scarce, outside our sitting room window.  I have seen these gyrating lazily up and down in cold, hard rain and still do not quite understand how the midges avoid being hit by raindrops, though I surmise that each drop has a bow wave of air that can push a fragile flying insect out of the way.

In some cases species have no doubt declined to a low level but are still about and may recover once conditions are more to their liking.  Others I am sure will be locally and even globally extinct.  I think all we can do about it is continue with the good conservation work that has been developing and keeping a very close eye on the effects of agrichemicals on insect life and the food chain generally.  Whatever the case, the insects may often seem insignificant but the part they play, or no longer play, in our wider environment will bring changes that affect us all.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Ice plants & orpines in 2017

Since last year my interest in the genus Hylotelephium has grown.  Hylotelephium includes many species and varieties that used to be in the genus Sedum but in most cases they are quite large plants with ovoid fleshy leaves, often grown in borders and beds.  Some, but not all, have flower heads that are attractive to butterflies, bees and other insects during their period of bloom which stretches from the end of July well into October.

My personal interest was aroused by the occasional patches of orpine (Hylotelephium telephium subsp. fabaria) I came across in Brede High Woods, East Sussex.  Where it occurs it seems to grow and flower quite well in shade or semi-shade and is considered to be an indicator of ancient woodland.  It also grows by wayside hedges and ditches and I know several sites where it occurs in our parish of Sedlescombe.  It is our only native species of Hylotelephium though some others have escaped into the wild from gardens and parks.

The picture below shows how it grows in Horns Wood near Brede.  The stems lay themselves down naturally and, as they can root and produce new plants from the leaf nodes, the species is able to spread vegetatively.  Seeds also germinate quite freely in the spring after they have set.

The flowers last for several weeks and are attractive to a wide range of insects, particularly bees, butterflies and hoverflies.  I have several plants in my garden and the meadow brown butterfly below was nectaring on the flower heads for over an hour.

An interesting garden plant related to H. telephium fabaria is Hylotelephium 'Matrona' with upright stems and purple stained leaves and pale pink flowers in compact heads that are also very popular with butterflies and bees, especially in my garden, carder bees.  It has an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Another garden variety that must have much H. telephium in its genes is Hylotelephium 'Rosetta'.  This has the most beautiful rosettes (hence the varietal name I suppose) of blue green foliage as it develops in early spring and summer followed by rather small pinky-white flower heads.  It attracted few bees and no butterflies, but I did find the moth in the photo below busily imbibing nectar from the flowers.  It is a beautiful plume (Amblyptilia acanthadactyla), a species well-established in our garden and quite well-camouflaged on the flowers.

I have two other H. telephium varieties: the nominate subspecies H. telephium telephium and H. telephium maximum.  Both came from a seed distribution organised by the Sedum Society.  In the case of the nominate subspecies I raised seven seedlings several of which flowered in the same season, the flowers varying from pale to darker pink.  They were smaller that our native H. t. fabaria and had a tendency to spread sideways rather than grow upwards.  The mother plant grew by the 'river Ourthe, Warempage' in Belgium and I ought to try and investigate it further.

I found a small caterpillar on one of these plants and it turned out to be a migrant species, the pearly underwing (Peridroma saucia) which I bred to maturity and released.

Hylotelephium telephium maximum is a white-flowered plant of mainland Europe, often growing in rocky places or on waste ground.  It has larger leaves and is generally more robust that the other subspecies of H. telephium I have seen.  I grew my plant from seed collected in Lozere in the south of France.   In Norway it is called smørbukk - butterball - perhaps because the creamy white flowers look slightly like a rounded lumps of butter.  As it is in its first year it has flowered quite late, but so far does not appear to be attracting any insects.

The real insect-attracting ice plants are Hylotelephium spectabile and its various forms, still generally sold as Sedum spectabile.  They seem to have a plentiful supply of nectar and are constantly visited by bees and butterflies.  However, because they get so efficiently pollinated they tend to go over quite quickly whereas the well known hybrid H. 'Autumn Joy' aka 'Herbstfreude' has longer lasting flowers but lacks nectar and is seldom visited by insects.  'Autumn Joy' is also sometimes the only Hylotelephium on sale in nurseries and garden centres and gets itself wrongly billed as attractive to insects.

The upper of the two pictures below is of Hylotelephium spectabile 'Brilliant' with a peacock butterfly and the lower of of H. 'Autumn Joy/Herbstfreude'.