Friday, November 30, 2012

Natural Jewellery

One of the better aspects of winter - frost decorating the last remaining leaf on this wild rose.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fishing temporarily suspended

This rather forlorn looking heron was standing on the bank of the river Wear in Durham city on Sunday, watching the river level rise and its fishing prospects vanish. Since then this stretch of river has become a torrent of muddy flood water. 

Hungry times for birds like herons and kingfishers, that need to see their prey in order to catch it ...

Monday, November 26, 2012

Nice weather for ducks....

While we were sheltering under our umbrellas recently, dodging the puddles, someone remarked that it was 'nice weather for ducks'.

Which reminded me of this photo that I took several years ago in the car park of the Sage concert hall in Gateshead. These ducklings were about as far removed from their natural element as it was possible to be.

The mallard duck had nested on waste ground on the far side of the car park and led her ducklings all the way across. This kerb presented a bit of a challenge but with a lot of quacking from her and some help for anxious spectators they eventually overcame it. Then she led them down a steep bank, across another car park, down another steep bank and across a road, across a stretch of quayside and into the river Tyne. 

In comparison, my journey into work through today's floods this morning should be a doddle! 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Brief Encounter

This grey seal popped its head above water when we were walking along the sea wall footpath between Tynemouth and North Shields yesterday, when we were on our way to lunch at the excellent Waterfront fish and chip restaurant on the fish quay. No doubt the seal had fish on its mind too.

The seal appeared just a few yards from the sea wall and what was so delightful about the encounter was that there were families with small children walking along the wall too, who were absolutely thrilled when it popped its head above water to have a look at them. That's the wonder of nature I suppose - always apt to surprise, delight and thrill when you least expect it.

Amazing sea conditions yesterday - almost a flat calm, hardly a breath of wind.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Dead Assets

With all the doom and gloom about dying ash trees in the news, maybe it's as well to bear in mind the wise words of Oliver Rackham - probably Britain's foremost authority on trees and woodlands - who observed that "a huge dead tree is still beautiful, and as good a habitat as a living tree". When a tree dies a whole host of organisms colonise and feed on it throughout its afterlife, which can last for decades. The National Trust owns two woodlands on the south bank of the River Swale at Richmond in North Yorkshire - Billy Bank wood and Hudswell wood - and has taken great care to ensure that there's a plentiful supply of dead wood lying around to act as a habitat for organisms that depend on this habitat.

This massive fallen beech is covered by a carpet of moss on its upper surface while ...

.. the underside hosts numerous fine young examples of Ganoderma fungus. This bracket fungus can live on the dead wood for a decade or more, producing a new layer of white sporing tissue on its underside every year.

I think this is probably a sycamore stump, hosting one of the densest populations of candlesnuff fungus Xylaria hypoxylon that I've ever seen.

There are also some decaying hazels that must once have been coppiced. Their decaying poles are the favourite substrate for hairy curtain crust fungus Stereum hirsutum. This is a young specimen ....

.... and here's a more mature example.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A walk along the promenade

Today's Guardian Country Diary describes a visit to the coast just north of the mouth of the river Wear at Sunderland. 

Roker pier, at the mouth of the river, is a good place to watch turnstones that hang around waiting to pick up tit-bits that anglers on the pier drop when they re-bait their hooks. These birds have become remarkably tame, unlike their conspecifics a little further along the coast (see below) that are far more wary.

The first hint of a fishing line being reeled in and food becoming available and the turnstones close in ....

A little further along the coast, at Cannonball Rocks, there's a promenade cafe where you can get more than a splash of milk in your cup of tea if you're not careful, but it's a sunny, sheltered spot to sit and watch shipping entering and leaving the harbour....

.... and to warm your hands around a mug of tea.

As soon as you get onto the promenade at Seaburn you meet these very attentive flocks of starlings .....

.... loitering around the benches, waiting for someone to chuck them a chip from their fish 'n' chips. There's a bit of a dependency culture developing amongst some bird species along this coast.

Our destination was Whitburn rocks, always a good place to watch waders as the rising tide pushes them further up the beach. This little group of sanderlings raced down the beach following every retreating wave, picking up invertebrates, .....

....then raced back again, just keeping ahead of boiling surf that threatened to engulf them

At this end of the promenade turnstones behave the way they are supposed to behave, flipping over seaweed and stones in their hunt for food.

The rich mottled brown plumage on their backs blends with the piles of wracks and kelps, providing ...

... excellent camouflage, in comparision to paler sanderlings that were forced to join them in the pools between the piles of seaweeds, while they waited for the tide to fall and expose their preferred sandy habitat again.

If you just sit on the shingle beach here and wait for the tide to push the sanderlings towards you they approach quite closely, but they move so fast that the closer they get, the harder they are to follow. Lovely little birds, though.

And finally, more free-loading birds - gulls following an inshore fishing boat as it heads out of the Wear into the North Sea on the flood tide.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Rock of Ages

The Durham coast isn’t a top destination for fossil hunters, who find richer pickings further south under the crumbling cliffs around Whitby, but occasionally interesting fossils do turn up on our beaches. I found one has week, on Blast beach just south of Seaham, which gave a tantalising glimpse of how the landscape might have looked three hundred million years ago.

Blast beach was formerly a site for dumping colliery waste but in recent years the magnificent Turning the Tide project has made great strides in restoring this coastline to its former, pre-industrial glory. There are still large boulders on the beach that were transported with colliery debris and it was when I split one of these that I found the remains of a plant that had been embedded in the rock for three hundred million years.   The compressed, jointed stems, now turned to stone, belonged to a giant horsetail.If you double-click for a larger image you can see that there are two reasonably intact compressed fossil stems here - one running at an 11 'o'clock to five o'clock angle and the other running eight o'clock to two o'clock.

Back in the Carboniferous, when the coal measures and the land mass that is now Britain was nearer the equator, these strange plants formed tropical, forests in swamps that would have been home to early amphibians and giant dragonflies.

Horsestails still exist today, as 'living fossils', but are a pale shadow of their extinct ancestors. Gardeners are familiar with the field horsetail, which is a troublesome weed but only grows about a foot tall. Today specimens of the great horsetail, the largest horsetail species that grows in damp places along this coast, reach a height of about five feet. Judging by the width of the fragment of fossil stem that I found, this long-extinct plant must have been at least four times as tall. Larger fossils that have been found indicate that these ancient plants sometimes grew to a height of sixty feet or more. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fog and Fungi

A while back I posted about threats to the future of the Bishop of Durham's deer park at Auckland Park, in Bishop Auckland in County Durham. Thankfully these seem to have abated, much to the relief of all those who love the place. It's one of our favourite Sunday morning walks - even in the fog.

The park is at its best in autumn ....

.... especially when fog adds a touch of liquid magic to the spiders' webs.

I think it was Oliver Rackham, the noted tree and woodland expert, who once remarked that the only thing more useful to wildlife than a live tree was a dead tree. He was referring to the vast range of organisms - invertebrates, fungi, etc. - that live in or on the dead wood during a tree's protracted afterlife. Whoever manages the park at Bishop Auckland leaves plenty of dead wood for the benefit of organisms that thrive on it - like these tiers of bracket fungi (Ganoderma sp. I think) in the hollow trunk of this dead beech.

Some of the living beeches are under attack by honey fungus and their days are numbered - but there are also plenty of healthy trees and some replanting.

The stumps of old sweet chestnuts host these developing puffballs.

Sycamore, with the black spots of Rhytisma acerinum on the leaf blade.

Some of the living trees have magnificent rings of toadstools around their bases - I guess that these are a mycorrhizal species, that exist in a mutually beneficial association with the trees.

Not sure what these are, on a decaying beech stump. During the prolonged afterlife of the dead trees a whole succession of toadstools appear, some for just a few days.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Waiting for the tide to turn (2) .....

Rock pipits Anthus petrosus on the parapet of Tynemouth north pier, waiting for the tide to fall and uncover their normal feeding ground on the rocks below. They have a very distinctive white circle around their eye.