Wildlife in January/February 2018
5th January: Iced Cake Fungus is first for Northants
It was December 21st when we spotted a curious sight. It looked as if someone had been painting a tree stump. Then as we approached it began to resemble a huge, rather yummy cake covered with creamy icing and with some brown dusting on top... chocolate?
But on closer inspection the stump was clearly covered with a freshly emerged fungus. There were small fruiting bodies around the sides, a background covering of creamy white over the bark. On top was not chocolate but fallen pine needles and the odd cone which had obviously been there a long time and had been pushed up by the emerging fungus. We were sure we'd never seen anything like this before.
Back home, fungus books and websites were searched for something similar but to no avail. So the next step was to consult the experts via Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/BritishFungi/.
The responses were fascinating - Panetonne? A cake left out in the rain? An extremely rare fungus with only 17 records since 1937? Eventually, after discussion with Andy Overall, a shortlist of likely contenders emerged but we'd have to wait for Andy's microscopic examination of the fungus spores to be sure. What fun!
As time went on the colour of the "cake icing" became more lemony yellow and when, after Christmas, Andy received the specimen in the post, he could detect a faint lemony odour too. After microscopic examination and discussion with other field mycologists at Kew Gardens, the decision was that it was Antrodia xantha, a pretty unusual organism. It is certainly the first record for Northamptonshire and the National Biodiversity Network distribution map (below) indicates how infrequently it has been recorded in this region.
The common name for Antrodia xantha is the rather prosaic Yellow Porecrust but we shall continue to refer to it as Iced Cake Fungus!
If you are interested in seeing this rarity for yourself you need to leave Top Lodge following the Public Bridleway towards Kings Cliffe. About 70m after the gate look into the trees on the right. The stump is about 20m from the path and stands out rather clearly against the otherwise brown woodland.
26th January: What a stinker!
You often need a good eye to see unusual plants - but not this one as it's really quite obvious! At this time of year most plants are dormant or at best just beginning to come into bud but this evergreen plant appears to be bursting into life with fresh lime-green growth and drooping flower heads. And it can be detected if you have a good nose too! It's called Stinking Hellebore and the unflattering adjective is echoed in its Latin name - Helleborus foetidus. Actually the smell isn't at all bad, but the plant itself is apparently poisonous.
Fineshade resident, Shenagh Hackett, first saw the plant on 14th January (see top picture). Look out for it on the right as you walk from Top Lodge down the hill past the entrance to the caravan site. It's about 10m from the track, just into the wood beyond the gateway and just after where the hedge has recently been cut back. It is a native UK plant and is popular in gardens. Escapees can become established in the wild and this plant's ancestors may have been in the gardens of the old farm cottages that used to stand where the overflow carpark is now. It must be well and truly naturalised, as we think those cottages were demolished at least 40 years ago. (Please contact us if you know anything about them.)
Although the plants have probably been there for years it's not been actually recorded before. So that brings the Fineshade list of vascular plants to 392. How many more are there still to recorded? There's a full list of Fineshade's species here.
6th February: Great start for Willow Tit survey
A bright, still and very cold morning seemed like the perfect opportunity to start the bird surveys for the Roots of Rockingham Back from the Brink project. There were birds singing as we set off from Top Lodge towards Westhay, the southern part of the wood. Robins were in good voice - they have been practising all winter - and a couple of male Great Tits were competing to attract the attentions of a female with their monotonous teacher-teacher-teacher song.
But our target species this bright morning was the Willow Tit - almost identical to the much more numerous Marsh Tit. (See the Wildlife Diary entry from 2 years ago). The Back from the Brink training session that took place two weeks ago had taught us the way to survey for Willow Tits is to play a recording of the bird's song for two minutes in suitable habitat. Apparently Willow Tits are likely to respond and start singing themselves if they hear what seems to be an intruding male anywhere near the territory that they are busy establishing in February and early March. At least, that's the theory.
But after testing this out with no response at nearly 20 locations spirits were beginning to droop. And then, of course it happened. An unmistakeable reply to our recording from high up in some trees, although no Willow Tit to be seen. Excellent! We recorded the location and some habitat details and then moved on. After another 150m there was another Willow Tit singing and this time it was possible to see it too.
So two Willow Tit territories in the southern part of Fineshade Wood. How many more in the other parts and elsewhere in Rockingham Forest?
Update 10th March. Sadly after the big freeze no Willow Tits were recorded on the second visit to the same sites
Willow Tit by Bob Bullock
(Not the bird seen today)
Willow Tit habitat
13th February: Looking closely at moss ... no, at mosses
There are parts of Fineshade which seem to just be covered in moss, and at this time of year you certainly notice it more. Through the woodland the predominant colours at the moment are shades of dull brown and grey but some of the ground, some of the coppice stools, some tree trunks and even some spindly shoots are still sparkling shades of green where the moss continues to thrive through the long cold winter months.
No, let's correct that - "where the mosses continue to thrive". It's easy to overlook the fact that "moss" is not one single entity but consists of very many distinct and different species with different shapes, different colours, different preferred locations. There are 750 different species of moss in Britain, 250 of which have been found so far in Northants. Even in Fineshade, 65 species were recorded, mainly about 10 years ago.
To appreciate the beauty of mosses you have to get up close, and when you do start to look closely at them they can be very beautiful indeed. It's worth investigating in a 10x hand lens to see them well and, of course, macro photography is a great help too. I've just begun to look closely at Fineshade's mosses, aided by an excellent introductory course run by the WILDside project and led by Rachel Carter, the county recorder. This enabled me to identify one of the common species below. The other two remain unidentified for the moment - but that doesn't make them any less beautiful!
Common Tamarisk-moss (Thuidium tamariscinum).
This was on the ground under the conifers near the wildlife hide.
Please do get in touch if you are able to help catalogue Fineshade's mosses - or are able to provide pictures or advice.
26th February: Return of the Hawfinch
For birdwatchers the 2017-18 winter has been remarkable because of a large influx of Hawfinches. In recent years they have been occurring in decreasing numbers but, this winter, groups have been turning up all over the country. It's thought to be due to a failure of the seed crop in parts of Europe where they normally spend the winter but, remarkably, some have been returning to their traditional British sites that were last used years ago. For example, two miles south of Fineshade Wood lies Blatherwycke, and 20 years ago the churchyard there used to be a regular winter site with small groups of Hawfinches feeding on the Yew trees. This winter a small group has turned up there once again with four being reported last Thursday.
So, in Fineshade we have been keeping a look out for these very large finches with their exceptionally powerful bills. Here there are no Yew trees or Hornbeams (their trees of choice for winter food) so they don't tend to hang around, but last Friday Tony Vials found one at Top Lodge. Tony says:
"We had just started walking from Top Lodge towards Far Markham's Wood when a Hawfinch flew from trees next to the caravan park towards the old railway line. It was calling constantly in flight and I could still hear it calling from trees near to the railway line. We walked down to the railway bridge and soon located it in the top of a tree close to the road. Views were slightly obscured, but before we could move to a better location, it flew again to trees behind the overflow car park. There is a reasonable chance that it is still in the general area."
We believe that the last record of the species in Fineshade was back in 2010. However, going back even further to the 1980's and 90's, there were regular reports of them breeding in the wood. Family groups could regularly be seen in June when they came to feed their young on the fruits forming on the wild cherry trees around the village green.
Despite lots of looking we haven't managed to locate Tony's bird again - but please let us know if you see it.
Hawfinch by Bob Bullock (at Delapre Park in November)