The nights are drawing in, the air is damp and dewy and Halloween is almost here. Your thoughts might be turning to pumpkin carving and the feast of horror films on the TV, but nature is getting ready for the spookiest day of the year as well. Some of its scariest species are quite literally popping up overnight...
The dog stinkhorn pokes harmlessly up from the woodland floor, but don't get too close - it smells terrible! Photo by David Osborn (rspb-images.com)
The fungi foray season is here and there’s no better place to find our fantastic array of frighteningly-named fungi than your local wood, so get looking! You might be surprised just how many you can find in your local park or garden though.
The spooky hit parade
For someone who spends a lot of time in the wilds, I admit to being easily spooked. A vivid imagination and one too many scary films make imagination go into overdrive. Flashbacks to The Blair Witch Project sharpen my senses, especially when I’ve wandered “off piste” in the woods with my head down looking for fungi!
Top of my hit list to find is the quite frankly terrifying looking devil’s fingers. If I bumbled into one of these burnt flesh-esque fungi sticking out of the ground, I’d probably panic a bit – before punching the air with joy. This is a real rarity.
Devil's fingers (also called octopus stinkhorn) is one of our most disgusting -looking fungi. Photo by Mike Read (rspb-images.com).
Lots of other eerily-named species are easier to come by. Destroying angel, jelly-ear, deathcap, stinkhorn, sickener, scarlet elfcup, yellow brain, ugly milkcap, slimy and bloodred waxcap, poisonpie, snakeskin grisette and black witches butter are just some of the frightening fungi you could find this autumn.
The stinkhorn is another species to enjoy from a distance - you might well smell them before you see them. Think rotting flesh... Photo by Mark Gurney.
Dancing with the fairies
It’s not just me with an overactive imagination. Throughout history, the sudden appearance of fungi has led people to believe dark forces were at work. Various legends put the appearance of fairy rings (formed by the fairy ring champignon) down to fairies setting up a place for them dance - and rest on the toadstools afterwards. Some felt that dire consequences awaited anyone foolhardy enough to enter a fairy ring, including becoming enslaved in the fairies' underground realm.
Elf cups come in a variety of colours - these are green elf cups. Photo by Nick Upton (rspb-images.com).
Legends aside, there’s a very scary serious side to fungi. Deaths occur regularly due to people eating one of the many poisonous species, so look but don’t touch.
It might look harmless, but the deathcap is responsible for human fatalities every year. Photo by Mark Gurney.
It’s not just weird and wonderful names though. Fungi come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes – and colours, from puffballs and parasols to cups and brackets. Look for the perfectly purple amethyst deceiver and the brick red fly agaric, topped with white spots, but if you see a pixie perched on one, don’t panic...
Go on a fungi forayWhy not try our fungi bingo when you're out and about this autumn? And please leave a comment to let us know about any more fungi - or other wildlife - with a suitably scary. or weird, name. There are plenty more lurking out there...
When you work at RSPB HQ as I do, a lot of the exciting events going on around our nature reserves and our species protection work are followed through a computer screen, so it’s great to get out to see it for myself when I can.
Bank Holiday provided me with an opportunity to see what has been one of the most exciting avian events of the summer for me – the nesting bee-eaters in Cumbria that have been under close guard for several weeks.
Although I have seen two of the previous nesting attempts by bee-eaters in the UK (County Durham in 2002 and Herefordshire in 2005), plus a migrant flock of five birds in Norfolk, the chance to see this most dazzling of species in the north of England was too much. Staying in North Yorkshire with the in-laws provided me with a chance to make a shorter journey (still over two hours each way) to see the action for myself.
Bee-eaters excavate their own tunnel in a cliff face or bank - image by Andy Hay
I knew that the birds in the remaining successful nest would be close to fledging and deep down I had a hope that I might be extra jammy and watch the youngsters leaving their burrow in the cliff face...
Late risersI headed north just after 6am on a cold, wet an rainy morning, not the sort of weather I associate with bee-eaters. I was so keen that I even arrived before the RSPB team had set up the watchpoint!
One thing I hadn’t accounted for was the fact that bee-eaters can be late risers, waiting for the temperature to warm up so they can do what they do best as insects take to the wing. It was a long wait of an hour and a half of staring at some quarry machinery, a high bank and straining my ears for the “Quelp” call before one of the adults finally appeared.
It was worth the wait because the pair, plus their “helper” male gave superb views through my telescope and were feeding well. As things warmed up, they started to take food to the next tunnel but I couldn’t see anything in the hole.
One of the bee-eaters from the 2002 nesting attempt in County Durham - image by Andy Hay
I’m hoping that the young will fledge either today or tomorrow and fingers crossed they make their way safely to Africa for winter. Great work by Hanson, the RSPB staff in the field and the many volunteers who have given up their time to look after the bee-eaters. Thank you for the opportunity to see these wonderful birds.
Ripples in the river
My other Bank Holiday treat was walking with the family and chatting about trout when we watched as ripple from what we thought was the creature in question, only to see it was an otter fishing in the River Wharfe. We followed it up and down the river, but it was always one dive ahead of us!
The Bank Holiday excitement started with an otter - image by Ben Andrew
With Nature's Home October issue signed off yesterday, it's been a busy few days, but where wildlife is involved (and there aren't many parts of my life where it isn't!) there's never a dull moment.