Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Ranger Phil's Nature Diary - Waxcaps, Acorns & a Deadly Parasite

I recently took an early morning stroll along the Avenue in search of a rare species of fungi usually found here at this time of the year. The species in question is Clavaria zollingeri or Violet Coral and as the name suggests it grows in a branching manner rather like a marine coral in a vivid shade of violet. I had searched for this a couple of times in vain but on this occasion was fortunate to find a single specimen partly hidden by a covering of fallen leaves. The unimproved grassland of the Aenue is the typical habitat of this species and also of other species including the waxcaps, a particularly colourful family, many of which occur in intense shades of red, orange, yellow and pink. I came across a number of different species including the Parrot Waxcap, a variable species , occurring in most of the colours already mentioned and even a bright green making it rather difficult to locate amongst the grass.

Violet Coral; Clavaria zollingeri

Parrot Waxcap;  Hygrocybe psittacina

Scarlet Waxcap; Hygrocybe coccinea

Blackening Waxcap; Hygrocybe conica

Most of the trees lining the Avenue are oaks and at this time of year the ground beneath them is strewn with thousands of acorns which provide a plentiful bounty for a variety of wildlife.  Birds such as the brightly coloured Jay take advantage of such a feast and they will also spend many hours caching the surplus in case of leaner times ahead in the winter months.  Squirrels are also regular visitors and like the Jays they also spend much time 'hiding' the surplus.  Although we still have Red Squirrels here and in the past I used to see them on the Avenue, sadly I only ever see greys these days.  Roe deer also eat acorns and on this particular morning a family of three were present which amused me for a while muncing on them with small pieces spitting and falling from the sides of their mouths.

Family of Roe Deer feeding on Avenue bank

There is another uncommon species of fungi I usually look for here at this time of the year.  Called Cordyceps militaris or Scarlet catterpillarclub, this is another grassland species which I have usually found in areas arond the Chapel.  It grows as a tiny finger-like spindle, up to about five centimetres tall in a bright shade of orange-red. It is however the life cycle of this fungi which is fascinating if not a little macabre.  It is a parasitic species which attacks and grows within it's hosts body, an underground living catterpillar, eventually killing it before growing and sending up above ground a new fruiting body.  Being so small these can be difficult to locate especially amongst fallen leaves but with a little patience I managed to find several of them.

Scarlet Catterpillarclub; Cordyceps militaris

Fruitbody emerging from pupa

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