In defence of Autumn

As everyone is coughing and sneezing and wrapping up warm, it is very easy to see the dark side of autumn – literally, with the days being short, rainy and miserable. We can give into that melancholy state and way of seeing things. What can be cheerful about muddy paths or bare trees? 

However, autumn gives us the chance to reflect upon the power of nature. The poignant message is that nature is not just pretty flowers and colourful butterflies on sunny days. Wildlife depends on the seasons – it’s exactly what all the creatures have evolved to work with.

It’s very easy to be cross with the weather but if we are to cherish nature in all its disguises, we should be able to see its beauty. What better to demonstrate nature’s beauty than trees?

 

THE SWAMP CYPRESS

Here’s a photo of the foliage in summer, as well as now, so you can see the striking changes.

A tree from far, far way… It was introduced from America in 1640 by John Tradescant the younger who travelled and brought plants and seeds back to Britain. He introduced some of the well-known American trees to British gardens such as Magnolia, Tulip tree. The Swamp cypress is an important part of the Florida everglades.

 

NORWAY MAPLE

Autumn is also the poignant season that shows very well the passing of time and teaches us to value fleeting moments. These two photos were taken about two weeks apart. I saw the flare of yellow from afar and was about to call the fire brigade. It was just a coppice of Norway Maple.

 

The Norway Maple was introduced to the UK in the 17th century and it’s planted a lot because of its ability to withstand all sorts of conditions.

 

BEECH

Trees in winder are actually quite difficult to identify. Beech, however, offers you a couple of clues. Firstly, it keeps some of its dry, brown leaves on, sometimes through the whole of winter. Secondly, the long, pointy, cigar-shaped buds are always a give-away. But now it’s autumn and Beech gives one of the most stunning performances.

 

THE GINKGO TREE

This fascinated tree is a living fossil. This means that the species has remained unchanged for millions and millions of years. Ginkgo trees were around when dinosaurs were still roaming the Earth! Also, trees are divided into groups and in this group there is just one species – the Ginkgo tree. Beacause this species is good at withstanding all sorts of conditions – pollution, compacted soil – typical of the city streets, it has been planted all over the world. Just a well because in the wild it’s quite rare.

So, hopefully, this autumn we’ll be able to enjoy the colours rather than paying attention to the grey weather. Keep warm and stay well!

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Wildlife Correspondent

Sources:

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Odd little creatures

Invertebrates are fascinating because they are a huge group of very diverse animals. They can have the strangest of homes, habits, behaviours and, well, lives in general.

The Carnefly, or Daddy longlegs has quite a sad and short adult life. As a lava, it eats roots and rotting plant material and then goes through the pupal stage (when it hides away in a sort of cocoon). Once it emerges as an adult, it will have only about two weeks to live. In that period it searches for a mate and hardly ever eats. There are about 300 species of Cranefly in the UK.

cranefly

 

Common Wasp, Vespula vulgaris, is a loathed-by-most creature but probably only because most people know very little about them. Wasps live in colonies underground, using already existing cavities. A new colony comes about when a queen emerges from hibernation in spring. She finds a suitable location for a nest and starts building it in chewed up wood pulp. She then lays a few eggs and a few non-productive workers emerge. They continue with the construction of the nest and the queen goes back to her role of egg producer. Just a few of the eggs that are laid later become new queens and fertile males that leave the nest to mate. The queens go into hibernation to emerge next spring and start the cycle again and the males die along with the rest of the old colony.

This poor colony was trying to repair the damage after the dead standing tree was blown over in the storm and their home was exposed.

 

Scale insects, or more precisely Hard Scale insects, are odd little creatures that protect their egg sacs with a large scale. Gardeners don’t like these insects because the feed on plant sap.

scale insect

 

Velvet mites have tiny hairs that make them look rather velvety. They live in the soil and surprisingly eat insects. The larvae, in particular, have a strange parasitic lifestyle. They latch onto passing insects and spiders and feed on their blood all the while not doing the hosts any harm. When they are ready, they fall off, hide in the soil to moult and later come out as adults.

velvet mite

 

Bagworm moth larvae live in very strange houses. The one in the picture below looks like a tiny seashell. Bagworm moths are a group of small moths.

bagworm moth

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“The canaries of the fungal world”

The Natural History Museum goes as far as calling lichens “the canaries of the fungal world”. For starters, there’s the bright coulours:

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Possibly, the Common Orange lichen

The most important thing to mention is that a lichen is a union between more than one organism. One of the partners is always a fungus and the other an alga or a cyanobacterium (a kind of bacterium that gets its energy by photosynthesis). the fungus provides the physical structure for them to live on and the other one produces all the necessary nutrients by photosynthesis. Fungi themselves, you see, cannot photosynthesise – they cannot produce energy and nutrients from light because they don’t have that precious green stuff called chlorophyll.

Lichens deserve more attention than they get. National Trust, in fact, recently helped out in a research project. A scientist from the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh was looking into how populations of lichens have changed over the centuries and she did this by finding lichens in really old houses. National Trust was of great help when it came to their properties and let her in to investigate the beams and other wooden parts of the houses. This goes to show that lichens can grow in all sorts of places. One of the pictures below shows them growing on the base of rose bushes in the Rose Garden of Morden Hall Park. Other photos show lichens growing high up in a poplar tree – I only got to see them because the top half of the tree was brought down with the storm. They will grow on the biggest of trees and on the skinniest of branches. You’ll even see them growing on stone – on stone bridges in London for example!

The Natural History Museum has a great page on lichens so do have a look if these weird organisms hooked you: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/life/plants-fungi/lichens/

Well, whatever your opinion of lichens, we should all be very pleased to see them because they are an indicator of clean air. Different species of lichens are intolerant to different kinds of pollution so if you see a variety of lichen, you should be even happier!

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Not-so-scary Spiders

I am up to my old tricks – trying to change people’s views on the creatures they usually despise or simply fear or find disgusting.

As we were preparing for Halloween and spider webs were hung as decorations in order to make the place scarier, I decided to make it my mission to de-spook the spiders. The best place to start? The parents! The fears are usually passed on to the kids from their mums and dads who might cry out “don’t touch it!” pointing at a spider.

Although I usually talk about creatures present in Morden Hall Park, I will venture outside this small part of the world to give you a fuller picture of the marvel that is the spider.

Just to give you a taste of this wonder, here are a few facts. Firstly, scientists found that spider webs are so strong, they can resist hurricanes. Spider silk is 5 times tougher than steel of the same thickness. The spider webs are cleverly built so that even if one thread breaks, the rest of the web remains unaffected.  

 

NURSERY WEB SPIDER

Female Nursery Web Spider with her egg sac.

Female Nursery Web Spider with her egg sac.

 HUNTER. These spiders do not use webs to catch prey. Instead, they just wait patiently on leaf until an unsuspecting creature walks by.

 BOYFRIEND. In some spider species, the female eats the male. To save themselves from such fate, male Nursery web spiders will catch an insect, wrap it in a web and then go looking for a mate. Once they find her, they present her with the thoughtful gift. In actual fact, it is just a distraction for her so she doesn’t eat the male.

 MOTHER. The mother will have a sac full of eggs and she will carry them around in her mouth until they are almost ready to hatch. They she weaves a special nursery web and stays with them until they grow up to protect them.

 

EUROPEAN GARDEN SPIDER

European Garden Spider on its web.

European Garden Spider on its web.

HUNTER. They use a spider web to catch bigger insects like flies, butterflies and wasps not bothering with smaller flying things.

MOTHER. Once the female spider lays her eggs, she wraps them in an egg sack and stays with them to guard them from predators. Determined to protect her eggs, she does not leave them thus never goes hunting for her own food. Having sacrificed herself, she dies in late autumn before her baby-spiders hatch. They emerge in May the next year. 

 

CELLAR SPIDER

Cellar Spider in the tool shed at Morden Hall Park.

Cellar Spider in the tool shed at Morden Hall Park.

These spiders have a trick up their sleeve to scare off potential predators. They shake their web like crazy in the hopes that the violent movement with frighten the attacker.

 

AND NOW FOR WONDERS FROM ACROSS THE WORLD

VEGETERIAN, ANT-DODGING SPIDER. Scientists have discovered a spider in Central America and Mexico that predominantly eats greens. That’s amazing considering that there are thousands of spider species and all are carnivorous.

Not only do these spiders eat plants but they are also agile ant-dodgers. Both the ants and the spiders live off one particular tree species – an acacia. The ants protect the tree from creatures that want to eat it so the spiders have to be very sneaky and good at running away after snatching up some food – the nutritious white Beltian bodies at the end of tiny leaves.

 

TRAPDOR SPIDER

There are around fifty species of these creative predators, living in Asia, Australia, Central America South Africa and in Southern Europe.

HUNTER. Spider hides under trapdoor having set up a network of trip wires around the lair. Prey crawls or walks past, catches the wires. Spider is alerted of movement, jumps up from under the trap door and catches prey.

 

DECOY-BUILDING SPIDER

There is a species of spider in Taiwan that builds life-size copies of itself as a decoy and that way possibly avoiding becoming prey to predators.

A spider with a model of itself.

A spider with a model of itself.

 

 

Now that we’ve seen how gruesome and clever and tragic spiders can be, we can have a look at the works of art they can create. Without further introductions, here’s a gallery of spiderwebs.

 

Best wishes from your

spider-loving Wildlife Correspondent

 

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A park full of fun-guys!

During my internship at Morden Hall Park I peered at many logs and started finding weird and amazing mushrooms of all shapes and sizes. A couple of months later I ended up at the Linnean society sitting through a whole day of lectures about fungi (ecology, evolution, economic value etc.). That day I got a text from a friend asking “How are the lectures? Did you meet lots of fun guys?”. I was talking to a young man attending the lectures and he shared the pun he got that day: one of his friends hoped the lectures would spore him on.

Bad jokes and puns aside… I learnt a lot during those lectures and some of it was rather discouraging. Some species of mushrooms are very, very difficult to tell apart. Even professional field mycologists (fancy word for people who study fungi) sometimes have trouble telling them apart and have to use a microscope in the end. It became even more complicated with the advent of DNA sequencing techniques where species that scientists thought they had grouped correctly, in fact belong to a different group.

This entry, however, is meant to demonstrate how fascinating and diverse fungi are.

Here are a few I find completely mind-boggling. One of them is almost snow-white and fuzzy, another looks like a spooky orange eye with little eyelashes all around it. Then there is another white fungus that has a very interesting gauze-like pattern.

Fungi are a world of beautiful colours and textures, weird shapes! Amongst the species below you can find a velvety fungus (Jelly ear if I’m not wrong) of a lovely deep purple, an elegant yellow mushroom and a mushroom like a dotty umbrella. Frills are also present in the fungi world, just like the one on the beige coloured mushroom.

Sometimes you can discover a whole “crowd” of mushrooms (not a strict scientific term)! Here are the grey Coprinus and the orange Coprinella mushrooms I found hiding away on and under logs. It turns out most of these Coprinus and Coprinellus (genera, the level above species) mushrooms are very hard to identify down to species level.  

Mushrooms interact with all sorts of living things, starting from the live or dead trees they live on and feed off, to the slugs and snails that eat them, the mushrooms. Fungi also enter into a very close relationship with algae, thus forming lichens, the funny colourful growths we see on tree bark and roofs. I never miss the opportunity to extoll slugs, the poor creature hated and misunderstood by everyone. Therefore, here’s a picture of a slug having a nice meal of mushroom.

From dead trees to other decaying matter, fungi do a great job for us. Some fungi we never see – they are the ones hooking up to plant roots and helping plants get the nutrients they need from the soil. Overall, fungi contain wonderful enzymes that help them break down stuff that other living organisms can’t – feathers for example. Fungi might one day help us get rid of all the pollution we’ve created around us with the help of these great enzymes.

When talking about biodiversity and the wonders of nature, let us no longer omit fungi. Let is be a planet for all, for “plants, fungi and animals”.

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What bugs me…

is that most of the time all the attention is given to prettier insects such as butterflies whilst the rest of the creepy crawlies are ignored.

Don’t get me wrong, butterflies are great, but now we are at a stage where it’s quite clear that in nature everything is connected and every creature has its place an a role to play. Therefore, in order to fit into the scheme of things most of these under-appreciated invertebrates lead fascinating lives.

Bugs are actually are doing quite well in terms of popularity not only because of the striking number of species but also because of their charming clumsiness and sometimes bright colours.

Here are some of the bugs that live at Morden Hall Park.

Although I haven’t got a photo to show you, the famous Stag beetles also live in the park.

Have you embraced a creepy crawly today?

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The wetlands and its creatures

Since I started as an intern at Morden Hall Park, I have not properly written about the wetlands even though it is the jewel of this park in terms of ecological importance. I would like to make up for that by dedicating a long entry to this wonderful habitat.

It was much more welcoming and open in spring. The vegetation was short and you did not feel like you were venturing into the jungle. There was one section, however, that did make me feel as if I was having an adventure in a tropical swamp.

A story from the early days in the wetlands

Once, I was exploring the wetlands after having gone on a course about newts (kindly provided by Froglife free of charge! http://www.froglife.org/). I was passing a clearing in vegetation which meant that there was an area of open water the size of a small pond before me. All of a sudden, it seemed to me that I was something wiggle just under the surface. It must be a newt! I thought. I must get closer! I assumed that the open water bit would be deeper than the rest (I had wellies on, you see, not waders) so I cautiously felt the ground and as I realised my exploring foot was sinking deeper and deeper and that it’s time to retreat, it turned out it was too late. I was in this random hole in the middle of the wetlands with the water to my waist, phone also submerged.

The phone survived and I managed to get a pair of dry trousers. The volunteers chuckled and suggested I don’t tell anyone the tale lest I be made fun of. Well, tales are for telling.

And now…

Now that it’s autumn and the wetlands have turned into a veritable jungle of reed, I made another trip in there. No falling into holes this time.

Finally, and most importantly, here are a few of the creatures I met on my expeditions into the wetlands.

The story of the wetlands does not end there. Earlier this summer I had a fun outing at the London Wetland Centre and got advice on how to manage our wetlands. Year by year a section of the wetland area will be cleared of vegetation on rotation. This is to avoid a build-up of matter that in the end leads to the drying up of the place. Besides, the sections at different stages of growth increase variety of habitat for wildlife. The willows that go quite crazy and take over will also be coppiced on rotation. Thus we can have materials for all sorts of activities in the park and the willows won’t encroach on the rest of the habitat.

 

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