Puffballs, Prints and Pellets

Due to a lecture cancellation, Zahrah and I seized the day and paid Watchtree Nature Reserve a second visit. As the sun was actually shining, we made haste before the English climate returned to its usual cheeriness.

As we’d found several roe deer skulls at the reserve last time, we headed straight to Pow Wood and began to forage. My first find was a cluster of puffballs (Lycoperdon sp.). I find these little guys are extremely difficult to identify, but they’re always fun to see and remind me of terrestrial sea urchin shells.

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Further into the wood I was extraordinarily excited to identify more fungi. This ID lark is slowly getting easier! I found a patch of jelly ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) on some dead wood, and wrestled for some time with said dead wood to get close enough for my macro lens to work its magic.

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Shortly afterwards, I found several violent red blooms amongst the green foliage. The only scarlet elf cup (Sarcoscypha austriaca) I’d seen before was the size of my little fingernail, so to see some two inches wide was fabulous.

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Finally, my eye caught on a bright patch of yellow as we untangled our clothes and hair from the low-hanging branches of the pine trees and, completely forgetting my wildlife voice, I shrieked “witches’ butter!”. In my defence, Tremella mesenterica is a really intriguing fungus and it’s the first I’ve seen up close.

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In addition to our success with fungi, we also did some pretty good tracking. Putting the tricks we’d learned from Alex to the test, we found some deer tracks in the mud. As we found roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) skulls in Pow Wood on our last visit, we deduced that the same species had left these prints. Our suspicions were confirmed when we saw a flash of white and watched as three female roe deer darted into the forest, white bob tails stark against the brown and green of the trees.

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Incidentally, I didn’t realise that I was on a walk with Hawkeye. In just a few hours, Zahrah found two roe deer skulls, what we suspect was a sheep skull, and a headless skeleton with beautifully pristine white vertebrae. I guess I’d been too distracted by the fungi. We scooped up the bones into a plastic bag, ready to douse them in hydrogen peroxide when we got back home.

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Despite my ineptitude at finding skulls, I did find a collection of pellets at the foot of a tree along with a discarded white egg shell. The combination of these two signs suggested that the tree was home to a nest. After some research, I discovered that barn owls (Tyto alba) are known for their stark white eggs and dark, charcoal grey pellets, so perhaps this was our bird.

Back at the house, I dissected the pellets and in just three I recovered the remains of six rodent skulls, seven mandibles (lower jaws), several loose rodent incisors and a variety of leg bones. I attempted to identify who the skulls belonged to, but sadly they all looked the same. Still, it was fascinating to see how many kills the owl had made; there were at least two skulls in each pellet. This indicates that the bird was hunting regularly, as a barn owl usually regurgitates 1-2 pellets each night (Barn Owl Trust).

In addition, the egg shell I found had no yolk, suggesting the chick hatched naturally and wasn’t predated. If this were the case, the edges of the shell would have been pushed in and parts of the membrane would still be visible.

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In short, it was a very successful day’s foraging! It’s amazing how much you can see when you know what to look for.

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