Unsurprisingly, given that it is our smallest bird, the goldcrest is easily overlooked, but there are actually quite a lot of them in the wood at the moment. This is because, perhaps even more surprisingly, it is a partial migrant; that is to say, some goldcrests remain here all year round, but others arrive here in autumn from Scandinavia, along with redwings and fieldfares, which are all escaping the harsh winter climate of northern and eastern Europe. It’s staggering to think these diminutive birds can make such long-distance movements, including a dangerous crossing of the North Sea, and it is hard to appreciate just how tiny the goldcrest is: its abundant covering of feathers belies quite how small the body is, and weighing in at just six grams it is lighter than a 2p coin. Fortunately for us, they are moderately vocal while searching for insects amongst their favoured evergreen vegetation so, though they may be out of sight, feeding high up in a conifer, they often betray their presence with high-pitched calls (though not good news for older birdwatchers who have difficulty hearing these frequencies). I’m not sure how widespread this nickname is, but the goldcrest has been referred to as a woodcock pilot, due to its arrival here often coinciding with a fall of woodcock, which are also fleeing the Arctic winter. The Linnean name for the goldcrest is a repetitive Regulus regulus, which means “little king little king”, and supposedly derives from Aristotle’s having proclaimed it king of the birds, a title later passed to the wren. Incidentally, the Latin name for the firecrest, a much scarcer relative, is Regulus ignicapillus, meaning the fire-haired little king, an obvious reference to its striking orange crest. When displaying, the males of both species can raise the feathers of their crests, making the colours appear even brighter. Although commonest in conifer woodland, the goldcrest is quite at home in any habitat that has good evergreen cover, and in Blean Woods they are most likely to be encountered in the shallow valley cutting across the centre of the reserve, where many of the oaks are festooned with ivy.
This autumn has generally been credited with being a good one for fungi, but my impression at Blean is that there have been large quantities of a rather limited number of species, such as Cortinarius. What haven’t been in evidence are Russula species, with their geometrically spaced gills, and caps often in colourful shades of red, green, violet and yellow. But the species I have missed the most is the epitome of a toadstool, the one beloved of Big Ears and a whole host of children’s book characters: the fly agaric. This wonderful species, with its white-flecked, bright scarlet cap, can be abundant some autumns, the caps occasionally the size of small dinner plates, but this year I have hardly seen any. Almost invariably seen growing in association with Scots pine or birch, the abundance of the latter at Blean means this is an ideal site for the species, but fungi aren’t like plants, which reliably produce flowers every year; indeed, they aren’t that much like animals either, and are usually classed as a separate, third kingdom. Although the part of the fungus that we see is termed the fruiting body, as it produces spores to propagate itself, and so is analogous to a flowerhead, its relationship to the whole fungus is rather different. In plants, the underground part (the root system) is primarily a means for the aerial portion to gain nutrients, so enabling it to grow; in fungi, by contrast, the hidden part, or mycelium, is the main part of the organism, and the bit that we see is merely an ephemeral device to ensure its dispersal. Our understanding of fungi is really only just beginning to take off but, it now seems, not only do they recycle nutrients by breaking down plant and animal remains, but they are also instrumental in enabling plants to extract vital minerals from the soil. Fungi are therefore rather more than just pretty homes for pixies.
Goldcrest by Dave Smith
The inevitable fly agaric photo!
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