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.
I’m delighted to welcome back guest blogger Tom Mason this week with a fascinating look at iPhone photography. With photography the flavor of the month in the Nature’s Home mailbag and a record submission of reader photos on the back of the Autumn issue, I hope this will encourage even more readers to get snapping. As someone who regularly finds himself in a position with a great species in front of me, and no camera, my trusty phone has helped me with many a retrospective ID - and also the occasional decent shot! Here’s Tom and some more of his superb photography…
The modern age is a wonderful tech filled place. We have more technology now than ever, and each year it develops with mind boggling pace to deliver sci-fi dreams of past generations, into the pockets of today. With this, I’m always annoyed when people say “my camera isn’t good enough”… That’s why in this month’s blog, I’m going to kick out the DSLRs and bring it back to basics. Nature photography on an iPhone.
The advantage of always having your phone with you is that great nature moments don't get missed. Photo by Tom Mason.
A little disclaimer first. I know that an iPhone in most situations will not be as good as a DSLR for nature photography, but it doesn't matter. Whether you are just starting out or a full time pro, photographing on your iPhone (other brands are available…) is simply great. It’s good for developing as a photographer, it’s attainable for all and of course its a boatload of fun! I’m lucky enough to shoot with some top class equipment day to day but I still always shoot images on my iPhone. It’s my visual diary, a way of taking inspiration as well as putting photographic power in my pocket no matter where I am, and as wildlife enthusiast, we all know great wildlife sightings can turn up at unexpected moments!
The basics of iPhone photographyPretty much everyone knows how to use a phone camera…Open it up point it and shoot, right? Well if you want pretty blurry, poorly focused images then yes, but actually there are a few things you can do to ensure you get a much better shot. First up, let’s get holding the phone in the right way. Stop holding it in one hand and treat it like a camera! Using both hand securely round the frame will majorly increase the strength of your grip giving you instantly better results. To add to your technique keep your elbows tucked into your body to sure up your position even more.
When shooting an image make sure to tap focus, not only to get everything sharp where you want it, but additionally to get the exposure reading from that section on the frame. Often clamping the phone in your left hand, between the thumb and forefinger and then placing your right middle finger along the back gives the best holding position. It also leaves your forefinger free to press the shutter button (up or down volume control) and your thumb for focus. Now already your phone will start to feel more like a camera.
A great shot for a DSLR, but amazing for an iPhone. Photo by Tom Mason.
If you want to get really fancy and take iPhone photography to another level you can of course get hold of a small tripod to help hold your phone even more securely. Some special phone clamps are available that are excellent if you want to sure up your camera in low light or remove vibrations. An extra tip is to use your phones headset as a remote release to reduce vibrations even further. Excellent for trying some macro or close up photography.
Subjects to tryNow with your technique sorted its time to get out and shoot.
In terms of subjects especially when related to wildlife you are going to be limited by what you can get close to due to the wide focal length of the camera. Often the best results come from shooting landscapes, close up macro of insects or plants and abstract or patten images.
Never miss a great aerial moment by taking Tom's tips. Photo by Tom Mason.
Subjects of course can certainly present themselves, whilst walking home one evening from a party I found a toad crossing the road. With none of my camera gear with me I simply used my phone to get some close up images, adding the light from the camera to act as my primary source of illumination in the dark. Phone photography really is all about adapting and using your initiative. Something that will pay dividend when you go out shooting with your normal kit too.
Another subject that I have always enjoyed shooting is that of aerial landscapes and patterns. When flying my gear is often all tucked away for travel but the iPhone can pick out some excellent images out of the cabin window, something to keep you entertained when heading home or off on holiday, especially if there are delays when you are coming in to land!
What are you waiting for?Phones are a fantastic photographic tool, allowing us to document our day, record visual reminders and shoot opportunities as they happen. Wildlife can appear at a moments notice but even a smart phone can be a wonderful photographic tool to create some excellent images. Photography isn't all about the best gear, the big shiny lenses and cameras, its about taking images and having fun. So next time you see something awesome and you don't have a camera, pull our your phone and give it a go. Of course on top of all that with todays great apps and social media, you can edit on sight and share it with the world!
Don't forget to share your shots. Photo by Tom Mason.
I would love to hear your thoughts, do you use your phone for shooting images out in the field, have you got any great images on your smart phone? You can tweet me @tommasonphoto or find out more about my work on www.tommasonphoto.com