Monday 3 February 2014

Week 3: Life Around The Oak

A grey, overcast morning. I decided to take a closer look at the life immediately on and around the Oak. Westbrook Hay is a popular place for dog walking, walking and running. One chap was successfully combing all 3, I think. Obviously, the Oak does not exist in splendid isolation and is in fact home to and supported by all manner of organisms, seen and unseen. A couple of the more conspicuous connections are the two plants sprouting near its base. The 3 species no doubt share a complex root system, involving a mutualistic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. Although commonplace, I still find this plant-fungus relationship amazing:

Above ground, the plant does all the hard work in terms of capturing the sun’s energy via photosynthesis, converting it into useful carbohydrates. Below ground, the roots of the plant are infected with a fungus which has the superb ability to seek out water and to absorb high levels of nutrients from the soil. The fungi feeds on the plant’s carbohydrates. The plant feeds on the nutrients and water secured by the fungi. Both gain and thrive as a result. Beautiful!

A is an Elder, which is largely dead and home to interesting fungus and lichen, two of which I photographed, below.

    Common Orange Lichen (Xanthoria parietina)
    Jelly Ear (Auricularia aricula-judae)

Knowing very little nothing about these species, I discovered that the Common Orange lichen is highly tolerant of nitrogen rich environments, especially where ammonia is present, and thus, it is common on trees and buildings near farm land: the slope above Dellfield is home to grazing sheep. As for the Jelly Ear fungus, it is predominantly, although not exclusively, found on Elder. A useful fact to know if you want to identify the (dead) wood it's inhabiting. Unfortunately, the specimens I found were past their best, dried up and crusty. It does look rather different when it's fresh. Wikipedia has all sorts of wonderful tidbits about the origin of its name and how the fungus was used in folk medicine.

The second plant, B, is a Hawthorn, with its long spines and bright red berries. Around its roots and those of the Oak, are the remnants of last year's fallen acorns (with a bit of sheep's wool thrown in for good measure). To my surprise and delight, an additional life supported by the tree came in the guise of a small mammal, darting from the base of the Hawthorn, into its home under the main Oak trunk. I suspect it was a little Wood Mouse, nibbling on the acorns. Unfortunately, s/he was far too quick for my eyes or camera!

Overhead, a Red Kite was calling and, in nearby trees, a couple of Mistle Thrushes were rattling away.

Finally, a shot of the "chosen" branch of the oak, backlit by the densely cloudy sky. I'm not sure yet whether the idea to photograph a single branch weekly was a good one or not. I'll see how it develops.

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