This is the first entry in my Nature Boy Journal, documenting my thoughts and observations as I explore my local wildlife and encourage you to do the same - find out more here.
An Unexpected Journey
It was seven in the morning when the blare of my alarm pulled me from my sleep. I'd been engaged in an unusual dream in which I was a frog being chased by an oversized cat. Relieved as I was to find this was not the case, I'm still by no means a morning person, and was not in the least bit pleased to find out it was a Saturday and I'd forgotten to disable my alarm. But the damage was done - I was awake now, so I thought I may as well curl up and spend half the day watching TikTok in bed (despite my best efforts to curb this addiction).
But when I opened the curtains, bright sunlight flooded my room, and my mind changed in an instant. I've come to learn that a proper sunny day is something to be cherished here in the UK. They don't come around all too often. So instead of numbing my brain on the internet, I'd set out into nature and spend the day searching for wildlife. I packed my trusty green backpack (all the best things in this world are green) with my camera, tripod, some water, and a meal deal sandwich. Chicken and bacon, in case you're wanting to cast judgement...
Into the Woods
It took 20 minutes by train to get to Beaulieu Road - an unassuming station situated at the heart of the New Forest. But once straying from the platform, I found myself gazing out at wild heathland, dotted with ponies grazing on the scrub while a winding river wound its way between them. A painting of verdant greens and pale blue shimmering in the river-water. I stood at the top of this vast wilderness, breathing deep the warm air that blew wild and free across its great expanse, and felt at once quite small. It was a good feeling. At last, I was immersed in pure natural beauty. No screech of tyres nor chatter of crowds could be heard, not one skyscraper loomed on any horizon, and the air did not hang heavy with exhaust fumes. This place was a paradise.
Following a moment of wonder, I set out along the dirt path, aiming for a distant copse where a group of trees were blooming with new growth after a long and arduous winter. To enter the woods was to pass into another world. An enchanted forest, torn straight from the pages of some fairytale and presented to me here as a towering woodland of ancient trees with wizened faces peering out amidst the old bark...
Drifts of pollen and flying insects floated between the dappled shadows cast against the forest floor. Meanwhile, the canopy above sparkled as the branches swayed against a gleaming sky. It was like something from the mind of Hayao Miyazaki, as if I had lost my way and somehow stumbled into Totoro's forest. Of course, I wasn't complaining!
On a moss-covered log, I noticed an oddly familiar-looking gelatinous blob. It resembled a lump of frogspawn, but what on earth was it doing here 5 metres above a stagnating puddle? The answer, it seems, has something to do with the feeding behaviours of frog predators! A quick google led me to this article from The Exeter Daily, which proposed that such a discovery may be due to frog predators neglecting to eat the ovaries. The eggs or spawn within expand significantly when in contact with water, which can give the predators an upset stomach. Thus, it's not as uncommon as you might think to find the spawn of common frogs in trees - predatory birds will use these locations as a perch to sit and eat their prey, leaving the ovaries behind which later expand and burst when exposed to the elements.
Star Slime: the expanded ovaries and spawn of a common frog (Rana temporaria) most likely left over by a predatory bird on a mossy log deep in the New Forest.
Treading carefully along a winding path between the trees, there came a noise. The rustling of leaves. I turned on instinct, and there before me were two young grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) (baby squirrels are called kits or kittens, though I'm not too sure if these ones were too old to be classified as such). They were utterly still. I think they were convinced - even as I stared right back in disbelief - that I had not spotted them, so there they stayed, unmoving, even as I approached the tree and set up my camera.
Musical Statues: At first the kittens froze, thinking I wouldn't spot them.
Cover Blown: Here's the other of the two squirrel kittens, clinging to the bark of an old beech tree.
Not wanting to startle the poor creatures, and feeling a sudden craving for my sandwich, I moved on. A sturdy but decaying log would be my bench. I perched atop it, admiring a beautiful lilac oysterling (Panus conchatus) beside me - a charismatic fungi with a short stem, oyster-shaped cap, and beautiful forking gills! Sadly, though they resemble the delicious oyster mushroom, they're not generally considered edible or I might've brought them home for tea!
The fruiting body of a lilac oysterling, blooming out of a fallen deciduous log.
A Serpent(?) in the Woods
That chapter title is somewhat inaccurate, as I'll explain in a moment... but indeed my next wildlife sighting on this outing presented itself to me as I was halfway through my lunch! Once again, I heard the sound of rustling in the scrub at the base of the log. Reaching down into the mound of dead leaves, something rather smooth brushed against my fingers. Without thinking, I gently picked up whatever it was to get a better look, and to my surprise, I was holding not one but two slow-worms (Anguis fragilis) locked together. The smaller individual had the head of the larger one firmly in its jaws - a behaviour indicative of slow-worm courtship - and he showed no signs of letting go of her.
Not wanting to *ahem* ruin the mood, I set them both down at the base of the log and set up my camera to record some footage. "Perving" on a pair of legless lizards was not how I intended to spend my Saturday afternoon, but nonetheless this was a behaviour I'd never observed for myself before, and I was fascinated! Sadly, I think I may have interrupted them, as they separated shortly after and slithered away together into the thicket.
Lovers' Embrace: Two mating slow-worms locked together; the smaller male bites the head of the female and they intertwine their bodies for as long as 10 hours!
Legless Lizards: Despite their appearance, slow-worms are not snakes but are legless lizards - they have detachable tails, true eyelids, and ear openings, all of which snakes lack!
Life in the Log Pile
Not too far from where I spotted the slow-worms, I stumbled upon an enormous crumbling log which looked long-decayed. Now, anybody who knows me will tell you I suffer from a strange addiction - I'm unable to walk past a log without lifting it up and taking a look. The ecologically rich micro-habitats found under rocks and logs were the first ecosystems I had access to as a child, and to this day they fill me with childlike wonder! As I curled my fingers under the edge of this log, a giddy excitement took over at the thought of what I might find dwelling below. And I was not disappointed in the slightest!
A lesser stag beetle (Dorcus parallelipipedus) crawls away into the safety of decaying wood.
Thaddeus Toad esq: A young common toad (Bufo bufo).
Exposed: A goat moth (Cossus cossus) caterpillar, which had concealed itself away in rotting wood where it will remain for several years before pupating.
Through the Mire
It was only as the sun began to set beyond the tree-line that I realised the time! It was 8:00pm, and the last train that would take me from Beaulieu Road back home would be arriving in half an hour! I packed away my tripod, gently turned the logs back over into the positions I had found them, and set off for the station. Foolishly, I thought I'd try a shortcut, and instead of retracing the winding trail that had brought me here through moor and woodland, I set out across an open expanse of seemingly dry grass that stretched out between me and my destination. The grass came up to my hips, and the ground beneath was uneven. But a few steps later and my foot fell through into a deep, muddy bog! Wincing, I hauled my sticky wet leg out from the hole and tried to steady myself. It was no use - before I knew it, I was knee-deep in a lake, my shoes and trousers ruined.
I'm not entirely sure what compelled me to keep trailing onwards rather than turning back, but that's what I did anyway, not caring anymore how wet or muddy I became! It was tiring work heaving my tired legs from the thick muds that clung around my ankles, but it was rather exciting. I felt like a true explorer, crossing an unchartered wilderness! I know it's not quite the same, but hey, let me have my fun...
We Can't Go Over It: A view of the sunset over the marshes I (foolishly) waded through to get to the station.
Squelch, squirch! Squelch, squirch!
View of the heathland, taken at sunset as I was returning to the station.
At long last, I made it to the station and boarded my train! Worn out, but ecstatic at how much I'd seen that day. It had been a wonderfully unexpected adventure, but one that I had welcomed with open arms. Until the next time!
Click here for more of my Nature Boy Journals.
All photos: © Leo Richards (NWF) 2022. Please contact me if you wish to use them, I'll almost definitely say yes :)