Country diary: Rare bird visit delights local ornithologists

Great egret
Great egret

What a stroke of luck! Deciding to call at Johnson’s Pond beside Burniston Road, we parked beside the cattle field at 3.40pm. Noted for its herons, we counted eight to 16 in all. Across the pond, something white stirred behind tussocks of grass. Was it a swan, goose or white heron? No – it proved to be a great egret! An ornithologist arrived and confirmed this rare bird to the area. By 4pm bird-watchers began arriving. News travels fast!

Autumn colours were ablaze, and amongst crimson haws remained declining numbers of scarlet rosehips. In 1934 it was discovered that these fruits of our wild roses contained more Vitamin C than any other fruit or vegetable. Four times as much as blackberries, and 20 times as much as oranges! At school we were each allowed a teaspoonful of rosehip syrup on our rice pudding.

The medlar is a very similar fruit. It occurs very occasionally in hedgerows in the south, usually gnarled and twisted by the wind. We have discovered only one bush at Wrench Green near Hackness. The fruit is like a giant brown rosehip, with the five-pointed calyx protruding from the top of the fruit like a crown. Our climate isn’t warm enough to ripen them sufficiently to eat. They prefer a Mediterranean climate. Apparently they need to be half-rotten before being edible. When ripe, the brown flesh may be scraped out of the skin and eaten with cream and sugar, or baked whole like apples.

We’ve found only one edible fungus recently – the shaggy ink cap or lawyer’s wig. It’s usually quite common, growing in fields, road verges and even lawns from June to November.

I found a beauty by the roadside, with a cylindrical white cap covered with shaggy, ‘woollen’ scales, just like a judge’s wig or white busby. As it opened later, it resembled a limp umbrella. The gills were white at first.

Later, they turned pink and finally black as the cap opened and dissolved into an inky fluid. We love them gently stewed in milk and butter or cream, with salt and pepper to season. Some folk find them best turned into ketchup. Do try them.

Growing along a grass verge beside conifer woodland was a large group of the red and white-spotted toadstool which features so prominently in children’s fairy-tale books. The fly agaric (Amanita Muscaria) is an easily recognised toad-stool with its scarlet cap flecked with white scales, and its white stalk, or stipe with a prominent ring. The gills are well-spaced and rather fragile. Seek this fungus in birch and pine woods from later summer throughout autumn. Don’t be tempted to eat it. Since the 13th century it has been used in several ways to kill flies. It contains a powerful hallucinogen which is poisonous.