Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Mushroom Sampler

A short hike on South Mountain after a day or two of rain yields a nice sample of fungi diversity. I did not harvest the fungi to enable a close look,  obtain a spore print, bruise or cut the flesh to see color changes, record where each was growing and what type of tree was near, nor note other details that would have helped me better identify the species.

Fungi identification can be challenging. Some similar species require microscopic examination or even chemical analysis to distinguish between them. Some species are so obvious, finding a name is relatively easy, just leaf through the field guide and the photo jumps out at you like a suspect in a line up. So it was with this Orange Pinwheel Marasmius (Marasmius siccus). It falls in the category of "Small Fragile Gilled Mushrooms" in the Audubon field guide. The next pix shows the gills inside the cap.

This next one looks very common and familiar but I could not find an absolute look-alike in my Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms.   The rosy colore, concave surface,  smooth pale stalk, and attached (to the stalk) gills point to its identity. But again a lack of complete observation impairs a positive ID.  Is the bottom of the stalk bulb shaped, for example?
A Russula?  False Caesar's Mushroom?
Orange Coral Fungi --this group is easily recognized
by its resemblance to undersea phenomena
A type of chanterelle? Chanterelles include choice edible 'shrooms. I've sampled them at a meeting of the West Virginia Mycological Society. They were incorporated into a cream cheese dip! Although I was surrounded by experts and knowledgeable amateurs, I was a bit fearful having never eaten wild mushrooms before, so not sure I let my taste buds experience their subtle flavors as I might have.
 This ones a mystery, no radial gills on the underside, instead it appears fibrous, even hairy.
 Another fragile gilled mushroom, picturesquely
posed on a bed of moss!
 Likely a polypore--that bears some resemblance to a fungi called Hen of the Woods.
Its green cast give it a lettuce like appearance.
 This mass of golden clubs appears to have just thrust itself from the ground beneath the leaf litter.

Deep fleshy cups on this one 
Springing from a decaying log 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Botanical Bonanza of May 2013

This lengthy, wet and cool spring of 2013 is making the plants of South Mountain very happy it seems. My walk on May 19 gathered a virtual bouquet of botanical lovelies with a few insects and a spider thrown in.
 Not sure about this one but it looks like a mint or a bergamot. Possibly Cat Mint.

 One of my favorite ferns, the majestic Cinnamon Fern with erect fertile frond.  Saw many of these! 
These are very large ferns that branch out from a central point.They get their common name from these Cinnamon colored fronds or maybe from the rust colored fuzz that clings to their lower stems. Gold finches use the fuzz to line their nests! It is incredibly soft.  It probably protects the plant from munching insects.
 Common Whitetail Dragonfly male in his characteristic pose.  I love the windowpanes in his wings (Clear areas).
 A composite flower, possibly Daisy Fleabane, with a resident crab spider. Note the other blossoms with rays folded inward. If you look really closely at these types of composite blossoms, you will see that each yellow dot in the center is an individual flower. A hand lens or microscope will take you to another dimension--an insects eye view.
 Rattlesnake Fern fertile frond with an insect visitor. Each of the little green baubles on the "rattle" is filled with spores. When the frond ripens and the air is dry they will pop open and the spores will be wind dispersed.
 Mayapple blossom starting to fade. The flowers hang down like bells, hidden under large umbrella-like leaves, so its necessary to turn the flower upward to see the insides. The green pod will grow to resemble a tiny green apple
 Interrupted Fern, the fertile portions carrying the sporangia "interrupt" the leaflets arranged on the stem of the frond.
 Locust tree blossoms.  Each blossom has a cup or inverted hood hiding the stamens. I want to observe how pollinators access the nectar on these. They give off a nice fragrance.
 New York Fern, easy to identify because unlike most similar ferns in this area, the frond diminishes in width at both the top and the bottom. As in "New Yorkers burn the candle at both ends."
 New York fern grows in patches rather than single clumps as do Cinnamon and Interrupted Fern.
Some type of vetch. Its purple but didn't match the picture of native Purple Vetch in my Peterson Guide. Possibly an alien.
 A view of Rattlesnake Fern in whole. You can just make out the fertile frond extending upwards from the center.
 Rue Anemone with Common Wood Sorrel (clover-like leaves) in background.
The Sorrel also blooms in white. Anemone in ancient Greek means "daughter of the wind" The plants in this genus have leaves that tremble in the slightest breeze, and many of the 150 species are referred to as "windflowers."
 Solomon's Seal.  This has flowers that droop, unlike the very similar Solomon's Plume, which in bloom has a spray of yellowish white at the end of the stem. One has to peep under the leaves to find these! You don't see the "bells" just walking by unless you recognize the plant from its leaves.
 Rattlesnake Plantain, Goodyera pubescens, in the Orchidaceae family.
Rare to see the white orchid florescence since the deer find them very tasty.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Skunk Cabbage Flowers February 2011

Amidst patches of ice in a marshy area of Greenbrier State Park, the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidis) is flowering when I visit on February 16, 2011.  This is one of my favorite plants because it is so unique.
Emerging so early in spring means the plant needs a way to withstand the lingering cold and potential snows. The plant stores carbohydrates in its large root system. The increased respiration that occurs during new growth enables it to burn these carbs and produce heat--at times enough to melt the snow and ice that may be surrounding it!
Skunk Cabbage blossoms before its large leaves show their tips.  A mottled ear-like form called a spathe emerges. Its color ranges from green to purple. Within the spathe is a globular spadix, where the tiny flowers extend like pins on a pin cushion. The temperature within the spathe may be as much as to 27 degrees (F) above the outside air.
Skunk Cabbage emits a foetid odor. Plants that smell disagreeable to us are usually pollinated by insects that are drawn to the scent of decomposing material.  Small gnats and flies emerge around the same time as the Skunk Cabbage and frequent the same habitat. They buzz from spathe to spathe to sip the nectar on the tiny flowers, thereby spreading pollen and enabling the plant's reproductive cycle. Larger insects may be able to squeeze their way into the spathe but then can find themselves too large to exit the opening, and become trapped.

 The leaves of the Skunk Cabbage push out of the ground in a tightly wrapped cone, and grow quickly, each plant soon covering more ground than can be encircled with your arms. By June this site will be thick with Skunk Cabbage and waist high with arching fronds of Cinnamon Fern.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Gobbler Wild

On December 31, 2010, not far from the entrance to Greenbrier State Park, I spied a small flock of wild turkeys wandering through the woods.   Meleagris gallopavo is not the prettiest of North America's native birds.   
Mounted bird at Smithsonian Naturalist Center

Both males and females have featherless heads.  Adult males develop a fleshy appendage beneath the jaw called a wattle, and growths on their necks called caruncles.  They also sport a triangular protrusion from the top of their head called a snood.  When a male turkey is distressed or in breeding mode, the wattle, caruncles, and snood become engorged with blood, turn red and enlarge. The snood may extend until it resembles a long fat juicy worm draped over the male's beak. 
This feature may detract from his appearance to humans, but likely makes him irresistible to female turkeys.   

Even to humans, however, wild turkey plumage can be quite beautiful. A male's feathers are glossy, glittering in shades of bronze, green, gold, red and purple.  Females have more muted plumage in browns and greys.  Males are frequently depicted in the iconic "display" posture, body feathers ruffled and puffed, barred wings outstretched and trailing seductively, with tail erect and fanned like a peacock.  Termed gobblers or toms, males have a diverse repertoire beyond the eponymous gobble, including grunts, purrs, whines, cackles, yelps, and a rapid drumming. In breeding season, like many birds, they use both display and vocalizing to lure females and establish territory. 

For habitat, wild turkeys like open woodland and grassland where they can fly close to the ground, and easily find perches. Turkeys prefer to eat hard mast (seeds of forest trees such as acorns and nuts). They also forage other types of seeds, berries, roots and grasses, and may devour insects, small amphibians or reptiles.  South Mountain's oak trees produced an unusual bounty of acorns this year. Not surprisingly, these turkeys looked well-fed even in the midst of winter.

Midsummer in 2010, I had an even closer encounter. It was a warm afternoon and I was absent-mindedly picking and eating wine berries growing along the trail. I threaded my way deeper and deeper into the bramles, tempted by the sight of more ripe berries. Suddenly there was an explosive sound at my feet, and a huge whirring shape shot high into the air.  Just as suddenly, the turkey (for what else could it be?) dropped and disappeared into the brush beyond.  Heart thumping, I glanced down and saw about a dozen gleaming eggs directly in front of me. It was like finding a treasure. 
I took just a moment to admire the perfect ovoids. Each one seemed about twice the size of a grocer's extra- large. Cinnamon-brown dusted the smooth creamy shells..  The clutch rested directly on layers of last autumn's leaves, which were matted into a shallow depression the shape of the hen's body.   Some scattered twigs were the only other components of the nest. Berry canes arched overhead to form a protective bower.  The hen had chosen her setting place well--she need only extend her neck to nibble wine berries. Feeling like an intruder, which I certainly was, I quietly retreated.
Wild turkey hens usually lay 10 to 12 eggs over a two week period.  They carefully tend and turn the eggs during incubation.  In about 28 days the poults (chicks) hatch and must leave the nest within 24 hours to feed.  At first the poults are unable to fly and very vulnerable.  The hen and her brood must roost at night on the ground.  A hungry raccoon, skunk, opossum or snake would love to find a cache of turkey eggs or newly- hatched poults!   

Since mating season for wild turkeys is February to April, the nest I almost stumbled over was probably the hen's second brood for the season.  Perhaps the group of turkeys I saw on the last day in December included some of the siblings from the eggs I saw in July. Young turkeys typically flock with their mother through the remainder of the year, dispersing the following spring.
In my research, I learned that there are five subspecies of Meleagris gallopavo native to North America. The turkeys inhabiting South Mountain are M. gallopavo silvestris, also referred to as the Eastern Wild Turkey.  It is the most common of all the subspecies, ranging over the entire eastern half of the U.S.  Our largest game bird, it can grow up to four feet tall and weigh some thirty pounds.
Coyotes, great horned owls, and foxes prey on adult wild turkeys, but for centuries the species' most voracious predator has been Homo sapiens.  By the 1940s, the once plentiful bird was almost extinct in the U.S. and Canada. Since then, conservation efforts have succeeded in restoring respectable numbers of M. gallopavo.  Let's give thanks that the Wild Turkey Federation estimates the current population at 7 million!  

Bittersweet Story

This brightly-berried vine is thriving near a grove of pines on the Big Red trail in Greenbrier State Park.  As I made my rounds on the last day of 2010, I first noticed tiny yellow petal-like clusters littering the pine needle carpet beneath my feet. Delicate flowers at this time of year? I soon realized they were protective coverings that had burst and fallen from the red-orange berries on the vine. The festive hue was a welcome sight on this overcast day.  But something about the way the plant contrasted so vividly with its surroundings gave me an uneasy feeling.

A little research identified the vine as Oriental or Japanese Bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus, a species brought here from Asia as a garden ornamental around the time of the Civil War.  It became popular because of the profusion of color that persists through the dreary winter months, and perhaps cheered a nation weary of war.   

Alas, as with so many imported plant species, it has outcompeted our native American Bittersweet, Celatrus scandens, which has many of the same decorative qualities.

The Name Game: Other common names for our native Bittersweet are Climbing Bittersweet, Jacob’s Ladder and Fever Twig! Celastrus derives from kelastros, an ancient Greek name for an evergreen tree. The word
scandens is Greek for trailing or climbing. Orbiculatus refers to the circular shape of the leaf.

C. orbiculatus is a persona non grata for those of us who wish to preserve our native ecosystem. It grows more vigorously and produces more berries than C. scandens. It likes disturbed habitats and can tolerate many different kinds of soil.  It chokes out other native vegetation, breaking plants by its excessive weight or shading them out.  The older plants of C. orbiculatus can have stems up to 4 inches in diameter. The vine aggressively crawls to the tops of the tallest trees, contributing to uprooting from wind and snow.  It can strangle a tree’s roots, cutting off water and nutrients.

C. orbiculatus also has cross-bred with C. scandens, and as a result our native vine has become increasingly rare.  Jil M. Swearingen, writing for the National Park Service in 2005, said that C. orbiculatus had been reported as invasive in 21 states and in 14 eastern national parks.  With such a negative profile, I find it surprising that Celastrus orbiculatus is still sold and used in the landscaping trade. Especially since there are many native plants that can be easily substituted.

Celastrus orbiculatus is categorized as a woody perennial, and grows both as a climbing vine and a trailing shrub.  You will often find it in natural areas near old homesteads. It likes open sun so favors fields and edge habitat, but is shade tolerant so can readily creep into woodlands.  The vine can grow by sucker roots, but reproduces and primarily spreads by its seeds. Birds and other wildlife gorge on the berries and carry the seeds far and wide.

Here are the most obvious ways to tell the two plants apart, (assuming one is not examining a hybrid):

Oriental Bittersweet, C. orbiculatus:
Leaf shape: round, about as long as wide
Flowers and fruit: short clusters growing in leaf axils (the upper part of the angle created where the leaf grows out from a stem) many clusters along the stem, clusters are shorter in length than the leaves. Berries more brightly colored than C. scandens.

American Bittersweet, C. scandens:
Leaf shape: About twice as long as wide, tapered at both ends
Flowers and fruit: Single clusters at the tips of stems, clusters about as long as the leaves.  Fewer, larger clusters than C. orbiculatus

I will now keep an eye out for American Bittersweet in the South Mountain environs, including Greenbrier State Park. Here is a public domain image of C. scandens from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taken at a different season from the photos above that I snapped of C. orbiculatus. The plant is still green-leaved and the protective coverings on the berries remain. However, one gets a good idea of the leaf shape and the larger, longer arrangement of berries in comparison to the nonnative species.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Raccoon Fight

In the predawn hours of October 28, piercing shrieks and snarls of unknown origin had the Greenbrier State Park camp hosts trembling in their beds. At first light, the hosts were able to determine that the unholy din was made two Northern Raccoons (Procyon lotor). 

By late morning, the raccoons continued to feint and spar, churning the fallen autumn leaves. With their heads lowered, backs hunched and fur standing on end, they looked like dueling pincushions. Finally, the raccoon getting the worst of it raced to the top of a 30-foot-tall Tulip Poplar with the aggressor close behind.  Using their sharp claws and flexible toes, they seemed to scramble up the vertical tree trunk with no more effort or loss of speed than if they were running across a horizontal log.

Once aloft, the fleeing raccoon flattened himself against an outstretched limb of the tree. The aggressor made sporadic physical and vocal threats to keep the other in his place.  We bystanders could hear moans and whines, but we weren't sure which raccoon was making them.  The submissive raccoon was not visible except for his tail hanging over the side of the branch.  

The aggressor kept one eye on the humans looking up at him from below and the other on his opponent. He carefully assessed any vehicle that arrived, as different park personnel came to take a look at him. It was almost as if he wanted to make sure they weren't carrying a firearm. We considered rabies as an explanation for his behavior, but discarded that idea since he showed no signs of illness.  On the contrary he displayed vigor and alertness by his dominance of the other raccoon.

It was a great opportunity to observe the behavior of this usually shy nocturnal mammal. It was certainly confirmed that Raccoons are capable of a wide variety of vocalizations.  I also was impressed by the resemblance to the Red Pandas I've seen in the zoo--the full face, the mask, the ringed tail and ease in the arboreal environment.  Despite this fellow's ferocious manner, we couldn't restrain our "aw, cute" response, especially when viewing his classic 'bandit' face with binoculars.  His rocking, side-to-side gait as he paced the tree was also endearing. Raccoons, like bears and humans, walk flat on the soles of their feet.

Raccoons are territorial, and one would expect conflicts such as this one to occur primarily in breeding season in the spring. With winter and food scarcity imminent, likely the transgressor was a young male recently ejected from his family group, and having a particularly bad day since he wandered into an older male's established territory.

The raccoons finally settled down, and we don't know how the story ended. But no dead raccoon was found so it seems they worked it all out, raccoon-style.

The word Raccoon is an Anglicized version of a Algonquin word aroughcoune meaning "he scratches with his hands." The Latin nomenclature Procyon lotor , translated as "before-dog washer" refers to the early taxonomists' idea that the animal was related to the dog and to the raccoon's habit of appearing to wash its food. Scientists today place the raccoon in the family Procyonidae. Most species in this family live in tropical areas of the Western Hemisphere. Fossils show the first raccoon-like animal living about 25 million years ago in what is now Europe.  Raccoon ancestors are thought to have crossed from Asia to North America across the Bering Strait. Procyon lotor as a species is believed to have originated in Central America and moved northward.  
The Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) is endemic to the Himalayan mountains. (This region is the only place in the world where the species is found living in the wild.) Like the Giant Panda, a distant relative, and unlike our Northern Raccoons who are highly omnivorous, Red Pandas eat only bamboo. Red Pandas were once classified in the same family as raccoons but now are placed in their own family Ailuridae. DNA research shows the Red Panda's closest relatives include raccoons, weasels, otters, badgers and skunks, all members of the superfamily Musteloidea.
(Red Panda Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Greenbrier: A Namesake

Greenbrier is the name of a Maryland State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains, on the westward slope of South Mountain. The park is named for a vine that is plentiful in its woods.

The plant Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) is a member of the Liliaceae family. It has heart-shaped leaves and tough, thorny stems that can form impenetrable thickets when many plants congregate together. Growing by itself, Greenbrier appears as a small shrub, but can use tendrils to climb trees or interweave with other shrubs. Greenbrier likes open woods, and is also commonly seen on the banks of streams, or where forests meet open areas. Trees typically sharing its habitat include Red and Silver Maples, White and Black Oaks, Eastern White Pine and Virginia Pine, American Beech, American Elm, Mockernut Hickory and Sweetgum. Also look for Sassafras, Wild Grape, Poison Ivy, Trumpet Creeper, Bracken Fern and Cinnamon Fern. Many of these plants are growing at Greenbrier State Park.

Greenbrier plays an important role in the woodland habitat. White-tailed deer and rabbits feed on the leaves and stems. (The new growth at the tips of the vine are tender and sweet. They make a refreshing nibble for humans as well. ) Greenbrier provides protection from predators for small creatures. You will often find a Gray Catbird nest in a prickly clump of Greenbrier.

Like many plants, Greenbrier has co-evolved with insects. In early summer, small clusters of green flowers waft a sickly sweet odor that mimics a decomposing carcass.   The scent lures Blue Bottle Flies who inadvertently assist the plant in pollination.

Later in the season, tiny blue berries provide food for Opossums, Raccoons, Wild Turkeys, Pileated Woodpeckers and many other types of birds.