A Gift of a Day

Yesterday was not going to be ignored.

Morning dawned at a mild 47 degrees with gentle sunshine and no wind, and the Weather.com app promised the day’s temperatures would peak in the mid 60s.

I struggled with my urge to hike, which was tamped down by both irrational fear (I’m reading a book where a woman gets clobbered on a trail) and rational fear (gun hunting season is open), not to mention the burden of a mountain of laundry to do.

But a day like this?  Sunny and 60s at the end of November?  I can weatherproof myself till I’m winter-immune, but to reject the gift of a glorious, warm, free day with no scheduled appointments because of irrational fear or dirty laundry is an insult to Mother Nature herself.  (I called the organization, checked trail conditions, hiked at mid-day, and wore bright colors to make sure I wouldn’t run afoul of hunters.  I’m enthusiastic, not stupid.)  There are going to be plenty of times that commitments and chores keep me inside, but not today.

I made the short drive to the south side of the Parker’s Creek Trail System created and maintained by the American Chestnut Land Trust, and I was rewarded with a brand new trail and all the joy that comes with spending two hours in the woods.

After parking in the gravel lot and signing in, I strode out across a field to begin the Stream Loop in the clockwise direction.  Beginning counter-clockwise on a new trail seemed counter-intuitive.  I’ll have to walk it that direction next time, though, to see what I missed this time.

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The beginning of the Stream Loop in the Parker’s Creek Preserve.  Warm sun on my shoulders and crackling leaves underfoot, I felt I could finally breathe deeply.

 

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Choosing the low road and feeling good about it:  the upper trail, to the right, is the Bloodroot Trail.  I chose to hike the Flint & Swamp Trails, which are collectively known as the Stream Loop.

 

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With the sun in my eyes, it was hard to make out the words scrawled on this log and at first I was frightened it said “Closed”, but the graffiti actually advises hikers to Look Closer – a sentiment I can totally get behind.  

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And this is what I found when I followed instructions and did look closer.  Perfectly round little holes made by some insect or animal.  Now I just have to figure out which insect or animal makes perfectly round little holes.  

If this log had been smaller or more decomposed, I would have rolled it and looked closely underneath.  There are always all sorts of critters -from salamanders to millipedes – living in and underneath decomposing wood.  Rolling logs is one of my all time favorite activities to do with kiddos.

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The Stream Loop’s stream.  I took this picture to show how wide the stream’s floodplain is.  All of the flat land stretching out to either side of the stream has been made flat by floods year after year for generations.  They’re incredibly important for riverine ecosystems.  

One should note, however, when hiking in any floodplain or bottomland, unless the area is in the middle of a major drought, there will be muddy areas on the trail.  This is not a reason to avoid the “low road” hikes, though – you’ve got to remember that hiking boots aren’t ruined by mud, they’re baptized by it.  And, while you might not want to wear your newest, most expensive clothes on a muddy hike, a little mud does a body good.  (And human skin is wonderfully washable, too.)

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One of my favorite aspects of this trail was the number of tree gateways though which it winds.  

Though I have always taught kids to look first before touching something in the wild, I won’t stop them from touching.  The urge to reach out and lay your hands against the bark of the tree gate sentinels is overwhelming, and if you take a moment to close your eyes and breathe deeply while touching these forest elders, you get the greatest feeling of peace and joy.

 

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A place for Pooh sticks.  

Whenever I hike with kids, and especially when I hike with my daughter, we play Pooh Sticks.  Named for Winnie the Pooh, it’s a game of dropping sticks on the upstream side of a bridge and seeing whose stick reaches the downstream side of the bridge first.  I’ve played it a lot with toddlers, but I can now vouch that kids as old as 11 (my girl) still get excited by the competition.

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And, on the same bridge where Pooh Sticks was a good idea, I also found scat (wild poo) and used a stick to investigate it’s contents.  I’ve spared you from the close up picture, but examining scat and trying to solve the mystery of what animal left it is also great fun on the trail.

In researching the scat I found on the trail, I first leaned toward bobcat as the source.  Bobcats are known to leave scats right in the middle of the trail.  However, my stick investigations revealed that the contents of the scat belonged to an herbivore.  After looking at dozens of scat identification pictures and descriptions, I think this scat was made by a raccoon.

Important note:  I did not, and one should never, pick up or examine scat with bare hands or put the scat close to your face where you might accidentally ingest or inhale even the tiniest bit of scat.  Scat can be rife with parasites and diseases.  (This is a long way of saying please don’t touch, sniff, or taste wild poo.  Obvious to many, but an important thing to watch out for when hiking with the very young!)

 

I found nut shells left by some critter and, further down the trail, a black walnut (I think – see the caption) half eaten by another.  A hiker clomping through the crackling fallen leaves has little chance of interacting with wildlife; they hear us coming and high-tail it to safety or hiding.  However, you can often delight in a close encounter when you find tracks, scat, or seeds.

On this particular hike, I did get to observe wildlife for a little while, because I found a fallen log at the side of the trail on which to sit still and be quiet.  I rarely take the time to pause mid-hike because I’m usually trying to get some exercise but, based on this experience, it’s going to become a part of every hike.

After I’d sat for a few minutes, not really moving and not making any noise, a squirrel skittered down the hill and stopped on the streambank opposite me.  It sat on its haunches and looked straight at me.  As I returned its gaze with a gentle, passive expression (no toothy smile to advertise my status as a predator), the squirrel examined me first with its left eye, then its right.  It scratched its belly absent-mindedly with its arms and then dropped back down onto all fours, beginning to move in a circuitous path at least 10 yards away from me.  Springing from ground to branch, branch to trunk, trunk to nearby log, the squirrel didn’t hurry or panic, but kept me always in sight.

The squirrel escaped my sight, though, within about five minutes.  Another three minutes after that, a second squirrel (or it could have been the same one – they’re not like whales with individualized, identifying tails) followed the exact same path the first took, just a little faster.

Finally, I heard two squirrels chittering in a nearby tree.  I’m fairly sure I interrupted an afternoon of warm, productive foraging.  I put my nature journal away and calmly got up to finish my hike.

My fungus ignorance hasn’t dampened my mushroom love one bit.  Before the squirrel(s) appeared, I found this little purplish brown beauty in the leaf litter at my feet.  I photographed it against the pages of my nature journal so that I could get approximate measurements for cap diameter (30mm) and stalk width (7mm) when I got home to a ruler.  I observed the gills and their attachment to the stalk.  Still, I can only narrow the identification down to group level – either a Milky or a Russula.  I think.

But once your eyes are opened to mushrooms, you see them everywhere!  I found four more great examples – my attempt at identification is in the caption for each.

And, last but certainly not least, two videos from this hike:

Leaf Showers – every time the breeze ruffled the tree branches, I was showered with fall leaves like confetti.  A great autumn game for kids is to try to catch a falling leaf in midair.  It’s best to play this in an open field, though – on the trail it’s a tripping accident waiting to happen!

Flow Under Protozoans – Don’t be grossed out by the oily film on the water, it’s just millions of microscopic organisms called protozoans.  They’re feasting on bacteria blown onto the water’s surface by wind.  As long as there’s no nearby sewage input to the water body (and there certainly wasn’t here) there’s nothing to worry about.  In fact, if you’ve got a kid and a microscope, a sample of this “scum” is an educational treasure trove!  I just love how you can see the stream water swirling and flowing underneath the protozoan film.

Yesterday’s hike was really wonderful and I’m so glad I went.

Now on to the (one day bigger) piles of laundry.

 

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Adventures in Brown

The transition from the color riot of summer’s greens and early autumn’s red, orange, and yellow – that final stage before the world refines itself into the black and white of winter – is brown.

Late November is brown.  Or, more accurately, browns.

Today I had a scant half hour to get myself some much-needed wilderness time, and I chose a walk around Battle Creek Cypress Swamp, where all of November’s browns are on display.

It was like walking through a sepia-toned photograph, where everything held still or flowed slowly, like molasses.

The swamp was unearthly quiet; there were no sounds but for the thud of my own boots on the boardwalk, the trickle of water, and an occasional chirp between birds.  (Brown birds, no doubt.)

It was heavenly.  Brown is a highly underrated color.  Here are some shots from the trail that illustrate this point:

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The trail begins with a long staircase that spans the hill from the visitors’ center to the boardwalk.  This type of ecosystem is known as a Coastal Plain Bottomland Forest – it’s in the land that’s literally at the bottom.

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Browns abound.  From wispy stalks of dried grass to the carpet of cypress needles and other leaves, the landscape is warm and welcoming.

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I can already hear you arguing “those leaves aren’t brown,” but consider this:  Leaf color is really a factor of distance.  From inches away, these leaves were splotches of carmine red in a citrine yellow background.  From a foot or so away (and backlit by the sun) they appear dark orange.  From a few feet away, they’re brown.  And, just to fully finish blowing your mind:  brown(s) are actually just a darker shade of orange.

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Like a lichen, but not quite!  Lichen are green because they are an algae (which is a green plant) united with a fungus.  This is just fungus.  It’s called reddish-brown crust (Hymenochaete badio-ferruginia) – an on-the-nose common name if ever I saw one.

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When the eye isn’t distracted by a variety of colors, it can focus on intricate details, such as the texture of this tree bark.  I’m not 100% certain on the identity of this tree – it’s branches were well above my head and all tangled with other trees’ limbs – but I think it’s a dogwood. 

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Here’s a view back down on the swamp from the end of this circular trail.  Yes, I see the green holly leaves at the right and the golden gum leaves at center left.  Don’t they look wonderful against all of those browns?

And now, because it’s my blog and I can, a list of some of the beautiful browns I saw today:

acorn

tan

beige

caramel

walnut

maple syrup

copper

umber

russet

sepia

taupe

wheat

rust

auburn

otter

cardboard

mink

kraft paper

fawn

mahogany

cinnamon

football

clove

oatmeal

brown sugar

molasses

khaki

cafe au lait

terra cotta

Feel free to add some of your favorite browns to my long list by submitting them as comments!

A Golden Hour

Every photographer knows that the hour or so before sunset is a “golden hour” for taking photos.  The slanted beams of the setting sun fall at a magic angle that makes everything seem to glow from within.

Today I got to take a walk at golden hour in what is also a golden month.  In November, here, the foliage of the autumn trees is mostly gold, amber, and honey.  So, to walk in the golden hour in November is to walk among the dark giants of forest trunks set against the dazzling topaz of leaves and cerulean autumn sky.

A few shots of my stroll around Annmarie Garden:

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I’m a sucker for leaves lit from behind by the sun, but this maple doesn’t need backlighting for its colors to burn like a fall fire.

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The sculptures at Annmarie Garden are amazing.  (One of dozens is shown at the lower left of this photo.)  They have to be, to compete with the sheer beauty of the forest around them.

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Strong, straight soldiers in the foreground protecting the treasure held aloft beyond.

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Never, never forget to look up!

Mushroom Mysteries & Fungus Fails

My Saturday hike at Flag Ponds was fungally fruitful.   

(Get the awesome pun??  Because mushrooms and other visible fungi are the fruiting parts of the main body, or mycelium, of the fungus.  My family says my mom-jokes are even worse when I explain them, whereas I think they’ve got real pun-tential.)

My mushroom identification skills, however, still leave much to be desired.  There are at least 10,000 different species of mushrooms/fungi in North America.  I can reliably identify about five.  And that’s just not going to cut it on an average hike.  

The stakes are even higher for mushroom foragers who intend to eat what they find.  A misidentified mushroom in your stomach could mean a trip to the emergency room.

When trying to identify a mushroom, amateur mycologists must note myriad details, beginning with:

  • The shape, texture, moisture level, and color of the cap (pileus),
  • The shape and color of the stalk and whether or not it has a “veil”,
  • Whether the underside of the cap (where the spores come from) is smooth or has gills, tubes, or teeth, and
  • What kind of spore print the cap makes.

I took no caps home to make spore prints.  Knowing that the visible mushroom is only the fruiting body of the larger mycelium, I didn’t mind plucking a few to get a better look at, and photo of, their underside – I figure this is no worse than picking a flower or leaf – but I draw the line at taking home pieces of nature from a nature park.  I couldn’t do it.

So, here are the mushrooms I found and the rudimentary identifications that I was able to make with the help of my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and the wonderful MycoKey Fungus Identifier website.  Click on the photos to read the full captions.

I cannot identify either for sure.  Seriously, I got nuthin’.

 

Maybe in the parchment fungus family?  I so badly need a fungus friend to guide me.

 

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Finally, one I know!  This bright yellow, delicate, slimy beauty is witches’ butter.  It is edible, but used in soups rather than to butter bread.

 

Fail.

 

Just enough success to keep me going!

 

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Check out this convoluted beauty!  It sure looks like a Bladder Cup. . . only it’s not yellow.  And it’s not growing on manure.

The mushroom gods are, for sure, laughing at me now.

 

Getting lucky with commoners.

 

 

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So, I may not be able to identify them to genus and species, but I’ve observed enough to know that there are at least four different fungi in this square foot of rotting log:  the delicate, dark brown mushroom sticking up just above center, the Clinker polypore coating the wood in a dark brown/black char, the false-turkey-tail-or-possibly-other-parchment-fungus in the upper right quadrant, and the three cute cup fungi lined up on the center right.

If you, too, are prone to fungus fails, take heart in the following quote:

“Think like a queen.  A queen is not afraid to fail.  Failure is another steppingstone to greatness.” – Oprah Winfrey

I think I’ll go adjust my crown and forage for a few more fungus websites.

Weatherproofing

Ever since I read Marcia Bonta‘s four book series of nature writing about the seasons on her Appalachian mountain in Pennsylvania, I have wanted to be as nature-tough as she is.

She treks out to observe nature on her mountain several times a week, even through snow and rain and the cold of deep winter.  She can sit for hours in the chill and watch the behavior of wildlife with true intelligence and insight.  She is 77 years old, and she is still weather-proof.

I want to be like her when I grow up.  (I also want to be like my mom, Rachel Carson, Michelle Obama, Terry Tempest Williams, Mary Anning, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas.)

I’m forty now, so I figure I’d better get cracking.  It’s not that I haven’t hiked in inclement weather before.  I have; just not enough.  So, this season, that all changes.

I’m gonna get all out in it.

I started in yesterday’s stunningly sunny 36 degree temperatures at Flag Ponds.  I wore jeans with a long sleeve shirt topped with a sweatshirt, plus a knit cap and iPhone-friendly gloves.  There was little wind, so I didn’t need a windbreaker as my top layer, but I’m going to ask for an oversized windbreaker for Christmas so that I’ll have it for the rest of the winter.  I prefer layers to thick, heavy coats.  Clothing that makes it harder to move drives me nuts.

I walked the South Ridge Trail in my usual direction and then did the North Ridge Trail in the opposite direction.  (I highly recommend reversing directions on a trail you hike a lot – you get all new views!)

And here’s my reward for layering up and going out – some of my favorite photos from the hike:

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Two different types of moss, completely undeterred by the season’s first freeze.  Though I can’t identify mosses on sight (yet), I find them a fascinating story in competition and natural selection ever since reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

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I’m intrigued by the way lichens have colonized the upper half of this knot hole but mosses have claimed the lower half.  There were several similar knot holes on this fallen trunk and they were all populated the same way.  Cool!

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“Spring” onions defied their designated season and popped up along several parts of the trail.  An anti-oxidant packed snack for the wild herbivores.

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Just sitting there, being beautiful.

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Walking the North Ridge trail beginning at the park entry road (don’t do this if you haven’t already paid your park fee, please) gave me a brand new view.

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Tree roots holding the world together.

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I love giant leaves!  (Particularly fall sycamore and tulip poplar leaves that are as big as your face.)  Unfortunately, this leaf fell from the exotic, invasive Royal Paulownia tree, which is an unwelcome and damaging invader in this ecosystem.  There are a few in the park, and I must remember to ask a ranger about a plan for their removal.

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A pristine white feather amongst the warm riot of fall leaves.  I hope it came from one of the migratory water birds that hang out at Flag Ponds each winter.  They’re my next incentive for braving the cold!

Trail Photos: Flag Ponds Nature Park North and South Ridge Trails

Friday was my day to check the salamander traps at Flag Ponds.  (Citizen science for the win!)  But, I arrived to discover that they’d already been checked by a teacher and school group.  (Educating kids about nature for the championship!)

So, what’s a woman with a free hour to do on a mild autumn day with cerulean skies and golden leaves?  Hit the trails, of course!

The best shots from the South Ridge and North Ridge trails on this particular day were of weaving ladies and fun-guys.  (Fungi!  Get it?!  Nerdy science puns rule.)

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A tiny “trail miracle” – I stopped for no reason and found myself eye-level with and six inches from this female Marbled Orb Weaver (Araneus marmoreus), busy making threads of sticky silk to complete the spiral of her orb web. 

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Efficient and capable from the underside, but absolutely stunning from the topside!  Her abdomen was sunflower yellow marbled with chocolate brown, contrasting nicely with her eight flame red, cream, and black legs.  Don’t let the bright colors scare you, though – this lady is completely harmless.  She was too busy with her creation to notice me, but if I’d scared her, she likely would have dropped to the ground or run to hide.

Watching the Marbled Orb weaver was mesmerizing.  She used one of her back legs to stretch the silk out from her spinnerets as she crawled to the next radial strand, then tucked her abdomen under to secure the thread to the radial strand with a dot of spider glue.  Her movements were efficient and economical, looking more like Monday office work than Saturday night fever.  I captured two short videos of her skills; check them out in the video links below.

Marbled Orb Weaver 11-3-17 1

Marbled Orb Weaver 11-3-17 2

Now, on to the fun-guys.

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After some light research in my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, I have tentatively identified these as Pear-Shaped Puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme).  Apparently they’re among the “choice” finds for expert mushroom hunters in terms of edibility.  Being a novice mushroom hunter, however, I’m smart enough to not put any wild fungus in my mouth; there are too many look-alikes that turn a great meal into a deadly dish.

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My Audubon guide (and some image searches on Google) lead me to believe that these convoluted, jelly-like masses are a fungus known as Pale Jelly Roll (Exidia alba).  The Exidia fungi are found on deciduous trees such as oak, willow, and alder.  How I wish I’d stayed to check what kind of tree this log had been!

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Thinking about how many times I say “I wish I’d taken the time to . . .” about something on the trail.  The trouble with hiking is that I’m always trying to make it double as a workout, so I go too fast.  (My idea of heaven necessarily includes an eternity to study nature in minute detail, unnoticed by all of the earthbound fauna.)  This particular section of the North Ridge trail definitely burns the calories, though.  Forty-five-ish steps climb from the bottom of the ridge to the top.  It’s.  No.  Joke.

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Sure, I stopped half way up the steps just for the awesome view of the marsh and the Chesapeake Bay beyond.  Not because I was dying or anything.

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I just love the curving, twisting contortions of the wood grain in this decaying log.  The beginnings of a moss colony – green flecks at center left – and the Clinker Polypore fungus (Inonotus obliquus) – black swaths that look like charred wood – highlight the complex landscape of decay.

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One of my all time favorite trail views.  This flat portion of the North Ridge trail is my dream of a magical woodland.  I sense surprises hiding all around, but it feels as safe and friendly as my own bed.  It will be a feast of sun rays in winter.

Trail Shots: Calvert Cliffs Red Trail

A stroll along the red trail was my Halloween gift to myself.

(All of the candy I steal from my daughter’s enormous trick-or-treating stash is my November gift to myself.)

Here are a few shots from the trail to add to the celebration of the season.

 

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Both moss (the yellow-green hairy stuff) and lichen (the blue-green frilly stuff) have made a home on this fallen branch.  Both mosses (a type of plant called a bryophyte) and lichens (a symbiotic organism containing both a fungus and an algae) have lived on planet Earth for 400 million years.

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What happens to a root trodden by innumerable feet.   Tree roots that stretch across the trail develop interesting, flattened surfaces and knobs in response to being worn down by hikers’ shoes.

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A marsh is a beautiful place to be in the autumn.  Turtles basking in the last of the year’s warmth, minnows dashing among the lily stems, and geese heard but not seen behind the hillocks of sedges.

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Autumn is a very romantic season.  These two Ruby Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum rubicundulum) are taking time to make time, and the next generation.  They will continue to fly in tandem while mating and even while the female deposits the eggs at the water’s surface.  Dragonflies live most of their lives as aquatic insects that eat mosquito larvae.  (Thank you, dragonflies!)

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Sun shining through crimson maple leaves at the edge of the marsh.

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A reminder not to lose your shoelaces . . . or maybe just to spend more time in nature.

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A view of the Chesapeake Bay at the end of the trail.  Most visitors spend their beach time searching the sand and wrack for fossils.  

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This visitor, a Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) has also stopped at the beach, but she’s here to soak up warmth in a patch of autumn sunlight.  Her hind wings are a bit worse for wear, but she had no trouble flying.

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You never walk the same trail twice, even if it’s literally walking back out the trail you just walked in.  As the sun’s rays change their angle, different treasures are highlighted in the forest.  I wish I hadn’t been in a hurry on my way out – if I had stopped to check underneath the fancy tops of these shelf mushrooms to see if their undersides were gilled or toothed, I could say for certain whether they’re Turkey Tail fungus or Violet Toothed Polypore.  Either way, though, they’re still gorgeous.