Trail Shots: Hello, Old Friend

I hadn’t set foot on the trails at Flag Ponds Nature Park in over four months.  I have honestly missed the North Ridge Trail and South Ridge Trail, thinking about them often and wanting to check in with them, like old friends whose voices I long to hear.

My absence is partly due to my discovery of the American Chestnut Land Trust Trails, (make new friends, but keep the old . . .) but more due to the limited hours Flag Ponds is open during the winter.  (Only Friday through Monday 9am to 4pm – entry gate closes at 3pm.  Not that I’m bitter.  Or that I’m a forgetful lazybones who couldn’t remember to get her hind end to the park before 3pm.)

But Sunday, I made it; daylight savings time has pushed the park’s closing till 5pm (entry gate closes at 4pm) and I was there at 2:43!  Ha!

And my old trail “friends” were so happy to see me that they provided one wonderful encounter after another, including:

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This is the ridge-bottom entry to the Northridge Trail.  I left my house under dull, gray cloud cover; fifteen minutes later the trailhead greeted me with azure sky, fluffy white clouds, and warm sunshine.  It was like a “Welcome Back!” sign from the universe.

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Ripening buds on a cut-leaved toothwort (Dentaria laciniata), one of the earliest spring bloomers on the forest floor.  Once I noticed this one, my eyes “woke” to them and they were popping up through the leaf litter everywhere!

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And speaking of teeth . . . if you look closely at the beige bit of detritus at the top of the screen, you’ll notice that it’s a set of two molars that have worked their way free of this carnivore’s scat.  I guess that the scat was made by a fox, since it was left in the middle of a bridge, and that’s always where I seem to find fox scats.  Whatever this fox ate, it had gray fur and teeth made for grinding up seeds and plant matter.

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Just a quarter mile further up the trail, I found more evidence of a successful predator.  This lunch had white fur, though, spread out in clumps over a four foot square area.   

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The stalks growing up from this bed of moss are sporangia – stems with a pouch at the end that holds the developing moss spores.  A new generation of moss in the making!

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These are the dried seedpods of the invasive Royal Paulowina tree (Paulownia tomentosa).  I was sad to find them already empty, their seeds having fallen somewhere in the forest, ready to take nutrients from native species that are pillars of the ecosystem.  I also noticed how much the seed pods look like the head of the alien plant from Little Shop of Horrors; how apropos.

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I heard a rustling in the leaves just next to my right foot.  Usually rustling in the forest is a squirrel or bird, but this was close and small and so I looked down and was delighted to see a spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) making its way to the swamp.

Check out this happy little video of the spotted salamander (we’ll call him Sal) making his way through the leaf litter:

Sal Moves Along

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The pond and the Bay beyond.  What you can’t see in this picture, but what absolutely MADE my hike, was the pair of green-winged teal ducks (Anas carolinensis) revealed by my binoculars.  My first green-winged teals EVER!  And the female was having a quick bath-and-preen, so she was showing off her teal wing patch over and over.  Gorgeous!

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On the South Ridge trail, I found this moss with tiny, red and yellow bell-shaped sporangia.  The world of tiny things is fascinating!

Another stroke of luck – the leaf shown in the pictures above was flipped over so that I saw its amethyst underside.  Had I seen only the green top, I might never have noticed it, but that deep purple drew my eye and my camera like a magnet.  Research reveals that it is the foliage of a cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor), which means I can look forward to finding a beautiful 15-inch stalk of blossoms when the weather warms.  Check out this wonderful blog post by Mary Anne Borge, complete with excellent pictures, about the cranefly orchid.

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A bouquet upon leaving.  This vine has just sent out a shock of new leaves to gather energy from the late winter sun.  I haven’t identified the vine properly yet, but knowing that it winds around the tree clockwise (ascending from right to left) is a big clue – the way a vine winds is coded in its DNA; clockwise vines will never wind counter-clockwise, and so you can use winding direction to help identify species.

 

For more shots from the trails at Flag Ponds, read:

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

Mushroom Mysteries & Fungus Fails

Ninja Hiking with Charlotte

 

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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.

Ninja Hiking with Charlotte

Today I met every orb-weaving spider on the trails at Flag Ponds Nature Park.

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This two foot diameter web was practically invisible until I was right next to it!  Luckily it was set high and off to the right side of the trail, so I was able to duck under it’s attachment strands.

I call all spiders Charlotte.  It reminds me of Charlotte’s Web and makes me feel friendlier to our little eight-legged allies.

To most of the Charlottes I was exceedingly polite, making no more indent in their day than that of a short, thick, oddly mobile tree.  (This is what I think humans look like to spiders.)

A few, however, I rudely insulted by walking face first into their web.

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Most of the Charlottes I met today looked like this.  This is a member of the Verrucosa genus of spiders. Commonly called “Arrowhead” spiders, they are thoroughly harmless and easily identifiable by the big, white triangle-shaped abdomen.

If you’ve not had the pleasure of getting web on your face, it’s a bucket list activity.  You’ll never know if you could have been a ninja until you see what martial arts your body produces in response to walking through a web.

I could’ve been a ninja.   (Click for hilarious spider ninja video compilation.)

My husband could’ve been the shogun.  FYI: it’s not productive to the marital relationship to double over laughing and nearly wet oneself when one’s husband displays his spider-induced ninja skills on the trail.  Maybe that’s why my hubby hasn’t been hiking with me in a while. . .

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I can’t be sure of this Charlotte’s species, because she skittered off right after this shot.  I can, however, be relatively sure she’s a she – male spiders don’t spend much time in their webs, they’re usually wandering hunters and maters.

I’ve come to the level of nature appreciation where I don’t mind going first as we hike, though, because my training (Master Naturalist in two states, thank you very much) has nearly eliminated my fear of these web encounters.  I wrote a lot about spiders and their webs in an earlier post, Weaver’s World.  But here are the basics you need to know so that you don’t have a ninja-style web freak out, either:

  • North American orb weavers are tiny (usually smaller than a nickel, legs included) and generally regarded as totally harmless.  Black widows and brown recluses DO NOT make orb webs.
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Meet Charlotte, the Micrathena.  Spiders in the genus Micrathena have really cool, spiked, triangular bodies.  They look like the devil’s own minions, but are just as harmless as all of the other North American orb weavers.

  • The vast majority of spiders build their webs next to the trail, not over it.  Those that do build their web on the trail usually center the web to one side or the other.  A web destroyed by human, deer, or bird walking in the middle of the trail is just more work for the spider to have to rebuild.
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These two trees stood about 20 feet apart on the left side of the trail.  A tiny orb weaver managed to build her web by attaching long strands of silks to both trees.  

  • When you hit web, you’re usually running into the long silk threads that the spider uses to attach the web to a nearby tree.  These threads are only the tiniest bit sticky, and you can easily (and calmly) pluck them off of yourself and rub your fingers together to release the strand.
  • When its web is disturbed by something large, the spider will flee, usually by quickly crawling up and away from the disturbance (you) to hide in nearby foliage.  If the spider chooses the wrong direction, it’s not coming to get you, it just doesn’t recognize that you’re not a slow, thick, oddly mobile tree.  Drop the strand and/or your whole hand to the ground and the spider will happily skedaddle.
  • By flailing your arms and legs in a “coordinated” ninja-style attack, you are more likely to destroy the center of the web and accidentally scoop up the spider.  Do you want the spider on you?  If not, Daniel-san (note the classic 80s movie reference), when you walk into a web follow these steps:
  1.  Do NOT panic.  (Classic 80s fiction reference.)
  2.  Back up a few steps.  The less sticky attachment strands will likely stretch a little (they’re so stretchy!) and then pop off of you, no harm done.
  3.  If you can see the strands, you can duck under them or grasp a strand with your finger, thus detaching the main orb web, and then move the entire web to the side.

Remember, we love spiders – our Charlottes eat mosquitos and flies and all sorts of other insect pests!

If you still want to be a ninja, that’s cool, just keep it off the trails, eh?

 

Bonus:  There are about 4,000 species of spiders in North America.  Of those, only two are considered potentially harmful.  Learn more about Maryland’s spiders here.