Old Home Week: Pandapas Pond

Yes, I can go home again.

I can and I did, and it was fantastic.

While out daughter was at basketball camp this week in Blacksburg, my husband and I took the opportunity to tour the mountains of southwest Virginia and southeast West Virginia, hiking peaks and creeks and driving wonderfully winding roads.

It was heaven.  Don’t get me wrong, I love living in southern Maryland – the water, the people, and especially the seafood are all excellent – but the old saying is true (for me, at least)  you can take the girl out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl.

My first stop was a new trail at an old haunt, Pandapas Pond.  I’ve walked and hiked Pandapas and the Poverty Creek trails with most of my family members and plenty of friends and students, but the one trail I hadn’t done was the Lark Spur trail.  My hubby and in-laws refer to this trail as the “rhodie trail” because they hiked it once when the rhododendrons were in full bloom.  I wanted that same experience, so I kept putting off hiking it until the “right time”.  So, in the four years we lived in Blacksburg, I tried to time it right every spring, and every spring I missed the window (or thought I did), and put it off till the next year.  Lesson learned.

Hubby is a late sleeper, so I hit the trail alone after camp dropoff.  It felt unbelievably good to be back in the mountain air, with nothing to do but follow my feet and please myself.  The sun was shining, the air was warm, and the trail, though only half in bloom, was worth the wait.  Here are the trail shots:

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The beavers have been hard at work in the two years we’ve been gone.  They’ve completed their efforts at damming the upper pond.  You can see their work at the bottom of the above photo – a dam so tight that only trickles escape to the lower pond (enough to keep it full, though).  You can also see what seems to be a beaver-made water trail through the lilypads covering the upper pond surface as the builders tend to their creation.

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Beetleweed!  Beetleweed!  Beetleweed!  (Galax rotundifolia)  I found it blooming on a shady hillside next to the trail around the pond.  Research in the Audubon guide taught me that its scientific name, Galax, comes from the Greek word “gala” for milk, referring to the milky color of the blossoms.  

 

Now, as promised, the rhodies.  I wish I had taken a picture of the beginning of the Lark Spur trail, but I was so entranced by the canopy of twisting branches and dark, leathery leaves that I completely forgot.  It was only after the hall of rhododendron opened to sunny forest with large bushes at each side that I brought my camera out to capture these:

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Rhododendron or “Great Laurel” or “Rosebay” (Rhododendron maximum) in bud.

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Here’s a rhodie just beginning to bloom.  The bright pink of the bud petals softens to a baby pink as the small flowers open.

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Wait, what’s this?  I found these white galls on many, if not most, of the rhodies I passed.  A bit of research has informed me that these galls are formed by an infection of one of the Exobasidium species of fungus.  As with many plant infections, it looks a bit unsightly, but really isn’t harming the plant.  (It would be much worse for the ecosystem to spray chemicals on a rhododendron to try to kill the fungus than to let the infection take its course.  Something to note for the home gardener:  research before you spray!)

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Ahh, much better.  One of the many rhododendrons in full bloom along the trail, showing every pink from punch to powder in its pretty petals.

Right here I need to make a confession, because here is where the photographs from the Lark Spur trail end.  The truth is that I had intended to hike the Lark Spur trail out to where it meets the Lady Slipper trail back to the pond, but I reached the place where the Lark Spur and Joe Pye trails connect first, and I decided (upon consulting my trail map, see below) to make the hike a little longer by hopping on the Joe Pye and walking it to where it meets the Lady Slipper.  Which was a great idea, for any person who has a decent sense of direction.  Unfortunately, I am not that person.  I went the wrong way on the Joe Pye and hiked it all the way back to the main Poverty Creek trail and then on back to the pond.  (Which made for an even longer, lovelier hike, so take that, gods of orienteering!)

So, the photos from here on out were taken on the Joe Pye trail.  But, first, please open enjoy this trail map of the whole system so that you can enjoy my navigational stupidity as much as I did.  Poverty Creek Trail System Map

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Ridgetop Rhodie:  a shaft of sunlight illuminates the leaves and buds of a rhododendron growing alongside the highest elevation of the Joe Pye trail.

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Cousin Running Late:  This Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), rhododendron’s cousin in the heath family, had one last blossom open.  They usually bloom a few weeks before the rhodies in this area each spring.

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Not all forest color comes from flowers!  This cinnabar colored mushroom is a russula (Russula spp.), but I can’t say for sure if it’s the Shellfish-scented Russula (I didn’t smell it) or the Emetic Russula (I didn’t eat it or, thank goodness, puke it back up).  

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From big and red to tiny and alien, fungus takes many forms.  These could be tiny, immature Marasimus mushrooms or the spore stalks of a slime mold.  I regret not taking out my hand lens to investigate further , then again I was smart enough not to eat this one, either, so on balance I’m okay with my amateur mycology.

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I may not have caught a photo of the wonderful rhododendron allee at the beginning of the Laurel Spur trail, but here’s something similar growing over the creek toward the lower end of the Joe Pye trail.  If a grove of rhododendrons isn’t the best place in the forest to hide and do magic, I don’t know what is.

Pandapas Pond and the Poverty Creek trail system are absolute must-hikes if you’re in the Blacksburg area, as these previous posts attest:

Pandapas Pond – Part One

Pandapas Pond – Part Two

 

Foggy Morning on the Laurel Loop Trail

Sunshine lifted the fog from my house early Monday morning and its clear rays combined with energy from a really good night’s sleep to get me in the car and headed to the trail before 9:00 a.m..

It seemed the sun had only worked on my rooftop and nearby hilltops, though, and as I drove north to the American Chestnut Land Trust’s Parker’s Creek Preserve, I found myself deep in the misty gray.

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The meadow at the Southside Trailhead as I began my hike.  You can just make out the white birdhouse though the fog at center right.

Hiking in the fog is a near-miraculous experience.  It is, quite literally, walking in a cloud.  Sounds are at once hushed and also heightened – the noise of the human world seems unable to penetrate the cloud, but reduced vision makes hearing all the more acute.  Also, because the mist obscures the larger vistas, the eye is drawn to all the tiny marvels of nature that are so often overlooked.

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The fog condenses on every surface.  Here, water molecules have drawn together and rolled to the curled tips of dried grass leaves.

From the parking lot, the hike commences via a mown track through grassland to the edge of the woods where the Stream Loop, Ridge Loop, and Laurel Loop diverge.

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One of my favorite aspects of fog is how it gathers like pearls along spider thread.  This panicle was hung so profusely with pearly strands that it reminded me of the rigging of sails on a tall ship.

I enjoyed the Stream Loop last week in buttery sunshine, but was excited to experience the Laurel Loop under a layer of cool silver gray.

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Into the mist at the beginning of the Laurel Loop.  The lacy brown trees in the middle distance are young beeches (Fagus grandifolia), which keep their leaves all winter.

The leaf litter was thick, but the moisture of the fog made it soft rather than loud and crackling.  Just beyond the view of the picture above, it becomes obvious how the trail was named – it winds through hillsides full of mountain laurel that arch over hiker’s heads.

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In this laurel I found a small, delicate orb web coated with dew.  This was one of only two webs I found (the other was a bowl and doily web), and I’m glad I took the time to make my phone’s camera focus correctly – what a beautiful job this spider has done, and what a survivor she must be, still alive and weaving after several frosts.

Scampering beneath the laurels and over the leaf litter off the sides of the trail, gray squirrels went about their autumn nut gathering, but didn’t seem frightened by my heavy footfalls or the bright turquoise of my sweatshirt.  They kept a wary eye but didn’t skitter up the nearest tree.  Of course, none held still long enough or close enough for me to get a picture, either.

No matter; I hiked along in a state of peaceful joy, and the woods rewarded my positive attitude with two excellent fungi as still-life subjects:

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A beautifully colored turkey tail fungus growing on a downed hardwood trunk.

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Pear shaped puffballs!  I learned these on an earlier hike at Flag Ponds this season, and knew them immediately this time from their pea green innards.

Just after this shot I looked up to see a serious uphill climb.  Not large compared to the inclines I used to hike in the Appalachians (the Gateway Trail comes to mind), but I haven’t been mountain hiking in over a year now, and my leg muscles have gotten lazy.  I would have taken a picture of the hill, but I didn’t think of it until half way up, when I stopped to huff and puff and my heaving lungs prevented me from holding the camera still.  Had I been able to get a shot, I would surely have captured the man-made miracle at the top of the climb:  some wonderful worker or volunteer had built a bench there, hallelujah!

Though the temperature was in the low 40s, the uphill section had warmed me up enough to ditch my sweatshirt and sit on the bench with my notebook for ten minutes without feeling the chill.  This is what I wrote:

“A chickadee calls “fee-bee, fee-bay” in the beginning of December?

The woods in fog seem even more magical – cloistered, protected – all the sounds amplified because the visual details are muted.

Drops of condensation fall from leaves.  The rat-a-tat-tat of a persistent woodpecker at work.  The squeaks and bell calls of innumerate little brown birds.  Squirrels bounding through leaf litter as deep as they are tall.

I want time to stop so that I can sit on this quiet bench for hours – till the birds and squirrels trust me, till they hop on and over me as if I were a statue.”

I even took the time to get videos of two woodpeckers, a white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) and a red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus).  Not great videos, mind you, but you can catch the motion of the little trunk hoppers:

Quick Nuthatch Clip

Quick Red-bellied Woodpecker Clip

And by the time I was done writing and birdwatching (starting to feel fairly competent with my binoculars), the sweat had evaporated out of my shirt, so my upper half was refrigerator chilled, and my butt was numb with cold.  Totally worth it, but time to get moving again.

I hiked the one mile loop in an hour and twenty minutes total, moving at a pace easy enough to touch the trailside trees with gentle gratitude, marvel at a flock of migrating robins in the canopy, and take a few more pictures.  It was sublime.

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My favorite part of the trail:  a hill steep enough to run down (though I’d probably trip if I did), a gully to explore, and at the top of the opposite rise, you have to duck under an immense fallen tulip poplar (Liquidambar styraciflua) trunk.

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This moss grows at the base of a trailside tree.  Up close it looks like a field of emerald stars.

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Back at the parking lot meadow, the fog was finally beginning to lift.  The silvery mist of morning rose like a curtain to reveal another golden autumn day.

 

 

If you liked this trail story, check out some other great southern Maryland trails:

 

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.

 

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!

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.

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.

Pretty in Pink

So, as it turns out, even slime can be pretty.

On two recent hikes, first at the Deerfield Trail and then at the Gateway Trail, my eye was drawn to something startlingly pink among the many shades of brown in the autumn forest floor.

Pink?!

And not just one, but two different organisms with two different pinks.

I’ve done some research online and in my handy-dandy Audubon field guide to mushrooms, and I think these are what I found.

Wolf’s Milk Slime (Lycogala epidendrum)

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I made no adjustments to the lighting or color of this photograph. Note that the “cushions” of this slime mold can be light peachy pink (center), more intense coral pink (leftmost), or beige with a pink undertone (upper right).

These pink “cushions” are the sporangia stage of a plasmodial slime mold.  Both the  Mushroom Expert website and Audubon field guide report that they are filled with a pink paste.  (I didn’t poke them or cut them open in the field and now I wish that I had!)  The species is also called “toothpaste slime” because of this filling’s resemblance to pink toothpaste.

The slime mold produces the sporangia (cushions) when the environmental conditions change (become sunnier, drier) and it’s no longer a nice, wet place for a fungus to munch.  The sporangia distribute the “baby” slime mold cells, called spores.

Wolf’s Milk cushions are fairly common, usually found on large fallen logs, exactly as I found this specimen, usually May through November (ditto).

Their other, “plasmodial” stage, is really cool!  Plasmodial slimes are flowing, protoplasmic organisms that move and eat whatever is in their path.  They are the original inspiration for creepy movie creatures like “The Blob.”

Super cool video of a yellow plasmodial slime mold moving.

Science meets art meets slime mold video.

 

Hemitrichia calyculata ?

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Again, I have made no alteration to the color or lighting in this photograph.  These sporangia are just exactly that hot pink, and each little ball is, at most, the size of a pin head.

Patience.  A naturalist needs patience.  And plenty of time to spend on patience.

I photographed these slime mold sporangia (not that I knew what they were at the time) as I began the hike up the Gateway Trail a few weeks ago.

I snapped the picture and kept moving because 1) It was already mid-afternoon and I had no idea how long it would take me to climb the mountain and 2) the hike was doing double duty as exercise for the body and nature time for the soul, so I had to keep my heart rate up.

If only I could have sat and watched these little pinkies evolve, I might be able to better identify exactly which species of slime mold they are.  The slime molds often complete an entire life cycle (protoplasmic plasmodial stage to sporangia stage to spore distribution and seeming disappearance) in just one or two days.  I could, quite literally, have watched it change phases over just a few hours.

Alas, I did not, and my research leads me to the possibility that they are Hemitrichia calyculata (though other photographers more often describe those sporangia as orange), but not the certainty of it.  All I can say is that they are most likely of the Trichiidae family and the Hemitrichia genus within that family.

I sense, however, that these two little pink puzzles are the beginning of a long and interesting relationship between myself and mycology.  Flowers don’t bloom in the winter, but several species of fungus will grow mushrooms as long as the temperature is above freezing.

Winter can get pretty gray and bleak around here, so the prospect of pretty pink (or purple, or blue, or orange, or yellow, or red. . .) in the next few months, even if it’s “slime”, will keep me out and adventuring, looking in the leaf litter for little miracles.

Wonderful Web Resources for Fungi, Mushrooms, and Molds:

Special Note:  I am no mycologist, but even I know that you never, ever eat a wild mushroom without having a certified expert on hand to identify the species and ensure that the fungus isn’t deadly poisonous, because many of them are!