We next entered a part of the preserve that is mostly dry and sandy, a habitat that could be called oak-pine savanna, with nearly sterile soils that support only a few pine-barrens plants like Wild Lupine and Sweet Fern, and a few mosses and lichens that thrive in dry conditions. At first glance, it appeared there was not much to see here this time of year, but nearly an hour later we were still kicking aside dry leaves and exclaiming joyfully over some new treasure we had just found.
As widely and deeply knowledgable as my naturalist friends are, not a one of us could identify this feathery growth we found growing on the back of a dry oak leaf. Whatever it is, we found it truly amazing! I can't recall seeing anything like this in any of my fungus guides, so I will be sending this photo to some mycology experts I know and hope they can clue us in. Stay tuned for an update.
I suppose it's possible that those frail feathery sprouts are the beginning of this much stouter feathery fungus we found on another downed oak leaf. But none of us knew for sure. A mystery to be solved!
At least I was pleased to be able to name THIS fungus, called Green-headed Jelly Baby (Leotia viscosa), one I had found on other occasions in habitat similar to this. Once we found the first clump of these hiding under the leaves, we kept finding more and more.
We also found an abundance of these charming Earthstar fungi (Astraeus hygrometricus) scattered across a sandy expanse. This fungus resembles a spherical puffball when young, but in maturity the outer layer of the fruit body splits open to form this star-like pattern.
A third fungus we found thriving in this dry sandy area was this deep-reddish-brown gilled mushroom with a distinctive club-like stalk. I'm still looking through my guides to see if I can find a name for it.
Update: Kathie Hodge, a mycologist at Cornell University, has kindly responded to my query about these fungi and has identified this brown mushroom as Laccaria trullissata, a denizen of sandy areas that is mycorrhizal on pine. Her jury is still out on the white feathery and the lumpy white stuff growing on oak leaves, but she has a lot of mushroom expert friends, so we may yet learn what they are.
I'm not sure of the name for this lichen, either, although many call it British Soldiers because of its bright-red fruiting bodies. I do know it's a fruticose lichen of the Cladonia genus, but there are many species that look alike to the naked eye. Whatever its name, it certainly is pretty!
These are more of the fruticose lichens we found thriving in this sandy area where at first glance it looked like nothing could grow. So cute and so colorful!
Here's another Cladonia lichen, common name of Reindeer Lichen, that made small islands of lovely pale green in the sea of brown oak leaves. We didn't need to brush leaves aside to find this pretty thing.
One of the most common plants that persists in such sandy spots is the shrubby plant called Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina), and the air around us was perfumed with its fragrance as we brushed against or trod upon its leaves. Many of the plants had already shed their curling, fern-like aromatic leaves, but all contained the neat little clusters of catkins that will persist through the winter, opening in spring to shed their pollen as new female flowers develop. Like the Wild Lupine that shares its habitat, Sweet Fern can capture nitrogen from the atmosphere and thus provide its own nutrients and thrive in sterile soils where other plants would fail.
Even though we suspected we had not exhausted the possibilities of finding more treasures in this sandy plain, we decided to move on to other areas of Woods Hollow Preserve, which include deep piney woods, a pond with a boggy shore, and forested wetlands. As we walked along, we challenged each other to name the leafless trees and spent flowers in their wintry garb, and we delighted in the many evergreen plants that still carpeted the forest floor and towered over our heads. After a while, we picked up our "botanists' pace" to try and return to our cars before the rain that was starting to come down harder could drench us thoroughly. But I had to stop for just one moment more to photograph these splendid Witch Hazel boughs, still bursting with yellow bloom and adding their bright note to this otherwise dark gray day.