Sunday, October 31, 2021

October Farewell

Here it is already, the last day of October, and it feels as if I'm still waiting for fall: those frosty mornings and crisp, clear, blue-sky afternoons amid blazing autumn foliage. But we haven't yet had a real frost, and our tree leaves have mostly turned from fungus-spotted, insect-damaged yellowing green to withered brown. It's rainy and gray today, but last Friday was a crisp, clear, blue-sky day, perfect for a walk around Moreau Lake, where some of the trees, anyway, offered some of the brilliance we hope for each fall.

This sapling Red Maple was doing its best to remind us of what fall foliage used to look like, having somehow managed to escape some of the Gypsy Moth and fungal damage that attacked most of our mature maples this past over-heated and soggy summer.

And these gorgeous American Beech boughs offered plenty of the flaming colors we have long come to expect in October.

A whole row of maples along the shore of Moreau Lake's back bay reminded me of what fall used to look like.

The Black Huckleberry hedge along the lake's north shore were rather muted, though: more of a ruddy wine color this year, instead of the blazing scarlet I have marveled at in other years.

I wonder if the continued warmth of our weather has been a factor, too, in muting the color of our fall foliage.  We have not yet had a killing frost, so even a few flowers still offer their blooms to a few insect foragers, like this tiny bee in a blooming Philadelphia Fleabane.   As in the case of several other spring-blooming flowers I have found recently (Bunchberry and Dog Violet, for example),  this species of fleabane has started blooming again, long after its early-summer flowers had gone to seed. 

While walking along the stone-cobbled eastern shore of the lake, I was delighted by these underwater stones, their multiple colors enhanced by the crystal-clear water close to shore.

I was even more delighted to find this wee little flatsedge tucked in among the dry stones higher up on the shore.  For this is one of New York's rarest species, the Small-flowered Dwarf Bulrush (Cyperus subsquarrosus), only recently re-discovered to exist on Moreau Lake's shores in uncountable numbers.

Here was another great find: A male Snow Bunting, only recently arrived from its arctic breeding grounds to spend the winter here "down south." 

I was able to recognize this unfamiliar bird, because exactly to the day 12 years ago, on October 29, 2009, I photographed this same species here on the shore of Moreau Lake, in almost the very same spot.  (Luckily, I was able to approach the Snow Bunting much closer, back then, and got a much better photo.)

As the afternoon shadows began to lengthen, I passed this grandpa and grandson fishing by the bridge, a scene that somehow made me feel that, here in this small sun-warmed spot on the planet, all was right with the world. Maybe it just reminded me of how much I had adored my own grandpa.

While I passed through the woods on my way to my car, I came upon a fallen log populated by a long stretch of small caramel-colored fungi.  They were so small and plain,  I almost passed them by without more than a glance.  But something about them urged me to take a closer look.

Aha! I knew I remembered something interesting about this fungus! When I turned this little cluster of them over, there were the crinkly, wrinkly gills that are diagnostic for the Crimped Gill Fungus (Plicaturopsis crispa). One of the remarkable things about this common fall-fruiting fungus is that it is also a truly functional winter fungus. Even after it has become thoroughly dried or solidly frozen, it can be brought indoors, moistened and kept in a humid container, and it will produce many spores throughout the winter. It is also really cute!

Now, here was a really colorful fungus, its lovely red cap set off beautifully by the bright-green moss behind it. Called Painted Suillus (Suillus spraguei), this mushroom has a mutually beneficial relationship with Eastern White Pines. In return for the sugars the photosynthesizing pine provides to the fungus,  the Painted Suillus provides water and minerals to the tree through its underground mycorrhizal network.  

The more I learn about how fungal mycorrhizae operate to connect and communicate with other organisms, the more my mind is blown! Read Merlin Sheldrake's fascinating book on mycology called Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, and you will never walk through a woods the same way again.

Not only are fungi fascinating, some are astoundingly beautiful.  And Turkey Tail Fungus is one of the most beautiful of all.  I have found its thin and flexible caps adorned with stripes of many different color combinations, including royal blue and school-bus yellow or chocolate fudge and creamy vanilla.  But never have I found a population colored with such a vivid and velvety moss-green, as I did this day.   Wow!

Here's a bit closer look at those beautiful colored stripes. I am thinking that the green color comes from a  green alga taking up residence on the fungus.  Whatever the source, it certainly added to the beauty of this already lovely fungus.  The autumn leaves may have let us down this year, but the mushrooms certainly haven't!

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Autumn on an Old Log

I went with my friend Sue Pierce to Cole's Woods in Glens Falls this week, walking with her as she decided which trails to follow when she leads our friends in the Thursday Naturalists there next week.  This is a beautiful many-acred forest right in the middle of the city, but when we are deep within that forest, the city seems very far away.  And it is especially beautiful now, with the trees adorned with their autumn colors.


Although the tree leaves this year are not nearly so brilliant as they have been in years past,  the Winterberry shrubs (Ilex verticillata) are having a very fruitful year, the twigs heavy with bright-red berries.

This European Spindle Tree (Euonymus europaeus) is not a native species, but we found it hard to resent its presence here, because it was hung with such spectacular dangling clusters of hot-pink seedpods. It was certainly one of the most colorful shrubs in the entire woods! And so far, we found only one, and that one at the edge of the woods in a parking area. Let's hope it stays there. It certainly doesn't yet seem to be as invasive as its cousin, the Burning Bush.

Despite the distractions of those two beautiful fruit-bearing shrubs,  I spent my most fascinated time in Cole's Woods exploring the barkless wood of this rotting tree trunk.  I realize it doesn't draw much attention to itself at first glance, but let's just take a closer look.

The first thing I noticed about this old log were masses of these tiny orange disks, each disk rimmed with a fringe of minute black hairs.  I believe this fungus is a smaller version of the Eyelash Cup Fungus, this mini-version called by the scientific name Scutellinia setosa.  There were hundreds and hundreds of them scattered across the damp de-barked wood of this fallen trunk.

Here was another cup fungus on this same log, still small but quite a bit bigger than those orange mini-disks, and this one with a brown hairy coating surrounding a pearly-white glossy interior.  It has the descriptive vernacular name of Hairy Fairy Cup.  Humaria hemisphaerica is its scientific name.

Yet another small fungus populated this same log, this one a ruddy species called Copper Penny (Pachyella clypeata).  

All three of these aforementioned fungi are "sac" fungi, so called because their sexual spores are produced in sac-like mother cells.  The key feature of these cup-shaped sac fungi is that the extremely tiny spore sacs are produced in a layer over the upper surface of the fruitbodies, sometimes as many as hundreds of millions of them covering the surface of a single fruitbody. When ripe, the sacs explode to discharge the spores violently into the air.  The spores are so tiny that they are virtually invisible, but when millions of sacs fire simultaneously, the spores appear like smoke above the fruitbodies. I have never seen this phenomenon, but I will be looking for it among these fall-fruiting sac  fungi.

How pretty these tiny orange disks and ruddy coin-shaped fungi looked when interspersed with these glossy green wisps of moss! I couldn't help thinking what a lovely Christmas decoration this combination of moss and mushrooms would make, if they only persisted. (If somebody knows the name of this moss, please let us know in a comment, and I will add it later.)

This next fungus is probably one of the most common of the sac fungi. Called Lemon Drops (Bisporella citrina), they also are found on damp rotting logs, and they commonly fruit in great numbers, often by the hundreds, ranging in size from pin-head-sized dots to dime-sized disks.  I usually find them more spread out than this crowded cluster is.  They are so brightly colored, they are hard to miss, even when very tiny, and they often persist late into the fall.

Here's one more fall-fruiting fungus often found on rotting logs, this one a jelly fungus called Fan-shaped Orange Jelly (Dacryopinax spathularia). This bright-colored glossy fungus is often found fruiting in dense rows along cracks in the debarked wood, which was how I found it fruiting this day.

Another organism to join the fungi on this rotting log was a liverwort called Variable-leaved Crestwort (Lophocolea heterophylla). Often mistaken for a moss, this evergreen liverwort develops a low mat of sprawling leafy shoots, with two-toothed individual leaves arranged opposite from each other on the stems.  I thought this was an especially pretty clump of it joining the fungi on my log.

When I first saw this clump of Variable-leaved Crestwort, I wondered if a moss was sharing this liverwort's territory on this log, because of another shape of what looked to be paler green leaves that were poking up from the center of the mat. But after searching around the internet for more information about this liverwort, I discovered that occasionally, some shoots terminate in "solitary perianths -- pouch-like, ovoid-triangular in shape, and more or less erect -- containing the female sex organs."  Well, that certainly fit the description of what I was seeing.  I learn something new every day!

As Sue and I wandered the wooded trails, we enjoyed identifying the fading remnants of summer-flowering plants like Shinleaf,  Frostweed, and Green Rockcress (a rare one!). But here was a genuine surprise: a solitary bloom of Dog Violet (Viola labradorica), blooming again, long after it had gone to seed.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Autumn, Underfoot

What a disappointment our autumn foliage in Saratoga County has been this year!  Due to a huge infestation of leaf-devouring Gypsy Moth larvae this summer, accompanied by unrelenting rains and wilting heat waves, many of the tree leaves have suffered both insect damage and fungal disease.  So instead of going out in their customary blaze of glory, most of our leaves are brown and shriveled and spotty, and many have already fallen, even though we haven't yet had a killing frost.  Even our sumacs have failed us.  Especially the species called Shining Sumac, which I used to depend on for truly eye-popping scarlet brilliance along the powerline that runs just north of Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park.  When I stopped there this past week, only a few shriveled leaves remained on the sumac twigs.  So instead of looking above my head for autumn beauty, I looked down instead,  finding what beauty lay underfoot along the deeply moss-cushioned clearcut under the powerlines.

At first glance, a search for splendor here among the brown grasses, baby pines, and thick yellowing carpets of Big Red Moss didn't look very promising.  But here and there, beautiful mounds of  spring-green Haircap Moss were studded with small silvery-brown mushrooms.

And how unexpected, to find patches of multi-colored Sphagnum Moss, here in this sun-baked, dry, sandy-soiled clearcut. I usually think of Sphagnum as populating very wet soils. But this one sure seemed happy here. I love its beautiful mix of green and gold and scarlet , so similar to what our forested mountainsides have looked like in other autumns, only in miniature and underfoot.

Here's an even deeper-scarlet patch of Sphagnum, sharing its turf with some velvety green Broom Moss, some shaggy stems of Big Red Moss, and a couple of Tree Club Mosses, one of them bearing spikes of golden spores.

Here's a closer look at that deep-red Sphagnum, revealing the whitish tips that give this moss a frosted appearance.

Here's a different clubmoss, called Fan Clubmoss, looking like tiny White Cedar trees set in a starry meadow of Haircap Moss.

This pale-yellow mushroom glowed like a full moon against a dark background of Haircap Moss.

These teeny-tiny brown mushrooms were sharing a fallen log with some grassy-green Broom Moss.

And this mass of Turkey Tail fungus proved that if you can't find beautiful colors in the trees, come look for this colorful species of fungus, displaying shades of blue and green and gold and rust and ivory.

Finally! Here was a baby Red Maple displaying the scarlet brilliance its species is famous for, only in miniature.  And even these tender new leaves were marred with the signs of insect damage and fungal disease that has made our autumn foliage such a disappointment this year.  Let's hope next fall will be better!

Friday, October 22, 2021

Autumn Splendor Along the Hudson

On my way home from walking the banks of the Hudson last week (see last post), I pulled over where Spier Falls Road curves around the bend of the river to take these photos of the river's colorful banks.  

I also walked up a riverside powerline clearcut, to see how the colors of grasses and ferns outlined the contours of the rolling hills.

Every day, I thank my lucky stars I live amid such wonders!

Sunday, October 17, 2021

It's Moss and Mushroom Time!

The summer flowers have faded, and the brilliant autumn foliage will soon be fading, too.  So what's left to entice a nature lover outdoors?   Why, mosses and mushrooms, of course!  And since our own great personal resource for mosses, our friend Ruth Brooks, will soon be leaving us for her winter home in Florida, my friend Sue and I just HAD to go mossing with her this past week -- especially since Ruth had found a rarely reported aquatic moss called Fissidens fontana just a few days before and wanted us to go back with her to revisit the place she had found it.  So we met on the shore of the Hudson River last Wednesday morning, ready to paddle with her to the riverside cove where this moss could be found.

It wasn't the nicest day for a paddle, with rain expected momentarily and fine droplets already misting the air.  But that never stopped us before from setting out in our solo canoes, especially if an exciting find lay in the prospect.  But what we discovered when we met at the launch site DID stop us: the water level in the river had been lowered for dam repairs downstream.  Yes, we could have entered the river and paddled mid-stream, but we sure could not paddle close enough to the banks to examine what mosses grew there.  Time for Plan B.

"No problem," I told my friends.  "We can walk to the site."  I knew that because I had walked there many times before, over the years, making my way through the woods and along the riverbank to a small cove where a stream joined the river. It was in that cove that Ruth had found her remarkable moss.  So off we went.

When we reached the cove and discovered it mostly emptied of water, that gave Ruth a momentary pause. Last week, she had found this aquatic moss submerged and floating just beneath the water's surface.  Would she be able to recognize it when stranded on the rocky bottom?

Well, yes, she certainly did! Tangled masses of the dark-colored moss called Limp Pocket Moss (Fissidens fontana) lived up to its common name by lying limply across this large wet rock.

Here's what Limp Pocket Moss looks like when floating free in the water.  One would need a magnifier to notice how the lower corner of each small narrow leaf is folded over to form a small pocket, the reason this moss is designated a "pocket moss."  I believe even Ruth did not notice this pocket when she first saw this moss, simply recognizing it as one she had never seen before, and it looked very interesting. After collecting a sample, which she later examined with her microscope at home, and then conferring with a bryologist,  Ruth was excited to learn that this moss has never yet been reported this far north in New York State. This moss may not be that uncommon, though.  More likely it is just rarely seen, growing underwater as it does.  I would say this just goes to prove what a remarkable "mosser" our friend Ruth Brooks is.

And here's more evidence of Ruth's ability to spot the unusual find.  Not 10 feet away from where she found the Limp Pocket Moss, she spotted another similarly colored aquatic moss that normally flourishes underwater.  How she recognized this dark tangled mass as a different moss than the one we had come here to find, is beyond me.  But Ruth immediately put the name Fontanalis antipyretica to this one.  Keeled Water Moss is its vernacular name, suggested by its deeply keeled, spearhead-shaped leaves.  That feature is not evident in my photos of this moss, but Ruth assured us that she could observe that keel with her magnifier loupe. She also told us that the "antipyretic" part of this moss's name refers to its medicinal use as a treatment for high fever.

I wonder what this Green Frog felt when he heard us whooping it up about our moss finds? He kept very still in the hope of remaining unseen when we stooped to look at him.

Of course, we had found many other mosses on our walk through the woods to the cove. Here, Ruth and Sue stoop to examine some that are covering this rotting log.

We found no rare ones under the trees, but the common mosses, such as this beautiful mound of Brocade Moss (Hypnum imponens), looked especially green and vibrant, thanks to much rain this year.

When this moss, called Atrichum undulatum, is dry or really cold, the rumpled leaves curl up in a squiggly mass. It was obvious that these open leaves were receiving plenty of water on this rather warm rainy day.

And oh boy, did we find FUNGI in this woods!  Many of them we could not name, but I did recognize this enormous clump as Honey Mushroom (Armillaria mellea), grown to such a size it might barely fit in a bushel basket.

From huge to tiny!  This pretty little cluster of small tan mushrooms had found their niche in the knothole of a fallen twig.

My photo really does not do justice to how remarkably pink these Russulas (species unknown) appeared on the forest floor. The stems and gills were snowy white, but their caps almost looked as if they had been bleeding.

I hardly ever find a bright-red Russula emetica that hasn't had its cap partly devoured by some woodland creature, probably snails or slugs. So I was delighted to find this one so beautifully intact.

This lovely yellow coral mushroom looked so unique I was sure I would quickly find it described in one of my five mushroom guides.  But no, after thumbing through all of them, I found nothing that looked quite like this.     Suggestions would gladly be welcomed.

These lovely pale-yellow discs reminded me of butter cookies. Again, species unknown.

And how appropriate to find very near to those butter-cookie-like caps this dark-brown, white-gilled mushroom with the common name Chocolate Milky (Lactarius lignyotus).  Like all Lactarius species, this one does seep a milky fluid when its gills are cut, but my mushroom guides discourage consuming members of this genus, since they are easily confused with one another and not all are edible.

These tight little scaly-topped buttons, possibly Pholiota squarrosa, also resembled something tempting, like coconut macaroons, but I would never eat them.  I have difficulty distinguishing Pholiota species, especially when immature, like these. But I could still feast my eyes on them, they were so cute!

When we encountered this giant tiered bracket fungus, we were impressed, first, by its size, and then by the way it seemed to be dribbling water from every edge.

Sue suggested I try using my camera's flash to better illuminate those droplets.  So I did.  And WHOA!  Just look at how this fungus sparkles! As if it were adorned with tiny Christmas lights.

That drippiness suggested to me that this might be the Resinous Polypore (Ischnoderma resinosum), which one of my mushroom guides describes as forming droplets of liquid on the cap margin and pore surface.  The ruddy brown color of the top surface, as well as the soft and flexible caps, which I could bend down to inspect, were further details that convinced me that my guess was correct.

Here's what this fascinating fungus looks like straight on.  Just one more intriguing find on this mid-October day, when some might think there was little left of interest in the woods or on the water.