If you see a bright orange and yellow shelf fungus on a living or dead tree, chances are that it is Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus). It can grow in fairly impressive clumps of up to 100 pounds. The pictured shelves of this fungus extend well over 20 feet along the rotting tree trunk, and this was only half of total amount present. Chicken of the Woods doesn’t appear until well after the fungus has attacked the tree, and because it causes heart rot, the center of the living tree on which it grows is often hollow. Young Chicken of the Woods (particularly the growing edge of the fruiting body) is considered a great find by fungi foragers, as its taste resembles chicken – hence, its common name. Although it’s been considered one of the “foolproof four” fungi that can be eaten, similar species have recently been found which are not edible, so some people advise foraging with caution. (Thanks to Hilary Hamilton for photo op.)
There is a group of fungi known as tooth fungi, due to the fact that they produce spores on tooth-like projections, not pores or gills. Bear’s Head Tooth Fungus, Hericium americanum, also known as Lion’s Mane, Monkey Head or Icicle Mushroom, is a tooth fungus that is fruiting now. This delicious (its taste is somewhat reminiscent of lobster) fleshy fungus is among the safest, most unmistakable of all of North America’s species of edible wild mushrooms; it looks like a cluster of white fungal icicles hanging off a decaying log, stump, or dead tree trunk. Bear’s Head Tooth Fungus fruits on a number of different kinds of deciduous trees, particularly beech, maple, birch, oak, walnut, and sycamore. Distinguishing between the species of Hericium can be tricky, but all species are edible and tasty. Even so, I recommend having someone very familiar with edible fungi along to confirm identification the first time you harvest it. (Thanks to Peter Stettenheim for photo op.)
Jumping spiders are aptly named as they can spring more than 50 times their own body length to land on unsuspecting prey. They hunt actively rather than catching prey in a web and they have excellent vision, with four big eyes in front and four smaller eyes on the top of their head. Jumping spiders have three-dimensional vision which allows them to estimate the range, direction and nature of potential prey, essential skills for a predator that catches prey by pouncing on it.
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) has been used by many people for many things over the years. Native Americans used it to treat cancer, rheumatism, itching, and syphilis. They also ate young pokeweed shoots, which contain very low levels of toxins compared to the rest of the plant (and they boiled them several times). At one time, juice from the berries was once used to make ink and dye. Even today it is still used — by the food industry to make red food coloring and by farmers to reduce the swelling of cows’ udders. Research has shown that pokeweed contains a compound that appears to enhance the immune system. It has had some anti-cancer and antivirus effects in animals. Herbalists use Pokeweed for all kinds of ailments, from hemorrhoids to bad breath. Note: all parts of Pokeweed are poisonous, particularly the roots.
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) numbers are building in northern New England as they head towards the mid-October peak of their migration south. Even though they are no longer constantly singing their “Poor Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody” song, which allows quick identification, White-throated Sparrows’ white throats, striped crowns and yellow lores (the area between the eye and the bill) make them one of the easier sparrows to identify. Don’t be surprised if you see this bird with a tan, and not white, crown. There are two color forms, white-crowned and tan-crowned. Interestingly, an individual bird almost always mates with a bird of the opposite color form. Males of both color types prefer females with white stripes, but both kinds of females prefer tan-striped males.
You could hardly be blamed for not recognizing that this bright yellow-green, half-inch-long, oval creature is the larval stage of a moth! Possessing suction cups rather than prolegs, the Yellow-shouldered Slug (Lithacodes fasciola) glides, rather than crawls, over the leaf it is consuming. Perhaps this is why these caterpillars show a preference for smooth-leaved trees and shrubs such as basswood, beech, cherry, maple and oak (although this particular individual was found on a witch-hazel leaf). The Yellow-shouldered Slug pupates inside a cocoon all winter, and in the spring a small, brown moth emerges.
There are several species of Grape Ferns in the Northeast, all of which are true ferns, but they are not closely related to the plants we generally think of as ferns. Like other ferns, Grape Ferns do not have flowers; they reproduce with spores, not seeds. A single shoot divides into two blades – one of which is sterile and does the photosynthesizing, and one of which is fertile and bears spores. It is the resemblance of this plant’s clusters of spore cases to miniature clusters of grapes that gives this group of ferns its name. Cut-leaved Grape Fern, Botrychium dissectum, (in photograph) is one of the most common species of Grape Ferns in the Northeast. It’s roughly 6” to 8” tall, evergreen and has yellow spore cases and spores which are mature at this time of year.
Camel crickets are named for their humpback appearance. We don’t often see these wingless insects, for they prefer dark, damp habitats such as under stones and logs, where we don’t often look. However, when there are extreme weather conditions, such as excessive rainfall or the extended periods of hot, dry weather which we have experienced this summer, camel crickets are attracted to damp cellars and crawl spaces, giving us an opportunity to admire their impressive legs. Often mistaken for spiders, camel crickets do have long legs, but only six, not eight, of them. Their two hind legs are obviously longer and stronger than the other four, and enable this cricket to jump three feet high, a skill they use for defense against predators. A local blog reader reports that three nights in a row (camel crickets are nocturnal), due to the force of its jump, a camel cricket tripped a small have-a-heart trap set in their cellar for mice. (Thanks to the Choukas for photo op.)
This is the time for Giant Puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) to magically appear in fields and meadows overnight. Puffballs are different from most fungi, in that their spores are all contained within them, as opposed to being produced by gills under a cap. Giant Puffballs more than deserve their common and scientific names — they can reach a diameter of five feet and weigh up to 44 pounds! Some foragers do eat immature puffballs, but beware, as they closely resemble a poisonous mushroom at this stage, and once their spores mature, they can cause digestive distress. (Thanks to Knox & Harmony Farm for photo op.)
Bumblebees are nothing if not perseverant. Prying Bottle Gentian’s (Gentiana andrewsii) petals open is a monumental task, and one that few insects, other than large species of bumblebees, attempt — much less accomplish. The relationship of bumblebees and Bottle Gentian is an example of a mutualistic association — the bees benefit by having exclusive access to a bountiful and sugary nectar supply, and the plants benefit by attracting “loyal” pollinators that improve the chances for cross pollination.
Northern Watersnakes can be found in rivers, ponds and bogs throughout New England, except for northern Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. They spend time foraging both day and night for fish (61% of diet), frogs and toads (21%), salamanders (12%) as well as insects and crayfish at the water’s edge. (Snake jaws can separate at both the front and back, allowing them to eat impossibly large prey , such as the catfish in Chris Crowley’s photograph.) They also spend a great deal of time basking on rocks and overhanging branches. Northern Watersnakes can be formidable looking – they can grow over four feet long – but while they can be aggressive if threatened, they are not poisonous. Watersnakes give birth to up to 70 (typically 20-40) live young between August and early October.
Broad-winged Hawk chicks spend their first five or six weeks in the nest being fed small mammals, toads, nestling birds and a variety of invertebrates by their mother. They then fledge, but for the next two weeks these young birds continue to use the nest as a feeding (food is still being provided for them) and roosting site. At about seven weeks of age they begin capturing their own prey, and remain on their parents’ territory for the next month or two — just enough time to learn the ropes before migrating south for the winter, which they are doing right now (peak migration is mid-September).
The mating season for moose (Alces alces) is just starting, and it peaks around the end of September or the first week in October. By this time bulls have shed the velvet that provided a blood supply to their antlers while they were growing during the summer. Occasionally you see the remains of the velvet hanging from their antlers at this time of year (see photograph). During mating season, bulls are rushing through the forest, seeking a receptive cow and engaging in mock battles with other bulls for the female’s attention. A bull uses his antlers in these challenges, engaging in “antler-pushing” with other males. He also uses his antlers as a tool for thrashing brush and for rooting plants from the bottom of ponds.
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is in flower, one to two weeks early this year, just as last year’s fruit is mature and ready to explode, sending seeds flying. This shrub may have gotten its name from its association with dowsing, which was once thought to be a form of witchcraft. (Witch hazel’s branches were once the wood of choice for dowsing rods, whose purpose is to locate water, or “witch” a well.) The bark, leaves, and twigs of witch hazel are all high in tannins, giving this plant astringent properties. It has also been used for any number of medicinal purposes, from treating hemorrhoids to laryngitis.
Black bears are omnivores as well as opportunists. They will eat almost anything that they can find, but the majority of their diet consists of grasses, roots, berries, nuts and insects (particularly the larvae). In the fall, prior to going into hibernation, black bears enter a stage called “hyperphagia,” which literally means “excessive eating.” They forage practically non-stop — up to 20 hours a day, building up fat reserves for hibernation, increasing their body weight by 35% in some cases. Their daily food intake goes from 8,000 to 15-20,000 calories (that’s roughly equivalent to 70 McDonald’s cheeseburgers). Signs of their foraging for grubs and beetles, such as the excavated base of the snag in the photograph, can be found with relative ease at this time of year, if you live where there are black bears. If you do share their territory with them, be forewarned that they have excellent memories, especially for food sources. Be sure not to leave food scraps or pet food outside (my compost bin was destroyed last year but I have no solution for that particular problem), and if you really don’t want any ursine visitors, it’s best to not start feeding birds until most black bears have entered hibernation – late December would be safe most years.
Birds have a number of ways of keeping cool, which is a good thing, given the number of hot days we’ve experienced this summer, and probably for summers to come. They don’t sweat, nor do they pant, but birds do have several behavioral adaptations which reduce their temperature. Often, while exposed to the relentless heat of the sun, Great Blue Heron nestlings resort to what is called gular fluttering. They open their mouths and “flutter” their neck muscles, promoting heat loss – an avian version of panting. An even easier behavior to observe is the position Great Blue Herons will often assume on a hot day. They droop their wings (see photograph) while standing, which allows air to circulate across their body and sweep away the excess heat.
Because tree buds tend to swell and increase greatly in size in the spring, this is often the season when we first notice them and assume that this is when trees produce them. If you look in the axils of leaves on any tree right now, you will see full-size buds that were formed this summer. These little packages of miniature leaves, branches and sometimes flowers, will remain on trees all winter, tightly closed and often protected from the elements by modified leaves called bud scales. Come spring, when trees are once again taking up quantities of water, their buds will swell, scales will fall off (leaving bud scale scars), and tiny, pristine leaves will appear. (Photo is of American beech, Fagus grandifolia, bud.)