Fungi can be divided into two groups – basidiomycetes and ascomycetes. Basidiomycetes (gilled mushrooms, coral fungus, hedgehog mushrooms, puffballs, bird’s nest fungus) produce spores on the surface of microscopic cells called basidea. Ascomycetes (morels, cup fungi, stinkhorns) produce their spores within microscopic sacs (asci). The slug in this photograph is dining on an ascomycete — eyelash cup fungus (Scutellinia scutellata), the rim of which bears many stiff, eyelash-like hairs.
American goldfinches are late nesters – it is not uncommon for them to be raising young in August, and occasionally even into September. Recently while walking through a wet meadow, I became aware of a sudden burst of activity to my right. Unbeknownst to me, I had come quite close to an American goldfinch nest which was full of nestlings on the brink of fledging. As I passed by, the young burst explosively from their nest. Two fluttered to the ground and quickly sought cover, one flew a short distance into some shrubs, and one remained in the nest. Regardless of where they sought shelter, the young will be fed and cared for by their parents for the next three weeks or so.
The downward “nodding” curve of its tubular flowers gives Nodding Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes cernua) part of its common name. ( I’m not sure where the reference to tresses, or a woman’s long locks or braid of hair, comes from.) The bright white flower spike of this relatively common member of the Orchid family stands out in moist meadows of green grasses. A perennial, Nodding Ladies’ Tresses grows between 4 and 12 inches tall, and is pollinated by both long and short-tongued nectar-seeking bees.
Most species of snakes lay eggs (oviparous), but some give birth to live young (viviparous), including the common gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis). Gartersnakes are born at this time of year, and are on their own from the moment of birth. The greatest number of gartersnakes to be born in a single litter is 98, but 14 – 40 is more typical. The common gartersnake in the accompanying photograph is a newborn, measuring 6 inches in length.
Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) is a fungus that can be found growing from the bases of rotting stumps, and gets its common name from the way its fruiting body pokes up through the ground like a dead man’s fingers. “Xylaria” refers to growing on wood and “polymorpha” means many forms. This species has a very variable fruiting body, sometimes with many separate “fingers” and sometimes with the fingers fused into something more like a hand.
White baneberry (Actaea alba) is most conspicuous in late summer, when its white berries tipped with a black dot are evident. It is not hard to see why it is also called Doll’s Eyes – the berries are said to resemble the ceramic eyes of old-fashioned china dolls. The entire plant is poisonous – just a few berries can cause dizziness and nausea in humans. However, they are eaten by ruffed grouse, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and American robins. White-footed mice and southern red-backed voles also dine on them. The leaves and flowers of its relative, red baneberry (Actaea rubra), closely resemble white baneberry, but in the fall it’s easy to tell them apart by the color of their berries (see 7/10/11 blog post) , as reflected in their common names.
Since hatching in July, the downy, sooty black common loon chick has matured in to a sleek, brown juvenile, close to its parents in size. Even so, adult loons are still caring for and feeding their young, though far less so than earlier in the summer, as juvenile birds are now foraging on their own. Roughly nine weeks old, the young bird accompanying its parent in the photograph will be airborne in three weeks or so, but for the most part will remain on its natal pond or lake. Juveniles typically don’t leave for their salt water wintering grounds as long as there is open water — long after their parents have migrated.
If you take a walk in the woods right now, you’ll find that overnight the fruiting bodies of a wide variety of fungi have popped up all over the forest floor, none more obvious than the white Comb Tooth fungus (Hericium coralloides). It is delicately branched and covered with fleshy spines most of which are under half an inch in length. Look for Comb Tooth on fallen hardwood branches, logs and stumps, particularly those of American Beech and maples. If you are with someone whose fungus identification skills you trust, and they confirm that you have found Comb Tooth (the fungus it most resembles, H. americanum, or Bear’s-head Tooth fungus, is also edible), you are in for a treat, for it is one of our tastiest fungi.
If you want to get an idea of the number and variety of wasps, bees, beetles and bugs that reside in your area, go to the nearest goldenrod patch sit for a spell – this member of the Aster family is a magnet for insects. You’ll find many foliage- eating bugs and beetles, leaf-mining larvae, nectar and pollen feeders, and flower and seed-eaters. In addition, many predatory spiders (jumping and crab, especially) and insects (ambush bugs, ladybug beetles, flower bugs etc.) have discovered that goldenrod is a goldmine for them, as well. Researchers have found nearly 250 species of insects feeding on one species of goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). Pictured from left to right are a long-horned beetle (locust borer, Megacyllene robiniae – pollen eater), a fly (nectar feeder) and bee (nectar and pollen feeder).
All spiders spin silk — some use it to build webs, eggs sacs, draglines, wrap prey and/or disperse in the air. Inside their bodies are glands which produce different types of silk material for different purposes. Liquified silk proteins are pushed out spinnerets, or silk-spinning organs, located at the tip of a spider’s abdomen (most spiders have six). Once the silk solution comes in contact with the air, it solidifies. Each spinneret has a spigot, or nozzle, which controls the consistency of the silk by forming smaller or larger strands. By winding different silk varieties together in varying proportions, spiders can form a wide range of fiber material. Spider silk is extremely strong and flexible. Some varieties are five times as strong as an equal mass of steel and twice as strong as an equal mass of Kevlar.
In March and April, beavers consume a lot of tree bark, but come summer, approximately 90 % of a beaver’s diet consists of grasses, aquatic plants, and other herbaceous vegetation. Of the woody plants that they do eat during the warmer months, aspen/poplar (in photograph) and willow are favorites. It appears that beavers use their sense of smell in order to find their tree of choice. The greater the distance from the pond, the more selective beavers are in terms of species chosen – they go as far as a tenth of a mile away and up steep slopes for aspen!
The white-marked tussock moth caterpillar is brightly colored, with tufts of hair-like “setae.” As you might guess, it’s in the same family (Arctiidae) as the woolly bear/Isabella tiger moth. Although these caterpillars are appealing to the eye (of some people), it’s best not touch them, as their hairs break off very easily and can cause a painful reaction on your skin. There are a number of species of tussock moths, many of which, in their larval stage, have these bristles and tufts. As adult moths, most are brown or grey, and live long enough to mate, but they do not eat.
While the nestlings of most species of birds have fledged, some cedar waxwings are still incubating eggs. Known for being one of the last species to nest, a waxwing on a nest in mid-August is probably on its second brood. Both the male and female collect nesting material, but it is the female who does most of the nest construction, and all of the incubation of the eggs. The cup nest is constructed with a wide variety of material, including twigs, grasses, cattail down, moss, string, horsehair, dead leaves, cloth, shredded bark, roots, leaves, ferns, stalks of herbs and flower blossoms. Occasionally the exterior of the nest is decorated with ornate plant material, such as the lichen (Usnea , or Old Man’s Beard) in the photograph.
The European paper wasp (Polistes dominula) was introduced to the New Jersey Pine Barrens in 1968, and has since spread throughout most of the North America. Considered an invasive species by most entomologists, it looks more like a yellowjacket than the paper wasp that it is. The European paper wasp nests earlier in the spring, in a wider variety of nest sites, and feeds on a larger variety of insects than native species of wasps. In the photograph if you look closely you can see that it is scraping off a fine line of dead plant tissue on the underside of this leaf, assumedly for use in expanding its paper nest.
For a long time I have wondered what creature deposits the 1” to 2”-long jelly-like masses of eggs I often find this time of year about two-thirds up cattail leaves. Common sense told me it was an aquatic creature, and indeed, it is, at least during its immature, or larval, stage. A caddisfly, a small insect with tent-like wings, cleverly lays its eggs where the larvae, once hatched, can simply drop down into their habitat of choice, be it a pond or stream.