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Archive for August, 2011

Eyelash Cup Fungus

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 Fledging

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. 


Look closely at the base of this fungus for its true namesake.


Nodding Ladies’ Tresses

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. 


Common Gartersnakes Giving Birth

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

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.

Ants Farming Aphids

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Some species of ants “farm” aphids.  Ants and aphids have a mutualistic relationship, in which each benefits from the presence of the other.  The aphids feed off of the sap of plants, which is low in nutrients.  They must therefore consume a lot of sap in order to get adequate nutrition.  As a result, the aphids excrete large quantities of waste, called honeydew, which is high in sugar content.  This is where the ants come in – they love honeydew, and have actually learned to “milk” aphids by stroking them with their antennae, which stimulates the aphids to release honeydew.  In return for this delicacy, the ants protect the aphids from predators. Chemicals on the ants’ feet tranquilize and subdue the aphids, and even inhibit their wing development, keeping them close by as a ready source of food.  Ants have also been observed tearing the wings from aphids before they can become airborne.

Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor)

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A gray treefrog starts life off as a ¼”, yellow tadpole. Eventually it may reach 2 ½” in length, and its body will have turned olive green with a red tail. Upon metamorphosing into a frog, the gray treefrog turns a bright emerald green and gradually develops into a mottled gray adult. The two color phases of the maturing frog are so different it’s hard to believe that they are the same species. However, a glance at their large, rounded toe pads tells you that they are at least related. All members of the treefrog family (which includes spring peepers) possess these toe pads, which enable them to cling to rough and smooth surfaces, and to climb up verticle structures, from tree trunks to house windows.

White Baneberry

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.

Common Loon

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.

Comb Tooth Fungus

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.

Black Bear Late Summer Scat

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This is the time of year when it’s most interesting to inspect the contents of  black bear scat (those of you who find this kind of activity agreeable), as it can vary so much. In the late summer and fall I have found  bear scat that consisted of predominantly  apples, or grape skins, blackberry seeds or chokecherry seeds.  (Unfortunately for the bird feeder  who hangs up their feeder early in the spring, and takes it down late in the fall, sunflower seeds are often a major part of bear scat at those times of year.)  Often bear scat contains the remains of one predominant fruit, not a mixture.  Orange-colored digested apple, chokecherry seeds and blackberry seeds are discernible in the photographs.


Goldenrod Visitors

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).


Oak Apple Gall

Galls are abnormal plant growths that are caused primarily by insects, but also by fungi, mites, nematodes and bacteria.  Each insect has a specific plant host, and each gall a distinctive shape.  Of the 2,000 gall-producing insects in the United States, 1,500 of them are gall wasps or gall gnats. Plants in the Oak, Daisy, Rose and Willow families have the greatest number of galls, with oaks having over 800 different types.  The insect typically lays an egg in a growing part of the plant (twigs, leaves or leaf bud), which reacts to a chemical secretion, the egg or the burrowing larva by forming a growth around it.  The pictured gall, an oak apple gall, is caused by a wasp, Amphibolips confluenta.  These golf ball-size galls were named for their resemblance to apples.  One larval wasp lives in the center of  each oak apple gall, where it feeds and eventually pupates and emerges as an adult wasp.  The hole in the pictured gall was chewed by the exiting wasp.

Spider Silk & Spinnerets

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.

Beaver Diet

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!

White-marked Tussock Moth

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.

Cedar Waxwings Nesting

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.

European Paper Wasp

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.

Bunchberry Fruit

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In late summer, before the thrushes, veeries and warbling vireos consume them all, the scarlet fruits of bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) adorn the floor of moist, coniferous woods. Although edible, either raw or cooked, these berries lack a distinctive flavor.  Even so,  Native Americans used them in puddings and sauces.  A dwarf version of flowering dogwood, bunchberry grows in colonies that develop from an underground stem, or rhizome.

Caddisfly Eggs

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.


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Pinesap, like its relative Indian pipe, has no chlorophyll, so it cannot obtain energy from sunlight. Instead, it gets nutrients from organic matter in the soil.  It is a flowering plant, and as such, produces seeds.  Pinesap plants that bloom in summer tend to be light yellow, while those that bloom in fall are reddish.

Black-tipped Darner

I thought some people might like to see what the newly-emerged Black-tipped Darner dragonfly whose picture was posted three days ago  eventually looked like.

Moose Scat

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The form of moose scat, as well as that of most members of the deer family, is highly dependent upon the type of food that they eat, and the amount of moisture and fiber in it.   In the summer, when their diet includes eat succulent green leaves and semiaquatic and aquatic vegetation, as well as twigs and bark of deciduous trees,  their scat ranges from pellets clumped together to plops (see photograph) or paddies.  In the winter, when their diet of mostly conifer twigs and bark is quite fibrous, they produce individual pellets.