Forest Explorations

July in the Fells

The Fells offers exciting natural finds year round, but July is an especially active time of year for both flora and fauna. Plants have reached peak foliage with some bearing ripening fruit. Insects pupae are hatching and dragonflies skim the surface of water bodies. Every few feet, our group pauses to inspect the ferns, fungi, and mosses prevailing on the forest floor despite this season’s relatively dry conditions.

About the Author: Mina Burton ➔

“Seeing the Fells through a naturalistic lens instead of a purely recreational one fundamentally changed my perception of the space. I began to pay attention to places differently, noting not only individual species but also the relationships between these species and their environments and interspecies interactions. Observing and recording these kinds of details over time can show us the effects of climate change on biodiversity and inform how we protect that biodiversity.”

Mina’s interest in natural history took root during a New England field studies course at Lesley. This course involved learning about ecology and plant identification at local parks and urban wilds. One of these sites was the Middlesex Fells...

Once a month, Claire and Kathy lead a biodiversity walk in the Fells. It’s a free form activity of ours which the only purpose is to explore what Nature wonders are in season: what is flowering, fruiting, passing by, living here?

We invite our guests to write about the walk. Here are highlights of what Mina and we enjoyed this time!


This past Sunday, eight of us convened at the Fells for EwA’s first Forest Exploration walk in several months. EwA leads these biodiversity walks on a monthly basis as a way to explore the natural phenomena at the Fells throughout the year. This was my first Forest Exploration walk and I can confidently say that I exited the woods with more knowledge than I entered with. The natural curiosity and collective knowledge of the group made for an enthusiastic and collaborative learning environment.


Blooms, Fruits & Spores

A wealth of natural phenomena can be found in the Fells at this time of year. Spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in full bloom adorn both sides of the trail and blueberries are beginning to ripen. 

Mapleleaf viburnums (Viburnum acerifolium) bear early green fruits. Haircap mosses are currently sporing; I was entertained to find that if you brush your fingers against them they release small puffs of spores.


The Unknown

Immediately upon entering the woods our group came across a new, unfamiliar finding; a tiny sac hanging by a single thread. While we all agreed the sac was likely the product of insect activity, none of us had ever seen one before. The sac was later identified on iNaturalist as an egg sac, likely constructed by a Common Eastern Ray Spider (Theridiosoma gemmosum). The sac wasn’t constructed by an insect after all! Discovering the sac was a humbling reminder that, while many of us are frequent visitors at the Fells, there is always more to learn.


Cute as a Button

We were lucky to have Larry Millman, a mycologist, amongst us for this forest exploration. We observed the common purple toothed polypore, a resilient fungi capable of surviving extended dry periods. We also spotted an amanita “button” mushroom. Larry explained that Amanita mushrooms first emerge as “buttons” that later develop to form the mushroom cap. While not yet visible on the mushroom we found, amanita mushrooms also form a ring below the cap, presumably to protect the mushroom from insects. 


Plants ‘sans’ Chlorophil

Another exciting find on our walk was several ghost pipes. These pale, parasitic plants cannot produce their own chlorophyll and instead sap nutrients from neighboring trees through an intermediate source: mycorrhizal fungi. The ghost pipes that we saw were all downward-facing, which indicates that they have not yet been fertilized. Once fertilized, the flowers will lift upwards.

We also spotted pinesap, another parasitic plant species. Pinesaps usually form mycorrhizal connections with Tricholoma fungi, while ghost pipes associate with Russula and Lactarius fungi. On a similar note, I was intrigued to learn that it is often possible to identify mushrooms by what tree species they are connected to.

While on the topic of mycorrhiza — halfway through our walk, we uncovered a rhizomorph on the underside of a fallen branch. While they may look like plant roots, rhizomorphs are actually the aggregation of many fungal hyphae strands.


Another kind of parasite…

As we neared the end of our walk, we stumbled upon a Harvestman carrying an abundance of Leptus mites. While it isn’t uncommon to see such mites, we were surprised by just how many were feeding on this particular Harvestman. Generally speaking, these mites don’t kill adult harvestmen but may have other negative effects.


I greatly enjoyed my first Forest Exploration with EwA and look forward to seeing how the Fells changes throughout the summer season. Thanks to all who joined us this month! Check out all our other sightings that day at the Fells here.

📅 Join us next month to explore the natural joys to be found in August. We will be on the lookout for arthropods, and especially pollinators – all busy preparing for wintering, or about to leave a new generation in the making before themselves finish their cycle.

Forest Explorations


July, 20th 2020 | by Mina Burton 

The photos in this article are visual observations that Lucy, Joe, Bill and Claire have recorded during the July 12th, 2020 Forest Explorations event. Photos are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC).

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