Forest Explorations

November in the Fells

After an unusually dry summer, it was a relief to see a wealth of fungi during this November’s Forest Exploration walk. Last month, conditions were too parched to support much fungi life, but this Saturday we spotted an abundance of them including Amber Jelly fungus, Brown-toothed Crust Fungus, as well as minuscule ones hidden in plain sight on the bark of trees. We also inspected an array of galls and enjoyed yellow American Witch-Hazel flowers, blooming brilliantly even after so many leaves have fallen.

Once a month, Claire and Kathy lead a biodiversity walk in the Fells. It’s a free form activity of ours which 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!

Looking up

This month’s Forest Exploration kicked off before our group even left the parking lot; as our introductions wrapped up, one attendee, Tinie, pointed out a delicate and intricate nest dangling overhead. This nest was built by a Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula), a migratory bird named for its bright orange and black coloration reminiscent of the coat of arms worn by 17th-century Lord Baltimore.

Baltimore oriole nest © Joe MacIndewar

Vernal Pool Ventures

Once in the woods, we began our walk with a discussion of a natural phenomenon near and dear to my own heart: vernal pools! I’m currently working on my undergraduate capstone at the Fells conducting fieldwork on informal trails (i.e. user-created trails not part of a formal trail system) and vernal pools. The Fells is home to about 130 vernal pools, of which less than half have been certified. Vernal pools provide important habitat for breeding amphibians. Amphibians do not permanently reside in these pools, however, and spend much of their adult life cycle in upland areas. 

Vernal Pool © Mina Burton

When thinking about how we can best protect these important breeding habitats, it is important to consider the surrounding buffer area around a pool. That’s why, in my own capstone, I’m interested to see how the proliferation of informal trails might impact amphibian dispersal. To protect amphibians, be sure to stay on formal trails, and please keep your dogs on leash to prevent them from wandering into these vulnerable ecosystems!

One Man’s Trash…

Another habitat we discussed during our walk is one that many of us can find in our own yards. Fallen trees and branches are usually removed from residential areas but can actually provide beneficial shelter and nutrients to a variety of organisms. Studies conducted in Norway found that as many as 6,000 species live in deadwood –a third of all species found in those forests. Half of the species found were insects (*). In addition to providing shelter for insects and amphibians, fallen branches and trees return captured nutrients and water to the soil.

Amber jelly fungus © Claire O’Neill

On our walk, we clearly noticed this benefit for fungi in particular, as many types of mushrooms and lichen clung to fallen branches from the smallest twig to entire trunks. Above, you can see an Amber Jelly fungus (Exidia recisa) latched onto a fallen branch.

(*) Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson (2019); Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.

A Fresh Start for Fungi

Likely due to the recent warm temperatures and rainfall, we were lucky to spot a slew of different fungi and mushrooms such as the Amber Jelly fungus (above), False Deathcap (Amanita citrina), and tiny 2mm tall mushrooms that we think may be lichen agaric (Lichenomphalia umbellifera) shown below.

The False Deathcap is inedible but not deadly. It does, however, resemble the lethal death cap (Amanita phalloides) © Claire O’Neill

Could they be lichen agaric?  © Claire O’Neill

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

One of our attendees, Tom, showed me a young shelf fungus (below). Could this be a Beefsteak polypore (Fistulina hepatica)? This fungus had found a perfect little niche: an exposed tree root covered in moss jutting out from a rocky crevice. The tree likely began as a seed lodged into a small crevice in the rock which, with the help of pooling water and nutrients from debris or moss, was able to take root. This root then extended down from the crevice into the soil some two feet below. 

Spotted! © Mina Burton

A Whole Lot of Gall

We often see oak apple galls during our Forest Exploration walks, but this time I was excited to find a species of gall I’d never seen before! Like oak apple galls, Pea galls (Acraspis pezomachoides) are also formed by wasps. They feature tiny bumps that lend the galls an almost geometric appearance. The galls tend to fall on the veins of leaves, often down the midrib.

Pea gall © Bill MacIndewar

Zooming in… (note the other smaller galls on the leaf) © Bill MacIndewar

Winter Bloom

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is one of the few species that boast three generations (fruit, flower, and bud) at the same time. Vibrant Witch-Hazel blooms are an especially welcome sight in the fall when very few other plants are flowering. The flowers are pollinated during these times of year, but delay fertilization until spring. Flowers are not self-pollinating and instead rely on insects. Interestingly enough, the owlet moths (from the family Noctuidae), that pollinate Witch-Hazel do not rely on the plant for food; rather they are incidental pollinators. The Witch-Hazel needs the moths, but not vice versa. This is an example of a facultative, rather than obligate relationship for the moth.

Flowers and buds © Claire O’Neill

Fruits © Claire O’Neill

Thanks to all who joined us this month! It was wonderful to see some familiar faces and new ones as well. I greatly enjoyed all the conversations and moments of excitement I was able to share with all of you and look forward to seeing what next month will bring! If you’re curious about our other sightings from October, you can check them out here

Winter is quieter in the forest, yet there is a lot to admire. 📅 Join any of our walks to explore the natural joys to be found in December.

Forest Explorations

Nov, 21st 2020 | by Mina Burton 

Editing & layout by Claire O’Neill. The photos of species in this article are the visual observations that the EwA team recorded when scouting for and during the November Forest Explorations event (© Mina Burton, @ Joe MacIndewar, © Claire O’Neill, © Bill MacIndewar). Click any photo and see the corresponding record in EwA’s iNaturalist Fells project (and its author). Photos are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC).

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