Walden West ~ January 1

On January 1, as I returned to the small, wet depression I’d dubbed Walden West, I’d made some assumptions about what I would find on a cool, dim New Year’s Day. I fully expected seed pods and fallen leaves, bare branches, and a mixture of yaupon and palmetto, but in only a few hours I discovered a far richer and more varied world: a world splashed with color and teeming with life.

The first clue that I wouldn’t be alone came as I crossed a boardwalk on my way to the less-traveled path that leads to the pond. An iridescent fly with the amusing name of Secondary Screwworm (Cochliomyia macellaria) was lolling about, ready for a photo session. While the larvae feed on carrion and decomposing tissue, they only enter existing wounds: a practice which gave rise to the ‘secondary’ in their name.

(Click any image for more details; I imagined this one’s eyes held together by a zipper.)

At the edge of a clearing beyond the boardwalk, a few eastern annual Saltmarsh Asters (Symphyotrichum subulatum) still bloomed, while patches of Crow Poison (Nothoscordum bivalve) hosted hoverflies, ants, and at least one metallic sweat bee.

One of our earliest-blooming spring wildflowers, Crow Poison can put on quite a show even in early winter when conditions are right.

Moving more deeply into the woods, I found innumerable trees sporting lichen covered trunks. Judging by color alone, the blue-green example shown here might be a powdery medallion lichen, or a lobed cotton lichen. For that matter, it could be salted shell lichen; I really haven’t a clue.

But this website, filled with lichen photos and more amusing lichen names than I could have imagined — yellow cobblestone, sunken button, golden moonglow, pebbled pixie cup — will be helpful in future attempts to identify fungi of all sorts.

It is, of course, seed season, and an abundance of Clematis pitcheri seed pods dangled, spider-like, from red-berried Yaupon trees (Ilex vomitoria): a reminder to watch in spring for the deep blue, urn-shaped flowers that produced them.

In some places, Seaside Goldenrod continues to produce a few blooms, but other species, like this Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima), have bid a final farewell to summer.

Other farewells are more colorful. Gardeners no doubt are familiar with leaf spots like these, which can be caused by bacteria as well as by fungi. Bacterial infections often form a yellow ‘halo’ around infected areas; fungal diseases more typically produce spores within the leaf spot, aiding identification.

Just above this leaf, another bit of color hung swaying in the breeze. An Orchard Orb Weaver (Leucauge venusta) had positioned itself beneath its horizontal web, presumably awaiting the arrival of prey. Its name certainly suits: Leucauge comes from Greek roots that mean ‘with a bright gleam,’ while the specific epithet venusta means ‘charming,’ or ‘attractive.’

Deep in the dim, damp shade, more fungi appeared. At first, I assumed this smooth, round ‘something’ to be a puffball. Then, I realized larger examples nearby had taken on the appearance of rising bread. I’ve yet to find a similar photo online, so identification will have to wait.  

Despite my inability to identify this six-inch wide mushroom, I found its serrated edge interesting, and the symmetry of its gills especially attractive.

As I worked my way back to the edge of the grove, a few more flowers appeared, like this perfectly named Hairypod Cowpea (Vigna luteola). Coaxed into additional bloom by sunlight and warmth, it already was producing seed.

Nearby, I thought I’d found a mutated hoverfly with four wings, until I took a closer look and realized two hoverflies had chosen to dally on a petal of Whitemouth Dayflower (Commelina erecta ).

Looking at the photos, I noticed for the first time the small bulb-like appendages extending from the hoverflies’ bodies. They’re known as halteres: a second pair of wings reduced to flexible, vibrating, club-shaped rods. They function like miniscule gyroscopes, constantly feeding information to the insect about its position and providing for the instant, precise flight adjustment that allows hoverflies to hover or quickly change direction.

As a final treat, I found this Four-spotted Aphid Fly (Dioprosopa clavata) visiting a late-blooming Texas Vervain (Verbena halei). The only Dioprosopa species in North America, this member of the Syrphidae lays its eggs on vegetation near aphid colonies. Newly hatched larvae feed on the aphids, making this hoverfly an important biological control agent in citrus growing areas where Brown Citrus Aphids are common.

It’s sometimes confused with a wasp because of its narrow ‘waist,’ but its two wings and the presence of halteres confirm it as a true fly.

Given what January already has offered, I’m eager to see what February will bring at ‘Walden West.’

“The day is an epitome of the year. The night is the winter, the morning and evening are the spring and fall, and the noon is the summer.”
Walden ~ Henry David Thoreau

 

Comments always are welcome.

Down By the Waterside

Climbing Hempvine ~ Mikania scandens

It’s not a river that runs through the San Bernard Wildlife Refuge, but Cocklebur Slough. In drought or in flood, it’s an interesting place: a sweet tangle of growth buzzing with the sounds of insects and tiny tree frogs as well as the calling of well-hidden birds.

On September 26, the heart-shaped leaves and pretty white flowers of climbing hempvine were flourishing: even taking advantage of supple tree limbs to arc out over the water. Despite being a member of the Asteraceae, the family of sunflowers and daisies, this flower lacks the ray flowers commonly called petals; its disk flowers resemble those of plants like shrubby boneset (Ageratina havanensis).

At the water’s edge, I found my first cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis). I was surprised to find the plant in standing water, but that was due only to my own ignorance; I’ve since learned that its preferred habitat includes ditches, woodland edges, stream banks, swamps, and areas near lakes or ponds.

Cardinal flower ~ Lobelia cardinalis

Another surprise was this pair of pretty white fungi. Having associated mushrooms with rotting wood and wet lawns for most of my life, I wondered: had these grown up around the tree before it fell into the water, or had the rising waters of the slough surrounded them?

Eventually, I learned that different marine habitats also support fungal communities. Fungi can be found in ocean depths and coastal waters as well as in mangrove swamps and estuaries with low salinity levels, like Cocklebur Slough. Whether this species prefers a watery environment I can’t say, but even without certain identification, it’s possible to enjoy their unexpected presence.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Slow March of the Mushrooms

Slightly shrunken, nondescript, this tiny mushroom faded into near-obscurity above the forest floor. Still, its presence suggested others might have taken hold, and so it was. Creeping through the mixture of damp, decaying needles and leaves, my eyes caught by unexpected bursts of color, I began to grasp the truth of Sylvia Plath’s delicate poem titled “Mushrooms.”

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly
Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.
Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.
Waxcap (Hygrocybe spp.)
Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,
Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,
Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes.
Waxcap (Hygrocybe spp.)
We diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking
Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!
We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

As if to prove Plath’s point, this Skullcap Dapperling (Leucocoprinus brebissonii), had emerged next to a trail. Described by Louis-Luc Godey as Lepiota brebissonii in 1874, it was moved to Leucocoprinus by Marcel Locquin in 1943. Long considered a European species, it’s recently been identified in the Pacific Northwest, often occurring in large groups on forest litter.

Bemused by the Skullcap’s seemingly overnight appearance in second-growth forests around Puget Sound, the University of Washington’s Burke Herbarium has questioned how such an abundant species could have made the move unnoticed, or been overlooked in the past.

Whatever the answer, it’s still on the move, having reached the Sam Houston National Forest and the Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve. Here in Texas, it most certainly has its foot in the door.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Puzzling Pieces

 

In January, fallen leaves and dying vines make it easier to follow deer trails into the woods. Yesterday, along one of those trails, I found a rotting tree covered with this oddly attractive substance. Hard and smooth to the touch, the strange bits reminded me of scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I assumed the substance was either lichen or fungus: determining which was the next step.

As it turned out, that next step was relatively easy. Alexey Sergeev, a researcher whose interests are focused on such things as quantum-mechanical perturbation theory and who currently works at Tulane University, also spent time at Texas A&M in College Station. During those years, he photographed hundreds of Texas plants, as well as a good number of fungi, mosses, algae, and lichens, providing the date, location, and scientific name of each.

A search of his site using the phrase ‘fungus on oak’ found a match to my photo almost immediately, in the eighth row on the page. Ceramic parchment fungus — Xylobolus frustulatus — generally forms on the dry, well-decayed wood of oaks: precisely where I found it. Known as a crust fungus, X. frustulatus received its common name because it often looks like whitish tile fragments put together with black grout. Known as a saprobe, the ceramic parchment fungus survives by decomposing dead or decaying organic material and using it as food.

Another site, Fungus Fact Friday, provided a few more interesting details, including a way to determine the age of the fungus:

Each ’tile’ (or ‘frustule’ to mycologists) is shaped like an irregular polygon, has a smooth, white top, has sides that are black or dark brown, and has a wood-like consistency. The upper surface is irregularly lumpy but smooth and bears an uncanny resemblance to ceramic in both texture and color. It is from this surface that the spores are released. As the mushroom ages, this surface becomes pale pinkish to pale orangish with mature spores and then slowly turns brown.

Reading that, I couldn’t help thinking that, with age, this fungus appears less like a ceramic tile and more like a Scrabble tile. In either case, its appearance is fascinating.

 

Comments always are welcome..

Are They Tricks, or Are They Treats?

An unidentified mushroom in decline

The piney woods of east Texas can be lovely — as dark and deep in autumn as Robert Frost’s winter woods — but there are strange things happening out there.

When I came across this slick, glistening mushroom on an early morning walk, the flies exploring its surface certainly didn’t add to its appeal. Part of the genus known as Ormia, the flies parasitize crickets or just wander around, noshing on decaying material on the forest floor. 

The mushroom itself seemed to be melting away — rather like the famous cake Richard Harris left out in the rain in his version of the Jimmy Webb song titled “MacArthur Park.” Still, weird as the mushroom was, and odd as its ability to evoke Harris’s recording might be, there are even weirder — no, spookier — fungi lurking about.

Just in time for Halloween, we have this time-lapse video of the Devil’s Fingers fungus. Shot by Belgian photographer Kris Van de Sande, the video captures the life cycle of Clathrus archeri.

Hatching from an egg-like shell, the fungus develops four to eight ‘arms’ which seem to beckon to unwary hikers. Black spores, scattered across its reddish skin, exude an odor that helps to explain its second common name: octopus stinkhorn.

If you’re one who favors a little scare on Halloween, forget the haunted house or the horror movie. Nature has a treat for you — just don’t take it home and add it to your stash of candy.

 

Comments always are welcome.