21 March 2010

What do we have here?

Poking around in the backyard, I came upon a large pile of ... something. It looked vaguely woody, with cool colors outlining its shape. Underneath it was an almost completely deteriorated log. It looked so much like wood, in fact, that at first I thought it was some kind of diseased wood. A closer look yielded the truth: this was a type of bracket fungus, helpfully decomposing some long-fallen tree limb and returning some nutrients to the yard.

Searching for similar images online, I came upon the always helpful Mushroom Expert, who helpfully informed me that what I had found was a "Turkey's Tail". Or that it wasn't. I really wanted to just call it a Turkey's Tail and have it at that. After all, it's been awhile since I posted, I just wanted to have an answer and be done with it. My natural inquisitiveness (that is, my inquisitiveness about nature) sat me down and convinced me to take a closer look at this fungus fruiting body.

Following the Mushroom Expert's schematic, I started having doubts when I came to the texture of the mushroom's cap. When I ran my thumb over the cap it didn't feel fuzzy exactly. I could kind of convince myself that maybe, perhaps, the sensation I was feeling could possibly be construed as fuzziness. But it wasn't really. It felt like rubbing your thumb on a piece of wood cut across the grain, not fuzzy but you can feel all of those little fibers. I snapped a piece off to take a look at the pore structure on the bottom. It seemed liked the pores were small, but I didn't measure. I was forlorn, at a loss--was this a Turkey's Tail or not?

The true Turkey's Tail--Trametes versicolor--belongs to the genus Trametes, which seems to be made up of saprobic bracket fungi, often exhibiting concentric rings of varying colors. The colors on the cap evoke the colors on a spread turkey tail, thus the name. How the common name became associated with T. versicolor and not one of the other Trametes spp., or, indeed, for the genus as a whole, I could not determine. But as the Mushroom Expert notes, people looking for other mushrooms, or other things entirely, might not stop to discern whether or not a pile of decomposing wood with a multicolored woody growth sprouting from it is in fact a T. versicolor. And while some clues weren't adding up, I was still fairly certain that that's what it was, because, I mean, it just looks like a Turkey's Tail!

A glance through some more image searching for various Trametes spp. turned up a photo on the Encyclopedia of Life that looked very similar to "my" mushroom and other photos of T. versicolor. The caption, however, called this Trametes ochracea. T. ochracea, T. ochracea, where had I heard that before? Oh yeah, at the very bottom of Mr. Mushroom Expert's schematic as the final option (which I take to mean "the most similar") of Turkey's Tail lookalikes. And the test between the two species: Is the fresh mushroom rigid and hard, or thin and flexible? Please, Dear Reader, recall that to look at the underside of the cap I had to "snap" a piece off. Rigid and hard! (That might yield some interesting hits.) T. ochracea! QED!

As this was going to press, I thought I would do one last internet search to find out anything unique about these fungi. I was well-rewarded. Not only is this genus one of the few groups of organisms that can successfully break down the lignin in woody plants (the actual substance that makes a plant woody), but, because of this ability to decompose an incredibly complex organic compound, this genus has been noted for its ability to break down a huge list of toxic organic chemicals. On that list? Cyanide. TNT. DDT. Sarin. PCBs. These fungi are silent workers that are responsible not only for breaking down the huge amount of material left in our forests, they also unbegrudgingly mop up our worst messes that might find their way into our soil, plantlife, or water table.

And now, having determined the answer, I left the mushroom to its important work, amazed at the slow, inexorable, and steady engine of the natural world, which would continue whether I had observed it or not. Amazing.

Kuo, M. (2005, March). Trametes versicolor: The turkey tail. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/trametes_versicolor.html

03 August 2009

What do we have here?

Ah, they're back. One day, you're out in the yard and you see something peeking out from beneath the leaves:

To the right, ghostly forms pop up from the ground. You catch them uncurling:

Like a scene from a horror movie, you look around, and spy groups of these creatures rising up from the ground on all sides of you:

The wind through the dead trees seems to whisper, "Indian Pipes..." And that is what they are. I feel like there must be a comparatively large flurry of fingers typing out inquiries on Google each spring and summer as these flowers pop up out of the ground. That is precisely what I did last year when I first noticed them around the edge of our property. I'm sure a number of people initially think they must be a fungus of some sort. They sprout their fruiting bodies seemingly out of nowhere in soil growing little of anything. And most noticeably, they are stark white with flecks of black. No calming green. No bright flowers. Yet plants they are.

A quick aside about the name. I'm not sure how offensive it may or may not be to some people. Other names for Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are Ghost Plant or Corpse Plant. I like the spookiness of "ghost" and "corpse", but I also like the physical descriptor "Pipes". Maybe Ghost Pipes. It's too bad that Dead Man's Fingers is taken (by a few things apparently), that would be sweet. "Yeah, just pulled some Dead Man's Fingers out of my yard today. They keep coming back every year. Why am I cursed so!"

So anyway. Indian Pipes. Not fungus, plants. But intimate with fungus. Parasitizes fungus. Eats fungus (in a way). The fungus it grows on is itself tied intricately with the roots of trees, but not in a parasitic way. The fungus helps the tree get the phosphorus it needs and the tree provides the fungus with sugars from photosynthesis. The Indian Pipes take as much of everything the fungus has and so are considered epiparasites of the tree, since they cause it to work harder to support the fungus. Since they get their nutrients from the fungus, they have no need to produce chlorophyll, hence stark white with black flecks. I might try to mark where they're growing and dig a couple up to see what happens in the winter, when the flowery stalks in the pictures are long gone and I can see them in their ... true form. So there you go: non-invasive, parasitic, stark white ghoul flower that I'm excited to see every year now. You are STUCK with this knowledge.

Please also visit Tom Volk's excellent fungus website, where Indian Pipes made "Fungus" of the Month.

Plantae (Plants)
Angiospermae (Flowering Plants)
Ericales (Smaller group of Flowering Plants)
Ericaceae (Heathers)
Monotropa uniflora - Indian Pipes

photos © 2009 Bennet Porter

26 July 2009

What do we have here?

It's a tick! Specifically it's an American Dog Tick, aka Wood Tick, Dermacentor variabilis. The one in the picture is the only tick I've found on myself all this year so far. There's one path in a conservation area I like to go to that must double as a deer path or something. The grasses have gotten to knee-height this spring, and as you're walking through you see every other stalk has three or four black spots hanging around at the top. They hang on with their bottom two pairs of legs and wave the other pairs around to latch on to you. I was always told that ticks are slow stupid creatures. I can't vouch for their intelligence, but they aren't that slow, and they have certainly found a niche to exploit. Sometimes I couldn't get the ticks to crawl onto my shoe when I touched them on their grass stalk. But when I could, they grabbed right on.

In researching how ticks operate, I realized that for as much as I've heard about them as vectors of diseases (Lyme disease by Deer Ticks, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and tularemia by American Dog Ticks), I didn't know much about their operation. First off, ticks are arachnids. Eight-legged, related to spiders and mites. Secondly, ADTs are 3-host ticks, meaning that in the course of their life they will feed on three different hosts. As larvae and nymphs they feed on smaller mammals (mice, maybe birds if they can?), before tackling the larger ones (dogs, me) as an adult.

Another myth I somehow had as a lad was that ticks had one chance to make it onto an animal. I also thought they dropped from tree limbs. They would spend days crawling up a tree, out onto a branch to do their best bombardiering onto a deer, dog or person. They do not, in fact, do that. Ticks are amazingly long-lived (IMO) for something so small, as I learned at this University of Florida website. They will try many times to land on an animal if they don't make it from their grass stalk. Adults can survive two years (!) without eating. And nymphs and larvae aren't slouches either! All told, ticks are patient, deliberate parasites.

Finally, my grandfather was wrong with his advice about how to remove a tick that's bitten you. He recommended either placing a match head that had just been ignited and put out on the tick's body to make it say "I gotta get outta here!" He also said, if you're out of matches, just slap some petroleum jelly on there and it won't be able to breathe. The reason you want to do either of these, he said, is that if you pull it out the tick's "head" (really just it's mouth) may remain underneath your skin where it will continue to infect you with disease, or at least make healing a pain. Actually, you do want to pull it out, just make sure you use tweezers and not your fingernails or something. Hold on to it tight, get as close to the bite as you can, and tug it out. It won't hurt and you won't bleed. Get it out as soon as you find it, because even though it can take many hours for any possible diseases to get transmitted into your bloodstream, if you leave it hanging there out of laziness then you've reached a new low.

Headed for the counter's edge, will the tick make it to freedom?

Almost there! A cliffhanger ending! (They're really kind of quick, I had to keep putting the camera down and corralling it just to get these lame photos.)

Animalia (Animals)
Arthropoda (Arthropods)
Arachnida (Arachnids - spiders, scorpions, ticks and mites)
Ixodida (Ticks)
Ixodidae (Hard-bodied ticks)
Dermacentor variabilis - American Dog Tick

photos © 2009 Bennet Porter

19 July 2009

What do we have here?

I believe this is an Oriental Beetle (Anomala orientalis) sniffing my sock. And guess what? It's introduced! This species is often compared to the Japanese Beetle, another introduced defoliating pest. The Oriental Beetle seems to be overlooked both by its lack of flashy color as an adult, and the lack of damage done as an adult. One .pdf even says the adult doesn't eat! While I'm not going to come out and directly accuse it of the crime, there were two on our tomato plants this afternoon, on freshly chomped tomato leaves. Other references mention that the adult might eat rose blossoms.

Apparently the real damage is done while in larval form as a grub. The larva eats grass roots, causing brown patches in lawns. We don't have much of a lawn, but I'll have to note whether there are any brown patches. I'm starting to get the feeling that whatever I decide to investigate ends up being invasive, so maybe our grass is too! Wouldn't be surprised! I often hear of people who want to use "native grasses" in their landscaping, leading me to believe that lawns aren't native to the Northeast. Where would they be native? Well-kept lawns seem too homogenous and high-maintenance. Questions for another time I suppose.

Of course, the onus on any introduced/"invasive" species is on the introducer. Erk. I guess that would be us, the humans. I'm not one to go off the deep end and say everyone needs to live off the grid, or deny themselves modern necessities or anything, but does anyone really need a lawn? Honestly, I don't really go on my lawn except to mow it. So if a beetle crossed an ocean and a continent because someone wanted an ornamental lily and then it started taking advantage of the great swaths of maintained bluegrass that feuding neighbors were keeping up for the sake of appearance, I have to reserve judgment as to whether it truly qualifies as a pest. It sometimes seems as if people only deal with the consequences of what they need to do, not what they simply want to do. Apologies for the unfocused post.

Animalia (Animals)
Arthropoda (Arthropods)
Insecta (Insects)
Coleoptera (Beetles)
Scarabaeidae (Scarabs)
Anomala orientalis - Oriental Beetle

photos © 2009 Bennet Porter

12 July 2009

What do we have here?

Is this an introduced Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)? or the native, vulnerable New England Cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis)?

What began with a simple photo of a rabbit in our yard as it worked its way over to our garden beds has turned into a question I didn't even know I should be asking. I find myself having to ask these questions more and more as I become interested in the natural history of where I live. For my entire life I've seen cottontails in yards, on school fields, and I've always considered them the same way that I do squirrels: ubiquitous, herbivorous background animals that occasionally rise to the level of pest. Now that I've begun documenting the life that brushes up against us (hat tip: Urban Pantheist) I thought a bunny would be a fairly innocuous way to begin. I wanted to begin with a mammal because they are not exotic, and there are not so many of them to narrow down. My expectations have, however, been confounded.

When I began my rabbit research, I learned that in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, there are two types of cottontail rabbit, the Eastern and the New England. In differentiating between the two, I frequently read how similar the two species are, and how field marks alone wouldn't definitively tell me which rabbit was in my yard. Percentages figure prominently on the Mass. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife's webpage. Based on the numbers, I decided to focus on the New England Cottontail. As I read more, my reactions to what I learned migrated from elation (this might be a rare rabbit!) to confusion (wait, why would someone introduce a rabbit somewhere?) to incredulity (another native species marginalized by an introduced species!) to guilt (why didn't I know any of this before?).

The New England Cottontail prefers dense thickets in early succession forests. It usually has a dark spot between its ears, a dark line on the front of its ears, and always lacks a white spot on its forehead (indicative of the Eastern). My rabbit had these features, and around my house are some dense thickets of briars, blueberry and small stands of white pine, and some surrounding lots are abandoned and grown over or woodlots. The Eastern Cottontail often has a rusty patch on its upper back, is more numerous than the NE, and is more comfortable in suburban areas feeding in the open. Based on behavior more than field marks, I believe the rabbit in my driveway is an Eastern Cottontail, although I won't rule out a New England.

From what I've read, conservation for the New England Cottontail is not concerted, but it is underway. New Hampshire bans cottontail hunting in areas where NEs have been sighted, but other states seem only to recognize that NEs need help. Federal aid for Maine and New Hampshire has been announced. To think that this conservation effort has been going on for a few years now by people dedicated to seeing it through, and that I only stumbled upon it because I wanted to know more about the bunny in my yard is proof that Pandora's box came in plain packaging.

Animalia (Animals)
Chordata (Vertebrates)
Mammalia (Mammals)
Lagomorpha (Hares, Rabbits, and Pikas)
Leporidae (Hares and Rabbits)
Sylvilagus floridanus - Eastern Cottontail

photos © 2009 Bennet Porter

22 May 2009

Robert Hayden

A Plague of Starlings

(Fisk Campus)

Evenings I hear
the workmen fire
into the stiff
magnolia leaves,
routing the starlings
gathered noisy and
befouling there.

Their scissoring
terror like glass
coins spilling breaking
the birds explode
into mica sky
raggedly fall
to ground rigid
in clench of cold.

The spared return,
when the guns are through,
to the spoiled trees
like choiceless poor
to a dangerous
dwelling place,
chitter and quarrel
in the piercing dark
about the killed.

Morning, I pick
my was past death's
black droppings:
on campus lawns
and streets
the troublesome
frost-salted lie,
troublesome still.

And if not careful
I shall tread
upon carcasses
carcasses when I
go mornings now
to lecture on
what Socrates,
the hemlock hour nigh,
told sorrowing
Phaedo and the rest
about the migratory
habits of the soul.

photo taken from The Guardian
photo by Christian Hartmann/EPA

24 June 2008

Another Month

I noticed a while ago that since I began birding in December of 2006, I've been lucky enough to see a life bird each month following. Some have been stellar (obviously right at the beginning was pretty good), some have been by the skin of their teeth (...). I don't believe I'm going to keep it up forever, and honestly, considering how little I've been able to get out birding the past few months, what with promotions and a new house, I figured I was about due for a no-lifer month. In fact, last weekend my only goal was to meet my Bird RDA (20 birds). It was a weekend filled with barbecues, a sudden shift in my work schedule brought me in for a half-day on Saturday, and trying to fit in everything else that belongs in a weekend around them. But I was determined. A slightly hungover Sunday morning was cloudy with a slight chance of showers. I got up nice and early, eschewed food and drink, and decided to go for it. I went to one of my favorite haunts since last year, South Cape Beach State Park in Mashpee. It's pretty much my go-to place for shorebirds. The one mile walk through shrubby dunes to a stone jetty and the mouth of Waquoit Bay is pretty reliable for season-appropriate birds: Osprey, Willet, Mute Swans (arrgh...), Red-winged Blackbirds, goldfinches, Song Sparrows--you'd have to be tying your shoes the whole time not to notice them. I've been lucky enough to see Least Terns and Sandpipers, an off-season Brant, and any number of other things there. I've never seen a Piping Plover, however, even though they nest there. Of course, since they're protected, I don't get to get too close to the nests anyway, but it would be nice for me to see one there sometime. Where was I? Bird RDA! In the first half-mile I had eighteen species handily; it was high tide, so I missed some smaller sandpipers that I would have liked to see. I knew around the three-quarter mile mark was a great patch for seeing Horned Larks and as I approached I stopped when I heard a strange song. There was a lark, as close as I'd ever been to one, not caring about me at all, just preening and singing. Nineteen. Just needed one more. Out at the mouth of the Bay, I usually hope to see my sea ducks and waterbirds. Another local birder who frequents South Cape Beach often sees American Oystercatchers, but I've only seen one here as a flyover. I was really hoping for a Common Loon. However, a huge group of summer fishermen, -women, and -children were piled onto the stones of the jetty, and I didn't really feel like going all the way to the jetty. I scanned the waters--nothing, just the Common Terns waiting for a handout from the fishermen, and I had already counted them. I turned around and started trudging back to my car, knowing that I had to be gone in a half hour before they started checking for parking stickers. At the half-mile point, two surprises: a Carolina Wren, which I had never seen or heard here before, and a House Finch, likewise a new bird for my South Cape Beach list. My Bird RDA and personal goal met I picked up the pace and a sunny disposition returned to my face. As I approached the more traveled beach path a low-flying bird wheeled around me. The white wing bar that flashed instantly registered as yet another Willet, this time blissfully silent. I dutifully raised my binoculars to follow it only to catch a glimpse of a short orange bill and a dark eye staring back at me. Eep! Could it be? I noted the area where it landed about 25 yards behind me and pulled out my Petersen to brush up on field marks. I had been burned before with an incorrect ID of a late-season plover, I didn't want it to happen again. I waited patiently, and waited, looking for a sand-colored bird against a backdrop of sand, the possibility that it was hiding behind a patch of grass or beach rose gnawing at my mind, the sound of the tow truck's winch ringing in my ears. I followed what I thought was a quick movement, and stared and stared, like it was a puzzle that I could solve simply by concentrating. And then the questions and doubts starting playing in my mind: Did I miss it? Should I put down my binoculars? It's probably somewhere else, I should put down my binoculars. But what if it's in my binoculars already and I just can't see it? Did it fly away already? I decided to put down my binoculars and in that instant noticed a shape just to the left of where I had been looking. I focused in on it, and there was the head of the Piping Plover I had been tracking, fixing an eye on me, probably wondering why, of the two of us, it was the one that was endangered. It was a good morning indeed.