Monday, April 25, 2011

Skinny Long Yellow Centipede

I found this centipede in the garden while pulling weeds today.  It was under one of the bricks that make up the edging in our garden.

After a little research, I think it is a soil centipede (order Geophilomorpha).  Pretty much all centipedes feed on other small critters.  Whatever this one eats, it must be too small to see.  I let it crawl around on my hand while I went inside to get the camera (some centipedes bite, but this one didn't). 

Centipedes and millipedes are superficially similar.  They are both long and have lots of legs.  But centipedes have one pair of legs per body segment, while millipedes have two.  Centipedes are more flat in appearance and millipedes are round.  And centipedes are predators, while millipedes are detritivores.

We find a lot of life under the brick edging in our garden.  Oftentimes, at the end of the day, half the bricks in the garden are overturned from my two daughters searching for various critters.

The Sedge Family

I saw these at Westwood one morning recently.  I've never noticed them before and was pleasantly surprised to find them.  They look like grass, but are actually sedges (family Cyperaceae).

Sedges may be the most overlooked plant in our area.  They look like grasses (family Gramineae), but there are a few important differences.  In the stalk, sedges have edges, while grasses are round.  Grass leaves have joints (not what you might be thinking), and sedge leaves don't.  And there are some more technical differences between a sedge flower and a grass flower (they both have flowers and so are in the angiosperm phylum, even if their flowers don't look like "flowers").

I had a job in college studying the germination rate of the seeds of five different sedge species under different conditions.  It was a great job, and a big influence of on what I'm interested in today.  Much of the time was spent in the lab, but there were also seed collecting forays in the sphagnum bogs at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve that really opened my eyes.  But I've largely ignored sedges since then.

After some reading, I discovered that sedges make up one of the largest families of plants in Minnesota.  I consulted the "New Britton and Brown Illustrated Flora of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada" (a classic in plant id and an awesome title) by Henry A Gleason, and found that the sedge family (Cyperaceae) contains more species in our area (the area covered by Britton and Brown) than any other plant family except the grasses (Gramineae), and the composites (sunflowers, daisies, dandelions, family Compostiteae or Asteraceae).  They even beat families that are big world-wide like the legumes (Fabaceae) and the orchids (Orchidaceae).  My survey was quite informal, just counting the number of pages devoted to each family, but each species is given about the same amount of page space.  And quite interesting, since most of us have probably never met a sedge. 

The sedges in my pictures belong to the genus Carex (the Sedges of the sedge family).  Carex contains more species than any other genus in our area (the area covered by Britton and Brown)!  Sedges aren't really important to people by most measures (unlike the similar grasses), but something must be going on in this group of plants.

I believe the sedges in my pictures are of Carex pensylvanicaCarex is a tough genus to sort out, but I'm pretty sure my id is correct based on it's overall appearance, early flowering, and I know it grows at Westwood.

It's not a great time of the year to notice sedges, but later in the summer, see if you can find some (sedges have edges).

Friday, April 22, 2011

Mites Under Lichens

I brought a couple of twigs home with this lichen for further study.  After some study, I think they are a species of Rosette lichens (Physcia sp), but I think I need to scrutinize a lot more lichens before I can be certain.  You can find a lot of gray, foliose lichens with black discs (the apothecia, or spore producing structure) around town if you look.

While I was looking at the underside of these lichens through a dissecting scope, I discovered about a half dozen mites crawling around.  It surprised me and kind of freaked me out.  Maybe because I was only expecting non-moving lichen stuff.  Maybe because bringing mites into my home is a little disturbing,  even for someone who often lets the gross centipedes in the basement go free in the backyard instead of squashing them.  Or it might be because I had just found a deer tick well attached to my arm, and the resemblance was unsettling.

Anyway, it was fascinating.  I had never considered the little things that might live on lichens.  After a lead from "Lichens" by Oliver Gilbert,  I discovered that there are a group of mites called the oribatid mites (family Oribatida) that are sometimes found living and feeding on lichens.  Most oribatid mites are decomposers that live in the soil, but some feed on lichens, which are then eaten by insects and spiders, which are in turn eaten by birds, forming a lichen based food chain.

It's easy to overlook lichens, let alone the animals they support.

More on Oribatid mites from Island Creek Elementary School in Virginia.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Box Elder - The Other Maple Tree

Box Elder (Acer negundo) flower

Sara and I took a walk along the Mississippi River yesterday, along the Winchell Trail, between Franklin Ave and Lake St.  It was a chilly walk.  The Winchell Trail runs down in the gorge on the side of the bluff.  It was quite grey.  On the way back we walked on the paved path that runs along West River Pkwy on top of the bluff.  We saw more color.  Probably because on top of the bluff we were looking into the tops of the trees growing lower on the bluff.  Sara noticed some Box Elders blooming and asked what they were.  I like walking with Sara, for a number of reasons, but partly because she notices the little things going on in the natural world, but doesn't make it her business to necessarily know what they are; she can appreciate them as they are.

Box Elders are a much maligned tree.  They are often considered weedy because they grow fast, fall apart, and die young.  They often show up in the forgotten places of our world, like that weedy spot along the railroad tracks or behind the old factory.

I like Box Elder Trees.  I especially like them in the early spring.  Box Elders add a little color in a mostly brown and bare early Minnesota spring.  If they do manage to grow to a large size, they oftern make good climbing trees, with a lot of big, low branches.  I even like Box Elder bugs (but I've never had one in my house, so maybe that's why).

And Box Elders are maples (genus Acer), even though their leaves resemble ash leaves more than maple leaves.  But the flowers are definitely maple (and that's what counts in plant taxonomy).  And they have helicopter seeds (samaras) like other maples.  And they produce a sweet sap that can be cooked down into maple syrup.

Here is a picture of some emerging Box Elder leaves, which I also find attractive.  For some more information about Box Elders and their history and place in our landscape, read the Box Elder section in "The Urban Tree Book" by Arthur Plotnik.  Read the whole book, and take a walk down your street with new eyes (it's my favorite tree book).

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Silver Maple Flower

Here's a pistillate or female flower of a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) flower.  This is the flower that will develop into a seed if it's pollinated.  The seeds are called samaras.  You probably know them as helicopter seeds. 

The wings help the seed spin away in the wind from its parent tree. 

If you look at the light green part of the flower, you can see the shape of future seed. 

Look in some of my previous posts for other pictures of Silver Maple flowers.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lichen Identification

I've been working on my lichen identification skills.  Below is a brief, pictorial tour of the process.

It's been a fun (and frustrating) learning process.  If you're interested in learning more about lichens and how to identify them I recommend "Lichens of the North Woods" by Joe Walewski.  I was recently given a copy (thanks Heidi!), and while it's may not be comprehensive, it's very manageable, and easy to use with a lot of information and great pictures.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lichens at Frontenac State Park

Yesterday we took a family trip to Frontenac State Park, south of Red Wing along the Mississippi River.  Sara had planned out a very nice trip.  We took some back roads along the flooded Vermilion River (with some good duck watching).  We walked about a mile (a long walk for Naomi and Adele, but they did great).  On the way back we stopped in Red Wing for lunch at a place called Bev's, which was great.  I had the Inferno burger, with hot pepper everything and it was really, really good.

And the lichen watching was great.  Here is some of what we saw.

We spent some time looking at this stump (or I spent some time looking at this stump, and everyone else humored me).

Sara suggested this shot with the same lichens as above, pictured with the curvy wood grain of the stump.

Naomi took this picture of the same stump, with the same lichens, and some black lumpy, fungal stuff.  I spent some time at home trying to identify this lichen with no luck, but stumbled upon a picture of the following lichen in my "Lichens of North America" book.

Graphis scripta - Common Script Lichen

It could be another species of Graphis, "Lichens of North America" only describes a handful of the 39 Graphis species in North America.  But I'm going to say it's the first lichen I've ever identified.  It was all over the place.  I saw a lot of it on Sugar Maples that were growing along the bluff.

Not a lichen, but a conk, or polypore.  I got both Naomi and Sara in the only round of Conk-bonk played.  It was kind of unfair since I didn't formally announce that Conk-bonk had commenced, but that's never really mattered before.  Conk-bonk is a fungal version of Slug-bug.  I think Sara and I started it on a camping trip at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park a number of years ago.

I think these are lichens growing on the bark of a Red Cedar.  A quick (600 pages) perusal of the species photographs in "Lichens of North America" didn't turn up a match.

Naomi found this branch with lichens.  I've seen similar looking lichens many places, but haven't really tried to identify them yet.

We had such a good time that everyone wants to go back and camp for a weekend (Adele was even wondering if we had happened to bring along the camping gear).

Friday, April 8, 2011

Silver Maple Flower

Today I noticed that the male Silver Maple flowers opened up.  Today was a good day to differentiate between the male and female Silver Maples.  From a distance, the female trees had red, compact ball-shaped flowers.  The male trees had yellow, fuzzy ball-shaped flowers.  And they were easy to tell apart from a distance.  Most of the Silver Maples I observed biking to and from work only had flowers high up: I found a lot of big trees along Theodore Wirth Parkway with flowers high up in the branches, but one had a few low branches that I could photograph.  The yellowish threads are the flower's stamens.  The stamens bear the pollen.  I'm not sure if the female flowers have fully opened up yet. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Winter Mushrooms

Flammulina velutipes - Winter Mushroom

This is one of my favorite mushrooms.  Maybe because you can find it so early in the year.  It's Flammulina velutipes, the Winter Mushroom, or the Velvet Foot or Velvet Stem Mushroom.

This picture shows the black, velvety base of the stem.  It's an edible mushroom, but with caution.  It resembles the deadly poisonous Galerina marginata.  To be certain of your identification, you need to make a spore print.  Flammulina velutipes has a white spore print.  I've tried it (after a spore print of every cap) and it was pretty good.  I'd describe the flavor and texture, but it was at least five years ago that I ate it, and I don't remember much other than that it was "pretty good".  But I always enjoy finding it.

There's a cultivated form called the Enoki mushroom.  It looks nothing like the wild form.  You can find it the grocery store.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Life in a Sap Bucket

Eupilia vinulenta - Straight-toothed Sallow

I found this moth in maple sap bucket at Westwood.  I thought it was dead, but it revived after being in my hand for a few minutes.  It over winters as an adult, feeds on tree sap, and has a number of adaptations for the cold, which you can read about here (you'll have to download the pdf).

Monday, April 4, 2011

Stuff on Rocks and Logs

I took a trip to Schaar's Bluff and then to Pine Bend Scientific and Natural Area in Dakota County,  both along the Mississippi River and just SE of St Paul.  My main intention was to go bird watching, but I didn't see many birds.  Maybe because it was so windy and a bit rainy.  Or maybe it was because I ended up looking at all of the rocks and logs covered with fungus, lichens and moss.  It's hard to look at both at the same time (but I keep trying).

Below is a little photographic tour of what I discovered.  First Schaar's Bluff.

A hole dug into a rotten log.  Maybe by a mouse.  There were basswood seeds with holes chewed into them off to the side.

A nicely vegetated rock I found while walking (more like slipping) down a ravine to the Mississippi.

An umbilcate, foliose (umbrella-shaped, leaf like) lichen.  I'll go out on a limb (go out on a thallus in this case?) and say it's in the genus Umbilicaria.

 Lichens growing on moss which growing on a rock.

A crustose lichen growing on a rock.  It looks like it's part of the rock.

Another lichen on a rock.

Moss growing at the base of a tree.

Polypore mushrooms.  Maybe covered with algae.

I believe this is Turkey-tail (Trametes versicolor).  Another polypore.

And I believe this is False Turkey-tail (Stereum ostrea).  Yet another polypore mushroom.

And now on to Pine Bend Scientific and Natural Area.  All of the following pictures were taken on two apsen (Populus spp) logs I found close together.  I think it's amazing how much diversity these two dead trees support.

I didn't study anything to closely, I just took the time to enjoy.  I think the white fungus is either Ochre Spreading Tooth (Steccherinum ochraceum), or Milk-white Tooth Polypore (Irpex lacteus).  The greenish stuff are lichens.  The maroonish ones are a fungus, but I don't know what.

Lichens (greenish stuff), moss (green stuff), and more maroonish fungus.

Black Jelly Roll (Exidia glandulosa) fungus, with some crustose-looking lichens.

A foliose lichen.  I've studied an example that I found at Westwood under a dissecting scope, but no luck figuring it out (lichen ID is tough).

More greenish and some gray lichens, along with a Black Jelly Roll, and Red Tree Brain (Peniophora rufa).

I thoroughly enjoyed the whole morning, despite the crummy weather and lack of birds.  I didn't expect much in the way of fungus, lichens, or moss, but you should never count on your expectations too much.

I'd like to have a name for the activity of observing, admiring, and occasionally collecting the little things that grow around us.   For birds it's called bird watching (hopefully you're just collecting a life list or something), for fish it's fishing, for charismatic mega-fauna it's a safari or hunting.  It's not really important to have a name, but it would be fun.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Ash Flower Gall

These brown, dried-up balls can cover an Ash tree (Fraxinus spp).  I would notice them in the winter and wonder what kind of tree I was looking at.  I used to think they were the dried up flowers or seed pods of the tree.  They look like they belong on the tree.  But they are actually caused by a microscopic mite, the Ash Flower Gall Mite (Aceria fraxiniflora), feeding on the male flowers of the Ash tree.  A gall is any structure on a plant caused by an insect, mite, etc, that causes a part of the plant to grow "unnaturally".  Many plants have galls, and galls are as diverse in their shapes and structures as the plants that host them and the organisms that cause them.  From what I've read, whether the insect induces the gall, or whether the gall is formed by the plant as a reaction is unknown.  In this case, the feeding of the mite doesn't harm the tree. 

They are so universal that I wonder if sometimes the plant doesn't gain some benefit from the galls.  For example, Hackberry tree (Celtis occidentalis) leaves are almost always covered in galls caused by psyllids, or jumping plant lice (Pachypsylla spp).  Maybe the galls deter other herbivores, and the feeding of the Psyllid cause less damage to the tree than other potential herbivores (the Hackberry trees don't seem to be harmed).  It's just a thought that crossed my mind. 

Something we can't see, causing very noticeable changes to something we can easily see.