Friday, December 9, 2016

An Illustrated Life List: Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis.  Grebe.  Say it out loud.  It's a strange word.  Try saying "grebe" with an Igor sort of voice, or do your best Ren imitation and try saying it.

What is a grebe?  Where did the word come from?  I wanted to find out its origin.  But after a little research, it seems know one quit knows what the word means, or where it came from.  Various sources gave a vague reference to the word "grebe" having a French origin and perhaps meaning "comb".  I consulted a number of older books and articles on birds, when authors were much more verbose in their bird descriptions, hoping to find a better explanation for the name, but no luck (though I did come across this interesting article from 1919 issue of the Auk about bird popular names which also mentions grebes).

Other names for the Horned Grebe include Hell-diver, Water-witch, Devil-diver, Pink-eyed Diver, and Dipper.  Which all sound pretty cool.  Some could even be super villain names ("Holy Hell-diver Batman!" "Right Grebe-boy").

Friday, November 25, 2016

Little Brown Mushroom Watching

Little Brown Mushroom
Mycena corticola is a very little brown mushroom that grows on the bark of mature trees.  It's so small it's measurements can be taken with millimeters.   I like to look for it on rainy, above freezing days once winter weather sets in.  I assume it grows during other seasons, but I've never actually looked for it.  For me, finding M. corticola is sort of an "off" season mushroom hunting ritual. It's probably present most of the year., but unless there's rain, it'll be dried up to almost nothing.   The fruiting bodies of M. corticola have the ability to dry out and subsequently revive when exposed to moisture.  For something so small and delicate it's remarkably persistent.  This ability to revive probably explains why they show up on rainy winter days; they just need a little water to get going again.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

White Mulberry Trees

I've taken an interest in White Mulberry, Morus alba trees this fall.  What interests me the most is how variable the leaves are; shapes that can remind me of hearts, mittens, Y-wing Fighters, or a fleur de lis amongst others.  It's usually a weedy tree in Minnesota, but White Mulberry is a tree with a rich history.  It's leaves sustain silkworms, which are caterpillars of the silk moth Bombyx mori, and whose cocoons provide the raw material to make silk.  The tree was brought to the United States in an attempt to start a domestic silk industry, which never thrived.  But the White Mulberry tree did thrive and can be found throughout the eastern U.S., sometimes planted, but more often than not sprouting up in a sunny spots wherever a bird or other animal has dropped a seed. Below a series of captioned sketches about White Mulberries. History
World Travel

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Some October Moths

Basswood Looper - Erannis tiliaria
The Hereald - Scoliopteryx libratrix
Fall Cankerworm Moth - Alsophila pometaria

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Native Backyard Weeds: Virginia Creeper

Fall colors have been amazing the past week in the Twin Cities area. Trees usually get most of the credit. But Virginia Creeper, a vine, is just as showy. And it shows up everywhere, maybe not always invited, and maybe not always noticed, but definitely part of the fall color show.
I'm not really sure how many people intentionally plant Virginia Creeper though it frequently climbs up buildings and other man-made structures. I have three patches in my yard that volunteered themselves over the years, one of them making a very attractive afternoon sun screen on our porch. The photos in this post were taken over two days and within a few blocks of one another. Almost every color is represented, even blue once you include the berries.
Woodbine is another common name for the plant. This name is also used for other vines, especially an related honeysuckle found in Europe. Woodbine is also a brand of strong cigarettes. Sometimes it is called an ivy, but Virginia Creeper is not closely related to ivy (genus Hedera, in the ivy or ginseng family Araliaceaeis. It is in the same family as grapes (Vitaceae), and can sometimes be found climbing over one another.
They are actually two species of plants that go by the name Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia and P. inserta. There are a number of subtle differences but the one I think is the most apparent is the type of tendrils each has. The tendrils of P. quinquefolia are many branched and end in small adhesive disks. The tendrils of P. inserta have fewer branches and no adhesive disks. It climbs by hanging on to small cracks and surface irregularities or by wrapping it's tendrils around objects with a small diameter such as twigs and stems; or heavy string if you want to make a Virginia Creeper screen.
(Native Backyard Weeds is my phrase for native plants that aren't usually planted but often thrive when allowed to in a yard or other landscaped area).

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Mushroom Log - Late September 2017

Mouse Ear's - Tricholoma myomyces
There are a number of very similar mushrooms in the genus Tricholoma; small mushrooms with grayish and somewhat fiberous caps. T. myomyces seems to be one of the smallest, grayest, and fiberous of the bunch. It also has a cobweb-like covering over the gills when young (which I did not observe) and contrasting pale fibers along the cap margins (see lower right photo).
While doing a little research online, I realized that the prefix "trich" means hair-like, which helps solidify a picture of the genus Tricholoma in my head. Tricholoma has been a sort of vague genus to me something along the lines of:
"terrestrial mushrooms with white spores, notched gills maybe . . . sometimes or something . . ."
But a fair number of them feature fibers or scales on their caps, so knowing that "trich" means "hair" really helps.
And I wonder what hair-like feature the insect order name Trichoptera refers to; it translates as "hair-wing", but maybe it references the long thin antenna of caddisflies or maybe the silk the larva produce and use to bind plant bits, sand, gravel and other debris to their bodies to form their portable "homes".
Common Puffball - Lycoperdon perlatum
Unknown Pholiota - Pholiota sp.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Pink Wolf Slime Mistakes

Pink Wolf Slime, Lycogala epidendrum has been brought to my attention a number of times this past week. And each time I have made the mistake of calling it a fungus, when it is in fact a slime mold.
Despite having "mold" in the name, showing up in mushroom guide books, and having a generally fungusy, slime molds are in fact classified as Protozoa and only superficially resemble fungi. Before moving on to Pink Wolf Slime, here are a few basics on slime molds in general:
  • First, I'm only describing Plasmodial Slime Molds (typically placed in the family Myxomycota). There are two other groups of slime molds that are similar in many respects, but not closely related.
  • They have a complicated life cycle, with an amoeba-like mobile stage, a larger unicellular but multinucleate stage, and an immobile, spore producing stage. The spore producing stage is often visible to the naked eye
  • The mobile stages feed by ingesting small organic particles, bacteria, spores, and other protizoans. This is in contrast to fungi which feed by absorbing nutrients from their surroundings and are imbedded in their substrate.
That's about as simple of an explanation as you'll find. Now on to Pink Wolf Slime:
  • Pink Wolf Slime is the spore producing stage. It starts out as pink balls with a darker pink goo inside. As it ages it gets browner on the outside, while the inside gets less gooey and develops a purplish hue.
  • The name "Pink Wolf Slime" sort of makes sense. Remember the scientific name is Lycosgala epidendrum. The first part of the genus name, "lycos" means wolf in Greek while "gala" means milk, so Pink Wolf Slime. But why wolves to begin with? There's a genus of puffball mushrooms called Lycoperdon, so more wolves, in this case farting wolves since "perdon" means to break wind. But again, why wolve.
  • The species name epidendrum means growing on wood, which seems sensible.
  • Despite looking like a piece of candy and occasionally being referred to as Pink Bubblegum Fungus online, it is not edible. Nor does it have any anti-cavity or teeth cleaning properties even though another common name is Toothpaste Slime. It is also referred to as Groening's Slime which probably does not refer to Matt Groening (of "Life is Hell" and a tv show or two I think). I sort of wonder if it's a name made up name for Wikipedia.
  • In my experience the pink goo usually just splurts out undramatically. But during a recent mushroom program, after mistakenly calling some Pink Wolf Slime a fungus, I poked one with a twig and it splattered all over a participant's shirt and hat. I felt bad.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Mushroom Log - Early to Mid September

Veiled Oyster - Pleurotus dryinus
A yellowish, fuzzy mushroom on rotten wood shouldn't be hard to identify, right? Not so. Pleurotus dryinus doesn't make it into all of the field guides. If it does, it might have a completely different name. And to make matters more confusing, the name P. dryinus is used for a similar, but clearly different mushroom by some authors; a not fuzzy mushroom, that inhabits living trees.
Fused Marasmius - Marasmius cohaerens
Coprinoid Mushrooms
These mushrooms were along the boulevard in my neighborhood. I think they were growing on a spot where a tree had been cut down and the stump ground up. I think the small mushrooms could be Coprinellus disseminatus and the big mushroom a Parasola sp., though I considered the idea that the small mushrooms were just less developed versions of the big mushrooms. I went back a little later in the day, but the spot had been mowed over.
Milk-cap Mushroom - Lactarius sp.
Unknown Bolete - Boletus
The red stem and cap, white pore surface that doesn't bruise and growth under hardwoods leads me think these are Boletus seperans
Unknown Webcap - Cortinarius sp
Unknown Mushroom
I need a hat that looks exactly like the cap of this mushroom!

Monday, September 5, 2016

An Illustrated Life List: Great Blue Heron

A picture of the Great Blue Heron rookery on the Mississippi River, just before the May 2011 tornado that tore through parts of north Minneapolis hit it.
I wasn't there when it happened. We live on the other side of the river. I didn't know that the rookery had been hit until the next day when I witnessed a noisy flock of Great Blue Herons circling about as I was teaching a school group on a dock at Westwood Hills Nature Center. Great Blue Herons nest in groups, but they don't travel in groups. It was a surreal sight. I figured out pretty quickly what had happened.
Evidence of the tornado is still apparent in parts of north Minneapolis. To my eyes the lack of mature trees on certain blocks is striking. But my relationship to the affected neighborhoods is fairly superficial, mostly as I pass through bringing my kids to and from their school or friend's houses. I can really only imagine the long term impacts of those who live there.
The herons didn't return to the island, but set up a new rookery the following year on a different island just downstream from the original rookery site. I notice a juxtaposition here, in comparing how quickly the herons recovered and rebuilt versus us humans. We who have access to more resources, more capacity for organization, more advance technologies than herons who use their beaks and sticks
The herons didn't return to their island as too many of the big trees they nested in had been knocked down. But the following year they started a new rookery on a similar island just downstream from the first. I have to wonder how it is that we couldn't rebuild and recover as quickly as the herons did. We have access to more resources, more capacity for organization, and more advanced technologies. They have beaks, sticks, and instinct.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Some August Insects

Stilt-legged Fly - Rainieria antennaepes
I like flies. Yes, there are some species that are annoying, gross, and even harmful to humans, but don't write off the whole Dipteran of insects because of this. The out stretched forelegs of this Stilt-legged Fly (family Micropezidae) are thought to imitate the antennae of a wasp. The bands of color on the legs and wings add to the effect. I enjoyed reading this short piece on the Micropezidae "Ten facts about Stilt-legged Flies".
Canada Darner - Aeshna canadensis
The notched strip on the thorax distinguishes this Darner from other similar species in the genus Aeshna.
Giant Ichneumon Wasp - Megarhyssa sp
Little Nymph Underwing Moth - Catocala micronympha

Monday, August 8, 2016

Death of a Snapping Turtle

This past spring a very large Snapping Turtle died in Westwood Lake. The floated right off a frequently used dock for a few days before sinking down into the muck (and sparing anyone visiting the dock some intense odors of decay). I didn't really count, but in a matter of days most of the soft tissue was consumed by scavengers and only the turned over carapace remained visible. In the right sunlight it assumed a somewhat luminous quality. I enjoy staring down into a lake's water and letting my gaze soften a bit so that the perception of depth is lessened and the distinction between reflections on the water's surface and what lies beneath the surface is blurred.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Cultured Fungus: Canned Mushrooms

I hadn't realized such a thing existed, canned puffball mushrooms in brine. Intrigued, I bought a can, brought it home and placed it in the cupboard with the dozen or so other cans of mushrooms from oriental food markets.
Eventually they were used in a soup I made one Saturday afternoon. I called the soup "Faux Pho", a whatever was in the refrigerator and garden version of the super yummy Vietnamese soup.
The ingredients looked good, but as soon as I opened the can of puffballs I was suspicious. Brownish-grey, glistening, oddly firm. I cut one open and my suspicions deepened; when cut a black goo exuded from the interior. But I was determined to try one, I'm generally a big fan of foods in brine and all things pickled.
But one bite proved that they were even worse than expected. The puffballs were way too similar to peas, my mortal food enemy. But I persevered, and tried a few in the soup. Still disgusting, just like peas; biting through the skin produced a queasy pop and then filled the mouth with not-quite-tasteless paste.
Otherwise the soup was great and a big hit with the rest of my family. I started to think about the puffballs in brine, and wondered if they were really edible; not everything in a grocery store is.
The rind and blackish interior suggest a mushroom in the genus Scleroderma, which are inedible to poisonous, at least in North American. Maybe not elsewhere in the world. I did a tiny bit of internet research into commercially canned puffballs. Some brands pictured their mushrooms with white interiors, which would point to a species of Lycoperdon. I found one brand that confirmed this. Lycoperdon puffballs are common in parts of North America, and are edible while white inside. But as they age and the spores mature they become dark brown and are considered inedible. I found one picture where the interiors of a large handful of canned puffballs showed a gradient from white to black. Maybe some brands aren't as picky about the age of the puffball they put in cans. Or maybe we're just pickier about our puffballs than most cultures.