Focus On The Forest Forage

When Jinny Mae beckons, I always answer. Oh, maybe not in the affirmative every time,  but as often as possible I join her for a forest forage. Ours is not so much to collect anything physically, though sometimes a pinecone or some scat have been known to jump into our packs, but rather to visually and mentally take in all that we see.

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Today was the perfect November day for such an adventure. As the breeze blew, the cloud formations kept changing and the sun poked in and out. We were at times chilled and other times warmed–but always happy to be tromping through the woods and across fields in search of great finds.

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Sometimes our finds were as simple as raindrops left behind on leaves in the pond.

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But a great deal of our time found us on our hands and knees yet again, oohing and aahing among the complex lilliputian world of lichens.

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We plopped ourselves down, realizing that no matter where we stepped or sat, we were destroying some form of lichen that was older than time as we understood it. No sooner did we begin to focus when we realized we were beside Rock Foam Lichen (Stereocaulon saxatile).

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Perhaps we’ve seen it a million times before, but today we met it for the first time. Its granular surface that speaks to its common name was visible even without a loupe. Though it grew near reindeer lichen, its presentation was different and it was singular rather than colonial. Now, if we can only remember its name the next time we meet–Rock Foam, Rock Foam, Rock Foam.

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We are not ones to resist a more familiar friend, and so British Soldiers (Cladonia cristatella)  also captured our focus. Despite their diminutive size, those bright crimson caps shouted for recognition.

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The thing we reminded ourselves of today is that British Soldiers grow in a branching formation.

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In contrast, their cousins, the Lipstick Powderhorns (Cladonia macilenta), sport red caps atop unbranched stalks. Also standing out to the left in this photo are a few Common Powderhorns (Cladonia coniocratea)–recognizable for their lack of a cap.

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It seemed we couldn’t get enough of a good thing and as we scooched along the granite surface trying not to destroy too many lichens and mosses, we found a third red-capped variety.

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Red-fruited Pixie Cups (Cladonia pleurota) brought smiles to our faces due to their goblet formation topped with those outlandish caps along the margins. We were immersed in Cladonia heaven.

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And then . . . and then . . . and then just as our eyes trained on the red caps before us, something else made itself known.

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We spied another cousin that I’ve only seen once before: Cladonia cervicornis ssp. verticillate.

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Its growth formation is rather unique. In one sense, it reminded me of a sombrero, but in another sense, I saw fountains stacked one atop another, each giving forth life in their own unique fashion. But rather than being called Fountain Lichen, its common name is Ladder Lichen–perhaps referring to the fact that the pixies can easily climb up and up and up again.

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One of the lichens that grew abundantly in this place is the Candy Lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum). This one has been long admired for its salmon-colored fruits that rise above the pale grayish-green crustose formation. Today’s realization–that crustose wasn’t as flat as one might expect. In fact, its appearance  was rather lumpy and almost brain like.

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And beside it, one that I hesitate to name, but will take a stab at anyway–Brown Beret Lichen (Baeomyces rufus). I based my attempt upon a description in Joe Walewski’s book: Lichens of the North Woods. Walewski states: “Crustose pale green to gray green surface with short fruticose stalks topped with a dull brown cap.” I may be totally wrong, but that’s what learning is all about.

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We next became equally enthused by the rock shields and their brownish disks.

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And living among them–British Soldiers.

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While the foliose formation of the shield lichens spread outward in radiating patches, the apothecia that housed spore production sat atop rounded bowls with rolled-in margins. Based on the margins, my guess was that this was Cumberland Rock Shield (Xanthoparmelia cumberlandia). Maybe it was enough knowing it was a rock shield.

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And speaking of rocks and shields, while we looked, the surface of the rock moved.

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A shield bug, aka a stink bug, crawled along, barely pausing to let us admire the variety of colors it presented.

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At last we left the rocks behind and moved on through the woods. Jinny Mae still had a couple more things to show me.

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While my camera had a difficult time focusing on the minute fruiting structure of green stain fungi, it had no problem with the Common Stinkhorn (Phallus ravenelii). It’s reportedly the most common stinkhorn in New England, and yet I don’t find anything common about it. As apparent from the “cracked shell” and lack of a stalk yet, this one was just hatching from its embryonic or egg form. We got down to sniff and noted merely a strong mushroomy odor.

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With one more wonder to ponder, we returned to Jinny Mae’s home, where she showed me a rotting maple branch decked out in purple.

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My first thought because I’d been wearing my lichen eyes–a foliose lichen. But upon further reflection, I think it’s a crust fungi. Whatever it is, again, I’ve never seen it before. But as we noted all day long, once our eyes are focused, things make themselves known.

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At last it was time for me to find my way home. My forest forage with Jinny Mae had come to an end for another day, but my mind’s eye is still focused on our wonder-filled finds.

On Hands and Knees to Wonder

When I invited Jinny Mae to join me at Loon Echo Land Trust’s Bald Pate Preserve this afternoon, she eagerly agreed. And three hours later, I know she had no regrets. Though we never reached the summit, neither of us cared. Our minds were boggled by all that we had noticed.

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Somehow we managed to beeline our way to the Foster Pond Lookout. And then we slowed down. To a stop.

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And so we got rather personal with the rock substrate as we took a closer look. At lichens. For what seemed like ever, it was thought that lichens were symbiotic life forms consisting of Freddy Fungus and Alice Algae, who took a liken to each other and their marriage formed a single organism. Sometimes, cyanobacteria or blue-green algae was tossed into the mix. The fungus provided shelter (algae can only live where they won’t dry out and so being surrounded by fungal cells meant Alice could live outside of water), while either of the photosynthetic partners, algae or cyanobacteria, produced food from the sun.

It’s no longer just a story about Freddy and Alice living together, however. New scientific research deems another partner in the mix–yeast, which also provides protection. I feel like just stating that puts me way out of my league.

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Our goal wasn’t to understand those relationships per say. We just wanted to spend some time looking and developing an eye to recognize these structures while appreciating their life’s work that often goes unseen.

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Some grow at an especially slow rate–think hundreds of years rather than decades. That in itself, should stop us in our tracks. And yet, as we stand 5+ feet above those that grow on rocks, we hardly notice them.

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The  dark brown fruiting bodies, called apothecia, are where spores are produced and life continues. Walk tenderly, my friends.

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Jinny Mae’s excitement over the toad skin lichen was contagious. Notice its warty projections–much like the skin of an American toad, which varies in color.

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I spied this toad a few days ago, but its skin certainly helps qualify the lichen’s common name.

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If you look in the center, you can see the point where the lichen attached to the rock–the belly button of this particular lichen making it known as an umbilicate lichen.

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And among the favorite finds of the day, Jinny Mae was the first to spy this. It had rained this morning and everything was dry by the time we hiked, but some signs of moisture remained. In this case, it’s wet toad skin contrasted by dry toad skin. If you are willing to give up some water from your water bottle, you can create the same contrast. And note the black dots–its fruiting bodies or apothecia where its spores are produced.

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The more we looked, the more we saw.

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British soldiers were topped by their brilliant red caps–forever announcing their presence.

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Pixie-cup lichen stood like goblets, ready with magical potions.

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Some were filled to the brim and almost overflowed with life.

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We marveled at the green,

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gray,

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and foam-like structure of reindeer lichen. These are treats for reindeer and caribou, neither of which frequent our region except for one night a year.

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And then we looked at the next layer in succession on a rock. Once the lichens have established themselves, mosses move in. Did you ever think about the fact that mosses don’t have flowers, stems or roots? Instead, they feature tiny green leaf-like structures and microscopic hair-like structures. They send their “hairs” into the crevices created by the lichens and anchor themselves to the rocks. Today, we found a moss neither of us remember seeing before.

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To us, it offered a square presentation and we debated its identity. While we thought it may be yellow yarn moss, I’m now leaning toward medusa moss–though their leaf edges are smooth and these are obviously toothed.  Do you know? Which ever it is, we were wowed.

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We finally moved on, hiking to a false summit to take in the western view.

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The late afternoon sun and breeze played havoc with our views, but we eventually reached the rock tripe wall, where common polypody took advantage of the living conditions.

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The lichen covered a ledge, some of it green from the morning rain, but surprisingly much of it still brown. Like the toad skin lichen, rock tripe are umbilicate and attached to the rock at a single point. They reminded me of elephant ears flapping in the breeze.

From there, we headed down. Our pace on the slow side all afternoon.

And sometimes we had absolutely no pace at all, unless you consider the motion (and grunts) as we got down on our hands and knees and even our bellies to take a closer look. It was all worth a wonder. And we did.

 

 

Celebrating the Slush

Another warm day and the snow has turned to slush. Not my favorite condition in January, but it does bring its rewards.

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X marks the spot–at least that’s the mnemonic device we use to identify members of the canidae family. Can you draw the X in between the toes and the foot pad? In this case, a coyote marched along on the prowl. Check out those nail marks.

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Some little brown thing must have caught its attention because it did some poking around before continuing on.

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Though I wasn’t wearing snowshoes today, both the coyote and deer followed in my tracks–the easier to move. Which came second after me? The deer. Notice how the print is a bit more muffled and features more debris atop it. The pine needles on the coyote track have been pushed into the print with the animal’s weight.

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It wasn’t just my track that it followed. It obviously traveled to and fro in its own tracks.

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Sometimes mammals use the tracks of others and sometimes they use their own–where the snow is already packed down. This is almost a perfect record of the forward and back path.

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An even fresher record made today–red squirrel. This one has happy feet–it avoided the coyote so far.

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Though my eyes were always on the lookout for mammal sign, other things caught my attention like the spiraling scales of an Eastern white pinecone.

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As the female cone of the tree, each scale once embraced two winged seeds that nestled near the core. Perhaps the white, tacky pitch on the tips is intended to keep mammals at bay. If that’s the case, I don’t think it works well, because I often see tree stumps piled high with these scales.

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Mealy pixie cup lichen also decorate tree stumps. With the snow diminishing rapidly, the minute world of the lichens is reappearing.  As early colonizers, they seem to prefer challenging environments. If nothing else, these goblets appear ready to be shared at a feast.
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Maybe the British soldiers will take advantage and each can show off what a fungi he is–especially in that mind-boggling relationship he has with an alga.

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Enough already. I’m finished celebrating the slush and hope that this wintery sky means snow and colder temps are on the way.

The Joy of Wonder

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It rained last night and this morning, but we never did get the snow that was mentioned in a few forecasts. And the sun came out so I wandered down the cowpath, headed for the snowmobile trail. Instead of walking toward Mount Washington, I turned left.

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At the vernal pool, I was excited to see the slush. And I was sad to see that it’s been disturbed–rather recently. Not by wildlife either. It’s such a fragile environment.

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On my way to look at the nearby well, I realized that some land about ten feet from the pool had been carved out. It’s not a root cellar or foundation. Perhaps the site of a farm shed. It appears to be three-sided, maybe the fourth side being an opening.

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And another ten feet away, the well. I didn’t realize last month that there’s a large stone cap over it.

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The well has the signature of a Colonial stone cutter–the drill mark left from a feather and wedge routine to split stone. Granite is a hard, coarse-grained rock that consists of minerals  including quartz and feldspar. Interlocked like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the minerals make it one of the strongest and most durable rocks.

During the 19th century, stone cutters used the plug and feather method to hand drill small holes every six or seven inches across the stone. Then, two shims, called feathers, were placed in a hole and a wedge, or plug, was hammered between them. Drilling took place during the winter months when ice would form in the holes and help complete the work of splitting the granite.

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I continued along the trail, letting it share its moments of wonder. Suddenly, a sparkle of white light caught my attention.

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Pussy Willows in all their glory. I love how one branch reflects the other, don’t you?

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And then this–a colony of British Soldier. This one is for my friend, Em.

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All along the trail there are stone walls and occasionally other boundary markers like this one. Notice that it also has the feather and wedge signature of a stone cutter.

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Then I saw this disturbance just off the trail. I needed to take a closer look so it didn’t matter that the snow was over my boots.

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Maybe a toppled red squirrel drey? If it is a squirrel drey, why is it down? Something isn’t quite right here.

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Because we live in a very wet area–oh heck, all of Maine is wet–I don’t always walk this trail during the spring months. But . . . today I ventured off trail and took a closer look at another vernal pool located about a half mile from our house. It invites further exploration as the season evolves.

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One of my favorite trees beckoned to me. Um . . . that could be any tree in the forest. But this one is super cool. It looks almost oak-like on the lower portion and birch-like above. It’s an aspen. Big-toothed or Quaking is always the question. I spent some time exploring the woods with a couple of foresters last fall to hone my bark identification skills. I asked them how to tell the difference between the two. One admitted that he didn’t know and the other was sure he knew until I showed him a leaf on the ground that contradicted what he thought. My quest is to figure out the answer to this.

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The lower bark is worth observing . . . and touching. While Northern Red Oak bark has fairly smooth ridges, aspen, or poplars as they are also known ’round these parts, has gnarly bark.

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And then there are the leaves. Big Toothed Aspen.

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Quaking Aspen. Yup, I found both of them below this tree.

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Comparisons make me happy. Teaching moments. Big teeth. Little teeth.

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Then there are the stems. Aspens leaves feature flat stems–giving them that ability to quake or tremble in a breeze.

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I continued along the trail, which was sometimes covered in snow and other times ice, slush, grass or mud.

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About a mile and a half later I reached signs of today’s civilization, though I’d seen plenty of signs along the way indicating yesteryear’s activity. A main road was in front of me. I could walk home via that route or turn around and follow the trail back. I chose the latter.

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Signs tell it all.

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Sometimes they told me to turn this way.

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Other times they indicated that I should turn that way.

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But my favorites are those that let me know the route I follow isn’t always straight ahead.

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And then I was almost home. Tomorrow is Easter–the joy of wonder.