Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Fall Leaves Went Sailing

Fall has basically finished its work of stripping the glory from the trees.

No more shade trees....who needs them now?
 The hills seem barren....

that's because the wind took the leaves for a ride.
 Some of the leaves went sailing.

   In the picture below, the leaf in the upper right looks like it is soaring, but it is actually snorkeling.  The leaves are floating on the water.  The one on the right has become water-logged.  Only the tip of its stem brakes the surface of the water.  Soon it will sink.  That's the fate of many leaves.
Leaves in a stream
What's in store for that water-logged leaf?

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Tree Stories - The Boulder Battle

This White Oak tree is giving a rock the boot...a woundwood shove.
 Trees can tell many stories...even while you drive down the road.  This tree's story is of a battle that has lasted many decades right here in central Pa. along Rt. 192 at R.B. Winter State Park.
Tree wound response - wound wood
 Long, long ago, the boulder somehow got into the tree's personal space and irritated the tree.  You might say, "the boulder got under the tree's bark".  Anyway, the tree began to push on the boulder.
Tree wounds are "healed" by wound wood
 Of course, the boulder shoved back.  Over the decades, this abrasive action has kept the tree occupied with trying to "wall off" or compartmentalize the wounded area, because that pesky boulder just keeps pushing back.  The tree's wound reaction is to keep building barriers...which, amazingly, has given the tree more space.
I suspect the rock might eventually win this battle of the bulge.
 ( I'm looking at the boulder's center of gravity.)  
 Although.....the White Oak does have many decades of fight left in it.
Eventually, somethin's gotta give... 'cause they won't live happily ever after.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Lichen It?

Sometimes when I'm in the woods, it seems all I see are lichens.
 Perhaps you folks heading out into the woods for deer season will momentarily turn your attention to the lichens.....
 ...if the woods seems dull and empty.
Just look at the nearest tree; there is a good chance the bark is encrusted with lichens. 
Lichens are tremendously interesting.
   Lichens are a composite of fungi and algae.  The fungi provide a structure and absorb water while the algae provide the food from photosynthesis.  This symbiotic relationship enables lichens to be very successful and grow almost anywhere.
Lichens also paint the rocks... time stains.
Lichens are even in my wood pile.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Turkey Tail

Happy Thanksgiving! 
I thought I would serve up some Turkey Tail, so I went out to the wood pile.....
Turkey Tail Fungus - Trametes versicolor
  ...and sure enough there was a clump of Turkey Tail Fungus growing on a log.  Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) is a common wood decaying fungus found on hardwoods.
 Turkey Tail  Fungus causes white rot.  The fungus shows up on stumps, or dead and fallen hardwoods, as a thin, leathery mushroom.  The cap has contrasting color bands.  The underside is white with many tiny spore holes.
 Turkey Tail isn't exactly edible, however, there is a bunch of research on its medicinal value.  The fungus may not be good eating, but it has many other uses besides rotting wood and looking like a turkey.
Truly, the mushroom has an amazing resemblance to Tom Turkey's fanned tail.

I'm thankful for........woodpiles!

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Wintermoth Encounter On A Lonely Mountain

   I miss the moths...the butterflies...the insects in general (I don't miss the mosquitoes).  Most of them have settled in for a long winter's slumber, or have passed on.  Wintermoths are an exception.  The wintermoths will fly on mild days in late fall, winter, and early spring.  These moths aren't all that pretty, but they are hardy and unusual. Oh, and they have a "sweet tooth" - they like to sip sap.
   My truck headlights illuminated quite a few moths flying last night as I drove down a rough, dirt, mountain road - way out in the bush.   Flying insects are a bit unusual for late November in northern Pennsylvania.  I noticed one moth flying along the side of the road, so I stopped to take its picture.  The moth landed in a knee-high brier bush.  I believe this November moth was a Citrine Sallow - Pyreferra citrombra - one of the wintermoth tribe.
Citrine Sallow
    There are, of course, a few other insects out-and-about this time of year.  Some of them were in the same brier bush as the moth.  I noticed two bonus insects in the picture...after I was at home. I majorly cropped the photo to make them more apparent.
 One - some kind of fly - was on the leaf near the moth's right antenna.

 The other was between the two thorny branches to the left of the moth's wing. 

   I reckon there was something in the brier bush that was very attractive.  Why else would there be a wintermoth, a couple of insects, and my camera in a little brier bush along a dark, lonely, mountain road in late November?   Too bad I didn't spot the extras until after the fact....I may not have hurried on so soon.
I wonder...what was in all the other brier bushes I passed?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Stinkhorns - Stinkin' Fly Riders

I smelled this stinkhorn while walkin' trail is south eastern Ohio last weekend.  This peculiar-looking mushroom's odor was obnoxious.
 However, stinkhorns are very flies.
 When I approached  the stinkhorn to take the picture, I crashed a fly party...the mushroom's head was literally covered with flies.  Most of the flies fled, but a few stuck around for the photo.
Flies on a stinkhorn, eating slime
   The foul-smelling fungus is very effective at attracting flies by mimicking the odors of carrion.  In the photo above, the mushroom's pitted, white head is coated with an olive-colored, stinky slime.  The flies have eaten away some of this smelly goo and exposed the pitted mushroom head in a couple of areas.
     As the flies consume the slimy coating on the head, they are ingesting spores, also spores are sticking to their feet.  In this way, the fungal spores are transported to new locations.  What an intriguing passive spore dispersal system.
Feed the flies and catch a ride.
Better yet...
Stink to the sky  'n ride a fly.
   Stinkhorn mushrooms "erupt" out of an "egg".  In the photo above, the "egg" is visible as the swelling at the base of the mushroom.  I didn't see other eggs nearby, but perhaps there are some hidden in the leaf litter that might pop up shortly.
   Since I'm on the subject of stinkhorns, I was walkin' trail earlier this summer in the Washington, D.C area and noticed another kind of stinkhorn, the Dog Stinkhorn.
Dog Stinkhorn
 I wonder what the purpose is for the hole at the tip of these stinkhorns?  I'll venture a guess that it has to do with emitting some of the volatiles.

Anyway, back to the flies....
 up the trail a bit was one of the stinkhorn's party-going flies which I had inadvertently scattered.
This fly was walking around on a naturally I'm thinking about the fly's slime-tainted footprints and its spore-laden gut contents.
Where might it tread shoo-fly pie?

Here is a link to a time-lapse video of a growing stinkhorn  and its busy flies.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Screech Owl Pellets And Red-Toothed Shrews

Our neighborhood Screech Owl's favorite perch is an gnarly, old, hollow tree in a swampy patch of woods.
Screech Owl and its favorite haunt.
   Owl is rather sharp and cunning and won't let me get very close for a picture before he backs into hiding. This shadowy picture of the owl reminds me of the tremulous screeching sound of a screech owl call...."whooooooo dares to come close to my tree and steal my pellets?"
   Screech often watches from his haunt in the late afternoons.  Screech is a grey phase Eastern Screech Owl.
Grey phase Eastern Screech Owl
We've seen a few red phase owls as this one I caught on a shelf inside a building a few years ago.
Check out those tufts of feathers that look like ears.  See how the owl can lay them back or hold them erect (see photo of owl in tree) as if they were actually ears?
 Screech Owls are not much bigger than a handful. 
Red phase Eastern Screech Owl
Before I released this owl, we snapped this photo of its foot...check out those talons!
Oowwwl,  fortunately I was wearing gloves. 

Owl's talons effectively do their job by the looks of the owl pellets at the base of our owl tree.
Screech Owl pellet
 Owl pellet dissection is an interesting science project. 
What is an owl pellet, you might ask?  Well, it is a regurgitated clump of bones and hair that conveniently gives an indication of what the owl has been eating.
Dissecting an owl pellet
Just don't call it "hacking up a hair ball"!   Owl already did that.
Owl pellet dissection
Now we can see what critters are in Owl's diet.
Here is a picture of the contents of an owl pellet... minus the hair.
Screech Owl pellet contents
 A skull, two pairs of jaws, a few leg bones, a spattering of teeth, and an assortment of small bones / bone fragments.
Another owl pellet's contents was a bit more representative of a complete skeleton.  There was also a spattering of small bones and fragments (which aren't pictured) within this owl pellet.  There are plenty of missing bones and at least one extra one...a third humerus.
 Screech Owl pellet's content
My son made an interesting observation while dissecting the owl pellet.  Without any prompting or help from me, he said, "Owl was eating shrews."
Pair of shrew jaws from owl pellet
Now, my little osteologist hasn't studied skeletal anatomy or even dissected owl pellets before, but has closely observed the various shrews we have encountered over the years.  I think the red teeth tipped him off.
Jaw of a red-toothed shrew
Obviously Owl has been eating red-toothed shrews.  These types of shrews have iron deposits in their tooth enamel.  See this paper for more info...Nature of Pigment in Teeth of Pygmy Shrew, Sorex minutus

Blood-red teeth of a shrew
   When I rounded up those owl pellets for the kids to investigate I really wasn't expecting a gleaming red-toothed shrew jaw to display among my collection of oddities.   Owl cleaned it up so nicely.
    As you can see, owl pellet dissection makes a great addition to a homeschool lesson plan.  My son would rather not study anything, so thanks, Screech, for the interesting lessons in shrew skeletal anatomy.
Oh, and thanks, Owl, for being so shrewd.
If you don't mind, owl be back for more photos and pellets.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Owl Tree

We have an owl tree nearby our place.
Screech Owl
Oh, what fun!
   Perhaps the only problem with our neighborhood Screech Owl, is it is rather camera shy.  Screech only permits me to snap a picture, or two, from a distance before backing down out of sight... deep into the owl tree.  One other thing,  Owl screeches a bit when singing. 
   Who cares though, if the owl pellets are plentiful and the roost Owl haunts is so totally gnarly?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Goldenrod and the Three Galls - Blisters, Bunches, and Balls

Who can pass up a goldenrod patch thick with galls?
Those round, cherry-sized stem galls are the familiar Goldenrod Ball Galls.
Goldenrod Ball Galls
 These galls are caused by the Goldenrod Gall Fly, Eurosta solidaginis.
   The gall fly larva can modify the plant's growth.  It causes the plant to grow this specialized structure where it lives and feeds and even overwinters.
Here is a picture of a Goldenrod Gall Fly larva snug in its home/pantry.
   Notably, the larva excavates an escape tunnel (see a picture of the larva's escape tunnel here) to just below the gall's exterior skin. The larva does this in the fall, then overwinters in the center of the gall.  During the winter it survives multiple freeze/thaw events.  In the spring the larva pupates.  When the young goldenrod plants are growing the gall fly hatches, crawls up its tunnel, inflates its face balloon (ptilinum - see a few pictures here, or here), pops open its escape hatch, and enters the goldenrod patch to find a mate in order to ensure the process is repeated.
Goldenrod Gall Fly -  Eurosta solidaginis
    However, there's a good chance a parasitic wasp may emerge from a gall in the spring instead of the gall fly since many of the galls are parasitized.  Also, Chickadees and woodpeckers are often seen (and heard) extracting the gall's inhabitants.
Ball galls can vary in size.  

Some stem galls are not round but elliptical spindle-shaped, these are caused by moth caterpillars. 
   There are several species that cause these galls like Epiblema spp. and Gnorimoschema gallaesolidaginis.  I believe the latter species was the maker of the gall pictured below.  The photo below shows the cross section of a gall of the Goldenrod Elliptical Gall Moth and its empty pupal case.
Besides those two stem galls, there are other kinds of galls in the goldenrod patch.
I'll change my focus from the stem galls to the bunch galls.

In the photo below there are "bunches" of bunch galls.  These leafy clumps on the mains stem are home to goldenrod bunch gall midges.
Goldenrod bunch galls
You might say, "It can get a bit hairy out in the patch" as the goldenrod tries to circumvent the interrupted growth of its main stem.
Amazingly, the galled plants are often able to produce seed.
   There are various species which cause these goldenrod bunch galls.  One of them is Rhopalomyia solidaginis.  Those gall midges are responsible for many of the bunch galls pictured above.

Another kind of goldenrod bunch gall is pictured below.
I cut open a couple of these bunch galls last year.  Unfortunately, I didn't look close enough to see exactly what I found.
Here is one of those bunch galls with an empty pupal case.
  Many other insects are found in the bunch galls alongside the gallmakers or their parasites. These fellow campers, or, "inquilines" make themselves right at home in the leafy galls.                                                

The picture below of  "Goldierod and the Three Galls" illustrates the the three gall types I've mentioned.
Actually, there are more galls in the patch besides the these three gall varieties.

At the risk of being galling, here are a couple more examples of galls associated with goldenrod.
These minute galls look like green seeds among the goldenrod's flowers..
 I believe they are Beaked Flower Galls caused by Schizomyia racemicola.  I found them growing in the little goldenrod patch in our fencerow. 
 An orange larva is visible through the hole.

Here is a picture of the little guy through the hand lens.

For me, one of the most fascinating goldenrod galls is the Black Blister Gall caused by a gall midge - Asteromyia carbonifera.
In the photo below, I have broken open one of the galls to expose the midge larva and its black symbiotic fungus.
Just think...the midge lays an egg and also infects the leaf with its fungus....
Ah, but this is just a sneak peek. 
A quick stroll through the patch. 
With all the gall makers, the inquilines, and the parasites, the goldenrod patch is an ecological goldmine
What a great place to be galling!