Sunday, July 23, 2006

Heat, Humidity & Mushrooms

Hot and humid weather is good for at least one thing: mushrooms. In the age of air conditioning some might lose touch with goings on during the dog days of summer, but for those of us who rely on open windows and thundershowers for cool air it's easy to recognize when mushroom hunting season in Connecticut has arrived.

After several nights of sticking to the sheets the boys and I looked for a place to hunt mushrooms. We decided to walk the Weir Pond Trail at the Weir Farm National Historic Site in Ridgefield and Wilton (below). The trail rewarded us with a fungi bonanza, the nearby woods strewn with spectacular mushrooms such as Red Chanterelle (above) and representatives of many mushroom families.

Armed with a dog-eared copy of "Common Mushrooms of New England", a wonderful guide and key to local fungi written by John C. Cooke and published by and available through the Connecticut College Arboretum, we did our best to try and sort out those that we might.

On our way in, at the margin where what were open farm fields when 19th century American painter J. Alden Weir lived here have yielded to deciduous forest, we found what seemed to be a Meadow Mushroom (Agaricus campestris), that grows in pastures (above).

Among nearby trees were other mushrooms, such as the one pictured above, that seemed from the scale-like patches on its cap to be an Amanita, perhaps Amanita pantherina, commonly called the "Panther" amanita, or Amanita virosa, with the ominous sounding common name of "Death Angel".

Even to our amateur eyes it was easy to pick out the many clusters of Red Chanterelles (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) (above) we found growing on the forest floor around the trunks of trees further down the trail. Bright orange, they stood out among the green ferns and grasses from at least ten feet away.

Perhaps most abundant in the forest were white and tan forms of milk caps (Lactarius piperatus) (above) that show funnel shaped caps that are depressed in the middle and have long gills underneath (below). The more of them we found, the more it began to rain, at time causing the lens of our trust Canon ELPH camera to fog over.

We found mushrooms similar in form to the milk caps, but showing different colorations, in areas around the forest floor. There were many Red Russula (Russula emetica) (below) scattered widely about along with groups of Green Russula (Russula virescens) off to one side of the trail where it approached Weir Pond (second photo below).

Along with the "gilled mushrooms" we found two varieties of "pored-fleshy mushrooms." These are distinguished by the pored surface they have beneath their caps rather than gills.

The first of these we found was a sort of two-colored bolete, with a red cap and stem (above), but a distinctly yellow pore surface (below).

Another tan-colored pored mushroom found nearby looked to us to be Bitter Bolete (Tylopilus felleus) (below).

Also in the area where the trail approached the pond, where grasses patches exploited areas not yet fully filled by trees, we found coral mushrooms, named for the way they resemble marine corals, of the genus Clavaria (below).

Many downed tree trunks decomposing on the forest floor provided ideal conditions for bracket fungi.

We found varieties of polypores that looked to us like False Turkey-tail (Stereum ostrea) (above),

and Chicken-of-the-Woods (Polyporus sulphureus) (above).

Of course, there were two mushrooms that we couldn't even guess at. One is common, and probably familiar to most, but had us perplexed (below). Yellow mycena, perhaps?

The other was a remarkable violet color, small and relatively squat, and apparenly just emerging (below).

Toward the end of the hunt, after a heavy summer rain had come and gone and cooled things down a bit, we were rewarded with two unexpected finds. The first was to the right of the trail on our way back from the pond, we found several specimens of a plant known as Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) just emerging (below). A ghostly white plant known for its lack of clorophyl, it could easily be mistaken for some kind of fungi.

In searching for more we also encountered several apparently newly metamorphosed Spring Peeper frogs (below) barely one-quarter of inch long. They were so small they almost seemed like some sort of jumping flea, but were already such accomplished hoppers they could launch their tiny bodies twelve inches or more in a single bound.

A truly remarkable trip we might have missed out on had we been spending our summer in the alternate reality that comes with cool, dry, conditioned air being blown into tightly insulated spaces.

Monday, July 17, 2006

A Forest Buried Alive

Newport, Oregon—Beach sands come and go. Along the central Oregon coast recently, unusually low tides scoured beaches down to their lowest sand levels in years, perhaps centuries. So much was removed that remains of ancient forests, buried alive by building sands thousands of years ago, once again saw the light of day.

Fossil tree root masses such as those exposed at Moolack Beach, Oregon, (above) tell tales of ancient seaside "ghost forests" that thrived here thousands of years ago.

In Connecticut, we’re accustomed to tides and wave action reshaping beaches and sand spits at places such as Bluff Point State Park’s Bushy Point, but the erosion and pace of change along Oregon’s central Coast has been several orders of magnitude greater.

During our summer vacation, we found the Marine Gardens beach at Otter Rock, Oregon, practically scraped bare, down to the marine sediments underlying it, rocks normally buried beneath several feet of medium-grain sand. Finding it in such a state, with its headlands significantly eroded in the past six months and ordinarily abundant tide pool fauna such as anemones forced further seaward, was distressing.

“It looks like some unusual erosion is going on--erosion that has not happened much in 4,000 years,” geologist Roger Hart of the Oregon Dept. of Geology and Mineral Industries and an expert on central coast tree remains told the Newport News-Times.

At many beaches here, from Moolack Beach (above) to neighboring Beverly Beach, to others further north, such as Neskowin Beach, recent erosion has exposed very large root masses and great tree trunks, particularly where creeks excavated even deeper. Low “minus tides” of –1.4 feet resulted in extraordinary views of these prehistoric fossil tree parts and tree bases, some as much as thirty or forty-feet across.

The roots, stumps, trunks and cones are between 4,100 years old (based on radiometric dating) and 2,500 years old (based on archaeological studies of Native American sites around Newport’s Yaquina Head). They are the remains of what were great seaside forests of Sitka Spruce trees, titans of the primordial Northwest rainforests and ancestors of Sitka Spruce that dominate coastal forests today.

Following the retreat of glacial ice, forest trees had spread over Oregon’s Coast Range Mountains and down to the Pacific coast. Roger Hart says that about 4,000 years ago, vast amounts of sand (which Yaquina Head reveals to have been piled hundreds of feet high) came to quickly penetrate the forests and bury them alive. Dunes grew to entomb trees so completely they were protected from decay by oxygen and bacteria and preserved for the millennia.

Hart and fellow researcher Curt Peterson have reported 14 fossil sites and 520 fossil stumps or root masses. They describe a three-part process of forest advance, sand burial and erosion/exposure. The cycle began long ago with the seaward advance of the forest; was followed by its burial and preservation by deep deposits of beach and/or dune sands; and brought full-cycle with the removal of the sand, and re-exposure of the forest, by wave action and the landward erosion of coastal headlands today.

It’s hard to imagine that geologic change can sometimes be so quick as to bury giant trees alive, but the pace at which surficial features along the Oregon coast have been eroded in the past six months reveals how such events can sometimes be as swift as they are catastrophic.