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Winter wildlife

The spring semester started this week, which means that every Friday I'll be taking my Ecology students on field trips. Yesterday's field trip, the first of the class, was to Rancho del Oso and Waddell Beach. Every year I've taken the students to these sites to visit two different habitats: forest and beach. And all we have to do to get from one to the other is cross the highway. The beauty of this particular field trip is that it is almost entirely unstructured. My goal is to give the students a chance to spend time outdoors and slow down enough to really observe what's going on around them. They get to crack open their brand new notebooks and work on their first entries, which can be a little intimidating for them. One suggestion I made was to find a spot to sit quietly, close their eyes, and observe the world using their other senses. Since we humans are such visual creatures, people are always surprised to discover how much they can perceive with their eyes closed.

Getting to do yesterday's field trip at all wasn't something to be taken for granted. There are some storm systems working their way through the area. They're nothing like the polar vortex that has been subjecting the midwest and now the east coast to well-below-freezing temperatures, but are projected to dump a lot of rain and blow like crazy. I'd been keeping an eye on the weather forecast all week, hoping that the rain on Friday would at least hold off until the afternoon so we could do the forest part of our field trip. I figured that if we got to any of the beach stuff after lunch that would be gravy.

Here we are, in the midst of winter, and already there are signs of spring. The willows are starting to leaf out and there was a lot of poison oak putting out leaves, all shiny and dangerous. Fortunately the poison oak is easy to recognize--and avoid--when it has leaves, and hopefully nobody who is allergic was exposed to it.

Willows
Willows (Salix sp.) starting to leaf out at Rancho del Oso
2019-02-01
© Allison J. Gong

Of course, one of the best things about the forest in winter is the mycoflora. Rancho del Oso is a good place to see mushrooms and slime molds, and yesterday I saw things that I'd never seen before. Now, I'm not a mycologist by any stretch of the imagination. But I did my best, with the help of Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast and iNaturalist, to identify the ones I saw and managed to take decent photos of. And some remain unidentified. I simply don't know enough to make more than a very rough guess, which isn't at all likely to be correct.

Amanita sp. at Rancho del Oso 2019-02-01
© Allison J. Gong

When people think of the genus Amanita they think of things like the death cap mushroom (A. phalloides) or A. muscaria, with its iconic white-spotted red cap. But Amanita is a large genus, with many species categorized into several sections. Not all of the Amanita mushrooms are poisonous, and some are edible if prepared properly. This one is a rather nondescript brown, but based on photos in MotRC, Amanita fruiting bodies come in various shades of white, gray, yellow, brown, and russet. It's going to take me a lot of time and practice to begin getting these mushrooms straight!

I've always been drawn to the various shelf or bracket fungi because their morphology is so un-mushroomlike. Most of the bracket fungi we have here are polypores, meaning that the fruiting body releases spores through holes on the bottom surface rather than the more familiar gills you see on mushrooms. The very common and variable turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) grows on many host species is a polypore. Its congener, T. betulina, however, has gills. The rather paradoxical common name of T. betulina is gilled polypore, which of course doesn't really make sense.

Of course, I forgot to look at the bottom surface of this bracket fungus, so I don't know which species of Trametes it is. Naturalist fail!

Bracket fungus (Trametes sp.) at Rancho del Oso
2019-02-01
© Allison J. Gong
Helvella sp. at Rancho del Oso
2019-02-01
© Allison J. Gong

This bizarre mushroom, which looks like a miniature bok choy that is black instead of green, is an elfin saddle in the genus Helvella.

According to MotRC there are two species of Helvella that co-occur in this area and can be difficult to distinguish without genetic analysis. Helvella vespertina (western black elfin saddle) is associated with coniferous trees and fruits in autumn and winter. Helvella dryophila (oak-loving elfin saddle) is usually found in with oaks and produces fruiting bodies in winter and spring. Because we saw this mushroom in a mixed forest in the middle of winter, I'm going to play it safe and stick with Helvella sp.

These red-capped mushrooms are a species of Russula, I think. It looks like they've been munched on, perhaps by banana slugs. More on that in the next post!

Russula sp. at Rancho del Oso
2019-02-01
© Allison J. Gong

There are some very bizarre fungi out there! Some of them have fantastic fruiting bodies, and some are much more blobby. The jelly fungi are very aptly named, and are the blobbiest. We saw lots of little bright orange blobs growing on hardwoods. These are called witch's butter, known to mycologists as Tremella aurantia:

Witch's butter (Tremella aurantia) at Rancho del Oso
2019-02-01
© Allison J. Gong

Despite the common name, T. aurantia is edible but apparently not appealing. So eating it won't make you sick, but you may still wish you hadn't eaten it. When it comes to mushrooms, that's definitely not the worst possible outcome. Given my own lack of expertise with mushrooms I'm one of the last people to tell you which ones to eat. But I do know enough not to eat anything that I find in the field. Some day I hope to go mushroom foraging with someone who really knows what he or she is doing, and whose judgment I trust. Until then, I'll continue to enjoy mushrooms where they grow and not concern myself with issues of edibility. The mushrooms certainly do deserve to be appreciated for their appearance and the ecological relationships they form with the plants and animals of the forest.



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