Skip to content

1

The first field trip of the semester for my Ecology class is always a jaunt up the coast to Rancho del Oso and Waddell Beach. It's a great place to start the practice of observing nature, because we can explore the forest in the morning, have lunch, and then wander along the beach in the afternoon. We really are lucky to have such a wide variety of habitats to study around here, which makes taking students out into the field really fun. My passion and expertise will always belong with the marine invertebrates, but it's good for me to work outside my comfort zone and immerse myself in habitats I don't already know very well. During this year's class trip to Waddell Beach I was struck by some things I had seen before but never paid much heed to. And also one very big thing that caught everybody's attention.

Depending on how much rain has fallen recently, Waddell Creek may or may not flow all the way into the ocean. Since California has a short rainy season, there are months when the creek is completely cut off from the ocean, due to both a lack of flow and the accumulation of sand on the beach. So far this rainy season, which began on 1 October 2019, we've gotten about 93% of our normal rain. However, we had a very wet December, and almost no rain since then. I wasn't sure whether or not Waddell would be flowing into the ocean. It was.

Waddell Creek where it flows across the beach into the Pacific Ocean
Waddell Creek flowing into the Pacific Ocean
2020-01-31
© Allison J. Gong

The really big thing that we all stopped to look at was this guy lounging in the creek.

Subadult male elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) lying in the creek at Waddell Beach.
Northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) on Waddell Beach
2020-01-31
© Allison J. Gong

The students had many questions: What was he doing there? Was he sick? Was it a male? Was he dead? Well, no, he wasn't dead. And while I guessed from this view that it was a subadult male, I was secretly relieved to be proved right when we walked down the creek (keeping the mandated distance away from him) and looked back to see his big schnozz.

The elephant seal breeding season is coming to an end, but animals will continue to haul out and rest on the beach. This subadult male clearly isn't going to be dethroning any beachmasters this year, so he has taken the safe route and chosen a beach away from the breeding ground at Año Nuevo, which is ~2 miles up the coast. What I really liked about this particular animal was that we could see the tracks he made getting himself up the beach to the creek.

So that was the big thing. Eye-catching he certainly was, but to my mind not nearly as interesting as the small things we paid more attention to on the beach. It is tempting to think of sandy beaches as relatively lifeless places, compared to something like a rocky intertidal or a redwood forest. But for some reason, this trip I became intrigued by the dune vegetation. At first glance a sand dune seems to be a very inhospitable place for plants, and it is. Sand is unstable and moves around all the time, making it difficult for roots to hang on. Sand also doesn't hold water, so dune vegetation must be able to withstand very dry conditions. It's not surprising that dune plants have some of the same adaptations as desert plants.

Let's start with the natives.

Photograph of yellow sand verbena (Abronia latifolia) at Waddell Beach.
Yellow sand verbena (Abronia latifolia)
2020-01-31
© Allison J. Gong

I love this little sand verbena (Abronia latifolia)! It is native to the west coast of North America, from Santa Barbara County to the Canadian border. It is a sand stabilizer, decreasing the erosion that occurs. The sand verbenas also live in deserts; I saw them at Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree last year. The beach sand verbena grows low to the ground, probably as a way to shelter from the winds that come screaming down the coast. Cute little plant, isn't it?

The other yellow beach plant we saw was the beach suncup (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia), a member of the primrose family.

Photograph of the beach suncup (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia) at Waddell Beach.
Beach suncup (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia)
2020-01-31
© Allison J. Gong

Like the yellow sand verbena, the beach suncup is a California native. It grows along the entire coast, including the Channel Islands. Also like the yellow sand verbena, the suncup grows low to the ground. Its leaves are thick and a little waxy, to help the plant resist desiccation.

And now for the non-natives. I must admit, I had given very little thought to the plant life on my local beaches. I'd seen and studied beach wrack, but to be honest most of my attention is usually directed towards the water instead of up high on the beach where the plants live. This day I decided to photograph the plants.

This plant is a little succulent called European sea rocket (Cakile maritma). As the common name implies, its native habitat is dunes in Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia.

Photograph of the succulent plant, European sea rocket (Cakile maritima) at Waddell Beach.
European sea rocket (Cakile maritima) at Waddell Beach
2020-01-31
© Allison J. Gong

Cakile maritima has several life history traits that enable it to be carried around the world. It produces a lot of seeds, more so than the native dune plants. The seeds are dispersed by water and can be transported long distances in the ballast water of ships, which is probably how it got to California in the first place. It tolerates disturbances better than native dune vegetation, which allows it to be a superior competitor. Cakile maritima is considered to be invasive, meaning that it can survive and spread on its own in a non-native habitat, but its effects seem to be restricted to beach dunes. Despite its ability to thrive and outcompete our native beach plants, it appears to be unable to expand away from the sand.

Mushrrom, Psathyrella ammophila, growing out of the sand at Waddell Beach.
Psathyrella ammophila at Waddell Beach
2020-01-31
© Allison J. Gong

Our surprise of the day was a beach mushroom! None of us had seen them before. This is Psathyrella ammophila, the beach brittlestem mushroom. Like sea rocket, it is also a European invasive. We were perplexed by this mushroom. Most of a fungus's body (mycelium) is underground. The mycelium spreads through soils as very thin threads called hyphae. Every once in a while the mycelium sends up a fruiting body, which is what we call a mushroom. There is no way to know, from the location of mushrooms, where and how far the mycelium spreads underground.

The presence of a mushroom on the beach means that a fungal mycelium is feeding on something in the sand. There isn't much plant matter buried on beaches, but we hypothesized that perhaps one of the logs from the forest had washed down the creek and been deposited on the beach. It would then be buried in sand, along with all the mycelium it carried, and a mushroom could have sprouted up through the sand.

Well, it was a good hypothesis.

I posted my photo to a mushroom ID page, and it was identified as Psathyrella ammophila. My submission to iNaturalist came back with the same result. A little research led me to another non-native invasive species, Ammophila arenaria, the European marram grass. Notice that the species epithet of the mushroom is the same as the genus name of the plant? That was my first clue. Marram grass is one of the most noxious weed species on the California coast. It was intentionally introduced to the beaches in the mid-1800s, to provide stability to the dunes. It is very good at that, but also spreads very rapidly, usually growing upwards away from the ocean. That said, marram grass also breaks off chunks that can survive in the ocean and float off to colonize new beaches.

The fungus Psathyrella ammophila grows as a saprobe on the decaying roots of Ammophila arenaria. No doubt the fungus was introduced along with the marram grass as an inadvertent hitchhiker. Since there is so much marram grass on our beaches, it's safe to assume that there is a lot of Psathyrella, too. That means it's time to start looking for mushrooms on the beach!

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.



In recent years the day after Thanksgiving has become known as Black Friday, a day when retailers across the nation offer fantastic sales in order to separate Americans from their hard-earned cash. I hate shopping even under the best of circumstances, and you couldn't pay me enough to step foot in a shopping mall on Black Friday. Fortunately, a trio of organizations have put together about the most awesome alternative to Black Friday that I could imagine. They call it Green Friday.

The idea behind Green Friday, as I understand it, is to get people to spend the day after Thanksgiving outdoors enjoying nature instead of fighting over $5 t-shirts at some big department store. The three organizations--Save the Redwoods League; the California State Parks Foundation; and the California State Parks--sponsored some number of free parking passes at the state parks. I have a Golden Poppy pass, which gets me into state parks in northern California and we didn't need one of the free passes, but I've been wanting to go hiking up in Big Basin so I rounded up my husband and a few friends and off we went.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park is the oldest state park in California, established in 1902. It has long been my favorite of the state parks I've visited.

Big Basin sign

I have to say, the Green Friday thing seemed to be working. The park was very crowded, with lots of families. We chose to hike the Sequoia Trail, a 4-mile loop that begins at the park headquarters and goes past Sempervirens falls, a monument to the founders of the park, and a treacherous passage called Slippery Rock. The oldest and tallest redwood trees in the park are seen from the Redwood Loop trail, which we didn't hike this time. But it is impossible to see any redwood forest, and not feel awed.

Redwood forest in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. 25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Redwood forest in Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Looking up at redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. 25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Looking up at redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) in Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The oldest of these trees have outlived multiple human civilizations. It's humbling to be surrounded by such ancient beings.

The forest floor is shaded by the canopy of the redwood and other tall trees. At this time of year, and especially after a rain, the understory is spectacular with greenery and life. It's all about the mushrooms. California had four dry winters before last year's El Niño rains, and so far this autumn has been fairly wet. Well, October was wet; we didn't have rain in November until last weekend. The fungi have been biding their time, waiting for enough water to fall from the sky before sending up their fruiting bodies. Now, I freely admit that mushroom identification is a major weak spot of mine, so take these names with a grain of salt. But I'm learning! The duff on the ground in the area we hiked was a mixture of redwood needles and leaves from tan oak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus) and California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica). Many mushrooms were growing directly through the duff, while others were growing on living or dead trees.

Ramaria sp. in the redwood forest in Big Basin Redwood State Park. 25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Ramaria formosa(?) in the redwood forest in Big Basin Redwood State Park.
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This so-called coral mushroom is, I think, Ramaria formosa. We saw a few clumps of it right at the beginning of the hike, in this pale orange color. The branching at the tips appears to be more or less dichotomous, and the overall shape and size of the body reminded me of the intertidal rockweed Pelvetiopsis limitata.

These really pretty bracket fungi may be turkey tails (Trametes versicolor). We found lots of them on both dead and living trees. The ones that are brilliant orange and brown I do recognize as turkey tails, but when they're pale and creamy like these I'm not sure whether or not they're the same thing.

Bracket fungus (Trametes sp.) growing on a dead log.
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And there were spectacular displays like this:

25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

and this:

25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

and this:

25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

and strange things like this:

25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Clavaria fragilis, or fairy fingers 25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Clavaria fragilis, or fairy fingers
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I was able to identify those strange white things as Clavaria fragilis, or fairy fingers. The mycelium of this fungus lives underground in grasslands and wooded areas; it is described as common in this area, especially during the wetter months. The arrangement of these fruiting bodies in a more or less straight line is interesting and makes me wonder if the mycelium is living in a log buried under the duff. I don't know what else would cause the mycelium to grow in such a linear fashion.

My favorite mushroom photo of the day was of these LBMs (little brown mushrooms) that were growing out of a downed redwood. The mushrooms themselves are extremely cute, but what I really like about this picture is the bokeh. I've become intrigued by the practice of composing and exposing photographs so that the the non-subject matter is deliberately blurred and becomes part of the overall aesthetic quality of the image. I think I've noticed it before, but never really thought about how to achieve it. Practicing it is a whole lot of fun, and I think there will be many more photos like this in my future.

LBMs (little brown mushrooms) growing on a redwood log 25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
LBMs (little brown mushrooms) growing on a redwood log.
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Where there are mushrooms there are mushroom predators such as banana slugs. I think we counted about 10 of the bright yellow gastropods on our hike. Alas, none of them were copulating. But one of them was eating a mushroom!

Banana slug (Ariolimax sp.) eating a mushroom. 25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Banana slug (Ariolimax sp.) eating a mushroom.
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

What a great afternoon it was! Given how crowded the park was I'd say that Green Friday was a success. I'd so much rather see people hiking or at least spending time outdoors than shopping for material things. I hope that Green Friday is here to stay!

%d bloggers like this: