Saturday, November 15, 2014

Fungus Foray

Orange peel fungus, Aleura aurantia.
When you ask many people whether they are interested in a fungus foray, they'll probably say a solid "no!". That is if you even get that far in the conversation before the bloke listening leaves and regrets ever making friends with you. Certainly the term "fungus foray" does not draw the most spectacular imagery. But why not? If I've learned anything about fungi it is that there is an extraordinary rainbow of dazzling mushrooms, lichens, and other splendid and delicate species, some living in our very backyards. "Fungus foray" should not always conjure images of horrible slime, moulds, and poisonous mushrooms being boiled in a witch's cauldron. If that is what you are thinking, read on. When a subject area has species with names like "fairy fingers" and "plums-and-custard", how can you be possibly be disappointed!?

Plums-and-custard, Tricholomopsis rutilans.

This trip was coordinated by the Hampshire Fungus Recording Group, a little organization that I regret not having discovered earlier. Fungi are a subject that I have yet to properly delve into, although I've photographed some before. So what better than to spend a chilly November morning, during the peak of mushroom season, in the pleasantries of Exbury Garden, right in the heart of the New Forest?

Fungi are the bane of photographers like me, especially those who seek to label species based on photos they've taken in the field! That's because most identification characteristics are microscopic, require chemical tests, habitat analysis, or necessitate smelling or tasting parts of the mushroom. None of these critical details show up in photographs, which makes them far trickier to identify than plants, birds, or even insects. So what better than to tag along with some experts who can do all the ID work for you, and correctly nonetheless!?

The day started off ripe with several quick identifications, ranging from common cavalier and clouded agaric to gems such as parrot mushroom, meadow coral, and the wonderfully pink lilac bonnet. In less than 10 minutes I had already gathered a handful of interesting species, and that was only the start. That isn't to ignore the lovely specimen of poplar bells (Schizophyllum amplum), which a bloke brought in from somewhere east to share with the group. This is a rare fungus in the UK and this was probably the first ever record from the place he found it at!

Yes, of course I'm counting it! It is no different to ticking a moth in someone's fridge. Don't be so judgmental.

Parrot mushroom, Gliophorus psittacinus. Some were
much greener.
Meadow coral, Clavulinopsis corniculata.
Lilac bonnet, Mycena pura.
Poplar bells, Schizophyllum amplum.

Some of the most splendid species were the waxcaps, a large genus of mushrooms that feature almost every colour imaginable. Luckily we had someone on hand with a special key to sort these tricky species out. The key itself was entertaining, narrowing down 10 identical red species to 4 or 6 based on how rough the cap was, and then further on traits ranging from gill pattern to stem (stipe) details. Fascinating stuff. Most importantly this was the only time I could ever count on having definitive IDs on this difficult genus! In a small area we documented 2 red species, crimson waxcap (Hygrocybe punicea) and scarlet waxcap (H. coccinea), along with the yellow spangle waxcap (H. insipida) and glutinous waxcap (H. glutinipes), followed by the glorious orange of field waxcap (H. pratensis) and orange waxcap (H. aurantiosplendens), and then finally accompanied by two outliers, the pure white of cedarwood waxcap (H. russocoriacea) and the dark orange of blackening waxcap (H. conica). What an incredible haul from a small area of the garden property!

Scarlet waxcap, H. coccinea.
Spangle waxcap, H. insipida.
Glutinous waxcap, H. glutinipes.
Meadow waxcap, H. pratensis.

In another half an hour I had doubled my fungi count. One of the most fascinating species was this tiny colony of equally tiny mushrooms, Mycena polyadelpha. This was joined by several other notable species, such as panthercap (Amanita pantherina), common rustgill (Gymnopilus penetrans), and even the infamous death cap (Amanita phalloides).

Mycena polyadelpha.
Panthercap, Amanita pantherina.
Death cap, Amanita phalloides.
Common rustgill, Gymnopilus penetrans.

On the lawns we found several earth tongues, black or nearly black fungi that form paddle-shaped stems without caps. At first we thought there were only 2 species, Macroglossum cookeanum and the rarer greenish species Macroglossum viride, but later lab tests showed there were 3. The third species I did not photograph or notice in the field. Luckily I think the third species was the most common of the 3. These are very difficult to identify without lab testing so it was a special occasion to have the chance to photograph and label these intriguing formations. On the topic of intriguing formations, some of the most gripping species were those like cauliflower fungus, and some interesting tree-adapted species that formed great waves on the branches, such as confluent radulomyces.

Macroglossum cookeanum.
Green earth-tongue, Macroglossum viride. The green
lower stem is invisible unless dug out of the ground.
Cauliflower fungus, Sparassis crispa.
Radulomyces confluens.

The day was continually perpetuated with other fun species from the pinecone specialist Mycena seynesii, a wonderfully named spiny-undersided species called toothpick fungus, to Hampshire's first ever record of the parasitic piggyback rosegill, Volvariella surrecta, a parasite that grows on larger fungi, in this case clouded agaric.

Mycena seynesii, a mushroom growing only on fallen pine cones!
Piggyback rosegill, Volvariella surrecta, growing on the flattened
brownish caps of clouded agaric.

The underside of earpick fungus, Auriscalpium vulgare, another pine cone

How about the scarlet caterpillar club though? This fungi entirely specializes on growing within moth caterpillars. The coolest thing about it? Every one you dig up reveals a dead caterpillar or pupa. A real marvel of nature. I cannot possibly imagine how it goes about finding the caterpillars.

Scarlet caterpillar club, Cordyceps militaris, with deceased caterpillar
lower right.

The light was fading and we had only covered about a half of the garden property. It was a shame to leave such a large portion of the wilderness undiscovered, so to speak, but what an amazing outing it was. In total I had amassed 73 new species, which may be highest ever, at least until I visit somewhere more tropical for the first time. Are fungi forays always this exciting? I must attend some more in future.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Road to the San Gabriels

Thanks to Dan Cooper I finally had a chance to see the glory of the San Gabriels for myself. I have heard many great things about this pristine mountain range, from birds to invertebrates, and I never thought the day would ever come. F,or the first time in ages perhaps I'll know how it feels to walk through the venerable pine forests.

We first dropped by Switzer Falls to listen to the morning birdsong. This may have been my first experience with white alders in the wild, a towering riparian tree that lays a gentle green shade over those who walk beside them. Here we met the bumbling grey furball that was the western grey squirrel, certainly for me a welcome sighting as it was my first encounter of this native squirrel species. These squirrels seem to be more tail than anything, but that certainly doesn't inhibit them from scaling the wispiest of tree branches.

Before hitting the next spot I made sure to grab some views of bush poppy, hairy yerba santa, and California cudweed, three plants that all welcomed the scrubby hillsides of the eastern San Gabriel Mountains. The fluttering shadow that is funereal duskywing made a brief appearance here, my first sighting of this dainty butterfly.

Western grey squirrel, Sciurus griseus.
Funereal duskywing, Erynnis funeralis.
With some very close albeit silhouetted views of Lawrence's goldfinch on the roadside, my first ever decent views of this often fleeting species, we headed to Charlton Flat. This site paid off immediately with close views of white-headed woodpecker, a specialist of high altitude pine forests. I am not aware of any other species of woodpecker in the world that has an entirely white head and a stark black body. Truly a stunning bird, even if it sounds almost identical to a hairy woodpecker!

Other highlights at this spot included a few plants, dense-flowered woollystar, the toxic poodle dog bush, woollypod milkweed, Jeffrey pine, the vivid red flowers of San Gabriel beardtongue, and Rydberg's horkelia. A bonus in the form of a fly-by American painted lady was another first for me, as was a great sighting of a sagebrush lizard along some of the fallen logs in the shadier areas of the wilderness.

White-headed woodpecker, Picoides albolarvatus.
Dense-flowered woollystar, Eriastrum densifolium.
Jeffrey pine, Pinus jeffreyi.
Before the afternoon hit us we made a final stop at Buckhorn Campground, where several plant species were quick to show their faces. Woodland pinedrops, sulphur and naked buckwheat, southern monardella, Heermann's lotus, Grinnell's beardtongue, western dwarf mistletoe, thimbleberry, and sugar pine were just a fraction of the amazing flora at this location. Down by the creek I was pleased to find western columbine, and even more pleased to find a stand of the rare lemon lily in all its lemon glory! This was not to mention a moth that seemed at home in the shady recesses of the pinelands, black-banded carpet, a small species that looked as if it were built with umber and soot. Fontana grasshopper taunted me from the car park, offering only the scarcest of views before cackling away into the depths of the forest.

Lemon lily, Lilium parryi.
Birding was silent, if only because the high-pitched seep notes of brown creeper were hard to detect. Purple finches seemed to be the most frequent bird here, with its mountain relative, Cassin's finch, remaining undetected. Mountain chickadee, hairy and white-headed woodpeckers, along with Merriam's chipmunk, all gave us fantastic views between the erratic stands of pines. With western wood-pewees throughout, we were finally prepared for the eventual dusky flycatcher, which we saw nesting in the boughs of willows. For a bird that is often dismissed, I couldn't help find it remarkable. As it dancced between the branches with fairy-like grace, I could not help wonder why anyone would dismiss such a bird just because of its colour. Oh well.

Dusky flycatcher, Empidonax oberholseri. Let's not speak of that branch!

I thanked Dan for his time and we headed back home to the Santa Monicas. It amazes me how so many birders experience places like this on such a regular basis. For me it will probably be the first and last time, at least for several years to come.