Natural events, November 2015

November was mostly warm with a couple of wet spells, including a short-lived first snowfall. At times we wonder if we’ll run out of new & interesting discoveries or photographic opportunities for these monthly posts, but so far there’s always plenty to find or learn on our walks around the farm’s landscape. Read on for November’s spiders, fungi, parasitic plants, and more.

nov_natural_spiderwebsThe morning after Halloween was foggy, and dewdrops highlighted the numerous spider webs still present around the farm (upper left). These webs are virtually invisible under normal conditions, and I had even thought the day before that, “Huh, I haven’t walked into a spider web lately, we must be moving past the season for those.” Well, I was wrong, and it is a good reminder that much in nature is invisible to us at any given time. In any case, three kinds of spider webs dominated: Orbs, upper right, and the least common that day. Funnels, lower right, the second most common. The one on the lower left took the prize for most common. Based on google searches, I think this might be the Bowl and Doily Spider (Frontinella communis). The web has two gentle bowl-shaped layers towards the bottom (where the spider tends to hang out) and a lot of messy-looking cobweb structure up top.

nov_natural_mammalsIndirect evidence of mammals: The trail cam took a photo of this coyote at the north end of our property in early November. On the right is the nest of a ground-nesting hymenopteran species (possibly yellow jackets?) that was excavated by a mammal (possibly a raccoon or a skunk?). We know raccoons around here like wasp larvae; one raccoon broke into the greenhouse earlier this year to chow down on wasp nests. Perhaps raccoons do occasionally exhibit beneficial characteristics to farmers. nov_natural_marbled_orb_weaver
I found this beautiful orange spider in the vegetable field, and I took it for a ride in my hat back to the house to photograph it. It appears to be a Marbled Orb Weaver (Araneus marmoreus). has a great series of photos showing the diversity in this species, and it notes that the shriveled abdomen is a result of egg laying; earlier in the year, before egg laying, the abdomen would look more spherical and balloon like. The adults live only through the summer (according to this site), so this one was probably near its end. That could explain why I didn’t find it near a web, and why it was looking a little shaky.

nov_natural_euonymusThe plant on the left showed up in last month’s Natural Events post, but we’re including it again because we found a single specimen of another species from the same genus in the woods. The one on the left is the native Wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus). On the right is the Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus), an Asian native that is a common ornamental and has a tendency to escape from cultivation.

nov_natural_downy_weedpeckerThis Downy took a break from wood pecking to do some weed pecking. It was hanging out near the ground, working on herbaceous plants, making holes like the one on the right (that I believe is in a wild lettuce plant). We think it was going after insect larvae, particularly those of stem borers, evidence of which we found when we opened up some pecked stems. Stem borers seemed abnormally common in our tomato patch when we removed the plants in October, and perhaps they had a bumper year in general. Or maybe the influx of pushy Red-headed Woodpeckers has resulted in Downies so intimidated that they’ve given up on wood.

nov_natural_fungiWe saw a pretty good diversity of fungi in November, especially in the deeper woods. Quite a few big, spreading oaks are dead or dying; these grew up when the current woodland was open pasture decades ago. Fungi are getting a head start on recycling these back to the soil. The lower right mushroom is on a dead oak that fell in the last couple of months; the whole trunk is so punky we were impressed the tree stood up as long as it did. The lower left fungi are on an oak that’s still standing, but perhaps won’t be within a matter of years. The color of the fungus on the middle left log looks pretty close to the color of “No Trespassing” paint; too bad we couldn’t get this to grow all along our boundary!

nov_natural_goldenrod_dodder_1We took a walk on Thanksgiving day to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather, and came across a plant mystery. We found a stand of goldenrod with some odd features on the stems. The photo at left shows a goldenrod plant; the blue arrow points to the seed head, proving it is goldenrod. The red arrow points to another feature on the stem, with a close-up on the right. Many of the plants in the vicinity did not have goldenrod seed heads, but they had these features. What could they be? Animal? Fungus? Or plant? There are gall-forming insects that go after goldenrod, notably the Eurosta fly that is responsible for goldenrod ball galls. But this isn’t at all like one of those. Fungi can colonize living plants, as noted above, but this sure isn’t structured like a fungus. So that leaves plant, and it does look kind of seedlike. But it has no apparent stem beyond the seed-like structure (which gently twists around the goldenrod stem), and there are no roots? The lack of roots is actually a major clue. Here’s another clue:

november_natural_goldenrod_dodderThe photo on the left shows the stand of goldenrod with the mystery feature. On the right, more goldenrod, maybe 10 feet away, but none with a mystery feature. I’m quite certain these are both patches of the same species, Tall Goldenrod, but the goldenrod adorned with the mystery feature is dwarfed with few goldenrod seeds, while the unadorned plants are tall, dense, and full of seeds.

The answer? The mystery features are indeed plant seed heads, from one of the more bizarre plants we have here, the parasitic dodder (Cuscuta sp.). We don’t usually include out of season photos from other locations, but here’s dodder during the growing season: dodder_fulton_prairieThis photo is from Tucker Prairie Natural Area in July 2014, and it shows a pretty big infestation of dodder (species unknown). (The July 2014 natural events post also has  photos of some dodder flowering at Chert Hollow.) Dodder begins its life cycle with its owns roots in the soil, but it soon seeks out a host plant to parasitize, then it abandons its own root system. There’s a great PBS Nature episode, What Plants Talk About, that has amazing, time-lapse footage of dodder choosing a host plant. This goldenrod-attacking species of dodder seems to have been very specific on host choice in our section of not-so-great, fescue-infested pasture.

Even though it is native, Tall Goldenrod has a bit of a reputation as a thug, as it grows in dense stands in low quality pasture. Dodder appears to have the potential to lessen the dominance of Tall Goldenrod. But should we go around spreading dodder seeds? The trouble with dodder is that there are multiple species and it is difficult to identify. Some are more host specific than others. Some will go after tomatoes, not a desirable outcome! This particular dodder location is safely away from vegetable areas, so for now, I think we’ll just watch from the sidelines and see what happens. But if any readers have expertise in identifying dodder from its seed heads, please let us know.

nov_natural_cat As we head into winter (not that it feels like it by temperature), our cat reminds us that it is a good time of year to spend some quality with field guides, preferably in a warm sunny location.

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