Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Glowing Leaf Thanksgiving Card
Photo credit: wmartin63
Hope you're having a wonderful day with friends and family as we are.

For those of you who can't turn away from the computer even on Thanksgiving, here are some posts on the Natural Capital that relate to turkeys and giving thanks, in one way or another:

Now get outdoors and work off that turkey!

Friday, November 18, 2011

LOOK FOR: Turkey Tails

Photo credit: Coastlander
As we think about the things that we are thankful for in nature, we should all pause to be thankful for mushrooms. Not just because they are yummy, or beautiful -- which many are -- but because they enable us to walk around in the woods in the first place.

After all, imagine a world where every tree that fell over in the forest just stayed there. A few hundred years and it would be an impassible maze of giant Pick-Up Sticks.

No, we should be grateful for the saprobes -- those thankless little mushrooms that eat wood. And what better to single out at Thanksgiving time than the turkey tail? This very common shelf mushroom typically grows on (and eats) logs and stumps, clearing the way for future generations of trees and hikers.

Turkey tails grow in overlapping, semi-circular layers that really can look like the back end of a turkey. The effect is enhanced by stripes of various colors in the grey-to-brown (sometimes to orange) spectrum. (These stripes are the source of the name Trametes versicolor -- thin and multi-colored). The surface is often velvety when fresh. All in all, they're a lovely mushroom -- and all the more eye catching at this time of year when colors are fading in the woods.

Trametes versicolor
Photo credit: lfelliott
Chinese medicine has used turkey tails for centuries, and Western scientists are now studying extracts as cancer treatments. Perhaps one more reason to be thankful for the turkey tail.

In the wild: Turkey tail is extremely common in the woods. There are other common shelf mushrooms that can look very similar to the "true" turkey tail; chief among them is Stereum ostrea, the "false" turkey tail. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty, try Michael Kuo's key.

In your yard: You can order a turkey tail growing kit from Fungi Perfecti. (But, did we mention how common they are?)

turkey tail
Photo credit: Cornell Fungi

Thursday, November 10, 2011

LOOK FOR: Starlings

You know I stick mostly to native species on this blog. There are so many wonderful creatures and plants to explore without needing to focus on the imported counterparts that are crowding them out. But a friend forwarded a beautiful little video that I thought I would pass along, because this truly is one of the natural phenomena that takes my breath away a few times a year.

Sturnus vulgaris
Photo credit: Kristof Borkowski
Starlings were brought to the United States in the late 19th century by a group called the American Acclimitization Society, whose sole purpose was introducing European species of plants and animals. A sub-project of this larger work was to introduce into New York city parks every species of bird mentioned in a work of Shakespeare.

And what did Shakespeare think of starlings? They won't shut up. (Those of you who've been near a flock will agree.) In Henry IV, the king was refusing to pay a ransom to release his brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer. Hotspur, who took the prisoners in a battle, says:

He said he would not ransom Mortimer;
Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer;
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I'll holla 'Mortimer!'
Nay, I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.

I don't think Hotspur ever went through with this plan, but the Acclimitization Society's dreams were fulfilled beyond their wildest expectations. It's estimated there are now more than 200 million starlings in North America, reaching coast to coast and into Canada and Mexico. The Introduced Species Summary Project complains that besides being noisy and messy, they ravage crops and crowd out native bird species as they travel around in flocks that sometimes number in the thousands.

Invasive though they are, such big flocks can also be a thing of beauty. Check it out.

Murmuration from Sophie Windsor Clive on Vimeo.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Things to Look For in November

I've been traveling and away from the Natural Capital a bit, including a trip to the midwest to celebrate some of life's extremes: I visited my grandma, who is turning 90 next month, and my friend's baby, who is 9 months old. Apologies for the lighter posting schedule, but you can always check out places to go in old posts via the navigation bar up above. Here are some of the wonderful things to look for that we've posted in previous Novembers. Links are to previous posts on the Natural Capital.

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia Albicollis)
White throated sparrow by Dave Maher
The white throated sparrows are back in town for the winter. Listen for their song of "Oh Canada, Canada, Canada" as they long for their summer home. It's always nice, as the weather starts to get colder and colder, to remind myself that some critters think our winter is downright balmy, and travel hundreds of miles to enjoy it.
Witch hazel by pellaea
As one of the last things in the DC area to flower in the fall, witch hazel has a special place in my heart. It's not that the flowers are particularly showy -- the petals are just small yellow wisps, really. But they start blooming in October, and can keep going until Thanksgiving or even later.
Persimmon fruits, my Thanksgiving treat
Persimmons by Janet Powell
Persimmons are another special late-year treat -- though this year, they've been falling for a few weeks already. When they're not ripe, they'll make your mouth pucker. But when they're soft to the point of falling off the tree, they're sweet and luscious.

Staghorn sumac on the C&O Canal by Cindy Cohen
One of Matt's walks found persimmons and several other fruits on the C&O canal in the middle of November last year. Check out the list of what they found, complete with pictures.
Flavoparmelia caperata
Lichen by Paul Morris
As most of the plants are dying back, our attention starts to turn to less showy but still fascinating things in the forest. Like lichen. Take a field trip with a lichenologist in this video from Science Friday.
Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo)
Wild turkeys by pverdonk
Of course, by the end of the month, most of us will be thinking of turkey. Read our post for some fun facts about wild turkeys, which apparently live in Rock Creek Park -- last year just after our post a reader told me she regularly sees them off Military Road. Keep an eye out!