THE FOREST PREPARES FOR WINTER

by Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… October brings many visible changes to the Adirondacks. Of course, the most notable change is to the foliage. Red and sugar maples, aspens, beech and birch merge with the spruces, pines and balsams to present an awesome “going away” party in the canopy. The understory also produces a grand display when hobblebush, ferns and wildflower leaves change from summer’s constant green to metallic gold, bonze and copper, with a bit of purple for contrast. As the days begin to shorten, animals begin changing colors too. White-tailed deer begin to molt, lighter tan and reddish hairs of spring and summer will fall off and the newly grown darker brownish hairs become the autumn and winter coat. Camouflaging and insulating hairs will also begin molting and growing on snowshoe hares and long-tailed weasels. Snowshoe hares molting, from reddish brown to white, may take several months to complete the process, while the long-tail weasels molting to winter white (except for the tip of the tail) may accomplish molting, in a matter of weeks.
Many animals have begun to “bulk up” for a long sleep in addition to growing insulating hair. Black bears are omnivores and have been eating everything, including fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, plants, insects, eggs, small mammals, fish, honey and carrion. The stored fat will be burned for fuel so there will be little loss of muscle. While hibernating black bears will not eat or drink, they do not move about, or excrete. Their heart rate and breathing will slow down. Female black bears will probably den up by late October. If she has cubs they will den up with her. The cubs stay with the mother for about 18 months. If she mated in the spring, she will den up alone and the new cubs will be born while she hibernates. The male black bears will den up about the last week in November or the first week of December.
Small mammals have been preparing for winter all spring and summer long, some by making caches. The eastern chipmunks which reside on our property have been caching unsalted peanuts and sunflowers seed for many months. The eastern chipmunks “sleep” for several weeks at a time, not a true hibernation, and wake up and eat from the cache. They have been collecting other foods sources as well, such as corn, beechnuts and berries, which will be eaten throughout the winter and early spring. On mild days in late winter or early spring I will occasionally see one or more eastern chipmunks at our bird feeders, replenishing their cache.
Insects that don’t winter over, such as grasshoppers, katydids and crickets will have deposited their eggs in leaf litter or within rock or wood crevices. The eggs wait under a blanket of snow, for the days to grow longer and warmer, then the nymphs (immature stage of some insects) will emerge.
Autumn is a great time to spend time outdoors, discovering or revisiting favorite hiking places, especially when temperatures are cooler and insects are no longer a problem. After a few days of rain many new “treasures” appear in wooded areas, such as new species of mushrooms. Even though I love eating mushrooms, I enjoy finding and photographing them even more.
In October and November colorful species can be found on trees, fallen logs, and the on the forest floor. Mushrooms appear in many colorful sizes, shapes and textures. Fungi are essential and extremely important in our lives, perhaps that is something we seldom think about but, consider the role fungi play in the ecosystem.
Consider the decaying of wood, in which fungi breakdown lignin and cellulose, returning unbelievable levels of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Ganoderma applantatum, which we call artist fungus, found on trees is a wood decaying fungus. Fungi also play a big role in keeping or getting us healthy. Yeast fungi are used in both bread making and wine production. Medicines such as antibiotics used in healing and anti-rejection drugs used in organ transplants are completely dependent on fungi.
The mushroom is the fruiting body or reproductive structure of a fungus; it is the part we see. The rest is underground, and is the vegetative body of the fungus which is made up of fine filaments called hyphae. Mushrooms, for identification purposes, have been divided into groups according to their appearance of the fruiting bodies and reproductive structure. Groups that can readily be seen this time of year include jelly fungus, puffball, polypore, coral fungus, tooth fungus, bolete, stinkhorn and chanterelle. All of these are interesting to find and photograph, but I never eat any of these. They may be edible but, unless a mushroom is confirmed by a credible mycologist, do not eat it.
Some of the more interesting coral fungi that can be found in our Adirondack forests are spindle-shaped yellow coral (Clavulinopsis fusiformis) and yellowish-tan coral (Ramaria abietina) both resembling an underwater coral. In addition to artist fungus (Ganoderma applantatum) found most often on upright trees, look for chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) a rather colorful species which looks like skinned chicken cutlets. Also look for turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) on fallen logs. To me some of the most interesting mushrooms are the chanterelles. Two favorites are scaly vase or wooly chanterelle (Gomphus floccosus) and pig’s ear (Gomphus clavatus). Both of these fungi are two to six inches in height and are vase shaped and hollow. Rain water fills the vase and birds and insects can drink the water. The outside of both fungi is scaly in appearance. Stinkhorns are great to find and photograph however you may smell them before you see them. Ravenel’s stinkhorn (Phallus ravenelii), which I discovered in a bed of roses, caught my attention first, by its nasty odor.
Classified with puffballs, which are easy to find because of their size and shape, are some of the micro fungi such as bird’s nest (Cyathus stercoreus) and the larger earthstars like fringed earthstar (Geastrum fimbriatum).
I add the genus and species names, because the common names may differ per locale, and it may help with identification if you chose to look them up or perhaps do some research. Many excellent guides are available for mushroom identification our local bookstores
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