Mid-winter Discoveries

Have I mentioned before that it pays to GET OUT?  On Monday a group of us traveled to Ontario to see what for many is a once-in-a-lifetime  sight:  a great grey owl.  It was magnificent!

Back home, though, we still have some terrific things to see, even if not quite of the same caliber as a great grey owl.

Tuesday morning dawned crisp, but as the day progressed, the weather mellowed and became downright spring-like.  Most of the last few days have seemed more like early spring than mid-winter, and even the birds must agree, for the first find of our morning was a flock of eastern bluebirds perched in the trees.

As the group headed out across the prairie, I fell behind…fiddling with camera lenses will do that.

Plus I wanted to check on The Deer.  Last month we dragged a dead deer into the prairie to provide food for scavengers:  crows, coyotes, ‘possums, and maybe even eagles.  Since it had been out there a few weeks now, I was hoping to see evidence of all sorts of activity.  I was greatly disappointed.  There had maybe been a bit more work done at the posterior end of the animal, and possibly at the shoulder, where we had opened up the skin a bit, but for the most part it appeared to be in the exact same condition it was when we left it.

I continued my stroll through the grassland, looking for anything that might be a good subject for the camera.  I found evidence of another deer that had been eaten.  First, I found one back bone.

And then I found a leg bone that had been well-chewed.  Something, probably a coyote, had cracked open the bone to get to the nutritious marrow inside.

My eyes were drawn immediately to a tiny, but very loud, splash of color.  Nestled on the ground was a small patch of lichen sporting very bright red tips.  This lichen is that old standby British Soldiers, Cladonia cristatella.  This lichen is probably the most recognized of the lichens, and this is for three reasons.  First, it tolerates a lot of pollution, so it does very well where people live.  Second, it is very colorful, so it catches people’s eyes (like it did mine).  Finally, it has a common name (most lichens don’t).  Not only that, it has a common name that is terribly easy for just about everyone to remember!  British Soldiers can be found in a variety of habitats:  on wood, on bark or on soil.  The bright red part of this lichen (and there are several species of Cladonia that are green with red at the tips) is the “business end” of the fruiting body.  This is where the spores are stored.

Moving on, I found several mullein plants that already had thick, fuzzy leaves hugging the ground.  This one was rimmed with frost.

I continued up the prairie to “Earthstar Hill” – an elevated section of the grassland where Earthstars grow.  I love these fungi – they are just so much different from the regular run-of-the-mill mushrooms one finds.  Earthstars are classified along with puffballs, both producing a puffy sac that contains the spores.  The difference is that on earthstars the thick outer wall splits and as the fruiting body dries, the split sections (arms) fall back, or reflex, exposing the spore sac in the middle (not visible in this photo – it is long gone).  The downward curving arms actually raise the sac slightly, giving the fungi  just a bit more of an advantage in spore dispersal by getting it slightly above the ground and further into the windstream.  I think this might be the Fringed Earthstar, Geastrum fimbriatum, based on its size and the number of “arms” it has, but I’m willing to admit I am wrong if there is a mushroom expert out there who knows better.  If it is fringed, this is kind of exciting because while this is a widespread fungus, it is not common.

I continued poking around and found another nest of mushrooms, but these, well, I have no idea as to their identity.

I finally caught up the with the group as they were headed back to the visitor center.  All in all, it was a good morning out, grubbing around on the prairie in search of mid-winter finds.

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About Dahlem Center

The Dahlem Center is a non-profit nature center/environmental education center located on almost 300 acres just south of the city of Jackson, Michigan. The Center is one arm of the Dahlem Conservancy, which includes land conservancy and stewardship in its mission.
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