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Posted by on in Environmental Stewardship

Well, folks, I hate to break it to you, but there are many signs fall is slowly arriving! Although I know many of you cringe a little at the reminder, personally I am having a hard time containing my excitement – I love fall and winter! We just said goodbye to August and as children head back to school in September, we begin to notice signs of seasonal transitions.Those cool, foggy mornings serve as a subtle reminder that if you have things left to do on your warm-weather bucket list, you better get busy! There certainly is a frenzy of phenological happenings! We are headed towards the end of the wildflower season, wrapping up with a variety of goldenrods and asters.Birds are flocking together and getting ready to be (if not already) on the move. Large flocks of blackbirds, songbirds, and waterfowl can be seen aggregating. I recently saw a flock of at least 50+ warblers, redstarts on other songbirds moving through the woods. As they travel south in the fall, they are much quieter and duller in color than in the spring, making them hard to see and identify as they quickly flit from tree to tree preparing for their journey.  Loons are beginning to come together on the lakes and large groups of geese are gathering in fields; the first flying V’s of the season have been spotted!


Above - Canada geese gather in a field near Highway 84 (8/29/14). Below left - two sandhill cranes stop to feed in the field next to the Pine River airport (8/29/14). Below right - a dog-day cicada is calling loudly from the Pine River Backus School Forest/Field (8/6/14).

But birds aren't the only ones on the move. I have seen many monarchs lately, including one in the middle of a large lake, as these winged beauties make their way to Mexico for winter. Bats can also be seen flying in large groups, which they form to find mates and prepare for winter hibernation or southern migration. Wood frogs and tree fogs are on the move from vernal ponds to upland wintering sites, adult turtles are moving to wintering grounds and baby turtles are trying to make their way to the water - so watch for them on the road! The chilly mornings filled with dew suddenly brings attention to the myriad of spider webs that are out there, and those spiders are feasting on the abundance of insects, whose music has taken over in the absence of bird songs. But most of all, the cooler, damper weather has brought on the time of mushrooms, with new ones popping up everyday! As we strolled through the woods on the HUG campus for our phenology walk last Thursday (8/28/14), we spotted many mushrooms – some familiar and some a new mystery. 

Mushrooms placed gills down on both black and white colored paper. After 24 hours, the spores are left behind on the paper. The color of the spores can help identify the type of mushroom, especially if there are species that look alike.

I experimented with making spore prints but ultimately I found myself in way over my head in regards to mushroom identification. So here are some of the mushrooms we were able to identify, but please don't ever eat anything you don't have a definite ID for. The best way to learn about mushrooms is to learn from someone with experience! It can be quite difficult to properly identify mushrooms from books and online resources alone, and of course – if you’re not sure what they are, then steer clear!

On our adventures, we saw quite a few turkey tails (above). These are a kind of polypore fungus, identifiable by its velvety feeling, bracket-shaped, thin cap distinguished by concentric bands of brown, red, yellow, grey and blue colors.  These are one of the most common types of mushrooms in North America, found from spring into the fall, but they are not edible.


These puffball mushrooms are also quite common in North America. The name puffball actually refers to three genera of fungi, Calbovista, Calvatia, and Lycoperdon. There are many different kinds of puffball mushrooms that vary in size, color and texture. While most of the mushrooms in these genera are safe to eat, you must be sure you have properly identified them and they are in the right conditions (they should be all white inside with a uniform internal consistency). When these mushrooms mature they turn brown in color and a hole opens at the top of the mushroom that the spores leave from. 


This coral fungus is another frequent woodland encounter and is widely distributed in the United States except for some parts of the West Coast. It is identifiable by the multiple branched stalks, each with white-yellow tips forming a crown. This fungus plays a role in the completion of the decomposition of wood and can be seen from late spring into early fall. They are edible when they are fresh. 


But mushrooms are not the only thing we saw fruiting in our woods! There are berries left on some of the trees out there, including this mountain ash. There are three species of mountain ash in Minnesota, European mountain ash, American mountain ash, or showy mountain ash, all of which look very similar. This European mountain ash can be identified by its generally larger, more tree-like structure (the others tend to be more shrub-like), the lack of serration on the lower part of its leaflets, and the more orange (rather than red) color of its fruit clusters. Not to worry - none of the varieties have poisonous berries! They are all edible, though very astringent, and serve as an important food source for birds because the fruit ripens in late summer/early fall and persists on the trees well into winter.

While the cooler temperatures have brought us the first of the fall colors, this tree is not turning colors due to autumn.  The leaves on this tree appear this way because of a condition called bacterial leaf scorch, or as it is sometimes called, marginal leaf burn. There are multiple causes of this ailment, including lack of moisture in the soil, damage to the roots (reducing water take-up), transpiration rates greater than moisture entering the plants, or if fungi/bacteria invade and plug the xylem (water conducting vessels) of the plant.  In oak trees like this one, the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa is one of the living organisms found to cause leaf scorching, and can be spread by insects such as leafhoppers and spittle bugs. This condition starts to show in mid to late summer on the lower/inner branches of the oaks. It causes the leaf margins (edges) to turn brown, followed by a wavy, reddish-brown band that may develop between the brown margin and the green leaf center along the veins.  The result is quite beautiful, but unfortunately, it will likely kill the tree.

Although many trees are on their way to being dormant for the season, other plants are just beginning to thrive, like this common haircap moss. The plants of the moss family tend to prefer damp, shady, and/or cool locations, so the forest floor in fall is the perfect place to find them! Tea made from this moss was important historically for its capability of dissolving kidney and gall bladder stones. Rumor has it the tea also strengthens ladies' hair and makes it beautiful, which is where the name haircap comes from.

Autumn is, in my opinion, the best time of the year to get outside and take a walk! Go enjoy a stroll through the cool, shaded forests of Minnesota. The environment around you is quickly and visibly changing - each day bringing us something new to behold. You wouldn't want to miss it.


"Autumn is a second spring, when every leaf is a flower"

- Albert Camus

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Posted by on in Environmental Stewardship

For the first time, all six of my kids will be going to school. With two in high school, one in Jr. high and three in elementary school, I'm looking at a huge back to school shopping spree. I talked with my wife and there are plans to head down to St. Cloud (a larger city in Central Minnesota that has a Chipotle's (awww yiss!)). The plan is to swoop into the many quality thrift shops to fill out our kids shopping list (and then eat burritos).

Not a bad plan. Shopping at thrift stores is a great way to shorten the loop. But I read something the other day that makes our day trip down to St. Cloud look like a drop in the bucket. You see, the average US family will be spending almost $700 in back to school shopping this coming year. That's money that will be spent on new books, nose tissues, pencils, clothes, backpacks, and all the other necessary materials to set kids on the studious and straight path. With an expected 50 million plus children entering the school system this year, that adds up to a LOT of crayons.b2ap3_thumbnail_935283_10201244124966785_199748450_n.jpg

However, I was curious to how parents were spending their back to school budgets. Were they just going to the big box store? Reusing from last year? I went to our friendly neighborhood Google search. What I found out wasn't too surprising.

Over 69% of school shoppers will be using online stores to fill out their kids material sheets. And 72% of that group state they are choosing online stores that have free shipping, 71% if they have sales, and 68% if they accept coupons. There's probably some Venn diagram that would show this, but I'm not sure a store that would fill all three metrics exists.

On top of that, a cursory glance at the top qualifiers to a "Back to School" Google search indicate that price is the number one concern. "Cheap", "coupon", and "sale" accompany the search more than any other qualifier. Think about that. These qualifiers are used more than "backpack", "WalMart", and surprisingly, even "Rodney Dangerfield".

So, what does this mean? Wanting to save money is not a new thing, especially in these difficult economic times. I think that what it shows us is people are moving away from what has been a traditional tried-and-true method of shopping; the idea that using what you have and only buying when you absolutely need to is giving way to the buy whats on the list at the least expensive way possible. Is this a consequence of smaller school budgets (and therefore fewer supplies donated by the school) or possibly because of lower quality products being cheaply made, (and therefore forcing families to repurchase every year).

b2ap3_thumbnail_3383286713_22b7ac8efb_m.jpgEither possibility aside, the best way to save money is to only buy when you need to. Nothing is cheaper than being already owned. So, here's a few tips that will make your school shopping trip a quick and inexpensive one.

1) Know what you have. Take inventory. If you already have several boxes of pencils, tissues, or loose-leaf paper, then make sure to use that first!

2) Buy clothing that can last the year. For instance, sun dresses work very well in all climates and seasons when paired with leggings or cardigans.

3) Be willing to pack your own lunch. Hot lunches have been increasing in cost (and to be honest have been decreasing in value). Cooking a large meal and freezing many lunch size portions for future use is a great way to stretch a budget and an even better way to know for sure what your child is eating.

Going back to school doesn't have to hurt...the students. (I know that I look forward to them being forced out of the house as early as the fourth of July.) There doesn't have to be mutually exclusive pairing between shopping local and saving money. You just have to plan ahead.

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Posted by on in Environmental Stewardship

Yesterday, some of the staff ventured out on yet another thrilling phenology walk!  In case you weren't able to join us, or even if you were there and already need a refresher, here is a little re-cap of what we discovered.


Our walk began with some new flower faces for us to identify along the edge of the woods.  We found some Prairie Coneflowers (Ratibida columnifera) and a Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum), both native perennials in the Aster family (above, left and right respectively). The prairie coneflower is identifiable by its droopy, bright yellow, notch-tipped petals around a thimble-shaped cone. The elongated cone and shorter height (1-3 feet) make it different from the gray-headed coneflower, which looks very similar.  The cup plant is identifiable by its large, lance-shaped leaves that unite at the base to form a cup around the stem, hence the name.  These cups often fill with rainwater, which is used by many animals, including birds and tree frogs. Also along the forest edge was some flowering Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), a native perennial grass (below) with roots that can grow 10 feet into the soil! In addition to being a great soil stabilizer, big bluestem provides food for wildlife and livestock, habitat for birds and insects, and the Chippewa Indians used the root as a diuretic and to alleviate stomach pains.

We journeyed into the forest here on the HUG campus, which has recently been categorized according to the MN DNR Ecological Classification System (ECS), using smaller ecological units called Native Plant Communities (NPCs).  These units have a code name indicating general characteristics of the type of land.  For example, here on campus, our forests fall into two different NPCs, FDn33 (Northern Dry-Mesic Mixed Woodland) and FDc34 (Central Dry-Mesic Pine-Hardwood Forest). If you know how to read these codes, you can tell quite a bit about the landscape before ever even stepping foot on it.  The capital letters at the beginning indicate the type of ecological system, which in our forest, "FD" stands for fire dependent, indicating that historically crown and surface fires were common in these woodlands. The smaller letter in the middle indicates the floristic region of the state, so the "n" would be for northern and the "c" for central, telling us where in the state this system can be found. The two numbers at the end indicate the general moisture and nutrient levels (respectively), with 0 being the most dry and poorest in nutrients and 9 being the wettest and most nutrient rich environments.  So both of our NPC types here on campus are relatively dry and low in nutrients. While both forest types are dominated by red pine, white pine, quaking aspen, paper birch, jack pine and/or red pine, the FDn34 system seems to be differentiated by noticeably more northern red oak and bur oak, evident on our adventure through the woods!

Then we ran into a very interesting plant, Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), a native perennial in the, well, Indian Pipe family. This is a very unique forest plant identifiable by a single, waxy, white bell-like flower on a white stem. The white color indicates a lack of chlorophyll, meaning this plant does not photosynthesize and must rely on a mutually beneficial fungal relationship (mycorrhiza) to obtain nutrients from dead or decaying plant materials. Some believe that it may be parasitic, feasting off of, and eventually killing, living host plants. Because it does not need sunlight, it can often be found even in the shadiest areas of the forest floor.

Left: Rose hips - not ripe yet. Center: Inedible bush honeysuckle. Left: Edible chokecherry.

We also found quite a few plants with berries that were ripe & ready to eat! Although the wild blueberries have passed, you can still harvest some raspberries if you get out there soon! In the mix of the raspberries we found a wild rose plant, with unripe hips (fruits of rose plants).  All hips are edible, but they are very bitter and riddled with small, hard seeds. Our group passed right by the inedible berries of the bush honeysuckle and instead had a little tasting of some ripe chokecherry berries, which are very astringent when eaten raw. Apparently, they become more delicious in jellies, syrup, preserves, pies and wine. The pit, contains a toxic hydrocyanic acid, but this can be avoided by carefully not crushing the pits or by cooking the berries. Next we were able to sample some black cherries (below, left), which look very similar to chokecherries but can be distinguished by the fine, reddish hairs at the base of the midrib on the underside of the leaves.  These berries have the same hydrocyanic acid in their pits, so the same precautions should be taken.  Our berry tasting ended with some bunchberries (below, right)- round, bright red drupes growing in a cluster from the flower stalk, surrounded by a whorl of four to six leaves.  They can be eaten raw (good survival food to know!) or cooked into jam, jelly, or sauces.


And we were not the only ones eating what nature had to offer! We found quite a few piles of scat out there - one filled with seeds from berries (raccoon?), one filled with bones of small rodents and feathers from birds (fox?), and one filled with insect exoskeletons (sunk?)! Other nature signs we noted were the various kinds of oak gall present. We identified Oak Apple Gall (below, left) and Oak Bullet Gall (below, right), both growths caused by gall wasps of the Cynipidae family.  These wasps lay eggs in the tissue of oak during the fall and when spring comes, they cause an increased production of normal plant growth hormones, resulting in a large, swollen area of plant tissue. The larvae hatch inside the gall, which serves as a source of food and protection until the larva is ready to transform into an adult and chew its way. Although galls may have been growing since spring, they are not usually noticed until they are fully formed, so now is a good time to get out and find some galls.  The bullet gall is more common on bur oak and white oak, while the apple gall is more common on red oaks.


The weather for this weekend looks beautiful, so get outside and take a look at nature!  Grab up some delicious wild edibles while they last and before the wildlife get to them (but remember, NEVER eat anything you find unless you are absolutely sure that it is safe)! There are some signs that fall is already approaching... but we don't need to talk about those phenological records just yet. ;) Enjoy summer!

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