Wild Ideas: Funky fungus, magnificent millipede and more

In the past few weeks, I’ve had interesting encounters with some amazing fungi, a magnificent millipede, a snapping turtle that mysteriously disappeared and some finicky orchids.

Funky and bodacious fungi

A 7.5 inch dryad's saddle mushroom, also known as pheasant-back mushroom or hawk’s wing, blooms over a smaller one on a rotted stump. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
A 7.5 inch dryad’s saddle mushroom, also known as pheasant-back mushroom or hawk’s wing, blooms over a smaller one on a rotted stump.

Recently my landlady tipped me to a bodacious mushroom growing in a rotted stump along our “Spring Road,” the first mushroom that has appeared there this spring. I went with my camera and found that the largest of the mushrooms, which has cream-colored caps speckled with brown, measured 7.5 inches and grew above a smaller one. Another, medium-sized one was on the other side of the stump. Over the next few days, probably thanks to recent rains, more blooms appeared on the stump.

Resembling some weird sea creature, this cedar-apple rust fungus was growing on an eastern red cedar.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Resembling some weird sea creature, this cedar-apple rust fungus was growing on an eastern red cedar.

I’d never noticed this mushroom species before and so couldn’t identify it, so I posted a photo of the largest one to the Central Virginia Mushroom Hunters Facebook page. Two other members quickly responded with the ID: dryad’s saddle (Polyporus squamosus). Two other common names better reflect its appearance: pheasant-back mushroom and hawk’s wing.

According to Mushroom-collecting.com, one of my favorite websites for fungus information, this edible mushroom gets a bad rap because of its bland flavor, but the site says it’s all about picking it young and preparing it the right way. (See the site for more info on both.) I prefer to stick to just admiring and photographing mushrooms and will stick to my usual rule about eating one I don’t know well: watch an expert do it first.

I found a weirder fungus on the eastern red cedar growing at the edge of my yard. Looking like some kind of weird sea creature with fleshy orange tentacles, it turned out to be cedar-apple rust (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae), which parasitizes cedar and apple trees and their relatives. I’m definitely not eating that fungus, period.

Magnificent millipede

Despite the recent dark, rainy weather on Oventop Mountain, this large, brightly colored millipede, Apheloria virginiensis corrugate, easily stood out.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Despite the recent dark, rainy weather on Oventop Mountain, this large, brightly colored millipede, Apheloria virginiensis corrugate, easily stood out.

My next interesting encounter, was along the trail going up to the pond in the forest above my house. I narrowly missed stepping on it: a spectacular, two-inch-long millipede. Its bright coloring — black segments edged in orange and yellow, and bright yellow legs — caught my eye just in time. After admiring this fascinating invertebrate for a few minutes and taking some photos, I went home and googled the description. I found out it was a flat-back millipede, Apheloria virginiensis corrugate, which has no common name. I’m thinking “Halloween millipede” would fit.

Another, less shy but less brightly colored millipede.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Another, less shy but less brightly colored millipede.

The millipede’s aposematic coloration — distinct colors and markings that contrast with the natural background — signals, as with many species, that it can be dangerous. According to the Astronomy to Zoology website, when threatened or mishandled, it can secret a compound that contains cyanide. But, that compound “is nontoxic to humans and only discolors the skin,” the site adds. The one I saw was about at the maximum size listed for this species.

While I avoided touching the millipede, having long ago learned the hard way that any wildlife can be dangerous, I picked up the leaf it was on and moved it around to try to get a shot of the critter’s head. But it was either busy looking for food or shy, tucking its head into the leaf, so its feathery antennae and face hardly showed.

A few days later, I found another of these species whose colors were not quite as intense but who was also not quite as shy. I photographed this one it as it moved through the detritus on the floor, showing no awareness or concern about my presence.

Disappearing snapping turtle

A young snapping turtle that had fallen into an old concrete trout tank on Oventop Mountain is hard to discern among the fallen leaves and other debris in the tank.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
A young snapping turtle that had fallen into an old concrete trout tank on Oventop Mountain is hard to discern among the fallen leaves and other debris in the tank.

Around the same time as I found the millipede, I also found a young snapping turtle in a crumbling concrete trout tank just below the pond above my house. The turtle’s shell was about one-foot long. I figured the only way it could have gotten into the tank was to have fallen from the bank above it. Now it had no way out. The tank, which only holds about a foot or so of water these days, was full of wood frog tadpoles and spotted-salamander eggs and larvae, which may have drawn the turtle to it.

We stared at each other while I took a few photos. The tank is about 40 feet long and maybe 15 feet across. Beneath the water is at least several inches of dead, rotting leaves, mud and other muck, so it’s a bit difficult to navigate. I also wanted to get more photos, and that would be easier with the turtle out of the tank, so I enlisted the help of my landlords’ grandson, Aaron, planning to go back up the next day. When we did, we could find no sign of the turtle.

With no way to get out on its own that I could find, I thought it must be hiding under the muck, maybe had been injured, and perhaps died there. Or, as a long shot, some big predator had eaten it. In checking the tank every day since then, I still found no sign of the turtle, nor of the tadpoles. Had the reptile survived by eating all the larvae, or had the cold, rainy weather just driven the tadpoles to shelter under the muck? The water certainly looked clearer after the recent heavy rains.

Finicky orchid

After the rare treat of being shown some showy orchis along a trail in Shenandoah National Park recently (see my April 28 column), I was amazed to find some here where I live — again along the trail to the upper pond, near the trout tank in which I found the snapping turtle. As I mentioned in the column, these wildflowers are hard to find, but I found seven were in various stages of blooming on either side of the trail.

Just after my find, I visited Bruce Jones to see the spring ephemerals, including pink and yellow ladyslippers, that were blooming on his property, now the Jones Nature Preserve. Bruce mentioned how hard it was to predict where orchids would come up — one year they are in one place, the next year, another, for no apparent reason.

Perhaps the ones where I live popped up because the forest where they are now blooming is starting to recover from logging that was done there 10 years ago. I’ve been seeing other changes as the forest canopy continues to close over, changing areas that had been in the sun to shade, which also has changed the plants and animals I find there.

© 2016 Pam Owen

StreamSweepers: ISO strong young adults to clean up rivers

Rappahannock resident Kira Lander helps haul huge tires out of the Rapidan River during last year’s cleanup by StreamSweepers, a program now hiring young adults for river cleanup this summer.Courtesy photo
Rappahannock resident Kira Lander helps haul huge tires out of the Rapidan River during last year’s cleanup by StreamSweepers, a program now hiring young adults for river cleanup this summer.

StreamSweepers is hiring young adults (at least 18 years old) to provide eco-assessment and stream-cleaning services in Orange, Greene, Madison, Culpeper, Rappahannock and Spotsylvania Counties on the Rapidan, Robinson and Hughes Rivers during June, July and August.

Applicants must have their own transportation and be comfortable in and around moving water and enjoy outdoor challenges, according to program director Debbi Manazari. Previous canoeing or boating experience is a plus. The organization is “looking for prompt and team-oriented individuals . . . to participate in one of the toughest and most rewarding jobs around,” says Manzari.

Employees will receive paid training in eco-assessment protocol, basic field first aid, GPS data entry, mapping skills and business entrepreneurship. Those interested should send an email detailing their interests and qualifications to debbie@naturalcapital.us.

StreamSweepers is a program of the nonprofit Center for Natural Capital, based in Orange. According to the program literature, StreamSweepers has already cleaned more than 100 miles of river, including the entire Rapidan River and most of the Robinson River. It serves as a “bridge between youth camps and clubs and successful adult employment” and “shows our young adults how to create a positive future through meaningful work.”

Along with cleaners, the organization is looking for landowners along the Hughes who will allow access to the river during the cleanup and can help spread the word to their neighbors, and also donors to help with expenses. For more information, contact StreamSweepers at 540-672-2542 or debbie@naturalcapital.us, or go online to streamsweepers.org.

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