Sunday, March 3, 2019

My Granary Tree, says the Woodpecker to the Squirrel

When a tree becomes ill, insects move in and start eating the tree. These insects are a major food for woodpeckers, indeed, they are the reason for the common name associated with this group of birds. They don't just eat insects, they also eat acorns. So do squirrels eat acorns. Hence the problem: how can woodpeckers store acorns so squirrels cannot get them?

The answer is something called a "Granary Tree". The bird finds a rotting section of tree, branch, or even exposed root, and pecks a hole into it just large enough to accept an acorn. Then, in the Fall, fill the holes with one acorn each, with the big, blunt, hard to grab end of the acorn facing out. Paws are not going to really help getting this slippery rounded thing out of a hole. Hence acorns stored like this tend to not be obtainable by squirrels. Woodpeckers just peck out the blunt end and eat the seed when they need it.

Here is one example from Rocklin, California earlier today:

That doesn't mean the granary trees don't get guarded... My son seems to have flushed a squirrel into a tree and in fact into a granary area, resulting in the squirrel hunkering down and enduring a dive-bombing and pecking by the woodpecker so calmly seen in the photo above. After a minute or two, I had to remove my son from the area to allow the squirrel to escape, as the woodpecker seemed to have attracted reinforcements that were joining the fracas.

Here is the woodpecker beginning to chase the squirrel:

Followed by squirrel hair collection activities by the same bird:

Food is serious business.

My son summarizes this much more succinctly: "The woodpecker is attacking the squirrel and then it is trying to knock the squirrel off the tree. And if the squirrel is knocked off the tree, maybe I can catch it [Editor/Dad's note - nope!]. And that is my blog post."

Saturday, March 2, 2019

How much Corona Discharge should be visible on PG&E (?) Transmission Lines?

Here is a neat trick to try on a moonless night - get a modern digital camera, a tripod, and a telephoto lens. Put the camera on the tripod, set the lens to a wide aperture (such as f/3 or whatever the lowest number happens to be for the lens you have), set the camera to its highest ISO setting, and take a 15 second or so exposure focused on the power line or the insulators supporting it on towers.

Look at the insulator - there are glowing purple blobs! This is on a 220-287 thousand volt transmission line near my home. I was trying to photograph the bioluminescence of Omphalotus mushrooms, but they appeared to not be in the mood, so I was looking for other things that might be interesting. I had seen a photo of power lines where the wires were all glowing purple, and thought that was what I would get from this method. Instead, it looks to me like the insulator is having a problem.

The purple blobs are ionized gas, in this case a form of plasma called "Corona Discharge". I cannot seem to find any information on how much should be visible on insulators, though what I have found would indicate that "very little" is expected on this type of insulating support.

Any time you are near high voltage wires and hear the crackling, buzzing sound typical of power lines, corona discharge is usually part of the sound generation. I never bothered looking to see where it was specifically being generated before, and was surprised that essentially the only stuff I could see was on the supporting insulators.

Corona discharge, in addition to eventually leading to the failure of insulators (hmm - I recall I live in PG&E territory - wonder if that's relevant), is the way power lines make ground level ozone and nitrogen oxides, neither of which are good for people.

It goes to show, keep your eyes open and you can see the unexpected in ordinary places!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Snow Day among Redwoods!

It snowed overnight! Not enough to sled (that hasn't happened since 2004 at our home), but enough to make snowballs, crunch around in, and add a rare artistic touch to this fog forest! The view towards the ocean from our front deck was priceless:

Now, I admit to being biased - however, the San Francisco Chronicle ran it on their homepage for a while today...

I don't think any photo of mine has had such a great venue before!

Ah, but to important questions: What to do with snow?

For starters, eat it! Find clean snow that is not the layer directly in contact with whatever it has collected on. Collect clean snow away from sources of contamination, such as chimneys, trees, and roadways. My son has this to say about the uses of snow: "We made it into snow cones that had Lingon and Blaubeeren in it and we ate it. Then we made more. And, then, the snow melted that we had brought in but not yet eaten. I hope you have a good day. Some day when it snows a lot I want to invite friends over to collect and eat snow. Be happy and have fun!"

Also explore, climb your favorite tree, make snowballs, throw snowballs, and generally enjoy!

Friday, January 25, 2019

Candycaps Arrive - the Mushroom that tastes like Maple Syrup

Lactarius fragilis, Lactarius camphoratus, and Lactarius rubidus are all commonly called "Candycap" mushrooms. These are the only mushrooms I've ever used to flavor cookies. They grow under oak trees in coastal California during the cooler months - at the coast they can occasionally be found year-round.

One of the trails through our farm is named for them - the Candycap Trail.

Last night, these tiny sources of joy made their seasonal appearance in our yard for the first time since the rains started three months ago!

Definitely not a mushroom to start with - there are several toxic ones that look similar. Go on a local foray led by a mycological society to get a proper introduction. David Arora's masterwork, Mushrooms Demystified, would be an excellent book to start with to get a sense of these tiny orange joys.

If you pan fry fresh ones in hot oil until a bit crispy, they have a vaguely bacon-like flavor that works well in many dishes where bacon would be appreciated. If you dry them, the flavor and fragrance intensify. If you eat them, you will smell faintly of them for a few days - don't be surprised!

We air dry them slowly (not in a dehydrator) to preserve the aroma, then powder them just before cooking. You can add the powder to any shortbread cookie recipe to impart a flavor that is very close to Maple Syrup.

My son says "Come see Candycaps and find them with us. If you find some, we can come down and see what kind of candycaps you have found. Candycap trail is a good place to look. If you happen to find a puffball, we have to keep that. If you find a Butter Bolete they are good too. Thank you for reading our blog."

Our property (less than 10 acres) often produces ten or twenty pounds of these over the course of the season, making them in some years our most abundant edible. If you live in the Bay Area, there are lots to be found and collected legally at Point Reyes Seashore (the trails leading away from the visitor's center are often good, though finding them depends on how many other folks went looking before you and whether they are even coming up).

Monday, January 21, 2019

Mushrooms that don't look like Mushrooms

Not all mushrooms look like Toadstools - a rounded cap atop a short stem.

The ones that do not are exceptionally varied - from fractal fantasies to migrating blobs that actually wander around before settling in to make spores to other forms to varied to trivially describe.

My son and I have been dealing with the almost total absence of Boletes this year (not a single Butter Bolete or edulis this year!). Fortunately, other species are doing well - and some of them are quite amazing.

"Higher Fungi", the subkingdom Dikarya of the kingdom of Fungi, contains two large divisions, depending on how spores are made: Ascomycota with spores on a microscopic structure called an ascus (these are sort of like a bunch of spores in a straw, or peas in a pod, sort of arrangement), and Basidiomycota with spores on a microscopic basidium structure (generally a group of spores at the tip of a club-shaped structure, or spores arranged like fingers are arranged on a hand). Of commonly seen mushrooms in supermarkets, only Morels are in the Ascomycota.

Coral Fungi
These look like fractal forests and other fantastical forms. The spores are borne on the outside of the branches, not on gills under a rain shield (cap) as on the more commonly seen sorts of mushrooms. Even with that distinction, these are kin to the supermarket button mushroom, as the spores are borne on a structure called a basidium, making Coral Fungi members of the division Basidiomycota.

The Clavulina cristata shown above is common in our yard this time of year, usually with multiple flushes. Some local Coral Fungi are brightly colored, occasionally growing in clumps the size of cabbages. Generally similar looking species are in the genera Ramaria and Clavaria among others.

Cup Fungi
These are in the group Ascomycota, which bear their spores on a structure called an ascus. They are distant relatives of Morels, and often useful (in our yard at least) in indicating where we may wish to watch for Morels appearing later in the year (late Winter or early Spring, typically).

This showed up in our orchard compost pile, an erratically attended affair that has been idle for half a year. It appears to be a Peziza species, perhaps P. repanda, the Spreading Brown Cup Fungus.

A good resource for starting to explore the fungal diversity of California can be found here on MykoWeb.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Blueberries Too Tall to Pick - Pacific Madrone

The beautiful trees with the peeling bark are members of the Ericaceae, the Blueberry Family of plants. In fact, though not widely used, the berries are edible, even good. Why not go out and get some today? Well, the problem is that these are the high, high, highbush blueberries. The berries are often more than twenty feet above the ground, potentially as far as sixty feet up.

How do we get these, then?

Wait for a windy day. Stay inside. The day after the windy day, go for a walk among the madrones with a bag and no sense of urgency. The berries, often in entire clusters, often litter the forest floor.

There are few lookalikes, so make certain you know what you have gathered. Ilex plants are not native to California, but the Holly bushes are often planted as landscape and occasionally pop up even in undisturbed forest, and have red poisonous berries. Less problematic is the Toyon, a native member of the Rose family - nicknamed the Christmas Berry, which is just not as tasty.

To be certain, make certain all these traits are present:

  1. The berries have nubbly surfaces, sort of like the surface of a basketball - these are not smooth berries.
  2. The Madrone tree has evergreen leaves with smooth edges, and smooth reddish bark on younger branches and trunks.
  3. The berries are a quarter inch in diameter or smaller.

The first time collecting berries, it is best to go along with someone local who has experience gathering these. Foraging is best learned as an in-person and in-the-field sort of affair.

Once you have collected the berries, pick off stems, throw out the mushy or off-looking ones, and proceed to make jam or any number of things, or wash and just eat.


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Winter Apples: Cripps Pink, Braeburn, and Yellow Newton Pippin

We have had frost, gale force winds, and some solid Winter storms. These events tell me why these three apples are almost never commercially picked at their prime  - to do so might risk loss of part of the crop. As a result, I never had these apple varieties in their full glory until growing them here.

Braeburn (above) has now lost some of its tartness while becoming a richer, more aromatic, and much sweeter apple than it was in October. It is now a crunchy, juicy, sweet-tart joy to pluck from the cool evening air and bite into. In October it was a good apple. Today it is in its prime and is a great apple. This is my spouse's favorite among our Winter apples. Braeburn holds well on the tree.

Yellow Newton Pippin is now a rich yellow green with a deep glow in the low Winter sun. This is a crunchy, juicy, sweet-tart gem that now has a balance and a depth of aroma and flavor that was not fully developed earlier in the season. This is my favorite apple of the season; I am eating a few a day at this point and using very few for the juicer (note - in October, these produced a green juice that was slow, meaning 15 minutes, to brown; while now these produce a juice that is yellow-brown to start and much sweeter than the juice they made in October). My son also, narrowly, favors this apple.

Cripps Pink, a.k.a. Pink Lady, is a wonderful apple. They are normally more intensely colored than this one - this was put in a paper bag (as were many others) to keep critters from pecking them, the downside is that they do not color as strongly as the apples left in the sun. These are now "kid candy", very popular with our few young visitors and I've even caught our older kids eating these... They are crisp with a nice "snap" when bitten into, sweeter than the other two varieties above, with fewer aromatics than Braeburn or Yellow Newton Pippin, and a mild yet delightful flavor. These also juice very well.