2008-05-31 / Columnists

Nature Notes

Spring Brings the Return of Both Mushrooms and Mammals
By Patricia Martin

As I mentioned in last week's paper, I find that spring is quite an exciting time in the natural world, as things change so quickly; the spring flowers bursting forth and fading, to be replaced by laterblooming flowers, the appearance of some of the spring fungi, the return of migrating birds, and mammals, reptiles, and amphibians coming out of hibernation or semi-hibernation. These are all major shifts that deserve some mention, so in this column, I want to comment on some of the "sightings" that have occurred in the last couple of weeks.

First off, the trees are starting to break bud, and the leaves are starting to unfurl. The same can be said for the ferns, whose fronds, many of which have been up but in tight fiddle heads, are beginning to uncurl. The leaves of the trees and shrubs, and the fronds of the ferns are adding a beautiful verdant spring green to the woods. After their long slumber, they're saying, "Yes, we are alive." Almost anywhere on the interior of the Island, you can almost see the leaves growing, but I think the area I call Fern Way (the old North Bike Trail) is especially lovely (not to mention the Trillium and other spring flowers blooming there). In addition, a number of the shrubs and small trees are blooming in the woods. The bright white flowers of the service berry (Amelanchier sp.) contrast nicely with the purple/green of the new leaves. The pin and the choke cherries are also beginning to bloom.

Yellow morel Yellow morel The morels are out. A friend of mine told me of finding some over Memorial Day weekend. Morels are probably the best known, and most sought after of all the edible fungi. The various species produce fruit in the spring, and all of the true morels are edible. According to the experts, any morel-like fungi found in the summer or fall are most likely false morels, and should be avoided. If you're not familiar with morels, here is a brief description: The head, or brown top of the fungus, resembles a pinecone (they're sometimes referred to by that name). The top is actually the spore-bearing surface. On the true morel, the entire head is composed of ridges and pits. The false morels, on the other hand, have a wrinkled undulating head without distinct ridges and pits. Another important point is the attachment of the head to the stalk. In all the true morels (except Morchella semilibra), the head is attached directly to the stalk. In the case of false morels, the head hangs about the stalk in a skirt-like fashion, and is attached to the top of the stalk. For this reason, it's good to cut the morel lengthwise, so that you can check the attachment to make sure it's a true morel, and to make sure there are no insects in the hallow stem. It's a good idea to avoid the false morels, as some are edible, and some are not, and they're difficult to tell apart. As a former professor of mine once said, "All mushrooms are edible once" - so if you're not sure, don't eat them. Some books have indicated that there are five species of morels in North America, but most people I know usually just divide them into two groups, the yellow (sometimes called white), and black morels.

Woodchuck Woodchuck I've been asked frequently where and when to look for morels. Timing is always an issue. Depending on where you are in the country, you can find them from April to late July (in the Rocky Mountains). This year the morels on Mackinac have come up later than the last few years, primarily owing to a cooler and dryer spring. As to where to find them, that is always the question. The black morels, I've found in coniferous woods on the Island, and even under the porch of one cottage. The yellow, I've found once in my backyard, near the stump of an old apple tree, although never again; at the cemetery, (again, once); along State Road, and in people's yards (that's where my friend found his collection this Memorial Day weekend). I honestly have never found them in the exact same place twice, even though I always leave a few to spore in the area. I've always heard that old orchards are good places to look for the yellow morel.

Another interesting sighting was made by Clark Bloswick, assistant manager at the Mackinac Island State Park. When he spoke to me the other day, he told me that he had seen woodchucks (Marmota monax) not only on the slope near Arch Rock, where they've been seen before, but also by Devil's Kitchen. The woodchuck is the largest member of the squirrel family, weighing between five and 10 pounds. Their heavy, compact body is supported by stout, powerful legs. The front foot has four well-developed toes with long, slightly-curved claws, which are good for digging. I'm always surprised to see these animals on the steep slopes and rough rocky terrain, as they usually inhabit forests and areas of heavy brush, where they can dig a complicated burrow system, which can be 40 feet or more in length, and up to four feet deep. There are usually two or more entrances to the burrow, covered with vegetation to hide them. These burrows would be difficult to dig on the steep slopes of the Island's cliffs, so it would be interesting to find out where these woodchucks are living. One year, they were commonly seen along the East Bluff, and were found to be residing under a cottage. The first woodchuck that I ever saw on the Island was in the triangle made by Fort Holmes Road, near Point Lookout, where digging would not have been so difficult. These darkish, furry creatures spend most of their day during the summer eating green vegetation, and storing up fat so they can sleep through the long winter.

Keep an eye out for them, and other organisms of interest. With things changing so quickly, you never know what you might see.

Trish Martin is a yeararound resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master's degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn.

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