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Late-season mushrooms in the woods

A cluster of scaly-capped mushrooms (Pholiota) grow on a trunk of a birch tree. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
A growth of shaggy mane mushrooms (Coprinus) in a lawn on an October day. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

In October we continue to take note of Northland trees. The colorful leaf show that began and expanded through September reaches its finale during these days. After all the reds and yellows of the last several weeks, the drop from the trees is a showy exit. The curtain comes down for most of the arboreal neighbors at about the time we are in mid-month.

I always expect to walk in a yard shrouded with a yellow-red carpet at this time. The green grass visible for months is now buried. We usually rake and mow these leaves here, but the forest floor accepts this additional cover. Walking in the autumn woods, it is easy to overlook the forest because of the leaves. But much more is happening.

While walking and biking in recent days, I have noted that this leaf drop is only one of the autumn aspects. Along the road I scared up flocks of small birds, many of which were brown. These migrant sparrows were of several kinds. Maybe the most common were the gray juncos. Though not usually called a sparrow, juncos are in this group. Most of their body is gray, but when flying, white tail feathers can be seen. White-throated sparrows with a white patch by the chin are also quite common.

Others seen during my walk included song, Savannah, swamp, fox and Harris sparrows. The first half of October may be the best time of the year to see sparrow diversity. Also here was a large flock of southbound black birds. Most were grackles, but a few other species of blackbirds were present, too. They paused to feed on nearby seeds. Yellow-rumped warblers have been lingering in the yard. And here too, I've seen robins, thrushes and blue jays.

Migrants of another type are the red-bellied and garter snakes that I watched as they crossed the road, going towards a wintering site. And I was surprised to see a late monarch. Other butterflies out in the autumn are usually those that hibernate for the winter. One, the Milbert's tortoiseshell, is black and orange and is even called the October butterfly. At dusk, I have been observing big brown bats that still have not found a place for the winter, while the local chipmunks have already gone to their cold-weather dens.

While biking a few days ago, I passed three wildflowers still standing tall and in full bloom. Two sunflowers, sneezeweed and Maximilian's sunflower, were holding up large yellow blossoms while New England asters were filled with bright purple flowers. They appeared to be in no hurry to fade in the fall frosts.

Also seen along the trail was a cluster of late-season mushrooms. I stopped for a close look and identified these fungi as shaggy mane mushrooms (Coprinus). Stalks held up the bent-over caps, white with brown markings. Some were beginning to turn black, leading to their other name, inky caps. These mushrooms have the unusual ability to digest themselves, helping to spread the spores. After reaching maturity, there will be only a black spot where the mushrooms now grow. Another late-season fungus, stinkhorns, were growing in wood chips in the yard, while white meadow mushrooms (Agaricus) were in the lawn as well. Meadow mushrooms are cousins of some of the mushrooms that we can buy from stores.

I continued my walk in the woods. Yellows dominated the leaves in every direction. Though many of the sugar maples, oaks, hazels and aspen are still leafy and colorful, others like the poplar, birch and ash are devoid of their leaf crops. Soon nearly all of these trees will join the bareness as they also shed their foliage. I could see the leaf-drop right in front of me as the prevailing breeze brought them down. But on the base of the trees and some nearby logs, I found more mushrooms and other fungi still growing in this mild autumn forest.

Part of the way up on a trunk of a birch and oak, I located growths of scaly-cap mushrooms (Pholiota). The caps indeed did hold some roughness but were mostly a tan color. Clusters are common in fall and add more to the delightful sights of the woods. Lower, near the ground, I saw a few gray-brown honey mushrooms (Armillaria). These mushrooms will develop huge clusters some years, but with the limited moisture in this October, I find just a few. Logs on the forest floor held ripening puffballs that have been forming all summer. And at one site on a birch log, I found a growth of the beautiful tiny orange-red eyelash fungi.

Whether it is on tree trunks, logs or in the lawns and roadsides, there are still some late-season fungi that can be seen among all the fall foliage during these autumn days, inviting us for a pleasant fall woods walk.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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