Nature Blog

Ripples 8/6/20

Written by Isabella Scheibl, summer intern for Woodland Dunes

Almost any avid nature enthusiasts will tell you that every trip into the woods can be an adventure. Any adventure can also turn into an opportunity to learn. My trips into the woods as a land management intern are no exception.

At the start of the summer, my coworkers and I noticed some blue-green colored logs along our route. They were in various stages of rot as is expected of wood on a damp forest floor. However, all our subjects of interest blatantly featured the same exact blue-green shade. We saw this coloration in patches on wood such as cedar and birch that would not normally be that color even as they deteriorated. We were left to wonder, is the discolored wood a natural phenomenon, or is it the left-over spray paint of an aggressive trail blazer from ages past? On one hand, it seemed present only on dead trees, which led half of us to think that it had to do with the decomposition of the wood. On the other hand, the sparse distribution of the discoloration throughout the woods led the other half us to believe that it was the result of anthropogenic forces.

There was only one way to settle the ongoing debate. When in doubt, research it out. We soon learned that Chlorociboria, or green stain fungus caused what we saw. This cup fungus is typically manifested in temperate forests with hardwood and conifer trees. There are occasionally small cup-like bodies that grow from the decomposed wood, however they are rare. The green stain that we saw is a much more common occurrence and is the signature trademark of the organism. The color alteration of the wood is caused by xylindein, a quinone pigment, which the fungus possesses. The unique green stained wood that the fungus creates has been highly prized in some parts of the world. Wood stained by this fungus is present in artifacts from as far back as the 15th century.

In the United States, there are two species of green stain fungus that can only be distinguished microscopically by the size of their ascospores. Those of Chlorociboria aeruginosa are slightly larger than that of C. aeruginascens. A fungal ascospore is created in the ascus for the purpose of reproduction. When conditions are optimal, eight ascospores will be released. Although this entire process takes place on rotted wood, neither of the Chlorociboria species is officially considered wood decay fungi. However, it is possible that they do have some minute erosive effects on the cell walls in the wood they colonize.

Once we all realized that a fungus juice stain duped us into thinking that a graffiti artist had gone rouge in the forest, we were slightly disconcerted as to how we had so creatively reasoned out what we had seen. However, all is well that ends well. Our imaginative minds eventually led us to the discovery of green stain fungus, another fascinating component of the woods, and there is no better ending to a story then that.

photo by Isabella Scheibl

Ripples 7/30/20

Ripples from the Dunes, written by Sydney Herman, Woodland Dunes summer education intern. photo of comet Neowise

The night sky has always fascinated me. The infinite black blanket of glittering stars and shining planets remind me that the universe is a lot wider and vast than I think. A summer pastime of mine is looking up at the stars and outlining constellations. This summer, my view has been augmented by the appearance of C/2020 F3, or Comet NEOWISE.

A comet’s name typically originates from the discoverer, which could either be a person or spacecraft, and in the case of Comet NEOWISE, it was detected by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission. The comet’s proximity to the sun alerted the NEOWISE mission on March 27, 2020. 

Comet NEOWISE has temporarily graced our sky with its presence.  My geology professor imaginatively refers to comets as “dirty snowballs with tails” and that is a rather accurate way to describe them. Comets essentially are a combination of various matter such as frozen gases, rock, dust, and ice forged as a result of the formation of our solar system. These frozen snowballs follow an orbit, similar to planets, but are more elliptical in shape. When a comet approaches the sun, it heats up and causes some of the dust and ice to cascade behind and form a tail that can stretch on for millions of miles. 

While gliding in a pontoon boat along the West Twin River on a bat survey in mid-July, I had the opportunity to see Comet NEOWISE in its element. Comets can be difficult to perceive with the naked eye depending on how far away it is from Earth, but luckily skywatchers of the Northern Hemisphere have the ability to watch for Comet NEOWISE as it makes its way through our solar system. Interestingly, it will not be visible from Earth for another 6,766 years! 

While Comet NEOWISE is visible in our area, I highly recommend taking a step outside and scanning the night sky at approximately 10:00pm. I have found the most success standing in places with less or shorter trees because the comet tends to hang low in the sky. It is also beneficial to gaze in a spot that is free from light. The best way to find Comet NEOWISE is to first locate the big dipper in the sky. With the big dipper in sight, look to the right and below the point of the big dipper, this is where Comet NEOWISE resides. It may be difficult to see with just your eyes, but if you don’t look directly at the comet, your eyes should adjust until you can focus on the bright light followed by a dim tail. For an even better view of the comet, try using binoculars or a camera lens to capture it. 

Don’t miss out on this once in a lifetime opportunity to witness Comet NEOWISE in its orbit!

Photo taken by William Herman
Information supplemented from nasa.gov <http://nasa.gov> .

Ripples 7/23/20

Written by Woodland Dunes intern, Sydney Herman

This past spring, rocks just outside of my window became a jungle gym for nine furry friends.fox kits playing

I am usually at college during this bountiful season; however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was to continue my education online from the makeshift school desk of a spare room in my house. If you readers are anything like me, you probably get tired of looking at a screen all day and need a break from the constant glow of blue light emitted from laptops or phones. In between my obligations of classwork, I would sit in my living room and watch the occasional bird fly by or wandering squirrel. During one particular screen-break, my dad and I saw an adult red fox lapping up water from the bird bath. We didn’t think much of it at the time because our backyard is a common stomping ground for many animals like white-tailed deer, woodchucks, skunks, turkeys, squirrels, and other woodland creatures. 

A week after the first encounter, I was looking outside of my bedroom window and I saw an adult fox on a pile of rocks, only this time it was not alone! The red fox was accompanied by three small fox kits, young enough to still have their brown fur. Red foxes are actually born with a brown or gray coat and once they reach at least a month old, their coat will turn the recognizable red. 

My house happens to sit on a ridge of massive rocks, which give rise to many cracks and spaces for wildlife to live. While watching the foxes outside of my window, I noticed that they utilized a pile of rocks and connecting cracks as a den for the season. Foxes typically dig out their own tunnels for their burrow; however, they can use preexisting structures like rock piles. 

Throughout the spring, I continued to check outside of my house windows for any signs of foxes. Foxes are primarily nocturnal, therefore, I would usually see more activity at dusk than midday. One early morning, I saw nine kits crawling and chasing each other on the rocks.  

While my classes were wrapping up in early May, the young kits had finally grown into their red fur coats and were still hanging around their den. They were still very active and pouncing on each other; however, it wasn’t long until the foxes moved on and vacated the area. 

Only 3 weeks ago did I see a fox reappear in my backyard! It did not look old enough to be an adult so it must be from the litter that had lived next door. Every couple of days, I would happen to see a fox or two napping on a rock, playing with an old bone, and dragging a rabbit across my backyard. 

It was very exciting to see wildlife prosper outside of my own windows. It is easy to forget about our natural neighbors while so much is going on around us, but I hope to continue to take time out of my day to observe the outdoors. 

For a time where everything was put on hold in the world, it was refreshing to see a fox family grow and continue on without pause. 

Photo: Red foxes taken by Alexandra Brendemuehl

Ripples 7/17/20

By Ariana Zimney, Summer Intern for Woodland Dunes

Mud, Glorious Mud! 

One activity that I wish didn’t go out of style for “big kids” is playing in the mud. Mud is wonderful! I recall many times when my sister and I would spend hours playing in the mud in my backyard, and in turn, drag it back into the house. It’s a great way for children, or people of all ages, to play and learn from.

But what is mud? It’s more than just dirt and water mixed into a great substance. It’s a plethora of unique and special ingredients. While water and dirt are the main ingredients, loam and silt, soils composed mostly of sand, regularly end up in your mud creations. These two added ingredients help make the mud stickier and thicker. However, what can you make from some serious mud? Well, plenty! Mud-brick buildings are built around the world and include houses, apartment buildings, mosques, and churches. The Great Pyramid even had parts of it made out of mud for sturdiness and low combustibility. 

But, not only do humans use mud, but animals from all over the world use mud for various reasons – besides playing in. Elephants, for example, rub mud on them to regulate their body temperature. The mud acts as protection against sunburn and insects too.  Another animal that utilizes mud often is a wasp called the Mud Dauber. This wasp builds its nests out of the mud. And just in case, if you ever find yourself out in the mosquito-filled woods without repellent, rub some mud on you and the bugs should stay away.

Many marine animals and fish use mud to burrow into the muddy seabeds as well. This in turn churns them and allows the exchange and cycling of oxygen, nitrogen, and other minerals to mix between the water and the now upturned sediment. The animals and fish are provided a special habitat and opportunities for feeding on these burrows while the water can receive upturn. 

While mud can be beautiful, helpful, and fun it can also be dangerous. Landslides (or mudslides) cause harmful events around the world. These landslides normally occur when water rapidly accumulates in the ground and results in a surge of water-saturated rock, earth, and debris. But with proper precautions, such as strongly rooted vegetation that can help keep loose soil from running down hillsides, these natural occurrences can be avoided or reduced.

So the next time your children, grandchildren, or you go outside to play in the mud, remember just how special this mixture is. It’s full of rich minerals, it’s home and shelter to many animals, and has built cities all around the world. But, perhaps the most exciting part about mud is when it’s time to play outside and get messy! 

Photo of mud by author

 

Ripples 7/9/20

Written by Kennedy Zittel, Woodland Dunes summer intern

As many children have done, when I was younger, I often looked to the sky to see what shapes the clouds were forming. With a photo of whispy cloudslittle imagination, the clouds can transform into dragons, bunnies, cars, and even faces. As someone who has been described as having “my head in the clouds,” I still find myself looking into the sky with curiosity as I did when I was young.

Stopping to look at nature not only around us but also above us is a good way to let our minds wander and body relax. Thousands of feet above our head clouds frequently go unnoticed unless we’re looking for shade or looking to see what the upcoming weather might be. When we think of the word “cloud” often the white fluffy clouds that we all drew as children on our art projects come to mind, but there are roughly ten different types of clouds that can occur depending on the weather.

Speaking of the fluffy clouds that we drew as children, occurring on calm days those fluffy clouds are known as cumulus clouds. If the day can be described as “dreary,” it is likely that the low and flat clouds covering the sun are stratus clouds. A combination of the two are known as stratocumulus clouds.

Occurring on humid days and called “sheep backs,” altocumulus clouds look like fluffy herds of sheep in the sky. If you go to grab an umbrella, it’s likely that you saw a nimbostratus cloud as these are the dark clouds that lead to rain (or snow!). On days where a warm front will be rolling in the blue-gray clouds known as the altostratus clouds will begin to cover the sky.

Latin for “curl of hair” and covering the sky in thin wisps, cirrus clouds will appear in calm weather. Cirrocumulus clouds made of ice crystals can be seen forming as a sea of ripples across the sky on “warmer” winter days. Occurring when there are large amounts of moisture in the air, the cirrostratus cloud forms a halo of light around the moon or sun and make for very beautiful pictures.

photo of whispy clouds horizontallyAnd as of lately, we’ve become familiar with these clouds – known as thunderstorm clouds, the cumulonimbus clouds are large and fluffy (similar to cumulus) but create large dark towers within the sky. These clouds indicate severe weather, so if you see these you might want to rethink being outside for a bit!

Coming in many different shapes and sizes and offering a unique view every single day clouds are nature’s way of telling us what the weather will be like. Looking up at the clouds is not only a fun activity that can be done by children (including myself and hopefully you, too), but can also help us be prepared for what the day might bring. I know that regardless of what I’m supposed to be doing, I’ll find myself looking up at the clouds hoping to see new shapes within them. I hope you take the time to stop and let your brain wander and creativity to flourish as you too find the shapes within the sky.  

Images by Kennedy Zittel