Morel Mushroom

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Morels are one of the most desired wild mushrooms in the world. They are not farmed like most grocery store mushrooms, but instead gathered in the wild.

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Their most identifiable characteristic is what’s typically described as a honeycomb-like exterior. I saw a few of these distinctive fungi recently while in Carter County, Kentucky.

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Despite their popularity as a food item, relatively little is known about this particular fungal complex or its lifestyle in the wild. What we call mushrooms are actually just the fruiting body of the organism.

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Most of a mushroom is threadlike like fine roots, and branches and burrows extensively through the soil or wood in a manner similar to the roots of plants.

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The roots (called a mycelium) spread underground for an indeterminate length of time – perhaps months or even several years – before they store enough food to produce a fruiting body – the actual mushroom.

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In the United States Morel Mushroom season generally lasts for about three weeks in April, which adds to the craze for mushroom hunters, as this delicacy can only be obtained for a limited time.

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Zebra Swallowtail

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This a butterfly that I see more-often-than-not when visiting Carter Caves, Kentucky.

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Its distinctive wing shape and long wing tails make it easy to identify; its black-and-white-striped pattern is reminiscent of a zebra.

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The main reason I don’t see Zebra Swallowtails very much on northeast Ohio (where I live) is that their caterpillars feed on Pawpaw (a southern tree) leaves, and are rarely found far from these trees.

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The adult butterflies feed on flower nectar and minerals from damp soil. They frequently congregate with other butterflies – in this case, a Red-spotted Purple. This behavior is known as “puddling.”

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The tongue of the Zebra Swallowtail is much shorter than other swallowtail butterflies, so they are attracted to shorter, flatter flowers rather than long, tube-shaped blooms.

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This is a “classic” American insect that I enjoy seeing when I am out and about.

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British Soldier Lichen

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This is a common and easy to identify lichen, found throughout the northeastern United States and into Canada. I encountered it while visiting Carter Caves, Kentucky.

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The little red fruiting structure of the lichens resemble the red hats worn by invading British troops during the American Revolutionary War; they give this lichen its common name.

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This composite organism is a mutualistic association between a fungus and green alga. In theory, the fungus receives sugars from the photosynthetic activities of the alga, while the alga receives some minerals and a safe place to live from the fungus.

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British Soldier Lichen prefers to grow on rotting wood and these examples were on decayinging wooden posts. It also is often found at the base of old tree stumps.

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These are among the most colorful of all lichens. Their bright red caps don’t form until the organism is at least 4 years old. They are extremely slow growing, only gaining 1-2 millimeters a year.

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“Back in the day” British Soldier Lichens were used to create pink dye for wool. These days it is often a colorful addition to terrariums.

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Eastern Fence Lizard

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This very cool reptile is the only non-skink native to my home state of Ohio. Although I have encountered them in the Buckeye State, they are much easier to find further south. I saw a few on my recent trip to Carter Caves, Kentucky.

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The Eastern Fence Lizard often uses trees as a way to evade capture and like a squirrel, staying on the opposite side of the tree that its pursuer is on.

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It found in much of the eastern United States and is somewhat general in its habitat, being found along forest edges (especially on hiking trails or where a field meets woodlands), rock piles, logs, grasslands, stumps and of course wooden fences.

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Eastern Fence Lizards belong to a family known as Spiny Lizards and have rough, pointed scales on their backs. Though they are generally earthtone in color, females have patterns of black bands on their backs, while males have patches of blue on their bellies and throats.

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Males ward off other males from their territories with displays of head-bobbing and push-ups; they will also flash the blue scales on their underbellies.

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Their main food is insects and other invertebrates. Within the past 70 years, Eastern Fence Lizards have evolved in parts of their range to have longer legs and new behaviors to escape non-native Fire Ants, which are capable of killing and eating reptiles.

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Wild Blue Phlox

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This species of flowering plant is native to forests and fields in eastern North America. I expect to see it in my home state of Ohio in a few weeks, but for now am enjoying it on my visit to Carter Caves, Kentucky.

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Wild Blue Phlox is a woodland species that resides in forests, fields and along streams. It has loose clusters of slightly fragrant, tubular, lilac-to-rose-to-blue flowers with five, flat, notched, petal-like lobes that appear at the stem tips in Spring.

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Its blooms attract butterflies (Swallowtails, Grey Hairstreaks and Pygmy Blues), clearwing moths and hummingbirds.

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This plant can form large colonies as the weak stems flop over and root at the nodes. It then disappears in mid-summer after flowering dropping seeds.

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The genus name, Phlox, is derived from the Greek word for flame in reference to its bright flowers. This plant is also known as Woodland Phlox and Wild Sweet William.

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Cave Orb Weaver

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While visiting Carter Caves, Kentucky I frequently encounter this creature in the caverns. This species is found mainly in caves in the eastern United States and southeastern Canada. Spiders are adaptable creatures and man-made habitats such as cellars can also serve as habitat for these eight-legged beings.

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Cave Orb Weavers belong to the family Tetragnathidae – commonly called Long-jawed Orb Weavers – but they lack the huge, serrated jaws and elongated bodies and legs that characterize their nearest relatives. As with many spiders, the males this species are considerably smaller than the females.

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Life in a cave has some obvious and distinct differences from the environment surrounding it, such as constant darkness, cool temperatures and limited resources. One way the Cave Orb Weavers deal with this is to build their webs by the lights installed in the cave systems. This attracts insects, provides light and creates warmth.

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Rather than residing in the dark depths of caves, Cave Orb Weavers tend to build their webs in near the entrances and in the “twilight zones” of caves. They often sit on the edge of their web, rather than resting in the center. Cave life is a poorly studied topic, and there is still much to learn about these mysterious arachnids.

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Tri-colored Bat

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When exploring Carter Caves, Kentucky, we came across a few examples of one of the smallest bats in the land; it can easily be mistaken for a large moth in flight.

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The Tri-colored Bat’s forearms are pinkish and its wing membrane is black. Its ears are longer than they are wide. With a weight of about one fifth of an ounce, it is roughly the same heaviness as a quarter.

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They prefer to live in open forest areas that are near a source of water in the Summer. Tri-colored Bats are among the first bats to emerge in the evening and can been seen flying about foraging for insects. Because of their small size, they are limited to small prey less than half an inch in length. One study recorded a Tri-colored Bat catching an insect every two seconds.

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This mammal is classified as a cave-dwelling bat. In the Winter, it can be found in caves, mines, and rock crevices. While they are known for keeping down mosquito populations, Tri-colored Bats also have important agricultural value, since they also eat grain moths and beetles emerging from corn cribs.

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I don’t get to see bats “up close and personal” all that often, so encountering one of them is a great part of the spelunking experience.

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Valley Garter Snake

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While on my visit to California I found a couple examples of this “lifer” reptile that is a subspecies of the Common Garter Snake.

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This snake is seldom found far from permanent water where it resides in riparian habitat along streams and floodplains and around ponds and marshy areas. I found my specimens in a flooded ditch.

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Valley Garter Snakes are active during the daytime and usually found from April through September. They eat a range of food items, including fish, frogs, mice, earthworms, slugs and leeches.

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Like most Garter Snakes native to the United States, the Valley Garter Snake it is brown to black with three yellow stripes: One stripe down the back and one on each side.

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Valley Garter Snakes breed in the spring, soon after emerging from hibernation. Females typically give birth to 5 to 40 live young in July or August. The young are 7 to 8 inches in length at birth.

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This species is the most frequently encountered snake in most parts of its range and adapts well to human modification of the landscape. Despite being common and having wide range, I was thrilled to come across them in the wild.

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Sequoia

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While visiting Yosemite National Park in April, I walked a mile through the snow to have my first-ever encounter with these massive trees.

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This species is the largest known tree on earth and grow only on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada at elevations between 4,500 to 7,000 feet. Found nowhere else on the planet, they are closely related to California’s Coast Redwoods – the tallest trees in the world.

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Sequoias can grow to be about 30 feet in diameter and more than 250 feet tall. They can live to be over 3,000 years old, with the oldest one on record living more than 3,500 years.

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Mature Sequoias lack branches on the lower half of their trunks. Their trunks taper as they rise, forming a rounded top where individual branches sweep downward. Their green needles are small and arranged in spirals.

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The snowpack from the Sierra Nevada provides these giant trees with the thousands of gallons of water every day.

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It was an awesome experience to meet a tree “in person” that I have been reading about for so many years!

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Painted Lady

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I often see this butterfly in my travels, as well as in my backyard. My larest encounter was at Point Reyes National Seashore in California. This insect it is the most widely distributed butterfly in the world.

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Males perch and patrol during the afternoon for receptive females. In the western United States males usually perch on shrubs on hilltops, while in my home state of Ohio, males position themselves on bare ground in open areas.

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This is sometimes called the “Thistle Butterfly,” because thistle plants are its favorite nectar plant for food. It is also one of the Painted Lady caterpillar’s favorite food plants. What probably owes the global abundance of this creature is that thistle are common and invasive plants.

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This butterfly is an irruptive migrant, meaning that it migrates independent of any seasonal or geographic patterns. It can cover a lot of ground, up to 100 miles per day at speeds of nearly 30 miles per hour.

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They are a favorite subject of study in elementary school classrooms, and often the caterpillars can be ordered in “grow kits” where they can be raised and after they transform into adults are released.

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Though the Painted Lady is one of the most familiar butterflies in the world, found on nearly all continents and in all climates, it’s still nice to come across them, wherever I may happen to be.

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