Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hill Country Trees and Lichens: Part Two

Our Saturday outing for "Trees and Lichens" on June 21st began most inauspiciously. First I was awakened by a thunderstorm, followed by steady rain that only ended an hour before the scheduled start of the outing -- in time to leave the lichens and mosses "fat, happy, and green." Then, Sean called to leave a message that he was ill and could not join us, but was sending Malcolm Hodges in his stead. Malcolm is a renowned lichenologist in his own right, who has apprenticed with Sean and now "lichenizes" free-lance, when not birding or doing general ecological studies for The Nature Conservancy. Malcolm and David both met up with us at Hill Country Montessori School, joining us for the caravan down the road to Hutcheson Ferry Park. I remarked that it was a pity Sean was ill, only to learn from Malcolm that Sean had been struck with Rocky Mountain spotted fever, obtained from a tick that no doubt hitched a ride during one of his previous lichen outings! (I am delighted to add that he has since recovered fully.) Indeed, as Valerie has discovered doing fieldwork and as other longer-term residents of the area have noted, this summer has marked a banner year for all sorts of ticks in Georgia.

We (Malcolm, Sean, myself and my wife Valerie, and the four "regulars") got out of our cars and strode across the manicured (or at least well-mowed) park lawn toward a ridge and the rock outcrop habitat that lies a short distance beyond it. In seconds, Malcolm had found a tree branch covered in lichen and fungi, and was holding it aloft for all to examine. Time to break out the hand lenses, and enter a miniature yet amazing world of strange forms and colors.

Malcolm, who had never been to Hutcheson Ferry Park before, was visibly excited when we arrived at the outcrop. His enthusiasm was contagious. Within minutes, we were down on our knees in wonder at the patterns and colors of mosses and lichens and flowering plants.

Every branch was full of Dr. Suess-like shapes, including a number of lichens in the genus Cladonia, which includes the British soldier lichen. I recall from my childhood finding a "batallion" of the red-headed British soldier lichen apothecia (fruiting bodies) atop a next-door neighbor's fencepost. On Saturday's outing, we found only a few, but discovered many other specimens, including one that was quite common on the outcrop, but which Malcolm had never seen before.

Above is a close-up of a few of the British soldier lichens we saw, intermixed with another Cladonia species that was gray-green and branched.

In another hand gesture that has become enigmatical with the passage of time (i.e., I forget what he was indicating in this photograph), Malcolm kneels on the outcrop, adjacent a small pool of water remaining from the rain that had fallen earlier that morning. Note his look of enthused delight. It was shared by all who attended the outing.

At last we headed downhill from the outcroanp d into the forest, to try our hand at floodplain forest tree identification. Alas, the most noteworthy vegetation to catch our eyes at first was a very healthy stand of Microstigium viminium, also called Japanese stilt-grass, an invasive plant that tends to choke out all the native vegetation. Apart from trees and shrubs, the only other plants we saw in abundance were Japanese honeysuckle, which seemed to coexist pleasantly enough with the Japanese stilt-grass, while at the same time slowly choking the life out of every sapling they encountered. Still, the forest was lovely and green, and the Microstigium made the walking fairly easy, too.

Above is another entry in my photo series of uncertain hand gestures. Looking at the photograph now, it almost looks like a sort of woodland low-impact martial arts could be underway. I include the photobecause somehow it is the only one I took that shows both David Morgan as well. Down in the forest, he was in his element, an expert in identifying tree types by bark and leaf, as well as sharing his reflections on the ecology of the woodland.

Unlike the toad photograph from Part One this month, this photograph does relate directly to our outing. Shortly after leaving the outcrop for the forest, Valerie encountered this beautiful male box turtle lurking under a shrub. Caught without her extensive collection of field equipment for box turtle studies, she "borrowed" this specimen in order to take some measurements (such as mass, body width, etc.), then carefully returned him to the very spot where we had found him, none the worse for his experience. In this photo, Valerie counts the rings on his carapace (upper shell) in order to obtain an estimate of his age. I was delighted that we chanced upon him, as his photo provides yet another opportunity to make a plug for our July Sense of Place workshop on Turtles and Toads. Co-led by "Reptile Rick" from Cochran Mill Nature Center and Valerie Hayes, herpetology grad student at the University of West Georgia, the event will include an evening talk at The Studio on Thursday, July 10th, plus a Saturday outing to Cochran Mill Nature Center on Saturday, July 19th. For more information, contact Clifford at

Hill Country Trees and Lichens: Part One

On Thursday, June 12th, renowned Georgia lichenologist Sean Beeching, along with University of West Georgia botany professor David Morgan, gave a presentation to SOP Workshop participants in The Studio at Serenbe Community. Sean regaled the half-dozen of us (myself, my wife Valerie, and four "regulars") with a speech on the nature of lichens, liberally augmented with a sampling of his collected field specimens. Afterwards, Dr. David Morgan talked about the trees of the Georgia Piedmont. He brought sample branches from each of the twenty trees, walking us through the process of telling them apart. I had a marvelous time, and learned a great deal more Southern trees that had previously been unfamiliar to me, such as sourwood and red maple. I'm not sure how I would do on a tree identification quiz, though....

Above, Sean waxes lyrical about lichens...

...and then later in the talk, I played the role of Vanna White, holding up a diagram of the classification of lichenized fungi for the audience. In this photo, I think Sean is explaining the difference between basidiomycetes and ascomycetes, or maybe he is simply attempting to demonstrate the Vulcan "Live long and prosper" gesture from Star Trek?

After the talk by Sean, and a brief introductory speech by David, out came all the tree branch specimens, and our work for the evening got underway. So many leaves, so little time....

Here, David is explaining how to distinguish a loblolly pine from a slash pine from a red cedar from a red maple from a black cherry....

This photograph has nothing to do with the evening's presentations, except for the fact that it was taken by my wife Valerie the same evening, shortly after our return home from The Studio. This Cope's Gray Tree Frog was captured mid-song, and serves as an advertisement of sorts, or foreshadowing maybe, of the July Sense of Place workshop, entitled "Turtles and Toads". The talk is scheduled for Thursday the 10th of July at 6:30 pm, and the outing will take place at Cochran Mill Park at 9:00 am on Saturday, July 19th. (For further information, contact Clifford at