By Brady Raymond
Things were looking good at the end of winter, sufficient snowpack, and some late winter rain but then a dry spell. Over here, east of the Cascades the last couple of weeks have been warm and dry. Dry enough ironically to put a damper on my mushrooming mood. Today, however, the rains did come and it looks like they will extend into next week. I got myself a bit of a good omen and stumbled across another Morel only a few feet away from where I had found my first Morel of the year. I snapped off a few shots then decided to snoop around a bit and see if I could spot a few more.
As I circled around some brush I saw a yellow laser streak in front of me across the damp ground. My mushrooming focus now tuned into snake vision, I reassessed my naturing priorities and the hunt for the serpent was on. The snake, small, only a youngster really, caught cover under the corner of a large concrete chunk. I thought I had lost it but with a little gentle prodding and the snake emerged from its shelter. I captured it and after a few seconds of squirming and discharging a foul-smelling musk, it decided I wasn’t a threat and calmed down. I was deep in shade and as if on cue, a gust of wind blew on the canopy of Willow above, allowing the evening rays of the Sun to penetrate down to the snake in my hand. Lighting went from bad to good in an instant, I took advantage of the situation and snapped the photo below. Look for an article about my adventures snaking to follow this story soon.
My second Morel of the year and an encounter with the beautiful Valley Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis fitchi left me giddy and with a touch of the fuzzies. Then I remembered spotting some mushrooms the day before, just up the trail on the exposed roots of a wind-toppled Willow tree. I had to bushwhack my way through standing dead to reach the specimens, which from across the creek looked to be Coprinellus micaceus, and upon closer inspection that is the name I gave them.
It was kind of a difficult shot, which had me lying prone on a mat of sticks and twigs and below that was a black soupy muck. If I applied too much pressure to a knee or elbow seepage of this muck into my clothing was inevitable. The image isn’t a wall hanger but it is good enough as evidence that this species occurs both on my property and on Willow. I haven’t identified anything down to species but so far I’ve spotted Agaricus, Pholiota, Psathyrella, Galerina, Xylaria, Morchella, and fairy rings in my lawn, evidence left presumably by Marasmius.
It’s hard to miss the showy Chokecherry blooms this time of year (photo below). It is one of our regions two native Cherry Trees, the other being the Bitter Cherry. Bitter Cherry is as the name implies but Chokecherry can be made to eat if done so correctly. There is some processing involved, if I experiment this year with Chokecherry I will share my results here on the blog. Time may, however, get the best of me. If I put much time into Chokecherry Trees this year it will probably be in propagating more of them.
There are other berries around these parts and likely around your parts too, where ever that may be. We have Golden Currents, Wax Currents, Elder Berry, Service Berry, and Oregon Grape, some are more “edible” than others. We also have Snow Berry, Red-osier Dogwood, and presumably more which are inedible. A good berry field guide is essential if you hope to forage these colorful spheres of juiciness. And like with mushrooms, when in doubt throw it out. It’s not worth experimenting with unknown berries, some of which can make you gravely ill.
There are more wildflowers than I can photograph right now. Many are just too small for my camera lens, though, their delicate features are wonderful to explore with a hand lens. Children are always fascinated and explore vigorously when given a magnifying glass. If you have children and don’t have a magnifying glass I highly suggest purchasing one. Heck, I’m an adult and I still enjoy putting glass on a specimen.
I had the opportunity to sneak away for a jaunt up a local trail recently. I’ve hiked it before but this time I was going to explore it. What would await me? Mushrooms, snakes, birds? I hoped for all of these things and more as I set out. It turned out to be a fairly quiet hike, yet, meditative in its overcast serenity. A few birds fluttered restlessly when approached but there was no major birding action. I flipped over a number of logs, but found no snakes, however, to my surprise I did find a frog. More on that later though.
Mushrooms were a no go either. Aside from lichen, (which is a fungi/algae partnership), I saw no mushrooms whatsoever, despite the forested areas that I searched looking promising. That left me with just my thoughts and a slew of wildflowers, of which I know very little about. But what I don’t know about wildflowers doesn’t stop me from appreciating the diversity of their form and the spicy fragrance which accompanies these scrub-land treasures.
Stretched out as far as I could see colorful bouquets adorned the sunny hillside. And what may seem like an easy task, photographing bright, showy wildflowers, is actually rather challenging. Many of the blooms are starting to show their age, finding one in prime condition is not easy despite the huge numbers of them. When you do find some you have to deal with the wind. Usually, when photographing mushrooms it’s the scenery that’s moving but with flowers, it’s the subject that’s moving. Bright sunlight or a flash can help to “freeze” the subject but this is harsh and generally unflattering. Thankfully for this hike, the bright overcast day worked well for getting a more intimate shot, one that doesn’t lose too much detail to contrast.
Another problem is being able to get low enough for some of the shorter flowers, a frustration that mushroom photographers are familiar with. Add to that busy backgrounds and angry ants crawling around everywhere. Timing, wind, lighting, angle, background and bugs, oh and you’re on a steep hillside well, at least I was this day. This photographing wildflowers thing is difficult. Thankfully, it’s not bird photography, which looks difficult both in the mobility of the subject and your own mobility having to lug those giant lenses and tripod around. I did end up with a couple decent shots though, and that’s all I’m really after, some snapshots for the photo album, and as filler for blog articles when there are few mushrooms out.
Yet another challenging aspect of flower, or plant photography in general, is what part of the specimen to shoot. Flowers are going to yield the most conclusive evidence in identification (if you know what you’re even looking for) but the flowers of some plants need to be examined more closely than a camera lens can convey in a single shot. Most of the year plants aren’t even in bloom, so shooting their leaves or textures in the surface of their bark come more into play. Good luck trying to capture all the parts of a plant in one picture, especially if your subject is a tree.
There is something about the texture of a mushroom though, that makes them stand out from the rest of an image. Plants can get lost in all of the herbaceous clutter around them, making it harder to display their form in the same way that you can with mushrooms. Even a well-camouflaged mushroom pops from an image once you see it. Photographing amphibians is a good balance for those who want the action of animals with the ease somewhere between mushroom and flower photography, so long as you can find a willing subject to model for you. Amphibians have their own unique texture which seems visually different from the rest of their surroundings. Unfortunately, the Pacific Northwest isn’t overabundant in amphibian diversity. That’s not to say we don’t have them and the ones that we do have are quite beautiful, like the Pacific Chorus Frog, Pseudacris regilla pictured below.
If you’re in the PNW and you hear frogs, chances are high that it is a Pacific Chorus Frog. I was surprised to find this specimen one-thousand feet up a steep ridge with no standing water anywhere that I could see. Maybe there are pools in the bases of the dead trees that dot the landscape, just a hypothesis though. It’s hard to believe this little frog made it up that high from the valley floor just because it wanted to. There must be a breeding population somewhere up there. A mystery hopefully I will solve as I hike this ridge more in the future.
As I’m thinking up a conclusion for this article I sit on my couch watching the rain come down. Forecasts show rain and cooler weather for the coming week, I’m hoping it’s not too late for a good Morel season. Friends and family back home in Michigan are gleefully sharing with me photos of their Morel hauls over the last week, and I’m green with envy. Soon though, I hope to be finding my own Morels and if I’m lucky a Spring King or two.