By Ted Williams
After the first heavy rains of fall, dead trees and roots east of the Rockies suddenly bloom with clusters of spectacular fungi. The bright orange-and-yellow jack-o'-lantern mushroom, which may have a stalk eight inches high and a cap eight inches in diameter, is bioluminescent. Pick a few, then take them into a darkened room and note the eerie green light glowing around the gills. It's caused by waste products from the myceliumthat vegetative part of the fungus reaching, in a mass of threads, deep into the decaying wood. Also note the delicious fragrance, and remember that odor is an especially unreliable test for edibility. If you eat a jack-o'-lantern mushroom, you won't dieyou'll just wish you would. But this fungus also is a potential lifesaver, yielding a substance recently formulated by researchers into a powerful anticancer drug.
Unless you have a powerful underwater flashlight, a wet suit, and scuba gear, don't bother looking for spawning lake trout, because you won't find them. But on autumn nights, when bare hardwoods sigh and black clouds race south, it's a good feeling to know these enormous fish are out there perpetuating their kind. Now in northern lakes across the continent, they ease up from great depths to deposit eggs and milt on submerged reefs. Lake trout, which can reach 100 pounds, are not true trout but descendants of an Arctic char progenitor landlocked by ancient glaciers. Unlike other salmonids, they are not adaptable to salt water. Lake trout were once virtually extirpated from the upper Great Lakes by alien sea lampreys, but a half-century of chemical lamprey control has restored self-sustaining populations in Lake Superior, and robust hatchery-maintained populations are present in the other Great Lakes. The lake trout of New York’s Finger Lakes apparently evolved with naturally landlocked sea lampreys and, perhaps as a result, are relatively resistant to lamprey attacks. When stocked in the Great Lakes they outperform other strains.
If you find yourself in a field of blooming goldenrod or other fall wildflowers most anywhere in the United States or Canada, be on the lookout for ambushers that grasp with mantislike front legs, inject paralyzing digestive fluid, then suck out liquefied internal tissues. If you're bitten, you'll retain your innards, but insects up to twice the size of the half-inch-long ambush bug may not. Most ambush bug species are yellow and brown or yellow and black, and shaped like an hourglass. Favored prey includes bees, flies, wasps, and butterflies. Ambush bugs are most easily found in early autumn, when they've attained their largest size; often they are given away by the bodies of prey they're holding, which seem to hang limply from flowers.
While other rodents are packing granaries with seeds and nuts, the meadow jumping mouse is packing on calories to sustain it through one of the longest and most profound winter sleeps in the animal kingdom. It may not wake for eight months; sometimes, if it hasn't stored sufficient fat and the winter is hard, it may not wake up at all. As fall approaches, it ceases its nomadic lifestyle and constructs a snug den lined with shredded grass and leaves, and one to three feet underground. Then, usually before late September, it curls into a ball, wraps its long tail around its shoulders, drops its body temperature from about 99 degrees Fahrenheit to just above freezing, and never moves till spring. Meadow jumping mice are solitary and not nearly as abundant as other rodents. But you have a good shot at seeing one during the pre-denning feeding frenzy of early fall. Look for them at night in meadows, old fields, marshes, stream corridors, and forest edges. Startle one and it may jump five feet, using its tail for balance.
If you live in the Great Lakes states south to the Gulf Coast and hang out in low, wet places, sooner or later you'll meet the queen snakemost likely when you startle it and it drops into the water from overhanging brush. Autumn is a good time to search, because newborn young, no longer than a pencil and just as thin, are patrolling warm, shallow streams in search of juvenile crawfish, especially freshly molted ones. Adult queen snakes, which can reach three feet, prey principally on crawfish, too. At first glance, this beautiful, slender water snake resembles the garter snake, but it is easily identified because it's the only species in its range with four brown stripes on its belly. In addition to these stripes, juveniles and young adults have dorsal and side stripes, which can give the impression of seven stripes. Hence the generic name: Regina septemvittata (queen with seven stripes).
© 2004 National Audubon Society
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