Hail, Caesar

This mushroom well deserves its name as the imperator of the fungus world.


Amanita caesarea blazes in the forest, six inches tall and imposing. It starts like a tiny scarlet Easter egg: this one has been dined on delicately by a rodent, who has eaten it exactly as I was taught to eat a soft-boiled egg:


It pushes skywards and begins to open out:


And then it reaches its parasol-like final stage:


Its decline is often brutal (“Et tu, Brute?”). Either it is eaten:


Or a secondary fungus, Syzygies megalocarpus*,  colonizes it and creates a sort of mad Einsteinium Groucho Marx hairdo:


Although it comes from the Amanita family, many of which are highly poisonous, Caesar’s mushrooms are supposed to be delicious, but I have never plucked up the nerve to eat a mushroom this color (though I’m not sure why it scares me, since I happily eat all sorts of orange food, from carrots to tangerines to lobsters. )

PS Some technical stuff: the skirt-like frill round the stalk is the remnant of the partial veil that used to cover the gills when the mushroom was young.  The white cup at the base is called the volva, from which the young mushroom emerges. Sometime it is under the ground and can only be seen by digging down. In most amanitas, pieces of this get stuck to the cap, creating small white patches, but in Caesar’s mushroom that usually doesn’t happen, though in the big photo at the very top of this post there is in fact a piece left.

  • Thanks to Parker Veitch for the ID.

The sad savage beauty of the Barred Owl

Barred Owls, Strix varia, are fairly common here, but since I am diurnal I rarely see them. I have a camera trap on my big hickory tree, and one came several nights in a row, probably hoping to catch one of the flying squirrels that live in my tree. Here he or she is:


The wings are barred, but the name actually comes from the vertical bars on the chest, which will see in some later photos.


One night, I got a movie:


Occasionally they can be seen in the daytime.  This one perched on a pine tree next to my son’s house near Boston a couple of years ago. It is the only American owl with brown (as opposed to yellow) eyes.


They hunt in wooded areas, and if a road runs through woodland they are sometimes hit by cars.  Sadly, we found this one last week on a small lane overhung by trees near the lake.


It had no apparent injuries , but when we moved it off the road it was clear its neck was broken.


It had fully feathered legs, and the most fearsome talons and rough leathery feet to help it grip.:


Such savage beauty, like all raptors.

PS Don’t confuse the Barred Owl with the Barn Owl! The US Barred Owl weighs from 0.5Kg – 1Kg. By comparison, the UK Barn owl, Tyto alba, is smaller, weighing 0.2 – 0.7Kg, and of course much whiter!



Adjidaumo, the velveteen squirrel

American red squirrels, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, look like russet velveteen plush toys:


But in fact they are very aggressive. They have formidable teeth and claws:

Red squirrelDSC03227

Their feet are interesting too, with thick calloused pads on the palm as well as the fingers:

Red squirrel

Sometimes you can see a wounded squirrel like the one below. It had identical wounds on both sides of its muzzle. I do not know if another squirrel did it, or whether it was chased by the fox that is hanging around my garden. The second photo shows the same squirrel, with the wound healed:

Red squirrelRed squirrel

The video below shows typical squirrels squabbling over territory and food; as you will hear they are extremely noisy :

In Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha, the squirrel is called Adjidaumo. 
This is an Ojibwa word literally meaning "mouth-foremost", because 
squirrels descend trees head first. Here is a short excerpt from the 

At the stern sat Hiawatha, 
With his fishing-line of cedar; 
In his plumes the breeze of morning 
Played as in the hemlock branches ; 
On the bows, with tail erected, 
Sat the squirrel, Adjidaumo ; 
In his fur the breeze of morning 
Played as in the prairie grasses. 


And the squirrel, Adjidaumo, 
Frisked and chattered very gayly, 
Toiled and tugged with Hiawatha 
Till the labour was completed. 

Then said Hiawatha to him, 
" O my little friend, the squirrel, 
Bravely have you toiled to help me ; 
Take the thanks of Hiawatha, 
And the name which now he gives you ; 
For hereafter and for ever 
Boys shall call you Adjidaumo, 
Tail-in-air the boys shall call you !

“Will you walk into my parlour..” *

A follow-up on my last entry, and not for the arachnophobic among you. I promise to take a break from spiders after this.

My dexterous orb-weaver spider caught a fly, and here it is all bundled up tidily:


Then she took it up into the eaves, and had supper:


And if you’d like to watch her dining techniques, here is an action video (like last time, watch in full frame if you can persuade it to do so).


* The Spider and the Fly  by Mary Howitt (1799–1888), was published in 1828. The first verse describes the content of my previous blog:

“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I’ve a many curious things to show when you are there.”


Several verses later it ends like this, a good accompaniment to this blog entry!


“Up jumped the cunning Spider, and fiercely held her fast.
He dragged her up his winding stair, into his dismal den,
Within his little parlour — but she ne’er came out again!”

“A thin premeditated rig”

“Natural History” by E.B. White

The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.

E. B. White most famously wrote Charlotte’s Web, one of my children’s favorite books, about a very smart spider called Charlotte.

Orb-weaver Spider

This week I watched an orb-weaver spider weaving her web in close-up, and it was remarkable.


The spinnerets are at the back of her abdomen, underneath. You can just see a silk thread stretching out to the left from the spinnerets.



She uses her back legs to pull the silk out of the spinnerets, carefully holding it up with just the right tension and angling it towards where she wants it to go.


Each time she reaches a spoke in the web, she pauses and somehow ties it in, before continuing. The tiny toes on the end of each leg hold onto the spokes as she lays down yet another perfect section of her spiral. The spiral thread is sticky, and catches her prey: you can see the sticky beads in the photo just above this text.


Here is a short video, best watched fullscreen if you can. Watch how she carefully pays out the thread as she tightrope-walks across her growing web:


All that work, and then orb weavers usually eat their web for breakfast, and spin a new one every day.

PS: Arachne was a renowned weaver, and the Greek goddess of spiders. Hence the name Arachnids for the class that includes spiders, scorpions, and ticks…

Thanksgiving on legs

For readers in the US, wild turkeys, Meleagris gallopavo, are no longer exciting, in fact they have become a nuisance. But for readers elsewhere they still I think hold a certain fascination. If not, stop reading now!

This solitary young female appears every day near our bird feeder, scratching around for what the birds have dropped. It is easy to see why they were hunted close to extinction for all that meat (up to 20lbs of it).


Their feathers are quite beautiful:


Their heads: well, that depends on the eye of the beholder:


If you look carefully you can see her ear, that circle below and to the right of her eye. And the conical spike on the top of her head is her snood. These are much much larger in males, and hang down right over the bill. They are highly erectile, getting larger and more brightly colored during courtship. The same is true of the lumpy red warts, called caruncles.

This time of year, the females are usually in groups with their young. They practice communal chick-rearing, a good role-model for human society.


They enjoy dustbaths in a small depression they have created by scratching for seed:


If I get too close, they scuttle off, or even make a stab at flying short distances with their vestigial flight feathers:


(The adults are powerful fliers. Yesterday I scared four adults, who then flew right across my 6-acre meadow into the tops of the distant trees.)

The whole group moved on to a new food source:


Leaving one adult standing guard on the stone wall:


Until they were all safe and she too moved on:



PS: Turkey populations are a notable conservation success story, having recovered from a low of 30,000 in 1930 to about 7 million today, a remarkable comeback spearheaded by early conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt.

PPS The males are much more dramatic in appearance, but I never see them on my land in the summer.  I am hoping to see one in the fall, in which case he will appear in this blog!

Sawbills and goosanders

A family of Common Mergansers, Mergus merganser, swam past my dock yesterday.


They nest in holes in mature trees near large lakes, and the chicks leap to the ground from the hole. They are in the water and eating fish by about 12 days.

They hunt by sight, so the mother sticks her head in the water looking for fish.


The chicks quickly learn to copy her:


The word “merganser” comes from the Latin  mergo (to dip, immerse) + anser (goose), and indeed in English they are also known as goosanders, because they are a large waterbird that dives. These ones had already started diving, in a very disorganized splashy sort of way!


Their common name of sawbill derives from the fact that their beaks are serrated, with a wicked hook on the end, for catching and holding onto slippery fish.

Red-necked grebes

This chick is clearly hungry!


Off they went, cruising along the shoreline in the sun.

Red-necked grebes

PS Common Mergansers are widespread in Europe and North America. They migrate northwards to breed, but in Maine they are year-round residents.

PPS Thanks to Leigh and Peter for the ID! I stupidly fixated on grebes!