Naturalist and writer Jules Evens has lived near Point Reyes for over 30 years. He is the founder of Avocet Research Associates and the author of The Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula and An Introduction to California Birdlife (both UC Press).
Hiked on January 21, 2012, after some much needed, quenching rain.
Another short, easy hike (0.7 miles; 30 minutes unless you stop to photograph mushrooms), the Woodpecker Trail branches off from the beginning of the Bear Valley trailhead near Park Headquarters.
A perfect winter stroll between storm fronts, the dirt path climbs gently into a small stand of fir and tanoak, across an open field, then into the deeper forest. As it enters the mixed evergreen forest, dominated by Douglas-fir, but shared with burly old bays and senescent tanoaks (dying from sudden oak death syndrome), the trail parallels Sky Creek, a narrow and deeply incised true arroyo.
The moisture of the recent (and reticent) rain has wakened the treefrogs (aka Pacific Chorus Frog, Pseudacris sierra), and any winter walk through the freshly christened forest is accompanied by the reassuring croaks of this little sprite. Perhaps the most abundant amphibian on the Pacific coast, treefrogs are only an inch or two long and females are slightly larger than males. (This size disparity, a condition called "reverse dimorphism," was undoubtedly coined by a man.) During the breeding season (January-April), males can be distinguished from females by the red blush on the wrinkly throat; the female's throat is smooth and creamy white. The dorsal coloration is highly variable; many are bright electric green, but some range from rusty to brown, often mottled, and the color can fade or brighten to blend with the background, chameleon-like. Treefrogs wear a bandit mask, a black stripe reaching from the nostril, through the eye to the shoulder.
After these first rains, tree frogs gather is ponds and puddles, calm back-eddies and small basins, the frog symphony strikes up–a signature winter sound of the peninsula. **LINK="http://www.californiaherps.com/frogs/pages/p.regilla.sounds.html Listen here.
The shady forest floor is thick with windfall–branches and twigs, broken tree trunks, a verdant cover of sword fern above a thick carpet of tan oak leaves. The decaying tree trunks support their own communities–mosses, lichens, liverworts, and fungal associations.
I'm no mycologist, but the fruiting bodies of a fetching cluster of fungi sprouting from a mossy bed catches my eye. In Audubon's "Field Guide to Mushrooms" I find a seemingly similar image in a section of "small, fragile, gilled mushrooms" that identifies them as "Sulphur Tufts," a name that captures both the subtlety of the colors and their delicate structure. (Although perhaps descriptive, not all mushroom names are quite so comely–"dead man's fingers," "cleft-foot deathcap," and the tumid "stinkhorns" of the genus Phallus.)
Nearby a scarlet glimmer beneath a sword fern signals another secret treasure, another cluster of "small, fragile gilled mushrooms," in a triplet row. Again, I flip through the pictures in the field guide and decide on the waxycups (Hygrocybe), uncertain of the species but probably the Vermillion Waxycap (H. coccinea). The text says, "Edible, but not worth the effort." Really, the thought never crossed my mind.
Further up the trail I encounter an older couple. We stop to greet one another and agree on the loveliness of the day. As the woman points to yet another surprise–a most unmushroom-like mushroom, delicate tendrils reaching up from the leaf litter–I notice her British accent. Based on only the most cursory characteristics, I identify it as "white coral fungus." She nods in agreement, but says, diplomatically, "we have different names for them in England."
Completing the Woodpecker Trail loop, I emerge from the forest near the Morgan Horse Farm and walk back to the parking lot through open grassland. A pair of Western Bluebirds sallies out from the fencerow, capturing insects from the ground. The fence that surrounds the horse pastures and Park Headquarters is a most reliable place to see bluebirds in any season. In winter they are often accompanied by several Yellow-rumped ("Audubon's") Warblers, as they are today. These forest-nesting warblers, adapted more to leaf gleaning than fly-catching, seem to rely on the larger-eyed bluebirds for finding insects when foraging out in the open grasses.
Although this walk was short, and although I've been hiking these trails for more than three decades, I had come upon several species I'd never seen (or noticed) before. Whether this was of my lack of attentiveness in the past, the rarity of these fungi, or the novelty of late rains, I'm not sure. But I do know that little miracles appeared along this well-trod trail. It seems that every time we go out on the trail we notice things we've never seen before, or see things in a different stage of its life cycle, or in a different light . . . or maybe with different eyes.
Seeing these inconspicuous mushrooms and wondering over their role in the forest reminds me of a passage from my book, The Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula (2008, UC Press).
There is a vast conspiracy beneath the soil's surface of which most of us are only dimly aware. These co-conspirators are fungi and plant roots. The subterranean fungi–as distinct from the above ground fruiting bodies we call mushrooms–provision mineral nutrients (phosphorous, nitrogen, etc.) from the soil to the roots of the plants. In exchange, the plants feed their fungal partners sugars they have photosynthesized above ground. This symbiotic relationship produces a complex network of energy pathways known as mychrorhizae.
Within this vast conspiracy–that literally runs the world–there is an obvious metaphor. The underlying impulse of the oldest beings on earth is collaboration, mutualism, symbiosis. I wasn't the first human being to recognize the cooperative impulses of the non-human world:
In trees and plants, one may trace the vestiges of amity and love . . .The vine embraces the elm, and other plants cling to the vine. So that things which have no powers of sense to perceive anything else, seem strongly to feel the advantages of union. –Desiderius Erasmus (1465-1536)