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Northland Nature: Life thrives in rainy autumn woods

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

red jelly-like blobs attached to tree branch
A wet jelly fungus (black witch's butter) as seen on a branch during a rainy day in November.
Contributed / Larry Weber
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October and early November were warmer than normal and much drier. According to the National Weather Service in Duluth, October had less than one-third the usual precipitation, despite the 5 inches of snow.

And so, when a system moved in that brought fog followed by thunder showers, rain and strong winds, I was glad that we were getting the needed moisture. I recorded 3 inches in our gauge. It had been nearly empty for the previous weeks. Temperatures were about 40 degrees — too warm for ice and snow, and good conditions to take an autumn woods walk.

Each November, I like to visit several ponds that serve as frog breeding sites in spring. The ponds at this time will give an indication of how they are as we enter winter. Today’s rain helps with this. The last time that I checked these ponds, several were devoid of water thanks to the earlier arid days.

I wandered through the light rain and looked again. As a result of this rainy time, they now held water. With the forecasts of temperatures to drop, I expect these ponds would soon be covered with ice. The ponds returning to water was a welcome sight, but as I walked in this chilly rainy day of November, I saw more that were taking advantage of this newly falling rain, despite the chill.

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We have lichens on trees all year long. They are mostly on tree trunks, but often on branches as well. These strange growths of algae and fungi are very hardy and remain here throughout the year — hot or cold, dry or wet, and they have a lifetime of many years. Those on tree trunks look like patches of paint.

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During recent dry times, they almost went dormant and shriveled up for protection. But, being the opportunists that they are, the lichens were quick to absorb available moisture and swelled to a larger size. The patches of green, blue-green, gray and yellow were now looking much better and more pronounced than they had been for weeks. They appeared glad to get this November rain.

But as I walked through the wet woods, dripping branches and wet leaves soaked on the forest floor. I saw that there were others taking advantage of this new-found moisture. Fungi this fall had been hard to find. Such growths need available precipitation, and there was little until today. Stopping to look more carefully at dead tree branches, I noted wet lichens, but nearby, I also saw some swelling of jelly fungi.

dark-red shriveled blobs attached to tree branch
A couple days after the rain, the jelly fungus has dried on the branch, looking dead.
Contributed / Larry Weber

One of many fungi that use dead wood as a substrate, jelly fungi is here in the woods all year, but highly dependent on moisture. It is called jelly fungi due to its texture of growth; it feels like jelly if it is wet, as today.

What I found was black jelly fungi coating a small dead branch. This slimy looking material was very much alive and swelled up from its bland and flat dry phase. It is also known as black witch’s butter (Exidia). A closely related yellow one is called yellow witch’s butter.

As I looked over the branch, I saw more jelly. This brown one, standing up a bit, is called leafy jelly fungus (Tremella).

This rainy November day proved to be fine for locating some late-season fungi. But conditions were quick to change and with the cold and dryness in subsequent days, the jelly returned to its phase of surviving cold and dry, but I was glad to see the jelly fungi and lichens taking advantage of the chilly rain of November.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber
MORE BY LARRY WEBER
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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