Fall is the time for trees to drop their seeds, whether they are large and visible like acorns or tiny like Douglas-fir seeds, which weigh 1 / 23,000th of a pound. Trees do not bear seeds until they are mature, and – counterintuitively from a human point of view – trees are more fertile and produce more viable seeds as they age.
Douglas firs are no exception. Douglas firs begin to bear cones when they are 20 years old, but older trees produce the most cones. The seeds in the cones ripen in October, with each cone producing about 50 seeds, which are sought after by squirrels, chipmunks, voles and mice, as well as pine siskins, red-breasted nuthatches, red crossbills. and other birds. The tree provides each embryo with a “starter gift” of a small packet of carbohydrates, fat, and water, making it a perfect snack for seed eaters. The squirrels peel off each scale and remove the seeds, so you can often see cones that have been bared with piles of discarded scales.
Douglas-fir seedlings especially like to grow in areas where fire has eliminated competition. Look for Douglas fir seedlings, as well as mature trees that escaped the Woodward fire in Point Reyes, on Sky Trail and Meadow Trail. Mature trees can be seen in many places in Marin, including Mount Tamalpais State Park, China Camp State Park, and Muir Woods.
Watch for the striking orange and black variegated thrushes returning this breeding month in the humid coniferous forests further north. The bird you see may have returned from Alaska or may have bred as far south as Del Norte or Siskiyou counties. Your first thought when you see a variegated thrush may be that it looks like a fancy robin, a similar sized thrush that also has an orange breast. Close examination will reveal the distinctive black vee on the chest and the orange line above the eye.
There are big fluctuations in the number of various thrushes we get in Marin in the winter, possibly depending on the food supply further north. Rarely have they been common enough that even my preschool students would recognize them, while in other years I might see a few all winter long. Overall, numbers fell about 73% between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Saw various thrushes at Lagunitas Lake, Olompali State Historic Park, Cascade Canyon Open Space Preserve, Roy Redwood Preserve, and Muir Woods.
There are a few mushrooms that appear as the heralds of the mushroom season even before the rains arrive. One of them made a few students in my Sailor’s College class gasp when I picked him up. When I tell you that one of its names is dog poop fungus, you’ll guess why.
Another equally appealing name is the dead man’s foot (although it does not have the shape of any foot that I have seen), and another is the dye ball as it is used to dye the yarn and fabric. (As often happens with common names, a common name is sometimes applied to more than one species. INaturalist calls it Pisolithus arhizus dyeball but Wikipedia calls it dead man’s foot and dye ball. INaturalist calls it Pisolithus tinctorius dyeball. dead man.)
Once you verify that it is indeed a fungus, if you pick it up and open it you will see that it is filled with a black gelatinous substance with tiny round, colored spore sacs. clear embedded in the mass. Or if he’s older, he’ll just swell up smoke-like brown spores like a mature puffball. It’s an interesting fungal find at any stage.
Because this fungus grows in disturbed areas, I often find it right next to a trail. I found a dye ball near Indian Beach in Tomales Bay State Park in the Tennessee Valley and Oakwood Valley in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and on the Dipsea Trail on the way out by Muir Woods.
Wendy Dreskin has led the College of the Sailor Meandering in Marin nature / hiking course since 1998, and teaches other nature courses for adults and children. To contact her, visit wendydreskin.com