Here’s my account of my adventure in the south recently. I greatly enjoyed the 2019 Louisiana Master Naturalists Rendezvous event. This year it was held at Fontainebleu State Park on the north shore of Louisiana’s massive and biodiverse Lake Pontchartrain.
I rode south with our Louisiana Master Naturalists Northeast group President Dr. Bette Kauffman. She was organizer of the event’s Silent Auction again this year.
It was a fun drive south. The fast route from the Twin Cities of West Monroe and Monroe is to head east into Mississippi on the Interstate highway I20 and then to head south back into the southeastern portion of Louisiana that is known as The Florida Parishes. This territory was formerly part of Florida but was purchased into Louisiana. It is especially interesting because it has some creatures like Sawback turtles, Oak Toads, Gopher Tortoises and Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes that aren’t living in Louisiana West of the Mississippi. The sawbacks are in the Pearl River system and are a species of Map Turtle Professor Carr told me. There are also marine species from the Gulf of Mexico.
As we drove south it was as if we went forward in time, with ever-increasing signs of Spring evident in the form of flowering Dogwoods, Eastern Redbuds, Red Maples and some types of trees with white and yellow catkins.
Sadly we left blue skies behind, too. The cloud cover increased and the temperature decreased. We arrived in the very verdant jungley park and were much impressed with the stately old Live Oaks festooned with thick beards of Spanish Moss. It gave us the impression that the area of the park by the ruined sugar mill was probably haunted. You may know this already, but Spanish Moss is nothing of the kind, it is in the bromeliad family (as are pine-apples) and it is what is colloquially known as an air plant. It derives its moisture and sustenance from the air through its skin, not having roots embedded in soil. It is home to various creatures including a form of spider and a bat. We have plenty of it in northeastern Louisiana too, but down on the Gulf of Mexico it grows thickly and luxuriant. The sea breezes waft these great beards in synchrony and the overall effect is very romantic.
We pulled up to the accommodation through some large puddles, one of which was occupied by a wading shore-bird of some sort. I gaped at it, stunned. It was so close! My camera was in my bag, darn it!
Anyway, we were a bit tired after our 4-hour drive and ready to check in to our dormitories.
There were three buildings on very tall stilts, accessible via staircases. The central one was the dining room kitchen and hall where some of the classes were held and the other two were the male and female dorms respectively.
These were connected by aerial walkways and served by an elevator that could carry 750 lbs. That made it easier to transport boxes of books etc. up to the hall. I helped Bette set up the Silent Auction and we contributed several photographs to it which sold. I set up the photo contest table. There were six entries, two were ours. Kimmie’s study of a water snake, Nerodia fasciata confluens and jelly ear fungi Auricularia sp. sold as did a fine portrait of a Little Blue Heron by wildlife photographer Jane Patterson ( See Photo Contest article)
Anyway, the first order of the day was to bag a bunk. After that I took my camera out for a walk-about. The ground was quite squishy and the odd rain drop fell to remind me not to venture too far from cover.
It wasn’t long before the first organized walks went out and things soon became rather interesting. Our group was led by Dr. Bob Thomas (President of Louisiana Master Naturalists, who amongst other things has just had a snake named after him!) . He pointed out that there were cricket frogs in the pool beside the path that led into and through a strip of coastal forest. I spotted some enormous clover leaves or so they looked, beside the path. There were also some interesting sedges, rushes and grasses.
Professor Thomas quipped ‘Sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses have knees that bend to the ground.’
If you’re ever in doubt as to the identity of such a plant that jingle may help!
Various large thistles held Bumblebees in torpid state from the cold.
We too felt rather chilled through upon our return to the buildings where we met Botanist Dale Kruse from Texas’ A&M university, who won me over to Bryophytes in 5 seconds by asking me “What’s that?” while offering me a small clump of mossy stuff.
“That will be a moss!” I answered, confident in my assertion and ready to excuse myself to get over to the snake talk.
“Is it?” he inquired again, offering me a loupe lens for closer inspection. What I saw through it surprised me! Lots of green bottle-shaped structures met my gaze. To cut a long story shorter, I passed on Venomous Snake Identification in favour of Dale’s Mosses walk and talk. (Last year I attended Micha Petty’s snake talk which was very, very good.) What Dale had shown me was in fact, a form of Liverwort. Furthermore a limp slimy green rubbery thing that I thought was a liverwort was in fact a terrestrial alga. “Whaaat on Earth?” I hear you say. “Mmm, really!”
Apparently there are rather a lot of these things around. We only see them looking healthy after rains, otherwise they dry out and crisp up. Which is pretty much what the other bryophytes do in drought conditions. So it was that I studied the “forgotten flora” with Dale and about twenty other people and was suitably impressed.
Bryophytes are comprised of mosses, liverworts and hornworts (See http://bryophytes.plant.siu.edu/bryojustified.html for some great pictures. and some good background info for you. Dale taught us about examples he’s studied in Texas and the UK. Mosses are cosmopolitan, they’re found in every continent and are the dominant plants in Antarctica (above water that is). Ice algae are the base of the marine food pyramid, not Krill as commonly supposed, I learned this here in Fontainbleu too, but that’s another story. To continue with mosses, there’s one variety of moss found only in a single spring in Texas, Don Richards macrumors. It lacks sporophytes apparently.
Anyway you need a compound microscope to appreciate these structures and 200-400x magnification if you want to inspect their cellular structures! Binocular microscopes really bring out the beauty in these plants. The 3 D stereoscopic view is very attractive.
There’s great difficulty finding funding for bryophyte studies apparently, no ‘green’ in the moss, sadly. Your best bet is in biodiversity or climate change research. In ecological terms “bryophytes found their niche and stayed there.” physcomitrium pyriforme is an example with beautiful urn-like structures. These look fabulous under a binocular compound microscope. It’s another world.
There are 14 species of sphagnum moss alone in Texas. He’s been studying them in The Big Thicket and along a big geological fault with peat and moss bogs. Before I came to the USA I thought Texas a very dry place and I conflated it with my image of western movies
In the UK there’s an endangered moss species in the north Pennines in Cumbria. Moss relies upon micro-habitats within habitats and requires a substrate upon which to grow. Different ones are trees with rough bark, trees with smooth bark, dead trees, soil, rocks etc. There is successional growth, with different types from the base upwards. Very little grows on pines because they slough off (shed) their bark. Yaupon holly is smooth barked, Magnolia intermediate, and oak rough. Different species favour such different microhabitats! Bryophytes hare important members of ecological communities and offer microhabitats of their own to a host of other creatures and amongst other things help preserve humidity that benefits creatures that like, or need to remain moist.
Lichens are a parasitic symbiosis of algae and fungus or blue green algae (cyanobacteria) and fungus. You can even have two types of fungi within the alga. A good way to remember this Dale quipped is “The alga took a lichen to a fungus!” We encountered some bright reddish pink lichens with light grey-green trim called Christmas tree lichen.
One lady naturalist quietly said “I think I’m looking at an owl!” and lo and behold she really was. An eastern screech owl. It was probably the sweetest owl you could meet in such a wood. Later that night a MN called Marty successfully elicited its call from the woods by hooting out into the night!
We piled into cars and drove to a different part of the park to see some more mosses and lichen in a bottom-land forest habitat with wonderful old Spanish moss-festooned trees and on some man-made substrates.