May Morel Madness 2010!

We have had the pleasure of finding some of the tastiest (and easiest as well as "safest") edible fungus on Mr. Neil's property in warm weather including Hen of the Woods, Chicken of the Woods and Giant Puffball.  We've seen morels here and there but because they tend to come out during spring bird migration, my mind is otherwise occupied and I've never made the effort for an all out morel hunt.  I had done it a few times in Indiana but not much more.  Also, nearby neighbors usually hunt morels and in good years they are very generous with their harvest (and I'm not opposed to a honey/morel exchange)  so I haven't had huge incentive to look.

This year, Lorraine and I decided that we would give it a go.  We researched morel sites on the interwebs--our favorite site is The Great Morel (great information for beginners and a map that shows when people are finding them).  It seemed to us that the time was right and all we needed was a night of rain, some 60 degree-ish temps and some dead elms.  We noted that it was going to rain Friday and felt Saturday morning would be great for a meet up.  We boned up on morel hunting and used Google Image search to see what elm tree bark looked like so we would know what to look for.  Isn't it great what we can to with the internet these days?

As Non Birding Bill and I were driving out to meet Lorraine at Mr. Neil's we got a call.  It was a frantic Lorraine.  She was already there and had decided to test her dead elm id skills.  She looked under a tree that looked like a dead elm according to the Internet and was surrounded by morels.  As I heard NBB's end of the conversation, I was screaming, "I can't believe she started without me!!!"  NBB was laughing, she didn't mean to, she just checked a tree in the yard to see if it was an elm and there they were.

Lorraine kindly left a cluster for me to find and pick when I arrived--what a gal!  It was a great way to start and we searched the surrounding dead trees.  Morel mushrooms are not only tasty but part of the Foolproof Four category of wild mushrooms--you can't mistake them for any other mushroom.  Now, before anyone takes me to task in the comments about false morels--true morels are hollow in the middle, false morels are solid in the middle.  All of our findings were very hollow in the middle.

We did find a few more morels in the general vicinity of Lorraine's first harvest but not like the grouping she had initially found.  Of course, we were sticking pretty darn close to the house, we still had acres of woods to check--who knows how many more we would find?

There were white-throated sparrows serenading us as we searched.  I made the choice to leave my digiscoping equipment back at the house while we went into the woods.  As I said earlier, my birding distracts me from morel hunting.  I needed to make sure to focus on the ground, not getting photos of warbles flitting in the leaves overhead.  I took my binoculars--I wasn't crazy, if a cool bird was around I was going to look, just not focus on getting photos of them.  As we went through the woods, we were not finding any more mushrooms--at least not edible ones.  We thought about what was different from the yard vs the woods--shade.  We found another spot that should have had morning sun and began to search.  Lorraine and I wandered from each other and after about fifteen minutes I heard a scream, "MUUUUUUUUUUUSHROOOOOOOOOM!"

Lorraine found more!  She collected her bounty and we were re-energized in our search efforts.  It wasn't long before we found another patch--this one however was surrounded by some young stinging nettle.  We didn't let it deter us but our hands felt the sting for several minutes afterwards.

This patch was so large (and fortunately not all in the nettle)  and so spread out that when we realized it, we were surrounded.  We were afraid to take a step for fear of crushing the tasty, tasty shrooms.  I got on all fours to get ground level and a better view of the morels that were all over.  We filled our bags and they were heavy!  I attached my laundry bag to a stick to make it easier to tote.  The woody/nutty/salty smell of the fungus made my stomach growl.  I've run across a few morel hunters in the woods before and always felt a slight pang of envy seeing those bulging bags of shrooms.  Never thought I would be one, but there were with heavy laundry bags full of morels--like we were pro shroomers!  As we wrapped up our day of hunting, I got a text from NBB back at the house--even he found a morel.  His location was by far the best:

He found a tiny one at the zombie graveyard.  Makes sense...morels kind of look like brains and what self respecting zombie is going to ignore a brain shaped shroom?

So above is our harvest for our first ever morel hunt.  Not bad!  Especially since we are beginners when it comes to morels and...Lorraine doesn't like to eat mushrooms.  She's getting a bit more adventurous and has eaten Hen of the Woods and she did make us an awesome morel asparagus cream soup for dinner but I think she dug the hunt more than the taste.  I enjoyed both.  NBB and I took some home and ate them in omletts and sauces and then Lorraine dried the rest.  Reconstituted morels make a most excellent broth--I'm salivating just thinking about what Mr. Neil might whip up for us when he returns.

Can't wait to see if we find any more this month.  Check out the Great Morel sight for more info if you would like to search for your own.

Bees and Edible Fungus

bee necks Look at all the little white bee necks!  Cute!  I love it when you see bees craning their heads.

Lorraine and I checked the hives on Wednesday and most is going very well.  The yellow Hannah hive and the green Wendy hive are still working their honey supers.  We removed the bell jar from the Wendy hive, the bees weren't really building in it and we also noticed that the honey right cells right below the bell jar was not capped.  Groundskeeper Hans check the hives last weekend and thought he saw condensation inside the jar too.  I decided to remove it, fearing that the recent heat and humidity was affecting the hive.

queen cell

The red Juliet hive appears to have swarmed.  It was quieter in the front and there did not seem to be as many workers in the hive.  We took out a frame and found some in progress queen cells...and now I just noticed an egg in that empty cell on the left, maybe she hasn't swarmed yet?  This hive is behaving very much like our very first Kitty hive.  I remember Kitty was a little behind and still had some space in her hive, but still went into swarm mode.  The red Juliet hive had plenty of room, I added a third brood box early and both the middle and top boxes were not completely filled and this hive apparently still feels crowded and swarming is a good idea.  I'm concerned about this hive filling out her box enough for winter, but not so much about the swarm.


If she wants to swarm, I'm not going to stop her.  We have set up an empty hive in our bee yard in the hopes that a swarm will move in, but that's has far as I want to go.  Bees do what they want to do sometimes.

After the bee inspection, I went around to take photos.  I was just about to leave when I thought that it's been kind of humid, I should check the oak for sulphur shelf. Alas, no sulphur shelf and I thought, "I should check the other oak for Hen of the Woods, but it seems early."  I almost turned around to leave but thought that I walked that far, I might as well check.

hen of the woods

Boy, am I glad I did!  I found Hen of the Woods!  A whole month earlier than I normally do thanks to our very cool summer weather--this is my FAVORITE edible mushroom.  I ran back to the house grabbed Lorraine and Groundskeeper Hans to show them.  As I was harvesting the tasty edible fungus, I marveled at how we almost missed it and found some start up of more Hen of the Woods next to this large clump, so hopefully more will come.  This was a bit older than what I normally harvest, but I was able to get all the bugs out before I froze it.

wood frog

This wood frog hopped out of the clump as I cut off the brackets.  I'm sure it was after all the bugs crawling around it.  I left some behind in the hopes that spores would grow more fungus and so the frog could have some bugs since I disturbed his bug buffet.

Jeff Gordon's Mad Field Trippin' Skillz

Here are some slightly blurry, but oh so cool crested caracaras:

So on Friday I went birding on the King Ranch field trip to look for that ferruginous pygmy owl. It was supposed to be a chigger-ful area and after last year, you would think I would show more caution. Many were using duct tape to cover up shoe lace openings to prevent a chigger foot infestation:

The field trip leaders provided a plethora of colors for people to choose from.

Some even tried to cover up their sandals.

Some couldn't decide on which color to use.

Others (myself included) decided to throw caution to the wind and try our luck. To my surprise, I didn't get any chigger bites of my feet--whoot!

So Jeff Gordon--aka Jeff Gyr was one of the leaders on that trip. I knew Jeff was a good guy, great birder, all around fun to spend the day with, but I really had no idea of how good a field trip leader he is. Not only does he have a fun and easy going style and will work to get you the bird you want, but he goes the extra mile of really explaining what is going on--where to stand, when to be quiet and for how long--just several little things that really puts him over the top in the world of trip leading.

One of my favorite parts of the trip was this Sprague's pipit above. I had seen these at the Potholes and Prairie Bird Fest in North Dakota and it's not a species I expected to photograph. You usually don't see them until they are flushed or if they are doing a display flight. They kind of circle up in the air, almost as if they were climbing stairs. Then they fly around and do a little kiting (in the breeding season, they give their haunting call) and then they drop like a stone from the sky and land on the ground--not easy to photograph, let alone digiscope. Well, Jeff had everyone line up in a certain way, flush the bird and we got to watch it do its flight routine (without the song). After it landed, he had most of us stay on the other side of the field while he and a small group walked near where it landed. They moved slowly and followed the bird and eventually the bird walked out into the open--and even on to the gravel road--the whole group of 50 some odd people got to see the Sprague's pipit. Well played, Mr. Gordon, well played.

We also found a couple of other interesting things like this small mantis and...

and some sulphur shelf--no, I didn't collect and eat this one. Kind of hard to cook it when all you have in your room is a coffee pot.

Waking Up In The City That Never Sleeps

More Cape May coverage is coming, probably on Wednesday when I'm back home in the Twin Cities.

I just woke up in my friend Mimi's apartment listening to the sounds of the city below. Yesterday was a whirlwind and I found the Talking Heads' song Once In A Lifetime running through my mind, especially the "And you may ask did I get here?" I left Cape May and drove to New York. Actually, I dropped my rental car off at Newark and had a driver take me to the city where I had a meeting at Harper Collins and they took me out to lunch at a fancy restaurant. I like to think that I get some culture living in Minneapolis, but this truly was a posh spot--amazing tasting food, practically a work of art when served, but every menu item had at least two (and in some cases more) components I couldn't pronounce or identify. So it was fun to just randomly pick and enjoy what was served. I had to suppress a Gomer Pyle-esque "Gooawwwly!"

Everyone was incredibly nice and it was fun to note that pages from a Disapproving Rabbits book proof were taped up outside of everyone's office.

They even tacked up a page in the women's restroom bulletin board! Not too far from a hunky cowboy calendar--nice touch! After the meeting, I met up with Mimi to unloaded my suitcases in her apartment (that's on the fifth floor...with no elevator). I got settled, and that afternoon we went to Central Park to look for Pale Male. Can I say how much I love that New York has a bird related tourist attraction and that it's a red-tailed hawk?

We walked outside the park on 5th Avenue and found the building where the nest is located. It's hard to see, but the nest is at the top and towards the center. Here is a closer look:

The nest is on an arch over the center window. It was hard to see and I couldn't figure out how to digiscope it. I was thinking back to all the photos of the nest and knew there had to be a different spot for observation. We headed into the park.

We found the spot where the hawk watchers hang out and it was a much better view of the nest:

Alas, Pale Male or any of his mates and offspring were not around, but it was fun seeing the whole area that's been covered in the news. I do get kick out of the Pale Male battles page. Some of the stuff the fans get angry about are good--like pesticide use. But some of them like the birds of prey show or kites I disagree with. Like the birds of prey show--the writer wonders how the red-tails feel about this invasion on their territory--I can tell you, they can deal with it. In the wild in Minnesota, red-tails deal with eagles, falcons, owls all sorts of raptors in their territory. Also, raptors have excellent vision, they can see leashes, jesses, a hoard of humans surrounding the captive birds--they're gonna stay away. Sure, they'll do a fly by, maybe even a territory cry, but it's not the worst part of the day.

And kites--well, kite string in trees is more dangerous to nest gathering songbirds than to a red-tail. And again, red-tails can deal with kite flying, they figure it out. And, this is about the most common bird in the country--cool yes--but incredibly abundant. They know how to live around us. Still, better to have people embracing the birds and wanting to help, than wanting to get rid of them.

We did find some red-tail evidence near the nest--here's a piece of gray squirrel tail. Someone's had a good hunt.

There were all sorts of migrants in the park. Hoards of robins were hidden in trees and flocks covered the ground. White-throated sparrows were scurrying under shrubs and kicking up leaves. Even hermit thrushes were all over--some landed on railings as were walking by. Very cool to see the birds and interesting to note how habituated they are to humans--letting us get so close.

I was super excited and surprised to find this in Central Park! Hen of the Woods! I pointed it out to Mimi and offered to cook some up for her, but she was wary. She said it was one thing to eat it out of someone's yard, but she wasn't sure of eating it off of a tree in Central Park. So, all you New Yorkers reading the blog may want to head over today and grab it...although, I might go back and grab it before I catch my flight tonight...if I can figure out how to get it in my suitcase.

Since we didn't get the tasty mushrooms, Mimi took me to Gyu-kaku a Japanese BBQ place--where we cooked our own meat and veggies. It was so tasty and who doesn't love to grill? The meat practically melts in your mouth.

So, I need to get out of the comfy bed and get ready for more meetings. More later.

Hen Of The Woods

I don't have any excuse or text to really go with this red-breasted nuthatch, I just thought it was cute, perched in the sun.

So, this morning I went to check on the shaggy mane mushrooms I found yesterday and they were well on their way to be coming an inky cap. Here's an up close shot of the inky:

Check it out, it kind of looks like blood, so that combined with the auto digestion just creeps me out and makes me not want to eat it. However, I took a walk with Non Birding Bill and not far from where we found the sulphur shelf tree, we found:

Hen of the Woods! Super Yummy! Mr. Neil found some last year and asked all of us to keep an eye open while he's been traveling so we could harvest and save it for him. Hen of the Woods is different than Chicken of the Woods (that's sulphur shelf) and as I understand it, gets its name from looking like a fluffed up chicken sitting on the ground. It's also known as maitake which you may find from time to time in grocery stores.

Check it out, mushrooms bigger than my head (now that is big). Usually when you find them, you find several pounds at a time. I called my buddy Stan to do a little bragging and find out what his favorite way is to preserve them. He highly recommended drying them. There was plenty to go around, so I decided to freeze some and to dry some so Mr. Neil could have some options when he gets home.

First thing I had to do was slice them up and make sure to get the bugs and dirt off them. The slices reminded me of coral.

Check out the cool patterns in the stem, kind of reminds me of a geode.

Even NBB couldn't wait to eat the mushrooms. I put some of the slices on a cookie sheet making sure they weren't touching and placed them in the deep freezer. Once they were rock solid, I put them in baggies and left them in the freezer.

Per Stan's instructions, I chopped some of the slices into one inch pieces and put them in the food dehydrator. Stan prefers this method because when you rehydrate them, you end up creating a very rich mushroom broth this is perfect for soups.

By the end of the day the pieces were dry and we placed them in mason jar for later use.

By the end of the day, the inky cap was very black and surprisingly dry. There are more popping up in the yard and in the woods.

Here's the inside of the inky cap, kinda freaky.

And now I realized that I am very tired and must get to sleep if I'm going to wake up in time for banding.

Death By Propolis?

Well, here's something unexpected. I went to put some feeder pails out for the Kitty and Olga hives today. When I opened the lid to Olga, I found a drone stuck by the head to the propolis trap.

I could see him hanging when I lifted the lid. When I set it on the ground, he remained rigid in this head stand position. He's been dead awhile, but he sort of looks like he's in some weird yoga pose. I wonder how he managed that? Perhaps the workers did it because they are tired of the drones eating the honey and doing nothing but going on their daily flights to look for a queen to mate with and return day after day, unsuccessful virgins. It's easy to tell if a drone is still a virgin--because it's still alive. Once they mate with a queen, they die in process.

The Olga hive has been in propolis overload. When I went to switch the feeder pail, they had glued it to the boards with propolis. I admire their efforts, but it makes feeding them a bit of a challenge.

In other news, I found a fifth edible fungus in Mr. Neil's yard today--a shaggy mane. I've read different explanations of how tasty it is, but I didn't try it because I didn't have time to prepare it and once you pick it, the fungus will quickly autodigest turning into a black liquid--bleh. It will do it a little slower if you don't pick it, which is what give this mushroom its folk name, the inky cap. Plus, Mr. Neil isn't in town and no one else around seems as interested in the wild edible shrooms.

Working The Minnesota State Fair

Man, this week has just turned nutty. I thought I had more time than I really did but between Non Birding Bill and myself, we have an action-packed schedule.

I forgot to mention that NBB is doing some children's theater at local Twin Cities parks. Cinnamon and I went out last Saturday night to watch the show. Kids in the audience loved it. Cinnamon on the other hand...If you're looking for some free entertainment for your kids, here's the remaining performance dates.

We did do the State Fair with just the two of us. I tried one of the new MN State Fair foods. Can you tell what I'm eating? Here's a clue:

That's right, SPAM. And not just SPAM bites. I was trying the deep fried SPAM curds. If you love SPAM, you'll love the curds. If you're not a huge fan, well it's just weird. It's cheese flavored SPAM, battered, deep fried and served with ranch dressing. I'll stick with elephant ears. I don't know if you can see it on the SPAM menu, but there's a big note that all of the menu items do not have trans fats. Yeah, because when you think diet and healthy, you think fair food.

We got lots of disapproving rabbit photos in the bunny barn, but we'll save those for the daily dose of disapproval. But above is a sampling.

And of course, no State Fair experience is complete for me without a visit to the crop art room. The big winner this year? A portrait of Dolly Parton!

And it was nice to see someone using their art to communicate an important conservation issue: Cats Indoors!

Al Franken was a popular subject for the crop art since he's now running for the US Senate. My personal favorite was the top portrait with the reason he's running being Franken's Staurt Smalley mantra, "I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!"

Today, I did my first of three shifts at for the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union. I had so much fun, I ended up staying for part of the shift after mine. We're seeing lots of birds flying over the state fair. I watched a big old honkin' Cooper's hawk flying just above the trees and landing near the midway. We've also seen merlins, red-tailed hawks, common yellowthroats, and chickadees. It's fun to catch up with old friends--and I have some cool friends.

My friend, Kelly Larson showed up with a huge pile of sulphur shelf. Kelly's been a longtime mushroom hunter and we used to work at the Wild Bird Store together. One of my favorite memories was when she sent me some oyster mushrooms that she had found through the inter-office mail system.

This is a little different than the sulphur shelf we found in Mr. Neil's yard. That one was bright yellow and was growing on the trunk of an oak tree. The stuff Kelly brought is a subspecies that grows on the ground near an oak tree, you'll note it isn't as bright yellow on the bottom as the other stuff. Kelly rocks and as I'm typing this entry, I'm cooking the sulphur shelf in some chicken stock right now It always pays to keep some chicken stock on hand.


That little bit up there was Cinnamon hopping on my keyboard to let me know that she would like some attention. I can't believe she actually ended it win an explanation point--seriously, that was her, not me. Anyway, I have to wrap this up.

Giant Puffball

Look what I found walking along the trail in Mr. Neil's woods...

Oh no, not another edible wild mushroom post! I just realized that as of this post that I have now eaten each of the "foolproof four"--edible wild mushrooms that cannot be mistaken for anything else in North America. Not only that, I have had all four from Mr. Neil's yard, though I've had them from other places, this is the only yard I know of that has had all four at some point and time. I have eaten morels, sulphur shelf, hen of the woods, and now giant puffball--a first. This friendship is finally paying off.

One note: I have read about edible wild mushrooms and I have friends who are knowledgeable in the field of mycology who I can talk to about my finds. Do not try for wild mushrooms based solely on me. Read up on them, talk to your local wild mushroom club and when you personally feel comfortable, go out and find them. A great starter book is Start Mushrooming (by my buddy Stan Tekiela and Karen Shanberg). That book actually talks about the "safe six" but I'm not comfortable in my identification ability with shaggy mane and oyster mushrooms, so I currently stick with the "foolproof four". Plus, I have some hesitation eating anything "shaggy".

Okay, so in the grand scheme of giant puffballs, this isn't the biggest that has ever been found, but I found it the morning Mr. Neil was leaving for a few weeks and he and I have both wanted to try puffball. We always manage to find them well past their edibility date. I decided to grab it and take it back to the house to freeze it so he could eat it when he gets back or maybe even get a bite before he hit the road for the airport. I checked Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America and found that you can either partially cook giant puffball and freeze it or just freeze it raw. I had enough, I thought I would thaw both cooked and raw slices.

I sliced it up and happily only found one millipede on the inside--there could have been much more. It had an overwhelming mushroomy smell. I can think of no other way to describe it, except that smelled like a bouquet of mushrooms.

The texture was very spongy--kind of like a firm marshmallow.

The book warned to be careful cooking the puffball slices, as they can dry out and burn quickly. After I sauteed them a bit, I cut off a piece for Mr. Neil and a piece for myself. It was an interesting taste. It's not a strong flavor at all--sulphur shelf and hen of the woods both have more personality in their flavor. The texture was surprising soft and wet, almost soggy--not nearly as firm as other wild fungus I've eaten. I think this will go well in an egg dish, maybe a summer pasta dish, or even a ratatouille. Unlike sulphur shelf, I would not eat this sauteed alone. It needs some other flavors to enhance it. However, I can see that if I were someone surviving off the land that puffball would be a hearty meal to be happily discovered.

So, after cooking and sampling, I wrapped each slice in wax paper to separate them and put the slices in freezer bags. I did the same with the raw slices (and took a few slices home for Non Birding Bill and myself--although, he's not nearly as excited as I am over my new found bounty).

Sulphur Shelf aka Chicken of the Woods aka Yummy

So many questions about the sulphur shelf mushroom that we found on an oak tree while walking out to the hives on Saturday.

Did we really eat it? Yes, and had plenty leftover for storage.

Sulphur shelf is also known as Chicken of the Woods and is one of the "Foolproof Four"--one of four edible mushrooms that you cannot mistake for anything poisonous in North America. Many claim this is a favorite to eat, and though I enjoy sulphur shelf very much, I must say that Hen of the Woods is my favorite thus far (I have yet to sample giant puffball).

Though sulphur shelf can be huge and yield quite a bit of food, the best parts are the tender outer edges. I cut off about an inch of flesh off of each bracket for a few reasons: fewer bugs, more tender and flavorful flesh, it's more likely to keep growing and we can harvest again this summer, and other critters might want to eat it.
Even just taking the edges, I still had an over flowing bowlful of food! This is such a colorful fungus, it's really fun to just take a moment and admire all the beauty of bright orange and sunny yellows, even after you cut into the flesh.

A good sign that you are cutting the fungus at the right time is that will drip after you cut it, this sulphur shelf was dripping like crazy--a good sign for freshness and flavor. We took the pieces inside and Mr. Neil rinsed them in water and filled the bowl with about equal parts water and white vinegar to kill off any bugs still inside. If you ever find chicken of the woods--don't let bugs keep you from trying it--the vinegar trick works GREAT and the flavor is well worth it.

The fates were with us, because the night before, Mr. Neil had roasted a chicken and he saved the carcass. It's a good idea to cook fungus before eating, this makes it easier to digest. We put the carcass, some potatoes, carrots, and a little chicken stock in a pot with some water and added the sulphur shelf--it was a wonderful aroma. The fungus boiled in the broth for about a half hour and we removed three baggies worth for freezing and saved the rest for dinner.

Just from simmering in the chicken broth, the chicken of the woods was most tasty. Even though this is a safe fungus to eat, it's still a good idea to only eat a small amount for your first serving to see how your gastrointestinal tract reacts with it, so we only had a small amount with dinner. When you eat it, you can really feel a chicken like texture in your mouth, but the flavor reminds me somewhat of eggs. We ate the sulphur shelf from the soup, but saved the broth for later.

And speaking of eggs, this morning I sauteed some of the sulphur shelf in butter with some onions and corn tortillas and mixed that with some scrambled eggs. Sort of an extra ingredient to my migas recipe.

Our friend, Jody the Librarian added some melted cheese and it was a mighty fine breakfast (we also had some of our plain yogurt with honey from the Olga hive--decadence!)

For lunch, Mr. Neil took out the soup he started the night before, heated it up and added some eggs--for a sort of egg drop soup. I think this was my favorite way we had the fungus all weekend. It was so meaty and juicy from being in the broth all night. We even had some roasted with marinated chicken breast for dinner and as I type this, more sits in the freezer, and yet even more is growing on the tree--another brand spanking new bracket was found this evening. Now that's what I call a giving tree.

There are several books out there on getting started with wild mushrooms. One I started with was written by my buddy Stan called Start Mushrooming. Another good one is Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America.

Guess What We're Having For Dinner Tonight?

Found on the way to inspecting the beehives today--ginormous (I've used it twice in a week, I'll stop) sulphur shelf! I was going to say this fungus is as big as your head, but that's Non Birding Bill for size comparison and it's already bigger than his head--and he has an unusually large cranium to begin with! (Seriously, he's not egotistical, he really does have a large head--to hold that massively huge brain--it's why I love him.)

I am so hungry!

FYI - fun bee post coming soon!