Nothing says spring in Southern Illinois like wandering through the creek bottoms listening to the hoot owls call, the turkeys gobble and mushrooms underfoot.
Ever since my beloved friend Skippy died, a barred owl has been my nearly constant companion in the woods. Call me crazy – but I feel like it’s Skippy, going along like always, keeping watch like always. Some places the owl is very, very tolerant of me. Sits next to me on fence posts and tree limbs while I rest.
Shortly after we lost Skippy I noticed that a barred owl was frequently tree hopping, hooting and always seemed to be around. Friends have grown accustomed to me answering a hoot owl in the distance “Hiya Skippy – hope all is well on your side…”. It’s gone on long enough that no one questions it anymore.
While it’s a somewhat crazy belief, it brings me comfort. It makes me happy so…so be it.
Spring is one of those times when I miss my friend acutely. Acutely enough that at least once or twice each spring I find myself sitting on a creek bank, having lengthy conversations with my owl companion. An extremely tolerant and curious companion.
Yesterday was one of those days. I was tromping through the places that Skippy and I spent hours upon hours, I missed him. I missed everyone that’s now gone. All those that I had ever hunted with, spent time afield with, every damn dog I have ever owned. And every log I sat on to rest, there was the owl – fluttering in just over head.
Apparently my constant yammering and wandering even wore him out a bit - and at times he appeared to be sleeping.
As we headed back out, the owl parked himself on fence post and commenced. I felt like Skippy was trying to tell me that all was right with the world, and that as long as I was heading home with stringer of fish, a sack of mushrooms, and knew where the turkeys were roosting, life was good.
Big Reds, Beefsteaks, Brains, Red Morels, these odd looking mushrooms that usually flush at the beginning of morel season go by many different colloquial names.
The truth is they are in no way at all related to morels. These mushrooms are the Gyromitra species and superficially resemble the morels. They can be found in roughly the same areas as the true morels and the two genera often grow in close proximity to one another. In southern IL “reds” are most often found at the very base of trees, stumps, or along fallen logs.
There’s lots of confusion when folks start finding these. Technically they are NOT considered edible, although in some areas and some cultures they are considered prized edibles.
The difficulties with these often huge mushrooms are many, and that’s why I personally do not recommend them as edible to anyone who has never eaten them before or anyone who is not very cognizant of the associated risks.
According to my favorite mushroom expert Tom Volk:
“Eight to ten species of Gyromitra exist on the North American continent and about two or three in Europe. Although they are much sought after in Europe as an edible species (Gyromitra esculenta), 2 to 4 per cent of all mushroom fatalities are associated with them. It is not clear whether the same species occurs in North America, although we call one species here by that name. The active ingredient is called gyromitrin (N-methyl-N-formylhydrazine), which is metabolized to monomethylhydrazine (rocket fuel!) in the body. Eaten raw, most of the Gyromitra spp. are quite poisonous. In an attempt to prevent poisoning caused by ingesting the mushrooms, they are usually parboiled to evaporate the gyromitrin, which gives off a chocolaty odor. The process is usually repeated twice, with the water being discarded each time. However, the volatile chemical can be inhaled through the nose, and enough can be left in the mushrooms to cause illness when eaten. So just standing near the boiling pot of mushrooms can cause problems, and there is still the possibility of poisoning by ingestion.”
BUT – how does all that jive with the many, many, people who have always eaten them without difficulty? Especially in southern Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas?
My suspicion is that the ones that grow in those areas are actually Gyromitra caroliniana; of all the Gyromitra species it appears to have the very lowest levels, if any gyromitrin. But can you really be certain that is the species? Can you really be certain that it contains low levels of the toxin – no you can’t. it’s not something that you can easily and quickly test in the field. To determine exactly which species of Gyromitra you have in front of you takes some fairly good mushroom ID skills.
The other tricky part of consuming these mushrooms is that the effects of the toxin are cumulative and none of us really know when we will hit the threshold. Is it six meals or 66? Maybe even the first one will be the one that gets you.
There are so many ifs, buts, and unknowns that go with these mushrooms that I never recommend them as edible. Do I still pick them? Yes, many of the older folks still savor them and have eaten them their entire lives. Even I ate them for years, but after some medications damaged my liver I decided to not continue to tempt fate. Add to that they are also toxic to the central nervous system and mine is already under siege from the Multiple Sclerosis – well, it just didn’t seem prudent to continue eating them.
My best advice – Don’t eat them. If you have always eaten them, just know that someday it may really bite you in the fanny.
What you can do though, is to remember that often true morels are very close by, and certainly if the Big Reds are flushing its likely morels are having a good flush too. Use them to aid you in your hunt for regular morels.
Have you eaten these? How did you prepare them? Is it a mushroom you have long enjoyed? Please tell us! I’m trying to gather experiences and see just how far north they seem to be regularly eaten with no difficulty, so tell me about your experiences please!
I think we are all familiar with the killdeer - those little funny shore birds that aren’t always relegated to “shores” but can be found in pastures, grasslands, driveways and golf courses.
While out and about making my rounds a few days ago I notice that one of the killdeer appeared to be setting on her nest. I fully expected to see the pop up and fly away distraction technique that we commonly see the nesting killdeer exhibit, or at a bare minimum the typical broken wing display. Predators are strongly attracted to an injured bird . The killdeer moves a short distance away from the nest; beats one wing on the ground and the other will be twisted up over its back. This behavior together with its loud calling is enough to distract the predator away from the nest site.Killdeer are some of the best-known practitioners of the broken-wing display, an attempt to lure predators away from a nest by feigning injury. What I wasn’t ready for was the other nest defense they employ to scare off large hoofed animals.
All at once, the killdeer erupted - hopping and squawking and charging right at me and the lens.
Since killdeer nests are often in the grass areas that large hoofed animals frquent, and those nests are really only shallow depressions with sme sticks and stones in them, the nests are very vulnerable to some large footed creature just stepping on the nest and smashing the eggs or chicks. Thus, different tactics are used with a horse, a cow or deer. Interestingly enough, in these cases, the killdeer seldom leaves the nest until the animal is just about ready to step on it. At that point, the killdeer flies at the face of the intruder and frequently strikes it on the face. This usually causes the animal to retreat and the nest is saved.
While it didn’t exactly frighten me off - I had to make some quick camera adjustments, because not only did the killdeer see me as cow, it saw the lens as something to have a go at. In mere seconds the kill deer fluffed out it’s tail feathers, screamed in squawked and poof came right at me.
I conceded defeat, stepped back a few paces and the killdeer continues with it’s defense display, not bothering with broken wing show until the very end.
I’m keeping a fairly close eye on this particular nest, so that when the precocial hatchlings arrive I am ready for those fast little buggers. The fact that they are precocial hatchlings is what accounts for the long incubation time (average of 24 days) . Baby killdeer have to literally hit the ground running when they hatch and are not nearly as dependent on parents as are birds whose hatchling fall into the altricial category and are utter helpless, naked, blin etc such as robins, sparrows etc. helpless condition.
Currently the parents are becoming a bit more trusting of me and I haven’t gotten the full on attack since the first day, but they still jump up, fluff out those tail feathers and screech up storm when they first see me. After a few moments though it’‘s more of a “Oh it’s just that cow in Muck boots again. Guess she won’t step on us after all.” and they just go back to sitting on the nest and offering me the occasional evil eye and loud screech.