How Many Rivers?

March 4, 2011

Whenever I make a move, as I did recently, I take an inventory of what my resources are.  I recently moved back to Olympia after a short gig in Skagit County.  I am starting a new job that is broadening my scope of professional and natural history awareness.  I find myself wondering as I try to convince others that watersheds are worth saving–how many rivers are in my region?

My desk in the Eastside neighborhood, Olympia, Thurston County, WA.

Part of my new job with WSU Extension is to use on-line media to reach out to residents of Alaska, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.  We want people to commit to making a difference for the watershed by taking the Pacific Northwest Clean Waters Challenge.

As with any good project I take on, I like to do some research and find more information.

After 8 years of living in the Puget Sound basin, I realize that I can name 13 rivers that flow into the Puget Sound–just off the top of my head.  There are at least 35 total according to some sources.  Make that 10 rivers I can name off the top of my head if I consider Alaska, Idaho, Washington and Oregon–I am sure there are many more than that though.  How many can you list?

Why is it important?  Someone told me, “If you don’t know what you have, you won’t know what you have missed.”  If we as residents of our place don’t make an effort to know they places and systems significant to our region, then we have no foundation for learning more and taking care of them.

Our rivers and watersheds provide vital services to the community.  Beyond the obvious service of providing safe, clean drinking water, they also serve our daily household needs.  Industry uses water in various ways, such as the making of paper.  For every sheet of paper, 10 liters/0.26 US gallons is needed.  A cotton t-shirt requires 2700 liters/713.26 US gallons (Water Footprint Network).  In addition, water in rivers, creeks and lakes provide necessary habitat for fresh water and salt water species (some are both like salmon).

The Pacific Salmon come back to finish their cycle in the creeks and rivers by laying down their lives and seeds for a new generation.  The new generation will rely on the habitat for many things including water bugs/aquatic macro-invertebrates.  So will the cycle continue as many species from bears to birds rely on the salmon at both ends of the salmon life cycle.  Even the trees in the forest need the nutrients from the salmon carcasses.  Those trees and soils absorb excess water and protect us from flooding.

When I start to look at my resources, I realize there are many rivers–names I have known and some I have never heard.  Some I have visited–others will have to be on my list.

An ocean-bound river system consists of many tributaries–creeks, rivers and lakes.  The combined water coming off the basin quickly combines into one channel, our largest rivers, before pouring to the sea.  I know the water system is more complicated than that as you consider the ground water contributions to the river and the contribution the river makes to groundwater–not to mention how humans influence quantity.  I feel for the hydrologists in our state.

According to one source, Washington state has 167 distinctly named rivers and creeks total in the state.  Most of these combine to flow into our Ocean–only 70 rivers meet the Sea.  The combined power of 167 is forced into 70 channels.  They include names like: Calawah River, Chehalis River, Chewuch River, Chilliwack River, Chinook River, Chiwaukum Creek, Chiwawa River, Clallam River, Cle Elum River and Cowlitz River–bearing witness to indigenous peoples of the land.  Others: American River, Dickey River, Foss River, Kelsey Creek, Lewis River, McAleer Creek, Miller River, Nason Creek and Pratt River–other heritages.  Imaging a map with names conjures images of incredibly complicated vein patterns like those on a leaf.

More impressively are Alaska’s 110 rivers that flow to the Ocean–Bering Sea, Arctic Basin and Gulf of Alaska.  Those 110 rivers are fed by 212 tributaries (rivers and creeks) feeding a system that reaches across our largest state–13.77% of the total  area is water.  The top ten longest: Yukon River – 1,980 miles (3,190 km); Kuskokwim River – 724 miles (1,165 km); Noatak River – 425 miles (684 km); Stikine River – 379 miles (610 km); Colville River – 350 miles (560 km); Susitna River – 313 miles (504 km); Copper River – 300 miles (480 km); Kobuk River – 280 miles (450 km); Alsek River – 240 miles (390 km) and the Nushagak River – 242 miles (389 km).

Idaho is interesting as it is further inland than the coastal states.  It has rivers that flow to the Ocean and others that snake into interior basins and toward Utah.  The rivers that flow to the Ocean do so through the singular Columbia River.  121 rivers and creeks feed the huge Columbia River that flows through Washington and along Oregon and then to the Ocean.  15 rivers and creeks feed interior basins–though 9 of these are linked underground to the Snake which feeds the Columbia.  In Idaho there are three Camas Creeks–each feeding a different river.

Oregon state receives plenty of rain too and most of that water snakes across the state before flowing back to the Ocean.  30 main rivers flow to the Ocean–one shared with WA and two with California.  189 rivers and creeks are fed into this system.  Finally, 10 rivers eventually evaporate back into the clouds in the eastern desert basins.  There many forks in Oregon–though the water doesn’t get lost: North Fork Alsea River, North Fork Breitenbush River, North Fork Bull Run River, North Fork Clackamas River, North Fork Crooked River, North Fork John Day River, North Fork Malheur River, North Fork Middle Fork Willamette River, North Fork Owyhee River, North Fork Siuslaw River, North Fork Smith River, North Fork Smith River, North Fork Sprague River and the North Fork Umatilla River.

In total, in case you weren’t counting, that is 211 main rivers that need protection, 829 total that flow through the states of Alaska, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.  And that is not counting British Columbia–600 miles of Western Canada coastline.


I have learned in my work that many of these rivers are loved by locals and receive special attention.  Some examples here in WA include Friends of the Cedar River Watershed and The Nisqually River Council.  It doesn’t take long to search out and find your local resource group.  Here is a regional listing.

Since I am fairly new to this town, I am curious what and where my local waterways and bodies are.  I know the water flowing off my lawn and drive goes to East Bay, Budd Inlet in Olympia.  The Deschutes River flows into West Bay.  What is the creek that I see coming out from under the street and through the outflow pipe?  How long has it been since this creek has seen light at the mouth–where original Olympians filled in the estuary to make way for downtown development?  How long has it been since salmon swam up that creek–or did they not?

I have hiked several times in the watershed.  The City of Olympia has a nice park–Watershed Park with trails.  I should dig deeper–another time I will have to answer those questions.

Stay curious–dive deep–take care!

Brief Hiatus

July 16, 2010

I find that when I get the busiest is when I need to get out the most.  I have been pretty busy the since a move to Thurston County in March.  I went from 1/4 of a job to 1 1/2 jobs and now three.  What do I miss the most?

7th Ave SW, Westside Olympia, Thurston County, WA.

I think the thing I miss the most is being surrounded by the hush of the deep forest and the humid air that only comes with the fall, winter or spring showers.  Summer is here and the rain has stopped coming for the most part.  I am more of an animal person, so it surprises me a little that I miss the plants.

I have found a good amount of delight in growing some of my own food in the last two months.    It started with an idea about 10 years ago and has finally germinated.  It has really filled a niche– to be connecting with the plant world in a more meaningful way.

I only planted as many starts as I could fit in my bicycle trailer, but it has exploded to ridiculous proportions.  The cauliflower was the one that surprised me the most.  My 64 sqf raised beds were not enough to contain this behemouth of a plant- especially since I planted them next to brocolli.

Planting was an experiment as I had no idea what sizes they would grow to or how much light they would need.

Pests were another issue.  I had decided to grow organic.  I figured on the scale I would be easy. So far the weeds are very manageable. My primary pest has been aphids.  For some reason, they have really been enjoying my broccoli.  I picked two heads yesterday and was surprised to find one completely covered in all the nooks and crannies by aphids.  A jet sprayer was a quick solution.  The other head, that was only inches away, didn’t even have one.

Why the difference?  It was like night and day.  Did that one particular plant have some kind of resistance?  How did the aphids end up there in the first place?  How do they disperse?  Are there organic ways to keep the pests off?

I am sad to say that I will be leaving my fruits to my roommate.  I will be moving to Mount Vernon, WA and the Skagit Valley for a new job.  Stay tuned for more notes!

Climbed A Tree Recently?

April 8, 2010

Wouldn’t it be cool if you could live off of air, be up high on a perch to take in the world, and could cling in precarious places?  No, I’m not talking about mountain goats or my mountaineer friends (who wish they could be mountain goats- mostly).  I am describing the world of epiphytes.  They are amazing!

Tumwater Falls Park, Deschutes River, Tumwater, Thurston County, Washington State.

Recently, I was walking through a public park on the Deschutes River, just south of Olympia, WA.  I got to pointing out various things to a new friend.  Having grown up in the desert Southwest, I can never seem to get enough of mossy trees- especially the Big Leaf maples.  They always remind me of the famous Truffula trees of Dr. Seuss’s, Lorax.  It is amazing that this huge (sometimes up to 35 m/115ft) tree can be a home in of itself.

Now if you remember your basic life science from 7th grade, then you recall that most plants need some pretty basic things: water, carbon dioxide air, minerals and nutrients.  Now traditionally, you think of plants as getting that from the ground.  So how is it that mosses and ferns seem to grow up off the ground in the air?

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni speaks of epiphytes in a recent lecture for TED. She also speaks of what life in the forest canopy is like. (Click TED to hear the lecture)

If you spend enough time in the canopies of the Northwest you might notice it is a wet place.  Wet even when the climate is driest- the summer months.  These interesting plants are poised in a place to take advantage of the place where the moisture is- in the clouds.  This mist and fog clings to their fine leaves and is quickly absorbed.

What is also amazing is that they nearly generate their own soil as the cycle of life turns- plants decomposing and turning back into soil.

The sad thing the Dr. Nadkarni explains is that if the mosses are stripped, they take a long time to grow back.  Her research will help answer some really interesting questions about forest canopies and epiphytes.

What is amazing is that we still have some neat examples of this unique system.  I didn’t grow up climbing trees.  I hope that our kids are given the time to get out and explore our forests.

I can see special plants springing out the moss mat such as the liquorice fern- one of my favorites (yes some of it tastes like liquorice!). And there are many more.

Since there are plants, and there is soil, and moisture- then there surely must be diversity in habitat for creatures too.  My question today is what insects also rely on the epiphyte communities?  If there are insects, which birds regularly visit them?  Do some them nest in the mat?  I am already curious and want to go back and explore some more.

If You Were a Superhero

January 18, 2010

If you were a superhero- what would your powers be ?  I have always been impressed by echinoderms as they harness the powers of water to leap over small boulders,  pry apart shells and stick to vertical or inverted surfaces.  Ok, maybe leap is not the right word- crawl.

Touch tank 3, Marine Exhibit, Port Townsend Marine Science Center, Ft. Worden State Park, Port Townsend, Quimper Peninsula, Jefferson County, Washington State, USA.

I am regular a volunteer for the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.  I am on the “home crew”.  I do maintenance every Tuesday morning with a small crew of other volunteers.  We range in age from 20’s to 70’s.  That means I go in the morning and help keep the aquariums health and the critters taken care of.  That involves scrubbing, siphoning detritus and feeding the critters.  We usually do it to the sound of some soundtrack or discussion about current events.  The best part is watching nature unfold in front of us.  This includes births and deaths.  We watched an octopus lay 2000 eggs- Ruby the East Pacific Red octopus.  She died just last week- that is what they do naturally after laying eggs.   We have watched the Giant Pacific octopus come out of her brick-shelter and eat a Squat lobster with much enthusiasm.

Sometimes it is the little details that I find amazing.  Every marine creature has its own specialized adaptations that allow its species to compete and thrive in the marine environment- by the way, which makes up 99 percent of earth’s habit.  It such a foreign environment to most of us that is hard to understand our marine critters.  We also don’t spend much energy on learning about them.  The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cite that we only know about 275,000 marine species and that we have only explored 5% of our Earth’s oceans.  I find the adaptation of the taxonomic group (phylum) Echinodermata- absolutely fascinating.

What is the difference between adaptation and acclimation?  If it is hot during the summer where I live, my body will have to acclimate to the difference.  When I hike tall mountains in low oxygen, my body will have to acclimate and my blood will be thicker. All creatures have a range they can live in and the ability to acclimate a little depending on the species.  If Earth’s conditions changed dramatically, our species will likely adapt over time.  That will only happen if our species has the right stuff- combination of DNA and the resulting attributes that help people survive.  We could also get lucky and new DNA will arise as a result of random mutation.  They key is how quick your generations can turn over as to how quick those mutations show-up in large enough numbers to compete.  That’s right, smaller life forms have it easy- bacteria, fruit flies, etc.  Yep- that is right we are lucky to be here.

I chose to start my feeding rounds with the Red urchins last Tuesday.  Urchins can be found in the San Juan Islands- as well as other places.  They eat Bull kelp as well as other algae.  You can think of them as the undersea equivalent of a lumberjack in a kelp forest.  Their natural predators are Sea otters.  We feed them little squares of kelp as well.

I lower the kelp into the water and hold it next to the urchin.  Almost immediately I see little red tentacles waving in the water toward the kelp.  I put it closer and they have a hold of the kelp and begin pulling it tighter.  I do this for the other dozen or so urchins- greens too.  I look back to where I started and see the kelp has nearly disappeared underneath the urchin’s body.   They look slow but they are steady and certainly persistent!

Urchins are members of the phylum Echinodermata.  As an echinoderm they pull in water to fill a specialized system.  You can think of them as the caterpillar tractors with all their hydraulic hoses that move the bucket arms around.  The specialized system is series of tubes with pumps called the water vascular system.  These tentacles I am witnessing are actually tube-feet that extend out from within the skeleton and through the skin.  With more pressure they extend and retract.  There are still conventional muscles that do the pumping and guiding.  These tube feet are handy in keeping the place tidy as others try to make a home among the spines and also for feeding apparently.  Everything found is headed to the mouth- yum, yum.

I can’t help but wonder how the urchin is even aware the kelp is there.  If you know urchins it is likely they don’t know you because they have no eyes.  That must mean that they are chemically sensing the “taste” of the nearby algae.  Where are the receptors?  On their tube-feet?  In the main body?   I don’t recall them having a tongue.  How does the tiny molecular signature of the kelp can travel through the water and alert the urchin?  How close does it need to be for them to sense it?  Wow what a superpower!  I will to have answers those questions another day.

We Must Weather the Weather

January 5, 2010

As I continue choosing my bicycle as my main form of transportation, I sometimes ask myself the question, “is it ever going to stop raining!”  Then I stop and remind myself that despite growing-up in the desert Southwest, I now live in the Pacific Northwest.

Port Townsend, Quimper Peninsula, Jefferson County, Washington State, USA.

Living in the Pacific Northwest can come with a certain amount of joy and hardship.  The hardship can quickly be turned into joy too if you look at the right way.  I moved to western Washington because I was attracted by the promises of the Emerald State.  If you know anything about plants, than you know that they need a certain amount of water to grow (along with other things).  In the desert the plants have evolved to survive the arid conditions and are sparse.  Vice versa, in a temperate rainforest, the plants have adapted to survive rain.  They do and they thrive and are dense.

I therefore have to acclimate and prepare for a climate that receives lots of rain if I am going to survive and thrive.  These days, it can be easy to ignore the climate if you spend most of your day indoors or in a vehicle- popping out only occasionally in transition from one to another.  Only when you are stuck out that one might be reminded how poorly prepared you might be.

I have had the opportunity to live in Seattle, Bellingham, Port Angeles and Port Townsend so far.  I can see the difference in all of these place- but they are still wetter than where I grew up in New Mexico.  Why?  When you study the water cycle in 4th grade you are told that water moves in and out of various states (gas, liquid, solid) and locations (ocean, air, surfaces, streams, plants, animals, ground water, aquifers, etc).  When you look at weather maps and notice where weather (air) is coming from here in Washington, you notice it comes mostly from the west.  It isn’t much of stretch to guess that most of our moisture is picked up in the air as it evaporates from the Pacific Ocean.

What a ride it must be as a water molecule; being bombarded by UV waves from the sun until you have enough energy to break free from the liquid ocean.  As you are carried upward and eventually condense with other molecules into clouds, you are being whipped along by the winds toward looming mountain ranges of the Olympic coast of Washington (or Vancouver Island in Canada).  The more condensation of other water molecules, the heavier you “feel”.  I would be pretty worried at this point if I was trying to get over the mountains.  Sure enough, much of the rain falls as precipitation (rain or snow) as it tries to get up and over the Olympics.  Forks, WA on the coast, receives just over 121 inches of precipitation annually- nearly 17 inches of that arrives in January.  The top of the range (Mt. Olympus at 7,965 ft/2,427 m) sees 130 inches each year.

An interesting effect is what most people refer to as the “rain shadow” effect.  Just like a mountain creates a shadow from the sun, so it does with the rain.  Here I am in Port Townsend, roughly 50 miles west-northwest of Mt. Olympus and I only experience just over 19 inches annually (2.17 inches in January)- What a difference!  And here I am complaining.  I could move to nearby Sequim, where the annual rainfall is just over 16 inches.

As the clouds are thinned of precipitation they have one more opportunity to pick-up evaporated water as they pass over the Puget Sound and the Straits of Georgia. Seattle receives 34.1 inches, Bellingham gets 36.3 inches and Vancouver, BC has 44 inches.  Of course, they then have to cross the North Cascade Range and by the time they reach Eastern Washington they are pretty dry (Yakima, WA= 8.3 inches).

The jet stream plays a very important role in where air is coming from and subsequently the moisture too.  I have noticed in the winter that our weather patterns flip from northwesterly to southeasterly.  Why is this?  Does this have to do with the position of the planet in relation to the sun?  Does if have to do with the temperature differences in different parts of the world?  As the average global temperature increase, how is this going to effect climate patterns here in the Pacific Northwest?  Should we expect warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers?  Now I am curious (and concerned).

What I do know is that, “Whether the weather be fine, whether the weather be not, whether the weather be cold, whether the weather be hot, we must weather the weather, whatever the whether, whether we like it or not”  (I learned that at outdoor school).  I just have to remind myself that I like the emerald environment, salmon streams in the summer and nice snowpack in the winter and to dress better.

Sedges Have Edges

December 8, 2009

What isn’t there to get excited about sedges?

Quimper Wildlife Corridor, trailhead off Cook Ave/Elmira St, west of Port Townsend, Quimper Peninsula, E. Jefferson County, Washington State, USA.

On a recent walk with docents from the Jefferson Land Trust, I discovered some great wetlands of the North Quimper Peninsula within a 20 minute bike ride or easily accessed from the #14 Jefferson Transit bus.  I was among at least a dozen others that came to explore the “Interconnections of the Forest”.

The Quimper Wildlife Corridor is a stretch of mostly undeveloped land stretching all across the North Quimper Peninsula. The 3.5-miles of native vegetation include a series of wetlands that make up a natural drainage corridor leading to Chinese Gardens near Fort Worden State Park.

The Jefferson Land Trust views the Quimper Wildlife Corridor as a great community asset, one that permanently preserves places for humans and wildlife.  There is more information about the project at their website.

We walk into the forest and our guide points out that it is likely that natives of the area maintained open fields of grasses with burning.  We did find a rather large Douglas fir that has been aged to near 500 years (though its height would have one guess younger).  It is obvious by the diameter of the surrounding Doug firs that the rest of the forest is much younger.

Our first stop is a small pocket wetland.  It isn’t what you might think- open expanse of water surrounded by a variety of native plants.  This wetland doesn’t have water at the moment but likely has at other times of the year or in recent years.  Wetlands were once known by other names such as bogs, swamps, marshes, estuaries and other river or lake shorelines.

When you look at the different kinds of vegetation, this area is markedly different.  Our tall conifers that shade the forest in the winter have given way to primarily deciduous “leafy” trees including willows and alders.  The undergrowth that was just recently salal bushes have transitioned to grass-like plants.  The first that come to my hands have long blades and runs nearly to my mid-thigh (about 3 ft from the ground).  Ok, I know that not all plants with long green blades without obvious flowers are grasses.

I think back to what my botany and naturalist friends would say: “Sedges have edges/Rushes are round/Grasses have nodes from the top to the ground”.  What a neat naturalist trick.

I reach down and feel the blade- sure enough it has very sharp edges and the docent confirms that it is a sedge. What is really meant by edges is that the stem is triangular.  I look at the blade closer and notice the underside is also very rough and likely has a high proportion of glass-like particles within the cell walls.  Sedges have been traditionally used as weaving materials for mats and chair seats.  The pith from one species was actually used as paper; “paprus”.  There are over 100 types of sedge and I am not looking close enough within the constrains of the walk-and-talk offered by the docent to note significant characteristics of this one for proper ID.

We walk through the trails that will eventually connect to ones that are part of Cappy’s Trails woods.  We stop a couple more times to see a couple more wetlands including Winona wetland off Bell and Emerald Streets.

I scan the trees for raptors and look for other signs of wildlife.  I don’t immediately find anything from my quick survey.

What is exciting is there are so many different kinds of vegetation and habitats.  Where you have transitions from one habitat to another, you tend to have the highest concentration of biodiversity.  More different habitat types mean more potential for different types of plants and critters; different soil chemistry and water saturation. There are more places to take shelter, find your food and the type of space you prefer.  This sudden arrival of sedges and new types of tree promises to attract critters to what they need as well- water.  The fact that these wetlands are not to far from one another and the forest is not overly developed, yet provides for a nice pathway or corridor for wildlife to move from one place to another.

I am happy to have discovered this section of the peninsula.

My question that grabs me now is how often to do these wetlands see standing water?  When was the last time there was water?  If the climate continues to change, how will these wetlands change?  What effect would that have one the movement of wildlife through this area?  I am accumulating more questions than I have time to answer- yet again for another time (rainy day)…

Winged Migration- a Wonder of the World

November 30, 2009

Witnessing part of winged migration is always a highlight of my fall and winter visits to Roswell, New Mexico.

Unit 3, Middle Tract, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Bitter Lakes Road off US 285, Roswell, Chavez County, New Mexico, USA.   Nov 27, 6:45 am.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife refuge covers over 24 thousand acres on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert and the southern plains of New Mexico.  It is also at the bottom of the “central flyway” for migratory birds.  It is the first major wetland the birds migrating from Northern Canada, Alaska, the Arctic and coastal Siberia encounter where the water remains open all winter.  Birds follow the central flyway along the Rocky Mountain range until they encounter warmer climes for the winter.

Straddling the Pecos River and positioned overtop the seeping Artesian water aquifer, there is water  habitat available for marsh birds, ducks, geese, gulls, terns, shorebirds as well as eagles, hawks and falcons.

The morning of November 27th promised to provide us with many great wildlife viewing opportunities.  Upon driving into the refuge it was hard to ignore the loud, rattling, “Kar-r-r-o-o-o!”.   The shallow lakes that dot the refuge are dotted by thousands of birds of all shapes and sizes including the Lesser Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis Canadensis. “Karooo” is occasionally punctuated by the sounds of hunters as the season for cranes, geese and ducks started the end of October.

Lesser Sandhill cranes are the smallest of the three subspecies at about 3-3 ½ feet tall with a wingspan of just over 5 ft.  They are known for their grey plumage and red foreheads.  It is thought that the Sandhill crane species has been around anywhere from 2.5- 10 million years.  That is over two times longer than next closest bird species.  They are expert soarers and hold their neck straight and legs back in flight.

We found a nice overlook and pulled out cameras and binoculars.  The assortment of water habitats are surrounded by the native grasslands, sand dunes, brushy bottomlands and small plateaus.  We hear a coyote barking in the distance and wait for the dusky-red sun to rise.  Soon it is obvious that the cranes are readying in the daily movement from the wetlands out to the surrounding fields to forage for grains and invertebrates.  Their great wing beats are like a dance as they stand in a foot or two of water.

Soon, many of the individual birds circling the ponds are forming into v-shaped flocks and are flying to the south along the river.  The flocks range in size from 8 to 45+.

These birds were once breeding, feeding and growing their chicks in the far north.   Some birds will remain here for the winter while others will disperse as far south as Northern Mexico.  Another refuge in Muleshoe, Texas boasts larger numbers.  A census count on Nov 19 counted 20,050 Lesser Sandhill cranes on the refuge and 765 off-refuge.  Sandhill cranes are the most abundant crane in North America.

It is a good hour after sunrise before any major activity of the thousands of birds in front of us.  Just as we are preparing to leave, a huge area of birds takes to the air.  It is hard to tell how the flocks are forming.  At a distance it seems more like a swarm or thin, dark cloud.  As they approach it seems like there have been several large flocks forming and some arms that stretch out to nearly 100 birds.  I managed to shoot a little video of this amazing fly over.

Lesser Sandhill Crane Flight

I would like to come back here and do some more focused observations.  It is hard not to get caught-up in the bigger picture event.  It is amazing to think that this movement of birds to the outlining fields happens every morning yet there are few people here to witness it, except hunters and an occasional birder or photographer and his dog.

I wonder what the cranes do in preparation for flying.  I noticed some wing-flapping and strutting among several birds.  Is this part of the routine or non-related?  Once aloft, what are the mechanics for flock formation?  What cues are they using?  I understand the cranes migrate in family groups.   Are these groups maintained in the winter?  I also understand that the birds trade the lead position as they draft off each other.  Is this spot available to every bird or just the experienced ones who know where they are going?

Research for another time…

The Forest’s Own Stimulus Package

November 21, 2009

Burnt shells of long-gone giants dot the forest.  Some trunks have blackened “fingers” that reach up from the ground toward the sky.  Forest fire, in Cappy’s Trails, must have changed this landscape at one point.

Trailhead off Holcombe and Hill Street, Cappy’s Trails, Port Townsend, Quimper Peninsula, E. Jefferson County, Washington State, USA.

From where I live, nearly in the middle of the city, I am still constantly reminded that there are still some semi-wild places in the backyard.  At night I can hear the coyotes yipping from within the acreages of undeveloped woods known as Cappy’s Trails.  These woods are bisected with numerous unmarked trails.  To the newcomer, they might seem daunting.  I usually carry a compass just in case.  There are several places to find maps of the place if you just search the internet.  I prefer to just walk and trust that Port Townsend isn’t so big that I won’t be able to find my way back home from where ever I pop out.

Today takes me hiking into the forest, walking in the tradition of the “naturalist approach”.  I haven’t been walking long when I start to recognize a pattern of burned trees among the dominant Douglas fir, Western Red cedar, Grand fir and Red Alder.  Some of the burned trees appear to have been cut prior to burning, while others were clearly still standing when the burned.  One still reaches to the sky.  The rest of the tree has been changed into the carbons and other elements that once made up the tree.  This fire must have been quite a while back for the moss covering the ground in thick blankets among the Salal and Oregon grape bushes hides any remaining evidence.

More and more, as I hike, I encounter groves of Red alder.  I have been told that Red alder are one of the first trees to come back after a disturbance.  The trees stand up to 110’ or 25 meters.  There light grey, smooth bark is encrusted with patches of whitish lichens.  The leaves that are still on the tree, have turned a pale yellow.  Most have fallen.  They are broadly elliptical with wavy “toothed” margins.  Here and there on the forest floor or on ferns fronds are the clusters of cones that make up the male parts.  Each is about 2 cm long.  Alus rubra (Red alder) have been known to have bacterial associates among their roots.  The bacteria, along with the tree, make small nodules for the bacteria to live in and then begin capturing nitrogen from the air (nitrogen fixation) and fixing it into organic compounds.  In these forests nitrogen is rare and will limit the growth of a forest- especially one that has been disturbed by fires, logging, floods, development, etc.  That would make the alder much like the Red Cross volunteers of the forest.  That was how I always remembered this interesting fact.

This forest has likely been cleared before as much of the peninsula has and might face the same fate in the future.  The land is platted for development and daily the sounds of construction encroach at the margins.  Yet, there are still some folks out there such as the Jefferson Land Trust that hope to purchase and protect parts of those woods.

I am still curious about this strange living situation that the Actinomycete bacteria have with the alder.  How does the bacteria know that it has encountered an alder and how does it stimulate the tree to grow?  Does it have to be just an alder or can it be done with other trees?  Do the alders have this associate when they are seedlings or is it later?  What process allows these bacteria to fix nitrogen, if this is such a rare process?  The small but important mysteries have captured me for the moment…

Winter Birds in Winter Gales

November 16, 2009

The chimes ring, the house shakes, the aspen branches scrape the skylights.

Off San Juan Ave, Port Townsend, Quimper Peninsula, E. Jefferson County, Washington State, USA.

Last night gave residents of Port Townsend gusts of 47 mph (maybe even higher).   It is a reminder that we live on a peninsula and that the weather (and winds) have some to time to build before hitting us.  I recall winters of 2007 and 2008 being similarly windy (though wind is certainly not limited to the winter).  Tonight’s forecast is for winds up to 50 mph.

This morning, the wind began to let up and I was lured into the thought that I would go on a bike ride (there is nothing more I hate than riding my bike in the wind).  I stood at the front door gazing through the windows and debating this idea when it struck me- there were countless birds flying about from branch to branch.  The flocked was mixed with nuthatches and other species whose names I couldn’t remember.  Their activity seemed quite more active than I have recently seem.  In fact, it struck me that this was the most small bird activity I have seen in a while.

I instantly interpreted that the birds have been roosting in safe spots for long enough to really work up an appetite.  It has been a couple of days since we have really had fairly calm weather.  Birds have amazing feather diversity to insulate themselves from wind and water (assuming the feathers are clean and oiled).  Some birds can even slow down their metabolism and enter a period of near-hibernation (torpor) for short periods of time.

What is the threshold for birds to wait for better flying conditions?  Is there a ratio of bird weight to wind speed?  How long can a bird survive without eating- relying on its reserves?

I did go on that ride in the lull of wind (though that was the cue for the rain to take over).  I was especially thankful today to the goose that provided the down for my vest.  Maybe torpor would have been a better strategy for me than riding my bike in the pouring rain.

Sands of Change at Ft. Worden State Park

November 13, 2009

When you come from a place like Southeastern New Mexico, where the ground gently rolls for hundreds of miles, covered by clumps of grasses and cacti, one can’t help but obsess over the grandeur of the landscape in WA.  Just when you think you have it all figured out, you come across something new.

NE corner of bluff off of campgrounds, Fort Worden State Park, Port Townsend, Quimper Peninsula, E. Jefferson County, Washington State, USA.

I was walking along the shore, taking in the early winter waves as they crashed on the beach, when the bluff caught my eye.  It seemed so naked compared with the rest of the area (covered in vegetation).  I couldn’t help myself- I had to see what stories were being told.

DSC02574I could see many different layers in the near-vertical wall including colors from shades of gray to black to reddish.  Some of the layers seemed to be quite mixed in size and shape of stones.  One layer looked like it was mostly clay (apparently a popular place to sign-in by some- “I was here!”).  The one layer that really caught my eye seemed to be lots of layers that were compressed together.  The layers were really dark and crumbled easily.  It seemed like organic remains from plants.  Could this be the “peat” that the PTMSC Natural History Exhibit was describing?  Apparently, much of WA was quite a tropical place (hard to imagine on a blustery mid-40’s day).  The early Tertiary period was a time of humid swamps lining the early Puget Sound (in that time it was higher and covered much of the basin including Seattle).  These swamps were later covered by the sediments from erosion of the newly formed North Cascades and later the Olympics.  Again the forces of landscape carving would bring more sediment in front of a ¾ mile thick bulldozer and compactor.  The swamps beds were compressed and layered underneath loads of sediment and glacial ice. 

The “Ice Age” or Pleistocene began roughly 2.2 million years ago and as late as 1.6 million years ago began pushing ice into our backyards.  This inching advancement and retreat lasted till about 12,000 years ago.  During this period, lobes are arms of glacier advanced and retreated as many as four times, leaving us with freshly-carved Salish Sea and tons of sediment and boulders from foreign lands (mostly Canada).  I think it is fun to try to imagine both humid swamps and ice sheets in about 50 feet of bluff soil.

DSC02560As I stand at the base of the bluff I am reminded that this soil is still moving (the waves are now lapping at my feet).  Much of this bluff is constantly eroding from wave action.  Right now the waves are coming from the west with the wind off the ocean.  That means that any soil coming down will be swept along the beach and down around Point Wilson, where the light house stands.  I know that the wind doesn’t always come from that direction.  Sometimes it comes from the SE.  If I were to follow a grain of sand, how far would I travel this winter?  What would be my average direction?  What about other seasons.  How long would it take to be swept out to sea and onto the continental shelf?  Adventures for another age…