Posts Tagged ‘Quimper Peninsula’

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.


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)…

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…