Friday, September 30, 2016

Madronas of Deception Pass

Pacific Madronas at Deception Pass

This past week, I took a short hike at Hoypus Point in Deception Pass State Park.  Driving over there, I was astounded by the Pacific Madronas (Arbutus menziesii) along Highway 20.  On the Fidalgo side of the pass, the trees on both sides of the road were ablaze with clusters of berries.  In nearly thirty years living here, I had never seen anything quite like it.  I had to return to get a closer look and some photos.

Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii)

It is normal for some of the trees to sport a few clusters of berries in the fall.  But not like this.  The unusual fruitfulness of the Madronas is undoubtedly the result of the equally spectacular bloom that I posted about last spring.

The berry-like fruits are called drupes.  Other examples of drupes are coffee beans, cherries, coconuts and peaches.  The red color in the photos is not the result of editing.  In fact, my camera tends to over saturate reds and I had to subtract a lot it from the photos to get them to look right.

Pacific Madronas and Friends on the Goose Rock Summit

The photos I took of the flowering last spring were from the Goose Rock summit and its south flank.  I returned there to see if these were laden with fruit as well.  Sure enough, they were.  While at the summit, I made a couple of new friends, a pair of young Columbian Black-tailed Deer.

Columbian Black-tailed Deer

The deer were not yet fully grown.  I suspected they were siblings.  After leaving their mother's side, they stick together for a few years until they mature.  This was the case with a pair that visited my yard.  Below is Deception Island marking the entrance to Deception Pass.  Beyond is Lopez Island in the San Juans.  But I digress.

Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii)
Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii)

The Goose Rock Madronas were also fruiting abundantly.

The tree shares its species name with the Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii.  It honors the Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies, a member of the George Vancouver Expedition.

We have discussed here before whether Madrona or Madrone is the correct name.  This is a regional preference and both are correct.  Where I grew up it was Madrona.  Canada avoids the problem altogether and calls it Arbutus.

Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii)
Pacific Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum)

Left:  Coming down the Southeast Summit Trail, I spotted this young Madrona with wilting leaves.  This is not a good sign.  I had one in my yard that did this, and it ultimately died.  I was still "madrona-naive" at the time, so the first thing I did was water it.  That may have been the mistake that sealed its fate.  I know now the best thing to do with Madronas is leave them alone.  They are designed to survive harsh conditions.  Hopefully this youngster will do just that.

Right:  The Rhododendron grove near the bottom of Goose Rock was also showing signs of stress.  A Madrona cousin, some of the rhodies were also wilting.  I hope this is a reaction to summer drought, and not something more serious.

Pacific Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum)

While some of the Pacific Rhododendrons were showing stress, others looked good.  I saw flower buds in preparation for next spring's bloom.

Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii)

I agree with Arthur Kruckeberg.  The "Foliage, bark, flower, and fruit of madrone consummate one of Nature's most ornamental works of art."

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Barking 2:  Identifications

In a previous post, Barking up the Right Tree, I introduced the trunks of six trees seen along local hiking trails.  The task was to try and identify them using only their bark.  This post will reveal the trees in the photos.  I have added a seventh tree here that was not in the first post.  These are the "seven biggies" you are likely to encounter while hiking in local forests.

Normally, trees are identified by their leaves, scales or needles.  But in a mature forest, it my not be possible to see them in the canopy.  During the winter, deciduous trees drop their leaves, so other features must be used for identification.  Bark may be all we can see from the trail.  Click or right-click the photos to see larger versions.

Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

This is the king of conifers in the Pacific Northwest.  In a mature tree, the bark is the craggiest and roughest of all with deep furrows forming long, wide strips.  It is the craggy, rugged old man of the forest.  On the other hand, the bark of young trees is smooth with numerous pitch blisters as with your Christmas tree.  In size the Douglas Fir grows second only to the California Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens.)

Interestingly, the Douglas Fir is not a fir at all.  Unlike true firs, its cones point downward.  Its genus name means "false hemlock," so it's not a hemlock either.  The genus Pseudotsuga includes two other North American species and three in China and Japan.

The Douglas Fir is the state tree of Oregon.

Grand Fir (Abies grandis)
Grand Fir (Abies grandis)

One of the commonest trees in this area, if it's not a Doug Fir, it's probably a Grand Fir.  Carrying the genus name Abies, this is a true fir with cones that point upwards.  The furrows in the bark are shallower than the Douglas Fir.  They demarcate narrower strips with a lower profile.

On the trail, it can be difficult to distinguish from the Western Hemlock (#3 below).  The strips on the Grand Fir tend to be longer, wider and more continuous with a slightly concave surface.  The surface can be smooth, and sometimes even shiny.

In very old trees, the furrows look stretched apart and may take on a yellow-rust color.  The overall look is rugged, but less so than the Douglas Fir.

Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)
Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)

Distinguishing the Western Hemlock on the trail can be tricky.  The bark looks very similar to that of Grand Fir.  The strips tend to be narrower and flatter and separated by shallower furrows then the Grand Fir.  The strips are rough to the touch and often broken into smaller patches.

In general, I would characterize the bark of Western Hemlock as more refined compared to the ruggedness of the Grand Fir.  For a positive ID, you might have to catch a glimpse of the needles which are shorter and finer compared to firs.  The branch tips will be feathery and pointed, whereas the fir tips are more blunt and solid looking.  From the ground, of course, it may not be possible to see the needles hidden in the canopy.

Western Hemlock is the state tree of Washington.

Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis)
Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis)

A patchy, shingled look is the distinguishing characteristic of Sitka Spruce bark.  Like shingles, the patches tend to flare out at the bottoms.  It can also be identified by its unique wavy-scaled cones found scattered on the ground around the trunk.

It requires moister conditions than the Douglas or Grand Fir but can be found growing with them.  Also, find it close to salt water.  It grows to be the largest species of spruce and the fifth largest conifer in the world.  On the other hand, exposed to ocean winds, it may be stunted and shrub-like.

The Sitka Spruce is the State Tree of Alaska.

Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata)
Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata)

The Western Redcedar is another Pacific Northwest misnomer.  It's not a cedar, but an arborvitae, a member of the cypress family.  There are no true cedars (Cedrus) native to North America.  It has probably been called cedar because of the appearance and fragrance of the wood.  Both are splendid.

The bark appears to be made of long, loose, fibrous-looking strips.  In the forest, it often has a green or blue-green color caused by dust lichen.  Trees usually have a wide base tapering quickly into a straight trunk.

Local native peoples knew how to harvest the bark without damaging the tree.  It was used to make cordage and textiles.

Western Redcedar is the official tree of British Columbia.

Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum)
Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum)

Eponymous big leaves, more than a foot across, characterize the Bigleaf Maple.  Find it growing in mixed conifer forests, where the canopy has opened to let in light and where there is adequate soil moisture.  It becomes a beautiful shade tree, but grows much too large for the average garden or street planting.

The bark can be more variable than on the other trees here.  The distinguishing characteristic to look for is luxuriant moss growing on the trunk and branches.  Through the winter, small Licorice Ferns (Polypodium glycytrhiza) sprout from the moss on older trees.  The three plants, maple, moss and fern form an aerial ecosystem.  Soil will accumulate under the moss providing habitat for worms and insects and thus food for birds and small mammals.  Sometimes the weight of wet moss can cause branches to break off the tree.

Red Alder (Alnus rubra)
Red Alder (Alnus rubra)

I didn't include Red Alder in the first post, but I should have.  When I built my house, I didn't get the landscaping in right away.  Very quickly, I had hundreds of Alder seedlings coming up like weeds everywhere.  This is useful lesson about their nature.  In forest succession, Alder is considered a pioneer species.  After land is cleared by logging, fire or home building, these species will attempt to repopulate the bare ground.  It will grow fast and live a relatively short life.  Seasonal leaf drop and nitrogen fixing will help nourish the soil, getting it ready for a new growth of conifers.  It is also a useful species for stabilizing slopes and attracting wildlife.

A member of the birch family, the bark of Red Alder is gray with with white or lighter gray patches.  Some trees will have patches of orange lichens or other epiphytes.

All of these photographs were taken in the Hoypus Point Natural Forest in Deception Pass State Park.  These seven trees are the most commonly seen in our local forests.  Next time you take a hike in the woods, see if you can identify them all.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Skywatch Friday:  Autumnal Equinox

Skagit Bay, Washington, September 22, 2016

Looking south, the Skagit Bay sky at the moment of the autumnal equinox, 7:21 a.m. US Pacific Time, 14:21 GMT.  At that moment, the sun is directly over the equator.  The weather forecast for the day:  Mostly sunny, 65° F, 18° C.

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Friday, September 2, 2016

Skywatch Friday:  Meteorological Fall

Skagit Bay on September 2, 2016

September 1 is the first day of "meteorological fall" and our weather has changed right on schedule.  This is the sky over Skagit Bay this evening.  This seasonal reckoning is different from "astronomical fall."  It begins this year with the autumnal equinox on September 22nd.  The tilt of the earth defines it.  The months of September, October and November make up meteorological fall defined by the weather.

Skagit Bay on August 31,2016

This is what the sky looked like three days ago.  That night and the next day, September 1, we would get almost an inch of rain.  Before that, the last time it had rained here was July 9th.  With one of the warmest summers on record, we were experiencing a significant drought.  Gardens and woodlands were suffering.  A statewide outdoor burn ban was in effect.  The drought was finally broken with a convergence zone sitting over us for several hours.  At one point, my weather station measured a rainfall rate of 3.11 inches/hour, 78.99 cm/hour.

Those roll-shaped clouds reveal turbulence and predict possible thunderstorms.  That's exactly what we experienced that night.  Before the rain came, the sky had been mostly cloudless and hazy.  It is much more interesting now.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Kukutali Rambling

Kukutali Preserve

I rambled through the Kukutali Preserve yesterday.  Today I'll ramble a bit about what I saw there.  After non-stop sunshine during most of July, the morning gave us an overcast sky with temperatures around 60° F, 15° C.  Rain was threatened, but mostly to the south.  By my reckoning, this is perfect weather for both hiking and photography.

Kukutali Kitty

As I set off, I was greeted by Kukutali Kitty who gave me a welcoming rub on the ankle.  My ownership had been established.

Black Twinberry
Himalayan Blackberry

Nootka Rose

Wood Rose aka Baldhip Rose

Hiking along the road, the first thing I noticed was all the summer fruiting going on.  Left to right from top to bottom:

Black Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata)
Hamalayan Blackberry (Rubus discolor, R. armeniacus)  Introduced invasive

Nootka Rose (Rosa nutkana)
Salal (Gaultheria shallon)

Common Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)
Baldhip Rose (Rosa gymnocarpa)

Feral Apples

It is not uncommon to find feral apple trees around here that have escaped cultivation.

Bull Thistle
Pearly Everlasting
Common Tansy

We are now in the summer wildflower season.  Left to right:

Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare)  Introduced
Western Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)
Common Tansy (Tenacetum vulgare)  Introduced

South Beach and Flagstaff Island

The south beach along Flagstaff Island is off-limits during August and September.  That rules out checking on the resident Oystercatchers right now.  I did hear their high pitched calls, so I know they're still around.

Purple Varnish Clam

The north beach along the Flagstaff tombolo is open during August, but closed in September.  I have been trying to find out the reason for these intermittent closures.

Here I spotted this broken shell of the Purple Varnish Clam (Nuttalia obscurata).  This is an Asian species that was introduced in the early 1990's by the dumping of ballast water into Vancouver harbor.  The clam has quickly spread throughout the Salish Sea.  It has become a favorite food of Dungeness Crab which may be responsible for so many broken shells on local beaches.  I'm guessing the Oystercatchers like them also.  The outside of the shell looks like it has been coated with varnish.

American Glasswort
American Glasswort

Also on the north beach, this odd plant is American Glasswort (Salicornia virginica).  It is a halophyte allowing it to grow in the intertidal zone in salt water.  Also known as Pickleweed and Sea Asparagus, it can be eaten.  It will add a salty flavor to salads and rice or pasta dishes.

Nootka Rose

Bigleaf Maple

Effects of our summer drought were apparent throughout the Preserve.  The last measurable precipitation here occurred on July 9th, and that only amounted to 0.14 inches/3.5 mm.  Some will be surprised to learn that the Pacific Northwest can be the driest section of the country this time of year.  Our native plants and trees have adapted to these conditions.  They look poorly and fall-like now, but will recover when the autumn rains return.  The Nootka Rose in the upper right photo is growing at the west end of Kiket Island.  Exposed to wind and unprotected by shade, it is looking almost dead right now.

While I was crossing the causeway back to the parking lot, I got sprinkled just a little.  It was negligible, however, not nearly enough to do any good.  This is typical in the Olympic Rain Shadow.  By the time I got home, the skies had cleared and the sun had come out.

Kukutli Preserve Staff

As I approached the tombolo causeway on my way back to the parking lot, I encountered some Kukutali Preserve staff.  They were setting survey markers to assess erosion of the tombolo.  Years ago, rip-rap had been placed along the north side.  Tidal action has now washed behind the stones.  Instead of protecting the shoreline, the rip-rap may actually be contributing to its erosion.  Kukutali is not only a culturally important place to the Swinomish people.  As one of the last remaining natural islands in Puget Sound, it is also a site for scientific research.

I came looking for nothing in particular, but ended up finding a lot.  There always seems to be an abundance of interesting things to discover around here.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Skywatch Friday:  Daybreak, Softly

Skagit Bay, Washington

This morning, lifting fog over Skagit Bay painted the sunrise in soft pastels.

Time 5:39 a.m., Temp 53° F, Dew Pt 50° F, Humidity 88%, Barometer 30.16" Steady, Wind Calm

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Monday, July 25, 2016

Pacific Madrona:  Breaking Rules

Pacific Madrona

Deciduous trees sprout new leaves in the spring, then drop them in the fall.  Coniferous trees are evergreen and hold their needles or scales year-around.  Those are the tree rules.  The Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii) breaks those rules.  They are evergreens, deciduous trees that stay in leaf year around.

Pacific Madrona

Actually, Madronas do drop their leaves, but not at the usual time or in the customary way.  Like other deciduous trees, they sprout new leaves in the spring.  Then in midsummer, the one year old leaves turn yellow and drop and that is happening right now.  Rhododendrons, the Heath family cousins of Madronas, do this as well, but they will drop their two year old leaves in the summer.  Although the Madrona looks like a tree, it really behaves more like a large evergreen shrub.

Pacific Madrona

After an unusually spectacular flowering this spring, Madronas are also setting their fruit right now.  As summer progresses into fall, the berries will gradually turn yellow, then a bright orange-red color.  This is the source of one of the tree's nicknames, "strawberry tree."

Pacific Madrona

Another rule the Madrona breaks is with its bark.  It's really more like skin.  Every year, as the tree grows, it sheds its bark revealing a fresh, new layer underneath.  In a few weeks, the new layer will turn its characteristic red color.  In this respect, the Madrona behaves more like a reptile than a tree.  Also like a reptile, the tree is "cold-blooded."  Place your palm against the trunk.  Even on the warmest summer days, the tree will always feel cool to the touch.

Pacific Madrona

Yesterday, I discovered this Madrona seedling coming up in my yard.  Unfortunately, it has sprouted in a gravel pathway.  As a rule, the tree does not transplant easily.  I am going to try and move it to a better location anyway.  Maybe this seedling is still young enough to survive the process.

By the way, my "Miracle Madrona" is still coming along nicely.

Some may notice I use the common name "Madrona."  Others in the Pacific Northwest call it Madrone or Arbutus.  It seems what we call the tree will depend on where we grew up.  In my case, like the Seattle neighborhood, it was called Madrona.  That's the word that sounds right to me.  I have enjoyed the discussions we've had on this blog about its name.  Someone should tell Google to stop responding with "Showing results for Pacific Madrone."  At least Bing uses "Including results for..."

Dr. Arthur Kruckeberg called the Madrona "one of nature's most ornamental works of art."  As we know, great art often breaks the rules.  The Madrona is no exception.