Friday, December 31, 2010

Love It Gently

In the Pacific Northwest, the Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is king of the forest.  It usually grows straight and tall, and may exceed 300 feet/100 meters.  Some get second lives as telephone poles.  In the West Beach sand dunes at Deception Pass State Park, there is a very special Douglas Fir.  The park's interpretive sign says it best:
"For over 850 years, this Douglas Fir has stood witness to the forming and changing of these dunes.  Thick bark and strong wood have served well against storm, fire, drought and disease.  Through all of this time it has offered generations of people its leaves for shelter, limbs for climbing, and branches for sitting.  Its bark is strong, but thinning from so much climbing.  Love it gently.  Look on it with thought for the times it has seen.  Find its stillness while you listen to the forest, dunes and sea.  Wonder at what forces sculpted it so.  Reflect on the ways its relatives touch your lives.  Love it gently and it will live to shelter your children and theirs, as well."
This is why we preserve special places and the things they contain.

      "Come boy, sit down.  Sit down and rest."
And the boy did.  And the tree was happy.  The end.
                          -Shel Silverstein

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Skywatch Friday:  Cumulonimbus

We had a cold, dark overcast day with a little snow on Wednesday.  Late in the afternoon, the skies cleared over South Fidalgo Island.  The setting sun illuminated storm clouds above Washington's central Cascades, about 60 miles/100 km away.  Interstate 90 through Snoqualmie Pass received heavy snowfall in the storm.

Here's to a happy and healthy New Year for everyone.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Blue Flotsam

Yesterday we looked at how driftwood is born.  Today there is this.  Shall we call it art?  They actually sell these at Amazon.  I know where you can get one for nothing and I'll throw in a tennis ball.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Driftwood Dynamics

Driftwood is one of the aesthetic elements we enjoy at the beach.  We like to look at it, collect it and make things with it.  Although not recommended, it fuels a great fire at a picnic.  Even its name has a pleasant ring, the word "drift" implying carefree leisure.

Did you ever wonder how it got there?  It turns out this is not well known and is now a subject of study at Evergreen State College.  I do have some insight into the process locally.  It is basically created by the weather.  Recall the torrential rains we had about two weeks ago swelling rivers out of their banks.  When the Skagit River floods, wood debris and even entire trees are dumped into southern Skagit Bay.  The journey may have begun several miles upriver.  The currents are now bringing this material into the upper bay, a journey of between 8 and 15 miles (15-25 km).  This is a recurring pattern after every Skagit flood event.  The photo above shows some of this debris moving in with the high tide this morning.

An outgoing tide together with a light breeze from the southwest organizes the debris into a visible tideline.

More material continues to accumulate at the shoreline, probably pushed there by the light winds.

When the tide recedes, a brand new collection of driftwood is left on the beach.  It will continue to sort itself and move with the tides and the winds until it finds a resting place for the season.  The bark will be knocked off and the bare wood will bleach in the sun.  Very large pieces might stay put for several years, but in general, this is a continuous process of redistribution.  Eventually it might find a permanent resting place in a spot where the tides and currents are relatively static.  One such spot is the far north end of Similk Bay off to the left of the photos.

Driftwood becomes an important part of the ecosystem.  It helps accumulate and stabilize beach sands, provides hiding and nesting sites for wildlife and feeds biological materials into the waters.  It harbors food for marine life and dune grasses will grow around it.  It becomes part of the structure of the beach and moving it can cause erosion.  It also helps protect property owners from wave action and storm surges.  Collect it thoughtfully and never disturb driftwood in protected sanctuaries.  Without driftwood, the beach would be incomplete and our world would be less beautiful.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Twelve Foot Tide, Eleven Foot Land

I have noticed that our highest tides seem to occur in the winter, especially during the weeks around the solstice.  The lowest tides happen during summer.  I am not asserting this as a scientific fact, but it seems to be something I observe every year.  We know that the tides are related to the moon.  Around here, high tides occur about the same times as moon rise and moon set.  Think of tides as a "sloshing" of the seas.  The energy to initiate and maintain the sloshing is the gravitational pull of the moon and sun.  You can simulate the process in a bathtub where the energy would come from your hand pushing the water.

Having one large moon also stabilizes the earth's rotational axis.  This makes the seasons possible, normalizes climate zones and allows the planet to be habitable.  Without the moon, the earth would tumble in its orbit around the sun.  There would be no beaches and our world would be very different place.

This Christmas weekend, we are experiencing some of the highest tides of the year.  The photo above shows the results.  The low spot overwashed by sea water was formerly filled with driftwood and native dune grasses.  It was an attractive assembly and a nesting site for birds.  Apparently, the new owners wanted control and a more groomed look.  If this is to become a contest, I think nature will win in the end.  About five years ago, a windstorm hit at the same time as one of these high tides.  Gusts approaching 70 mph/117 kph pushed the driftwood 100 feet/31 meters up those lawns in the storm surge.  After today's tide receded, this was the result:

I spotted something odd in the background of the first photo:

It appears to be some sort of scarecrow with one pant leg flapping in the breeze.  If so, what would they be trying to scare away?  Deer?  Why?  Certainly not the eagles.  Our local crows are the peaceable, beachcombing Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus) which are not a threat to anything or anybody.  Maybe it's another attempt to keep the moles at bay.  It's a mystery to me.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Wild Fidalgo:  Canadian Dilemma

From Wild Fidalgo, Canada Geese are welcome visitors to South Fidalgo Island.  Canadian biologists, on the other hand, are recommending complete elimination of the birds from Vancouver Island.  The geese have altered the natural habitat threatening other wildlife and the important salmon resource.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Skywatch Friday:  Winter Solstice

On the eve of the 2009 winter solstice, the last rays of the setting sun shine through Deception Pass in this 46 minute sequence.  There's a bit of Stonehenge in the alignment.  Deception Pass separates Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands and connects Skagit Bay with the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  In the photos, Whidbey Island is the land across the bay.

Happy Holidays to everyone.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


By far, the most beautiful building in downtown Anacortes is the Majestic Inn and Spa.  It was built in 1889, the same year Washington gained its statehood.  The classic American Colonial Revival building was completely remodeled in 2005.  A beautiful open staircase was enclosed in glass to meet fire codes.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Skywatch Friday:  Red Sky at Morning

...sailors take warning.  Looking across Skagit Bay, it was almost too much for the camera to handle.  This is what it looked like and not a product of photo editing.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Whistle Lake Adventure

A unique treasure lies within the city limits of Anacortes, Washington.  The Anacortes Community Forest Lands comprise 2,800 acres of forest, meadows and wetlands preserved in a pristine, natural state.  A December hike to Whistle Lake led by Denise Crowe of Friends of the Forest was announced in a newsletter I receive.  Since I had the day off, I decided it was about time to check out the ACFL.  The adventure began in the parking lot, where the photo above was shot.  The very first glimpse revealed that a visitor is in for a special Northwest experience.  A garden of Western Sword Ferns grows in the shade under a stand of Western Red Cedar.  Cedars are identified by bark in vertical, fibrous strips.  Dust Lichens may appear as a greenish stain:

There are three areas to explore in the ACFL, Cranberry Lake, Heart Lake and Whistle Lake which was on today's agenda.  Networks of old logging roads and trails are well marked with permitted usages:

Trail maps are available at several Anacortes businesses.  From the parking lot, our group enters the forest primeval.  The road is lined with more Sword Ferns and Salmonberry bushes, now bearing dead leaves:

Encountering a big tree covered with moss usually reveals a Bigleaf Maple:

Beyond the Maple is a giant old-growth Douglas Fir we will see again.  The trunk with the white lichen spots on the right can be identified as a Red Alder.  Alder is a "pioneer species," one of the first to grow after a forest is cleared by logging or fire.  Note how you can sometimes identify trees by their companion organisms.  Washington's state tree is the Western Hemlock:

Western Hemlock

Identify the Hemlock by its short, feathery needles arranged on tiered branches.  They like to grow in decaying wood and require fairly wet conditions.  There is a small stream flowing along the road at this tree's base.  Another special Northwest tree is the Pacific Yew:

You may know of Taxus brevifolia as the source of the cancer drug Taxol.  This scraggly, slow-growing, inconspicuous little tree from the dark understory of Northwest forests became threatened due to over-harvesting.  Fortunately, the drug is now made synthetically.  The discovery of an important drug in a "weed" tree reminds us how essential it is to preserve places like this and the diversity of life it contains.  Biological diversity is a characteristic of a healthy forest.  The geologic history of Fidalgo Island is also revealed here:

The moss-covered dunite stones are small glacial erratics.  They are made of a type of olivine which is volcanic in origin, then moved around during a succession of ice age glaciations.  Fidalgo Island was created by fire and ice.  When viewing a Bigleaf Maple up close we find an entire ecosystem in its limbs:

You can travel all over the coastal Northwest and find this companionship of Maple, Moss and Licorice Ferns.  It provides habitat for insects and worms and food for birds and small mammals.  As we get closer to the lake, the sound of rushing water is heard in the cedars:

Ponds, streams and waterfalls become essential parts of the habitat and suggest the importance of a forest in the Water Cycle.  Our first glimpse of the lake is a swampy area filled with decomposing debris from the forest:

This provides a fertile habitat for amphibians, fish fry, insect larvae and other animals.  What a glory it is to find a lake that is completely undeveloped.  The road ends at the lake, but trails continue along both east and west sides.  We followed the west trail hidden behind the trees on the opposite shore:

In the middle of the lake, we spotted a pair of Double-crested Cormorants resting on a snag:

I posted another photo at Wild Fidalgo.  We also saw two Bald Eagles and a raft of Scaups, Greater or Lesser, however, we could not determine from a distance.  Heard, but not seen were a Pileated Woodpecker and a Douglas Squirrel.  There is an island in the lake that looks like solid stone:

I presume this is another large piece of Dunite left here by glaciers while they carved out the lake.  It appears there are Douglas Fir trees growing right out of the stone:

If you look carefully to the right of the stone, you will see the Scaups, little white specks, swimming in the deep shade.  On the way back to the parking lot, we spotted some interesting orange Lichen growing on the trunk of a Red Alder:

More than 1,000 different Lichens grow in the Pacific Northwest.  Our guide, Denise, explained the importance of lichens and fungi to the Northwest forest.  Lichens are fungi that contain algae in a symbiotic relationship.  The algae photosynthesize and provide nutrients for the fungus.  The fungus provides substrate and protection for the algae.  Northwest soils contain very few bacteria, but many fungi, and they are responsible for breaking down dead plant materials to replenish the soil.  Along with the Water Cycle, there is also a Soil Cycle in the forest.  While most of the Whistle Lake Forest is "second growth," there were a few old growth Douglas Fir left behind by the loggers:

From the size of this tree, we estimate it to be at least 600 years old.  This means it was approximately 100 years old when Columbus sailed from Spain.  Only the California Redwood grows larger than the Douglas Fir.  This gigantic organism was one of the highlights of our adventure.  There is nothing better than a wonderful day in a wonderful place with newfound friends.  With a few thousand acres and 50 miles of trails left to explore, I plan to come back many times.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

More Pineapple Express

The rainstorm continued and by early this morning was reaching its peak.  Here on South Fidalgo, the heaviest rains stopped by 11:00 AM, although it continues to drizzle lightly.  So far, we have received 1.08 inches here, about 2.74 cm.  I realize this is not much rain compared to many places.  While western Washington has a reputation for being rainy, it is usually light and intermittent.  We are not adapted to getting continuous, heavy rain over several hours.  Areas along Interstate 90 east of Seattle received 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm) from the storm.  Bremerton got more than 6 inches.  There is urban flooding in several neighborhoods of Seattle.  By Sunday afternoon, the heaviest rains were passing out of the area:

Eastern Washington and points further east should be on the alert.  The concern now is flooding and warnings are posted for all rivers in western Washington.  The Skagit is high, but still contained in its dikes this afternoon.  The river was above Fir Island, but Fir Island Road was high and dry.  The Stillaguamish is another story:

At Flood Phase 3, the river begins to wash over Highway 530 at Interstate 5.  For this reason, I chose a different route to I-5 after work today.  There is already major flooding in parts of Arlington, Granite Falls and Stanwood.  The Pioneer Highway between Conway and Silvana is closed.  You can continue monitoring the river graph at the Snohomish County website.

Weather-wise, things should be getting back to normal tomorrow.  Here on South Fidalgo, we can now expect to see Skagit Bay filling with driftwood and debris washing out of the Skagit River.  As I mentioned yesterday, we will also be keeping careful watch on our hillside.  Sometimes, it likes to move closer to the beach.  Don't we all...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pineapple Express

Sometimes Hawaii sends her subtropical weather our way, and we call it a "Pineapple Express."  It means lots of rain, gusty winds and unusually warm temperatures.  This one is expected to bring two days of nonstop rain and temperatures in the mid-fifties F, about 13° C.  With rapidly melting snow in the mountains added to the mix, several western Washington rivers are under flood warnings.  For me, both the Skagit close to home and the Stillaguamish close to work are included.  The heaviest rains are expected to roll in tonight and into Sunday.  Monday and Tuesday will bring the worst flooding.  For some of our rivers lately, the "hundred-year-floods" have been occurring about every two years.

The radar image screen shot shows what a Pineapple Express looks like.  The blank wedge in the southwest part of the image is caused by the Olympic Mountains.

South Fidalgo has a different worry during heavy rains.  Parts of the hillside overlooking Skagit Bay can become unstable when excessive rainfall percolates into the soil.  In 1990, record November rains caused a fairly significant landslide event here.  This is why you will find us watching the ground instead of the sky for the next few weeks.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Skywatch Friday:  Monday

A Monday sunrise over Skagit Bay hints at changing weather.  After a fair and pleasant weekend, the wavy stratocumulus clouds predict rain on Tuesday.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tugboat Afternoon

Time 12:48 PM, Temp 49.0° F, Dew Point 42.1° F, Barometer 30.07", Wind 6 mph ESE, Humidity 77%

Under overcast skies, a pair of tugboats steam toward Similk Bay, each with a raft of logs in tow.  Taking the lead is Tugboat Rosario out of La Conner, Washington:

Following closely is Tugboat Swinomish which we have seen here before:

Both tugs bear local names.  Swinomish tends her flock like a shepherd:

Since I had the zoom lens straining I tried a shot of the salmon rearing pens south of Kiket Island.  These have been controversial.  Some believe their presence poses a risk to native salmon from parasites and diseases:

Monday, December 6, 2010

Checking It Out at Wild Fidalgo

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

Winter birds are checking out the new BirdCam feeder at Wild Fidalgo.