Monday, May 30, 2011

Are the Madrona Trees Dying?

Last August I posted an article about a very special tree that grows in the Pacific Northwest.  I noted that it doesn't follow any of the tree rules.  This is the Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii), as we call them around here.  In California they say Madrone and in Canada, Arbutus.  As I have pointed out previously, I practice a kind of "serendipity gardening."  Along with the plants I purchase in nurseries, I often let things grow that spring up on their own.  I am fortunate to have had several Madronas come up in my yard.  My driveway is lined with them, and this has become a very special feature.  They cannot be transplanted and the Sunset Western Garden Book notes, "if you live in Madrone country and have a tree in your garden, treasure it."

In a local news feed that I follow, I was startled to read that hundreds of Madronas are dying in the nearby San Juan Islands.  The problem has been attributed to a fungal disease that has thought to have gained a foothold in this year's unusually cold and wet weather.  The trees like it warm and dry and prefer to grow in rocky soil that drains quickly.  I have that in abundance, believe me.  The soil in my yard is called Vashon Till, left here by the last glaciers between 10 and 18 thousand years ago.  It is composed of big rocks, gravel, sand and clay.  Gardening in it has been a challenge, but the native stuff seems to like it.

This young Madrona came up in a perennial bed.  While the
perennials struggle in the dry, rocky conditions here, the
Madrona feels right at home.
I was concerned when the leaves on several of my trees here on Fidalgo had died and turned black over the winter.  You can see some of this in the top-left photo.  I also photographed the problem at Heart Lake last February, in the Anacortes Community Forest Lands.  Reading of the plight of the San Juan trees added to my concern.  Fortunately, my trees seem to be recovering.  At the Arbutus Blog, Marianne Elliott notes that we have had two very wet years, even here in the rain shadow.  This past winter also gave us many days of sub-freezing temperatures.  Our local trees most likely suffered cold damage.  Normally, the leaves die around August, after the new growth has matured.  Fortunately, my trees are sprouting new growth right now above the dead leaves.

Can you spot the Aphid on the new growth?
A question remains about the odd weather patterns we have been experiencing.  If these persist over the next several years, how long will the Madronas be able to withstand the insults?  When reviewing articles for this post, I was interested to note the mention of how much people adore these trees.  I thought it was just me.  This would be a time to hope that those climate change deniers are right.  Will hoping be enough?  If we continue the pattern of the last few years, blazing summers, frigid winters and higher rainfall than normal, the demise of these beloved trees could be at hand.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Mystery Plant:  New Clues

When interesting things come up in the garden, I tend to let them grow to see what they will become.  I guess it's a symptom of my general curiosity.  Last summer I posted photos of some plants that came up wild for help in identification.  I hoped that perhaps someone knew what they were.  One was identified (Purple Toadflax - thanks Malcolm), but the one at the bottom of the page in that post is still a mystery.  At the time, I noted that these shrubs had never bloomed or bore fruit.  Now I can report that two of the plants, both about ten years old, are now bearing flowers for the first time.  In fact, the larger of the two will be absolutely loaded with blossoms.  I will post more photos as the flowers continue to open.

I currently have three of these bushy, evergreen shrubs and one is now about 8 feet/2.5 m tall.  The leaves are ovate, or is it lanceolate, 3 to 3.5 inches/7.5-9 cm long.  New growth is reddish, but gradually turns a deep, shiny green.  The leaves do not turn red in the fall, but stay green all winter.  It never appears to drop older leaves.  Leaf undersides are lighter green and have a dull finish.  Leaf edges are smooth, not toothed.  When the leaves are crushed, they have a sweet smell.  One special characteristic which should narrow the options is where it grows.  It is extremely drought tolerant, and does well in dry, rocky soil with little water through the summer.  Based on where they have come up, they seem to prefer full to part shade.

Finally, I would like to submit another shrub for identification.  It is about 4 feet/1.2 m tall, deciduous, with fine, reddish stems.  Leaves open bronze colored and continue a bronzy green all summer.  They are 2-2.5 inches/5-6.5 cm long, ovate in shape with toothed edges.  I have never seen flowers or fruit.  This is a very attractive little shrub that seems to thrive in my terrible, rocky soil.

As always, if anyone knows the identity of these plants, I would enjoy hearing from you very much.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Return to Wiley Slough

Last January I discovered Wiley Slough on Fir Island, Washington.  Even in the middle of winter, I was completely blown away by what I found.  The Skagit is one of western Washington's major rivers, and Fir Island is the Skagit River delta.  It is triangular shaped, formed by the north and south forks of the river and the Skagit Bay shoreline.  Historically, the delta would be inundated by river flooding and tides, but a system of dikes now encircle the island.  These protect island homes and farmlands.

As the river flows towards Puget Sound, it divides into a myriad of channels, sloughs, ponds, marshes and bogs.  This is a natural process that controls the flow and filters sediments and pollutants from the water before it enters the sea.  It is also the site of numerous, highly productive plant and wildlife communities.

The wetlands of the Skagit State Wildlife Recreation Area are accessible by foot using the Spur Dike Trail.  We will start at the Washington Fish and Wildlife Headquarters Unit and walk atop the dike.  The dike trail extends for about two miles and ends in the marshes bordering Skagit Bay.

Right off the bat, there is something beautiful along the edge of the parking lot.  This is Saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia) a native shrub now in full bloom.  It is also the namesake of the Canadian city.  You may know it as Serviceberry.  It produces edible berries which were highly favored by Native Americans.

Along the edge of the dike, we find another native wildflower, Large-leaved Lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus) growing in the more open, sunny areas.  You can find the same plant in nurseries.  It does very well in my garden, but watch out for slugs and snails.

The Wiley Slough Restoration Project is an effort to improve the habitat for the Skagit run of Chinook Salmon.  The dikes protecting the island have disturbed some of the natural processes and ruined salmon habitat.  The salt marshes required by the salmon have been disrupted.  As you know, salmon are born in fresh water streams far from the sea.  Before returning to the ocean, the young must spend time in these delta marshes while their bodies become accustomed to salt water.  The barrier dike protecting Fir Island farmlands has been moved further inland and another has been removed to the left of the pond above.  This adds about 185 acres of ponds and marshes open to both the river and to the sea.

Another blooming flower along the edge of the dike is Field Mustard (Brassica campestris).  These are not natives, but are ubiquitous along the edges of fields and roads in agricultural areas around here.

The wetlands were alive with birdsong of all sorts during my visit.  I caught this Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) performing his solo.  I posted more photos of the singing Wiley Slough Song Sparrows at Wild Fidalgo.

The Spur Dike Trail takes you into another world altogether.  You leave the civilized United States and enter nature's realm.  Only the dike itself and an occasional glimpse of neighboring farms remind the visitor of human existence.

As you continue, you will encounter a tide gate and another dike branching off to the right.  This is the new barrier dike which was moved further inland.  From here on you are in the restored Wiley Slough wetlands.  The dike trail also becomes more primitive.  The trail is lined with Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens).  In the garden, it's a stubborn weed.  Out here it's a beautiful addition to the trailside.  The trees lining the sloughs are primarily Red Alder, Paper Birch and Willow.

The large and dramatic Cow Parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) is a member of the carrot family which will grow to be 10 feet (3 m) tall.  Each stem will culminate with a huge, white flower, about a foot across.

One of the highlights of the day was this nesting pair of Bald Eagles (Heliaeetus leucocephalus) across one of the large ponds.  I spotted this nest last winter, but of course, nobody was home then.  One of the reasons for my return visit was to check this nest.  Eagles will usually lay two eggs and both parents will incubate them for 35 days.

Mount Baker in the North Cascades was in her glory.  The volcano last erupted in 1880.  Presently, steam plumes can occasionally be seen rising from the summit indicating she is still very much alive.  The Cascade chain of volcanoes extends from northern California into British Columbia.  It is a segment of the "Ring of Fire" which encircles the Pacific Ocean.

Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) also add a beauty that belies their vicious nature.  Just taking the picture made me itchy and uncomfortable.  Some people roll up the leaves and eat them raw which is just fine with me.  Formic acid is the cause of my misery from these plants.  This is the same chemical that is produced by ants (Formicidae) as a weapon against intruders.

Northern Shoveler Ducks (Anas clypeata) were swimming in Wiley Slough.  From September to March, this is a duck hunting area.  Even off-season, the birds are wary and don't let you get anywhere near them.

As the hike continues, the Spur Dike Trail becomes more and more primitive.

Wild Pacific Crab Apple (Malus fusca) is now in full bloom.  The bark produces cyanide, so don't chew on the twigs.

We are now deep in the marshes.  There is a mild boggy smell of decaying vegetation and muck.  It's a natural, healthy, sulfurous smell, but not generally one we humans prefer.  Like I said, we are in nature's realm now.

This nature trail eventually becomes more nature than trail.  The plant on the right is Common Horsetail (Equisetum arvense).  The fossil record dates it to at least 150 million years which means it was trod upon by dinosaurs.  If it comes up in your yard, you can bet you will have difficulty getting rid of such an enduring plant.  It also means you have a damp spot.  According to Pojar and MacKinnon, it was one of the first to send shoots up through the debris after the Mt. St. Helens eruption.  If you are looking for a reference on Pacific Northwest plants, this paperback is a good choice.

Salmolnberry (Rubus spectabilis) is a common shrub around the Northwest.  Look for it along streams and other moist, disturbed areas.  They are also nice looking deciduous shrubs in the native garden.  The berries are similar to raspberries, but not to everyone's taste.  High levels of vitamin C render a bitter flavor to the fruit.

As we approach the end of the trail, the scene opens to the marshes bordering Skagit Bay.  We are now in prime Chinook Salmon habitat.

At trails end, Skagit Bay is visible, along with the Olympic Mountains beyond.  Without the luxury of the Spur Dike to keep our feet dry, this land is too wet and marshy to hike any further.  Best to explore the marshes by boat or kayak.  There is a boat launch into Freshwater Slough at the parking lot where we began our hike.  Check out the Island Wildlife Unit which is only accessible by boat.  The flow can be swift, so use good judgement before kayaking.

These wetlands are a botanical and zoological paradise.  Because of the Spur Dike Trail, they are easily accessible by foot.  This has become one of my favorite spots and I hope you enjoyed the visit.

Note that a WDFW Vehicle Use Permit is required for access into these facilities.  I would suggest ordering a Watchable Wildlife Decal Package which includes the vehicle permit.  It also supports state recreational wildlife activities.  Happy trails.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Time Lapse 10

Rhododendron 'Kristin'

The blossom trusses of Rhododendron 'Kristin' are now fully opened.  The BirdCam caught this photo without wildlife which I thought would be fitting to complete the series.  Over the next couple of weeks, the blossoms will fade and drop leaving seed heads.  Gardeners routinely remove these seed heads to encourage new growth.  The process is referred to as "dead-heading." Another R. yakushimanum hybrid, Rhododendron 'Aloha,'  is beginning to open in the background.  There are currently eleven Yak rhodies in this section of the garden, with room left for a few more.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Time Lapse 9

Rhododendron 'Kristin'

The sun has finally emerged from behind the overcast to brighten the opening blossoms of Rhododendron 'Kristin.'  Above, a House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) and an American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) are in their best breeding colors.  Later in the day when the light has changed, a Townsend's Chipmunk (Tamias townsendii) strikes an uncharacteristically wary pose.  I wonder if they hear noises from the BirdCam.

Rhododendron 'Kristin'

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Time Lapse 8

Rhododendron 'Kristin'

A Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) makes his BirdCam debut while the Rhododendron 'Kristin' blossoms continue to open.  According to iBird, these birds prefer open deciduous woodlands near water, with a mixture of trees and shrubs.  This aptly describes the small wetland habitat across the road.  They are fond of safflower seed which is currently stocked at the BirdCam station.  They are not year-around residents on South Fidalgo, but a few come every spring and summer.  This is a male in breeding condition.  Above, the BirdCam also caught something flying off in the upper left corner.  Below, he has a tortoiseshell appearance from the back.

Rhododendron 'Kristin'

Monday, May 16, 2011

Time Lapse 7

Rhododendron 'Kristin'

Though slightly rain-bedraggled, the Rhododendron 'Kristin' blossoms continue to open.  Today's photos offer studies in style.  Above, the muted tones of House Sparrow females (Passer domesticus) offer a contrast to the bright, flashy American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) below.  House Sparrows are also known as English Sparrows.  They were introduced from England, becoming one of two "Old World" sparrows from the family Passeridae in North America.  Native sparrows all belong to the family Emberizidae.

Rhododendron 'Kristin'

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Time Lapse 6

Rhododendron 'Kristin'

Today I have two photos of the blossoming Rhododendron 'Kristin."  Above, a Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) is almost lost in the floral display.  Below one of the local Pine Siskins (Carduelis pinus a.k.a. Spinus pinus) returns to enjoy some safflower seed.

Rhododendron 'Kristin'

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Time Lapse 5

Rhododendron 'Kristin'

Blogger hiccups and my work schedule notwithstanding, the flower trusses of Rhododendron 'Kristin' are beginning to take shape.  Meet Townsend's Chipmunk (Tamias townsendii a.k.a. Neotamias townsendii) who has become a daily habituĂ© at the BirdCam station.  He's a bold little fellow allowing me to get very close.  He has apparently decided I am not a threat.  The feeling is mutual.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Time Lapse 4

Rhododendron 'Kristin' and Song Sparrow

The individual blossoms of Rhododendron 'Kristin' are now visible.  In Rhododendrons, they form in clusters called trusses at the ends of the stems.  A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) attired in drab business pinstripes is almost rendered invisible by the developing display.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Time Lapse 3

American Goldfinch

The blossoms of Rhododendron 'Kristin' continue to open while a camera-shy trio of American Goldfinches (Carduelis tristis) look on.  Goldfinches are just beginning to arrive this week.  They are among the latest nesting birds, starting in late June or early July according to iBird.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Wild Fidalgo:  American Robin

American Robin (Turdus Migratorius)

My neighbor Dan Codd has provided some terrific photos chronicling a pair of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) raising a brood of young in his yard.  This is an amazing album which can be seen in total over at Wild Fidalgo.

American Robin (Turdus Migratorius)

American Robin (Turdus Migratorius)

Photos:  Dan Codd

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Time Lapse 2

Rhododendron 'Krisin' and Pine Siskins

The blossoms of Rhododendron 'Kristin' continue to open while Pine Siskins (Carduelis pinus) enjoy some thistle seed.  The genus name Carduelis comes from Carduus and refers to the birds' taste for thistle seed.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Sea Blush

Sea Blush near Cranberry Lake

My blog friend Whidbey Woman posted some photos the other day taken at Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park, Washington.  One, in particular, caught my eye.  Some of the West Beach Sand Dunes next to the lake appeared to have turned pink and I had to check this out myself.  I was amazed by what I found.

Sea Blush (Plectritis congesta)

The flowers responsible for this spring display are aptly called Sea Blush (Plectritis congesta).  Like most of the plants in the Sand Dunes, it is low growing, only about 4 inches/10 cm tall.  According to Pojar, it is common near the ocean from the Strait of Georgia south to California.  It is an annual, growing anew from seed every year.

Deception Island and West Beach,
Deception Pass State Park

While Cranberry Lake and West Beach are technically not "near the ocean," the conditions here are similar to oceanfront.  It was quite windy during my visit and the wind had kicked up a surf.  A good 30 mph/25 kt sustained wind was blowing off the strait, a reminder of the weather conditions that created the sand dunes.  Cranberry Lake was originally part of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  The winds built the dunes, gradually cutting the lake off from the sea.  Over time, fresh water springs replaced the salt water in the lake.  This is a great example of how weather can dramatically change the landscape.  The winds this day put the flowers into constant motion.  It was a challenge getting a decent close-up photo.

Sea Blush

Slowly, plants and trees colonized the sand dunes.  It is now the vegetation, and the careful stepping of visitors, that protect them.  If the plants are damaged, the winds could blow the sands to new locations and Cranberry Lake might be lost to the sea again.

Sea Blush

Last January, I posted an article about the Sand Dunes Interpretive Trail here.  Another post introduced a wonderful, old Douglas Fir which has stood witness over these dunes for some 850 years.  On this visit, I also caught some charming photos of Canada Geese family life which are posted over at Wild Fidalgo.  While I have been here many times, this beautiful floral display came as a surprise to me.  I am grateful to Whidbey Woman for revealing this special feature.

Sea Blush