Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wiley Slough:  Midsummer

I returned to Wiley Slough in the Skagit State Wildlife Recreation Area on Fir Island to see what summer brought to these amazing wetlands.  Recall that visitors can venture out into the marshes using the Spur Dike Trail.  The dike is easily accessed from the Skagit Headquarters Unit managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Remember to bring your vehicle permit or Discover Pass.  On my spring visit, I found the wetlands coming alive and greening up.  A pair of Bald Eagles had occupied the nest I had spotted during the winter.

On this visit I found a lush and mature botanical garden.  There was fruiting and flowering everywhere I looked.  In Wiley Slough, Bullfrogs were chanting mantras.  The eagles were still at home.  While I watched them, someone popped up from the nest for a good wing stretch, then settled back down.  The outer trail beyond the dike had become overgrown and was almost impassable.  There were annoying swarms of gnats out there, but I encountered no poisonous plants or stinging insects.  Enjoy this botanical gallery collected on a three-hour visit to the Wiley Slough area wetlands.

Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa pubens)
Red Elderberries are edible but only if cooked.  All of the other plant parts are highly toxic.  Before you eat anything from nature, you should read the book Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer or see the movie with the same name.

Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa pubens)

Coastal Hedgenettle (Stachys chamissonis)

Cow Parsnip (Heracleum lanatum)

Pacific Ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus)

From the Spur Dike Trail Looking South

Black Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata)
Black Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata)
Black Twinberry is a species of Honeysuckle.  Notice that the berries appear in pairs which is the source of its name.  It is also called Bearberry Honeysuckle.

Hardhack (Spirea douglasii douglasii) with Cow Parsnip

Yellow Flag (Iris pseudacorus)
Finding these yellow Iris growing among the Cattails was a real surprise.  They are an introduced species native to Europe and northwest Africa.  They were growing a distance away from the dike, but here is an attempt for a closer photo:

Yellow Flag (Iris pseudacorus)

Baby Rose (Rosa multiflora)
I was puzzled when I first spotted this vining shrub.  It had the leaves of a rose, but the flowers of a blackberry.  Rosa multiflora is another non-native and considered invasive.  It comes from China, Japan and Korea and is also called Japanese Rose and Rambler Rose.  Fragrant.

The Spur Dike Trail Recently Mowed

Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
Another immigrant flower from Europe and Asia, the Oxeye Daisy likes to grow in grassland and dry, rocky places.  It is considered a noxious weed in agricultural areas.  The bluish, leafy plants at its base are not part of the daisy.  Another invasive non-native from Europe is the Cutleaf or Evergreen Blackberry:

Cutleaf or Evergreen Blackberry (Rubus laciniatus)

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)
The Salmonberries here were very tasty and refreshing.  They have a pleasant tartness that lingers in the mouth.

Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis)

Nootka Rose (Rosa nutkana)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Good Morning

06:47 AM, Temp 55.5 °F, Dew Pt 53.8 °F, Barometer 29.81 in, Wind Calm, Humidity 94%

In the morning calm, a Great Blue Heron hunts for breakfast in Skagit Bay.  This foraging bird is probably a member of the March's Point colony nearby.  You may be able to catch a glimpse of the goings-on there on the live Heron Cam.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Exploring Kukutali

For 24 years this has been my perspective of Kiket Island across upper Skagit Bay.  The island has been privately owned for decades and off-limits to visitors.  This isolation allowed a pristine and unique wilderness to survive intact.  Last year, it was purchased jointly by the Swinomish Tribal Community and the State of Washington.  It has now become the newest venue of nearby Deception Pass State Park.  To preserve the important habitats on and around the island, public access will continue to be limited.  Low impact activities in small guided groups are currently allowed by reservation only.  These include nature hikes, photography, bird watching and botanizing.

Kiket Island has a companion seen to the right in the photo.  This is little Flagstaff Island which is connected to Kiket by a tombolo.  A second tombolo not visible in the photo connects Kiket to Fidalgo Island where a small property includes a caretaker's house.  The entire complex has been renamed the Kukutali Preserve after the original Native American Lushootseed name for Kiket Island.

Ironically, a visit to the Kukutali wilderness begins at one of the most extreme expressions of human civilization.  Visitors gather at the Swinomish Northern Lights Casino from where they will be shuttled to the island.

Visitor access to the Preserve is by foot using a roadway that traverses the tombolo.  Only park maintenance vehicles are allowed on the island.  Because of the tombolo connection, Kiket is an example of a "tied island."

As we set out onto the tombolo, we encounter a tidal lagoon on the north side bordered by salt marsh.  This is a rare pocket estuary, an important habitat for wild salmon rearing.  Here the young smolts will linger to become accustomed to salt water before heading out into the ocean.  They will be protected from larger, predatory fish, but not Great Blue Herons which are sometimes seen feeding in the lagoon.  The fast and the smart will survive.  The Kukutali Preserve includes five important habitats:
  • Rich, abundant intertidal zone
  • Intact forested shoreline and marine riparian buffer
  • Rare non-natal pocket estuary
  • Unique rocky balds (native coastal grasslands)
  • Mature upland forest

Seen from the island, the tombolo extends to the Fidalgo mainland.  Tombolos are built by tidal currents flowing around the island.  These accumulate sediments which eventually connect the island to another land mass.

We continue our trek into the forest.  It was logged decades ago so many of the trees are second-growth.  The dominant species are Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, Bigleaf Maple and Red Alder.  In the right photo, a mossy old stump becomes a nurse log for Salal (Gaultheria shallon) and Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus).

I spotted this attractive shrub with small oak-like leaves.  I have not been able to figure out what it is and didn't think to ask our guide.  I have ruled out Poison Oak since the leaf arrangement isn't right.  Any ideas?

Update:  I have tentatively identified this as the Common or Oneseed Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).  It is a cultivated native of Europe that has naturalized along the Northwest coast.  It produces berries that are attractive to birds.  Sunset advises growing them them under "austere conditions."  It would make a nice, low-demand addition to the Northwest wildlife garden.

You must look carefully to spot these strawberries growing among the weeds along the road.  One guess is Coastal Strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis).  It could also be a domestic berry that has naturalized.  The birds are quite efficient at spreading their seeds.  Did you know that strawberries are members of the Rose family?

This is Self-Heal (Prunella vulgaris) from the Mint family.   This plant and its relatives have been used medicinally to treat wounds and skin inflammations by both Native Americans and Europeans.

I came upon the biggest Nootka Rose (Rosa nutkana) blossom I have ever seen and I had to include a picture of it.  It was at least 3 inches (7.6 cm) across.  These were abundant in sunny spots along the road and also in dense thickets lining the banks along the beach.

One of the surprises of the visit was this house, now unoccupied.  It was built in the 1950's by Gene Dunlap who had a local tug boat business.  We have seen some of the boats from Dunlap Towing in our local waters.  It was a pretty nice house in its day.  The grounds include tennis courts that have now become derelict and overgrown.  Our group agreed they had a spookiness and would make a great setting for a scary movie.  There was also a swimming pool which was recently filled in and replaced with lawn for safety reasons.  One of the ideas for the Kukutali Preserve is to convert this house into a visitors' interpretive center.

In the late 1960's, a nuclear power plant was planned to be sited here.  Had that occurred, Skagit Bay would have become a confined, tropical lagoon due to the heated cooling water from the plant.  The native marine habitat would have been destroyed.  Public outcry and the environmental impact led to cancelling this folly.

You can see Deception Pass when looking west from the front yard of the house.  Click on the images to open the larger versions.  In the left photo, the bridge is just barely visible, a little over 3.5 miles (5.6 km) away.  On the right, a bit of zoom lens hocus-pocus brings it into closer view.

Looking south, Lone Tree Point is seen.  This is actually another rocky islet connected to the shore by a tombolo.  You may have noticed that Puget Sound and the Georgia Strait are dotted with large and small islands.  These were carved and shaped by glaciers up to a mile thick during successive Pleistocene ice ages.

Skagit Island has been seen in photos here many times.  This is a view of Skagit Island from the south beach of Kiket.  Skagit is another State Park site and includes an underwater marine park.  Primitive camp sites, boat moorings and diving are offered here.  The only access is by boat.

Collections of driftwood provide valuable habitat, food, shelter and nesting sites for wildlife.  It stabilizes beach erosion and leaches organic nutrients into the surrounding sea water.  Driftwood should not be collected, disturbed or burned, especially in protected areas.  Skagit River flooding is the likely source of all of the driftwood in this area.

At the top of this post, the first photo is a view of Kiket Island from the South Fidalgo shore.  Here are the opposite views looking back from Kiket.  At 1,273 feet/388 meters, Mount Erie (right) is the highest point on Fidalgo Island.  A recent post provided a view of Kiket Island from the top of Mount Erie.

Our final destination was the beautiful beach along the Flagstaff Island tombolo.  This has been called Boathouse Beach after the old ruin near the center of the photo.  A marvelous wildflower prairie was revealed in the strip of grassland along the top of the sandspit.  This is a spot where I plan to return and do more exploring.

To make reservations for a visit to Kiket Island and the Kukutali Preserve, call the Deception Pass State Park Kiket reservation line at 360-661-0682.

Next:  Tombolo Wildflowers

Monday, June 20, 2011

Yesterday and Today

4:41 PM, Temp 62.8 °F, Dew Pt 53.6 °F, Barometer 30.01 in S, Wind Calm, Humidity 72%

What a difference a day makes.  Yesterday I described the day as "warm December."  Today it was Northwest June on the eve of the solstice.  The high temperature would reach 66 °F/19 °C.  In the summer, we can expect a southerly breeze every afternoon.  I think it has something to do with the heating of the land and rising air that draws in breezes off the sea.  It arrived on schedule and peaked at 10 mph/16 kph around 1:30 PM.  In contrast to today's weather, recall that this was yesterday:

Sunday, June 19, 2011


2:45 PM, Temp 52.9 °F, Dew Point 51.8 °F, Barometer 30.06 in S, Wind Calm, Humidity 96%

Even around here, the weather in June is not supposed to be like this.  It should be 65-70 °F/18-21 °C, plus or minus, and partly to mostly sunny.  Today was more like a very warm December.  It is hard to believe that the summer solstice is just 2 days away.

Notice that the air temperature and dew point are very close and the relative humidity is nearing 100%.  Fog forms when the dew point is equal to or almost equal to the air temperature.  At the time of the photo there was a nearly imperceptible rain falling in typical Northwest fashion.  It was more like a mist.  For me, this is perfect gardening weather.  A person can work outdoors, and for some reason, stay completely dry.  In this weather, you can dig up plants and not worry about the roots getting fried in the sun.  That's exactly how I spent the afternoon.

Almost the entire continental US is 80 °F/27 °C or more today.  Texas is 100 °F/38 °C plus, but our little corner of Washington State will top out in the mid 50's.  It looks like tomorrow will begin a cycle of more normal weather conditions for us.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Kiket Island

On a typical, overcast June day, a bit of sun makes it through the cloud cover to light up Kiket Island in Skagit Bay.  I consider it part of my front yard.  Technically, it is a peninsula, connected to Fidalgo Island by a tombolo.  The smaller Flagstaff Island to the right is connected to Kiket by another tombolo.  In 1969, Seattle City Light and Snohomish County PUD planned to build a nuclear power plant on the island.  Yikes!  Fortunately, that plan was abandoned due to public outrage.  Last summer, it was acquired jointly by the State and the Swinomish Tribal Community and it will now become a part of Deception Pass State Park.  Anticipated access will be by foot and non-motorized boats only.  Low impact recreational activities will include bird watching, beach walking and marked nature trails.  I can't wait.  Until now, it has been privately owned and basically off-limits.  Being undisturbed for more than 100 years allowed a unique, natural Puget Sound habitat to develop.

Update:  For an account of my first on-site visit to Kiket Island see the post "Exploring Kukutali."

PDF:  Kiket Island Addition to Deception Pass State Park

PDF:  Kiket Island Addition to Deception Pass State Park Phase II

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Along the Mount Erie View Trail

In the haze of an overcast June day, the photo shows a view of South Fidalgo Island looking southeast down Skagit Bay.  You might recognize Kiket, Skagit and Hope Islands which have been featured here a number of times.  The far landmass on the right is Whidbey Island across Deception Pass from Fidalgo.  In the center of the photo is Lake Campbell.  The view provides an illustration of land first built by vulcanism, then carved by glaciers.  We will see more of that later.  There is a Northwest weather lesson here as well.  Cliff Mass, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington explains why we suffer from "low clouds."  It's basically caused by moist marine air pushed in off the Pacific.  For many of us, this misty overcast is what sometimes creates the special ambience of the region.

The vantage point is the top of Mount Erie which is near the center of Fidalgo Island.  It is a favorite city park with overlooks, hiking trails and rock climbing.  Visitors can drive to the summit on a narrow, winding road.  There are more trails in the surrounding Anacortes Community Forest Lands.  Once again, I joined a group hosted by Friends of the ACFL for a hike on the Mount Erie View Trail.  After passing through deep woods, the trail will end with a great view of this local landmark.  We began the trek at the base of the Mount Erie road.  As we continue, you will come to realize why the color green is special to us.

After an unusually cold and wet spring, the forest vegetation was in spectacular condition.  The environment favored by our Pacific Northwest plant life becomes readily apparent.  The trail passed through a ravine that was beautifully carpeted with Western Sword Ferns (Polystichum munitum).  It's another scene from the Second Moon of Endor.

In the more open places, Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) was in full bloom.

The Vine Maple (Acer circinatum) is a Northwest classic.  In full sun, it will be a small, symmetrical tree.  In shade, it is a low rambling shrub with many stems.  It is a valuable addition to the native wildlife garden.  As an ornamental, it fills the same niche as the Japanese Maple.  In the fall, the velvety green leaves turn brilliant colors of red, yellow and orange.

The blooming vines of Orange Honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa) scramble up the limbs of Sakatoon a.k.a. Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), now just past its bloom.  In May, we saw these in full bloom at Wiley Slough.

Herb-Robert (Geranium robertianum) is known locally as "Stinky Bob" because of the foul odor of its leaves.  It is not a native, but an invasive immigrant which threatens to choke out native forest ground covers.  According to our guide, researchers have discovered that it produces chemicals that inhibit the growth of neighboring plants, adding to its invasive nature.  Human beings did not invent chemical warfare.  Despite the pretty little flower, people are encouraged to pull it up wherever it is found growing.

Broad-leaved Starflower (Trientalis latifolia) is a native and one of our favorite little flowering plants.  It even likes to come up in our gardens where we just let it have its way.

In the shade of the forest canopy, Spiny Wood Fern (Dryopteris expansa) left, lined the trail.  Big, waist-high Lady Ferns (Athyrium filix-femina) right, filled in the moist, low spots and were accompanied by gigantic Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus).  The Skunk Cabbage here was the biggest and healthiest I have ever seen.  It really seemed to benefit from our cool, wet weather this year.

If the Pacific Northwest has a mascot, it is the much loved native Banana Slug (Ariolimax columbianus). They are threatened and getting difficult to find due to competition by the Red Slug, European Black Slug and the Gray Garden Slug, all introduced pests.  As a child, I played and explored along a creek in a big forested ravine.  I remember the bright yellow Banana Slugs that were almost a foot long.  Slugs are valuable detritivores that clean up plant and animal wastes and recycle them back into the soil.

Left, the trunk of a young Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) is curled almost 360°.  It is a puzzle what forces caused the tree to contort in this manner.  On the right, a young Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) reaches for a little light in the forest understory.  In time, it will become another giant among giants.  The dominant conifers here are Douglas Fir, Grand Fir, Western Red Cedar and Western Hemlock.

A pile of fir cone leaves reveals a feeding station or midden used by squirrels.  They will return to the same spot again and again to tear the cones apart and harvest the seeds.

Several native orchid species grow in Pacific Northwest woodlands.  In the deepest shade, you might come across the Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata).  A single, leafless stem emerges from the ground and produces several purple-spotted white flowers.  The plant has no leaves, bears no green and does not photosynthesize.  Instead, it parasitizes mycorrhyzal fungi in the soil for its nutrients using roots shaped like coral branches.  This strategy allows it to exploit permanently shaded territories.  Northwest soils are relatively devoid of bacteria, but contain many species of fungi.  Several plants in the region have established relationships with fungi in the soil as a source of nutrition.

How many different plants can you count growing in one square foot of forest floor?

Our objective appears as the trail emerges suddenly from the woods into a small meadow with a mostly stone floor.  The Mount Erie View Trail delivers as promised.  The mountain is also a solid mass of stone that rises 1,273 feet/388 meters into the low hanging mists.  Geologists call it a Jurassic diorite pluton.  This means it began as a mass of molten magma that rose up through the ground from a deep, subterranean lava pool.  After it hardened into stone, glaciers carved away the overlying soil.  A dramatic example of this process may be seen in the stone towers of Yosemite National Park in California.

Evidence of glaciation is revealed on the polished stone floor of the "meadow."  The carved striations in straight lines trace the movements of glaciers.  At various times, Fidalgo Island was covered by a mile of ice.  From the stone headlands at Deception Pass, to Fidalgo Head in Washington Park, to the solid rock wall along the Highway 20 gateway to Anacortes, there is evidence of the island's volcanic origins.  Then, successive ice sheets carved and shaped Fidalgo into the forms we see today.

Even solid stone seems to support plant life here.  The aptly named Stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium), now in full bloom, finds a happy home on rock walls, stony outcrops and course soils.  Nature seems to find a way to exploit every environment.

For some other sites in the Anacortes Community Forest Lands, please visit postings here describing treks to Whistle Lake and Heart Lake.