Thursday, September 29, 2011

Skywatch Friday:  New Camera

I am slowly climbing the learning curves of both a new camera and new photo editing software.  This early fall sunrise over Skagit Bay is one of my first dSLR practice shots.  There is much to learn.

Friday, September 23, 2011

West Beach Detour

From my house on South Fidalgo, I have a grand view of Whidbey Island.  I can see a sand spit over there that sticks out into Skagit Bay.  I discovered it is called Ala Spit and it is an Island County park.  I drove down this week for a close up look and to get some photos.  As it turned out, it was closed.  Apparently a project is underway to restore salmon habitat.  I missed it by two days.  The earth moving equipment can actually be seen in the long zoom photo above.  I will try again in November when the park is scheduled to reopen.

Since I was on Whidbey Island with a camera hot to trot, I decided to swing over to West Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  In retrospect, an unscheduled detour to West Beach is really not such a bad thing.  I wanted to check out a big rock there, just off shore.  I am told Black Oystercatchers can be spotted resting on it during the fall and winter.  I started at North Beach near the amphitheater (above) to get a shot of the Deception Pass bridge.  Unfortunately, the morning sun was right behind it ruling out any photos.  More about that later.  The rocky shores marine habitat is the most common type of shoreline in the region.

There were no Oystercatchers visible on the rock this day, but nearby, this Glaucous-winged Gull agreed to stand for his portrait.  This is our most common gull identified by pink feet and legs, the red spot on the bill and gray wing tips.  Another photo of this fellow is posted at Wild Fidalgo.  I have noticed that gulls seem to like to stand on rocks and they are very patient about being photographed.

The attractions at West Beach include the unique sand dunes which separate Cranberry Lake from the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  I met this Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) along the path to the dunes.  Tail snuggled up and feet tucked in, he was obviously cold from the morning chill.  They usually bark incessantly when you enter their territory.  This one seemed content to just share the morning sun.  I left him alone to warm himself.

An asphalt nature trail provides a self-guided tour of the sand dunes.  Beautiful interpretive signs were prepared by marine science students at Anacortes High School.  The quotations in this post all came from those signs.  Along the inland Salish Sea, sand dunes are a unique geological feature.  Bordering the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the conditions here are similar to open oceanfront.  Winds off the Strait brought the sands that built these dunes over thousands of years.  Sitka Spruce, normally lofty conifers, and Shore Pines grow close to the ground under these conditions.

The foredune next to the beach is stabilized by the beautiful Dunegrass, Elymus mollis.  The foredune is this ecosystem's first line of defense against the maritime elements.  The chilly morning air produced foggy conditions out in the Strait obscuring views of the Olympic Mountain Range.

In the fog, I spotted a Washington State ferry, the M/V Sealth sailing north.  This boat is currently assigned to the Anacortes-San Juan inter-island schedule.  I am not sure what she was doing out in the strait.  This is not part of a normal ferry route.

"There has been no wilderness without some kind
of human presence for several thousand years.
Nature is not a place to visit,
it is home."
Gary Snyder

Don't think for a minute that sand dunes are barren and lifeless.  This "murder" of Northwestern Crows (Corvus caurinus), about two dozen in all, were busy gleaning the foredune.  "Murder," by the way, is the term for a group of crows.  Getting a photo of the entire group would have necessitated stepping off the path and that's a no-no.  Crows are allowed on the dunes, but for their protection, people are not.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself,
we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."
John Muir

Meanwhile, a "squabble" of gulls had gathered to socialize on the beach.  These appear to be Western Gulls (Larus occidentalis), identified by their black wing tips.  I could be wrong.  Gulls are very difficult to differentiate.  Local species hybridize freely making this even more complicated.

"And ever has it been known
that love knows not its own depth
until the hour of separation."
Kahlil Gibran

At the edge of the backdune this Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) has survived for more than 850 years.  Imagine the forces and conditions that shaped the tree in this manner.  This is a study of the main trunk of the tree which we have seen here before.

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

The trail enters a small, specialized dune forest next to Cranberry Lake.  At the edge, there appeared to be a conifer, fir-like, growing prostrate along the ground.  I have no idea what it is, or even if it really is a conifer.  None of my books or the internet revealed its ID.  I would appreciate hearing from anyone who can help identify it.

There was more evidence here that the dunes are teeming with life.  These tracings mark the paths of small creatures, probably insects.

"Everything on earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it,
and every person a mission."
Mourning Dove Salish

Inside the forest, I wondered what had been living in this old snag.  The trees were all decorated with Old Man's Beard lichen which is only found in old-growth forests.  It is also called Witch's Hair.  In the trees I could hear "Pip-pip-pip-pip-pip"-Pileated Woodpeckers, Spotted "Tow-heeeeeees" and Black-capped "Chick-a-dee-dee-dees."

"And my mother–
She knew that
Without love of earth
There is no love of Heaven"
Robert Sund

The trail emerges from the forest at the edge of Cranberry Lake.  Another "flotilla" of gulls was happily bathing and splashing in the fresh water.  This seems to be a morning ritual here, as I have seen it before.  I was fascinated by the dragonflies which flew right up to check me out.  "Who are you?  What are you doing here?  Get off my lawn."  At this point, I got back in my truck and returned home.  I decided to come back later in the afternoon to catch some shots of the bridge that I couldn't get earlier.

o o o o o o o o o o o

It is now 3:30 in the afternoon, 15:30 to some, and the sun is in prime position for some bridge photos.  This time, I have returned to Bowman Bay on Fidalgo Island.  I am taking the trail to Lighthouse Point which provides some of the best views of the Deception Pass bridge.  Normally under water, this marsh has almost completely dried up in late summer.  More dragonflies buzzed up to check me out.  Why were they so curious?  They were like alien spacecraft studying a mysterious creature.

Entire-leaved Gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia) grows right on the gravel beach along the trail.  It blooms all summer and this will continue well into October.  This beautiful aster should have a more agreeable name.

"It has been a busy day.
First one hummingbird, then another!"
Robert Sund

The trail continues along the tombolo which separates Lotte Bay (above) from Bowman Bay.  It then veers to the right and enters old-growth forest with a short climb.

Halfway along the trail, there is a large rocky outcrop where the first sight of the bridge is revealed.

The Deception Pass bridge is actually two spans.  The shorter span on the Fidalgo end traverses Canoe Pass (above).  The longer span crosses Deception Pass on the Whidbey side.

The headlands at Lighthouse Point provide some of the best views of the bridge.  At 16:00 (4:00 PM) fair weather, calm winds and a gentle neap tide provided a peaceful setting.  The bridge is reputed to be the most photographed structure in the State of Washington.

"We are part of the earth and the earth is part of us."
Chief Seattle, Suquamish

Friday, September 9, 2011

Padilla Stroll

I had an extra day off on Tuesday this week and decided to check out Padilla Bay.  This is considered an estuary of the Skagit River and the entire bay has been set aside as an Estuarine Research Reserve.  The river doesn't actually flow into the bay as would be expected.  I haven't quite figured out the exact relationship.  Water from the river would have to flow up the La Conner Channel to reach the bay and perhaps this is what happens.  In the past, I suspect tributaries of the river probably did flow directly into the bay.  The river is now strictly confined by diking into specific courses.  Of course, the bay is a part of the Skagit Valley watershed.

Other than a good walk, I had no particular goal for this trek.  A previous visit was posted here almost a year ago.  My first stop was Joe Hamel Beach at Bay View State Park.  At low tide, the eel grass beds are exposed.  These provide valuable feeding habitat for shorebirds and nurseries for fish and crustaceans.

Fidalgo Island and the March's Point oil refineries can be viewed directly across the bay.  The juxtaposition of this heavy industry next to a wildlife area and scientific reserve is an amazing paradox.

Click on this long zoom shot of the oil tanker to enlarge it.  There are dozens of little black dots, shore birds, on the surface of the bay.  Padilla is part of the Cascade Loop of the Great Washington State Birding Trail.  The bay is also a designated Audubon Important Bird Area.  There were several dozen Great Blue Herons grazing in the eel grass beds.  One, in particular, caught my eye:

Like we humans, this heron seems to have a preference for dry feet.

After exploring the beach, I continued on to the Breazeale Interpretive Center about a half mile past the state park.  Since 1897, this was a working dairy farm owned by John Henry and Anna Marie Breazeale.  Their daughter Edna, recalling her childhood, wished the site to be kept as she remembered it growing up.  She wanted a place where "children could see how things grow naturally."  The property was donated to the state, and in 1979, it was designated part of the Padilla Bay Estuarine Research Reserve.  The site hosts the research and visitor facilities for the Reserve which now encompasses over 13,000 acres including bay, tidelands and upland areas.

Setting off on the Upland Trail behind the Visitors' Center, I found a thicket of Rosa rugosa still in bloom.  It sported the biggest rose hips I have ever seen.  It is also called Sea Tomato for obvious reasons.  This non-native may have been planted years ago by the Breazeale family.

Common Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) is a native and dense borders of it along the trail were fruiting vigorously.  A Botanical Trail Guide is available identifying many of the plants growing along the way.

The trail enters a small forest where the dominant trees are Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, Red Alder and Bigleaf Maple.  The signs of approaching fall were everywhere.  Patches of Stinging Nettles had gone to seed and were dying off.  The maples and other deciduous trees and shrubs are beginning to drop their leaves.  Typical of late summer here, the woods are tinder dry.  In more than a month, we have had less than 0.2 inch/0.5 cm of rainfall.

The trail emerges from the woods into open fields again.  Here an incongruous pile of stones is revealed.  The trail guide of numbered stations indicates these stones were cleaned from the fields and piled in this spot.  Reminds me of my yard.  These stones are a evidence of successive glaciations that sculpted this entire region.

Turn around and look north from the trail for a spectacular view of Mount Baker.

Yellow caution tape along the trail warns visitors off this Paper Wasp nest.  Polistes dominula was very much in residence.  Berry pickers beware.  These bugs can get very cranky.

As the trail continues, we are treated to a spectacular view of the entire Breazeale Interpretive Center, Padilla Bay and Fidalgo and Orcas Islands beyond.  Students from the University of Washington and Western Washington University work and study here.  The center includes a museum and meeting rooms, library, research laboratories, barn, student dormitories and the Breazeale farmhouse which has been preserved.

Arriving back at the parking lot, we get a last look at the laboratory building and the Breazeale farmhouse.  The Upland Trail is only about 0.8 mile /1.3 km but it is a very nice spot to spend a leisurely couple of hours.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Skywatch Friday:  September Sunrise

September is the beginning of fog season in the Pacific Northwest.  Late summer can also bring crystal-clear skies.  Such was the case this week over Skagit Bay in northern Puget Sound.  This image is straight from the camera with no editing of color or lighting.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Bitter Cherry

Bitter Cherry (Prunus emarginata)

Both nature and the weather are telling us that autumn is arriving in the Northwest.  Now fruiting, this is Bitter Cherry which is a local native indigenous to my property.  It is a small tree valuable in the wildlife garden.  The tiny fruits are enjoyed by songbirds and mammals.  Through the winter, Grosbeaks will crack open the pits to extract the seeds.  Butterflies are attracted to the flowers and deer will browse on the twigs.  It is also known as Bird Cherry because of its attractiveness to avian species.  Be aware that the bark and seeds produce cyanide which is poisonous to humans.  The fruits may be eaten, but are very bitter, as the name implies.  Mine is growing at the edge of the bank to the beach, evidence that it tolerates seaside conditions.  If you are planning a garden to attract wildlife, consider the plants and trees that grow naturally in your area.

Weather Statistics for August, 2011

TemperatureHigh 75.6° FLow 48.6° FMean 58.5° F
Rainfall0.13 inches
WindHigh 20 mphAverage 1.2 mphDom Dir SW

Observed at South Fidalgo Island (See Climate page for complete climatological data)