Thursday, January 26, 2012

Skywatch Friday: Low Ceiling

I have been able to catch a few interesting and Skywatch-worthy photos recently.  The big pink cloud appeared to be right over the beach at my eye level.  I wondered if I would be enveloped by it.  The late afternoon sky opened briefly over Skagit Bay between a series of snow events that rolled through western Washington.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Skywatch Friday: Winter Light

Snow has been lurking around Western Washington this past week.  It came with a vengeance on Tuesday and Wednesday and it is not leaving without a fight.   A rare freezing rain ice storm has characterized Thursday and it has shut down much of western Washington.  This is why we appreciate a break in the clouds over Skagit Bay and a little late afternoon sun.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

West Beach in Winter

Cranberry Lake Wetlands
One of my favorite spots to explore is the West Beach/Cranberry Lake area in Deception Pass State Park.  A variety of landforms and ecosystems are packed into a relatively small area.  These include seashore similar to oceanfront, sand dunes, rocky shores, fresh water lake with adjacent wetland, old growth coniferous forest and a unique dune forest.  All of this sits amid some spectacular Northwest scenery.

Red Alder (Alnus rubra)
Winter is my favorite season to visit the park.  This is a time to enjoy colors, patterns and textures.  Don't expect to find it drab and lifeless.  The landscape sparkles and shadows play in the low winter sun.  With few visitors to disturb them, wildlife will be out and about making a living in this more difficult time of year.

In the sand dunes, deep-rooted dune grasses, moss, low growing trees and other plants are primary defenses against the persistent winds.  They also help trap and hold a little moisture since the sand can hold none.  Plants that are delicate, that require a lot of resources or those with shallow roots will not survive here.

Seashore Bluegrass (Poa macrantha)

Seashore Bluegrass (Poa macrantha)

Dune Grass (Elymus mollis)

A self-guided interpretive trail takes visitors through the sand dunes and the dune forest.  The trail is wheelchair-friendly.  Both people and dogs are welcome if kept on the paths and cleaned up after.

Several lichens decorate the trees and shrubs in the dune forest.  Still more grow on stones, fallen logs and even the path.  This is a sign of an old-growth forest.  I believe this could be Usnea wirthii, Blood-spattered Beard.  Please let me know if I am wrong.  Don't be mislead by the modest size of the trees here.  They are older than they look.

Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii)

Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
This very special Douglas Fir has lived at the edge of the backdune for more then 850 years.

Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor)

Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)
I have not been able to identify three of the plants pictured here.  I would appreciate hearing from anyone who can help with this.

UPDATE:  A friend emailed me with the ID for this flower, Pearly Everlasting.  What a charming and appropriate name.

Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis)
Out in the dunes, Sitka Spruce and Douglas Fir grow low to the ground to duck the winds.  Grasses and other plants find some protection huddling around the trees.  The plants and trees help to stabilize their sand dune host against the winds.

Semi-Aquatic grass sleeps at the edge of Cranberry Lake.  When spring comes, this will become a nursery for aquatic life.

The outgoing tide leaves trails on the beach, perhaps to guide the way home again.

Bleached by the sun and polished by wind and sand, driftwood echoes the antiquity of the dunes.

Salal (Gaultheria shallon)

Western Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum)

Douglas Fir Cones (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
Identify the female cones of Douglas Fir by the tails and hind legs of "mice" trying to hide under the scales.  Strobilus is the formal name for the cone.  This time of year, they are abundant in the litter at the base of the trees.

Shore Pine (Pinus contorta)

Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium)

The Deception Pass bridge connects Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands as well as the two sections of the state park.  The West Beach/Cranberry Lake area is on Whidbey on the right.  A short trail from West Beach leads to the Amphitheater and North Beach where this picture was taken.  The North Beach trail continues all the way to the bridge.  After my visit, the bridge will take me home to Fidalgo Island.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Skywatch Friday: Another Skagit Bay Sunrise

Sunrise over Skagit Bay, 9:03 AM January 5, 2012.  It would be a chilly but beautiful, sunny day.  This characterizes the weather here so for 2012.  That is supposed to end this weekend with possible lowland snow predicted for western Washington.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Forest Moon of Endor

Star Wars fans will recognize the landscape.  Actually, some of the Endor scenes in the movies were filmed not far from here on Vancouver Island.  This photo was taken in Washington Park in the city of Anacortes, Washington.

Two of the trees pictured have special cultural significance in the Pacific Northwest.  The large trunks in the foreground are Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata).  They are actually Arborvitae meaning "tree of life," and not true cedars.  An alternate name is Giant Arborvitae.  We know the wood of this tree for its beauty, durability and wonderful aroma.  Dust Lichen imparts the gray-green color to the bark.  Western Redcedar is the official tree of British Columbia, Canada.

True to its name, Native Americans revered the tree as the "life-giver."  Some called themselves "People of the Cedar."  Wood, bark and roots were all used to make planks and posts for housing, canoes, clothing, textiles, mats, baskets, bentwood boxes, art works, masks and medicines.  Totem and story poles were carved from the trunks.  Elaborate carved and painted cedar panels decorated houses.  It was a special skill to strip some bark from a tree and leave it to survive and heal itself.  Trees marked with scarring from human activity are designated cultural heritage trees.  Those that date before 1846 are considered archaeological sites and protected by law in Canada.

The spindlier trees growing from the stump in the center of the photo are Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla).  The trees typically germinate in the rotted wood of so-called "nurse logs" which have fallen to the forest floor.  As in the photo, old, rotted stumps also serve this purpose.  The tree is extremely shade-tolerant.  Saplings may linger several years in the shady understory.  Then, when an opening in the canopy provides some light, their growth rate will accelerate and they assume their place among the giants.  In the circle of life, a tree downed by the wind might first provide such an opening.  Later, it will foster new generations as a nurse log.  The presence of mature Western Hemlock is an indicator of a late-successional forest.

The state tree of Washington, Western Hemlock is a primary source of lumber in the Pacific Northwest.  Like the Redcedar, it was also important to indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast.  The bark is high in tannin which was used for treating hides.  Textile dyes and paints were made from the bark.  Hemlock pitch and bark were used to prepare medicinals and cosmetics.  These included liniments, cold remedies, diuretics and hair remover.  The wood is durable and easily carved and was shaped into tableware, bows, basket rims and dip-net poles.  Shoots were chewed as an appetite suppressant when food was scarce.

The forests of the Endor moon, home of the Ewoks and the site of a speeder bike race are not fictional places.  For lovers of nature, they may be visited in the Pacific Northwest, from Alaska to Northern California.  Like great mythic adventures, the real stories from these forests can be endlessly fascinating.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Skywatch Friday: First Day at Deception Pass

On January 1st, state parks all over the United States hosted First Day Hikes to help bring in the New Year.  At nearby Deception Pass State Park, the weather cooperated nicely giving us a rain-free, partly sunny day with gentle breezes.  The First Day skies turned out to be as beautiful as this wonderful park.  Here are some late afternoon views from Deception Pass looking southwest towards the Olympic Mountain Range.  Happy New Year to all Skywatchers.

Weather Statistics for December, 2011

TemperatureHigh 51.8° FLow 28.2° FMean 40.5° F
Rainfall0.82 inches
WindHigh 33 mphAverage 1.9 mphDom Dir SSE

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

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

First Day

On New Year's Day, First Day Hikes were conducted in state parks all over the US.  Nearby Deception Pass hosted one of three such events in Washington.  At 11 AM, we gathered at the Bowman Bay parking lot.  The weather cooperated nicely with temperatures in the  40's, partly sunny skies and only a very light breeze.  While some of us were bundled up for winter, our ranger guide appeared to be comfortable in shirt sleeves.  As it would turn out, the day provided a sampler of many of the sights and activities the park has to offer.

We headed south to the Lighthouse Point trail.  We immediately began to climb up steep switchbacks for a short distance.  Near the top, the trail levels and hugs the cliff side giving us a terrific view of Rosario Head across Bowman Bay.  Beyond is Lopez Island in the San Juans.

With a sharp bend to the right, the trail descends back down to the beach.  Here we find ourselves on the tombolo or sand bridge that connects Reservation Head to Fidalgo Island.  Bowman Bay is on one side and Lotte Bay is on the other.  A special treat this day was meeting Linnea, a photography and blogging friend.  We have communicated by email and through our blogs, but this was the first time we met face-to-face.

From the tombolo, the trail now veers right into the woods on Reservation Head.  Another short climb put us at the edge of a cliff again, this time over Lotte Bay.  Rafts of Goldeneyes were diving in the sheltered waters.

About half way along the trail, the trees opened up at a large stone outcrop.  Here we got the first glimpse of the Deception Pass Bridge beyond Lotte Point.  The green you see in the water is not a trick of editing hocus-pocus.  From certain angles, the waters of Bowman and Lotte Bays really are that color.

The trail emerged from the woods at the grassy headlands overlooking Deception Pass.  From here it was possible to scramble down to a small beach.

Lighthouse Point provides some of the finest views of the bridge available from land.  The tide was going out and the water was moving swiftly toward us through the Pass.

The ranger told us there once was a real lighthouse tower here.  It was taken down by the Coast Guard some years ago and replaced with the small mechanized light visible near the center of the photo.  It actually sits on a small island separated by a narrow chasm.

Again, we found ourselves high above the water at the edges of precipitous drop-offs.  On clear days, the Lighthouse Point headlands offer stunning views of the Olympic Mountain Range.  Across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the mountains were about fifty miles from where we stood.

Back at Bowman Bay, the official First Day Hike was over.  From the end of the fishing dock, we caught a glimpse of the tombolo across the bay that served as part of our trail.  Reservation Head is on the right.

The old ranger keeping watch on the dock looked like he'd been around the bay a few times.

Linnea and I were not ready to go home yet.  Instead we headed north across the picnic grounds to the Bowman-Rosario Trail.  Another quick climb put us at the edge of a high cliff again with more great views over Bowman Bay.  Beyond the tip of Reservation Head is Whidbey Island across Deception Pass.

Below us in the bay, this rock is a favorite spot for Cormorants to gather after feeding.  Here they will dry their wings, rest and socialize.  It's hard to tell from a distance, but these are probably Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus).

Whatever your passion, you can probably find it happening year around at Deception Pass.

When we arrived at Rosario Beach, we were greeted by Ko-Kwal-alwoot, the Maiden of Deception Pass.  She was a young Samish girl transformed into a sea spirit on this very spot.  The cedar story pole was erected in 1983 to commemorate the Skagit County Centennial and to honor the Samish People who once lived here.  Stand on the Deception Pass Bridge, look down into the water and you can see her hair drifting with the currents.

From the north side of the head, we sighted one Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus) diving near Urchin Rocks.  I had to crop the photo severely to get a passable image, but you get the idea.  The scientific name literally means "dramatic dramatic."  They are very theatrical appearing  birds.  It was a nice sighting for the first day of the year.

In one of the Rosario Beach tide pools, I spotted this little guy, a creature I had never seen before.  With the outgoing tide, it became trapped in one of the pools.  Normally, this Vosnesensky's Isopod (Idotea wosnesenskii) only comes out at night, so this was a lucky daytime find.  He seemed to be eagerly looking for cover as he swam around the pool.

Another denizen of the tidal pools was this Anemone.  The green coloration comes from algae living in the soft tissues of the animal.  I believe this is Anthopleura elegantissima, the Aggregating Anemone.  One way they reproduce is by dividing their bodies or cloning to form small colonies.  They feed on crustaceans, fish or other small organisms that stumble into the tentacles.  The tentacles close and the victim is drawn into the mouth visible in the center.

In Rosario Bay, we identified Homo sapiens aquariensis discovered in their natural habitat.

From Rosario Head, we got one last look at the mountains under variable afternoon skies.  There is probably no better place to spend the first day of the New Year than Deception Pass State Park.  It is a place we can explore and do all the things we like.  A year ago I hiked the North Beach trail alone on New Year's Eve.  It was below freezing, a good 20 degrees colder with nippy winds.  On that last day of the year I discovered life after death in the forest.  This year, it was a pleasure to meet a friend and join a group seeking new beginnings on this First Day Hike.  How fortunate we are this wonderful park has been preserved for us to learn from and enjoy.