Monday, March 23, 2015

March

Deception Pass Bridge

While the madness is going on elsewhere, March is a time of peaceful transitions in nature.  Winter becomes spring in March and nature starts to come alive.  This month, I have been exploring Deception Pass State Park sites and found some interesting things going on.

Black Oystercatchers

The Black Oystercatchers have returned to their nesting site in the Kukutali Preserve.  Last week, I found them relaxing on their Flagstaff Island beach.  All winter, I think they have been hanging out with their friends on Fraggle Rock over at West Beach.

Oregon Grape
Oregon Grape

Nearby, the Oregon Grape has been in full bloom since February.  I think that's a Sweat Bee in the left photo, and a pair of flies have found something interesting in the right one.  Click or right-click the photos to view them full size.

Cornet Bay

I found more interesting things on a hike around the Goose Rock Perimeter Trail that borders Cornet Bay.

Death Camas


Harsh Paintbrush

I did not expect to see Death Camas and Harsh Paintbrush blooming along the trail in March.  I think this is a good month early for both of these native wildflowers.  Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition fell ill after eating the bulbs of Death Camas.  Consuming large amounts can be fatal.

Pass Lake Meadow

We visited Pass Lake and Ginnett Hill on this year's First Day Hike.  In the midwinter sun, this meadow next to Pass Lake was in complete shade and covered in a thick frost.  Now, the deciduous trees and shrubs are just getting ready to pop their leaves.

Ginnett Hill Forest

The forest around the Ginnett Hill Trail was logged perhaps 100 years ago or more.  The notch cut into the stump held a springboard upon which a logger stood when wielding his crosscut hand saw.  The stump can thus be viewed as archaeological evidence of past human activity.

Ginnett Hill Forest

A stump is not just a symbol of a life lost.  In the forest, a stump can serve as a nurse log to nurture new life like this Western Hemlock sapling.

Naked Man Valley

In the depths of Naked Man Valley, I encountered some old friends I met here before.  By the way, I am not him.

Skunk Cabbage


Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage is blooming now in the wettest parts of the valley.  By midsummer, the leaves will be waste high.  Our local species is Lysichiton americanus, the Western Skunk Cabbage.

Skunk Cabbage

Here is one more photo because I think the Skunk Cabbage is so beautiful.  I could smell no skunky odor around them in the chilly weather.  This odor is irresistible to pollinating insects, flies and beetles.

Daffodils
Grape Hyacinth
Vinca major

At the summit of the Ginnett Hill Trail, are the remains of an old homestead site.  Mr. and Mrs. Louis Hall lived there in the 1970's.  Apparently, Mrs. Hall had a garden up there.  I found daffodils, Grape Hyacinth and Vinca major still blooming after all these years.  I think she would be pleased to know that.

Indian Plum
Salmonberry

Native Indian Plum (left) is always one of the first blooming shrubs in the Pacific Northwest.  The flowers appear just as the leaves are sprouting.  This produces a natural ikebana look.

After returning from Ginnett Hill, I continued around the Pass Lake Loop Trail.  Here, I found the first Salmonberry blossom of the season (right).  This one has a friend.

Bracket Fungi
Cup Fungi

I have read that there are a thousand species of fungi in the Pacific Northwest.  A hike in the woods will reveal the fruiting bodies of several kinds.  These bracket fungi (left) were growing along the Discovery Trail.  The cup fungi (right) were growing in Naked Man Valley along the Ginnett Hill Trail.  Fungi are the master recyclers of the forest.

Pacific Madrona Leaf Blight

Speaking of fungus, some can cause diseases.  Foliage blight produces unsightly damage to the leaves of Pacific Madrona.  A lack of rain in the fall to wash away fungal spores is thought to be a cause of the disease.  Normally, these leaves should be green all winter and die in August or September.  The buds for this year's leaves are green and healthy and will soon repair the damage.

Sea Blush

Over in the sand dunes at West Beach, the Sea Blush is starting to bloom.  In a couple of weeks, the dunes will be washed in pink.

Red-flowering Currant

Our native Red-flowering Currant is the same species that is sold in garden centers.  It's a terrific early bloomer especially in drier rain shadow locations.  My garden has both nursery stock and wild plants that came up on their own.  This one is growing next to the North Beach Trail near the bridge.

Mallard Drake

This morning, I met a Mallard Drake swimming in the pond at Bowman Bay.  He was sporting his finest spring attire.  This pond near the foot bridge has been dry for about three years.  We have apparently had enough rain over the last few months to finally refill it.

March is one of the best months of all in nature.  It is not just madness.  I hope you enjoyed this sampling of what March brings to my neck of the woods.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Rhododendron Trail

Pacific Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum)
From the Rhododendron Trail in 2014



Nature Blog Scavenger Hunt:   With this post, Fidalgo Island Crossings is participating in a scavenger hunt featuring Pacific Northwest nature blogs.  Kelly Brenner (Metropolitan Field Guide) is hosting the event.  Answer questions from the featured blogs and you could win one of the prizes:
Join us at the Metropolitan Field Guide beginning Monday, March 16, 2015 at 08:00 a.m. PDT (15:00 GMT) until midnight Friday, March 22, 2015 (07:00 Monday GMT) for some nature blogging fun (date extended).



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The Rhododendron Trail is not a highway connecting a chain of garden centers.  It is a real trail in a real forest and the rhododendron is a wild, native species.  Exploring this Rhododendron Trail is one of the unique adventures of the Pacific Northwest.

Imagine hiking in the deep shade of an old-growth forest.  It is a world of greens and browns and dim lighting.  The plants here have developed strategies for thriving with little or no sunlight.  Then you enter a zone where the canopy opens just a little.  You encounter this large, spectacular blooming shrub that gardeners cherish the world over.  They are all around you.  It is an experience beyond description.

The Pacific or Coast Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum) is the Washington State flower.  The scientific name means "rose tree with big leaves."  It is native to British Columbia south to Monterey Bay, California, west of the Cascade mountains.  In Washington State, it is found in a selection of isolated pockets where its special conditions are met.  In general, it thrives in moist coniferous forest habitats with good drainage where dappled sunlight can penetrate the canopy.  It is often associated with its cousin the Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii) which shares the same natural range.

These members of the Heath family (Ericaceae) have adapted wonderfully to our infertile and acidic soils.  They rely on symbiotic fungi around their roots to assist with absorbing nutrients.  They are evergreens that retain their leaves through the winter.  This helps to conserve scarce resources.  Other members of the Heath family include Blueberry, Heather, Kalmia, Enkianthus and Salal.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

Find the Rhododendron Trail at Deception Pass State Park in Washington State.  This archway under Highway 20 serves as a gateway to the trail.  The rhododendrons grow on the south slope of Goose Rock in the park.  The trail is a 2.2 mile/3.5 km loop.  It includes sections of the North Beach, Discovery, Summit, Lower Forest and Goose Rock Perimeter trails.  This route includes the summit of Goose Rock and the Deception Pass Bridge.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

This is a mixed coniferous forest of Western Redcedar, Douglas Fir, Grand Fir and Western Hemlock.  Red Alder and Bigleaf Maple grow in places where the canopy opens.  Understory plants include Western Sword Ferns, Salal, Low Oregon Grape, Red-flowering Currant, Thimbleberry, Salmonberry, Red Elderberry and Indian Plum.  Mosses serve as the primary ground cover.  If you are lucky, you will spot Coralroot Orchids blooming in the deepest shade.  Pacific Madrona grows in the sunniest spots.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park
The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

On March 1, I hiked the Rhododendron Trail to check out the conditions.  I found a lot of major new windfall.  Some really big trees and snags had fallen across the trail.  The trail had been unblocked, probably with chainsaws wielded by the volunteers of SWITMO.  Click or right-click the photos to view them full size.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

It always seems a shame when large trees are brought down by the wind.  Windfall is actually part of the life of the forest.  Fallen trees serve as nurse logs for shrubs and young trees.  Western Hemlock, in particular, relies on nurse logs for propagation.  Small creatures find cover under the logs and dislodged bark.  The decaying wood provides a source of food and housing for wildlife and recycles nutrients to the forest.  Nothing will ever go to waste here.

Windfall also creates openings in the canopy.  Sapling trees languishing in the shade are nourished by the new sunlight.  They can now spring up to take their place among the giants.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

The Lower Forest Trail doesn't look like a place where flowering shrubs could grow.  The forest is very dark and dense here.  At this point, unless an aircraft flies over, you will hear no sounds of human civilization.  Hikers are compelled to speak in hushed tones.  The visitor can savor the earthy smells of the woods and enjoy choruses of birdsong.  The woodwind tones of ravens are especially beautiful.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

Then, quite unexpectedly, you come upon the rhododendrons where a bit of sunlight penetrates the canopy.  Notice how beautifully they fit into this forest.  Gardeners will be thrilled to see how this "king of shrubs" grows in its natural world.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

The rhododendrons are growing all around you.  Some of the plants are right at the edge of the trail.  Look beyond the trail into the woods.  You can see large drifts of the shrubs in the understory.  Pacific Rhododendrons can grow to 30 feet/9 meters tall.  They tend to be rangier than cultured varieties with leaves arranged in tiers.  This growth habit and a large leaf surface are adaptations to limited sunlight.  No less beautiful, they look like they belong in a Japanese screen painting.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park
The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

There is more windfall along the Goose Rock Perimeter and Summit trails.  These will provide nourishment and habitat for future generations of rhododendrons.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

I spotted some nice flower buds next to the trail near Cornet Bay.

Pacific Rhododendrons are sometimes available at nurseries and native plant sales.  I tried to grow one in my garden once, but the poor thing was quickly ravaged by root weevils.  If I try it again, I'll be better prepared.  There is some chewing on the leaves of the wild plants, but nothing like what happened to mine.  Never dig up any native plant in the wild or do anything to encourage this practice.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

On the Goose Rock Summit Trail I found these rhody seedlings growing in the bark of a nurse log.

The Rhododendron Trail
Deception Pass State Park

This grove will be spectacular when it is in full bloom.  Pacific Rhododendrons bloom from late April into early May.  Our late winter has been unusually warm and rainy this year.  Shrubs such as Red-flowering Currant have bloomed earlier than usual.  This early spring may also affect the rhododendrons.  I'll be keeping an eye on them to gauge their progress.

Pacific Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum)
From the Rhododendron Trail in 2014
Again this year, I plan to make several treks into the rhododendron grove to photograph the blooming.  Send me an email if you are interested in joining me.  Watch my Twitter feed @DaveOnFidalgo for specific dates and times.  Bring your knowledge and your love of the Pacific Northwest woods.

Wild rhododendrons blooming in an old growth forest is one of the miracles of nature.  As both a gardener and a Washington State native, this trek is like a pilgrimage for me.  What a privilege it is to live close to this annual spectacle.  Enjoying and sharing the experience is something I have come to look forward to every year.

Pacific Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum)
From the Rhododendron Trail in 2014

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Meteorological Spring

Red-flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum)
Native Red-flowering Currant blooming in the Kukutali Preserve
The seasons of the year, spring, summer, fall and winter are each about three months in duration.  There are two reckonings for determining the seasons, astronomical and meteorological.  The astronomical reckoning is established by the tilt positions of the earth relative to the sun.  These positions are referred to as equinoxes and solstices.  An equinox occurs on a date when the durations of daylight and darkness are equal.  These happen on roughly March 20 and September 22.  The March equinox determines the start of astronomical spring.  For 2015, this will occur on Friday, March 20 at 22:45 Greenwich Mean Time.  In the Pacific Northwest, that will happen at 3:45 PM daylight time.

Solstices occur when the sun reaches its highest and lowest points in the sky.  In other words, the earth is tilted furthest toward or away from the sun for the observer.  These occur around June 21 and December 22 and mark the beginnings of astronomical summer and winter respectively for the northern hemisphere.

Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis)
Native Indian Plum blooming in my yard
Meteorological spring is determined by the average temperature during three-month periods.  The warmest period is summer and the coldest is winter.  The seasons between them are spring and fall.  In the northern hemisphere the breakdown becomes spring (March, April and May), summer (June, July and August), fall (September, October and November) and winter (December, January and February).

Of course, if we travel to Australia, this all changes.  Spring begins in September, summer in December, fall starts in March and winter begins in June.  When the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, the southern hemisphere is experiencing winter.


Meteorological Spring Begins Today March 1

Northern Flicker Males (Colaptes auratus)
Northern Flicker Males in Deception Pass State Park
Around here, it seems spring has been underway for the last couple of weeks.  All of the photos here were taken during this period.  Above, I caught two male Northern Flickers in Deception Pass State Park.  They were in an apparent territorial dispute.  It involved dancing, posturing, tail flaring and do-si-do-ing around the tree trunk.

American Wigeons (Anas americana)
American Wigeons on Skagit Bay
I always know spring has arrived when rafts of American Wigeons start passing by on Skagit Bay.

Banana Slug (Ariolimax columbianus)
Banana Slug (Ariolimax columbianus)

After disappearing for the winter, our Banana Slugs are now in their "Coming-Out."  I found these on Kiket Island in the Kukutali Preserve across the bay.  I have observed that Whidbey Island slugs have spots while Fidalgo Island slugs are plain.  Kiket seems to have both.

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

Also on Kiket Island, I came upon another apparent territorial dispute.  This time it was a pair of Song Sparrows near the beach.  All puffed up, this bird first waved his right wing at his opponent, then his left wing.  This alternating gesture went on for a few minutes.

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
The challenger, Song Sparrow in the Kukutali Preserve
This bird was the object of his ire.  Except for a spiky hair style, he perched impassively.  This is apparently an example of Song Sparrow machismo.  When this bird took off, the first one went right after him.

Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium)
Oregon Grape on Kiket Island
Oregon Grape is another early bloomer in the Pacific Northwest.  Our winter was warm and rainy interspersed with more sunny days than usual.  This might be a recipe for a great season of wild flowers.  It will be interesting to see what affect this will have on the wild Pacific Rhododendrons at Deception Pass this year.

Red-flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum)
Wild Red-flowering Currant and friend
When in April with his sweet showers
Have pierced the drought of March to the root,
And bathed each sprout through every vein with liquid
By which power the flower is created.

When the West Wind blows with his sweet breath
Through every field and forest enlivened
The tender new leaves, and the young sun
Has run through half his course in Aries.

And little birds are making melody,
those that sleep all night with open eyes
(so nature incites them in their hearts),
then people long to go on pilgrimages.

-Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales c. 1387-1400