Friday, February 26, 2016

Skywatch Friday:  Test Shots

Skagit Bay
Canon EF-S 15-85mm Lens @15mm (24mm image)
Last fall, I bought a new camera, a Canon 7D Mark II.  As it turned out, the photo editing software I had been using with the old 7D1 couldn't process the raw files produced by the new camera.  For the moment, then, the new camera ended up stashed away in a cabinet.

Skagit Bay
Canon EF-S 10-18mm Lens @10 mm (16mm image)
Now I have new software that will process the 7D2 raw files.  Here are the first couple of test shots I took this week using two different lenses.  Although they were just test shots, they turned out fairly well.  They were also photos of my usual Skywatch scene, so I decided to post them there.  Although it is the same scene, these photos are very different from the one I posted last week.

Compared to the old 7D, much less post-processing seems to be needed with the 7D2.  Colors are brighter and lighting is more balanced right out of the camera.  I take a lot of photos in the deep shade of Pacific Northwest forests.  Also, skies can be heavily overcast in the winter here.  This is why I am also looking forward to the improved ISO performance of the 7D2.

Bald Eagle, Deception Pass State Park
Canon EF 100-400mm II Lens @400mm (640mm image, cropped)
Here is a test shot of a slightly different sky.  This is one of a pair of resident Bald Eagles at West Beach, Deception Pass State Park nearby.  If you know where to look, you can find one or both of this pair in their usual spot almost any morning.  The 7D Mark II is not really a landscape camera.  Where it shines, however, is wildlife and sports photography when you need to get in close.

Canon EF 100-400mm II Lens @400mm (640mm image cropped)
Finally, back to earth and a test photo of one of the neighborhood houses taken from Kiket Island across Skagit Bay.  The house sits 1.1 miles/1.8 km from where I was standing.

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Skywatch Friday:  Islands in the Clouds

Skagit Bay, Washington State, USA

At Skywatch Friday, I know the photos with a lot of red, orange and yellow in them get the most attention.  But the sky that I watch sometimes looks like this.

Location:  Skagit Bay at the northern end of Puget Sound, Washington, USA

Time:  9:00 a.m.

Weather:  Light rain, temperature 48° F, dew point 46° F, humidity 92%, barometer 30.05", wind calm,

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Kiket Island Closeups

Common Snowberry

Yesterday, it stopped raining long enough for a quick hike across Kiket Island in the Kukutali Preserve.  I haven't seen our neighborhood eagles for a while and wondered if they might be hanging out over there.  By the time I got there, about fifteen minutes later, fog had rolled in.  For the moment, eagle viewing was out of the question.  I decided to go exploring anyway and see what else might be going on.  Left over from last season, I found Common Snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus) right next to the little parking lot.

Banana Slug

In the woods along the North Trail, I spotted the first Banana Slug (Ariolimax columbianus) of the season.  Apparently it is getting warm enough for them to come out of their winter hiding places

Oregon Grape

At the west end of the island, Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium, Berberis aquifolium) is starting to bloom.  Around here, that means spring is arriving.  The leaves turn bronzy red in the winter.  With warmer temperatures, they will again become dark green.

Purple Dead Nettle

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum) was blooming in large patches all over the tombolo between Kiket and Flagstaff Islands.

Great Blue Heron

From the tombolo, I spotted a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) resting at the end of the beach.

Madrona, Madrone, Arbutus

Some of the Madronas here (Arbutus menziesii) were starting to burst into bloom.


These tufts of lichen growing on a shrub caught my eye.  Because of the greenish color, my best guess is Antlered Perfume (Evernia prunastri) but don't quote me.  It could also be Ramalina faranacea.  Lichens are difficult to ID.  The most interesting thing about lichens is they are actually two symbiotic organisms, fungi and algae living together.  The fungus gives the alga a home and the alga provides food for the fungus.


This Honeysuckle is sprouting new leaves.  Another best guess is Lonicera hispidula, Pink Honeysuckle.  It also goes by the name California Honeysuckle.

Red Alder

Red Alders (Alnus rubra) are also starting to flower now.  These are the male flowers that will produce pollen.  The female flowers look like little pine cones.

Indian Plum

Another harbinger of spring locally is Indian Plum (Oemlaria cerasiformis).  Expect it to start blooming in a week or two.

Chicken of the Woods

Finally, I couldn't help noticing this yellow shelf fungus called Chicken of the Woods (Laetriporus sulphureus).  The sunlight catching it made it almost glow.  Also called Sulfur Shelf, there are references indicating it is edible, but I wouldn't recommend it.  There are also references describing adverse reactions in "sensitive individuals."  It probably tastes like alligator.

The one thing I learned on this hike was spring is definitely on the way.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Skywatch Friday:  February Sunrise

Skywatch Friday:  February Sunrise

February in the Pacific Northwest is typically rainy and overcast.  Once in a while, however, the skies clear giving us a beautiful winter day.  Such was the case on Tuesday this week.  This is Skagit Bay at the northern end of Puget Sound in Washington State.  I took a nice, long hike in the Skagit delta wetlands.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Fern Gully:  Exploring a Forest Ecosystem

Hoypus Point Forest, Deception Pass State Park

What is it about a trail that is so enticing?  I find myself compelled to follow its course to see where it goes.  What's at the end?  What will I discover along the way?  I was delighted when Deception Pass State Park announced that this year's First Day Hike would be at Hoypus Point at the north end of Whidbey Island.  I had hiked all of the Deception Pass trails now except the ones in this section of the park.  For me, Hoypus was terra incognita.  It was about time for me to get to know this part.

West Hoypus Point Trail

There are sixteen named trails in the Hoypus Point network.  So far, I have explored the East and West Hoypus trails, the CCC Crossing and part of the Fireside Trail.  One of the trail names on the map (.pdf) that caught my eye was Fern Gully.  That's the one I wanted to explore next.  From Cornet Bay Road, this would be my route:
  • West Hoypus Point Trail
  • Fireside Trail west
  • Little Alder Trail
  • Fern Gully
  • Forest Grove
  • Fireside Trail east
  • East Hoypus Point Trail to Cornet Bay Road
This figure eight loop would cover about 5 miles/8 km with an elevation gain of approximately 380 feet, 116 meters.  The uphill trekking was not difficult.  There was a fairly steep downhill section at the west end of the Fireside Trail.  For some reason, these are more difficult for me than the uphills.

Derelict Automobile on the West Hoypus Trail

Just off the West Hoypus Trail, I had not noticed this rusting automobile on my first visit.  There are exterior body parts and one seat cushion spring as best I can tell.  No engine block, transmission, axles or other heavy parts were apparent.  It appeared to be a 1930's or 1940's fastback style car.  How it got here is a mystery.  There are no obvious roads to the site.  It was as if it had dropped out of the sky.  Apparently, there is something about the soil around the rusted parts that prevents ferns and other forest plants from growing.  If anyone knows the story behind this relic, I would like to hear from you.

The Fireside Trail

I went left here my first time on the Fireside Trail.  This time I would go right  Perhaps this section would reveal why it's called "Fireside."

Nurse Log and Western Hemlock Sapling

One point of interest was this classic nurse log.  It was probably brought down by the wind many years ago.  The sapling is a Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), a tree that relies on these rotting logs for germination.  It is possible to find perfectly straight rows of hemlocks, revealing the trace of a nurse log which has disappeared.

The canopy is open here letting in lots of sunlight.  In a hundred years or so, this sapling will take its place among the giants.  It is the destiny of all big trees to eventually fall and become nurse logs for new generations.  It is a story of life after death.  I have thought that Nurse Logs might be a good name for a blog about Pacific Northwest forests.

Little Alder Trail

The Fireside Trail ends with a left turn onto the Little Alder Trail.  Proceeding straight ahead would lead to private property outside of the park boundary.

Red Alder Grove

I still don't know why it's called the Fireside Trail.  It was obvious, however, why this trail was called "Little Alder."  Its 0.3 mile (0.5 km) length crosses through a large grove of Red Alders (Alnus rubra) where the canopy opens to the winter sky.  In forest succession, the Red Alder is considered a pioneer species.  After a coniferous forest is burned or clear-cut, the deciduous Red Alder is one of the first trees to spring up.  It grows fast and its life is relatively short.  In the meantime, its annual leaf drop helps to nourish the soil and prepare it for the next phase of forest succession.

It occurred to me that the trail name "Fireside" might reveal a past forest fire that burned where the alders are now growing.  That's just a guess, of course, but it's a story that would fit the trail names.

Wetland Conditions on the Little Alder Trail

Oh good, lots of mud to slog through.  At least someone thoughtfully provided a makeshift boardwalk to bypass the worst of it.  Whoever did this, thank you.  The Red Alder can tolerate these wetland conditions.  From what I have experienced so far, I suggest waterproof boots for hiking all of the Hoypus trails.  Wet places like this seem to spring up everywhere I have been.

Fern Gully Trailhead

Another trail junction and here I find Fern Gully, the object of my quest.  I'll reserve the North Fork Trail for a future hike.

Fern Gully

This trail proceeds out of the alder grove and back into coniferous forest.  It immediately becomes obvious why this was called Fern Gully.

Fern Gully

The arching fronds of Western Sword Ferns (Polystichum munitum) were up to my shoulders here and many were growing over my head, perhaps 7 feet or 2 meters tall.

Fern Gully
Fern Gully

I reached a point where these giant ferns covered the forest floor as far as I could see in every direction.  This is one of the commonest understory plants of the Pacific Northwest, but I have never seen them growing as magnificently as this.  Coming here was not a wasted effort.  It was very still and quiet.  I felt a serenity in this place and a pleasing sense of fulfillment.  I wish I had the skill to portray that in the photos.

Trail Cleared of Windfall

This spot in Fern Gully has recently been cleared of windfall.  I suspect the guys from SWITMO did this work.  They are a great organization, much appreciated by us hikers.  This is a fairly remote section of the park, so I was surprised they had gotten here so soon after our winter windstorms.  SWITMO takes care of trails in Skagit, Whatcom and Island Counties.

Forest Grove Trailhead

Another junction revealed the Forest Grove trail.  Turn around 180° to find the Hemlock Hideaway trailhead.  That's another enticing name for a future hike.  For now, I will continue on into Forest Grove.

Forest Grove Step Moss

In Forest Grove, I found the shoulders of the trail carpeted with Step Moss (Hylocomium splendens).  Looking off into the woods reveals this to be the dominant groundcover here, instead of Western Sword Ferns.  The yellowish tones add a little brightness to the otherwise dark palette of the forest.  Globally, Step Moss grows widely throughout the northern hemisphere.  There is concern this moss may be adversely affected by climate warming.

Evergreen Huckleberry

I found Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) growing here.  This is another of our Heath family plants (Ericaceae) related to rhododendrons, Salal and Madrona.  Mycorrhizal fungi around the roots help them to tolerate our acidic, infertile soils.

Trail Permissions

There was something else I discovered on the Forest Grove trail.  I had to watch where I put my feet.  It was covered from one end to the other with horse $hit.  Apparently some horse people don't understand, don't read or don't care about signs and rules.  I am not the only one who has noticed this.

Fireside Trail

Back on the east end of the Fireside Trail, I had forgotten about this.

Deer Fern

This is another of our native ferns, Deer Fern (Blechnum spicant).  I have noticed that it will be found where conditions are wetter.  Although a bit bedraggled in its winter condition, it becomes a beautiful little fern in the spring.  The fronds you see do not produce spores.  Instead, they will grow taller specialty fronds which bear their reproductive cells.

East Hoypus Trail Junction

After that long downhill stretch I mentioned, the Fireside Trail meets up with the East Hoypus Point Trail.  Hiking will be a piece of cake from here.

Bigleaf Maple and Friends

This time, what I noticed along the East Hoypus Trail were the many Bigleaf Maples (Acer macrophyllum) growing here.  They are often found growing with Douglas Firs in disturbed places.  I mentioned in a previous post the many huge firs that had blown down along this stretch.  This would produce the conditions ideal for Bigleaf Maples.  Given time, these trees can grow very large.

Bigleaf Maple and Friends
Bigleaf Maple and Friends

Bigleaf Maple and Friends
Bigleaf Maple and Friends

You might notice there is something else special about these trees.  They are not just a single organism.  With adequate rainfall, there will be an entire ecosystem of epiphytic plants on the trunks and branches.  Typically, Mosses and Licorice Ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza), along with the maple, complete a triad.  Other plants and lichens can also be found.  In time, soil will form under the thick moss providing habitat for insects, other arthropods and earthworms.  Now you have a feeding station for birds and small mammals.  The droppings of the animals add nutrients to the mix.  Like I said, it's an ecosystem, and a very beautiful one at that.

Deception Pass Bridge

At the end of the East Hoypus Point Trail, I find myself back on Cornet Bay Road.  Heading back to my car, I took this shot of the Deception Pass Bridge under an overcast sky.

Getting to Hoypus Point:  From Interstate 5, take the Burlington/Anacortes exit 230 and head west towards Anacortes on Highway 20.  Cross the bridge onto Fidalgo Island.  Watch for the Deception Pass/Port Townsend Ferry intersection and turn left there.  Continue over the Deception Pass Bridge onto Whidbey Island.  Go 1 miles/1.6 km and turn left on Cornet Bay Road at the stoplight.  Follow the road to its end at the State Park marine facilities and parking area.  The trailheads are beyond the gate you will see to the north.