Thursday, December 03, 2009

Growth of a Fungus: a Puzzle

I went out to a friend's neighborhood to look around in the woods for signs of wildlife. The housing development is right next to large forested areas and there have been problems with bears raiding garbage so she is interested in helping her neighbors be more aware of the animals around them - hopefully with increased awareness will come increased responsibility.

While on our wander through the woods I noticed this bracket fungus with an alder stick going through it a little more than an inch in from the edge. The stick was detached from its tree, but was still fairly firm with much of its bark remaining. Fallen alder branches seem to rot fairly quickly in our wet northwest winters, so I suspect that this branch had fallen since last winter. It was quite firmly encompassed by the fungus though. I have never seen anything suggesting that a shelf fungus would grow so quickly to engulf the limb like that in less than a year. The only alternative that comes to mind (which also seems unlikely to me) is that the stick remained upright and in sturdy condition for the years it might take the fungus to grow that much.

Any ideas?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Evening Scene

We've been having a pleasant (if a bit chilly) sunny break lately.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Canine Tracks

While out tracking the other day near North Bend, we came upon these canine tracks. They look a lot more like a wild canine track than your average domestic dog track, but they are quite a bit larger (these were just over 4 inches with the claws) than coyote tracks which are the only really common wild dog nearby.

Earlier this year I went to a presentation Linda Bittle gave about a research project she's been doing - tracking domestic dogs. Based on the information she presented I think these may be tracks of a Great Dane - a large dog and a hare-footed one. Hare-foot dogs have longer middle toes so that they stick out in front of the side toes more than the more common shapes of domestic dog tracks and give them a more similar appearance to wild canine tracks.

I'm hoping that Linda will leave a comment with her thoughts about these tracks.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Tumbling at the Dunes

One of the traditions of going to the dunes is jumping and tumbling down them. I was never personally so bold as to flip and somersault down them like these guys, but I did get some good rolling, jumping and 'otter sliding' in.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Oregon Dunes

I just got back from the Oregon dunes on a trip with the Anake program at Wilderness Awareness School. It was a great group of people in an always amazing place!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Keying Out a Mustard Part 3

Part 1

Part 2

This post has been waiting for a long time! I am again using Hitchcock and Cronquist's Flora of the Pacific Northwest and this time am starting at the Cardamine key. Thanks again to Kitty for looking it over and providing the commentary in italics.

The leaves are compound so we take 1b and the petals are small and white leading us through 4b to Group II.

It isn't always clear to me what counts as taprooted, but the petals do not approach 7mm, I believe the plant is annual/biennial and it is definitely weedy so I will go with 12b.

Seems like the length of the petals is the most straight forward character at this couplet. I felt compelled to look up taproot in a handy little book, “How to Identify Plants” by Harrington and Durrell. Their definition was pretty straight forward; (a thick tapering root, that can be slender or as thick as a beet). So how to decide if something is a taproot if it is slender? I thought that the discussion of annual root systems in the same book offered a bit of useful information “ …seldom much enlarged, has no special food storage structures and usually merges into the stem without a break caused by scars or constrictions” In other words, I’d look for a scar of constriction to help decide about the nature of a root.

This last bit is a little more fiddly, but not too bad. When I count the seeds through the silique in the above picture, it looks like there are 11, but since there will be a similar number on the other side, that gives 22 seeds for the silique. None of the siliques appeared to have significantly more than that where as option 14b calls for 24-40 seeds. Also when I enlarge the image of the whole plant I can see that the lateral stem leaves appear relatively egg shaped rather than lanceolate. This leads me to choose 14a: C. oligosperma. We can go further in this key and since the plant is growing at low elevation and would not be surprising to find as a garden weed it is likely var. oligosperma.

Seems like this one worked out to species easier than I thought it might. The distinction between C. oligosperma and C. pennsylvanica seems pretty straightforward as long as the fruit are available.

I tried the key in Cruciferae of continental North America that was posted anonymously. I used the key to Cardamine occurring north of Mexico and followed a pretty straightforward path until couplet #24 which required a bit of wiggling. In order to get to C. oligosperma, the plant should have abundant basal leaves in the form of a rosette and spreading hairs on the stem bases and petioles. The basal leaves don’t look particularly abundant, but there are at least a few basal leaves. I’m willing to describe the basal leaves as forming a rosette (although weak). Seems like we established that there were a few simple hairs in Part II of this exercise..

If I take the path that leads me away from C. oligosperma, I can eliminate from consideration the species because of geographical distribution (e.g. C. debilis) or number of seeds (e.g.C. pennsylvanica) or leaf shape and abundance (C. parviflora). The only species remaining is C. flexuosa. I’m having a bit of trouble eliminating this last species from contention. I think that the number of seeds is probably a good characteristic, but am having trouble finding the number of seeds per silique in flexuosa. One clue is that this flora talks about the similarity of flexuosa and pennsylavanica and a discussion of a bitter cress found in West Vancouver BC.

Although tempted by flexuosa, I think I’ll stick with oligosperma

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Lopez Island Camping

I went with some friends to Lopez island a few weeks ago. We had plans to play lots of games, stay up late sneaking around in the woods and so forth. The island had other plans for us though. It ended up being a very lovely, lazy weekend.

That was the first time I have been on Lopez and I liked it a lot. It made me a little homesick for my island roots. There weren't a lot of commercial places to go and a lot of the business shut down at 4pm, which works out nicely when your intent is to spend time outside anyway :). The town area was small and cool. We picked blackberries nearby and traded them in at the local bakery. We hung out in the used bookstore/adjacent coffee shop and chatted. We went to various beaches and watched seals out on the rocks and the sun set behind the horizon. We collected and dried seaweed and made little slings and practiced throwing smooth beach stones with them. We visited Jeff's grandma and had pie and played boggle.

I need to have more weekends like that.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


It's been an interesting blackberry year. As hot at as it was earlier in the summer patches that had good water had spectacular berries. However, there are a lot of drier patches with plentiful but small blackberries.

A few weeks ago I ate some trailing blackberries up along the pass that were some of the best berries I have ever eaten. They were in a recently logged area and so got plenty of direct sun. They seemed to be in a fairly dry area so I'm not sure if trailing blackberries don't need as much water or if there is some feature of that area that kept it better watered earlier in the season.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Slug Feeding

I have seen slugs on trees before, and evidence that they had been eating the lichen growing on trees, but this was the first time I have seen a slug eating leaves up in a tree. I am not sure why it surprised me. I tend to think of them more as eating decaying matter, but if that were the entire case they would not be the terror of the garden that they can be.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Pika in a Rock Stack

Pika (Ochotona princeps) are a type of lagomorph that like to live in rock piles in the mountains. They are very vocal, making a high pitch squeek as an alarm call. Apparently they also sing during breeding season and the fall.

It is possible (just barely) to see a pika in the blog-sized version of this picture. I recommend clicking on the image to enlarge it for a more reasonable challenge though. I think the uncropped version might make a fun jigsaw puzzle.

Monday, August 10, 2009


A few weeks ago I was out scouting locations for a tracking class and I noticed these caterpillars. They really seemed to like this plant, as every plant like this I noticed in that area was demolished and had up to a couple of dozen of these caterpillars on each plant. Unfortunately the remnants of the plants were not familiar enough that I could figure out what kind of plant it was.

I tried to identify the caterpillar on cool identification site, but though it returned a result (Utetheisa bella) the pictures of that species look enough different from mine that I suspect they are not the same critter.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


Last weekend I went out into the Pasayten to place a couple of wildlife cameras for Conservation Northwest's camera project. The land up there is spectacular (the above picture is a view towards North Cascades National Park from Slate peak). Lots of rugged peaks, wildflowers and wildlife.

Though it was hazy all weekend, we got a pretty good view of the night sky. The moon was nearly full and once it set the stars really popped out. During the night I heard coyotes across the valley and a couple of owls (great horned, I think) calling. I woke in the morning to the sound of deer pronking by. A group of 9 of them were eating and playing lower down the meadow from where I slept.

In many places along the hill sides there were rodent holes of various sizes. Considering the number of holes, I was surprised that we only saw the occasional chipmunk, a pika and two ground squirrels.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


By popular demand:

This was another find at Devil's Creek. Shortly after starting down the canyon, we passed an overhanging rock and I thought, "I wonder if there is anything under there?" This is the answer to that question.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Not a Dragonfly?

While wandering around Devil Creek I noticed this large (probably around two inches long) insect. While watching it I figured it was a type of dragonfly since it kind of had that look. You can also see that it had captured another insect and was eating it (something that dragonflies do).

However, once I got home and was trying to figure out what kind of dragonfly it might be, I noticed that its wings were folded behind its back. It is my understanding that all dragonflies rest with their wings out to the side.

Does anybody have an idea as to what kind of insect this might be?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Devil Creek

After visiting Alaska, we went down to Idaho for a short family reunion. It was quite an ecosystem change, though we managed to have a decent amount of rain while we were there too.

My dad took my brother and I to one of his old stomping grounds. He hadn't been there in 40 years though and a lot of the places he used to go don't exactly have well maintained roads. If you imagine sagebrush to the horizon and two shallow ruts through it (in parallel so you knew they probably weren't just cow trails) you wouldn't be far off. And that was when we were on even that much of a road. We did (just) make it though.

It was fun getting to see more of that country, and definitely not a place that an outsider like me would have been likely to find on my own. I enjoy exploring different landscapes: Seeing new plants and animals; imagining different stories on the land.

Up the creek a ways there were some shallow caves in a side draw. We wondered if it might have been a spot that had been used historically by Native Americans. I didn't see a lot of evidence of that, though there were some small obsidian fragments in a couple of places below the draw that made me wonder.

In the first cave I looked at I noticed a bunch of woodrat tracks and scat in the dirt. I also noticed that there were some dry sticks and vegetation sticking out from a ledge at the top of the cave. When I stuck my head up there a woodrat popped out! It didn't give me much time to get a look - it just jumped down and scurried back into a whole deeper in the cave. I think that was the first time I've ever seen one alive.

On the way out of the draw we saw this lizard - I believe a western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis). It was fun to slowly move up towards it taking closer and closer pictures until I had it more than full frame in the camera.

As we started back we noticed a smallish rain cloud on the horizon moving somewhat in our direction. By the time we got back to the truck it had begun to rain fairly heavily and the rain clouds at spread out about as far as we could see as we were driving out. It was fortunate we had 4wd because the ruts in the road quickly became little creeks and the soil turned to slick mud.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Tiny Rugged Mountains

The choice of locations for the survey I was helping out with was based on geology. There wasn't time/money to survey the whole wilderness area so places with different rock types were chosen. This location was chosen for its carbonate (limestone/marble sorts of rock).

The rock there seems to wear away relatively easily. There were vertical channels worn into the face of the rock, presumably warn down over the years by water runoff. There were also deep narrow crevices here and there which made walking on the snow above it interesting - wondering if there might be a crevasse beneath your feet.

Much of the rock was quite smooth, but there were also many places where little jagged peaks would form, looking much like miniature mountain ranges. These were fun to see, but could be a little painful when climbing up the slope. I'm not sure why these mountains formed when the rock around them was so smooth. One theory I have is that there are mineral imperfections and the mountains are formed when a harder rock underlies the carbonate.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


While visiting Alaska the past couple of weeks I had the good fortune to help a friend out with some survey work in the wilderness area on Chichagof. We saw quite a few cool things and the weather was even pretty nice a few hours out of the days we were there.

Probably my favorite experience of the trip was seeing this fawn. I don't recall having ever seen a fawn in the wild like this - still spotted and everything. We were just walking along through the woods when Kitty stumbled and exclaimed "Oh!" Apparently not having seen the fawn until she had almost literally stumbled upon it. It was quite well camouflaged and still. It laid there until just after I took this picture from a couple feet away. Then it wobbily got up and galloped off. Hopefully not so far that it got separated from its mother. I think that they use at least some vocal communication to find each other.

I think the fawns in Washington must have been born quite a bit earlier than this one, but the season was quite a bit later in this location. There was still quite a bit of snow on the ground in places at around 1000 foot elevation and much of the vegetation was still maturing.

Monday, June 22, 2009

At the Beach

I am up in Sitka visit family. One of my niece and nephew's favorite activities is going to the beach and trying to catch bullheads (little fish) in the tide pools. This is a great time of year to be down at the beach because there are some of the lowest tides of the year so a lot of interesting things are visible that normally aren't.

I really enjoy watching and listening to the ravens while I am up here. I run into ravens on occasion in Washington, but they are very common around Sitka so it is a lot easier to observe them. This one was pecking in the seaweed finding things to eat.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Hiking Mount Si

Looking down the haystack 'path'

Mount Si seems to be the classic Seattle hike. Generally if you live in Seattle and like to hike, you've hiked Mount Si at least once if not several times. At least that is the impression I get. I like to think of myself as a hiker, though if I look at my actions for the past several years, I'm not sure how accurate it is to apply that label to me. I get out and do naturalist wanders frequently, but not so often do I go on what I would consider a hike. But after living in the Seattle area for 4 years, I finally got around to going up Si yesterday.

I would call the hike moderately strenuous - 4 miles each way with an elevation gain of a bit over 3000 feet. Fortunately battling my carpal tunnel syndrome has helped get me in better conditioning in recent weeks (exercise seems to improve my symptoms for some reason), so I felt reasonably comfortable. The weather was cool and overcast, I'm not sure if that was a detractor for hikers, or considering the recent heat wave perhaps it was a motivator. At any rate the trail was very well populated, even quite a few people still starting up as we were reaching the bottom in the late afternoon.

I enjoyed walking up through the woods - it reminded me a bit of some Sitka hikes. Unfortunately the view from the top consisted of thick clouds - guess I will have to go up there another time when the visibility is better.

I was quite curious about the hay stack (a large rock outcrop at the top of the mountain). Last year I had talked with a friend who had warned me about how crazy it was and how it shouldn't be attempted. Of course that just made me more interested in giving it a try. I thought it was fun (apparently there is more than one trail up, I'm not sure of the relative difficulties of the others). I enjoy going up stretches like that in part because they are exhilarating but not exhausting. Julie at first decided she was not going to risk the climb, but when I got to the top and looked back to see if I could see her at the base I was surprised to see her half way up. We even managed to coax her up the last twenty or so feet to the very top, quite a brave performance.

View at the top of the haystack

Monday, June 01, 2009

Barred Owl

The other day I was walking through the park near my house and I heard a stellar's jay making noise and some winter wrens chittering all from the same area in the woods up the hill from me. I was curious what the racket was about, so I stopped and watched for a minute or two and was rewarded with the site of a large bird flying up into a large cedar near the kerfuffle.

I slowly made my way up closer to the tree. At some point I had made enough noise to have alert the birds, the jay flew off and I made my way with slightly less care (it was difficult to proceed quietly through the dry leaves and sticks). I worked my way around to a pretty good view of the barred owl. It saw me, but didn't seem to care too much. I expect it was quite used to people considering it lived in an actively used park in the middle of residential areas.

The winter wrens continued chittering, though they didn't seem overly concerned with the owl (or with me). I did witness a bit of chasing of each other and some preening going on, so perhaps their irritation was mainly male aggression and the owl being there was coincidental.

In the past few weeks I've seen owls several times. The rest were out of town and were all great horned owls. I feel more kindly towards the great horned owls, but this was my favorite owl sighting of the bunch because it is the only one where I think I was aware of the owl before it was of me and it wasn't just blundering luck that I ended up seeing it.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


While walking through the brush looking for tracks and sign in eastern Washington, several tick hitchhikers were picked up. I noticed that there appeared to be a couple of different kinds.

I didn't find a site that had what appeared to be exactly the ticks we found, but this site has a picture that makes me think these were dog ticks (Dermacentor sp). Based on this and other sites I saw, I think that the different looking ticks are likely the same species, but different sex.

Female dog tick (scale in mm)

Male dog tick

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

East Side of the Mountains

My hands are starting to recover a bit so I intend to start posting some from my recent trips, though still will probably not type too much.

The other week while taking time off from work to recuperate I did a bit of exploring south of Ellensburg. On the weekend we did some tracking near Wenatchee and near Snoqualmie Pass.

This picture is from the camping trip near Ellensburg. There were quite a few fancy flowers in bloom, hopefully I will get around to identifying them and posting about them later. The weather was good though a bit cooler than I was expecting - particularly with the wind. I managed to collect a couple of ticks, not surprising considering the places I was exploring, but didn't get as many as I did the following weekend.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Injured Reserve List

I probably won't post much for the next couple of weeks. I have tendinitis that makes computering a bit of a pain these days. I even have a couple of posts mostly written up that mostly just need a bit of editing, but the prospect of that much clicking and typing is daunting.

Hopefully I will get going again soon.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Keying Out a Mustard Part 2

This has been sitting in the stack for several weeks now, just waiting for a little editing. Now that my hands are starting to recover from carpal tunnel syndrome, I am finally getting it out the door.

In the first part of this series I started down the wrong branch of the key from the very first step. Now that I have the initial problem straightened out, let's see where we can get to. (Thanks again Kitty for the comments in italics.)

(Again I am using Hitchcock and Cronquist's Flora of the Pacific Northwest if you would like to follow along)

With the sessile fruit (1b), the next choice is (5b): pod uniform, not divided crosswise into 2 segments (this threw a bit as I wasn't certain at first which direction they meant by crosswise, but the illustration made it clear enough).

I find the illustrations in the key very useful, probably more useful than the glossary.

The next choice was even easier: the fruit is a silique (long and thin) rather than a silicle (closer to round) (6b).

Petals are white (12b).

It would be easy to get caught up in the difficult terminology in the next choice (and I did go through it when keying out initially), but we can simply note that our plant does not fit into the more easily understood criteria (e.g. petals are not 11-15 mm) so we make our choice (13b).

The petal size is probably the most straightforward of the criteria, but the description included in the couplet "grayish with branched hairs; petals...pinkish to purple" and the habitat were also good clues that 13b was the correct choice.

The next split is on whether the seeds are uniseriate or biseriate (a single series or a double series). This was a little confusing to me because the fruit has a series of seeds on each side - so there are two series of seeds, but each series is in a single line. The illustrated glossary that I use pictured biseriate as being two series in the same enclosure (e.g. a row of seeds attached to the top of the enclosure alternating with a row of seeds attached to the bottom - like a zipper). Based on that interpretation (that the fruit contained two sets of uniseriate seeds) I jumped to group VII.

The comparison to a zipper seems particularly useful.

The next choice (74b) was easy to make based on size of the petals and seeds, but I would like to point out the word torulose (just for fun).

I kind of like connivent: converging or coming together, but not organically united.

This is a good spot to point out that sometimes it is easy to choose a couplet based on familiarity with a genus. More simply put, if you know it isn't a Hesperis, take the other lead. This doesn't always work though...

Siliques of this plant are dehiscent (75b) - another common name for the plant (probably the genus in general) is shotweed: when the plant dries, the little panels holding the seeds in will often spring back at a touch, shooting the seeds out like shot.

So if you don't know that the fruit are dehiscent; it might be wise to look at the two genera included under 75b. We can eliminate Raphanus because the fruit are not torulose. Streptanthella can be eliminated by the leaves (the drawing included with the genus was helpful, as was the description)

Leaves are definitely not entire (77b).

This one's a bit tricky: Pubescence (hair) simple or branched? With the size of the hairs on these plants this probably needs some magnification. With a fresh sample I might have been able to eyeball it, but a hand lens would definitely be in order. My microscope was handier today, and all the hairs I could see on my dried out sample were simple (78a).

The hairs visible in the photo were not branched. The photo was quite useful for identification.

Siliques much less than 5cm (79b).

I focused on the calyx not being urn-shaped and the features of the petal

Stem leaves all pinnate (81a), (82b) which takes us to the genus Cardamine.

I will leave determination of the species to the final part of this series.

The species determination should be interesting.

first part of the series

Nature Quiz of the Week 29

Setting: Sitka, Alaska middle of June last year.

1. What species do you see?

Previous Nature Quiz

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Nature Quiz of the Week 28

This is a little late in coming. I've been busy getting my dandelion wine going. Hopefully I will get the next part for the answer to last week's question up soon too.

Setting: Around my neighborhood in Kirkland last week.

A multi-kingdom set this week:

1. What species of bird?

This is a spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus) - a bird that likes to hang out under brush. Its song is a fast trill and often makes a call (around here anyway) that reminds me of a squeaky door.

As in the comments, the tree it is sitting in is a douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

2. When in bloom, this plant is one of the showier natives of the Pacific Northwest. What species is it?

This is fireweed. I learned its scientific name as (Epilobium angustifolium). Apparently its currently accepted scientific name is (Chamerion angustifolium) though (thanks Kitty).

It has a pretty spike of pink flowers at the top when blooming. At this young stage, the leaves have a bit of a mustardy flavor when nibbled raw. The leaves can be made into a mild tea and the flowers are sometimes used for honey. After working on dandelion wine this past week I am interested in seeing how a fireweed wine might turn out. Hopefully I will remember to try when they start to bloom.

Previous Nature Quiz

Next Nature Quiz

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Keying Out a Mustard Part 1

On my recent Nature Quiz I asked about the identification of a plant that grows in my neighborhood. I was pretty confident about its genus already, but getting down to the species level can be a little tricky sometimes. I was planning on being a wimp and just giving the answer at the genus level that I was comfortable with, but Kitty's comment inspired me to go and try to key it out.

I ran in to some trouble. Kitty kindly agreed to provide some analysis/commentary which is in italics throughout the post.

I used Flora of the Pacific Northwest (Hitchcock & Cronquist) with a bit of help from Plant Identification Terminology An Illustrated Glossary (Harris & Harris). Rather than jump to the genus I believed it was, I started at the Cruciferae (mustard) family level.

Trouble right away. The first fork of the key was:

1a Fruit stipitate (stipe as least 1mm) (Stipe means stalk supporting a structure)
1b Fruit Sessile or subsessile (stipe < 1mm)

I had scanned ahead to see where I wanted to end up and this was taking me down the wrong fork. But what the heck, might as well follow what the plant and key tell me rather than my preconceived notions.

I could clearly see a stalk supporting the fruit that was around half a centimeter long, so I chose 1a.

In this case stipitate refers to a stalk associated with the fruit, not the short stalk that connects the fruit to the main stem. If you look at the drawings in the H & C key, there is a clear join between the stalk subtending the fruit and the stalk that connects to the stem. I took 1b.

Next branch was easy (2b), this plant has siliques (long and slender fruits) rather than silicles (more oval fruits).

This is the correct choice, but you are definitely on the wrong road...

Then another easy choice (3b) since the flowers are white rather than yellow (see the quiz for photo with flowers). This is a nice illustration for a morality tale, one wrong turn... Then more trouble.

4a Basal leaves generally hastate (sort of arrowhead shaped), white petals, glabrous (hairless)
4b Basal leaves not hastate, petals often purplish, pubescent

The petals are clearly white, but the basal leaves are also definitely not hastate. There is not a lot of hair on the plant, but there is some. So neither fit exactly, but 4b seems to fit better which would take us to the genus Thelypodium.

The plant is definitely hairy, and the leaves not hastate, definitely not purple though, this is a clue that things are not good.

From the Thelypodium key

The first branch (1b) is easy because the stem leaves are petiolate (have a stalk), the next branch (5b) the plant is biennial (I believe), and I could go with often glabrous though I'm not sure what it means that the siliques are generally spreading to erect.

Fruit with a variable attitude? I don't like glabrous though

But both options of 6 have big problems:

6a Stem 1-6 dm (okay), sepals and petals purple (wrong), siliques 4-7 cm (wrong), ...
6b Stem 3-25 dm (wrong), often hairy (not exactly) petals 6-20mm (nope), ...

That means I had a problem somewhere along the way. Not surprising since I'm still pretty sure I am right about which genus it is (and even confirmed my guess using the much simpler key in Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast - though it doesn't even list Thelypodium as an option).

After I got this written up I think I figured out the original problem for myself. In the glossary's illustration the stipe is between the receptacle and the fruiting part, rather than between the fruit and the stem as I had been thinking. On closer examination the fruit seems to be sitting directly on the receptacle (is sessile). I will continue from there in the next part of this series.

Nice job figuring out the original problem.

Ants Hibernating through the Floods?

Tracking club was lovely today - the weather was nice, the birds were singing and there were more interesting track stations than we could fit into the morning. While I was wondering about looking for tracks that could become the tracking stations, I noticed numerous small ant holes. I've certainly seen ants out at the sand bar before, but hadn't really stopped to think about their seasons.

I think they hibernate during the winter time. I didn't notice their presence during the colder months and it appears that they are just getting started with their year now.

For a little while now some of us have been holding questions about what happens to small mammals during the winter floods. There are a number of places, like the tracking club sandbar, that get completely covered by the flood waters multiple times throughout the winter. There are deer mice, jumping mice (who also hibernate), shrews and moles in those areas. Do they climb vegetation, just die, move to higher land, swim, something else? If they die or move how long does it take to repopulate the area? For at least some of them it doesn't seem to take long for them to show up on the recently flooded landscape. While the water from one of the floods this winter was still receding we found numerous deer mouse tracks in the freshly deposited silk as well as a number of larger mammals. And I don't think it was too much longer before I noticed fresh mole activity.

But mammals are relatively big and mobile compared to ants. It would be a real stretch to expect ants to move to higher ground, though not too much of one to think they might climb a tree. However, if they are hibernating underground, what protects them from flooding? Perhaps they have chambers that manage to trap enough air during the flood or maybe they don't need much air while hibernating? Maybe like some insects, they are able to keep an air bubble around them in the water?

I did a little Internet searching on ants in floods and saw a lot of links about fire ants floating. There was also an abstract for an article about one species of ant that lived in bamboo and managed flood control by drinking water inside, then going outside and peeing. I didn't find anything about this sort of situation though.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Nature Quiz of the Week 27

Setting: Late March 2009, alongside the road in a residential neighborhood of Kirkland. For scale, it was probably 3 or 4 inches tall.

1. What species of plant is this (or if not to species, how closely can you identify it)?

This plant is in the mustard family Cruciferae, the four petals opposite each other is typical of mustards, the long slender fruit is also one of the typical mustard fruit types.

The mustard family is diverse and often weedy around here, so it can be difficult to get down to a particular species, though the genus is not as difficult to determine. I decided to attempt to key out the plant to the species level and wrote up a new post for part 1 of that experience.

2. Is it edible? If so, what does it taste like?

I am not aware of any poisonous mustards in this region (when eaten in moderate amounts). This one is definitely edible and has a peppery flavor characteristic of many mustards.

As a side note, many of our cultivated vegetables are in the mustard family such as broccoli, cabbage, radishes, turnips and brussel sprouts.

Previous Nature Quiz

Next Nature Quiz

Monday, April 06, 2009

Nature Quiz of the Week 26

Setting: Last October, just east of Snoqualmie Pass.

1. What species of tree is this?

This is a red alder (Alnus rubra). Note the bright color of the inner bark that gives it its scientific name.

2. What happened to it?

The damage to the bark is typical of an ungulate rub. Because of the height on the tree (which is a little difficult to ascertain in this picture) I believe it was from an Elk (Cervus elaphus).

3. Approximately how old is the damage?

The damage was fairly recent. As the wound on the tree ages the color will dull significantly, also note the fresh bark that has fallen on top of the vegetation on the ground. There are several leaves on top of the fallen bark which suggests it probably hadn't occurred within the past few hours but it had definitely occurred that fall. I have not studied the relevant clues enough (e.g. how quickly the color dulls in the bark) to feel comfortable being too much more specific than that. But take a look at Dancingfrog's interesting analysis in the comments.

Previous Nature Quiz
Next Nature Quiz

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Nature Quiz of the Week 25

I'll be camping for the next few days, so if you leave comments or questions (please do), I won't be likely to respond until I get back.

Setting: Middle of April last year in Sitka, Alaska.

1. What are these?

This is scat on top of a midden pile of cones.

2. What two species (not in the same kingdom) are represented? (I imagine this will be a much easier question if you have a knowledge of what's around Sitka. Field guides are handy if you don't have personal experience.)

The scat is from a red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), the cone parts are from a Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis).

The Sitka area has a conveniently limited species list in both mammals and trees. From what I've seen, Sitka Spruce cones are some of the favorite foods of red squirrels there, at least of foods that leave large piles of refuse after consumption. Also, the scales of other cone bearing trees there look quite different. And while other small mammals may eat spruce cones there, I don't think there are any that leave middens like this.

Previous Nature Quiz
Next Nature Quiz

Friday, March 27, 2009

Insects and Sapsucker

While up at the pass last weekend I saw a bunch of interesting animal sign. We were exploring a creek drainage and while most of the trees around were alder, I noticed some large Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) trees near the edge. Upon examination, many of them had been marked by bear claws. This tree had some of that, but it also appeared to have some very active insects. That is a pretty good sized pile of wood on top of the recent snow. Now that I think about it, I wish I had dug in a bit to see if I could figure anything out about the insects.

There were also red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) holes in many of the trees. I thought it was interesting how on this tree there are a lot of holes within 8 inches or so of the insect filled crevice, but not nearly as many further out.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Nature Quiz of the Week 24

This is a multi-discipline set.

Setting: Just east of Snoqualmie Pass yesterday. We went out to trail animals, but didn't find any trails of particular interest to us. We did however see some interesting natural history. I noticed this tree had a bunch of twigs underneath it, mostly of similar lengths, and that other trees nearby did not. So I went over to investigate and this is what I found.

1. What species of tree? (A warning that if you are like me, the close up of the twigs might trick you.)

This was a grand fir (Abies grandis). I don't know if I would have been able to determine that from looking at these pictures (though I imagine that people more knowledgeable about these trees might have been able to). Usually the way I identify grand fir is by the single flat row of needles on each side of the branches. And that is what the lower branches on this tree looked like. I think though that higher (younger?) branches often look a bit different as these twigs do that were clipped and fell to the ground.

Knowing what tree these came from and working backwards, I notice that these twigs seem almost as though the standard needle pattern was smooshed upward together. When I compare it to twigs I found in similar situations under different tree species (other Abies and Pseudotsuga), they have a lot more needles than the grand fir does on any give horizontal slice of the twig.

2. What is the deal with the twigs?

These twigs were clipped and/or broken off by an animal and the buds were eaten. I suspect that the buds are mainly those of the male cones, but I'm really not sure. Maybe someone can answer that in the comments?

The fact that the twigs were clipped in such a manner strongly suggest mammals, and there aren't a lot of options for mammals comfortable in trees out on branches that small in this area. At first we considered tree vole, because we had recently had a conversation about how voles frequently cut vegetation to about that length. However it turns out there aren't tree voles in that area. I believe that pretty much limits us to the douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) who I imagine are enjoying the buds as a nice spring meal.

Previous Nature Quiz
Next Nature Quiz

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Barred Owl

I wanted to make note (mostly for myself) that I heard a barred owl calling in the neighborhood tonight. I'd heard them quite regularly in the fall, but I think this is the first time I heard one near the house in a few months (though I heard one in the near by park during the day last week).

From what I found on the Internet, it appears they are year round residents, so I guess maybe they were just quieter in the winter (or shifted their territory a bit?) It also seems likely that they are around courtship/breeding time now.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Nature Quiz of the Week 23

I'm going to branch out from just asking tracking questions, hopefully we'll both enjoy the increased variety :)

Setting: I took this picture last week in the park ravine not far from where I live in Kirkland.

1. What two edible spring greens are pictured here (you may have to squint and/or click to enlarge to see the smaller of them clearly enough)? (Bonus points for botanical names).

The larger plant is a dock (Rumex sp.),there are a lot more species of dock in Washington than I realized though (at least according to USDA plants database.

The smaller plant (though they are much larger now) is nettle (Urtica dioica).

2. What are some ways to prepare these plants for consumption?

Josh had some good tips about this in the comments. I don't have a lot of experience consuming either of these plants, though I have eaten them both. I would not particularly recommend eating either of them raw.

I have enjoyed the young dock leaves in a stir fry. I've also eaten the seeds (along with the husks) in baked goods with reasonably good results.

I sometimes use nettle in soups. It can be fresh or dried. Similarly you can use fresh or dried nettle for an infusion (tea). It is supposed to be loaded with important nutrients.

Previous Track of the Week
Next Nature Quiz

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Spring Walk

The weather around here has been strange as of late. It snowed again a couple of days ago. It was nice and sunny today though, so I rousted myself for a walk. It's been a few weeks since I've been on a walk in my neighborhood and there have definitely been some spring changes.

I've been seeing the indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) budding as I drove by it on the roads, but up close I could see the flowers starting to come out. One of my favorite observations on the walk was hearing a winter wren singing - they have such a lovely voice. I'd been hearing occasional other birds sing around the house, but this was the first winter wren song of the year for me.

I made it down to the park and basked in the sun for awhile. In my last basking spot I heard an owl call (I believe it was a barred owl). It called once more as I went to investigate/try and see it, but I was unable to spot it. Seemed odd to hear an owl in the middle of the afternoon.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Track of the Week 22

Setting: last weekend just east of Snoqualmie pass. It had snowed the previous night and snowed several inches while we were out there (this was a taken a little before we left).

I think I did a little better with these pictures than the last couple of times I took pictures in the snow, but I still haven't fully got the technique of taking decent track pictures in the snow.

We trailed one animal from the road into the woods and found this intersecting trail. The ruler at the bottom of the picture is approximately 6 inches. The trail here is more or less side-hilling along a mild/moderate incline.

1. What species?

River otter (Lontra canadensis). The size of the tracks, the loping gait (quite common to mustelids) and the slide all contribute to this identification.

2. What's going on?

The otter loped into a slide here. While otters aren't the only animals (or mustelids) that slide on the snow, they seem to be more inclined to do it than most other animals, even doing it on a level trajectory like here.

Previous Track of the Week
Next Nature Quiz of the Week

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Track of the Week 21

Setting: Just east of Snoqualmie Pass this weekend. Unfortunately my snow photography could use some practice. I think I've got the tracks showing up pretty well, but at the expense of the ruler (which is about 6 inches long).

1. What gait?

This is a classic bound. Notice the two (hind) feet at the top inline with each other (though they can be a bit offset) and the two staggered (front) feet at the bottom (though in general the fronts of a bound can be inline or even more staggered).

2. What species?

This is the classic track pattern of the lagomorph family. While the toes show up a bit here, often all that is visible is the outline of the feet (though in some substrates all you might see is the claw marks).

One of the reasons I wanted to put these tracks up for a track of the week was to show an example of how useful gaits can be in identification. Looking at individual tracks of these species can be deceptive: it is possible to confuse them with anything from a squirrel up to a cougar or a dog. But pull back and if you can see the track pattern it is almost unmistakable.

Because of the location and size we can identify this as a snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus).

Previous Track of the Week
Next Track of the Week