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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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