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Monday, February 27, 2012

Z ~ Zonotrichia leucophyrus , White-crowned sparrow

This is, without a doubt, one of my favorite bird photos. 

The White-crowned sparrow is a harbinger of Spring.  The males perch up on shrubs trees and just about anyplace and sing their sweet song...

"I'm a Pretty little bird(ie).

In different regions of North America this birds song will vary.  Sometimes buzzy or rusty sounding, other times clipping off syllables of the phrase.  I think the "I'm a pretty little birdie" is unique to the Puget Sound and Vancouver BC area.

To me it is a sure sign of Spring.  The males should be showing up in the next three weeks or so.

I think they come on the same bus as the Rufous Hummingbirds.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Y ~ Yew , Taxus brevifolia

The Western Yew, Taxus brevifolia, is a scarce tree in our local ecology.  When timber harvesting was widespread, the yew was seen as a junk shrub/ tree and simply of little value and in the way.  The Yew were pulled down to allow easier access to the preferred timber trees.

Native peoples made very wide use of the shrubs.  The wood was very hard and durable and was perfect for carving.  It would smooth and polish up well and could be made into any useful item imagined, even fire tongs.  The berries were eaten in small quantity and the needles were used for smoking.

In recent years the investigation of the alkaloids in Taxus species led to the discovery of the anti-cancer drug Taxol.  The Taxus species of Europe contain higher concentrations of the alkaloid taxine.  There was a bit of excitement during the time after discovery and before large scale chemical ( artificial) synthesis. Some people planted Pacific Yew as a potential crop for the pharmaceutical industry.  Pacific Yew contains low levels of taxine, so I am not sure there would have been much of a return for investment.  It is still possible to find web pages encouraging the plantation of Yew and the potential for good income.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

X ~ Xerophyllum tenax, Bear Grass

The dreaded "X" !!!

Bear Grass is a fun, showy plant and some people look forward to its blooming every year.  They can be quite dominant and abundant on sunny slopes and meadows all the way up to the tree line.  The flower clusters are quite scented and attract bugs galore.  It is always a good bet for some kind of bug photography.

Bears do like the early , fresh leaves of this plant.  The leaves look much like tough wiry grass but the early shoots are quite juicy and fleshy.

The flowers stalks and leaves dry during their die-back.  Native peoples used the tough leaves as materials for making hats , capes and baskets.

The name Xero (dry) phyllum (grass) tenax ( tough) tells you this.

The above Bear Grass blossom was photographed at Sun Top and the bug is a syrphidae fly.

The picture below was taken in July, on the upper meadow of Bandera Mountain, above I-90 just west of the summit. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

W ~ White Bluffs, Hanford

It is odd to think of such a place of beauty at the backdoor of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.  But it is the reservation which actually as the foundation of this lands beauty. 

The Hanford Reach National Monument was created as a buffer zone around the Hanford Reservation.  Along with the adjacent Yakima Military Range and the Hanford Reservation itself, it preserves a large swath of steppe, grassland and dessert.  From space the vegetation borders of these areas can easily be seen.  Recent news that the Arid Land Ecology unit west of Hanford was once again going to be open to hikers excites me very much.  I visited once with an Ornithology convention and the wonders we saw on our short visit made me want to return.

The area is given to very harsh extremes of weather and ecology.  Stunningly dry its large treeless areas can be a challenge in sunny weather.  Wind can be fierce and also draws moisture from you.  I never venture out into this area without 2 gallons of drinking water in the car.

The Columbia river cuts through the middle and it is here the river flows freely, unencumbered by the multitude of dams and their effects.  On the east side of the river thick chalk hills are cut and show their gleaming white face.

It is easy to ramble for hours along this cliff face.  In the Spring the ground is alive with flowers and bugs of all descriptions.  Bird congregate around rivers, streams and the pothole ponds and lakes that stud the area.  Much of the region to the north and east of here was carved by the Bretz Floods.  These floods left numerous ponds and lakes behind.  White Pelican and Sandhill Crane can be found along these waterways. 


Thursday, February 23, 2012

V ~ Volcano

Without a doubt, the volcanoes of Washington State are a surprising lot.  Most people can look at Mts Baker , Rainier, Adams and St Helens and know just by appearance that they are volcanoes.  More surprising is Glacier Peak, a rough craggy mountain in the central Cascades.  This mountain does not have the classic cone shape that defines our other regional volcano's.

All have potential to erupt in the future.  Their eruptions are not set in any fixed rate of frequency, like some volcanoes of the world.  All produce lahars, flows of ice mud and gasses.  These mud flows are responsible for many of the flat fertile areas of western Washington.  The Osceola Mud flow of about 5000 years ago is said to have originated at the top of Mt Rainier, lowering it by 2000 feet and producing a mud reaching to Puget Sound.  It is said that it created up to 450 sq Km of new shoreline and in some places still measures 200 feet deep

There has been a lot learned from Mt St Helens both during its eruption and the subsequent growth phase.  Science of eruption improvement has advanced and data collected on St Helens has aided in predicting dangerous events in other areas of the world, no doubt saving many lives.

The above picture taken from Mt St Helens in July 2010.  Mt Rainier is seen in the distance, about 50 miles north.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

U ~ Um(p)tanum

Umptanum or Umtanum are both the same word.  Like many Native language words, the phonetic spellings of these non-written languages give rise to a lot of variation.

But the meaning is always clear, the word means Contentment.

It is said the ridges of this upland area was home to many native animals such as Pronghorn Antelope, Elk and Deer, Jack Rabbit and some Mountain Goat.  The canyons running to to the river basins were often mild and snow free.  It was here that native peoples could count on finding food species in harsh seasons and access to their grassy grazing areas in the Spring and Summer.

I spent many hours along the top of the plateau doing bluebird nest box census.  I also gathered nests for an Entomologist to study nest parasites.

Time and again I was drawn to this spot.  I had thought, through faulty reading, that this was an old stagecoach stop, but I have since learned that this was an old wheat ranch.  I met an elderly gentleman here who said he lived on this place during WWII.  To the east of this ridge the Yakima River has dug a great canyon and the hiking in and out of the canyons are not for the faint of heart.  Blazing sun in the season and persistent wind.

But great views, wonderful flora and fauna and wide horizons are the bonus.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

T ~ Tortoiseshell

Milbert's Tortoiseshell (Aglais milberti ) is one of the best butterflies for photography.  It is large and boldly colored making it possible to capture a useful image from a little further away than the more common, but smaller subjects.  I captured this photo walking down the road from Red Top lookout.  It is one of the best roads for seeing many different species of butterflies.

Their friendly habit of feeding along road and trail edges brings them into your path.  When they land, they will often present themselves open wing.  Mud and water is a attractant and they will calmly sip mud for the minerals.  This butterfly, alighting on a rock along a trickling water path is typical and it is possible to calmly snap pictures, edging closer and closer.

Butterfly photography is a discipline requiring immense patience.  Bountiful flowering plants, mud or water and low wind are key.

Sunshine to make the colors pop is a bonus.

Monday, February 20, 2012

S ~ Sandhill Crane

Grus canadensis

Sandhill Cranes are found in many areas of eastern Washington, and in small numbers during migration and Winter in western Washington.  This picture was taken up on the Uptanum, just south from the lonely cabin in my Kittitas post.  I surprised these two birds and they were most unexpected in this location.

Further east, in the town of Othello, the cranes are welcomed each Spring during their migration.  It is a time when this town is able to showcase the rich ecology and habitat of pothole lakes and meadowed grasslands which these birds favor.  To see thousands of these large, impressive birds coming in to night roost is an experience never forgotten.  You heard their loud trumpeting, rolling calls before you see them.  They have a wing span of up to 7 feet and when there are hundreds passing over in effortless flight you are reminded of their dinosaur ancestry.

Pairs bond strongly and cranes all over the world are known for their dancing courtship displays.  Pairs and their young may remain in the family group for up to 10 months. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

R ~ Rainier

Dahkobeed.  Takkobad.  Tacobud.  Tahoma.  Dahkoobed

All of these names applied to the most impressive of landmarks in Washington state.  There are many myths and legends attached to this mountain.   Dahkoobed is a jealous wife, shooting fire at the junior wives of her husband.  Mysterious lakes hidden inside the mountain are home to otherworld spirits.

These myth come from reality.   In the summit crater of the 14411 ft volcano there is a lake along with 2 miles of ice caves.  Summit climbers can sometimes smell sulpher in the air.

Currently the volcano is dormant but all around are well aware of the danger the massive store of ice and snow hold if the volcano should return to life.  There is an estimated 35 sq miles of perminant ice and snow on the mountain.  Historic mud flows have reached all the way to Puget Sound.

Mt Rainer is a training ground for many world climbers who use its technical slopes to train for climbs in the Himmalayas.  For the average walker and hiker, its lower slopes are easily accessed.  During the Summer, superb wildflower meadows attract large flocks of visitors. 

For residents of Puget Sound country, a clear day means Rainier dominates the view.

Is it a nice day?  Yes, The Mountain is out.

The Mountain is out.  Everyone here knows what that means.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Q ~ Quilomene

The Quilomene is another one of my lovely lonesome places. This large , isolated wildlife management area supports very dry habitat and it is here I find cactus and other near desert flora. Butterflies can be quite numerous as the area supports many species of mustard, which many butterflies are attracted to. The rough roads are a challenge to drive, so hiking is required to visit and view the habitat.

This unit is between Ellensburg and Vantage along the old Hwy 10. You can enter through the back door via the Colockum Wildlife area. There are extensive wind turbines in place along this road and it is also possible to drive into the Wild Horse Wind Farm and access the land during the Spring Summer ( very hot) and Fall . The wind turbines give a clue, it is rarely still here. The wind can be persistant and makes camera work a challenge.

Watch out for ticks. This is the only place I have ever picked one up.

Friday, February 17, 2012

P ~ Physaria alpestris , Washington Twinpod

Physaria alpestris Washington Twinpod

This is the plant that started it all. I met these bizarre pods on a hike at Red Top in 2009. I had no idea what they were. Hollow plastic-like, they rattled noisily when fingered. Someone suggested I post them to Flickr to see if they could be identified. Sure enough I had a hint within a few hours and using the on-line resources of the Herbarium at the University of Washington Burke Museum I was able to make an id. As a member of the mustard family they are one of dozens of confusing and challenging members of this family in the dry side of the Cascades and east slope uplands.

The flower of this plant is unexpected. Bright yellow blooms on long stems straggle along the rocky soils. The leaves are soft and slightly furry. The stems of the flowers can be so long that the pods, when they appear, are far removed from the leaves as if they were not associated with each other.

This plant made me appreciate that no one book can serve to easily aid my knowledge. I currently have three field guides for plants in this region and there are still gaps that must be filled by using the Herbariums on-line photo collection.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

O ~ Oreamnos americanus, Mountain Goat

Despite its name, the Mountain Goat is not a true goat but is a member of the sub-Family Caprinae along with the goats. In the Cascade Mountains of Washington, Mountain Goat are at the southern-most tip of their natural range. It is possible to find these animals within 30 miles of downtown Seattle near Mt Si and along the I-90 corridor. Mountain Goats were introduced to the Olympic Mountain area where they are currently causing quite a bit of ecologic damage to the rare flora of the park.

Goats eat common vegetation along with moss and lichen. They migrate vertically to follow the snow pack. Padded, cloven hooves allow the animals to navigate rock faces that can be nearly 60 degree slope. Main predators, aside from man, are Golden Eagles, which will hunt the young kids. It is common to find both Mountain Goat and Golden Eagles in the Yakima Canyon between Ellensburg and Yakima.

The shed wool the mountain goat was collected and used by native peoples for textiles.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

N ~ Nisqually Delta

Nisqually Delta

The Nisqually Delta is home to the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. It is here that I honed much of my bird watching skills. For over 100 years ago this delta was patch worked by dikes, drained and used for farming. The land was then bought and preserved as the Nisqually NWR. In 2001 a 6.9 magnitude earthquake damaged several of the dikes allowing the fresh water of the Nisqually River and the salt water of Puget Sound to enter into its former natural home. In 2009 the remaining dikes were removed and the precious estuary was on its way to being restored.

We now have a wonderful opportunity to study the recovery of vital saltwater estuary habitat. This mixing of fresh and salt water supports plants and animal life vital to the ecology of the region. It is here young salmon transition to the saltwater habitat. Visitors can observe the daily tidal changes from a new one mile long boardwalk that takes you well out into the intertidal area.

The Delta is ever changing and this new habitat supports scientific discovery as well as wonderful recreation opportunity.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentines Day

The Way is in the heart   ~   Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.

Western Tarnished Plant Bug ,  Lygus hesprus

Monday, February 13, 2012

M ~ Melospiza melodia , Song Sparrow

Melospiza melodia , Song Sparrow

The most common and widespread of the sparrows in the United States, Song Sparrows can be found and heard in most every open grassy or brushy habitat. They are very sociable and are regularly found in city back yards as well as isolated mountain forest edges and meadows. Here in Washington most of our birds are well marked and favor russet and white colors. Much of the streaking is over-washed with a bluish gray blush.

Song Sparrows are so common that they are often used to relate bird size when in the field. In discussion with another birder it would be common to say that a bird is bigger then or smaller than a Song Sparrow. Other birds that serve as a size standard are American Robin , chickadee and pigeon ( Rock Dove) and American Crow.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

L ~ Lushootseed

Lushootseed is the language / dialect of the Puget Sound region native peoples. There are a dwindling number of native speakers left and through the work of the late Vi Hilbert and now Zalmai Zahir and others, effort is being made to expand the number of native speakers beyond the approximately 300 known today. Even within this languages narrow range, there is a distinct dialect, north to south.

Todays photos are part of a story in Lushootseed with its English translation.

Here Zalmai Zahir and Cassy George demonstrate different greeting phrases.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

K ~ Kittitas


Kittitas county , located on the east side of the Cascade slope is the heart of Washington state. Its ecology ranges from high mountain and conifer forests to sagebrush steppe and upland grasslands. In the heart of the county irrigation farming supports one of the best hay growing acreage in the United States.

To the north the county is dominated by the Stewart Range (Mt Stewart 9415 ft) and the geologically distinct Wenatchee Lobe. The plant life of this high altitude region is filled with diverse species found few other places in the world.

I have spent many hours exploring the county and I return to it over and over as I can drive 1 ½ hour from home and be in a place so high and quiet that the beat of my own heart is too noisy.

Quite a number of photos in this month’s project were taken in Kittitas. This photo is taken from Umtanum Road above Ellensberg. This high plateau is currently home to the L.T. Murray Wildlife Management Area . In the late 1800 and early 1900 this area was farmed and ranched for wheat.

Friday, February 10, 2012

J ~ Juniperus maritima, Seaside Juniper

Juniperus maritima , Seaside Juniper

Washington Park in Anacortes is home to a large population of these very rare trees.  They populate its south and west facing rocky slopes.

Juniper are famed for their longevity and the trees in the park are a wide range of ages. They form sturdy thick twisted trunks and branches so their size and shape do not always tell their age. The berry-like cones taste of gin, which comes from juniper berry .

These trees were once thought to be Rocky Mountain Juniper but in 2007 genetic analysis showed they were a distinct and true breeding species. Washington Park is one of the most unique ecology's in Washington State with rare Serpentine soils on the south face supporting these junipers as well as a wide array of Spring and Summer flowers not found in many other areas.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

I ~ Invasion; bonus entry

This year we are having a Snowy Owl Invasion.  This excellent video from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology was filmed and photographed out on the Washington Coast.

I ~ Indian Pipe

 Monotropa uniflora

Indian Pipe is one of the oddest flowers of the woods. They are completely without chlorophyll and obtain nutrients by connecting to the roots of conifers using fungi. Conifer roots that are exposed on in a hillside are the best place to hunt for the pipes. Waxy white is the most common color but occasionally you find pink pipes . I have found the odd saprophytes and charming orchids of our region have been an exciting branch of plant study.  Often a certain amount of sleuthing and just a touch of luck is required for a find.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

H ~ Hyla regilla, Pacific Treefrog

Only 1 ½ to 2 ¾ inches long, the Pacific Treefrog is a real charmer. They have bulbous toes which allows them to climb and hold on vertical surfaces. I have often found them in and on garden walls. They have a wide variety of colors and blotches which help them blend to their background. Often they will be quite vocal and even though you know they are right close by, they blend so easily they can be almost impossible to see until they jump. As soon as a few days of warmer weather start this month, they will be chirping and calling from every moist woodland, field and pond.

I have a profound soft spot for frogs. In all their shapes and sizes, I love discovering them. Frogs often are a symbol of transformation. The Japanese word for frog is "kaeru." It is the same word meaning "return." So travelers carry a small frog amulet with the intent of returning safely home.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

G ~ Glacier


Much of Washington’s topography is due to the deformations made by glaciers of the Ice Age. These happened both directly and indirectly when a glacial dam burst in Montana several times over a millennium producing the Bretz Floods 13 - 15000 years ago.

Mt Rainier is home to 26 major glaciers. Nisqually, pictured here, is much diminished from 40 years ago when it was recorded advancing 29 inches in one day. I have been above this glacial valley and heard the booms and cracks of its movement. When the sound arises from a foggy misted landscape, you can believe in dragons.

Monday, February 6, 2012

F ~ Fern


Ferns are a very large and ancient family of vascular plants, well represented in the environments around the state.

One of my favorite ferns is the Licorice fern, Polypodium glycyrrhiza. Licorice fern will grow on rocks and in the trunks and limbs of trees, usually Big-leaf Maple. Mosses usually share the surface and become the soils for the fern. The under-surface rhizome, from which the fruiting fronds arise do taste like licorice. They were used and chewed for their flavor and can be steamed, scorched or taken raw. Occasionally I will grab on and give it a chaw. It always produces a slight cough and tingle. The effect is heightened by our cold damp air. When my throat gets raw and irritated from being in the elements, Licorice Fern rhizome does the trick.

Ferns were widely used by native people for

Fern served as a multipurpose household item.  Wrapping and covering food for storage and preparation, wiping fish and stuffing mats were just a few of the useful ways this bountiful plant was used.  Children of the Makah played an endurance game with Sword Fern fronds.  They would pluck a leaf and say the word "pila".  The one who could pluck the most leaves on one breath was the winner.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

E ~ Erratic


Erratics are large boulders that were transported on and in glaciers and left deposited by the melting retreat. Erratics were also floated during the Bretz Floods. It is possible to find boulders that originated in the region of Northern Montana left high and dry in the open fields of eastern Washington and the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Some of these boulders are massively large, almost house sized.

Visit Huge Floods to see and learn about the floods and the interesting landscape they left.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

D ~ Douglas Squirrel , Tamiasciurus douglasii

Our little native squirrel most often found in the deep woods feasting on the seeds of fir and hemlock cones. They are a perfect example of selective camouflage. The upper side of their body blends in with the tone and color of the tree bark. The underside is a pretty golden rust color that resembles the color of the wood inside the broken trees and branches.

Douglas Squirrels gather mushrooms and hang them to dry in branches. When you find terrestrial mushrooms hanging up, you will often be warned off by the sassy scolding of its harvester.

Friday, February 3, 2012

C ~ Crow , Corvus brachyrhynchos


Corvus brachyrhynchos common and familiar to almost everyone, the intelligent Crow is resourceful and always interesting to observe. Researchers at the University of Washington have done extensive work with Crows and some of their work is presented on the wonderful “NATURE” series on PBS.

You can view it on line here


This picture was taken at the Burke Museum on the UW Campus and the crow is sitting on a replica of a Tlingit ridicule pole “Wild Woman of the Woods” originally built circa 1912. More specifically it is sitting on a representation of money.  From the Burke Collection information:

For three years, the original Dzunuk'wa figure glared down the beach at the owner's in-laws, who had not paid a marriage debt. Such "ridicule poles" were raised to shame someone who owed a debt to a chief. When the in-laws finally honored the debt, the pole was pivoted to face the water. Symbols of wealth--shield-shaped coppers--were then added to her head and hands

Thursday, February 2, 2012

B ~ Banana Slug , Ariolimax columbianus

Banana Slug

Ariolimax columbianus is our almost iconic slug of the wet forest in the Pacific Northwest. Bananas are the second largest terrestrial slug in the world. They feed on dead and decaying organic matter and serve an important role in the composting cycle of the forest. They are eaten by raccoon, snakes, ducks and geese.

The Mascot of the University of California at Santa Cruz, the approximate southern most limit of its common range.

Go Sluggies!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A ~ Ape Caves

Ape Caves is the longest lava tube in continental United States. Unusual and unique as liquid basalt flows are rare in this region of stratovolcanoes.

The 13000+ foot long Ape Caves are named in honor of the Boy Scouts who originally explored the caves after their discovery in 1947. The Apes were an organization of foresters who sponsored the Scout Troops . Ape Caves is located at the southwest foot of Mt St Helens.