American Wigeon (Mareca americana)

Winter is here, and with winter comes wintering birds, particularly waterfowl, which find our ice-free bays attractive.

One of the more common migratory ducks you will see in Eagle Harbor is the American Wigeon. Often one can find large flocks of this duck in the vicinity of Strawberry Point Park in wintertime.

Wigeon are skittish ducks, prone to flushing en masse into flight at slight provocations. Outside of the breeding season (such as when wintering) they tend to be gregarious and often form large flocks.

Like the male of well-known mallard, the male wigeon has green iridescence on his head. However, the male wigeon is a smaller duck, has a less iridescence, lacks the mallard’s white neck band, and has a distinctive whitish patch on the top of his head. The latter is the source of the common nickname for this duck, the baldpate.

The American Wigeon is the fifth most commonly-hunted duck in North America.

Common Trees of Bainbridge Island, a Booklet

One of the reasons I haven’t been posting so much recently is that I’ve been putting the finishing touches on a booklet I’ve self-published, Common Trees of Bainbridge Island.

I’ve yet to distribute what hard copies I’ve had produced. Until then, soft copies may be downloaded from this Web site:

  • Here is a PDF suitable for viewing on-line as an ebook.
  • Here is a PDF intended to print as a booklet (two-sided, landscape mode).
  • Here is a PDF of a cover for the above booklet (separate in case you desire a cover printed on card stock).

I plan to print and self-publish more booklets in the future.

Wild Cranberry Harvest

There were times when I was wondering if it was going to happen this year. First, the partner who was going to accompany me and give me a ride from the Seattle ferry dock flaked out. Then, it looked as if the front that was forecast to come through last evening (and which ended up doing so) was going to come in up to four hours early. That would have meant a chilly, wet afternoon in what is already a soggy place.

My desire to revisit what is a special place to me eventually prevailed. I decided to risk the weather, pay the vehicle tolls on the ferry, and go anyhow. Part of it is that I had wanted to go there last year, but the only road in was closed due to a forest fire. Part if it is that I may be moving further west and simply not visiting this particular cranberry-harvesting spot in future years (more on that in another post).

I needn’t have worried. I checked to ensure the road was open this year (no reports of closures, although I did have to make a detour around a bridge-replacement project to get to the road’s start). Yesterday afternoon turned out mostly sunny and surprisingly warm.

That latter fact still surprises me in a bog, even though I’ve been visiting such places enough to have experienced it multiple times. Bogs tend to be open places, so in sunny weather receive full sun. This is the first part of why they get so warm. The second part is their peat soils, which have much less heat capacity than normal soils. A little bit of sunlight will leave most soils still cold and clammy from the overnight chill but the floor of a bog will be warming quickly.

Intellectually, I know the above, yet peat bogs tend to be northern ecosystems, associated with past glaciation. Moreover their environment closely mimics conditions found in the arctic tundra, to the point that many bog plants are also tundra plants. So I keep associating bogs with the chill of the north in my mind, even though they are often very warm places. So long as the sun is out, that is—on cold, clear nights, the same factors that make them warm up quickly on sunny days enable them to cool down quickly. Extreme of temperature, not mere presence of warmth, is the real principle operating here.

I stepped off the logging road (recently raised with fresh gravel after advancing sphagnum had covered it and was reclaiming it from human use) that crosses the bog and was greeted by the fragrance of the Labrador tea bushes I was brushing against. My bare feet sank deep into the sphagnum and tea-colored water welled up around them.

Further in, the shrubs became more stunted and it was there that the hummocks of moss were criss-crossed with dainty trailing vines bearing plump red and yellow fruits which seemed totally out of scale with the size of the plants bearing them. Cranberries, and lots of them this time. Smaller and differently-colored than the dark red ones in the stores, but with an unmistakable cranberry flavor and not quite as sour.

With wild fruit, you never really know what you’re going to find. Some years have bumper crops, and some years are busts. There’s times I’ve come back from the bog with only a cup or two of berries. This year I easily harvested over a pound of them, enough for a batch of cranberry sauce to share on Thanksgiving. It’s not the phenomenal fruiting I saw the first time I visited the bog in the autumn, but aside from that it’s the most productive year I’ve seen.

I finished my berry harvest, spent a few minutes plucking Labrador tea leaves (another harvest I make a point of making while there), said my thanks (and maybe my farewell) to the place, and left.

Back from Camping

Cape Flattery was spectacular and well worth seeing, but the camping options near it leave something to be desired. In particular, Hobuck Beach got crowded sooner than I thought (by Thursday evening; I was expecting it to get bad Friday and as such had planned to leave Friday morning). Worse, it attracts clueless idiots who think it’s a reasonable thing to fire up generators for their RV’s at quarter to five in the morning.

Prompted by that camping experience, I craved balance, so I decided not to go to Lake Ozette on Friday. Instead, I went into the Olympic Mountains and did some dispersed camping on national forest land, because I craved silence and solitude. I figured I could look for high-elevation huckleberries, part of an ongoing search. They’re easy enough to find in the Cascades, but not so easy to find in the Olympics.

And I found them. Not just a few bushes, good for a snack and that’s it (all I’ve found before in the Olympics). They weren’t near where I camped, so on Sunday I packed up and started driving to a spot on the map that looked promising (higher in elevation). The road became impassible before I reached that area, but at the same spot I was compelled to turn around, there they were. I found the silence and solitude, too. It was delightful to fall asleep to the sounds of no other human activity.

Today, for the first time in many years, I made mountain huckleberry jam again.

Tomorrow, I start my new job, which I certainly hope turns out to be a better match than my previous one.

Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium)

Tall Oregon Grape, Mahonia aquifolium. Fruit on the bush.

Harvested fruit.

Fruit processed into jam.

Tall Oregon Grapes (Mahonia aquifolium) are now ripe.

They are edible, but they are also sour, so they tend to be best used as an ingredient for sweetened dishes, rather then eaten as-is. I have however learned that if they are fully ripe (which means not just so dark they are nearly black under their waxy bloom, but actually starting to shrivel), they actually are palatable when eaten plain. For making jelly or jam, however, you naturally want them to be plump and juicy.

There are actually two species of Oregon Grape on the Island, the other one being the Long-Leaved Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa). As their names imply, the Tall Oregon Grape is the taller-growing of the two, while the Long-Leaved Oregon Grape has longer leaves containing many more leaflets. The two also grow in different environments: the Tall growing in open, sunny spots and the Long-Leaved growing as an understory plant in forests.

Of the two, it tends to be easiest to make harvests of the Tall Oregon Grape’s fruits, because it tends to fruit more heavily than the Long-Leaved Oregon Grape.

The inner bark of both our Oregon Grapes is bright yellow, due to the presence of the alkaloid berberine, which has long found traditional use as a yellow dye. Berberine-containing extracts of these and related plants have also been used traditionally for anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-fever, and other properties. This compound is currently the subject of mainstream medical research; it has already been demonstrated to be therapeutic for diabetes.

Dewberry (Rubus ursinus)

Rubus ursinus

Rubus ursinus

The Dewberry, also called the trailing blackberry, is probably the least-known of our wild blackberries. This is most likely for two reasons:

  1. They are physically smaller than the more well-known Himilayan (Rubus armeniacus) and Evergreen (Rubus laciniatus) blackberries.
  2. They have been outcompeted by these two nonnative species thus are not as numerous, either.

As alluded to in the list above, the Dewberry is our native wild blackberry; the other two ones mentioned are the introduced ones that take over and dominate virtually any vacant space in short order. While its numbers may be somewhat reduced, despite that there is thankfully no shortage of Dewberries in this region.

While it can be easy to find Dewberry plants, finding ones that are bearing fruit can be significantly harder. That is because unlike its introduced relatives (and most plants), Dewberries, like most animals, come in separate male and female individuals. So unless you find a female patch with at least one nearby male patch, you will not be seeing any berries on these. (The Dewberry’s canes tend to root as they trail, so this plant is typically found in large, clonal patches.)

Instead of having giant, ferociously thorny canes that can grow 20 feet or more per year and make thickets 10 or more feet high, the Dewberry is a much smaller and less aggressive plant. As its other name implies, it typically trails low to the ground. While thorny, its thorns are far smaller and thinner than of its two introduced cousins.

I hesitate to mention it, because it might increase competition for the berries I harvest, but the Dewberry is one of our best-flavored berries. It figures in the parentage of the loganberry and the boysenberry, and was bred into these cultivated berries specifically for its flavor.

The fruit is smaller and not borne in the great profusion that it is on our introduced blackberries, so it can be difficult to find Dewberries in quantity sufficient for use in recipes calling for blackberries. I have my secret spots, and have managed to make large enough harvests several times; in each case, the results got rave reviews from all who sampled them.

And before anyone asks: no, I will not be sharing the locations of these spots!

Yerba Buena (Satureja douglasii)

Satureja douglasii, flowers and leaves.

Close-up showing the two purple dots on each flower.

This is not exactly a showy flower; in fact, I believe this is the first time I’ve noticed it in bloom. There are two small purple dots on each bloom which only showed up in the second of the two photos I took.

Here in western Washington, it tends to grow in drier woods. This plant is a member of the Mint Family (Lamiaceae, or if you prefer the classic old family names, Labiatae).

The common name of this plant comes from the Spanish for “good herb,” and was bestowed upon it by the Spanish colonists of California. It was so abundant in the area around what is now San Francisco that this plant was the source of the original name of that city.

The Spanish called it so because of its aroma, which is a mix of minty and savory. A tasty herbal tea can be brewed from its leaves; however, on Bainbridge Island it is probably best to let it be. That’s both because we don’t have very much of it, and because the south-facing coastal bluffs which it favors are also the favored environment of Poison-Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum).

I use the scientific name Satureja douglasii here because that is the name this plant has historically been known by. Genetic sequencing has thrown the nomenclature of many plants into disarray, and this is one of them. This species was first renamed Micromeria douglasii; now some taxonomists are insisting that the correct name should instead be Clinopodium douglasii.

Until the “gene jockeys” settle their arguments, I plan to stick with the traditional name for this plant (as well as other ones in the same situation). The purpose of a name is to facilitate communication, and names that keep changing tend to by contrast frustrate communication.

Cactus in Spots You Might Not Expect

Brittle Prickly Pear, Opuntia fragilis, in bloom.

Brittle Prickly Pear, Opuntia fragilis

The above picture was taken by me last week in Lillooet, BC. There were several large patches of yellow flowers by the road, easily enough to get my attention as a passenger. Their size and color indicated they were probably cactus flowers. I alerted the driver so we could go back, stop, and admire them.

Many are surprised to learn there is wild cactus growing in Canada; my fellow companions on that trip were amongst the surprised. Many are equally or more surprised to learn that the same species also grows wild in western Washington, in the most rain-shadowed areas of the Olympic Mountains. Here is a patch I saw near Sequim earlier this spring:

Opuntia fragilis growing near Sequim.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that cacti are found in either Lillooet or Sequim, as both locations are rain-shadowed. Lillooet in particular is known for being a dry spot, and being well inland often has just the sort of hot, dry summer conditions that cacti love. Plants don’t care about our preconceived biases or political boundaries; they grow wherever the environment is suitable for them.

The winters aren’t hot or dry, but this species is one of the hardiest and most northerly of cacti. It grows as far north as the Peace River Valley in northeastern BC, a region that can see temperatures colder than -40˚ in the winter.

Its common and scientific names point to how its pads easily become detached from the mother plant, their thorns embedding themselves in the fur, clothing, or skin of unwitting creatures that brush against them. When removed and discarded, they root and create new plants. In this trait, this prickly pear acts more like a cholla. That’s not a huge surprise, as the chollas (genus Cylindropuntia) and prickly pears are very closely related; for many years both were even lumped into the same genus.

Some of my own Opuntia fragilis are getting ready to bloom. I may be interested in plants, but unlike most who are, I’m not very good at gardening. This cactus was the answer to my question: “What could I plant in those window boxes (preferably a native plant) that I wouldn’t kill by forgetting to water or being away and not able to water?”

Those window boxes in question face south and are beneath eaves that serve to keep most rainfall out of them, the perfect micro-habitat for a sun-loving rain shadow plant like this. It felt a little odd dumping the nice potting soil out of them and replacing it with the gravely glacial till (of which I have plenty in my yard) that our local populations of this cactus prefer.

Dudleya lanceolata

Dudleya lanceolata, taken at Crystal Cove State Park.

I was hoping to see a Dudleya on my recent quick trip to Southern California (which mostly dealt with family matters, leaving little time for nature). I was lucky and managed to locate one in bloom despite there being a multiyear drought there. (Sorry, no picture of the leaf rosette; it was buried in a dense, low shrub and impossible to get a useful photograph of with the limited equipment I had with me.)

And yes, I know the focus is on the crappy side. Chalk it up to using an autofocus-only compact digicam on a bright day when the preview screen was hard to see in the harsh sunlight.

Peat Bogs: A Bit of Tundra in Our Backyard

I’ve been out of town a fair bit recently, so this is a photo that was neither taken on Bainbridge Island nor even does it show a plant that grows here, for the plant depicted above is the Cloudberry, Rubus chamaemorus.

Seeing this flower for the first time was a highlight of my recent trip to BC. The one in the picture is one of the southernmost wild-growing Cloudberry plants in the world, as this plant’s range stops at the bogs of the Fraser River Delta, just north of the 49th parallel. It’s mostly a plant of the arctic tundra, but some populations do wander well south of the arctic in bogs.

Burns Bog has long been a forgotten and neglected part of the Vancouver metro area. There’s now efforts to preserve the parts of it that haven’t been drained and converted to other uses, but facilities for visitors are still very limited and not easy to find. Those interested in visiting a part of it that’s open to the public on their next trip to Vancouver can find the driving directions here.

Why do we see plants of the arctic tundra in peat bogs? It turns out that bogs mimic many of the soil conditions that form in the arctic. Like the arctic tundra, whose soil is prevented from draining by permafrost, bogs contain highly acidic waterlogged soil.

Why is Cloudberry found in these bogs, but not in ones just slightly further south, which have almost identical soil and environmental conditions? My best theory so far is that it has to do with migrating birds: before it was urbanized, the Fraser Delta was a huge complex of freshwater and tidal wetlands that served as a major wintering area for waterfowl, and at least one bird over the millennia arrived with a Cloudberry seed riding somewhere on it or inside its gut. Smaller peat bogs to the south failed to serve as major attractors of wintering waterfowl and thus never had this plant introduced to them.

The bog at IslandWood here on the island has no Cloudberry, but it does have a lot of Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum), a plant whose common name references one northerly region and whose scientific one references another (Greenland), thus revealing its status as an arctic tundra plant.