Arctic Outflow

Today’s high was 19˚F. In Seattle that would break a record. Here in Bellingham, it’s definitely much colder than normal, but the record is still significantly colder. We’re close to the mouth of the Fraser Canyon, and if the interior of British Columbia fills up with frigid air, it can spill through that canyon and hit us without having to pass over any salt water to moderate it.

The arrival of the arctic front was dramatic. My building shuddered as a sudden gust of northeasterly wind hit it. The falling snow changed from sloppy and wet to dry and powdery. Within a half-hour, any wet pavement surfaces that had not been treated had flash-frozen.

Tonight it is snowing and 14˚F. That’s cold enough to experience something rare on the West Coast: snow that squeaks when you walk on it. That’s a fairly common occurrence in a continental climate, but I never once experienced it in Seattle. Here, the cold snaps really are a taste of what winter is like in a continental climate.

But only a taste. Within about 24 hours, the wind will shift. When that happens, the arctic air will depart as quickly as it arrived. The ocean is right here, ready to supply mild air the moment the wind resumes its normal westerly to southwesterly direction. The departure of the cold snap will be as abrupt as its arrival was.

And that’s the way I want things to be. The past few days have been fun because they have been a departure from the norm. Were they the norm, these conditions would become tiresome and unpleasant. Winter would mean not a green thing in sight, and spring would mean waiting seemingly forever for all the snow that accumulated in winter to melt, and all the while it melted it would get increasingly dirty and drab.

Why Gardening Is Not for Me

There’s basically two kinds of plants you can grow: annuals and perennials.

Annuals come up fast but require a lot of tending during the growing season. But the growing season is also the outdoor recreation season, and I’d much rather be communing with native plants someplace wild than stuck at home trying to repeatedly assert control over a tiny plot of urban land. Yard work sucks.

Perennials are not nearly so high-maintenance, but they are slow to settle in. I, by contrast, just don’t settle in. It’s never happened in my life, and given that I’m well into my fifties, that means the odds are it’s never going to happen.

I tried to settle in to the home I am sitting in right now, but it didn’t work: I had overlooked how ageist and cultish the high tech world would become, and how much this would adversely impact my employabality in it. And if I can’t have a high-paying, high-tech job, it’s very hard to justify the expense of living in a region as costly as the Seattle metro area.

So this year I’m leaving. The year my native cacti in the window boxes are finally going to put on a huge bloom. The year my thimbleberries (after years of getting settled in) have flower buds on them. The year the dewberries finally flowered (female flowers, we’ll see if there’s a nearby male and I get fruit). The serviceberry is still a little thing, a decade or more from looking settled in.

Someone else is going to enjoy the results of the work I did. Not me. Or, someone else won’t appreciate all those “weird plants” that are not the ornamentals everyone else grows, rip them out, and replace them. Either way, I am going to get little benefit for the work I did.

It would be nice if my life were more compatible with gardening, but it’s just not.

Alder Flowers

Sitka Alder (Alnus viridis ssp. sinuata).

Some my find this title surprising. Alder trees have flowers?

To a botanist, a flower is anything that produces seeds and fruit (in the case of plants like alders with separate male and female flowers, the pollen-producing flowers also count, of course). There is no requirement that they be showy.

Yes, alder trees bear fruit as well as flowers! To a botanist, a fruit is anything that surrounds a seed. It doesn’t have to be fleshy, juicy, or edible. The tiny, dry wings that surround alder seeds are as much a fruit an apple or an orange.

The photograph above shows clusters of both male (large, dangling catkins) and female (the smaller, erect catkins at top) flowers. Those male catkins released clouds of yellow pollen when I gently brushed them.

The alder pictured above was not taken on Bainbridge Island and is not the Red Alder (Alnus rubra) so common on the Island. It is a Sitka Alder (Alnus viridis ssp. sinuata). I took that photo in the Olympic Mountains.

The Sitka Alder is much smaller than the Red Alder, typically being only a large shrub or small tree, making it far easier to find flowers in easy shooting range. Sitka Alders have glossier leaves, which are sharper-toothed than the Red Alder’s. The Sitka Alder’s leaves are not curled under slightly at their edges like the Red Alder’s are. The Sitka Alder is mostly a mountain tree, while the Red Alder is a common lowland species. One of the favored habitats of the Sitka Alder is avalanche slides; for this reason it is sometimes called the Slide Alder.

If all that leaves you a little confused, fear not! That particular Sitka Alder happened to be growing in the altitude range where the two species overlap, right next to a Red Alder sapling. I snapped a picture showing the two side by side (Sitka on the left, Red on the right).

Sitka Alder on the left, Red Alder on the right.

 

Wild Cherries

The wild cherries on the Island are finishing their annual spring bloom. We have two kinds.

An atypically small Mazzard Cherry (Prunus avium) tree.

Mazzard Cherry (Prunus avium) flowering branch.

Our most common wild cherry is the Mazzard Cherry, Prunus avium. It was introduced from Europe, and is basically the wild ancestor of the cultivated Bing cherry. Our situation is actually the reverse of this, however; the ancestors of our wild Mazzard Cherries were introduced as cultivated cherries, and began growing in our woods when birds ate those cherries and scattered their seeds.

The large fruit and smaller tree size of cultivated cherries are recessive characteristics, so their progeny quickly reverted to the dominant wild form for the species. Although smaller and not quite so sweet as Bing Cherries, the Mazzard Cherry’s fruit is completely edible. The trick is finding any that are within easy picking reach; the usual large size of this tree means most of its fruit is accessible only by birds.

 

Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata) tree.

Bitter Cherry (Prunus emarginata) flowering branch.

The native Bitter Cherry, Prunus emarginata, is also found growing wild here. While not quite so common as its introduced cousin, there is still no shortage of them on the island. It is well-named; as author Arthur Lee Jacobson notes, its fruit is “bitter enough to make one grimace in agony.”

It turns out that birds have a very different sense of taste than mammals do, and happen to find this cherry’s fruit completely palatable. It is thus likely that their bitter flavor evolved as a way to discourage consumption by mammals. Birds, being able to fly, are likely to do a better job of spreading seeds widely than mammals are.

In addition to having fruit that is basically inedible to humans, the Bitter Cherry is in all respects (size of overall tree, leaves, fruit, and flowers) smaller than the Mazzard Cherry. The Bitter Cherry’s flowers tend to open a week or two later, right as the Mazzard Cherry is finishing its bloom.

The Bitter Cherry also tends to have a trunk and branches that are slender for a tree of its size (the Mazzard Cherry’s appearance is much stouter). The Mazzard Cherry is the showier of the two when in bloom, thanks to its larger flowers.

Western Thatching Ant (Formica obscuripes)

I still remember the first time I discovered this ant, decades ago in a subalpine meadow in Colorado. I stepped on what I thought was an odd patch of dried bits of last year’s meadow grass. My foot sank into it and my leg was instantly covered in angry ants! Fortunately, I managed to brush them off before I received many bites.

I was astounded by how large that anthill was. Little did I know at the time that that particular colony was only a small-to-medium-sized one as this ant goes. After I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I started regularly encountering colonies of this ant. One I spied in the Cascades of Oregon was five feet high and a dozen feet in diameter!

The anthill pictured below is a fairly average size for this species’ colonies (note my bicycle helmet for scale). As always for this species, it is constructed of plant debris, not soil or sand. This anthill is near a road and I first noticed it when riding my bicycle past it.

Formica obscuripes colony.

It was teeming with activity; every square inch of it contained at least several ants.

Formica obscuripes.

These ants have an undeserved reputation for being aggressive biters. Bite they do, and after their mandibles break the skin they add insult to injury by spraying formic acid into the wound, causing further irritation and pain. But unless one is one of the few unfortunates who is abnormally sensitive to formic acid, the bite is minor and the pain quickly vanishes.

Moreover, in my experience these ants tend to be reluctant to bite. I spent ten to fifteen minutes acquiring the photographs in this article, and received but a single bite for my efforts, despite being in the immediate proximity of a hill teeming with thousands of ants and even accidentally bumping that hill and doing minor damage to it with a leg of my tripod.

Formica is the Latin word for “ant,” and this genus is the type genus for entire ant family, Formicidae. The plastic used for kitchen countertops that goes by the same name has nothing to do with ants, being so named because it was originally envisioned as being a substitute material for mica. Formica is, however, how formic acid (first discovered in ants) and chemically similar compounds like formaldehyde got their names.

These ants have quite a profound impact on the plants in the areas they inhabit. This is one of the ant species that tends and spreads aphids, feeding off the honeydew that the aphids secrete. They also dislike plants in the immediate neighborhood of their colonies, and will chew through the bark and spray formic acid on the resulting wounds, which eventually kills the attacked plants.

Their impact on the plant world is far from entirely baleful, however: many of our woodland wildflowers, such as trilliums and bleeding hearts, are dispersed by ants. Their seeds bear oily, nutrient-rich bodies called elaiosomes whose purpose is to attract ants, which usually carry the seeds for some distance before removing the elaiosome and discarding the rest of the seed.

These ants are plentiful here on Bainbridge Island, and our woods are full of blooming trilliums in the spring. I have never seen these ants inside the city limits of Seattle, and even in Seattle’s larger wooded parks, trilliums are an unusual sight. I do not believe these facts to be mere coincidence.

Hard Winter

It’s been a hard winter. You can see it in the patches of the Himalayan Blackberries, which were pressed flat by the heavy snows of early February (and which lost their leaves thanks to overnight lows in the teens):

In wooded areas where native vegetation prevails, the sword ferns were also affected:

“Hard winter” is of course a relative term; anyone from Chicago or Denver would laugh at the notion that a winter where for the vast majority of time it was above freezing with green lawns and a snow-free ground was “hard.” But for us, it’s unusual to have a spring where there are lingering signs of the snow we had even after it’s gone. I’ve only seen it a few times in the quarter-century I’ve lived in this ecoregion.

Wow

This is easily the most snow I’ve seen since moving to the island five years ago. About 9 inches and still coming down! Quite the birthday present from Mother Nature!

View out the back door this morning.

View out the front door this morning.

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.