Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Rainforest Solstice

It was a great week. We hunted Diffuse Knapweed while armored personnel carriers zoomed past. It is considered a high-priority target on the natural areas because we have a decent chance to eradicate it, compared to management strategies of other pests such as Scotch Broom which must be controlled from taking over prairies, but is just too prevalent to remove completely. The last two days of the week, we attended a S-130/S-190 refresher course, where we reviewed the 10 Standard Orders and 18 Watch Out Situations. We also played with "sandbox" scenarios where we designed controlled-burn scenarios and then put together teams and equipment to implement them. These exercises were specific to some of the prairies we plan to burn to control Scotch Broom.

Part of the prep work to burn them is to first burn the brush piles that are near the edge of the planned fire lines. So this was our Summer Solstice bonfire celebration! My designated role was to patrol areas on an ATV modified with water tanks and a pump. I searched far downwind of the fire and search for spotfires being set by errant sparks, but fortunately nothing bad happened. Unfortunately, northern California did not fare so well the following day, with an incredible 840 wild fires igniting from a lightning storm. If you know how to do a rain dance, please send them some nice, cool, steady rain!

After this hot, dry work, we needed to cool off. For the weekend, we went on a hike through the Quinault Rainforest. One of our plans was to climb up Colonel Bob, but the storms from last December had toppled many trees and washed out bridges, so many trails were still closed. Snow still lingers as low as 2500 feet, so we might try back again later this summer. We did have a great time hiking, seeing the world's largest Sitka Spruce Tree, many waterfalls, a big lake, a mama merganser giving her baby chicks a ride on her back, banana slugs, and a Ghost Squirrel!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Myths & Mima Mounds

I've recently been working on helping to maintain the Mima Mound prairies. These prairies are about 15 miles south of Olympia, near Millersvania State Park, and they contain many small hummocks about 2 to 3 meters tall, scattered evenly across the plains. Nobody is certain how Mima Mounds are formed, but the prevailing theories all like to employ glaciers that deposited the unstratified sediments as the terminal moraine retreated. However, similar prairie mounds occur in other parts of the world where glaciers are not thought to have existed, so one theory that tickles my fancy are that the mounds were formed by an extinct Pleistocene Giant Gopher colony! What is more certain is that mankind has been maintaining these prairies for a long time -- the native Americans routinely burned these lands to keep the forests in check so that they could harvest rich camas lily roots and other edible plants. Now, it's my turn. I worked along some dedicated volunteers in keeping the notoriously pesky Scotch Broom in check by brush cutting it down, to make room for the native plants like the Lupine and Oregon Sunshine in my photo to the left.

Speaking of glaciers, we went on a short road trip to see the world's youngest glacier: Tulutson Glacier inside the crater of the active stratovolcano Mount Saint Helens. The newly built lava dome rising from the floor of the crater had split the glacier into two lobes, but as of this past month, enough snow had fallen to make the glacier whole once again. It now has as much mass as the glacier on Mount Rainier, and still growing!

We stopped at several waterfalls along the way, and each of the visitor centers too. Weyerhauser has sponsored a really nice visitor center called the Forest Learning Center. They do a good job of showing how logging isn't always at odds with ecological interests, and nowhere is that more apparent than at the edges of the Monument where tree planting did not occur. Granted, an even-aged stand of single species trees isn't exactly diverse, but it's a heck of a lot better than stinking sulfurous ash.

It was terrific witnessing the view from Johnston Ridge Observatory, which houses the webcam we've been watching for years at our home in Plano, TX and from Big Pine, FL. We could see steam rising from three different vents inside the crater, and areas along the rim that looked like very recent avalanches and rock slides. Even from binoculars, it was scary to witness geologic forces on a mountain-size scale at work. We could see a herd of elk munching on grass far below. Inside the Observatory, there was a seismic station recording small tremors in real time, so Saint Helens is still stewing. Unfortunately, the snows has been so heavy that the trails were still closed. So we drove back down to Coldwater Lake, a brand new natural lake formed by the massive landslide from the 1980 eruption that dammed Coldwater Creek. Castle lake across the desolate Toutle valley is another new landslide lake. While we were eating or cheese & oysters, an osprey hovered over the greenish waters, hoping for a meal.

Sunday, we spent at Priest Point Park here in Olympia. The low tide was rushing in, so we were able to see a small tidal bore come rushing in, and the clams squirt in joy for the return of water. Nearby is the Farmer's Market, full of yummy food, fresh cheese, live music, and a giant Fushia that now lurks over our patio with its purple blooms. We strolled around the Capitol building and stumbled into a tour that was just beginning, and learned a little about the building (such as why there is a can of beer in the timecapsule) and Washington politics. One interesting fact; the world's largest tiffany lamp that hangs from the dome was reinforced with a kevlar tether after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

It's sometimes a little disconcerting to realize that underneath the entire Cascade range, an ancient continent is meeting its doom! But it's bedtime now, and I need some sleep... maybe I'll dream of Cheese Days.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Log -- along it scampers

Perhaps those of you who are fluent in Hupa translated this week's title into native Indian, "ista:ngq'eh-k'itiqowh", which is also the Hupa name for the Fisher, aka Martes pennanti. Personally, I prefer the Hupa name for it, even though I can't pronounce it. That's because Fishers don't eat fish, or clams, or crabs, or anything else aquatic. Instead, these large weasels like to scamper among dense forests and hunt squirrels, mountain beavers, snowshoe hares, voles, grouse, and the occassional porcupine. What is exciting news about Fishers is that they have returned to Washington after a long absence. About 100 years ago, Fishers were extirpated by a greedy bunch of Elmer J. Fudds, but now a 3 year reintroduction program has just begun. 25 Fishers were released early this year, so it was possible that we were being watched by a pair of curious, jet-black eyes from a tree branch high above the trail.

This past week was spent chasing after Mouse-ear Hawkweed, which is considered a high-priority target on the coastal prairies because it has yet to become a widespread invasive and also due to its allelopathic roots. Another invasive is the Hairy Cat's Ear. But some of the native plants have funny names here too, such as Deerfoot Vanillaleaf, which is the photo to the right. I spent all this cool, rainy week working of invasives, and then had to catch an amazingly early flight back to Dallas to attend a wedding. The afternoon we returned, we spent the day with some friends touring the Seattle Aquarium. They had lots of excellent exhibits, including two giant octopus, their own salmon tower with fish ladder, a giant tropical clam (very striking colors), invertebrate petting zoos, sea otters, a huge "walk-through" aquarium, seals, and my favorite: a pair of playful river otters.

As you may recall, 2008 is Year of the Frog. Consider signing their petition! I bring this up again because they are having a very unique auction to raise conservation funds: get your name immortalized by bidding on an auction: naming rights to a new species of frog!

I hope to see some Giant Salamanders soon; seems like we've been at the right places, but amphibians tend to lurk in the mud and don't come out in the open very often. We'll have to see what adventures await us next week.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Beavers in the Mist

Another week has zoomed by here in the South Sound area. This week, we worked with a biologist to survey wildflower plant plots. These plots were planted in coastal prairies to determine how successful different techniques were for seeding and transplanting certain wildflowers. These wildflowers are important as host plants for the endangered Taylor's Checkerspot Butterfly, so the hope is by restoring prairies quickly with these key plants, the butterfly population will quickly recover. Ideally, the end goal is to establish a mosaic of quality habitats occupied by the butterfly (and more importantly, the caterpillars), which would make the population more resilient to disturbances such as wildfires.

We also spent 2 days running a tractor, backpack sprayers, and an ATV with a powered hand sprayer to go after Tall Oats Grass. It was my first time driving a tractor in several years, and this one had some differences to get used to, including a very touchy clutch that made driving with a full tank mounted on the back a little exciting at times! Almost like being in a tractor pull -- yee haw!

For the weekend, we loaded up the truck with camp gear and went for a loop drive around the Olympic Peninsula. There was still snow on the mountains, and the streams were all running full bore. We saw many waterfalls, such as Rocky Brook Falls (left photo), Marymere Falls, Madison Falls, and the spectacular Sul Duc falls.

We saw the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, which has a really, really long spit that reaches out to a lighthouse. It was so cold and windy, that we didn't dare walk very far out away from the mainland, but we did see some impressive scenery, such as the huge logs stranded upon the sandbars, the mainland cliff, the Juan de Fuca straight with the mountains of British Columbia off to the north, and the snow-covered peaks of Hurricane Ridge to our south, near where we'd camp for the night. There were 2 really brave and very athletic adventurers out kite-surfing in the protected lee side of the spit. The winds must've been gusting to 15-20 mph, so they were really flying across the water... the cold, cold water. bbrrrr!

We spent the evening in the pleasant campground of Altair. It's along the roaring Elwah river, which was grayish-white from the silt at floodstage. We saw a huge beaver come swimming out of the mist and forage along the banks, deftly missing the dangerous currents swirling all around. People were very nice, and our neighbors even loaned us some kindling and starter log for our fire. Maybe they felt bad for us, since we were getting a very late start on dinner... but hotdogs fortunately don't take long on the grill. I was hoping to get a view of the sky to see the ISS and space shuttle Discovery fly past, but there was no chance of that with a dreary drizzle falling down.

Sunday, we saw Crescent Lake, a 650 ft deep lake formed from an ancient retreated glacier that left behind a moraine dam. Then was our hike to the roaring Sul Duc falls, which was perhaps the highlight of the weekend. We saw several elk and black-tailed deer that morning, including a newborn fawn near Mill's Lake. The trailhead for Sul Duc falls is near the hot springs, and there were still melting piles of snow in the forest!

Finally, we were running out of daylight and only had time for one last stop -- Ruby Beach. This was a dramatic stretch of coastline facing west into the Pacific. A perfect place to end our trip. We explored among the rocky coastline, and got a nice view of a new lifelist bird: the Black Oystercatcher.