Monday, March 23, 2015

Wanderings: Seeking Spring (2015)

Some people mark the arrival of spring by the date on the calendar, some by the blooming cherry trees and daffodils in their yard, by the warmer weather, return of migratory birds, or simply by the unmistakable fresh, green fragrance of sweet spring wafting on the breeze.

I know that spring has officially arrived when the trillium flowers bloom in the woods.

When I was younger, my grandpa and I would search through the woods surrounding my childhood home to find these elusive, ephemeral white flowers. Now that he is no longer here, I continue the annual trillium hunt on my own, as a way to remember this fond memory of him, and to celebrate the arrival of my favorite season.

With the record-breaking warm winter we've had in the Pacific Northwest, and given the fact that everything else seems to have burst into bloom earlier than usual, I fully expected to find the woods full of blooming trillium on my visit to the Redmond Watershed Preserve over the weekend, and I wasn't disappointed. My husband joined me on the trillium pilgrimage last spring, and again this year; it's a good thing, because his trillium-spotting abilities are apparently much better than mine! He noticed many of them that I missed.

During last year's visit to the Watershed Preserve, we had to look hard to find any signs of spring, for those starkly white, three-petaled flowers... it was a search, to be sure.  This year, as we set off into the forest and I anxiously hoped we'd be able to find at least a few trillium, we literally stumbled over them, as this little white soldier of spring stood at attention alongside its namesake trail, greeting us into the new spring season:

The first trillium of the year. I was a little surprised and dumbfounded at first; I'd expected to have to search much harder to find one of these flowers. And here this one stood, right alongside the trail in plain sight. It just felt too easy. Spring certainly had arrived boldly and resolutely this year!

All in all, we counted 51 trillium along the four-mile length of the trail. Much better than the lonely two we found last year, on the exact same weekend one year ago.  Here are a few more of the lovely blossoms we spotted:

As you'll notice in the photos above, trillium usually like to grow in areas that are damp and shaded, among the fronds of sword fern or in the hollows beneath a nurse log. This made it all the more unusual to find that first trillium standing brazenly in a relatively sunny and dry area right alongside the trail.

Trillium weren't the only plants blooming in this early onset of the spring season. We also saw flowering skunk cabbage and salmonberry aplenty, delicate bleeding heart just emerging, and huckleberry and other plants already sporting tender green leaves.  Such a difference from this time last year, when the dreary brown tones of winter still had a firm hold on the landscape, and spring appeared to be a distant dream.

Huckleberry leaves
Fern fronds unfurling

Bleeding heart leaves
Muddy, swampy area filled with skunk cabbage! It smelled delightful. Not really.

There were plenty of birds out and about as well; we saw a Steller's Jay, dark-eyed Juncos, and a Northern Flicker - I first heard his dull tap-tap-tap resonating through the forest, and was able to locate him on a dead Doug fir trunk after a few moments of squinting through the branches overhead - as well as many others that I wasn't able to identify. I was hoping for an owl sighting, but no such luck there.

This little frog caught my eye as he hopped out of the way of my approaching boots.  He blended in very well with the leaves!

Birds, frogs, new green leaves and blooming trillium... after spending two and a half hours exploring the forest and counting trillium flowers, we left the Watershed Preserve firmly impressed with the fact that spring has certainly arrived!

Trillium bloom only for a short time, so if you want to see them for yourself this spring, be sure to get out into the woods soon! Also, as a side note... please do not pick them. Once picked, trillium will not bloom again for up to seven years, and the picked flower will die quickly anyway.  These plants should be left in the forest where they belong, so they can grow and bloom again the next year, continuing their duty of heralding the arrival of spring and bringing joy to the hearts of nature nerds like myself who reverently seek them out every year.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Conifer Confusion? Learn to identify these PNW trees

To the readers here for the PNW Nature Blog Scavenger Hunt - welcome, and thank you for stopping by A Day Without Rain! This blog is devoted to celebrating our unique Pacific Northwest nature and encouraging everyone to explore, enjoy and protect this stunningly beautiful place we call home. Good luck with the scavenger hunt, and happy reading!

Looking up: Wallace Falls State Park - Lainey Piland photo

We've all been there. While hitting the trails for a weekend nature excursion, your hiking buddy thoughtfully squints at a tree along the trail, nudges you with an elbow, points and asks "What kind of tree is that?" Your face flushes; you feel like this is something you should know. After silently running through every kind of tree you can remember from last year's visit to the Christmas tree lot, you lamely answer "Ummm, an evergreen..."

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we like nature. We like being outdoors. We like the green and the moss and the damp earthiness. But sometimes, we're unfamiliar with the details, such as those that allow us to identify that mystery tree on the trail. That was certainly the case for me, up until a few years ago when I had a desire to connect further with what I was seeing when I was out in nature, and decided to learn the names of the plants and trees commonly encountered in our Pacific Northwest forests. Thereafter, my hiking experiences were forever changed. Nature was no longer experienced peripherally, as something to just pass through. It became something to discover, appreciate, and understand.

Those ambiguous evergreen trees - properly known as conifers (needle-leaved, cone-bearing trees) - can all blend together and look the same to the untrained eye. In the spirit of promoting more intriguing hiking experiences and stronger connections with nature, I thought I'd share my non-scientific and simple methods for identifying a few common species of Pacific Northwest conifers...
Douglas Fir

Robust and sturdy, these are the iconic evergreen trees of the Pacific Northwest, and are my personal favorites. In the few remaining patches of old-growth forest in our region, you can find monster Dougs towering 250 feet tall, and so large in circumference that it would require at least half a dozen people stretching their arms around to completely encircle it. Most Doug firs you'll encounter along the typical hiking trail are smaller: a few feet in diameter at most.

Identifying features: These trees are distinguishable by their rough, gnarled bark gouged with deep crevices and their sturdy, springy branches covered in long, thin needles and bearing large pinecones. The larger, older Dougs will have mostly naked trunks, with only a crown of branches on the upper part of the tree.


Western Hemlock

I will admit, these trees are not my favorite, as they lack the formidable size and robust appearance of the impressive Doug firs. Actually, I find that they tend to look half-dead most of the time, due to their sparse branches and needles. Nevertheless, Western hemlock is one of the characteristic PNW conifers, and is actually the official Washington State Tree.

Identifying features: The bark is relatively thin and flat, with shallow vertical crevices. The branches bear short, flat needles with rounded tips, and the pinecones are very small. These trees also have an overall weepy, almost frail appearance, and their tasseled treetops always droop to the side.

Bonus tip: Western hemlock really love to take root in the decaying stumps of fallen cedar trees. When you're hiking, keep an eye out for these alien-looking trees with tentacle-like roots.

Hemlock growing from a cedar stump in Saint Edward State Park - Lainey Piland photo

Western Red Cedar

This tree is ubiquitous in Pacific Northwest forests, and has a unique appearance that makes it easy to identify. Like the Douglas fir, specimens of massive proportions can be found in the few old-growth forest fragments that remain in the region, but the cedar trees you encounter along the trail will most likely be no more than two to four feet in diameter. 

Identifying features: The bark of a Western red cedar looks like it was run through a paper shredder and stuck haphazardly to the trunk in long vertical strips, and the edges are often peeling up. Underneath, the tree's flesh is a deep red-orange color. From a distance, the branches have a lacy appearance, and almost look as though they've been draped with thousands of dark green doilies. Yes, I know that sounds weird but take a look for yourself - you'll see what I mean! An up-close look at the branches reveals flat green needles joined together in a fan or feather-like appearance.

Bonus tip: It may be hard to believe, but if you're hiking in a forest in the Pacific Northwest, it was most likely logged sometime in the past century. The forest through which you're now hiking is a second-growth forest that regrew after the original old growth was clear-cut. Evidence of past logging activity is still writ in the landscape, and can easily be found if you know where to look.  Have you ever seen a stump with a notch in it, like the one pictured below? This is a cedar stump, still present a century later (thanks to the tannins in cedar wood that allow it to resist decay), bearing a notch where a springboard was inserted, which the logger would have stood upon as he sawed the tree down. These stumps are scattered throughout second growth forests, and are a reminder of the magnificent trees that once covered the Pacific Northwest.

Cedar stump at Saint Edward State Park - Lainey Piland photo

This is not an exhaustive list of Pacific Northwest conifers, but these three are by far the most common species. When you get back on the trail, visit a nearby park, or step into your backyard, see how many conifers you can identify. Are there any notched stumps or alien hemlocks? See what you can find... you may be surprised at how much more engaging your nature experiences become!

Where to Go

To see some of the massive old-growth trees mentioned earlier, plan a trip to Rockport State Park or South Whidbey Island State Park - both are wonderful parks and boast some of the largest old-growth trees I've ever seen. Saint Edward State Park is also a favorite of mine; there are no old-growth trees here, but there is a breathtakingly gorgeous second-growth forest and plenty of notched cedar stumps and alien-looking hemlocks to discover.

Name that tree! I found this monster at South Whidbey Island State Park.

Thank you for reading! Stay connected to A Day Without Rain for more PNW nature writing, as well as relaxation and inspiration every week on Nature Nerd Wednesdays. Simply enter your e-mail address in the right-hand sidebar to automatically receive e-mails with new blog posts!

Related blog posts:

Wanderings: Rockport State Park

Wanderings: In Search of Old Growth

Friday, March 13, 2015

"Hardships on the Horizon" - Drought Declared in Parts Of Washington

This winter season in Washington has been absolutely beautiful. While the rest of the country is hunkered down amidst record cold and astonishing snow accumulations, here in the Pacific Northwest we've seen plenty of sunshine, blue skies, and unusually balmy temperatures warm enough to justify exchanging the hot latte at Starbucks in favor of an iced one.

Today's weather on my phone... it IS winter, right?

Our spectacularly pleasant winter (or rather, non-winter...) has already been ugly for the ski slopes, and it's soon going to get ugly for the rest of the state as well.

With mountain snowpack statewide amounting to a paltry 27% of normal on average, Governor Jay Inslee earlier today declared a drought in parts of Washington state. A news release on the Governor's website provides details on this drought declaration covering the Olympic Peninsula, Central Cascades, and Walla Walla regions, which will be facing water supply issues come summer. Agriculture and spawning salmon will both be adversely affected by the lack of snowpack in the mountains - snowpack which rivers and streams depend on for a steady source of water throughout the hot, dry summer months.

Washington faced a similar situation last year and was saved by a last-minute, early spring snow dump in the mountains. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like we'll get that helping hand this year, as the long-term forecast calls for a continuation of this warm, dry weather. Dept. of Ecology Director Maia Bellon commented that "Hardships are on the horizon, and we're going to be ready."

With reservoirs currently at normal levels, water supply is not expected to be a concern for the Puget Sound area, thanks to the amount of precipitation we've received in the form of rain. Take a look at this EarthFix article for further details.

For more information on the drought declaration, visit the Department of Ecology website.

Snowmelt-fed rivers like this one might be running extra low this summer. Lainey Piland photo

Missing the Big Picture

If you've watched the local news anytime in the past few weeks, you're guaranteed to have seen the news anchors and meteorologists gushing over the atypically warm, sunny winter weather throughout the region. Everyone is excited about the sunshine, the cherry trees and tulips blooming weeks ahead of schedule, the record-breaking sixty-degree weather. Occasionally, this excitement is tempered by reminders of the nonexistent ski season or mention of the impending water supply concerns and the possibility of a horrendous wildfire season this summer. For the most part though, people seem happy to enjoy the sunshine.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't enjoy this lovely weather. I mean, who can be a grump when the sun is shining? But we're missing a valuable opportunity to have a conversation about the bigger picture here. This is about more than a record-breaking warm winter. This is about what we're facing in the future as our region suffers the effects of a changing climate.

Projections for our region predict that as the global climate changes in the coming decades, we'll experience warmer, milder winters in the Pacific Northwest. Extreme precipitation events (i.e. storms that dump inches of rain in a short timespan) will become more common, with extended dry periods in between. Summers will be hotter and drier. Wildfires will increase significantly. Is this sounding familiar at all?

The weather we've experienced in this bizarre and unusual winter is exactly in line with what will be considered the norm for our region in the future, thanks to climate change. We're not past the tipping point where snow has forever disappeared from our mountains, but we can expect winters like this one to become more common. These predictions are further detailed in last year's National Climate Assessment - check out the PNW summary here.

This winter has been a good wake-up call as to what our future will look like in the grips of climate change. Or at least it should be a wake-up call... if we can step out of this brilliant March sunshine which appears to have blinded us to be bigger picture.

Lainey Piland photo