Natural History Journal – Week 3

Dates: Saturday October 11 – Sunday October 12, 2014
Weather: Mostly cloudy/overcast, chilly
Times: Saturday 10am – 5pm, Sunday 10am – 4pm
Locations: Saturday – Nisqually River delta, Mima Mounds; Sunday – Mt. Rainier

This past weekend our class went on an overnight field trip to the southern Puget lowlands and Mt. Rainier. Our first stop on Saturday was at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, which is located at the Nisqually River delta. This area is full of wetlands and mud flats and offers good opportunities for bird watching. We saw many birds there including Swenson’s hawks, bald eagles, Canada geese, mallard ducks, song sparrows, pintail ducks, ospreys, great blue herons, and many others.

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Wetlands near the visitor center

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Looking out to the estuary

The estuary is very rich in biodiversity due to the high nutrient density caused by the mixing of salt water from Puget Sound and fresh water from the Nisqually River. The salt marshes in the foreground of the sketch below fade into mudflats toward the middle of the sketch. This ecosystem is heavily influenced by the tides, as the high tide comes in and submerges much of the landscape, while the low tide leaves much of the landscape exposed. This alternating ebb and flow is what causes sediment to be deposited on the mudflats. Because of the high salinity of the mudflats and the fact that they are submerged much of the time, there aren’t many plants on them. However, there are many different types of invertebrates that live in the mud. These are big attractions for migrating shorebirds, which is what makes this area so good for birdwatching.

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Thumbnail sketch of the area around the estuary

The salt marches that are slightly above the mudflats have plants that are adapted to living in salty conditions. One example of these plants is pickleweed, which looks like green spaghetti strewn across the marsh. Pickleweed still grows even though it is often submerged in salty water.

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Pickleweed in the salt marshes

There is an artificial dike through the refuge that creates an interesting divide between the salt water and fresh water marshes. A common plant on the freshwater side is the broad-leaved cattail. Cattails are often the first plants to colonize wetland areas and they enable the settling of sediment to build up the soil.

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Sketch of a cattail

Farther away from the estuary there is a gallery forest, which is a type of forest that occurs near rivers and streams. This forest had many of the same plants that we have seen in Ravenna Park in Seattle.

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Sword fern

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Close up of sword fern

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Snowberry

It was not surprising to see bigleaf maple here because this plant grows well in wetter areas next to streams.

Bigleaf maple

Bigleaf maple

Here I saw Indian plum for the first time. Indian plums have an interesting strategy of producing leaves very early in spring, much earlier than the other deciduous trees and shrubs. This is a good way to take advantage of available light before the canopy fills in with the leaves of other plants.

Indian plum

Indian plum

There were many interesting animals throughout the refuge:

Tree frog

Tree frog

The wolly bear caterpillar moth likes to cross roads for some reason. They can be seen doing this all of the gravel paths of the refuge.

Wooly bear caterpillar moth

Wooly bear caterpillar moth

Banana slug

Banana slug

Garter snake not on the ground, which is odd

Garter snake not on the ground, which is odd

Close to the end of our visit we had the rare opportunity to see a tornado in the distance! It was spectacular to see it shoot down from the sky and move around a bit before dissipating. Luckily we weren’t near it.

Tornado!

Tornado!

After leaving the refuge we went to see the mima mounds. This is a very intriguing ecosystem at the southernmost edge of where the Cordilleran ice sheet stopped at its fullest extent. There are many theories as to how these mounds formed, but no one is absolutely sure yet.

Mima mounds

Mima mounds

Kinnikinnick

Kinnikinnick

Moss only on the north side of the tree, away from the sun

Moss only on the north side of the tree, away from the sun

Harebell

Harebell

After staying the night in the cabins at Pack Forest, we ventured up to Mt. Rainier on Sunday. First we stopped for a little bit at Kautz Creek and learned about the effects of the floods and mudflows on the forests in this area. We also caught a glimpse of the top of the mountain.

View of the top of Mt. Rainier

View of the top of Mt. Rainier

Next we visited an old growth part of the forest on Rainier. Here again we saw many of the same plants as those in Ravenna Park.

Old growth forest

Old growth forest

When trees fall over here, new trees will growth on top of them. Because of this, the fallen tree is called a “nurse log”. This strategy gives new trees the advantages of more light from being higher off the ground and more water from the moist log.

Nurse log

Nurse log

The main trees here are Douglas firs. These trees are common throughout the Pacific northwest due to their ability to grow well after disturbances such as fires or wind storms. They are long lived and very tall.

Douglas fir

Douglas fir

Another common tree here is the western hemlock. This is the climax tree of this forest zone, which means that if there were no disturbances, the forests would have only western hemlocks. These trees are shad tolerant and grow up under trees that colonize earlier, such as Douglas fir.

Western hemlock

Western hemlock

Close up of western hemlock

Close up of western hemlock

Dwarf Oregon grape

Dwarf Oregon grape

Red huckleberry

Red huckleberry

Vine maple

Vine maple

Artist's fungus

Artist’s fungus

The Douglas fir mushroom is interesting because it is adapted to grow specifically on decomposing Douglas fir cones.

Douglas fir mushroom

Douglas fir mushroom

After leaving the old growth forest we headed up to the bridge that is just below the Nisqually glacier.

Steller's jay in a silver fir tree

Steller’s jay in a silver fir tree

From the bridge you can see the end of the glacier where the river begins from the water flowing out from under the ice.

Nisqually glacier

Nisqually glacier

From here we drove up to Paradise. I was here earlier this year at the beginning of July and it was amazing to see the changes that happened at Paradise since then. The whole area was covered with snow before, but now the meadows were visible with many vibrant colors, especially reds and yellows.

Meadows at Paradise

Meadows at Paradise

Many of the trees here are subalpine firs. These trees do not grow very tall because they would be toppled by snow and wind if they did. They have a distinct conical shape that enables them to shed snow in winter.

Black tailed deer amidst subalpine fir trees

Black tailed deer amidst subalpine fir trees

Close up of mountain hemlock

Close up of mountain hemlock

Black tailed deer

Black tailed deer

Many of the plants at this elevation, including the pink mountain heather, grow fuzzy hair-like parts all over in order to help retain moisture. The hairs create a barrier against the wind, thus slowing the rate of evaporation of water from the plant surfaces.

Pink mountain heather

Pink mountain heather

After exploring the meadows for a while, we hiked to the edge of the moraine formed by the Nisqually glacier.

Nisqually glacier

Nisqually glacier

Nisqually valley

Nisqually valley

Moraine formed by Nisqually glacier

Moraine formed by Nisqually glacier

The view across to the other side of the valley provides insight into the glacial history of this area. First of all, we can see that the glacier used to be much thicker at this point and used to extend much farther down the valley, which is evidence by the U-shaped curve of the valley walls. As the climate has warmed, this glacier has receded from the point of it’s fullest extent, which was below the bridge we stopped at earlier. During the initial advance of the glacier down the mountain, the rock underneath was ground up into pieces that form the glacial till now seen in this valley. As the glacier has receded, it has deposited large boulders called “erratics”  all over the area and exposed the lateral moraine walls that were formed in the advancing period. The clear trim line at the top of the moraine divides the part of the mountain where vegetation grows from the part that used to be covered in ice and is still too harsh for much vegetation to colonize effectively.

Thumbnail sketch of the moraine formed by the Nisqually glacier

Thumbnail sketch of the moraine formed by the Nisqually glacier

Finally, we hiked up the Panorama Point just for fun!

Chipmunk sitting on a rock

Chipmunk sitting on a rock

View of the top of Mt. Rainier on the way up to Panorama Point

View of the top of Mt. Rainier on the way up to Panorama Point

Natural History Journal – Week 2

Date: Monday October 6, 2014
Weather: Sunny, clear skies
Temperature: 67°F
Time: 1:30pm – 3:30pm
Location: Ravenna Park, just southeast of the 20th Ave NE bridge over the park

The weather on Monday was beautiful, so I decided to do my second site observation that afternoon. When I arrived, the first thing I wanted to do was check on the cool spiders I saw last time – but most of them had vanished! Eventually I found a new one in a different part of the site. I watched it for several minutes because it was actually very active compared to the ones from last week. Most of the time it hung completely motionless in the middle of the web, but then it would occasionally poke at a strand of its web with one leg. I’m not sure what this was for, but I would guess it was either to test the strength of the web or to figure out where the trapped insects were in the web. After poking for a bit, the spider would then climb down to the edge of the web, and sometimes it would eat the tiny trapped insects. Then it would let go of the main web and swing back and forth on a strand from the center of the web and eventually ascend back to the center. Then it would reorient itself to face downwards and hang motionless again.

I noticed a few color changes that I hadn’t noticed the last time. On the western red cedars, many of the leaves are turning brown. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern of which leaves turn brown as there are many interspersed evenly throughout the trees. The brown leaves are much rougher and drier than the green leaves which have a waxy texture.

Several of the Cascade Oregon grape plants were changing color as well. Some leaves had red patches that faded into brown, dead parts at the edges of the leaves. These parts were much rougher and drier than the green leaves, which are smooth and shiny. I looked at the Oregon grapes more closely to see if there were any features common to all of them. It seems that most mature plants have between 12 and 18 leaflets per leaf. Often the leaf will end with a single leaflet at the top, which I found odd since the rest of the leaf has pairs of leaflets emanating from each node. The leaf stems are very smooth, but they originate from a very rough, woody base.

One bird sound that stuck out to me on this visit sounded sort of like teetee who who who. But of course I couldn’t see it through all the foliage.

Check out the pictures below showing some of the organisms I observed, including some new ones like devil’s club, skunk cabbage, and horsetail. I found these a short way down the hill from my site by the stream that runs through Ravenna Park. Devil’s club is very aptly named – the entire plant except for the leaves is covered in sharp thorns. Also included in the photos are some sketches I made of Cascade Oregon grape, western red cedar leaves, and two unidentified shrubs.

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Natural History Journal – Week 1

Date: Sunday September 28, 2014
Weather: Mostly clear skies
Temperature: 60°F
Time: 6pm – 7pm
Location: Ravenna Park, just southeast of the 20th Ave NE bridge over the park

I ventured out to do my first observation and journal entry for my Natural History class today. I waited until the sky cleared up in the evening, and it ended up being very pleasant weather by around 5pm. I decided to go to Ravenna park, and I was going to walk around for a while to find a good spot. But I ended up choosing the first place that I came upon near where I entered the park because I heard some rustling in the underbrush, and after looking for a little bit, I saw a small snake slithering among the dead leaves! So I thought this would be an interesting spot to stay in since I had never seen a snake in Ravenna park before. I took a lot of pictures, which you can view in the slideshow below.

Why am I taking this class and what got me “into nature”?

I can’t remember a particularly profound early experience with nature, but I think my appreciation of it has grown gradually with many experiences. Surprisingly the very earliest experience with nature that I remember instilled in me a great fear of nature that I have only slowly overcome. I remember walking with family members through some type of park or orchard, when one person (I think my grandfather) pointed out a large gray fruit hanging in a tree or bush. He went to check it out, and it was in fact not a gray fruit, but rather a nest of bees or wasps. The insects came swarming out and I was stung several times on my hand, and I probably cried after this, but I don’t recall that part. I think this may have contributed to my fear of stinging/biting insects during childhood. I am still afraid of spiders, bees, wasps, and centipedes when I find them indoors, but I’m okay with them when I’m outdoors now.

My parents have taken me to many national parks, so allowed me to be comfortable in nature (not counting scary insects). I have always enjoyed hiking up mountains and seeing wonderful views at the top. Whenever I travel, I usually try to find some high point that I can get up to for a bird’s eye view of the area. I also really enjoy watching animals go about their daily routines.

My current interest in natural history stems from the desire for something new to do in nature, and also from a practical standpoint. I sometimes find myself bored when walking around in nature because there is not much I can “do” when I don’t know anything about the organisms I’m seeing. Enjoying the peace and quiet only goes so far for a short attention span. Some basic natural history knowledge will allow me to understand the significance of the life around me and give me things to do, like plant and bird identification, while I’m exploring the outdoors.

I also want to learn natural history for the practical purpose of being able to identify edible and medicinal wild flora. First of all, I think this would be a really cool skill to have. But also, it could be very handy in the future if climate change turns out to be disastrous. I think that catastrophic climate change can still be avoided, but in the case that it is not avoided, it seems prudent to hedge my bets so that I can still find food if the agricultural system collapses.

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While I was in the park, I made the following observations at my spot, and on a short hike through the area around my spot:

At 1 sq. meter:

There is a covering of debris (sticks, leaves, etc.) over the ground. There are many small and large shrubs, most of which I cannot identify at this point. The one that I could identify was Oregon grape. There is a tree, which I am fairly certain is a Western red cedar. There are several large brown spiders with black striped legs hanging in their beautiful silk webs, spun in concentric circle patterns between the shrub branches.

At 50 sq. meters:

I’m pretty sure the snake I saw was a Northwestern Garter Snake, based on what my field guide says. There are many sword ferns around. There are a few plants with berries – one is a type of blackberry and the other may be pacific madrone). There are several trees with a lot of peeling bark and they are very smooth where the bark is missing – I am fairly sure these are pacific madrones. In the area I explored, there is one flower, which I was surprised to see in late September. I think this may be a flowering salmonberry plant. I can hear many different types of birds singing around me, but I have no idea how to describe their sounds. The only ones that I have seen are some very small dark birds hopping around in the bushes. They seem to usually be in groups in a single shrub, and they make more of a buzzing-type noise. I also hear many crows. The smell throughout the park is very fresh.

Reflection on my 23rd year of life and plans for the 24th

My 23rd year was an important one. Some people may remember that I had a bit of a quarter-life crisis starting in summer 2013. I realized I didn’t care about my research project and I had a general feeling that by studying engineering after high school I had initiated a career path with good job security but very little personal satisfaction and no chance of making significant positive contributions to society.

I decided to see a counselor for this and other issues in my life at the time, which turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. In one of our last sessions, my counselor happened to mention something that was a catalyst for much of the recent positive change in my life – the UW Farm.

At first I liked the farm because I had an excuse to be out of my office during the great summer weather and I got a ton of produce for free. But slowly it has become one of the most important communities I am a part of. So many wonderful people have come into my life through the farm. Many of them share passions of mine that I hadn’t been able to share with my other friends.

Through the farm, I found out about more avenues that were available to explore and contribute to issues I cared about, however I still wasn’t happy with my work in computer science and engineering. But this spring, I had the good fortune of taking a human-computer interaction class with Alan Borning, who has given me hope that I can do some good in the world with computer science. I am very much enjoying doing web design work with the CarbonWA campaign for my current project.

The final major bit of change I’ve experienced has been in my understanding of the privileged position I hold in society. This has been a both a relief and a source of great sadness and personal regret.

Oddly enough, I have been relieved to realize that I am where I am now largely due to the fact that I am a straight white male American with no financial problems. At many times in my life I have been told that I am smart, and I have won various awards and scholarships for things, but I never felt like I was especially smart and I don’t feel like I deserved many of these awards. A previous advisor of mine once told me that I got an award purely because of my presentation skills, not because of any great effort on the actual work. It is comforting to have an explanation for this discrepancy. Much of my life has been a quest to become more intelligent in the conventional Western industrial sense of intelligence in order to try to live up to people’s expectations, and possibly make up for my previous mediocre work. I wanted to learn more math and science and become a logical wizard who could figure out the most puzzling technical puzzles. These are important areas to improve in, but I now feel that I don’t have to be extremely smart to do good work and it is more beneficial for me to analyze the world and figure out what changes need to be made and how I can help them happen with what I already have.

On the other hand, knowing more about systems of injustice has made me realize some regrettable things that I have done in the past and ways in which I have acted inappropriately with people who I should have had more respect for as fellow human beings. I wish I could redo several parts of my life, but I can only hope that I will be better in the future.

I’ve already experienced some major changes in the first few hours of my 24th year. I have moved out of the house I was living in for the past two years and into Sherwood Cooperative. So far the people (and chickens!) I’ve met here have been very friendly and I’m excited to see what joys and challenges this new living experience will provide.

I have a few goals for this year in order to continue my personal growth:

  1. Become better at talking and connecting with people and be less awkward
  2. Become more deeply involved with campaigns for justice and sustainability at UW and in Seattle
  3. Notice and prevent stress during the school year so I don’t burn out at the end of each quarter like in the past
  4. Improve my physical health by getting treatment for chronic wrist and leg pains, and by exercising regularly and paying attention to my body more closely to prevent injury
  5. Write blog posts regularly on contemporary issues that I care about
  6. Practice steel tongue drum regularly