Connecting with Nature

Nature of North Central Washington

The Plants Think it’s Spring in December!

I took this photo today on Nine Mile Ranch, near Molson. The Wax Currant (Ribes Cereum) buds are showing signs of early spring… before winter has even begun. What a strange autumn we are having!

Update from Nine Mile Ranch (Okanogan Highlands)

It has been a cool summer in the highlands so far, but the plant cycles are marching forward anyway – perhaps more slowly, but certainly in forward motion. The lupine have been setting seed into their pea-like pods, while still bearing some beautiful blossoms. Likewise, the noxious weeds are beginning to set seeds, prompting many locals to pull weeds with more speed than ever. We have been using agricultural strength vinegar (20% acetic acid) to spray weeds, and it’s very effective on the new seedlings that continue to come up in vast numbers.

Lupine beginning to set seed

If you look closely, you can see at least one seed pod. Photo taken during the week of July 11th.

 
Early Summer Rainbow and wildflowers
Yarrow and Lupine splashed the foreground as I stood captivated by a full double rainbow (June 24)

Sex among the flowers

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July 7, 2011, Connecting With Nature, NCW Greenways
by Dana Visalli

Anyone who has struggled with learning the scientific name of a plant can pin the blame squarely on the Swedish scientist Carl Linneaus. He came up with the idea of using two Latin or Greek words to identify any given species almost 300 years ago. For example, because of him our common little spring lily, the Yellowbell, is known to science as Fritillaria pudica.

Prior to Linneaus, it was thought that flowers had been created expressly to cheer up human beings by adding a bit of color to their lives. Linneaus pointed out that what flowers were actually doing out there in the fields and forests was exchanging male and female gametes through pollen transfer — they were having sex. Europeans were horrified, and accused Linneaus of being “indecent, lascivious and lewd.” Of course it turns out that he was right, and flowers exist for the reproduction of their own species and not for the pleasure of humans.

Flowers exist to attract insects (and occasionally hummingbirds), which will pick up pollen while probing around for nectar and deliver it to another flower on another plant, thus transferring male DNA. There are three main groups of insect pollinators: 1) flies and beetles, which have very short tongues and can only pollinate small, round flowers; 2) bees and wasps, which have medium-length tongues (for an insect), up to about half an inch, and often pollinate two-sided (bilateral) flowers like lupine; and 3) butterflies and moths, whose tongues are so long they have to be coiled up like a spring (the longest insect tongue on record belongs to a sphinx moth and is 16” in length!).

Insects are attracted to color, but surprisingly they can’t see red very well. Thus, red flowers, like our local columbine and paintbrushes, are often hummingbird pollinated. Flowers pollinated at night are usually white, so that night-flying moths can find them. The species name for the Yellowbell is pudica, which means bashful. It is so named because the yellow flower turns red after it is pollinated. Early observers thought perhaps it was embarrassed after having an affair with an insect, but we now know that the color change is a matter of energy conservation — insects will stop visiting those yellowbells that have turned red, because they don’t perceive that color clearly. Thus they save their energy for unpollinated flowers, and both insects and flowers benefit from this full-color communication between them.

Knowing all this, we can begin to predict which flowers are pollinated by which of the three groups of insects, and which are hummingbird pollinated. Small, round flowers are pollination generalists — they are easy to land on, and any type of insect, even a fly, can reach the nectar. Bilateral flowers like lupine are usually pollinated by bumblebees, while flowers with a long spur in back to hide the nectar would have to be pollinated by a butterfly, moth or hummingbird. See if you can predict from flower color and shape what bug is dating which flower on your next walk.

Dana Visalli lives in the Methow Valley where he teaches, farms and works as a biological consultant. He is the editor of The Methow Naturalist, a quarterly journal of natural history, and a contributor to Connecting With Nature, a program of the non-profit Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship.

Pause to meet the pollinators

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July 7, 2011, Connecting With Nature, NCW Greenways
by Nancy Warner

The warm summer days and evenings ahead provide ample opportunities to slow down, take a closer look and get acquainted with the bumblebees, moths, butterflies and other insects that visit and pollinate the flowers of our region. Going on a walk with an expert is always a great way to start the introductions. Check out the summer offerings of guided hikes on below. But, unlike the days of Linnaeus when access to scientific information was scant, there are many resources available today to help anyone get to know these beautiful and fascinating creatures.

Here are just a few to check out:
To see the range of bright and colorful patterns used to distinguish the native bumblebees in our region visit the online key on The Methow Naturalist website, methownaturalist.com. There are at least 18 different species here.

The Xerces Society (xerces.org) and the Pollinator Partnership (pollinator.org) also provide publications, guides and fact sheets that help people identify and conserve pollinators and their habitat.

Learn about basic butterfly biology, butterflies in your area, and butterfly gardening at the Butterfly Conservation Initiative website, butterflyrecovery.org. For a good field guide, see Robert Michael Pyle’s The Butterflies of Cascadia.

Participate in a national effort designed to increase our understanding of bee habitat needs in urban areas by monitoring bees in your backyard garden through The Great Sunflower Project (greatsunflower.org).

Some related reading suggestions:
The Forgotten Pollinators, by Stephen L. Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan, 1996, Island Press.
The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre, edited by Edwin Way Teale, 1949, Harper & Row Publishers.
The Butterflies of Cascadia, by Robert Michael Pyle, 2002, Seattle Audubon Society.

Area organizations that sponsor nature walks:
Okanogan Highlands Alliance
Okanogan Land Trust
Methow Conservancy
The Methow Naturalist
Chelan Douglas Land Trust
The Nature Conservancy
Barn Beach Reserve
Wenatchee Outdoors
NCW Audubon Society
Native Plant Society

Nancy Warner coordinates the Connecting With Nature program for the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship (IRIS), a nonprofit group dedicated to fostering sustainable rural communities by connecting people, place and possibility.

Share your summer sightings

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July 7, 2011, Connecting With Nature, NCW Greenways
by Nancy Warner

We would like to invite all North Central Washington residents to join the Network of Naturalists and help create a nature journal for the region via our recently expanded Connecting With Nature website (connectingwithnature.org). With grant support from the “Connecting People With Nature” program of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, IRIS created this website where you can record your observations and post photos of plants, animals, weather and other phenomena that mark the seasonal rhythms of our region. Submit entries on your own or team up with a friend or family member. This is good and affordable family fun!

All nature observations are welcome — from notes on the familiar birds and insects you see in your backyard and garden to the new and sometimes breathtaking observations you make while exploring the wilds of our region. Help track seasonal changes and patterns by noting when and where you see insects around huckleberry flowers and those huckleberries ripening, along with salmon spawning, and chanterelle mushrooms popping up. Note the first strings of geese you see heading south and when the leaves begin to change color in the fall. We’ll highlight your contributions in The Wenatchee World and suggest others to track. Together, these observations will chronicle trends and changes and provide a legacy for future generations to build upon.

To join the Network of Naturalists, begin recording your observations in the regional nature journal at connectingwithnature.org. For more information, call Nancy Warner at 881-1812.

Nancy Warner coordinates the Connecting With Nature program for the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship (IRIS), a non-profit group dedicated to fostering sustainable rural communities by connecting people, place and possibility.

Backyard birds in Wenatchee

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June 20, 2011 7 p.m. Slight breeze. Nancy and Chuck Warner. We were  surprised to see evening grosbeaks by the creek in our backyard. It seems like they would have moved on to their nesting location by now. Maybe they join the black-capped chickadees and robins and next in our yard this year.

Wildflower Resources

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Susan Ballinger’s suggestions for resources that can help in your wildflower explorations.

April is a great month to explore our region’s shrub-steppe to see blooming wildflowers. A first step is to identify lands and trails that are open to the public. For the Wenatchee Foothills Trails, visit the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust (CDLT) website for a trail map. Or, stop by a local Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management office to get maps and hike suggestions from their friendly front-office staff. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife offers a great publication, North Central Washington: Wildlife Viewing Map for Highway 97 that identifies 36 public land sites between Ellensburg and Oroville for watching wildlife and often, wildflowers. The Wenatchee Outdoors website offers 9 local hike ideas in their guidebook under ‘Nature-Flower-Birds.

Once you pick a location, it is nice to take along a list of wildflowers documented at that site. The Washington State Native Plant Society (WNPS) offers native plant lists by county with 41 for Chelan, 8 for Douglas, and 32 for Okanogan county. A fun way to study-up at home before venturing into the field is to use on-line photo identification guides. The University of Washington Burke Museum Herbarium has stunning photographs and detailed descriptions of all Washington plant species. Locally, CDLT offers a localized searchable photo field guide to over 60 of the most common wildflowers in the Wenatchee Foothills.

One of the best ways to learn wildflowers is to go on a guided trip. Across Washington, there are 12 native plant society chapters, including the Wenatchee chapter, and each offers a series of free wildflower walks available to the public, all listed on the state website. Locally, several wildflower walks are offered in mid-May by the Leavenworth Birdfest and by the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust. Plan to take a self-guided tour any day at the native plant demonstration garden located at the Okanogan & Wenatchee National Forests Forest Supervisor’s Office at 215 Melody Lane in Wenatchee. Thirty-two species of native wildflowers and grasses are labeled and easily visible in the artistically designed garden.

It is helpful to have a wildflower photo field guide to carry with you when you hike. Three good options for our region include Northwest Dryland Wildflowers: Sagebrush and Ponderosa (Northwest Wildflowers Series) by Dana Visalli and David Hancock (2005); Sagebrush Country: A Wildflower Sanctuary by Ronald J. Taylor (1992), or Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia and the Inland Northwest by Robert Parish (1996). Request these through the North Central Regional Library or at a local bookstore.

A handy tool to carry in the field is a ten-powered hand lens that allows you to look closely inside flowers. These are available at local orchard supply stores and range from $10-45. Be sure to bring along a camera, pencil and field notebook to gather information to take home to help you identify the species. Sketch a picture of the entire plant, indicate the size, and record the type of soil. Draw a detailed picture of the flower, including the internal parts. Later, use your notes with on-line resources to make a best-guess at identification. Please don’t pick our native plants. Leave them in their habitat to serve as food and shelter for animals, to allow for seed production, and to be lovely flowers for the next visitor to enjoy. To keep from trampling our native plants, stay on designated trails and avoid cutting switchbacks and using shortcuts.

A good way to introduce children to native wildflowers is to take them to “Coyote’s Corner” at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center. An array of pressed plants are displayed in a colorful room painted to represent local habitats. You can download full page coloring sheets of many native wildflowers. Visit the Wenatchee School District website to view several slide shows featuring native wildflowers. These resources are used by teachers to prepare students for their annual 1st grade science field experience hiking in a local shrub-steppe preserve.

Learning about wildflowers is a great way to increase your enjoyment of being outside in our diverse and scenic landscape. Let the bright yellow of blooming balsamroot entice you to get out this month to see the wildflowers!

Here’s a sample of guided walks and natural history programs around our region this spring, all free and open to the public!

Riverside
Okanogan Conservation District invites the public to help plant 10 kinds of common native shrubs along the Johnson Creek banks in Riverside, north of Omak. April 15 and 16. Call for details.
Contact: Jenni Remillard, 422-0855, Ext. 100

Methow Valley
Okanogan chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society offers a series of wildflower walks throughout the region during spring and summer. The walks are led by local experts who like to educate others about plants.
Contact: Sandra Strieby, 997-2576

Leavenworth
The May 12-15 Leavenworth Bird Fest offers bird and wildflower field trips, including a Sauer Mountain walk on May 13 and two Ski Hill walks on May 14. Call after April 29 to reserve your spot as these trips fill quickly.
Contact: Chamber of Commerce, 548-5807

Wenatchee
Wenatchee chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society offers two public wildflower hikes. Call trip leaders for more information. On June 26, Julie Sanderson (662-5261) will lead a 3-mile walk to Clara Lake. On July 2, Ted Alway (548-4384) leads a 4-mile hike to Wedge Mountain.

Chelan-Douglas Land Trust has published a wildflower brochure available at trailhead kiosks at Horse Lake Preserve, Day Drive and the Jacobson Preserve. Visit its website to use a photo identification guide to 60 common plants in the foothills. Contact: Kathy Pevin, 667-9708

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forests supervisor’s office, 215 Melody Lane. Take a self-guided tour any day at the native plant demonstration garden, where 32 species of native wildflowers and grasses are labeled and easily visible in the artistically designed garden.

Tonasket
Okanogan Highlands Alliance offers an educational class featuring the natural history of the region on May 6. Spring and summer interpretive hikes and restoration work parties will be listed at okanoganhighlands.org/education.
Contact: Julie Ashmore at julie@okanoganhighlands.org

Twisp
Methow Conservancy hosts a First Tuesday Lecture Series, offering a free community lecture, presentation or discussion focused on natural history, ecology or conservation topics.
Contact: Mary Kiesau, 996-2870

Wildflowers: The season’s greeetings

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April 2011, Connecting With Nature, NCW Greenways
by Susan Ballinger

Soft hues of green carpet the foothills while bright spots of yellow, blue and white blossoms pepper the landscape that surround our central Washington valleys in the month of April. It is hard to find a more beautiful time of year to get out and explore the wild lands of our region, especially for wildflower enthusiasts.
After five months of bitter cold, spring is a time when soils warm and water, released from snow, saturates the ground for a few brief weeks. Our foothills are dominated by big sagebrush, bitterbrush, bunchgrasses and wildflowers adapted to the 7 to 11 inches of total precipitation we get each year.

North Central Washington sits on the eastern edge of the Cascade Mountains, so our foothills rise steeply into forested mountains where precipitation is greater and Ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir trees grow. Valley residents can use their eyes to map the lowest elevation pine trees that form the transition zone between shrub-steppe and forest on our rising foothills. Ravines and gullies serve as vertical connectors, supporting taller shrubs like serviceberry, whose deep-growing roots tap into groundwater.

As you walk or drive around the valleys, scan the hillsides to spot blooming serviceberry shrubs. Their densely blooming, long-petaled white flowers create cloud-like bursts of white with a brief weeklong explosion of blooms.

As you drive the east-west corridor between Wenatchee and Leavenworth, compare the time of serviceberry flowering between the warmer and drier south-facing versus and cooler north-facing slopes. Often, wildflowers will bloom weeks sooner at the same elevation on a south-facing slope, compared to a nearby north-facing slope. Another blooming gradient to follow is elevational: Spring comes earlier at lower elevations, so if you miss the buttercups in March along the Columbia River, travel uphill.
Compared to mobile animals, plants can’t walk away when the weather gets severe and water is scarce. Plants employ several strategies that allow them to cope with water shortage and thrive in an arid environment.

Most shrub-steppe wildflowers are long-lived perennials whose above-ground stems and leaves die back, but underground roots remain alive. Our earliest blooming perennial wildflowers — like yellowbells, bluebells and shooting star — all concentrate their rapid above-ground growth of leaves, stems, flowers and seeds into a few balmy mild weeks and then quickly wither and die. Above-ground life exists for less than two months and then rest buried in soil until the next spring.

Some of our native plants require a viewer to get down on hands and knees for close-up inspections.

Healthy shrub-steppe soils are carpeted with a layer of living cryptobiotic crust: an interwoven population of mosses, lichens, simple plants, fungi and bacteria that form a multi-layered coating on the land. These simple organisms can quickly revert to dormancy when water is scarce. Try pouring a bit of water onto a patch of shrub-steppe soil and watch for a few moments to see crust suddenly green up as its living members start using sunlight to make food once water is available! This crust provides essential ecosystem services to other plants by trapping moisture in the soil, transferring nutrients and holding soil in place.

The crust is easily damaged by intensive animal and people traffic. It is very slow-growing, so you can spot lands that have been disturbed by the lack of a crust covering the mineral soils. By staying on established trails, hikers can help preserve the fragile, living crust.

The diversity of wildflowers in our region means travelers can find blooming plants from earliest spring into late fall. Start now by getting out to see the amazing display of color in our wild lands.

Susan Ballinger works as a consulting biologist with expertise in ecology and natural history. She serves on the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust board and is co-chair of the Wenatchee Chapter, Washington Native Plant Society.

Photos of Winter

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See Julie Ashmore’s January 4 comment on Snow Scorpion flies in Keeping an Eye on Nature (10/4/10).

Photos from a ski trip in Moses Coulee on January 3, 2011.

Tracking Nature in NCW

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The annual Christmas Bird Counts showed a decrease in the number of American robins in North Central Washington compared to recent counts, according to local birder David St. George.

The drop is presumably due to the shortage of berries that make up much of their winter food. Other common winter birds such as dark-eyed juncos are abundant and easily spotted at feeders and on the ground where they forage for seeds. Great blue heron numbers are holding steady along the rivers and lakes that stay open through the winter freeze.

We invite you to join others across NCW this winter in creating a naturalist’s journal for our region at www.connectingwithnature.org. Submit entries on your own or team up with a friend or family member to record your observations of the first three indicators we will track in 2011: robins, dark-eyed juncos and great blue herons.

Record the date and time, location, observer, weather notes and your observations. We’ll highlight your contributions in the April edition of Greenways and suggest other plants and animals to track into the spring and summer. Together, our observations will chronicle trends and changes and provide a legacy for future generations to build upon.

Nancy Warner is coordinator for the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship (IRIS), a non-profit dedicated to fostering sustainable rural communities by connecting people, place and possibility.

This piece is also published in the Wenatchee World at www.wenatcheeworld.com/news/2011/jan/03/tracking-nature-in-north-central-washington/

Start a journal and track: date/time, location, observer, weather notes, and your observations. Share your observations with the community by posting them here as comments. Submit entries on your own or team up with a friend or family member. Together our observations will chronicle trends and changes and provide a legacy for future generations to build on.

Post your observations by adding to the comments in the link immediately below. See recently added comments to Keeping an Eye on Nature, Oct. 4, 2010.

IRIS