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Welcome to Subirdia: An Excerpt

March 31st, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

As part of our “Nature in Writing” series, John Marzluff reads from Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife, Friday, April 3rd, 7 pm, in the Readings Gallery at Village Books in Bellingham. Free!

by John Marzluff

My research and that of other urban ecologists suggest that, despite the great loss of biodiversity caused by our actions, we also have a lot to celebrate. I’ve spent most of my spring and summer mornings counting birds in national parks, industrial parks, and suburbs. It is not surprising that the most-heavily paved portions of the city hold few birds, but it is not the case that the least-disturbed places on Earth always hold the most birds. Wild reserves provide shelter for unique birds not found in the city, and they are absolutely essential. But the greatest variety of birds is often found in the suburbs. [1]

With my graduate students I have counted birds from Seattle’s urban core to its fringing forests nearly every spring and summer morning for the past decade. We expected the suburbs between the city center and the forested reserves to support an intermediate number of species, but when we listened as these neighborhoods awoke each morning, we were astonished by the dawn chorus of thrushes, tanagers, wrens, towhees, finches, crows, and woodpeckers. Here we often tallied 30 or more species in a single count. We found birds from the industrial city mixed with some from the protected forest, and we encountered a whole new set of birds that use more open country. [2]

Black_throated_gray_warblerBlack-throated gray warbler

Compiling standard bird surveys from more than 100 locations in and around Seattle revealed to us a consistent, but unexpected, relationship between the intensity of development and bird diversity. The greatest diversity was not in the most forested setting. Instead, bird diversity rose quickly from the city center to the suburbs and then dropped again in the extensive forest that eases Seattle into the high Cascades.

We had discovered “subirdia.”

Human neighborhoods are good for birds because they offer a wide range of habitats in a small area. Lawns and trees are jumbled into savannahs, fields, and woodlots. Engineers provide new features such as small ponds that retain runoff from the many sealed surfaces. Where different habitats touch, they produce rich edges that offer access to many resources, such as nuts from trees, seeds from annual weeds, and insects from ponds. The diversity of plants found together in urban settings is simply incredible.

Our discovery of subirdia in Seattle is not unique. Throughout Britain, in deciduous woodlands of California and Ohio, grasslands of Arizona, forests of Japan, and shrublands of Australia moderate levels of urbanization also provide an abundance of various resources that increases the number of bird species beyond that found in either wilder or more densely populated settings.

Noisy_Miner_AustraliaNoisy Miner from Australia

Subirdia is the place many of us call home or work. Physically, it is a richly interwoven mixture of residential, commercial, and wilder land. Houses, allotments and gardens, derelict and vacant land, golf courses and other outdoor sports sites, cemeteries, schoolyards, highway and railway verges, municipal utility stations, business parks and shopping centers occur among places dominated by natural vegetation such as greenways, river and stream corridors, parks and nature reserves, pipelines and powerlines, steep slopes, and quarries. In a variety of locales, natural vegetation constitutes one-third to two-thirds of subirdia. Functionally, subirdia is the confluence between city and country that promotes a mutual exchange of plants and animals. It is also a place where people from urban and rural cultures come together as neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. In so doing, we learn how varied is the human perception of nature. [3]

As our modification of the land combines birds into new communities, we create interactions that have never before been seen and rekindle others that played out long ago. The interactive strands that link subirdia’s birds into an ecological web are as varied as the myriad animals that reside there. Some strands in the web are deadly, but others are supportive. As we now more fully consider a variety of ecological interactions, we learn about each bird’s place in the web of life and begin to see ourselves in that web as well.

» Continue reading Welcome to Subirdia: An Excerpt

Grizzly-Bear-In-Water-1024x768

Institute Comments on North Cascades Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan

March 24th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

To: Superintendent, North Cascades National Park Service Complex

From: Saul Weisberg, Executive Director, North Cascades Institute

Subject: Institute Comments on North Cascades Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan

Thank you for the opportunity to comment during the scoping process for the North Cascades Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan / Environmental Impact Statement.

North Cascades Institute strongly supports active restoration of grizzly bears to the North Cascades ecosystem.

For nearly 30 years North Cascades Institute has brought students of all ages to explore the mountains and rivers of the North Cascades. Ranging in age from 8 to 80, our participants come to experience, discover, learn from, and share this special part of the world. Now, the National Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and their partner agencies have the opportunity to restore a critical missing part of the wilderness puzzle that is the North Cascades – healthy populations of Grizzly Bears.

There are many reasons why grizzly bears should be restored to the North Cascades:

  • Grizzly bears are a keystone species of the North Cascade. Through predation, scavenging and ground disturbance they impact the ecosystem and its wildlife and vegetation in profound and important ways. The loss of the few remaining grizzly bears would significantly degrade the ecosystem, from both a ecological and cultural point of view.
  • With the restoration of grizzly bear and pacific fisher populations, the North Cascades ecosystem will have its full complement of native wildlife. This represents a plus for park visitors, as well as sustainable growth in local and regional economies through increased visitation and longer stays. Grizzlies, and wolves, fuel year-round visitation, guiding services and education opportunities in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
  • Public support for grizzly restoration in the region is strong. While there would be challenges to restoration, in a predominately wilderness ecosystem of nearly 10,000 sq. miles, conflict with humans and livestock should be limited and controllable. Ongoing education and monitoring will be needed and has demonstrated success in other regions of the west.
  • Restoration would contribute to ecosystem biodiversity and benefit present and future generations of Americans who live in ever increasing numbers in the ten counties that make up and surround the North Cascades.
  • The North Cascades provide excellent grizzly bear habitat. Even though these magnificent animals have been nearly eliminated from the ecosystem, research indicates the North Cascades provide excellent grizzly habitat. Grizzly restoration would likely succeed with active support from the land management agencies and local communities. Such activities should begin soon.

 

Because North Cascades Institute brings significant numbers of people to the ecosystem to take part in conservation education programs, we have looked into issues of safety and risk management with peer organizations that operate in grizzly country. Yellowstone Association Institute and Teton Science Schools have worked with tens of thousands of school children, families and adults for over 40 years in the Yellowstone backcountry. If grizzlies were restored to the North Cascades, the additional protocols we would put in place, in addition to standard “bear aware” practices that we already require from all participants, is a minimum group size of four, with group leaders carrying bear spray. These protocols are basic for anyone visiting wilderness areas that contain large carnivores.

At North Cascades Institute we look forward to educating our students about grizzly bears, and one day standing with those students, looking out over an intact, healthy ecosystem, knowing the grizzly has returned home.

Mount Rainier Milky Way

Starstruck: One Grad’s Perspective on the Night Sky

March 19th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

by Lauren Ridder, M.Ed. Graduate Student

There are only a couple of things that can stop me in my tracks. When clouds part to reveal a night sky full of stars, my gaze is irresistibly drawn upwards, and I feel my perspective shift. My breathing slows and my awareness sharpens, as my mind races far away from the Earth’s surface to find those familiar patterns in the sky.

What I love about constellations is that I could be anywhere in the world, feeling lost and overwhelmed by the chaos of everyday life, but as soon as I spot those sparkling forms high above my head, I feel re-oriented. It feels like an ancient connection to not only centuries of human folklore, but also to pages in stars’ life stories that are long gone as their light travels through all the layers of time and space to reach Earth.

I have several favorite constellations to search for including: Orion, Delphinus, Cygnus, and Andromeda. Orion is the first constellation that I can remember identifying on my own, and I’ve loved tracing its path across many night skies throughout my life. As a winter constellation, Orion appears in the Northern Hemisphere in late November. Orion is usually portrayed as the Great Hunter charging across the sky with shield in one hand and sword in the other. Another more seasonally linked version of the story comes from the Ojibwe people who name this star group, Biboonkeonini the Wintermaker. The prominence of the three stars that make up Orion’s Belt leads to this constellation’s familiarity across cultures. Alnitak, the leftmost star in the Belt, means “the girdle” in Arabic; Alnilam in the middle, translates as “string of pearls”; and Mintaka, on the right, means “the belt”. On March 6 of this year, Orion was due south, standing upright at his highest.

The two most recent additions to my constellation library, Cygnus and Delphinus, are located near each other in the northern early summer and mid-autumn skies. Cygnus swims along the Milky Way with Delphinus leaping out near the swan’s left wing. Cygnus is easy to spot on a clear night with the bright star, Deneb, marking the swan’s tail, and four other prominent stars within its body that form a grouping also known as the Northern Cross. Delphinus is harder to pick out and requires a softening of the gaze and a little patience. Once the little Dolphin makes itself known though, it’s hard to forget.

» Continue reading Starstruck: One Grad’s Perspective on the Night Sky

DiabloLakeMountains

Nature Notes: Winter in the North Cascades

February 16th, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

by Chelsea Ernst, M.Ed. Graduate Student

The west side of the North Cascades is experiencing a fairly warm winter, sending the snow line higher than usual for this time of year. Snow down in the Skagit valley has melted completely, reminding staff and grads at the Learning Center of the carpet of green moss that lines the lowland forest floor.

On January 3rd, when a few graduate students returned to Diablo Lake after winter break, 10 inches of fresh snow fell. The layer of new, fluffy snow lent itself to easy snow tracking, and several ungulate and small mammal tracks were sighted on the Diablo East trail. The following day, the melt began and more students and staff steadily returned to their mountain home and workplace. Here are some of their observations from January and February.

January

SnowBridgeFrozen surface of a pond on Thunder Knob Trail
  • Jan. 4th: above freezing temperatures and rain at the Learning Center turned snow piled high on steep roofs into roofalanches.
  • Jan. 9th: a juvenile and an adult bald eagle dove at each other mid-air near Cook Road in Sedro-Woolley.
  • Jan. 11th: snow geese still gathering in wet fields near Sedro-Woolley and Concrete.
  • Jan. 12th: a pileated woodpecker was heard at the Learning Center.
  • Jan. 15th: the sounds of Deer Creek became softer as less water from higher elevations makes its way down into the valley.
  • Jan. 20th: the sun was out at Diablo Lake!
  • Jan. 21st: the surface of a pond on Thunder Knob trail was frozen.
  • Jan. 25th: with the sun out and temperatures in the 50s, staff and graduate students paddled out on Diablo lake. They saw an American dipper, buffleheads, and common goldeneyes.

February

ThunderKnobPondSnow bridge over Early Winters Creek near Mazama, WA
  • Feb. 1st-8th: graduate students traveled to the Methow Valley and naturalize on the notably colder and snowier east side of the North Cascades.
  • Feb. 10th: three female elk were spotted near Concrete.
  • Feb. 11th: two harlequin ducks floated on Diablo Lake.
*All photos taken by Chelsea Ernst.
LittleRedRidingHood

Howling to be Heard: Wolf Folklore

February 12th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

by Mike Rosekrans, M.Ed. Graduate Student

“My grandmother what big teeth you have.”
“The better to eat you with, my dear!”

Myths and legends, both positive and negative, have surrounded the wolf for centuries. This is without a doubt where many of our opinions and general notions of wolves originated. Most cultures throughout history have held the wolf as a revered, distinguished animal. In fact, most Native American tribes saw the wolf as an animal closely related to humans and a carrier of strong medicine. Native Americans viewed the wolf as courageous, strong, loyal, and a successful hunter. Even some of our Northwestern tribes such as the Quileute and Kwakiutl included the wolf in their stories of origin where their first ancestors were transformed from wolves into men. European history and mythology, which has its origins in Rome, also has a positive connotation of the wolf. Many people are familiar with the story of how Romulus and Remus, sons of the war god Ares, came to found the city of Rome after being orphaned and raised by a female wolf.

Why then has the wolf been portrayed in such a negative light for past several centuries? Why is an animal that was so revered in indigenous cultures put on trial in a quick turn of events? Why do we never hear these stories with the wolf as the hero? To answer these questions we must look at the time period in which these negative myths and legends began to surface. It was during the Middle Ages when Europeans started moving out into the countryside to raise crops and domesticate animals.

The first image most people today have of the wolf is from the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, where a wolf cunningly disguises itself in order to eat a helpless little girl. The wolf is then killed by the heroic hunter who slices open the wolf’s belly, saving Little Red Riding Hood. In our western society we have created an image of the wolf as an evil, bloodthirsty and voracious killer. In Norse Mythology, the god Odin had two wolves named Geri and Freki, both meaning “the ravenous” or “greedy one.” But where and how did these stories enter into our culture? For the answer, let’s take a trip back in time to the Middle Ages: a time when the human species started cultivating crops and raising domestic livestock; a time when the Catholic Church exerted the greatest influence on how people thought and acted.

As man entered into a new age, a new way of thinking and living emerged. Civilization and cultivated land became the norm and way of Christian living. Man began demonstrating dominance over the natural world by clearing the forest, cultivating the land, and raising domestic livestock. It was thought that it was God’s will for man to have dominion over all the earth and anything that stood in the way of that was evil. If something went awry, humans needed some sort of scapegoat for their own faults and shortcomings. They quickly turned to an animal that was highly intelligent, shared the same social structure, and hunted as humans did. An animal living in close proximity to them that remained wild and untamed: the wolf.

» Continue reading Howling to be Heard: Wolf Folklore

Mushroom

Nature Notes: Phenology of the North Cascades Ecosystem

January 28th, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

North Cascades Institute’s resident graduate students have the unique opportunity to live at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center for the majority of the Environmental Education graduate program. Living in North Cascades National Park has more than a few perks. The backcountry is just a few steps outside of our back door and thousands of plant species and a diversity of wildlife are our neighbors. Living here also allows us to experience first hand the phenology of the surrounding ecosystem. As part of our graduate work, we take note of these environmental changes as we experience them. It may not be possible to accurately convey the magic of this experience, but we combined a brief list of our observations from autumn 2014 in an attempt to do so.

September

LarchNeedle

Larch needles beginning to turn on Maple Pass
  • In mid September, the vine maple leaves at the Learning Center began turning.
  • On the 21st a pika was seen dragging a false hellebore stem across Heather Pass trail.
  • Among the talus slopes near Heather Pass, a Northern flicker was heard and later sighted. Larches at Heather/Maple Pass were just on the brink of turning.
  • On the 27th black bear tracks were observed in the snowfield below Colonial Glacier.

October

Hydnellumpeckii

Hydnellum peckii mushroom, certainly one of the most striking we’ve seen!
  • First week of October: the area around the Learning Center received record rainfall.
  • Early October: Summer Chinook salmon observed spawning in the Methow River.
  • Oct. 20th: pikas observed in talus slope below Cascade Pass.
  • Oct. 22nd: Sourdough Creek started flowing into Diablo Lake.
  • Mid to late October: the upper Skagit Valley’s array of fungal species were in full display.
  • Oct. 25th: the Oregon grape plants around the Learning Center trails no longer had berries.
  • Oct. 27th: black bear was seen on the Learning Center campus.
  • Oct. 28th: three mule deer (two does and one yearling) seen on the Learning Center campus.

November

  • Throughout the month: snow geese observed migrating down the Skagit Valley.
  • Nov. 11th: snow goose mates and goslings seen during a paddle on Diablo Lake, and black bear tracks were seen at Sourdough Camp.
  • Nov. 14th: a pika peeped at Heather Pass, and big leaf maple leaves crunch under feet at the Learning Center.
  • Nov. 22nd: bald eagle seen circling Ladder Creek Falls area in Newhalem.
  • Nov. 23rd: Highway 20 closes access to Washington Pass due to several slides and heavy snow.
  • Nov. 26th: first snow at the Learning Center (1200 feet).

December

IceandSnow

Iced over roads by Buster Brown field
  • Dec. 2nd: multiple mammal tracks observed in the snow and mud on Diablo East trail: rabbit, possibly mink or fox, and deer.
  • Dec. 5th: almost stepped on a Douglas squirrel frantically running across path by the library at the Learning Center.
  • Dec. 12th: a windstorm and increased risk for landslides in the Skagit gorge caused graduate non-profit class to be dismissed early, and grads headed down valley for winter break.
All photos taken by Chelsea Ernst.
Wolf2

Howling to be Heard: An Introduction to Wolves

January 21st, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

by Mike Rosekrans, M.Ed. Graduate Student

One winter afternoon in 2009 I was driving on a state highway through central Wisconsin on my way back to school in Southeastern Minnesota. Fresh snow blanketed the beautiful hardwood forests in the surrounding area as I cruised along at 60 mph. Suddenly, about a quarter mile ahead, a large animal slowly crossed the highway. I had lived in the Midwest for 23 years and until that moment I had never seen any animal like this cross a road. This was not a deer, bear, or a raccoon. It was too big to be a domestic dog. Having no idea what it was I slowed my Buick down to 10mph, scanning the forest alongside the highway. As I neared the point where the animal had crossed I saw, standing at the edge of the forest, methodically and majestically, a massive timber wolf.

I immediately stopped my car to admire the spectacular creature. There it stood about 50 feet from my vehicle. I had never seen an animal so beautiful, so majestic, and so wild. It was as if the spirit of the wild was summoning me to the forest. As I stared into its yellow eyes, and it back at me, I made a connection with a species that has captivated me ever since.

Wolf1

Wolves are a fascinating species that has simultaneously fascinated and unnerved the human imagination since the dawn of time. For thousands of years we lived side by side these intriguing animals. Throughout our history we formed myths, legends, symbols, and opinions around wolves. The wolf has been a symbol in mythology since the dawn of western civilization. Throughout its existence no species has undergone more study, persecution, and government regulation than the wolf.

Since that day in college my keen interest in wolves has only grown. I studied their history, I learned about their survival techniques and behaviors, and I was saddened when I first discovered that many people demonize the wolf. To some, wolves represent the spirit of the wilderness while to others they are bloodthirsty killers. In reality, wolves are wild animals that serve a vital role.  Through their behavior and adaptations they keep their ecosystem healthy and maintain a balance among native species.

In my exploration of the world of wolves and I found that wherever wolves travel, controversy travels with them. Whether you love them or hate them, support their recovery efforts or think they hold no place in the world, this series of weekly blogs will provide you with some fascinating information you may not have known about the relative of man’s best friend. In the upcoming weeks I will explore the history of wolves, their role in ecosystems as keystone species, and the wolf/human relationship. If you are a wolf supporter or if you would just like to know a little more about this enthralling animal, check my weekly blog post and I’m sure you will learn some valuable information. So join me each week and take a trip on this fascinating journey into the intriguing world of wolves.

All photos taken by Mike Rosekrans at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota