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Who Cares About Beavers? We Do!

June 19th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Melissa Biggs, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

Everyone, meet Chompers!  In October 2016, during the fall natural history trip, my cohort helped the Methow Beaver Project volunteers to release the last 3 beavers of the season.  So much fun! We carried the beavers for several miles and released them at Beaver Creek. When we opened the cage, Chompers went right into the water.  It was fascinating to watch the three beavers explore their new environment.  This summer, the Methow Beaver Project workers will locate Chompers and the other two beavers to record their journey since the fall. This experience made me more curious about beavers and their role in the ecosystem. As I did more research, I realized how awesome beavers are!

Beavers are so wonderful that they are known as environmental engineers.  Beavers are known as a “keystone” species because of their large effects on landscapes.  It only takes a few beavers to transform a watershed entirely.  Beavers, with the exception of human beings, do more to shape their landscape than any other Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets! Beavers are also a “foundation” species because their presence and their creations, such as dams, allow other plants and animals to exist.  

Beavers’ creations are essential to its environment for many reasons.  First, beaver dams are natural filters, as they capture and store much of the sediment.  Streams that have been shaped by beavers have 10 times greater purification capability than streams without beavers.  Also, beaver dams store water, thus leading to the increased size of wetlands. Beaver dams can help mitigate the effects of drought and the loss of wetland and riparian habitats due to their abilities to store shallow groundwater and retention of surface water behind dams.   This is important because almost half of endangered and threatened species in North America rely upon wetlands.  Also, freshwater wetlands have been rated as the world’s most valuable land-based ecosystem.  Beaver ponds increase both the water we can see on the surface and also what is stored beneath the pond.  This helps increase the riparian area and vegetative productivity.  Not only do beaver dams store water, they also help slow down the water flow, which is why they are known as ‘nature’s speed bumps.’  They reduce stream velocity and power, which helps reduce erosion rates and the amount of sediment carried downstream.  This effect across the upper watershed could provide more time for flood planning, protection and evacuation of high risk, residential areas.  Beaver ponds also help stabilize the water temperature both in the shallow and deeper areas – they help cool down streams, creating better conditions for fish, especially trout.  Last, but not last, beavers’ modification on watersheds help increase organic material, such as cut wood and flooded plants, sediment with nutrients attached and more water surface area for photosynthesis to occur, which results in more aquatic biodiversity and food for fish.  Without beavers and the role they play in watersheds, most of the biodiversity that are associated with wetland habitats would disappear.


Chompers in his cage right before he’s released! Image courtesy of Melissa Biggs

» Continue reading Who Cares About Beavers? We Do!

Spring Wildflowers in the Upper Skagit

May 19th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Spring has come here in the upper Skagit River valley and our April showers have indeed brought May flowers. With the increase of daylight and clear days, the valleys in-between the still snow-covered mountains have turned bright shades of green. The shorelines along the river and its reservoirs are in great contrast against the dark, evergreen hue of the high slopes. While the waking up of the forest rejuvenates even the deepest winter doldrums, there are surprises along the forest floor that bring spring’s energy forth for those willing to go look.

Calypso orchid (Colypso bulbosa) on Sourdough Mountain Trail. Photo by Dan Dubie

Our spring wildflower bloom has begun and is now in full swing. A few weeks ago, as the spring sun started to warm the floors of our valleys and deep forests, the first plant harbingers of spring began to grow. Just as our migrating birds returned to their homes for the summer, our resident perennial and annual wildflowers began their annual strive for life. Quickly after the snow leaves, the first herbaceous flowers to arise are those with energy reserves stored in corms or “bulbs” beneath the ground. These flowers quickly get to work, growing a few leaves and showy flowers that attract the early spring flies and solitary bees. Examples of these are the glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflora), which is known to sprout through snow; the amazingly small calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa); and the bright white western trillium (Trillium ovatum), which shines like a light on our deep, moist forest floors.

» Continue reading Spring Wildflowers in the Upper Skagit

Photo Roundup: May 14 2017

May 14th, 2017 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Every Sunday I will be posting photos collected from various NCI graduate students and staff. Please enjoy this glimpse into our everyday lives here in the North Cascades.

Photo by Alex Patia

North Cascades Institute Naturalist and graduate M.Ed. alumni, Alex Patia, snapped this photo of a Canada goose watching over her goslings near his front lawn in the town of Diablo. Canada Geese love to hang out on open lawns as they can feed on grass and (especially with their young) easily spot any approaching predators. These birds mate for life and pairs stay together throughout the year. Most Canada Geese do not breed until their fourth year.

Diablo Lake from the overlook off Highway 20. Photo by Angela Burlile

The North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center is right on the shore of Diablo Lake and it has been a fun little practice of watching it slowly change with the seasons. Much of the water in this lake is fed by glaciers in Thunder Creek Basin. Skagit gneiss (a mineral) or as we tell Mountain School students, ‘glacial flour’, is eroded by ice and flows down glacial streams, entering Diablo Lake. As the sun hits these tiny rock particles suspended in the lake, they reflect off this beautiful jade green color. In the spring and summer when runoff is higher, the lake gets brighter! The top photo is from this past week, the middle photo from December and the bottom photo from last July.

» Continue reading Photo Roundup: May 14 2017

Photo Roundup: May 7 2017

May 7th, 2017 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Every Sunday I will be posting photos collected from various NCI graduate students and staff. Please enjoy this glimpse into our everyday lives here in the North Cascades.

Rufous hummingbirds in Diablo, Washington. Photos by Daniel Dubie

A fun photo by graduate student, Daniel Dubie, watching the rufous hummingbirds take over his bird feeder in the town of Diablo. These feisty hummingbirds are common visitors to bird feeders and can be quite territorial, chasing much larger visiting bird species away. Don’t let their tiny size fool you – despite being just over three inches long, rufous hummingbirds travel roughly 4,000 miles from Alaska to Mexico (one-way), during their long migration each year.

Heartleaf twayblade (Listera cordata), a small orchid, near Ross Lake trailhead. Photo by Daniel Dubie

Glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflorum) on the Fourth of July Pass Trail. Photo by Daniel Dubie

» Continue reading Photo Roundup: May 7 2017

Spring Bird Migration in the Upper Skagit

May 2nd, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Here in upper Skagit River valley – a window into the mighty mountains of the North Cascades – spring is in full swing. Along with the milder temps and the breaks in the clouds, we are also welcoming a flurry of seasonal bird species that call these mountains home for the summer. Over 50 species of migratory birds of all types breed in these mountains and use the Skagit River as their door into the high country.

As the heavy snowpack still hangs to the mountains, the valley is slowly heating up, popping leaves and early spring flowers. Though our first migrating birds have been showing up since February, it’s only been since the middle of March that the breeding migrants have really begun to show up. In the cold spring rain, came the local breeders which have spent the winter in the warm temperate Puget Sound. The song sparrow (Melospiza melodia), northern flicker( Collates auratus), spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus) and familiar red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus rubern) showed up just as the snow was melting on the lawns and a few insects were emerging.

A northern flicker. Photo by Dan Dubie

Then on the first day of spring, March 20, the first swallows showed up. A flock of 15 violet green swallows (Tachycineta thalassina) welcomed spring to the upper Skagit with their acrobatic insect catching flights over Gorge Lake. These birds eat only flying insects and many times are found congregating over fields and bodies of water. That day they were a sure sign of warmer times after a long wet winter.

A yellow-rumped warbler. Photo by Dan Dubie

After an unseasonably wet March, April brought warmer temperatures and few more beams of sunlight. The first week of April saw our first migrating warbler species, the yellow-rumped warbler (Dendroica coronata). A very prolific species, it is the first warbler to show up in many parts of the country. It has a beautiful robust trilling song that usually teeters off at the end. Being very showy, it is seen singing in most forest habitats and is distinguished by its bright yellow, black and white plumage while having bright yellow patches on its rump Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets.

Following this first warbler, we’ve seen many more birds show up over the last three weeks. As the flowers have started blooming and the insects hatching daily, we’ve seen large numbers of the following species:

  • yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata)
  • ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula)
  • white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys)
  • tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor)
  • northern rough-winged swallows Stelgidopteryx serripennis)
  • American robins (Turdus migratorius)
  • song sparrows (Melospiza melodia)
  • pine siskins (Spinus pinus)
  • rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorusrufus)

Other species that have been seen but in smaller numbers include:

  • common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)
  • black-throated grey warbler (Dendroica nigrescens)
  • Townsend’s warbler (Dendroica townsendi)
  • Nashville warbler (Vermivora ruficapilla)
  • orange-crowned warbler (Vermivora celata)
  • Wilson’s warbler (Wilsonia pusilla)
  • Cassin’s vireo (Vireo cassinii)
  • Hammond’s flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii)
  • barn swallows (Hirundo rustica)
  • cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)
  • Lincoln’s sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii)
  • chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)
  • red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
  • western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta)
  • Townsend’s solitaire (Myadestes townsendi)
  • western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)

Out of these bird species, I want to note the types which have traveled the farthest to reside in these deep forests and valleys. Many of our breeding warblers, our one western tanager, some swallows, some flycatchers, our hummingbirds and our vireos, all make an arduous journey which encompass thousands of miles and countless barriers. Some, such as the western tanager, are so bright and colorful that they yell “jungle” and surely they have just completed their journey all the way from the rainforests of Mexico and Central and South America. Many of our warblers, some in bright yellow and green plumage, also take on a huge journey from the tropics to join us here for our warm lush summer.

A yellow warbler. Photo by Dan Dubie

» Continue reading Spring Bird Migration in the Upper Skagit

Seasons in the Skagit: Spring

April 14th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Happy spring everyone! Winter proved to be quite the formidable season. At the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center we experienced heavy weather events, slides in the Skagit Gorge and even a snowy Mountain School session. As we move into spring the days are longer, the sun shines a little more often and the buds are bursting on the plants in the Skagit Valley. It’s getting greener every day!

Spring

After a quiet yet eventful winter, the road to the Environmental Learning Center is becoming busier. Snow slides occasionally blocked travel routes upriver, rain fell persistently in the lower valley, and snow-covered leaf buds stayed dormant, waiting for warmer days. As early as January, however, signs of spring were emerging in the valley. As winter ended and spring began we saw some phenological changes in the Skagit:

    • Feb. 9: A snowslide closed SR 20 at Newhalem. All WA mountain passes were closed.
    • Feb. 18: American robins (Turdus migratorius) are seen up valley.
    • March 18: Two western meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta), rare migrant birds in the Upper Skagit, are seen near Diablo on the same day as a Brewer’s blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus) and a red-shafted northern flicker (Colaptes auratus).
    • March 20: The official start of spring is marked by the Spring Equinox. Violet green swallows (Tachycineta thalassina) and Ruby crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula) are first seen in the Upper Skagit.
    • April 3: The daffodils (Narcissus) are blooming between Sedro-Woolley and Marblemount.
    • April 9: A black bear (Ursus americanus) was spotted in Diablo.
    • April 14: There are open leaf buds on a dogwood (Cornus s. occidentalis) in Marblemount.

 

Phenology at the ELC

As spring progresses, the 16th M.Ed. graduate cohort (C16) are busy documenting phenological changes on a weekly basis at the Environmental Learning Center and in Marblemount. Here are some of our findings and notable observations:

Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis)

Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)

Blue House plot (facing northwest)

Sharing the Changes

As we move further into spring I find myself easily overwhelmed with the innumerable changes happening all around. If you are like me and find the many overlapping birdsongs and clustered plants hard to differentiate, here are two helpful resources that will hopefully aid in your species identification: the Cornell Lab Bird Guide and the UW Burke Museum botany and herbarium collections. I hope this season brings renewed energy and spirit to all in the NCI community.

Written by Smokey Brine – Phenology Graduate Assistant 
All photographs courtesy of Smokey Brine 

Winter Insects in the North Cascades

February 17th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

For weeks here in the North Cascades, the ground has been blanketed in a thick layer of snow and ice, two or three feet deep in places. It is not the kind of weather in which you’d expect to see many insects out and about—and indeed, most insects go into a dormant phase in the winter, surviving the season in a state of suspended torpor as eggs, larvae, or adults. Yet it turns out that some insects will brave the snow and venture out in near-freezing temperatures.

After some of our recent snowfalls, I’ve gone snowshoeing and found winter insects alive and well, crawling about on the recently fallen snow crystals. Below are a few of the insect species you might encounter in the North Cascades even in the depths of winter:

Illustration of a midge or ‘no-see-ums’ courtesy of Wikipedia

Midges – In late January, fellow graduate M.Ed student Dan Dubie and myself went out hunting for midges after we noticed several of the tiny insects flying outside the window of the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center dining hall. Midges are a type of true fly, meaning they belong to the same family as house flies, bluebottles, mosquitoes, and hundreds of other insects with a single pair of wings. Midges are among the smallest and most delicate members of the fly order, making it all the more impressive that they can survive in winter.

First we set out to find where the midges were coming from. Most midges spend the first part of their life cycle underwater, so I went down to the shore of Lake Diablo to look for signs of them. There, I found what appeared to be the shed pupal casings of a small insect floating in the water. I hypothesized that the midges we’d seen were recently-emerged adults that came out of these cases, just as a butterfly emerges from a chrysalis.

We next caught several in small jars, and I later examined them under a microscope to try to identify them. While I can’t be 100% positive (tiny insects are extremely difficult to identify, and in many cases only experts can make the call with certainty), I’m fairly confident the midges we found belong to the family Ceratopogonidae, the “no-see-ums.” They are also known as biting midges—but they never bit me, leading me to think this particular species must feed on animals other than humans.

In fact most midges, even those belonging to Ceratopogonidae, are completely harmless to people. Midges and other flies are among the most under-appreciated of insects, but they are an important part of the ecosystem and their ability to be active in winter testifies to their tenacity.

» Continue reading Winter Insects in the North Cascades