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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 Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets, 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

Winter Birds of the North Cascades

February 1st, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Here in the northern reaches of one of the Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets most rugged and remote mountain ranges in the continental US, winter has brought traditional snows and a quite cool December. For many, winter in these mountains means cold rain, snow, and brief glimpses of sun. The landscape for the most part is asleep, resting under snow waiting patiently for the return of the sun and the life of its warmth. Not all are asleep and if you know who to look for, the forest and rivers are busy with our winter friends.

Birds are amazing creatures and even in these remote snowy mountains, glimpses of them can be seen on a daily basis. Winter is a time of scarcity but for the birds who can eke out a living here, the competition is low.  

Members of the finch family, common throughout northern North American, are regularly found here during both winter and summer. Two species that I have seen throughout the winter are the Pine Siskin Spinus pinus and the bright showy Red Crossbill Loxia curvirostra. Both birds are exclusively seed eaters. The crossbills have highly adapted bills that cross over themselves and are used to pry open conifer cones, as their tongue then reaches in and grabs the seed.  Pine siskin have thin strong bills for prying into small cones such as hemlock and for extracting the small seeds of birches and alders. These two species are some of the stars here during the winter and can be noticed quite easily due to their highly vocal flocking habits.

A male red crossbill. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Pine siskin. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

» Continue reading Winter Birds of the North Cascades

Seasons In the Skagit: Winter

January 12th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Hello and welcome to 2017 everyone! I am very pleased to greet you in the new year and share with you some of the changes we have recently seen in the Skagit. As we start winter and a new cycle around the sun I invite you to embrace the beginning of our calendar year and perhaps start phenological practices of your own. Welcome to winter!

Highway 20 is very quiet in the upper Skagit. Massive icicles are hanging from the rocks in the Gorge. Most of the trees are bare and almost no birds are heard singing in the branches. Winter has settled into the Skagit Valley. As fall ended and winter began we saw some notable phenological events in our watershed:

  • Nov. 19: Four Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) feeding on fish carcasses across the river from Cascadian Farms. Eagle sightings are increasing.
  • Nov. 21: Washington Pass on SR 20 closed for the winter.
  • Nov. 25: Mt. Baker Ski Area opens for the season.
  • Dec. 3:Daniel Dubie (C16 M.Ed. graduate student) saw approximately 20 Bald Eagles at the Samish Flats!
  • Dec. 4: The first snow fell at North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center.
  • Dec. 8: Nine Bald Eagles spotted on the drive between the Blue House and the ELC, two of which were juveniles.

Although it may seem quiet in the valley and upriver there are still many things changing around us, whether we notice them or not.

» Continue reading Seasons In the Skagit: Winter

Grizzly reintroduction in the North Cascades: Make your voice heard!

January 12th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Public Invited to Open Houses on Proposed Alternatives for Grizzly Bear Restoration in North Cascades Ecosystem
Public comment period open through March 14, 2017

The National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) invite the public to participate in a series of informational open houses regarding the proposed alternatives for the restoration of grizzly bears to the North Cascades Ecosystem. The alternatives are described in the draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (draft EIS), released today by the two agencies. The meetings are one part of the public’s opportunity to comment on the draft EIS.

The purpose of the EIS is to determine what actions, if any, should be taken to restore the grizzly bear to the North Cascades Ecosystem. Although there are six populations of grizzly bears in North America, the last-known siting of grizzlies in the United States portion of the North Cascades Ecosystem is 1996. The goal of the public comment period is to gather comments regarding the draft EIS; public comments received on the draft EIS will be evaluated and considered in the identification of the preferred alternative, which will be published in the Final EIS. The full draft EIS is available at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/grizzlydeis.

The alternatives analyzed in this draft EIS include a “no-action” alternative, plus three action alternatives that would seek to restore a reproducing population of approximately 200 bears through the capture and release of grizzly bears into the North Cascades Ecosystem. The alternatives were developed by a planning team with input from the public, local, state and federal agencies, and the scientific community.

In addition to the open houses, the public also is invited to submit written comments at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/grizzlydeis. Comments may also be submitted through March 14, 2017 via regular mail or hand delivery at: Superintendent’s Office, North Cascades National Park Service Complex, 810 State Route 20, Sedro Woolley, WA 98284

In order to maximize opportunities for public input, webinars are scheduled for Tuesday, February 14 from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Pacific Time and Sunday, February 26 from 5 p.m.-7 p.m. Pacific Time. For more information about the open houses and to register for the webinars, visit: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/grizzlydeis and click on the “Meetings” link.
The public open houses will be held from 6-8 p.m. at the following locations:

Cle Elum – February 13 at the Putnam Centennial Center
Cashmere – February 14 at the Riverside Center
Winthrop – February 15 at the Red Barn
Omak – February 16 at the Annex Facility at Okanogan County Fairgrounds
Bellingham – February 21 at the Oxford Suites
Darrington – February 22 at the Darrington Community Center
Sultan – February 23 at the Sultan High School
Renton – February 24 at the Renton Community Center

» Continue reading Grizzly reintroduction in the North Cascades: Make your voice heard!

Naturalist Notes: Hair Ice

December 23rd, 2016 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

A cold afternoon walk led to a beautiful winter discovery on the Deer Creek Loop trail around the Environmental Learning Center. The temperature had dropped significantly overnight and along with a fresh dusting of snow, we found fine hairlike strands of ice covering numerous down trees all along the trail. Aptly named “hair ice”, these delicate strands of ice form on moist, dead wood when temperatures drop below freezing and the air is humid.

After a little research, we found that this peculiar ice formation is caused by the presence of a fungus within the tree, exidiopsis effuse. Christian Mätzler, the physicist who discovered the conditions needed to grow hair ice, explains how this formation occurs:

“The driving mechanism responsible for producing ice filaments at the wood surface is ice segregation. Liquid water near the branch surface freezes in contact with the cold air, creating an ice front and ‘sandwiching’ a thin water film between this ice and the wood pores. Suction resulting from repelling intermolecular forces acting at this ‘wood–water–ice sandwich’ then gets the water inside the wood pores to move towards the ice front, where it freezes and adds to the existing ice.”

The fungus acts as a “recrystallisation inhibitor”, allowing the ice to form into the hairlike structures.

 

All photos courtesy of Daniel Dubie, Cohort 16 Graduate Student. 

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Growing Roots In The Mountain

November 22nd, 2016 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center


Guest post by Lauren Danner, historian and writer.

Lauren Danner

The North Cascades have been the focus of Lauren Danner’s research and writing for more than 15 years. While she knows the park intimately on paper and through the memories of those involved in its creation, the Environmental Learning Center creative residency allowed her an opportunity for in-depth exploration of the American Alps, creating a greater physical and emotional connection with the mountains that will resonate authentically in her forthcoming book, Crown Jewel Wilderness: Creating North Cascades National Parks, soon to be published by WSU Press. Lauren is a former college instructor, museum director, and field coordinator of the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial in Washington. The following post has been taken from her website, wildernesswithinher.com, where she writes about the North Cascades, national parks, and wilderness. 

Today is my last full day in the North Cascades, where I’ve spent three weeks as a creative resident at the North Cascade Institute’s Environmental Learning Center (ELC). As I’ve written before, my plan was to hike, write, and soak in the North Cascades, which have been the focus of my research and writing for more than 15 years.

I am simultaneously content that I’ve accomplished my mission and a bit sad to be leaving this remarkable place.

Here’s what a typical day looked like.

I wake up in Diablo, a company town owned by Seattle City Light, which runs the Skagit Hydroelectric Project that provides 20 percent of Seattle’s electricity. The house I’m in is scheduled to be “deconstructed” (a more polite term than “demolished,” I guess) so it’s pretty bare bones.

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Company house in Diablo. Mine is the one on the far right, next to the water tower. Photo by Lauren Danner

In fact, if it weren’t for my housemates, there wouldn’t be much there but beds and a dining room table. But I’ve won the roommate lottery. I’m sharing with staff members Travis, a smiling 30-something uber-athlete and poetic free spirit who works as a naturalist, and Mike, a cerebral student of Marxist economic theory and Magic (the game, not the hobby) who applies his interest in food justice to his work in the ELC’s kitchen as a baker. He uses his sourdough starter to tasty effect, and we’ve enjoyed his bread — and his TV. My first night (and let’s face it, I wasn’t sure how these two would respond to a middle-aged historian being plunked into their midst) we watched Dead Poets Society, squished together on the ancient couch, and I figured everything would be all right.

Each morning, I either drive a few miles or walk to the ELC over the Diablo Dam trail, a short (1.5 miles) path that wakes me up better than coffee.

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Part of the incline railway visible from the Diablo Dam trail. The picture doesn’t do justice to the steep 34.2 degree grade. Photo by Lauren Danner

The first half is long, rocky switchbacks up the side of a low ridge on Sourdough Mountain, where Beat poet Gary Snyder worked as a fire lookout in the 1950s. (The trail to the top of the mountain is known as one of the hardest in in the park, gaining 5,000′ of elevation in five steep miles. Travis makes a point of hiking it once a week.)

» Continue reading Growing Roots In The Mountain