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Animals in the City: Encouraging Children to Get to Know Their Nonhuman Neighbors

September 15th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Sarah Clement, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

Transference is a concept that often comes up in discussion among environmental educators. How do we, as educators, help our students make connections between their experiences with us in “nature” and their daily lives? We teach out students about the North Cascades ecosystem, but we want them to make connections between what they learn about the mountains to what they already know about their homes. We want them to understand that an ecosystem functions in the North Cascades in the same way that ecosystems in and around their home communities function. Above all, we want our students to understand that even though they traveled hours to reach Mountain School, they don’t have to do so to find the importance and wonder of natural spaces.

As human population growth continues to explode around the world, more people are migrating to urban areas. Over 80% of the population of the United States already lives in urban areas, and the influx of people to cities continues to grow. Washington State is no exception to these trends. As of 2016, our population has grown to well over seven million people. Most of the increase comes from people migrating from out of state to large urban areas along the Interstate 5 corridor in the western half of the state. With this population growth comes increased urbanization: more land is being converted to urban infrastructure. Wild habitats are being fragmented or drastically altered in the process.

» Continue reading Animals in the City: Encouraging Children to Get to Know Their Nonhuman Neighbors

In Search of the Southern Residents: Researching Orcas’ Natural History

August 26th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Why Orcas

Growing up, I have always been fascinated with whales. Orca, humpback, sperm, blue, narwhal… you name it! I have quite the collection of whale books on my shelves, some whale toys and other relics. I even have a large tattoo of a humpback whale. But when I moved out to the North Cascades for graduate school, I hadn’t realized I was moving toward these majestic creatures and my first wild orca encounter, potentially opening up a door for future research and educational work with marine life.

In January, I attended the Storming the Sound conference in La Conner, Washington. It was a small regional event with a strong marine theme, located on the shore of the Salish Sea. It blew my mind to think that I had driven less than two hours down the Skagit Valley, just below the Cascade crest, and I was now in a completely different ecosystem, yet still connected to the rugged, steep mountains. The last session of the conference was Howard Garrett, co-founder of Orca Network, presenting on the Southern Resident orcas and their intertwined fate with Chinook salmon. I sat engaged, listening to Howard speak about his lifetime of research on the orcas and how it is so close geographically to me. I was emotionally compelled by his presentation and taken aback by the current status of the Southern Resident population.

Active Research

After my experience at Storming the Sound and upon my selection of this natural history topic, I did the first thing any whale fanatic living in close proximity to marine life would do, I signed up to go whale watching! During spring break, I embarked on a five-hour wildlife search on a commercial whale watching tour. Ideally, this would have played out as a sea kayaking trip or small watercraft, something more intimate on shore, but for my time and resources, this was the perfect opportunity for me. Despite being on the mend from the flu, I donned my binoculars and rain gear, keeping my camera, field notebook, and tea in my hand to board a 70-person or so capacity boat with my husband.

Notebook in hand, ready to see some wildlife! Photo courtesy of Rachael Grasso

Leaving from Anacortes, the trip was one of the first of the season for Island Adventures, a whale watching tour company. Our captain was chatting over the loudspeaker while the tour guide, Brooke, was checking the tickets of boarding passengers. Once the boat left the dock, a bald eagle immediately flew by, graceful as ever. To me, this was a positive sign that the day was going to be filled with wildlife. Nevertheless, I did not want to peak with excitement then crash into disappointment if we were out for the day and didn’t see any whales. So I remained calm, keeping my eyes focused on the shoreline.

» Continue reading In Search of the Southern Residents: Researching Orcas’ Natural History

The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part I

July 19th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Jennifer O’Toole, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort. 

Curiosity is born from one of the most unlikely of places: boredom. I used to fight the feeling of boredom, as I had been trained to do by the media with its constant barrage of entertainment, the internet with its never-ending information and by my own relentless drive to be productive. But one day I decided to try something different. I was trying to write a lesson plan for my 3rd grade science class the following day and found myself feeling bored with the work. I stopped typing and decided to let the feeling of boredom wash over me, accepting that I was bored instead of rejecting it. I decided to trust that, if I stewed long enough within my boredom, a flicker of curiosity would ignite and reinvigorate my brain to continue its productivity. A few minutes later I heard the pitter-patter of rain starting on my roof and my mind wandered to water as I noted the feeling of comfort that crept over me as I listened. I thought of splashing in the puddles, racing homemade boats down drainage ditches and allowing myself to become soaked. I had a strong desire suddenly to relive the feeling of joy and freedom created in that memory and—curious, now—looked to see what weather was predicted for the following day. More rain! It was decided: my students and I were going outside to play and explore water physics tomorrow.

I have felt, during my 10 years as an educator, the forceful squashing of curiosity. Instead of allowing the space my students need to get used to the boredom necessary to discover their own interests and then pursue them, the curriculum I must strictly shove down the often disinterested throats of my students is so jam packed I haven’t the time to get through half of what I’m expected to. My students must be able to regurgitate the correct answers to the specific questions they must know to pass the tests that will determine the level of stress they will endure for the remainder of the school year. The students who fail to “perform well on” the state and national exams (selecting one too many incorrect multiple choice answers while staring at a computer screen for hours is now considered a form of “performing”) face years of potential medicating, tutoring, extra homework and ridicule from other students. It’s no wonder under such stressed conditions that a child’s ability to perform creatively, focused on topics that interest them, is significantly diminished. I found myself searching for ways to nurture curiosity in my mentoring (I no longer use the word teaching, as it implies something being done to the student as opposed to with them), which I found meant significantly less control on my part and much more on that of the students.

Photo of raven stealing food. Image courtesy of Pixabay

» Continue reading The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part I

The World of Bird Migration

June 23rd, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Dan Dubie, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

The story of bird migration encompasses the whole world and the incredible journeys that take part on it.  Traveling via flight was mastered by humans just over a hundred years ago but for the avian world, it has been a home for much longer.  This miracle of flight has given birds the ability to inhabit all corners of the world but there is one catch, the seasons.  As we all know in the northern and southern latitudes there are winters when resources are, weather is rough, and temperatures are cold.  On the upside in these same places the summers are warm, lush, and rich with food and space.  The apparentness of resources and food abundance only during the summer has not kept birds from occupying these areas.  Instead it has led to an amazing string of yearly events done my hundreds of species and millions of individuals called migration.  Due to the seasonal abundance of food and space during the northern summers, many species do a type of biannual migration which encompasses moving to northern regions in the summers to breed with the abundance of food and space and then returning back to tropical parts during the winter to wait for the spring journey to start again.


Northern Water Thrush. Photo courtesy of Dan Dubie

Though migration serves a vital role providing needs for breeding and rearing young, it can look different for different types of birds and within different landscapes.  In the high northern parts of our world there is almost exclusively found a common type of migration called complete migration.  This is seen when the breeding range of a bird species is completely different then the range they occupy during the winter.  Needing lower competition than would be found in the tropics and abundant food in order to rear their young, many species have evolved to fly sometimes thousands of miles to find that space and food in northern latitudes. Then due to the lack of food and harshness of a frozen land during the winter they return south where they live in communion with others in close quarters where food is present.  At this point they are not responsible for rearing young and space and competition is not an inherent issue as it is during breeding. Examples of bird types with complete migration include shorebirds, flycatchers, vireos, warblers, some raptors, vultures, cranes and herons, thrushes, pipits, grosbeaks, tanagers, bunting, some sparrows, longspurs, goatsuckers, swallows, orioles, loons, grebes, and many waterfowl.

» Continue reading The World of Bird Migration

Takin’ Care of Beesinus: United States Native Bee Facts, Threats and Conservation

June 11th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Becky Moore, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort.

Nearly everyone is familiar with the image and idea of a bee. The black and yellow character from Honey Nut Cheerios perhaps, happily making honey in buzzing hives. However, what most people do not realize is that there is a vast, diverse and complicated world of bees outside the classic honeybee, most of which goes largely unnoticed. In fact, there are over 20,000 species of bees worldwide, over 4,000 of which are found in North America. About 600 native species can be found in the state of Washington.

Our honeybee friend is actually not among these; this domesticated species was introduced to North America from Europe in 1640. The majority of native bees in the US are small, solitary species, most of which do not fit any of the classic images people may think of.     

A beautiful metallic green bee (Augochloropsis metallica) visiting a flower. Image courtesy of WikiCommons

These bees have an average size of about 1cm long and live, nest, and feed completely on their own. Females forage to create enough provisions to feed their young, which they encase individually in carefully crafted cells. There are 5 major families of bees, each of which has their own methods of nesting. Some of these tiny solitary bees are miners, digging tunnels underground. Some are leafcutters, lining their nests with perfectly round leaf cutouts, some are masons, creating their nests out of mud and clay, and still others are carpenters, boring holes into wood to lay their eggs. Young bees hatch in the fall, hibernate over the winter, and emerge in spring to mate, begin foraging, and create their own nests, starting the cycle over. Many of these bee species are specialist feeders, meaning that they have co-evolved with specific species or families of flowers and are highly adapted to pollinate them the most effectively. Such plant species would not be able to survive without certain bee species.

» Continue reading Takin’ Care of Beesinus: United States Native Bee Facts, Threats and Conservation

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

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