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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 

The North Cascades Institute 2017 Naturalist Team

April 5th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

Last month we welcomed the 2017 naturalist team to the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center. A mixture of new and returning faces, these naturalists are an integral part of our community here in the mountains. Throughout the spring and fall, they will work alongside our graduate M.Ed. residency students, teaching students across the state participating in our Mountain School program. In the summer months, naturalists will also lead summer expeditions with Youth Leadership Adventures and various educational activities offered in many of our Learning Center programs.

As you will soon find out, this group of talented individuals bring many gifts and experiences with them. We look forward to all that they have to share this upcoming season in the North Cascades.

Evan Holmstrom (Lead Naturalist)

Hailing from the little-known Alaskan burg of Chugiak, Evan is an artist, naturalist, hobby multi-culturalist and outdoor frolicker. His childhood included time on the tundra, amid his father’s falcons and on the sports field. Moving into young adulthood Evan developed his language and art skills, travelling to Japan, Korea, and Mexico, all the while nursing a relationship to the Earth. Upon graduation from college at the University of Montana in Japanese Language, he took his completely predictable next step working in the outdoors.

His position as a field leader for the Wilderness Institute sent him into the austere backcountry and Wilderness of Montana, leading volunteers and college students. He moved into experiential and environmental education of high schoolers with Ecology Project International before feeling inspired to come out to the North Cascades and confirm his long-lived suspicion that the lichen-adorned, moss-engulfed cedars and sword ferns speak to a special place in his soul.

His position this year as Senior Naturalist, amid the spectacular team at the Environmental Learning Center (ELC), is a terrific opportunity for him to share experiences, mentor other educators and help ensure that everybody is set up for success. Look for him smiling in the company of naturalists, graduate students, ELC staff or nestled into a forest tussock treating his ears to the pure, flutelike song of the varied thrush.

Natascha Yogachandra

Born in Hong Kong and raised in western New York, Natascha found early passions for reading, writing and dance. She moved to India at age 12 and to Thailand at age 14, after establishing an educational nonprofit with her parents as a result of the 2004 tsunami. She later returned to her native state to receive a degree in journalism and anthropology at New York University. Shortly after graduating, Natascha ventured down to Southern Patagonia, where she managed community partnerships for an environmental fund based in Torres del Paine National Park and its gateway community. Deeply inspired by those she met there in the outdoor field, she found her way to the Pacific Northwest and has been mesmerized by these mountains ever since. After serving as a trail crew leader for high school students with the Student Conservation Association in Alaska, Natascha grew more intentional with her environmental work pursuits and knew they needed to include working with youth. In came North Cascades Institute! She loves the community and the work she has found here and stays busy by exploring her new home on foot or in books.

» Continue reading The North Cascades Institute 2017 Naturalist Team

An Unforgettable Mountain School Adventure

March 30th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

The first week of the 2017 spring Mountain School season will be one not forgotten here at the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center. After experiencing an unusually high amount of snowfall at the ELC this winter, many of us were eagerly anticipating signs of spring (and sunshine), hopeful that the last lingering patches of snow would be gone before our students’ arrival. However, winter was not quite ready to concede to spring. On March 6, the first day of Mountain School, we awoke to a winter storm warning in the North Cascades. While it certainly wasn’t the spring weather we had hoped for, it provided a rare opportunity to play and learn in the snow with our first group of students, the 5th grade class from Mt. Vernon’s Madison Elementary School.

Driving to the ELC for the first day of Mountain School. Photo by Angela Burlile

By midweek, the snow had subsided and we said goodbye to Madison Elementary and welcomed the AP Environmental Studies class from Mill Creek’s Henry M. Jackson High School. These high school students were here to participate in our Aquatic Investigations field-based science curriculum. Working in small groups, students designed their own study investigating the interactions between physical, chemical and biological components of the local watershed. Through site observations, groups developed a scientific question which they then answered using various data collection methods such as water chemistry testing, benthic macroinvertebrate samples and examination of physical stream characteristics. They then presented their findings in a symposium-style discussion with their peers and teachers.

Henry M. Jackson student, Taylor Gerould, searching for benthic macroinvertebrates in a partially frozen Diablo Lake. Photo by Angela Burlile

Henry M. Jackson student, Alina Ribeiro, taking a dissolved oxygen reading at Deer Creek near the ELC. Photo by Angela Burlile

What was meant to be a three day experience became a slightly longer visit. Although the snow had subsided earlier in the week, heavy rain followed and the combination pushed the avalanche forecast to high. Early Friday morning, instructors and staff awoke to an email sent by Kristofer Gilje, Operations Director at the ELC.

“There is a very large avalanche at mp 122.6, Brown’s Creek.  There is another smaller one on the dam road.  WSDOT is aware of our situation and will give us more information when it gets light.”

The avalanche covering Highway 20 in the Skagit gorge. Measured at over 40 feet tall and 200 feet long. Photo courtesy of WSDOT

» Continue reading An Unforgettable Mountain School Adventure

2011 Instructor Exchange Eagle Watching

Time Along the Skagit: Eagle Watching With Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth Program and Latino Outdoors

March 24th, 2017 | Posted by in Adventures

January can be warm on the lower Skagit and this late January Saturday was no exception. As Becky Moore, Alexei Desmarais and I arrived at the Howard Miller Steelhead Park on the Skagit River in Rockport, WA, we looked to see if there were any Bald Eagles present around the river.

As graduate M.Ed. students at North Cascades Institute, we live and study near the headwaters of the Skagit River. We had come to the river this morning to meet a fellow graduate student and along with the US Forest Service, provide an interpretive and educational experience for two unique organizations – Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth Program and Latino Outdoors. Both organizations mean to bring families and kids to rural areas with open public lands, giving them opportunity to have fun and get outside.

That morning we met to learn about salmon and what they mean to the Skagit River and the animals, plants and humans that live here. We hoped to see Bald Eagles, which spend the winters here feeding on dead salmon which have spawned during the fall and winter. These salmon carcasses provide high energy food for many predators in this ecosystem.

Participants from the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth Program and Latino Outdoors enjoying the afternoon learning about salmon ecology and the Skagit River watershed. Photo by Daniel Dubie

Having a large number of participants, we split up into four smaller groups, deciding to mix up their time with games and a chance to walk around and enjoy the river. In my group we decided to play a salmon game in which a group of folks are chosen to represent salmon fry which go out in the ocean, grab food, and make their way back to the stream where they were born without getting tagged by other folks who represent dangers such as whales, fisherman, eagles, and bears. We played the game a few times, increasing the numbers of dangers in order to show how hard it really is for a salmon population to sustain itself without a large robust population.

Students have fun while learning about salmon population! Photos by Daniel Dubie

As the day continued, we interpreted salmon and eagle ecology in relation to the Skagit River to our groups and visited the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center. I feel that these peaceful and fun experiences here along the river and the land surrounding it, can be instrumental in forming relationships with the lan and our greater world.

Written by Daniel Dubie, avid naturalist and graduate M.Ed. student at North Cascades Institute. 

A Snowy Start to Spring Mountain School

March 20th, 2017 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

There really wasn’t anything ‘spring-like’ about our first spring Mountain School session of the year. With almost a foot of snow falling the night before and continuing snowfall throughout the day, 5th grade students from Mt. Vernon’s Madison Elementary School arrived on March 6th to a winter wonderland at the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center.

With a few lesson modifications, extra layers from our gear closet and frequent hot chocolate breaks, students and instructors took advantage of this seasonally atypical weather.

A Madison Elementary student enjoying some snowy exploration along the shore of Diablo Lake. Photo by Angela Burlile

At Mountain School, 5th grade students spend three days examining the interconnectedness between abiotic (non living) and biotic (living) elements of an ecosystem through interdisciplinary and experiential learning activities. The late snowfall allowed instructors an opportunity to incorporate pieces such as the effects of snowpack on the local watershed, life in the subnivean zone (the area between the surface of the ground and the bottom of the snowpack) and winter adaptations of animals found within the park into their lessons.

Graduate student, Becky Moore, leads her trail group through the motions of the water cycle dance. Photo by Angela Burlile

For more on our first day of Mountain School, check out the video below. 

Youth Leadership Ambassador Trip Report: Skagit Flats and Padilla Bay

March 3rd, 2017 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

The Youth Leadership Ambassadors program is an extension of our Youth Leadership Adventures summer program. The goal of the program is to further develop leadership and outdoor skills, facilitate service and stewardship in our local communities and ecosystems, and provide college preparedness support to high school students from Skagit and Whatcom County. While serving as Ambassadors, students will participate in work parties, attend field trip and receive 15 hours of college access curriculum. Ambassadors will contribute blog posts covering their adventures throughout the year here on Chattermarks.

Appearing for the first time on Chattermarks are Celeste Guzman and Ana Lopez, who share their field trip to the Skagit Flats and Padilla Bay. 

Youth Leadership Ambassador: Celeste Guzman

The Youth Leadership Ambassadors day was filled with birding at the Skagit Flats and checking out Padilla Bay with Park Ranger Jason Bordelon.

The group listening to Park Ranger Jason. Photo by Celeste Guzman

The group started out at the Skagit Flats where Park Ranger Jason taught us some cool birding lingo. For example, “hand me the bennys” actually means, “hand me the binoculars.” With our binoculars we saw many eagles, snow geese and swans.

After our lesson, the group had lunch outside where it was very windy and cold. After we finished our lunch the group drove to the Wiley Slough where we learned about Padilla Bay and how it’s an estuary at the saltwater edge of the large delta of the Skagit River in the Salish Sea. The group then walked down to Padilla Bay so we could check it out for ourselves. We all had time to think alone while others were skipping rocks.

Fellow Youth Leadership Ambassador, Aaron, walking along the shore. Photo by Celeste Guzman

Later in the day, the group came together and we talked about what we had learned and liked about the day. It was fun being outdoors even though it was windy and cold. It was also exciting to grow closer to other ambassadors during this trip.

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Youth Leadership Ambassador: Ana Lopez

Our second field trip with the Youth Leadership Ambassadors was on February 11th 2017. We started off at the Skagit Valley Wildlife Reservation where we did some bird watching and saw many eagles. It was amazing! We learned some ways to tell the difference between birds, such as their size, the shape of their wings and the sound they make. After that, we went to Padilla Bay and learned about why they were protecting it. Since it is an estuary, which is surrounded by buildings and roads that can contaminate the water from oil, they decided they would build a place where they can teach others about how they can take care of the environment.

While bird watching we spotted two eagles in their nest! Photo by Ana Lopez

» Continue reading Youth Leadership Ambassador Trip Report: Skagit Flats and Padilla Bay

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