Thursday, March 08, 2012

On Saturday the 25th of February, we (Deirdre, I and a temp.park employee, Ami) went for hike up the west valley of Indian river. I wasn't sure when we started up the trail that our destination was going to be in that direction, I had considered the falls, but the off trail experience seemed more compelling. We did not get off to an early start. On sunny Saturday mornings, I'm pretty interested in sipping my coffee while staring out the window at the bird feeder, so we hit the trail close to noon.
I decided to be bold and head up through the muskeg, then cross the river and to the big tree. This was bold because I hadn't gone that way when I was leading, but thought that it would be pretty easy to find my way. Fortunately, I was right.
The muskeg was snow covered, but it wasn't deep and the surface was quite firm. No post holing for us. There were lots of deer tracks in the muskeg and later in the forest. Didn't notice any other tracks though. Where we stopped for lunch was particularly thick with tracks and browsed Vaccinium.
The forest in the valley (like the forest along the lower trail) showed impact from the fall and winter wind storms. There were a number of both snapped trees and tipped trees in the forest, maybe more tipped trees, but I didn't keep careful count. Did notice that both types showed some nice growth of mycelium and/or wood that was chunky and orange-brown presumably due to the action of cellulose degrading fungi.

One of the casualties of the storm was the big tree. I found it in the typical way (for me) by thinking I had missed it, then seeing the distinctive large lower branches in the distance. Once we got closer, we could see that there was much tree debris on the ground nearby . It turned out to be the top of the tree. I must admit, I was a bit dismayed, okay bummed. It wasn't a surprise that it was damaged, after all there was a cavity in the center of the tree large enough for two people to stand in, but still, I didn't like to see this sentimental landmark change.

I'm not sure when the top blew out. I haven't found anyone that has been up in that part of the forest recently to help me pinpoint the timing. Haven't given up yet though.
On the way back down the west side of the river, we passed many more downed trees, most of which tipped over. Maybe there will be more Schistostega up there in the future? I wish that I had counted or even better mapped the tipped versus snapped trees as I'm curious which occurs more often in that valley. Guess now I have an excuse to return once again.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Not exactly breaking news, but it has been cold this week, extremely cold for Sitka. The temperatures started working their way down last Friday, sunny with a temperature range a fairly wintery 24-29). Saturday and Sunday saw a slow downward trend (19-30) and (14-24), with pretty mild winds and sunny skies. Monday and Tuesday were even colder with lows of 8 and 6 respectively. So far, the house seems to have survived the cold spell, the skirting on the east side of the house and having Deirdre at home tending the fire probably makes a huge difference in these conditions. The skiff has not been so happy; the telltale isn't showing water even after a long warm up and slow idle across the bay, fortunately it does not go into automatic slow down due to overheating, but does sound an awful alarm. I tend to associate pretty intense winds with these clear, cold periods, but this time we have been relatively fortunate. Sunday’s weather map showed a fairly minimal difference between the high over the Yukon and the low to our west, todays shows a slightly deeper low. Seems like the winds could be on the increase.

I was curious about previous episodes of single digit weather; apparently I've been in Sitka for at least two pretty cold events; one November 25th and 26th 1985 (lows of 3 and 2) and the other January 30,31 and February 1 1989 (lows of 4,4, and 8).
During the 1985 event, Jim, Dave, Paula and I were on a long Thanksgiving break hunting trip on the Romance. The boat log/journal speaks to the feast (wild Canada goose, pies, sweet potatoes), a sapsucker, deer and sunny, windy cold weather. I didn’t write anything about especially cold weather. By this time we had a small wood stove in the wheel house in addition to the oil stove in the galley, so it was a bit easier to keep the boat toasty in the evenings, but the heat didn’t hold at all once the fire went out. I remember being cold. The overall lack of notes about the extreme cold could be due to cold (19) weather during a hunting trip 2 weeks before. I wrote "clear and cold! NE winds at 50 knots, with higher gusts". I think that an adventure wading into the water up to my thighs at Brent's beach to retrieve a drifting inflatable might have colored my view of the temperatures. The other big difference in my perception might have been the amount of time I spent outside in those years; pretty much every other weekend was a hunting trip during the season, so I probably was a lot more acclimated to the cold than I am these days.
My main recollection of the 1989 event was lack of water. I was very new at water management in those days and a house with four adults (my parents, sister and I) and a baby went through the water supply at a pretty good rate. We were on a catchment system only at the time, so if it was dry, it didn’t take too long before things were marginal. If I remember right we were melting snow in buckets to flush the toilet and had to switch to disposable diapers until we could get more water. Happily, this year we have a half a tank (1200 gallons) of water and only two of us to use it.

Mostly Pine siskins at the feeder during the cold; they seem to be camped out by the feeder. The chickadees and juncos are feeding below the feeder under the tangle of wild apple and salmonberry. I suspect that the energy expended tussling with the siskins for feeder space is not worth the energy cost given that there is plenty of seeds on the ground below.

Deirdre found a dead murre (presumably a Common Murre) on the trail on Monday. Its head and a goodly portion of its breast and belly were missing. When I saw it on Tuesday, one wing was in a nearby shrubby hemlock, but the bulk of the corpse was still on the trail. I’m assuming an eagle killed it and subsequently dropped it on the trail. Not sure if an eagle or raven did the later damage. I’ll probably leave it on the trail to see how long it takes the scavengers to clean it up.

P.S. This morning the murre was gone, it seems that either a bird or a mink found the murre overnight. The wing was still in the tree

Monday, January 02, 2012

This years Sitka Christmas bird count fell on New Year's day which turned out to be a bit unfortunate for a couple of reasons; first it put a bit of a damper on the late night revels and the weather was on the hideous side.
I had planned on counting on Galankin Island and doing as much counting on the water as possible. Last year's trip around the south sound was pretty productive and I was looking forward to seeing lots of birds (and getting really cold) out on the water. Alas it was not to be; the forecast was for a gale with gusts to 40-60 knots with rain and snow turning to all rain. A double alas that the wind actually came to pass, but we were a bit fortunate in the rain (not too bad).
The wind could have been worse, as it was I didn't feel too stupid wandering around in the forest; the reported high gust was 43mph (weather underground) with steady winds between 22 and 29mph. I'm happy to say that there were no trees or large branches down.
I spent the day doing slow laps around Galankin island with one brief foray to the fuel dock to pick up Deirdre who had stayed in town. The trip to town was a bit intense, fairly bouncy around Breast Island and going with it wasn't too bad, but coming back out from the bridge was a bit worse, so ducked behind aleutski and Turning islands to avoid bucking directly into the rather steep and sharp seas. I did get a Rhinoceros auklet, 2 murrelets, surf scoters and longtails on the short trip.
All in all it wasn't a bad day in terms of species seen; 29 (couldn't bring myself to count the kinglets which I heard, what if it was a creeper?) which seems to be pretty similar to most years (last year was 37). Highlights for this year for me was finally finding a Varied Thrush on the island after months of not seeing any on the island, Red polls and seeing the Western Screech owl in the evening. I was also grateful that Pine siskins had found the deck feeder on Saturday.
  1. Pacific Loon
  2. Common Loon
  3. Horned Grebe
  4. Double crested cormorant
  5. Pelagic cormorant
  6. Great Blue heron
  7. Mallard
  8. Harlequin Duck
  9. Surf Scoter
  10. Long-tailed duck
  11. Barrow’s Goldeneye
  12. Common Merganser
  13. Bald Eagle
  14. Mew Gull
  15. Thayer’s gull
  16. Glaucous-winged gull
  17. Marbled murrelet
  18. Rhinoceros auklet
  19. Belted Kingfisher
  20. Common Raven
  21. Chestnut-backed Chickadee
  22. Pacific Wren
  23. Varied Thrush
  24. Fox Sparrow
  25. Song Sparrow
  26. Dark-eyed Junco
  27. Common Redpoll
  28. Pine Siskin
  29. Western screech owl
One thing that struck me this year was that I almost always see everything I'm going to see on the island by 1pm, yet I am still compelled to go out until dark. At least this year, going out after dark was pretty productive.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Fall happenings on the trail

On the morning walk to the dock I've found two headless Varied thrushes on the trail in the last month. One was pretty close to the Litman's house, the other on the trail between the path to the lake and the creek outlet. The first disappeared during the day, the second remained undisturbed for two days then was covered by snow for a week or so. It was still on the trail after the snow melted (a week or so) until one of the neighborhood dogs found it.

I was fairly convinced that the hunter was a raptor of some sort, since the only thing initially missing was the head. In my experience with local owls, they don't leave much behind besides a small pile of feathers, so I thought it might have been a Sharp-shinned hawk or something similar. Given that the first bird disappeared the first day, I guess it could have been an owl that was interrupted by traffic (the neighbors take their dogs for a walk pretty early) and returned later after we had passed. The area has a mix of Sitka and Red alder with a pretty open feel to it. I've seen several owls in this habitat over the years and last night walking home saw one perched in a branch over hanging the trail where I've seen one before, so maybe this is the thrush eater.
The second bird, I'm not so sure about what killed it. I haven't seen owls in that area, which doesn't mean that they aren't using that habitat. There are bigger conifers and relatively dense understory of blueberry and Rusty Menziesia, so it might just be more difficult to spot them. I certainly could have been an owl that wasn't so comfortable with the narrow trail or a raptor winging through.
Not too far from the second kill site after a particularly heavy wet snow, a hemlock (roughly 10-12ft tall) perched on a nurse log was pulled off its log, presumably by its heavy ice covered branches and the decayed state of the log. The tree is still alive, so it might form a new leader and carry one, but not so sure how long folks will be willing to walk around it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A new Suillus (for me)

Received a mushroom identification request this week for a fungus growing on the ground under a "spruce" by Harrigan Centennial Hall. The fungus in the photo I was sent was pretty clearly a Suilllus because it had a veil that was cream colored, lacked glandular dots on the stem and wasn't associated with Larch. The character that jumped out the most from the photo was the brown bruising of the pores, definitely not something I had seen around here.

I tried to run through the key to Suilllus on the Pacific Northwest Key Council site, but the photo lacked information about several key features used in the key (viscidness was the first).

Once I had it in hand the following were the characters that I used to help me identify ( or misidentify) it:
Cinnamon brown cap with very fine fibrous sort of look, it was not viscid, but had a few needles stuck to the cap
Cap turning dark with KOH
Pores yellow, bruising red brown
Veil didn't form a distinctive ring, more of a zone on the stem, there were a few fragments on the cap rim
Stem solid, slowly and indistinctly turning blue-green
Associated with Douglas Fir

I used Mushroom Matchmaker: Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest (handy synoptic key) as my texts were at home and I was anxious to try the program out again. It pretty quickly took me to Suillus lakei (Yeah, a name!), reading the description, it seemed to fit pretty well and there was enough variation in the photos available on Mushroom expert that I decided that it was a positive identification.
I looked at a few similar species (in my mind) e. g. Suillus caerulescens and dismissed it because of the lack of a distinctive color reaction in the stem of the fungus in question.
I started feeling a bit less certain when I looked at the descriptions and photos in Mushrooms Demystified (Arora) and Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest (Trudell and Ammirati). For one the lakei were all pretty red and/or fibrillose looking and what reinforced the sense of disquiet was the lack of discussion in the descriptions of species that I thought were similar. Why didn't neither book's discussion of lakei talk about how to distinguish it from caerulescens? What was I missing?

It seems like I was perhaps not paying enough attention to the overall color the cap of lakei (reddish) vs cinnamon brown (caerulescens) that is distinctive enough to rarely cause confusion and the more extensive fibrils found on lakei .

This is a brief synopsis of the small group of Suillus species included in Arora and Boletes in the PNW) that have ring zones, yellow pores that stain brown that are found with Douglas Fir.

S. ponderosa: has a viscid, bright yellow veil and a smooth cap

S. lakei: fibrillose with reddish brown to brick red or pinkish fibrils (occasionally tawny). Viscid when wet, stalk weakly turning blue or green when cut

S. caerulescens: dry, whitish veil, cap smooth or fibrillose, viscid when wet, stalk turning blue or green when cut, sometimes slowly.

I found myself leaning back toward S. caerulescens at this point, the lack of fibrils is starting to seem like a problem. Still a bit uncomfortable with the identification, I turned to another book (A. H. Smiths and H. Thiers monograph on North American Suillus) and was relieved to finally see the difference between these two species addressed.

" It (caerulescens) differs from S. lakei in having a distinct change to blue in the stipe and in having numberous large latifciferous ducts in the context of the cap. ..."

Well, now I have to make a judgment call; are the fibrils more important than the blue reaction? I did pick another sample today and cut it open fairly quickly after picking. It did turn blue, not abundantly, but more so than previously. No real joy yet.
Guess I'll have to look for lactciferous ducts next.

Monday, September 05, 2011


Because there aren’t really that many native yellow composites in SEAK, I don’t often have to use DYC too often anymore. Then one day, I decided it was time to get better acquainted with the weedy species around town.

The two plants that caught my attention were growing in the gravel at the edge of the road to the work float near the island side of the O’Connell Bridge. The yellow ray flowers, milky juice and clasping leaf bases made the genus identification fairly straight forward for both plants; Sonchus or Sow thistle. I wasn’t so sure about the species identification of either plant.

At this point, I should confess that I tend to use keys to identify plants, then look at the descriptions and photos/drawings, so the following paragraphs mostly talk about comparing the keys in various books.

I first consulted Invasive Plants of Alaska which includes a description of perennial sow thistle (S. arvensis ssp. uliginosus) and a paragraph about differentiating one species of annual Sonchus (oleraceus) from the perennial one. This text focused on the long horizontal root systems found in the perennials. There was a photo of the leaf base of the perennial (rounded) and the annual (had longish pointy auricles).

Neither plant had a well developed root system, but they might not if they were first year plants. So I looked for additional references.

To sum up this book focused on the root system and auricle shape. S. arvenis has a large root system and rounded auricles.

The key in Hitchcock and Cronquist also referred to differences in the root systems, but added size of flower heads; perennial are 3-5cm and annuals species 1.5-2.5 cm. Lastly, H & C included gland tipped hairs as a characteristic of S. arvensis (this character turned out to be a bit of a red herring). One of the plants had this character, so despite the flowers being a bit on the small size, I was pretty certain that one of the species was arvensis.

To sum up H& C use root system, flower head size with a mention of glandular hairs.

Because the line drawings didn’t really fit what I had in hand, I decided to consult another reference. FNA treatment

This key begins with leaf base auricle shape, number of ribs on the cypsela (fruits) and introduces the idea that one of the species treated as an annual in the last two references, could be a biennial.

Second decision in this key involved life history as well as stem hardness (…”stem bases soft to hard, herbaceous, often hollow” vs. “stem bases hard, sometimes more or less woody”. I think I’ll emphasize the woodiness issue.

Once a direction is chosen, the leaf blade shape is important in differentiating S. oleraceus from S. ternerrimus (leaf blades more or less deltate to lanceolate with the terminal lobe larger vs rhombic to lanceolate and equal sized.

Between arvensis and palustris; geography helps (Ontario vs. widespread) and the leaf base. S. arvensis is rounded and palustris acute auricles

To sum up the FNA (widespread spp only, this removes ternerrimus and palustris from consideration)

S. asper has recurved auricles and fruit with 3 ribs on each face annual or biennial

S. oleraceous: has straight auricles, and lobed leaves with a larger terminal segment and often hollow stems.

S. arvensis: straight auricles, hard stem base, rounded auricles and dark brown cypsela at maturity.

Although I already had a bit more information than I wanted, I decided to consult another favorite reference; Anderson’s Flora of Alaska

Although there was common ground between this and other treatments, another new character came into play; involucres bract length. Also, this key indicated that the annual species could have stipitate glands.

S. arvensis: perennial, involucre bracts more than 14mm long in fruit, pubescent with stipitate glands

S. asper:annual, involucres less than 14mm, leaves with sharp and narrow pointed teeth, cypsela not wrinkled, but longitudinally nerved

S. oleraceus: annual, involucres bracts less than 14mm, leaves sharply and broadly toothed, lyrate pinnatifid (handy character), cypselae transversely wrinkled and longitudinally nerved

I had one last reference at my disposal; the Illustrated Flora of British Columbia . Fortunately the descriptions fit in pretty well with those found in H &C and Anderson.

S. arvensis: perennial, heads 3-5cm

S. oleraceus: annual or biennial: flower heads 1.5-2.5, cypselae several nerved and wrinkled

S. asper: annual or biennial, flower heads 1.5-2.5 cm, cypselae several ribbed, not wrinkled.

The handy thing about these taxa is that there doesn’t seem to be any noticeable disagreement in the taxonomy, just a bit of variation on which characters might be useful and a bit of haziness about how variable the presence/absence of certain character (glandular hairs).

So the synopsis of all keys

S. arvensis: perennial, straight auricles with rounded bases, may have woody stems, they may also be hollow, heads 3-5cm stipitate hairs present on the flower stems, and dark brown cypselae at maturity

S. asper: annual or biennial, stems not woody, may be hollow, leaves with sharp and narrow pointed teeth recurved auricles. Flower heads 1.5-2.5 cm and involucres bracts less than 14mm, fruit with 3 ribs on each face, not wrinkled

S. oleraceous:, annual or biennial, stems not woody, may be hollow. Leaves sharply and broadly toothed, lyrate pinnatifid, auricles straight, cypselae transversely wrinkled and longitudinally nerved

At this point, I’ve decided that for unambiguous identification (at least the first time around) I need mature seeds.

Back to the actual plants in hand; both have flowers less than 3cm (but neither are really fully open). Neither root system is obviously forming horizontal branches. The fruit aren’t fully mature, I can see ribs, but it isn’t clear if they are or will be wrinkled

One has rounded auricles, some stipitate hairs and very pointy large teeth on the leaf margins, the leaves are also darker and thicker. (I’m going with S. asper)

The second has straightish auricles with pointed bases, no hairs and less menacing teeth, the leaves are lyrate pinnatifid (like a dandelion) with a larger terminal segment. (going with S. oleraceus)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

About every ten years a bear makes its way to Galankin island. This year a 3 or 4 year old (200 lb+) bear wandered to Bamdoroshni, then swam across the channel to visit us. A neighbor saw it come ashore near the cable landing on the west side of the island.
It was next seen in the lawn at a house on the south end of the commons. From there it worked its way south along the shore past Litman's then went up the cliff from the transformer for my lot. There wasn't any sign of it sticking around the house though.
From Phil Mooney we heard that the bear had swam to Morne then to Kutkan Island. Fish and Game attempted to capture it so they could collar and move the bear, but couldn't get a safe shot. Deirdre and I saw the bear later in the day swimming near Kutkan island, then it climbed ashore.
We kind of relaxed out here for a day, but last night the bear reappeared at the Pendell's house (the beach near the deck), they scared it off, then it went to the Goffs (on the porch at the front door) and was shooed away. This morning we had a call from the Litman's reporting the bear was in their garden, then it wandered to the cabin and disappeared. It sounds like it also visited the Rush's island. At some point, it wandered up here and tore into the rhubarb, riffled through the compost and moved the mink trap (no bait). We searched the rest of the garden (banging our pot lid) but didn't find any other sign or tracks.