Dog salmon. So their jaws look like dog jaws. Or is it that because they run last – middle of November to December – and freeze into the ice where Inuit would thaw them to feed their dogs. This much maligned salmon is just fascinating. Hardy. Beautiful. And mysterious.
The life cycle is fairly straightforward.
What is truly fascinating is the role these salmon play in the local stream ecology. One of the most iconic images is bears eating salmon. And obviously the decaying carcasses feed a variety of fauna in the stream itself. What isn’t so obvious is the fertilization of trees and plants along the stream side. Water from the stream percolates back into the soil surrounding the stream and provides nutrients.
Now if you are like me then the next question is what nutrients are involved. It turns out that nitrogen and phosphorus are particularly important. Fueling the growth of vegetation as surely as a farmer bringing the fertilizer apparatus to his field.
So as salmon swim up – they reverse the flow of nutrients to the sea and complete another cycle in the great balance we call nature.
Sucia Island is the closest San Juan Island to my home port of Birch Bay. So when the yacht clubs in the area promoted a cleanup day for the State Park on the Island it was a natural that I would work out a way to be there. I have lots of story ideas from the trip. The winter storms this year have changed the face of the park.
Broken branches and downed trees litter the trails creating hazardous conditions in many places. Some tree species seemed particularly susceptible. Many though lost a branch or two and will continue growing without interuption. Madrona, juniper, and some of the south facing cypress showed the effects. Shoreline erosion continues apace.
One of my highlights was speaking with a gentleman who had sailed into Sucia in 1948. It was not a park. It was wild and isolated. And it was beautiful. Today it slowly regains some of the beauty. The sandstone bluffs and wild forests provide a unique environment.
One of the surest signs of spring is the new birdsong that we hear in the morning. Like lilting lifting music it pulls out of bed and on to the patio with a cup of hot coffee. Close eyes and listen.
Warblers, vireos, finches…
For a prairie boy though it is the warbling song of the Red Winged Blackbird ( Agelaius phoeniceus ) carrying me back to carefree times on the marshes and byways of my youth. More than once these fiercely territorial birds took offence to my bike (couldn’t have been me.)
Harbingers of spring. It will lay two or three eggs taking ten to twelve days to hatch.
Look closely! See that bright red spot on the bill. That is known as a breeding spot. It appears on sexually mature and active male and female Glaucous-winged Gulls at this time of year. (Ain’t that a ten pound name for a gray wing?) The breeding spot really has not much to do with breeding. Rather, the small spot near the end of the bill is associated with chicks feeding. They peck at it in order to stimulate feeding.
One of the fun challenges of identifying these gulls is the hybridization that occurs with the Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) in Puget Sound. In Alaska it is the Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)that can mate with them.
Is it a bird, is it a plane or is it something else?
From the initial description I said it was probably a merganser but something didn’t add up. And the description “like a crow with a flaming orange bill” was a dead giveaway. They are moving from the shorelines to the offshore islands for breeding and nesting at this time of year and really are interesting bird to watch.
They feed on a variety of mollusks using their powerful bills to pry open oysters, clams and mussels. Their nesting habits are really curious. A simple depression and camouflaged eggs makes them really hard to spot, even for experts.
The Audobon Society has more information and has this bird on its watch list. Its sensitivity to oil spills in particular make it vulnerable. People wandering around its nesting sites is also very dangerous.
Writing for me has become a passion but like many it ebbs and flows. I’m inspired by the strangest source. For several weeks I have been harbouring the thought that really to write here I need to write to someone – someone special. I know who that person is. I have an idea of how I want to approach the subject of a scientific – to some extent – blog that combines first person. Still I hadn’t done it. And then I read the plea.
An impassioned blogger who writes about the most intimate of things – she lays all on the table. Articulate, hardworking, and still after several years of writing going strong. She examines the changes that writing has brought, the challenges and still she writes. Some people translate this kind of passion into novels or charity or… She has chosen anonymity and though thousands read her work – as she points out a small town dailys worth of readers she is largely unknown. People complain that she adds advertising to support her writing. Still she writes. She is quoted and sin of sins not linked to by large news organizations.
Still she writes. Ultimately because we write to know ourselves. Should the world look over our shoulders and discover that they enjoy our writing – well – that’s nice.
So I write to discover the beauty of the San Juans. Struggle to capture the attraction of me to the sea. To the islands of the sea. Somehow I’m captured by this elusive dream of a book I read as a child of pottering about with sailboats in the Norfolk Broads. Captured by the line from “The Wind in the Willows” repeated by sailors the world over -“There is nothing- absolutely nothing- half so much worth doingas simply messing about in boats.”
All of this is true. And now I write.
One of the things that I learned very quickly about ecology and landscape management was that there is always a context. In the San Juans a major part of the context is the Fraser Valley. That there is a group that is focussed on this area and that they are producing a “Sustainablity Report Card” annually is wonderful.
The Fraser Basin Council has undertaken a number of initiatives including:
- preparing for the next great Fraser River flood,
- controlling the spread of invasive plant species,
- managing the effects of climate change,
- strengthening rural communities,
- developing a sustainable fish and fisheries strategy,
- building constructive aboriginal and non-aboriginal relationships and
- measuring our progress towards sustainability.
It is this last that produced the Sustainability Report. While some of the Report strikes me as “Soup of the Day” – there are parts that are truly imaginative in delivering a State of the Union snapshot.
BirdWeb – Varied Thrush
So we all know that what we know as the Robin is really the American Thrush? After our wild snowstorm (November 26, 2006)we set up our regular winter feeding station. And we watched the regular winter visitors – juncos – chickadees and such.
And so when the red breasted bird showed up I thought robin. And then I saw that there was kind of a checked pattern to the tail. Spotted Towhee and then he turned and I saw a dark collar. Not a Towhee – one of the birds that are new to me since I came out to Washington.
So off to the web and clearly a Varied Thrush after some sleuthing. This thrush is common but rarely seen. It loves the underbrush and wilds of forested areas unlike its near neighbour that thrives on urban and suburban lawns. I got some lovely pictures.
ScienceDaily: Mixing Exploitation And Conservation: A Recipe For Disaster
Near and dear to my heart are those stories and studies that look at finding the balance between human survival – business and the ecosystem in which they exist. This study was done in Holland with an exquisitely ecosystem adapted bird. The red knot is a sandpiper like bird that depends on cockles to fuel its travels. 50% of the population flies through a small area. Harvesting the cockles using suction dredging is harming the population is the conclusion.
A couple of things that came to mind as I read the study. One of the important findings was that the density of cockles wasn’t changing in the dredged area. Now this might be considered an important indicator that the harvest was indeed sustainable. The kicker is that the nutritional value was going down. The result was that the a portion of the red knot population couldn’t eat enough to get the energy they needed for migration.
The second thing that rang through my mind was something a forester friend said to me as we negotiated land use for his employer. The problem with the environmentalists “ecosystem approach” to planning is that it doesn’t take into consideration the largest user on the land – man. His schtick was that we needed think about the impacts that man had on the land. Not to stop them – necessarily but to consider and plan for them – try to see all the impacts and plan for them.
A note to the reader. While I intend to focus on the particular species and ecology of the San Juans – I also want to use this space to bring in issues and information from across the globe that will impact this fragile space. Feel free to tell me to take a hike. That’s what comments are for.
Orcas on the Edge – National Wildlife Magazine
This little gem caught my eye while I was browsing my email. Part of a typically well orchestrated campaign by the National Wildlife Foundation – the email was asking my support in Adopting an Orca!
Good idea or not. Is it true? Are the orca really within a 100 years of extinction? What about the salmon that they feed on? The email pointed out that this combined with global warming, toxic pollution, and vessel noise are all contributing factors.
And I sit and think of the one line from the Whale Museum visit that I made this summer that has stuck with me. In the context of talking about why orca go to certain beachs and rub themselves on the gravel. “We don’t know why.”
There is so much about these magnificent creatures that indeed we don’t know. One thing we do know though – they are a part of an intricate web of life that throbs and thrills throughout the Salish Sea and its archipelago. If I needed inspiration to encourage me in exploring this web this is it.