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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

July 26, 2011 at 2:22 PM

Close encounters: Mountain goats on the trail

It’s hard to match the thrill of encountering Oreamus Americanus on the trail: gleaming white, perfectly adapted to their kingdom in the clouds, mountain goats are in a realm all their own.

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This mountain goat delighted hikers on a the trail Saturday… but why was he there by the trail? And seemingly so comfortable with people? Biologists think they know.

Tori Allen, photo

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July 25, 2011 at 11:27 AM

Nature 911: Enjoy them now — wild berries are ripe

I speak here not of the Himalayan blackberries, an invasive that come August rewards us with succulent fruit for the space it devours. No, here I am talking about the wild, native berries just now gleaming in the forests and river valleys, the food that has helped sustained the native people and wildlife of this place for as long as there have been summers in Puget Sound.

On a recent hike in the Elwha Valley my progress was seriously slowed, not by tough terrain, but by the seduction of berries. Salmonberries, soft, juicy, gorgeous, in every shade of yellow, orange and deep red. Wet with rain, cool, refreshing, oh there is no more Olympic valley taste than a salmonberry savored on the trail. And then there were the wild strawberries, tiny, vivid, sharply fragrant.

Not for nothing are the Swainson’s thrush, the bird with its haunting, upward arpeggio, singing away now, too. Their song and the ripening of salmonberries are coincident, and salmonberries are an important food source for these birds, whose song is a signature of the Puget lowland forest in summer, particularly as evening comes on.

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July 22, 2011 at 9:56 AM

With the oldest male whale, “Ruffles,” gone, who will be orcas’ next Big Daddy?

He was the first southern resident killer whale in J-pod to be identified, perhaps because he was so easy to distinguish from the others.

J1 came to be known by many as “Ruffles” because his dorsal fin was wavy, like a potato chip, or a flag in the wind.

J1, aka Ruffles, was Puget Sound’s oldest male orca. Photos by Center for Whale Research

When he disappeared sometime last fall, killer whale experts and orca watchers knew the score; J1 was nearly 60 years old. They wrote rememberances, set up social networking pages and put up photo galleries. The Big Daddy of the southern residents almost certainly had died.

But J1’s absence is raising interesting new questions about how the makeup of the southern residents will change now that he’s gone. His death is yet another reminder that even though Puget Sound’s orcas are among the most studied marine mammals in the world, much about them remains a mystery.

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July 21, 2011 at 4:00 PM

What lurks beneath… Lakes Aldwell and Mills

So what does a reservoir leave behind after it drains away? Lake Mills and Aldwell are being drawn down in preparation for removing Elwha and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwha River. Elwha dam is exploding with whitewater, a combination of water drawn down from the reservoirs, and snowmelt from a gigantic snowpack. Lynda Mapes photo Wow….

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July 19, 2011 at 1:30 PM

Sniffing out the other sex: People do it, as do mice and lizards, but seabirds?

Looking for love? Wiggle your nose.

OK. Perhaps that is a gross generalization. Few of us (consciously, at least) choose our mates based on how they smell. But that’s not to say that odors aren’t important. Scientists have found that women might actually prefer the body odor of men who are, ahem, “genetically dissimilar,” said Sarah Leclaire, a biologist with the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge. In other words, we’re more attracted to people who don’t smell like our relatives.

That makes sense, of course, since few species benefit from inbreeding. And when it comes to following olfactory cues, we’re certainly not alone. Among some species of voles and mice, females prefer hanging out with males that smell genetically different. Same with sand lizards. In fact, links between odor and sex have been found in everything from hyenas and pandas to tortoises and boa constrictors.

But what about birds? That’s what Leclaire wanted to find out.

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Comments | Topics: Alaska, birds, panda

July 18, 2011 at 10:36 AM

What trees tell us on the trail

So there you are, hiking along the trail, and suddenly, there’s an odd sight: a whole colony of trees with pistol-grip shaped trunks:

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A group of trees doing the samba along the trail. They are trying to tell you something.

David Montgomery, our own local genius grant recipient at the University of Washington, where he teaches geomorphology, says such trees are “an invitation to curiosity.”

Step back. What is the context?” That, Montgomery notes, is a key clue. If just a tree or two are sinuously bent, perhaps they are searching out the sun through a hole in the tree canopy.

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Just one tree with a bent trunk might mean the tree is searching for sun

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July 15, 2011 at 7:30 AM

Woodland Park Zoo’s new penguin chicks still tucked away

By staff reporter Jessie Van Berkel

A round, fuzzy, gray penguin flapped flightless wings and wriggled in Celine Pardo‘s hands this week as she returned him to a behind-the-scenes burrow at Woodland Park Zoo.

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Celine Pardo holds one of two Humboldt penguin chicks born last month at Woodland Park Zoo.

The month-old chick is one of two Humboldt penguins born recently at the zoo. Fourteen of the birds have been born there since the exhibit opened two years ago.

Humboldt penguins are an endangered species native to Peru and Chile. The zoo is breeding the penguins and trying to diversify the gene pool of the population.

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July 14, 2011 at 10:30 AM

Expedition brings other-worldly sea creatures into focus

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Basket star with anemone on top of a boulder off Cape Arago, Oregon. (Photo courtesy of Oceana.) See complete pop-up photo gallery.

Off the coast of San Juan Island, greenlings doze on ledges 400 feet down. Sculpins snuggle into reefs scattered with scallops. Crabs camouflaged with feathery hydroids creep past crimson sea cucumbers.

It’s a world invisible to us, at depths divers seldom venture.

But a series of expeditions mounted this summer by the environmental group Oceana is bringing some of these scenes into focus for what may be the first time.

“No one has ever seen what the sea floor looks like in some of these areas,” said project leader Geoff Shester.

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Working on the cheap, the team outfitted small ROVs (remotely-operated vehicles) with the type of video cameras skiers strap to their helmets. Operators guided the craft with joysticks and oohed and aahed as images flashed across their shipboard monitors.

“Most people think of colorful coral reefs in the tropics, but we have just as spectacular a sea floor, and even more diverse, right off the coast of Washington,” Shester said. “We would go from eel grass beds to sandy bottoms with sharks cruising around to these amazing, rocky cliff walls — all within a few hundred feet of each other.”

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July 13, 2011 at 9:45 AM

Join the hive: The Great Bee Count is Saturday

More than 2,000 Washingtonians are part of a collective that will have the country buzzing on Saturday.

It’s the Great Bee Count, when insect-lovers coast-to-coast will take to their backyards to count the imperiled pollinators.

The brainchild of San Francisco State University biologist Gretchen LeBuhn, the project is now in its fourth year. LeBuhn’s goal was to enlist a citizen army in efforts to monitor populations of bees, which have declined precipitously in some parts of the country in recent years. About 100,000 people have signed up.

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Originally, LeBuhn asked folks to plant sunflowers in their yards and track how many bees visited during two 15-minute periods per month. That’s why the effort’s formal name is The Great Sunflower Project.

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Photo by Ginny Stibolt

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July 12, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Prairies: a rare ecosystem in Washington

A new compendium of the best science on how to restore prairie ecosystems — the rarest in Washington — is available online, in a special edition of Northwest Science on prairie restoration.

Beautiful, and among the first lands to be developed because of their level terrain and good soil, prairies have long been among the most prized ecosystems in Washington. Native people relied on the camas plants that thrive in prairies, digging the roots for food during the lean spring months. The beautiful blue flowers carpet a healthy prairie landscape, such as this one, in South Sound:

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Camas blooms at Glacial Heritage Preserve, a Thurston County natural preserve where the Nature Conservancy with volunteers has been doing restoration work for nearly 20 years. These healthy stands of camas are the result. Photo by Keith Lazelle, courtesy, The Nature Conservancy of Washington

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