Stinging nettles, Urtica dioica, are commonly found in moist sites and can shock the unsuspecting hiker. Often forming large patches under alder trees, they also grow along streams and disturbed sites. This time of year, the young shoots thrust upward from underground rhizomes. Later in the season, nettle plants grow to several feet tall when they produce either male or female inconspicuous flowers. Although nutritious plants, the stinging hairs covering the leaves deter browsing except by insect larvae, including the Painted Lady and West Coast Lady butterflies.
Nettle shoots herald the arrival of spring and an opportunity for wildcrafting. Young plants can be mistaken for mint with pairs of dark green leaves growing in opposite pairs along the square stem. Wear gloves and use clippers. Steamed or boiled nettles can be a spinach substitute. It’s rich in iron. Try preparing a potato-leek soup with a stock of fresh nettle greens and miso. The nettle’s sting is contained in the hollow hairs filled with uric acid. The fresh foliage applied topically has an anti-inflammatory effect on sore joints. (I have found it quite effective on aching elbows.) The fresh plant includes an array of phytochemicals. A report from the NIH confirms: “… Urtica species exert excellent anti-rheumatoid arthritis, anti-gout, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, and antioxidant activities, all of which contribute to the protection of joints.”
Hair Ice forms when specific prerequisites are present: a piece of decaying or rotted wood with specific moisture content; air temperature and humidity in a narrow range; and most importantly, the presence in that rotted wood of a single-celled fungus, Exidiopsis effusa, the critical factor driving creation of these ice crystals.
When conditions are perfect, a tiny droplet of water is forced from a hole in the decayed wood and freezes. A second droplet appears from the same hole, freezes, and pushes the first frozen droplet away from the surface of the wood. This process repeats itself until a single ice strand only 0.01mm in diameter (far smaller than a human hair) may attain a length of several centimeters. The fungi present in the ice crystals prevent the ice strands from clumping together and allow the creation of this beautiful and rarely seen ice formation.
You might walk right past Hair Ice without recognizing it. We frequently have many decaying Red Alder (a preferred host plant for the fungus) branches along our trails. Our humidity and sub-freezing temperatures are often in the perfect range, and our shorter days in winter make it easy to be on the trails shortly before or just after sunrise. If the prior evening has provided little wind, you may find these incredibly delicate and beautiful creations adorning the trail, or perhaps peeking out from the underbrush a short distance away. If you are fortunate enough to discover them, take a moment to appreciate their delicate beauty – but hold your breath!
We are lucky to live in a place where we can witness the high drama of salmon returning to their natal streams to complete their life cycle. Every river and stream in our region will have some salmon migrating all year, but September through early December is the peak. By early October, the pink (humpy) salmon have nearly completed spawning, and fall chum (dog), coho (silver), and king (chinook) are just entering their home streams. (Salmon seem to have two or more common names.) Steelhead technically are sea-going rainbow trout, and they are in rivers and streams almost year round.
At the locations below, look for chum salmon in the lower reaches of the stream and expect to see coho moving to the upper watershed. Kings and steelhead are sighted less frequently but do occur in larger rivers. Aside from the salmon themselves, look for disturbed, algae-free gravel patches, or “redds,” that mark where the salmon have mated and left fertilized eggs to hatch in the spring. You might see salmon guarding a patch of gravel anticipating a chance to mate.
Chimacum Creek: Explore the creek at HJ Carroll Park.
Elwha River: Seek overlooks where passing salmon are recolonizing after dam removal.
Duckabush River: Check the oxbow area protected by the Jefferson Land Trust. Use parking area beneath power lines on Duckabush Rd.
Dungeness River: Watch from the old railroad bridge at Sequim’s new Dungeness River Nature Center.
Imagine the brilliant Rufous Hummingbird during a summer moment, resting in your yard after sipping flower nectar, preparing to migrate across several states. Or the Violet-green Swallow flying low over an open field in search of insects with her flock maneuvering to keep the pace, fattening up for the long journey as far south as Costa Rica where she will spend the winter. Or the Western Wood-Pewee tucked in our PNW forest sallying for insects and bound for northern South America. Tonight, the conditions are perfect for the flight south, the route ingrained. In the West, mountain ranges funnel travel south to varied destinations. The Rufous Hummingbird makes a clockwise circuit moving up the Pacific each spring and as early as September, fliessouth down the chain of the Rocky Mountains, headed for Mexico. For most songbirds, this takes place under the cover of darkness which provides calmer atmospheric conditions and guidance from the stars. Raptors, cranes, and waterfowl travel by day.
In North America, 70% of birds migrate. Some traveling from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America. The bird that has the honor of being the longest migrant is the Arctic Tern, who travels 25,000 miles every year from the highest to lowest latitudes.
Why do they do it? Over millennia, birds have evolved patterns and timing mechanisms that stimulate them to fly. As daylight hours shorten and food resources dwindle, hormonal changes urge them to migrate. A pattern called Zugunruhe, a German word for migratory restlessness, has been observed in captive birds for hundreds of years. Caged birds would predictably become restless just before the time they would begin their seasonal migration.
Scientists are learning more about migration as a result of advances in the use of weather radar which produce images of millions of birds during migration. BirdCast is a dashboard that explores nightly migration in each state. Here’s Jefferson County’s: https://dashboard.birdcast.info/region/US-WA-031. This is a critical time for conservation. Some three billion birds have disappeared from North America in the past 50 years, and migrant species have suffered significant losses, no doubt due to their perilous migratory journey and habitat loss in both breeding and wintering areas. We can all help birds by keeping outdoor lights out during both spring and fall migration. Artificial light pollution can attract, confuse, and disorient them. We can also plant for wildlife and provide water features and a hospitable environment for our feathered friends. Where would we be without them?
The tide is out. It’s time to explore. Walk towards the low tide water level on any shoreline, and there are wondrous things to see. As you explore, you will notice that the biological communities change from the high tide level down to the lowest levels. Marine scientists call this “intertidal zonation.” Ecologists group the zones into the Splash, High Intertidal, Middle Intertidal, and Low Intertidal Zones.
Zonation is a complex result of substrate, tidal levels, predator-prey interactions, and competition for space. Specifics differ between rocky shores, sandy beaches, mud flats, a pillar under a pier, or boulders strewn amongst sand and cobbles, but you will always see changes in plant and animal communities.
At the highest levels, life is hard – too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, too dry most of the time, and too much fresh rainwater. Isolated tidepools can become both too hot and too salty when exposed to the sun for many hours. In the Salish Sea, the Splash Zone ranges from about +7 to +9 feet above mean lower low water (which is “0” feet in a tide table). Here we see only a few hardy species but often huge numbers of individuals. You will find several lichen species. The green algae sea lettuce (Ulva) makes its first appearance. A few land plants that can tolerate the salt exposure may also be present. This is the zone of barnacles – the small little brown barnacle and the acorn barnacle. Look closely in cracks and crevices, and you might be able to spot a few small marine snails and limpets. These hardy animals feed only when briefly submerged. When the tide is out, they basically close down tight to keep moisture inside their bodies – clamping those barnacle plates together, or pulling into a snail shell to shut the door (operculum), or just contracting those muscles that allow a limpet to adhere tightly to the rock face. All of these animals must have the ability to tolerate increasing levels of their own biological waste products as the hours go by before they are submerged again and are flushed by sea water.
Below this uppermost horizon, we encounter the High Intertidal Zone that is submerged only during the highest tide levels. Life is marginally easier in this zone, but its residents are still exposed to the equivalent of a total of 145 to 70 total days of dryness over a period of 6 months. The High Intertidal Zone in our area ranges from about +7 feet to +4 feet above the mean lower low level. We see more diverse life here. Consult a field guide; the number of species explodes too much to describe briefly. Lots of algal species: brown, green, and red. The brown algae Rockweed (Fucus) stands out on the rocks. In addition to barnacles, there are more species of snails (including carnivorous and algae-eating species) and limpets. Look into small tidepools or under a few rocks (please replace them very carefully!) to find hairy hermit crabs and the dark green and black tidepool sculpin.
Lower still, we find the ecological communities of the Middle Intertidal. Communities here are submerged and exposed for more equal periods of time. This is the area from about +4 feet down to 0 feet (the mean lower low tidal level). Life really explodes here – crabs, sea stars, more snail species, goose neck and blue mussels, chitons, sea stars, and sea anemones. Curiously, the animals of this area are rarely seen subtidally. They truly are residents of the in-between world – part terrestrial and part marine.
At last we enter the Low Intertidal Zone, which is exposed only during the lowest tide levels. This is the realm of those marine creatures who have adapted physiologically and/or behaviorally to survive some amount of time exposed to air. We see the largest variety of species in the Salish Sea in the Low Intertidal Zone, 0 to about -3.5 feet. Some of the species also occur subtidally. Interestingly, although there are many more different plants and animals, we do not see the high numbers of individuals of the same species we saw in the upper levels. Life for a marine creature is easier here, but then competition for space and food is more intense as well.
Surfgrass and eelgrass (both flowering plants), plus vast numbers of species of algae or seaweeds, are found here. Abundant animal life includes species of sponges, hydroids, anemones, flatworms, round worms, segmented worms, sea stars, brittle stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, brachiopods, snails, limpets, bivalve mollusks, chitons, nudibranchs, shrimp, crabs, octopuses, clingfishes, sculpins, pricklebacks, and gunnels – to name just a few!
If we use our intertidal visit well, we will explore all the different zones, probably spending the most time at the lowest levels. But we must be careful, the tide turns and comes back in quickly, and we may have only a short time to get back to land before all these communities return to the sea.