Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Glory of California Poppies

When I first moved to Seattle, it wasn't the towering fir trees that won my heart. It wasn't the native rhododendrons, the rusty-barked madrones, or the noble cedars, either. It was the California poppies blazing in spring gardens and along the roads.

California poppies are native wildflowers that range from southwestern Washington to southern California. They thrive in dry, dusty, parched, neglected soil, but they're pleased as punch to find themselves in a well-watered garden and flourish there, too, so they've made themselves at home in the Puget Sound area.

Unlike many native Californians who've relocated to Pugetopolis, the poppies aren't at all daunted by gray skies, drizzle, rain, or July days that fail to rise above 65 degrees. Though they do fold up their petals if it's too dim and dank and wait patiently for some warming rays (unlike Californians I saw in the early 90s who folded their belongings into U-Hauls in late winter and pointed them south on the Pacific Coast highway).

California made the poppy its official state flower in 1903, but Native Americans were familiar with it long before California was California. They had many uses for it (and please note I am merely quoting authorities and am not advising that you do so yourself); apparently different parts were used either internally or externally to cure toothache, kill lice, heal sores, suppress headaches, and treat gastrointestinal ailments.

Today the plant is described by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center as poisonous if ingested, particularly if the ingest-er is a child. So be forewarned.

Bees and other pollinators, however, imbibe happily in the poppies' nectar. It's fun to watch a big fat bumblebee rollicking in an open flower--the whole bee-and-blossom combo tips and twirls as if the bee is enjoying a spin in a teacup ride at a fair.

Judging by the vivid color of this insect's pollen-packing abdomen, bees must also collect the flowers' golden dust. Some Native Americans were known to use the poppy's pollen for cosmetic purposes.

I'm not surprised that even the pollen of this poppy is lovely. I'm sweet on every part of this flower's growth. Each stem, for example, first wears a little green conical hat that protects the orange petals before they unfold. It slowly splits and falls off as the blossom opens.

When pollination is complete, the flower petals drift off and dapple the ground to form a tissue-thin film of sunshine. Then the plant grows another slim green party hat, this one packed with seeds. It even retains a frilly little pink ruffle at the base of the hat.

The flowers keep blooming from "midsummer to Michaelmas [Sept. 29]," according to an old field guide, The Observer's Book of Garden Flowers, published by Beatrix Potter's friends Frederick Warne & Co., Ltd., in 1957. Actually, they're in bloom here long before midsummer, thankfully, providing a hit of virtual sunlight when actual rays are often in short supply in Seattle. (In California, April 6 is officially California Poppy Day, and the little "flame flowers" are already ablaze in some of its valleys.)

New blossoms open even as these stems put all their energy into the growth of those skinny hats, which eventually stretch the length of an adult's pointer finger before turning brown and drying out.

At that point, the sides split along seams, and the cargo of seeds spills out.

California poppies today have no particular "use" to humans other than beautification of landscapes; they're widely sold as ornamentals, and are inclined to be invasive in some places.

Range maps show that many southeastern and eastern states are now home to the plants, which perhaps will bring ease to the departed soul of author Neltje Blanchan, who laments in her 1900 work Nature's Garden, "Alas! that the glorious California Poppy, so commonly grown in Eastern gardens...should confine itself to a limited range on the Pacific Coast."

*Yawn* Feeling sleepy after all this poppycock? You might well be ready for a nap. Poppies, as anyone who's seen The Wizard of Oz knows, are known for having a soporific effect. Ethnologists who interviewed California's Native Americans in years past about their uses for plants were told that the flowers of this poppy were laid beneath the beds of children to help them drift off to sleep.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Plenty of Seals but Nary a Shark

If you visit Shark Reef Sanctuary on Lopez Island, you will not see a single shark. This small haven of rugged cliffs, tidepools, and tall trees is named after offshore rocks that, in the words of The Dog-Lover's Companion to the Pacific Northwest, are "as chiseled as a shark's teeth."

But you will see harbor seals. The seals haul out onto the rocks when the tide is low to bask in the sun (or at least to relax in a slightly warmer place than the water, on a gray day). You'll need binoculars to see them as the rocks are not snuggled up against the shore.

They lie in groups of three or so, looking like downed blimps as they doze. Sometimes they curl their bodies into a C shape with tail and head pointing up. Their gray-brown pelts are mottled with spots, so people have sometimes dubbed them leopard seals--though they're nothing like the ferocious penguin-eaters of that name in Antarctica.

You can tell if a seal has been in your house because you'll find that all the fish in your freezer has been looted, every can of tuna fish opened and cleaned out, and even the Goldfish crackers may be gone (and don't even bother to look inside your aquarium if you, fish). Because harbor seals eat fish, fish, and more fish. When the tide rises, all these seal-sausages will slide off the grilling rocks and back in the sea to hunt.

Males are bigger than females, and pups grow fast, so I don't know if we saw any young seals in this bunch. A fascinating pinniped fact is that harbor-seal pups shed the lanugo--the baby coat of soft, fluffy fur--before they are born, with the exception of harbor seals born farther north in Arctic regions, which retain theirs for a while after birth.

A few years ago, while camping along the Oregon coast, we did come across a harbor-seal pup on the shore. Seal cows typically leave their pups on shore to rest while they're off hunting fish; likewise, weaned pups haul out on beaches to warm up and relax. So a pup on its own is not necessarily an abandoned pup.

Needless to say, the pups are very vulnerable in this situation, both to predation by animals such as eagles and harassment, injury, or death caused by humans and unleashed dogs. Even kind-hearted people can do them harm. One local woman put a seal pup in her bathtub, filled it with tap water, and tossed in clams; the pup, which hadn't yet been weaned, died. A luckier pup was the one unwittingly "rescued" by a young couple on vacation, who picked it up and kept in their hotel room overnight; that one was rehabbed by PAWS of Lynnwood and later set free. Hence, organizations such as Seal Sitters have sprung up to keep an eye on pups in this situation.

It's those soulful eyes at work. When you focus the binoculars and train them on the seals offshore, you often find that those seemingly oblivious creatures are looking back, calmly taking in all the activity back on land.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Birds, San Juan Islands, sizes XS to XL

Washington State's oceanic shorelines are a wonderland for birders. There's your ocean, for starters. Then there are all the levels of the shoreline and variations thereof: rocky, muddy, gravelly, sandy. Take a few more steps east, and you're deep in a forest--anything from a mix of conifers and red alders to ancient temperate rainforest. This variety of habitat makes the shorelines a wonderland for the birds themselves, too.

Vacationing in the San Juan islands these past two weeks, up north near Canada's own islands, thus meant lots of bird sightings. I managed to get a few photos--forgive the resolution, my camera's just a little Panasonic Lumix, so once I get past the optical zoom's limits and it goes to digital zoom, the crispness is gone.  Still, they bring me back, with exquisite clarity, to the moment I saw these wild creatures.

I'll start with the XL birds:

Bald eagle, sighted over cove along Lopez Village, Lopez Island. I've seen hundreds of bald eagles since moving to Washington
State 20-odd years ago, but every time I see one it is still a thrill. This fellow looks as if he flew straight out of central casting.
Great Blue Heron, southern shore of Cascade Lake, Orcas Island. These guys sound positively
Jurassic when they take to the air on their massive wings and rasp out loud, croaking calls. They
fold their necks in flight so that the head appears to be resting on the back, instead of sticking their
necks out in front as cranes do.

Double-crested cormorant parent and chick, Anacortes ferry dock. This image doesn't
show the bird's slinky, snaky neck, but it does show the colorful sheen that you don't
usually see in the black feathers when the birds are just flying by as black silhouettes,
which is how I usually see them. I was charmed that my daughter's friend, who was
along on our trip, thought that the cables and spikes throughout the pilings and pillars
were put there to help keep the cormorants' nests and chicks from falling out, whereas
I imagined they were there to prevent nesting in the first place.

These barn swallows are having a conference on Turtleback Mountain near a stable we visited. At our campsite by Cascade Lake,
we were treated to aerial displays over the water morning and night as violet-green swallows swooped low over the mirrorlike
surface to snare insects. At dusk, the swallows clocked out for the night, and bats flickered in to take their place skimming
across the lake.
Song sparrows trooped regularly through our campsite and
fearlessly trotted across the table to retrieve fallen grains of oatmeal.
Many of them looked terribly tatty, with adults apparently molting
and fledglings trading up to more adult plumage. This little guy
even lacked a tail. I thought this was due to a narrow escape from
a predator, but I later found online images of young song sparrows
growing in their tail feathers, so I guess this is a common sight.
I was thrilled to spy a brown creeper, a cryptically colored bird as invisible on a tree as a
sole on a sandy seabed. I only noticed him because it was very quiet and I could hear his
little claws scratching on the bark as he hitched his way up a branch. Creepers are great
examples of niche-filling in nature--they go UP tree trunks, searching for bugs under bark,
while the red-breasted nuthatches (which we heard calling "yank, yank" in nasal tones
all day long) travel DOWN the trunk. Either way, hidden arthropods are doomed.

The tiny, mouselike winter wren (now called a Pacific wren, sadly) is more often
seen than heard--and the song produced by this little waif is an amazing torrent of
liquid notes; it's like turning on an ordinary kitchen faucet and having the Columbia
River pour out of it. Only without the plumber bills. An excellent bird.
Smallest of all were the rufous (at least I am 99 percent sure they were rufous)
hummingbirds that patrolled the flower-filled garden of the cottage we stayed in
at the start of our vacation. They spent all day probing and feeding at flowers,
interspersing these activities to conduct dogfights and chases to prevent each other
from gaining access to said flowers. I'd be sitting and reading, enjoying a cup of
coffee, and meanwhile furious "chips" and "squeaks" and menacing buzzing of wings
filled the air around me as the hummers waged their ceaseless border disputes. Best of
all, though, I got to see a hummer take a bath in a gigantic, 3-level garden fountain.
Very cute. These little birds pack a lion's bravery--I got too close to one with my nosy
camera, and it buzzed me, then hovered a foot in front of my face with what looked
like a very angry glare on its face, starting me down for 10 seconds before huffing off.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Can I Please Go Back on Vacation Now?

Two lovely weeks spent up in the San Juan islands hidden in a cozy cottage and then camping by a lake explain lack of blogging and failure to tend to other responsibilities.

Cascade Lake, Moran State Park, Orcas Island, viewed from South End Campground