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Have you ever wondered where your drinking water comes from? You may be surprised to learn it comes from Lake Whatcom. So, who are the entities working together to protect the Lake Whatcom watershed and why is a healthy watershed important to ensuring the prosperity, vision and quality of life in our community? Read the whole story here.

 

Check out our June newsletter here.

 

This story is the first in a seven-part series exploring the conservation values central to the 7 priority zones of Whatcom Land Trust’s Conservation Plan update.



Photo by Alan Fritzberg

With our unending leaden skies and rain, the leafing of the osoberry is a nice sign of spring. The osoberry is one of the first shrubs to sprout new leaves in our lowland forests.

For more information about about Whatcom Land Trust, stop by or call our office at 360 650-9470


 

Whatcom Field Journal is a quiet, joyful celebration of the reasons we conserve land. It is a program following six Whatcom species through four seasons. The 2016 species are coho salmon, beaver, salmonberry, Western toad, dragonflies, and wood duck. The program is comprised of this blog, relevant Conservation Conversations events, naturalist tours and work parties on lands these beings inhabit. 

 

December 2016

Beavers Hunkering Down: At Home in the Dark

“In the beginning there was nothing but water and ice and a narrow strip of shoreline.”

That, according to oral tradition from the Heiltsuk and Nuxalk peoples of central British Columbia, is how the world began. It’s not surprising that this incredibly provocative image dwells so thoroughly within collective ancestral memory, which is not too far off from what glaciologists and paleoanthropologists now affirm with their own methods. But in a tangential way, it also calls to mind that mystery of a pond edging toward winter, when band upon band of ice constricts from the shallows to the waters’ cold, deep core. Though a certain grace takes hold of the ambered leaves and wood in the early stages of freeze, it’s a precarious time for beavers entering their darkest season.

Throughout their range across America’s cold interior, pond ice can freeze several inches (or feet) thick for months on end, literally trapping beavers in their lodge without access to fresh-fallen trees. If they did not allow a breathing vent within their mud-sealed home, or if they did and the opening gets plugged with ice, they could easily suffocate in their own exhalations. And yet, if there is any creature that evolution has prepared to endure these hours, you can be sure it is the beaver. We have much to learn about what goes on in the lives of wintering beavers, but it’s clear they survive through feats of metabolism and food storage instead of hibernation or migration. While a Whatcom beaver’s winter is mild compared to their kin across the Cascades, our whims of freeze and thaw allow us to better see some of their instinctual winter habits at work.

A profusion of bubbles is one of the best things to look for on a recently frozen beaver pond. Dappling the surface like a stone-pocked windshield, you would not be wrong to see something like a path going to and from the lodge, centered near the water’s deepest point. More often than not, that is where the beavers’ cache lies plunged. Their paths are made when retrieving wood with mouth agape, releasing air in grasps.

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The surface of a pond above a beaver’s cache.

The water preserves the wood, but also conditions it, leaching out the less palatable compounds. In between the visible dam and lodge repairs of autumn, the beavers slyly drag cottonwood, red-osier, and willow to the depths, covering this choice fare with heavier, less tasty cache-weights like alder, birch, and maple. Beavers are often described as “choosy generalists” in their tastes, and they are truly digestive miracles, with a cardiac gland that secretes probiotic bacteria into an intestinal tract that could unroll up to six times their body’s length. And while our cecum is just a pouchy, intestinal cul-de-sac for occasional fibrous backup, theirs is equipped for full-blown cellulose breakdown, ballooning throughout their entire body, doubling the size of their stomach. And of course, a beaver’s winter stores are utilized by – and essential to – their orange-enameled incisors. Like the stains we can get from coffee or tea, beaver teeth take on the hue of iron-rich layer of living cambium cells that beavers need most for winter nourishment. Disuse could not only dull these dental knives, it could be life threatening. If defective or un-whet teeth don’t cause starvation, the bottom teeth could keep wrapping round until they pierce the beaver’s brain. It’s happened.

beaver-skull

This fine specimen shows the robust power of a beaver’s jaw. It also reveals how the incisors function like chisels. Entire trees are felled by “chipping” with the top teeth sliding over the lowers in clean, curt bites. The orange-enameled fronts of the incisors are harder than the soft white dentine on the backs, so they with sharpen with each cut. (Photo Credit: Katie Collins)

 

So if you listen atop a beaver lodge and hear gnawing this winter, they may not even be feeding. It is not just reduced access that makes beavers slow down tree felling in trade for mere tooth whittling, but the prospect of using far less energy, a necessity in lean times. Along with a plusher coat – which may pack as many as 23,000 hairs into a square centimeter of fur – the tail becomes more than just a rudder and alarm. A beaver may lose 25 percent of its body energy through the tail in summer, but it becomes crucial to fat storage in winter, when it allows a mere 2 percent loss of body heat. In the utter darkness, a beaver’s sense of time may even decouple from a 24-hour cycle, lengthening the circadian rhythm into a “day” that is up to 28 hours long. But when the lodge begins to drip or the ice grows thin, a winter beaver may use its back as an ice-breaker to replenish stores and literally get a breather. Perhaps winter makes us all more aware of our homes and bodies and origins, showing us, when we emerge, what seasonal creatures we are.

winter-beaver-lodge

This instructive image by Michael Bevans is from Frank Conibear’s book The Wise One. Conibear was a trapper who was intimately familiar with the beavers’ habits in Canada’s winter extremes, including the terraced gradations of the lodge, frost lines, and how steamy breath and ceiling upkeep could maintain the crucial breathing vent.

November 2016

Cohos Spawning and Dying: Lives in Constant Change

It is one thing to speak of outer molts and changes in coats, or to consider the metamorphoses of tadpoles to adults. But it is another thing entirely for a mature, fulsome creature to alter its aged body – all of it – from cells to skin. Cohos cannot boast the pink’s hump or the sockeye’s crimson, but they surge in from the sea with the neurons of their olfactory rosette firing like crazy. By late October and early November, this mighty organ of odors reactivates the unique scent-memories of the watershed’s rocks, soils, and plants left behind last year. Within miles, even feet, of their birthstones, they garner the teeth and hooked jaws that eat nothing. With innards adjusted for the saltless torrents of home, cohos come into season with their own rufous-streaked luster, blurred in fir-green. Though we style them “silvers” for the bright slivers on fin tips, and Canadians call them “bluebacks,” the don’t seem to care what we call them. The muscular cohos are leapers and fighters, and they thrash on to find and defend their life’s last goal: the redd.

A redd is a salmon’s spawning nest. No feather down lining here; these eggs rest directly in stone cracks. But if you’re thinking crunch, don’t worry. Mother cohos have learned what’s required to make life in an old glacier’s wake, and the eggs rival the hardness of rocks within minutes of ejection. The earliest arriving females have the best site selection: with the finest mid-size cobbles heading the riffles where downwelling currents of oxygen-rich water deepen and freshen their redds. Such water allies with the mother’s tail, when she turns sidelong to beat the stones in a suctioned, shoveling wave. Fine silts and sand collect on the tailspill slope, and if done right, she’ll hollow a tear-shaped bowl the length of her body. There she’ll wait until a male arrives or wins his fight, then comes along quivering, with mouth agape. In mere seconds, before the eggs harden, they’ll be misted with milt, the sperm motes that somehow enter the eggs despite water’s rush. And though latecomers will undo her gentled, covering sweeps, that mother will dig on upstream until she’s spent all. With all five-thousandsome eggs scattered over the stones, she’ll wait on the last ones like a tattered prayer flag.

coho-spawning

Male and female cohos preparing to spawn. Before you go out to the creeks to celebrate these spawning rites, you might want to check out this 5 minute “Private Lives of Salmon” clip with the legendary ecologist, anthropologist, and storyteller Richard Nelson.  (Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management)

 

Last November I spent a day with Cameron Coronado, NSEA’s Monitoring Coordinator, to learn how three beaver dams on Fishtrap Creek were not barring the cohos’ spawning rites. The fish there might have even benefited from the dams’ late fall strains. In heavy spates, those ramparts slowed the flows and sieved the silts that smother eggs. While most all were passable for a cohos’ leap, we were surprised to find redds just downstream of the dam on the upwelling currents. There, the dam’s pressure forces high-oxygen water though the creekbed itself, which reemerges spring-like at the mother’s digging. I looked long at a fish feeling this unseen wind of water through the cobbles. These fish seek it, skulking eddies and slicing difficult floats in flow, or with quick-flicks that flare the surface-caught fins. They mimic the current that makes them.

fishtrap-beaver-dam

A small beaver dam on Fishtrap Creek. For those of you thinking, “aww, the poor fish,” do not fear! Salmon and beavers have been living together at least since the Pliocene Epoch (5.3 to 2.5 million years ago) so they are used to each other’s tricks. Human research is just starting to catch up with this ancient beaver-salmon relationship, and you can find some of latest and greatest insights on this 13 minute podcast from Oregon Public Broadcasting or this 2 minute clip from Scientific American.   (Photo Credit: Cameron Coronado)

 

But within two weeks after the return to spawn, these cohos return again, this time in a final headwaters homecoming. Most of us do not honor death enough today, and the least I could do then was to watch some last thrust to shore, or to look close at the bodies caught shining in the sunk willow basketry of the dark-cobbled deep. Such drowned ones refracted in the current, further gleamed by the wind through leafless maples. The time came when I had to help skewer one of the dead with a single-pronged tool called a fish pugh, dragging the blistering silver once more to the air. We tried for milt to confirm our hint from the toothy, hooked snout: male. The males outnumber and outlast the females by late November, having aimed to fight the late fall waters in peak, sea-fattened salmon machismo. On that armlong fellow, we noted the adipose fin, the fatty flap behind the dorsal. He was wild. Those without it would have been clipped as hatchery fry, then tagged to track migrations. But without tags and with that small, but super-sensory fin in place, he had gone beyond what we know. On other days we might need to use forceps to pluck some dorsal scales or otoliths (earbones), for their concentric rings can be aged like microscopic trees. But that day it was enough to cut off the tail with shears to show he was accounted for. Then we lowered him, and let go.

We may know more about salmon than any fish on earth, but their grace still goes beyond reckoning. They are gifts of nutrients packed from the sea, laid under cedars and preyed over by at least 137 species of microbes, stream invertebrates, mammals and birds: from wrens to eagles and maggots to bears. Their DNA scrawls across and beyond watersheds, their nitrogen and phosphorus a pulse through us all. Their lives go on as much through this as through the single percent of young who are born and throng to return. It is a legacy that keeps us through the year’s darkest days, remembering us to the natural history that would be impossible without their undeserved, undying death.

salmon-in-the-leaves

This old salmon is in the leaves, but to further explore how the salmon’s web of life – and death – knits the Pacific Northwest together, check out Amy Gulick’s inspiring book Salmon in the Trees, which can be previewed on her website. (Photo Credit: Southern Oregon Land Conservancy)

 

If you’ve ever wondered where to see salmon, and what kind, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s interactive Salmonscape Map is an incredible resource. Many crucial spawning areas are on WLT properties, including ones you might be able to see at our upcoming November work parties. Our partner NSEA also leads Salmon Viewing Tours that you won’t want to miss. Have fun!

 

October 2016

 

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Beavers Restoring: Construction Season for Lodges and Dams

A beaver’s work never stops, but it does intensify. Lengthening fall nights mean overtime for these nocturnal rodents keen on restoring their lodges and dams. Many of us unconsciously subscribe to the myth of the domed isle: that beaver lodges are just cagey, round, stick-heaps out there in the pond. But if you don’t encounter that stereotypical image, consider this: beavers may be burrowing right beneath your feet. In fact, one twenty-four million year old race of beavers, the woodchuck-sized Paleocastor, tunneled corkscrewed dwellings some nine feet into Nebraska’s ancient lakebed soils. In the tenor of proper scientific bafflement, geologist Erwin Hinkley Barbour called them Daemonhelix, after what nearby ranchers called “Devil’s Corkscrews.”  Though modern beavers developed their powerful webbed hind feet in the last few millennia, they still have a knack for going to ground. They have learned to be opportunistic, utilizing everything from cutbanks to logjams to rootwads as home’s foundation. Every stone, mudclod, and stick has potential use, carried nimbly under chin or in dexterous front paws.

When last year’s epic drought exposed many beaver lodges across our county, my curiosity for their architectural wonders grew. One lodge, on the conserved land of Tricia Otto, had faced a drawdown so severe that the beavers abandoned it for a bank burrow along deeper waters. With the beavers gone and no aquatic barriers on the entrance chutes, it seemed like an open house, a prime opportunity to experience their architecture from the inside out. But I quickly learned that entering a beaver lodge demands full prostration; first on all fours, then no fours, in a self-forgetful slough. Beavers clamber with shameless sliding, but only those of us well-practiced in prayer will be ready for such intimacy of body and earth.

I was not. I was not wiser for rolling up pants and sleeves, for my stomach dragged the mud and my back rasped the daggerish sticks above. Halfway in, I thought I tore my shirt, but I couldn’t check to see. At first, I couldn’t see. Deep inside this damp, ethereal, sedan-sized cave, the only light came from sun reflecting on the final puddles at the two entrance chutes. But once finally within, I could release my groveling hover and accept (with some anxiety) how beavers condone muskrats, crayfish, snakes, turtles and insects of all kinds as housemates. Despite its outer disarray, the lodge’s interior was more spacious than I imagined. Its upbuilt floor was dry enough, purposefully rendered with shelf-like chambers for eating, sleeping, and nourishing young. But I did not expect to see a spider’s gossamer threads in the dim glinted light through the low ceiling cracks. Some would soon be mud-sealed for winter, others left for ventilation. And I did not expect a round stone the size of a basketball, centered like an ostrich egg in the ribbed, wood-vesseled room. Or the black plastic that was no longer trash, but part of the inscrutable tapestry. I imagined, come winter, it would be alive with body-warmth and smoking breath.

photo-1

There are some loose ends, but the inside of a beaver lodge offers shelter from heat, cold, and predators. Scientists working in northeastern Minnesota have found that from April-October, beaver lodges average 3.6°F cooler than the surrounding air. In the depths of January and February, when the outside temperature is between -70°F and -44°F, the interior of the lodge remains a toasty 33°-35°F.

 

Dams, meanwhile, are a beaver pond’s raison d’être. Dam restorations rely on the mud-locking, stick-hatching methods of the lodge, but the dam has the superadded challenge to foil constant flow. They are an essential winter preparation, but the fact that dam restorations often intensify with fall’s heavy rains makes for precarious work. Beavers often have small check dams to relieve pressure in their pondscape, but rarely at the expense of one leading, durable waterwall. Some beavers are able to begin that big one with gradual upbuilding of mud and detritus from the bottom, but in faster streams a phalanx strategy is often more effective. If beavers can get pointed sticks and hefty stones to puncture the creekbottom, they can infill the lattice until the water slows. Sometimes, after initial establishments, beavers tug still-leaved boughs or large limbs in clever shambolic curtains.

photo-2

This is a series of check dams at Maple Creek Reach from October 2015. Dams can be as low eight inches and as high as 10 feet; they can be one foot, or hundreds of feet, long. The world’s longest known beaver dam, discovered through a virtual Google Earth cruise of Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park, stretches 2,789 feet.

 

All I can say is that such marvels require inordinate effort. A beaver’s life is patchwork, incomplete progress. No animal has mastered the adaptive arts of wattle-and-daub so well. Though many of us seem to have forgotten these technologies of the Neolithic, I am ever taken by how these creatures think with and utilize the materials around them. Including at Maple Creek Reach last October, where I found the freshest red alder chew I’ve ever seen. I’m always surprised how the alder’s russet heartwood hides within the gray, blotchy bark, but that cut bled a deep triple contrast against the dun, drab grass and the overcast sky. Though willows and cottonwoods are choice foods at Maple Creek, that alder was meant for the series of damworks on the side-channel sloughs. The wood flakes, like salmon flesh, were left behind, but that alder added its worth to the dam. In fact, with one bright bough, I could see they had begun.

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Do not mistake this freshly cut alder on for an oversized carrot. The depressed reed-canary grass shows the beavers’ get-away canal, through which the bough was likely dragged that adorns the dam.

Help us keep watch on the lodges and dams of Whatcom County. Maple Creek Reach is an especially awesome place to watch the beaver’s architectural feats. They are changing all the time, and many – including this remarkable dam that thwarted a channel last year – are due for some restorations this fall.

 

September 2016

Wood Ducks Courting: Pomp Across the Pond

When I first strode down the slope towards Geneva Pond, I squinted against the slants of light. Caught backlit, the pond’s true shape wasn’t clear, nor were its dwellers. But I could tell they danced. At first, I could only hear splash taps and plunge drops that left the pond’s light pied. Then, the unexpected ooo-EEK squeals of wood duck hens broke out. By the time I crept toward the Pond’s tight west end, and rounded the low, north ridge, the breaks of light and dark took form in color. From the scraggly knoll where I received the sun, the slanted trees’ shade hung theatre-like for the wood ducks’ show. A few calm mallards dabbled amidst them, but the woodies circled and pattered like oil in a skillet. I tried counting. Thirty-one? No. Thirty-two. No. Thirty-two, thirty-three…NO! I could hardly cleave the accounted from the bandits darting through them, not to mention those perched in the draping alders’ shade.

But one thing I knew for sure: the males outnumbered the females. This time of year there is no mistaking a male’s gleaming pomp: the bold white bars and bridle, the sharp red irises, and the iridescent, sou’wester-slicked crest. Those drakes were transient artifacts of light, and with each movement, their lacquers and lusters shone a new shade. It’s easy to call the hens comparatively spotty and cryptic brown-gray, but only when neglecting how the emboldened drakes hid molting and equally dun just weeks before. Moping about the reeds, their annual “eclipse” plumage had rendered them weak and flightless for nearly a month.

Photo 1

Andrew Reding, one of our county’s finest wood duck photographers, has captured this trio of bashful drakes in eclipse plumage. While they lack the rainbow hues of body and head – even the crested shape of the head – the bright bill and red eyes fail to keep to completely disguise them. The hen’s bill is brown and smaller, and her dark eye is encircled with a patch of white.

 

The days of eclipse plumage were then a thing of the past. But for me, the colors of molting and courting meant less than the actual language of motion that was writ across the pond. Because most Whatcom woodies don’t migrate south, they waste no time beginning next year’s nesting bonds. They’ll have the full winter for them to harden and early spring to renew them, but the choreography of this fall courting is both the finale and overture of breeding cycles. At least one brood has fledged, and many of those immature drakes watch, as I did, from afar. In time I would discern a new dance beginning when males came a-swirling round a single hen. At first I thought it would be fearsome to her, but with the flick of her head, she incited the real moves to begin. The males instantly began a whole assortment of courting contortions, most memorably a backward bill-jerk followed with a stabbing forward thrust like a balloon-popping mime, all just to show off that blazing white bridle. In another move, the backward bill-jerk was followed by bill-jab in the water with a nasal jib-jib-jib-jib. This seemed like childish nose-bubbling to me, but perhaps it was meant to flaunt the male’s crest. And the most daring suitors of all were those who came right on up to preen the female, or alternatively, those who gave a shake and started to swim away with a cocky hope that she would follow.

Photo 2

There he is, strutting his stuff. I mean really, how can such an exquisitely colored bird exist on this earth? Well, recent MacArthur Fellow and noted ornithologist Richard Prum has some fascinating insights on the evolution of beautiful birds. Consider this: Prum thinks that beauty is not just all about sexual utility. Sometimes, beauty just happens! To learn more about the mind-blowing implications of intrinsically valuable beauty, watch Prum’s short TED talk, or this longer lecture.

 

It took a couple rounds to see all this happening, not least because of the drakes’ rude interruptions: chasing, harassing, and boorish embarrassing of their fellows’ finest pirouettes, jerks, and jabs. They were so discourteous, that despite the occasional high-pitched whistle, the drakes’ only noise seemed a mockery of splash. In their obsession, they forgot all their typical wariness as shoreside watchers, for they sought only the hen’s affirmation. But that final motion was always hers. When one leads her chosen beau away to the pondside for mutual preening, the water falls still. For them, a new season has begun.

Photo 3

These birds are not narcissists, and this is not a wedding. There are so many peculiarities about wood duck courtship that we cannot fathom them with a merely human view. But the more we observe these ducks, the more compassion we find for the diverse ways that bonds form between them, and among us.

 

Scudder Pond (in Whatcom Falls Park) and Geneva Pond (in Stimpson Family Nature Reserve) are both great places to watch this drama unfold. You might prepare your ears for wood duck noises with these audio clips from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology or the Audubon Field Guide. Walk softly, and don’t forget to look along the low-hanging branches!

 

August 2016

Meadowhawks Flying: Changes in the Air

Red, small, and resplendent, meadowhawks are the dragonflies of fall. Relicts of 300 million years, their genus Sympetrum (“through rock”) might as well suggest how they come to the pondscape with season-shattering distinction. From summer’s cusp, they emerge in our last shallow waters, with bodies progressively deepening their youthful hues of burnished rust and buttery gold into matured shades of ruby, cardinal, cherry, and crimson. These are the dragonflies the Japanese call akatombo, the ones that Shirao celebrated in this eighteenth century haiku:

 

The beginning of autumn

Decided

By the red dragon-fly.

 

Here the “red dragon-fly,” the meadowhawk, becomes the marked seasonal word, the kigo, on which great haiku hinges. But long before haiku we have known the reflection of season and creature in this insect of ambush. They were ancient when humanity was born. Perched with front-drooped wings on some grasstip or stick, they’re always ready to prey on what we cannot see. What we cannot see without those manifold eyes is why we’re not ready when they strike like a match and return as if nothing happened at all. Isn’t this how fall comes?

Photo 1 - Autumn Meadowhawk

Against a background of fall color, this autumn meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) perches in the characteristic resting pose between flycatching forays. (Photo Credit: Dennis Paulson)

 

Autumn meadowhawks have the latest flight seasons of all, and they can be found whirring about well into a Whatcom November. But the rest of this red-bodied tribe are now busying themselves before the coming chill. When meadowhawks aren’t stalking their prey, they’re having sex, seeking sex, or laying eggs. Unlike most darners, which have a tropical heritage, these temperate-borne species cast their eggs exophytically, scattering them directly in water or even bare ground. Among the many arcane postures for dragonfly mating, meadowhawks are among the best known to fly in “tandem.” Once the male’s abdominal tip assumes a firm link to female’s head, they enact a tireless series of scoops over water to scatter the eggs. It’s a masterful performance, and if they’re not intercepted by others, or predators, they’ll rise and go on until the eggs are all gone.

Photo 2 - Cardinal Meadowhawks

 These cardinal meadowhawks (Sympetrum illotum) are flying in tandem to lay their eggs in the water. (Photo Credit: Dennis Paulson)

 

Give the perils of this affair, I should not have been surprised to find a dragon drowned. But he was a striped meadowhawk, and with colors so boldly contrasting the water’s, the stillness of his wet wings was suspect as time stopped. Those wings wicked dews just as the chitin-clad body shed rains, but too deep a dunk denies this lotus effect.  Even in death, each wing stayed independently linked to his thoracic engine, connections that once enabled his incredulous, bird-shaming zips. As I held him in hand, it was no longer his speed that awed me, but the wavers of the wings in the breeze. Each textured pane sparkled like stained glass, iridescing transparence, trading shatter for shimmer.

Photo 3 - Striped Meadowhawk

This striped meadowhawk (Sympetrum pallipes) has escaped drowning so far, and is distinguished by the pale stripes on the front of his thorax. He is starting to elevate his long abdomen in the air, a behavior called “obelisking” that meadowhawks use on hot days to minimize the intensity of sunlight that hits their bodies. (Photo Credit: Dennis Paulson)

 

Learn more about these wonders of the ancient (and modern) world at August’s special Conservation Conversation with legendary dragonfly expert Dennis Paulson. More of Paulson’s captivating images will be matched with his lifetime of studying these creatures, and you can be sure he will prime us to look at WLT’s wetlands with new eyes. Even though most of us only have two eyes (compared to a dragonfly’s 30,000!), there is so much to see along the watery edges of properties like Squires Lake, Maple Creek Reach, or Stimpson Family Nature Reserve. Here be dragons!

 

 

July 2016

Western Toads Migrating: The Great Landward Emergence

In birthing ecosystems, the beaver has no rival. Though we Homo sapiens have far surpassed the beaver with magnitude and might, we’re seldom wise enough for works of interdependence, change, and flow. In this regard the beaver is a true “ecosystem engineer,” and ones who are able to boost the diversity of botanical species by as much as twenty-five percent in the habitat they modify. This is not just because a pond community is more ecologically productive than the forest or meadow it replaces, but because its edges are so fertile and dynamic. Western toads are a chief inheritor of the sun-warmed ecotones that beavers shape, but in their mass summer migrations to foraging grounds, they are incredibly vulnerable to vehicular toadslaughter.

Western Toad Migration Culvert

Special corridors can help funnel toads to safety at key points in their migration. In July 2014, the provincial government installed this culvert near Summit Lake to keep migrants from crossing Highway 6, southeast of Nukasp.

To celebrate summer transformations and travels of the western toad, we need to seek ponds not mazed in pavement or bossed with bullfrogs, ponds further up the main aquatic artery of our county: the North Fork of the Nooksack River.

After the North Fork’s headwaters trundle a frantic j-curve out of Shuksan’s icy cirque, they are pummeled with fresh-charged creeks: White Salmon, Ruth, Bagley, Razor Hone, Galena, and lots of no-names too. Once Swamp Creek comes in, the River hits the flat hard and weaves all tipsy, slowing down. But it never halts. Read right, the rock shapes and snaked debris show the braids and breaks, the bank drops and backups, the manic avulsions. And on the River’s south side, just off Barometer Mountain’s bladed ridge, beavers have seized flow from meanders and side channels caught in the undecided rush. Other than Anderson Creek a little ways west, this is backwater, forgotten as the gated Forest Service road above it. Coded FS-3071 on the maps, this road is open to walkers, though most bypass it for Baker’s alpine splendor. But despite the roar of rising motors, I look down at the swamp from my dirt track perch and feel at peace.

The transformatioon from tadpole to adult does not happen all at once. Look closely to see how these fern fighters are still trading tails for feet.

The transformation from tadpole to adult does not happen all at once. Look closely to see how these fern fighters are still trading tails for feet.

But from down there, toads come. They are changing from amorphous blobs into landward adults, coming in hundreds, thousands, no bigger than gravels or the hemlock cones about my feet. They’re dressed in charcoal suits, crawling and scraggling and scootching in locomotion that could rival a newt’s. They must want to hop, but they come in the only ways they can: brazen and dogged, fighting ferns and toppling twigs. In early July, these bold sojourners fan out for summer’s great insect glut, perhaps 300 feet higher and 2.5 miles farther than their waters of birth. So if you’re also traveling to the high country, keep an eye on the road. If the gravel starts to move, you might not be seeing things. And if you turn yourself into a stone, you just might be in for a treat.

The shallows of Silver Lake and WLT’s own Maple Creek Reach are other good places to watch for the western toad’s emergence, but we have much to learn about the wanderings of these creatures and the extent of their habitat. If you see western toads in summer migration, please take a picture and contact Vikki Jackson, Project Manager for the Whatcom County Amphibian Monitoring Program (vikki@whatfrogs.org 360-319-6988)

Thanks to BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure for these great photos from their work!

 

 

A Sign Worth Stopping For

This is a sign worth stopping for. Help us find the places where we need them in Whatcom County!

 

 

 

June 2016

 

 

Wood Ducks Fledging: A Leap for Life

Side by side (Scudder Pond)

Mother and child at Scudder Pond

Fledging is one of the most profound miracles in the wood duck world, the animal world, and, all the world. But for all its hype, it’s a seldom seen affair. It holds the hen’s most anxious hours, and the last thing she wants is to become a spectacle. Fledging centers her year, and preparations for it began months ago, when she gorged on beggarticks and pondweeds, on winged maple samaras, and Whatcom’s meager acorn mast. Lately, the preparations were hastened with nest site adoption, which in turn roused her binge on newly hatched insects, amphibians, and even fish. For a hen to produce a single egg, she must vacuum up nearly five thousand insects. Assuming about eight hours of foraging, this means one insect every 5.5 seconds! But the lucky ducks who gratify this fat glut begin their delicate, daily extrusions: one, two, three, four, five, six. Around that sixth egg, when the hen’s labors are half-expended, she stops to pluck some down from her own breast. Upon that tender layer, she continues until she has a dozen, adds more billowy cushioning, and begins the next month’s incubation.

A brief moment of rest (Scudder Pond)

A moment of rest at Scudder Pond

Then, in a fury of birth, the shellbound lives start pipping and nicking with a specialized “egg tooth” needed only for hatching. Mottled brown and butter yellow, the squirming woodies are precocial and promising, even though they are drenched in their own amnion and albumen. It’s an exasperating process, one that’s cheered only through the shared struggles of kin and the motherly croons. Over the following day, the ducklings have time for buffing and resting before the drama of fledging.

A whipper-snapper wood duck (Scudder Pond)

Whipper-snapper struts its stuff at Scudder Pond

Tricia Otto, one of Whatcom County’s leading wood duck stewards, saw a fledging once. She watched and waited and waited and watched, but the fledging came – as such moments always do – when expectation met surprise. In that particular year, a hen took a nestbox Tricia set within binocular-view of her bedroom window. Tricia had seen the hen burst out on brief grub breaks off the nest, but on the fledging morning, she could tell the hen was peering with a more acute and cautious vigil. With suspicions allayed, the hen fluttered earthward, voicing the same kuk-kuk-kuk tones that had coaxed the embryos out of the eggs. And then, one by one, the ducklings clambered up the steep-walled box, hovered on the hole’s brink, looked, and leapt. Wood ducks have been known to fall fifty feet on this first wingless flight. Fifty feet! They “only” fell about fifteen feet that day, but let’s not forget that anything close to such a height would heap a human in smithereens. But somehow, those ducklings didn’t break; they bounced, and with limber-boned bodies and walked on to water. They’d be prone to predation all summer, but the most common birds to die on fledging day are the ones too weak to try. That year, all leapt for life.

Learning to swim (by Pat Buhl at Scudder Pond)

Swimming lessons. Photo by Pat Buhl, at Scudder Pond

Wood duck ducklings are popping out all across the county right now, and you might be lucky enough to find them in places WLT has conserved, like the Stimpson Family Nature Reserve and Squires Lake. The ponds in Whatcom Falls Park provide excellent views. Tricia Otto will be sharing insights from her years of wood duck experience during this month’s Conversation Conservation too, so I hope you reserve a seat! (Click the button below).

Eventbrite - Conservation Conversations: Wood Ducks

 

May 2016

The Birthing of Beavers: All in the Family

Beaver Fenton 2.Afritz

Beaver at the Fenton Preserve in Custer                                                                      Photo: Alan Fritzberg

A beaver is not just any old beaver. Some native languages have many words for the beavers’ seasons of life. The Koyukon of Alaska’s northwest interior had distinct words for a “male over three years old,” a “large beaver,” a “female beaver,” a “kit one year old,” and a “female beaver with young.” Without the Koyukon’s attentive intimacy, size and weight are difficult guides to the boys and girls, but they still say a lot about age. Beaver birth is starting now, with each baby no heftier than a bread loaf. I imagine each one is like a dense, hearty vollkornbrot, though most of us won’t see the young “kits” for five weeks. There are normally 3-4 newborns per year, and within days they’ll be gnashing and splashing in the lodge, but their anal glands won’t be primed for the big waters. Those glands secrete waterproofing oil for lathering, an essential to be warm, smelly, and sleek. Beavers live a nidicolous life, one where the kits wait in the lodge like a second womb, nursing and learning the importance of family.

Moving baby.FlickrCC.A.Drauglis

Moving a kit to a new lodge                                                     Photo: A.Drauglis (FlickrCC)

Beavers are such family-first creatures that as many as three generations may live in one lodge. While the mother reigns as queen milk-giver, the twenty-pound yearlings often stay to help with cleaning the lodge and grooming the newborns. And when the kits start teething by the end of two weeks, those altruistic older siblings start sheaving twigs and tender grasses lodgeward for bedding and browse. These treats wean kits from high-fat milk so they can finally emerge and begin the feast required for the first overwintering. In these crucial times, the kits also learn to call out with plaintive whines and hisses, and to be called with the language of tail slap. On open water, that sound warns all to seek safety, wherever that may be. I’ve heard it, and undoubtedly caused it, a few times in my life.

tail slap.FlickrCC.Mark Giuliucci 2

Tail slap                                                                                 Photo: Mark Giuliucci (FlickrCC)

After the first year, the young continue to pack on about ten pounds annually, until they gain plateaus in their fourth year around forty pounds. The father may take brief respites from the lodge bustle, but he too joins the others in this “cooperative breeding” alliance so unique in the animal world. Part of his role is also to mark the territory with scent mounds, which are essentially heaps of debris and pond-dredged mud that are spewed with a mighty dollop of castoreum. With over 45 chemical compounds, this glandular concoction from the castor sac is like a turpentine fingerprint to fend off other beavers. So remarkable is this secretion, that before the discovery of the castor oil plant, it was prized for perfume, medicine, and as one of those mysterious food additives that yield “natural flavors.” But for beavers, poor eyesight does not deter them from “seeing,” and heeding, the scent signs clearly.

Scent mound.FlickrCC.Connecticutbirder

Scent Mound                                                                Photo: Connecticutbirder (FlickrCC)

The scent mounds are chiefly meant for the dispersing two-year olds who often get a parental nudge to move on just before the newborns arrive. For beavers, dispersal must be a dangerous, lonely gauntlet, full of currents, bears, traps, drought, coyotes, drainage ditches, sewers, golf courses, mountains, cars, treelessness, and more. In fact, low-gradient, well-wooded wetlands are so rare in most places, that it’s a downright miracle for those who find productive habitat without rival beavers and with friendly people. And doubly so is the marvel of those who find a worthy mate arriving with the same mission. At the extreme, such a prize might demand 30 miles and nearly six months, each step and day of which cuts at the time needed to recreate a watershed before winter.

If you can find one of these scent mounds, we’d love to know! While beavers are mostly nocturnal, you just might be lucky amidst all this activity of birthing, scent-marking, and dispersal. WLT has some wonderful beaver habitats, and these rodents have been especially active lately in the pond at the Fenton site (ed. note: Please call WLT before visiting Fenton), and the river side-channels at the Maple Creek Reach and Riverstead-Catalyst Preserves. Look for slides and scent-mounds along the banks, and keep your eyes to the water, alert for those moving logs that lift up and SLAP!

 

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April 2016

Dragonflies Returning: Aerialists of April

VGonfence.FlickrCC.RobRobinson

Violet-green swallow FlickrCC Rob Robinson

 

Come on now, let’s follow the swallow’s swoop! The long pond skim, then a wing pitch up, round, and whoosh. Then down again, then banking high, all curves, recurves, and bows. For minutes I turn my head a-bobble and make my eyes listen to birds’ directions. But these violet-green swallows are worth watching, both for the movement and the flashes of their names’ two colors in the light. Their arrival in early March signaled spring in my calendar, but not a sighting goes by without feeling the year reborn again.

But halfway through today’s circling swallow therapy, my wobbly neck stiffens to

c.green darner.FlickrCC BobDanley

Common Green Darner FlickrCC BobDanley

the sky. Hundreds of other aerialists are also at work. They lack the swallows’ sinuous skirting and delightful twittering, but these darners have their show. They dart and jerk in a dense cloud, clearly among those dragonflies we class as “fliers” for their need to keep whirring on wing for their warmth. It’s not a cold morning, but it’s a shady one and these sun-lovers are seeking the fresh hatch of mayflies swirling towards the treetops. Were they closer, I might be able to confirm them as common green darners, one of our few early spring migrants who chase the sun northward in spring, charting migrations up the coasts and mountain chains. They’re here now to refuel, then breed fast enough to send new immatures surging back south in the fall.

A modest, blue-dappled, azure-eyed male California darner might

California Darner FlickrCC Mathesont

be the only other local I expect out in April. He’d be sleuthing low and singly about the pond, waiting for a first female with whom to inaugurate a short, subtle breeding season. I’m rarely savvy enough to notice the California darners’ debut, but theirs is such a contrast to the erratic fistful of above me. Squinting hard, I stare up for the field marks of the common green darner: a long, cobalt abdomen and the wing-pumped, grass-hued thorax. But down here in the field, without a guide, their blue is just an impossible shade against the cloudless sky; their green a dark silhouette in the sun.

And yet, the behavior marks these as common green darners too, for not many others “swarm-feed” so vigorously and so early in spring. The swallows may be nabbing a few of the less fearsome dragonflies, but most darners are more efficient insectivores than the birds. They clearly do not need to scoop through the mayflies they assail; they lash nimbly within them with surprise that recalls the ejecting lip they wielded as nymphs.  Sorry as I am to see the mayflies’ few hours of winged life so quickly eclipsed, I love to see the weave of names through lives. Within the hazy multitude of mayflies, there are hundreds of darners and less than ten swallows. Each darner is a concentrated mayfly; each swallow, a distilled darner. Through all, a solar thread.

dragonandsun.flickrCC.SteveSchroeder

flickrCC SteveSchroeder

After you loosen up your neck muscles, start scanning wetlands and staring skyward. California darners and common green darners will soon be arriving along the still-watered shores at WLT properties like the ponds at Stimpson Family Nature Reserve, Squires Lake, and Maple Creek Reach.

On August 17th, WLT’s Conservation Conversation will feature Dennis Paulson, internationally recognized authority on dragonflies and shorebirds, and Director Emeritus of the Slater Museum of Natural History at the University of Puget Sound. Watch our events page for details!

 

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March 2016

Coho Salmon Emerging: A Swirling Playground

When first hatched from their pebbly, pre-birth burial, a coho salmon’s journey is not upstream or downstream, but down. Down, down deeper into the dark safety of their birthstones, where no dipper may reach. Big-eyed and bloodshot, this newborn “alevin” coho retains its nourishing yolk-sac, a maternal endowment that hangs like a tempting honey bead. When fully absorbed, the little mutant becomes finny and fishlike at last, a little “fry” who is ready for its second epic migration: up. Up, up and into the very thrust of the current. They do so at night, and quickly learn the value of drafting in the flow-break of wood and stones. In the light, they learn to be shadows. 

Coho fry.FlickrCC.USFWS Coho fry. Photo Courtesy of USFWS

  Those upward movements must be like opening a door to a howling tempest. At 30 millimeters, the fry are dwarfed by and drawn into the frenzy. Risk and opportunity are equally and everywhere present. Every movement is sight driven, a constant hide or seek. A dragonfly larvae may be small enough to eat or big enough to be eaten by. Some fry may find protection from predators in a schooling pulse, but others may turn territorial, even cannibal. And those former fry who lived to become this year’s “smolts” are in the swirl too. They’ve stretched out to over 10 centimeters by now, and may predate upon the youngest. But they’re mostly readying for another nocturnal migration: to the sea.

Coho smolt.FlickrCC.USFWS Coho smolt. Photo courtesy of USFWS

Though ample space and safety are always prime concerns, the thousands of mixed-year juveniles rearing in beaver-shaped river channels have life pretty good. These places draw lots of good bugs for fattening, and the beavers’ porous dams moderate flashy spring flows and stave off droughty summer heat. Except for an elementary school’s playground at recess, I can think of few other habitats where a species’ young life phases intermingle and transform with such verve. Indeed, some research suggests that the first and foremost blow to coho salmon populations in our region was not direct harvest, but the fur trade’s eclipse of beaver-shaped juvenile rearing habitats. In the Stillaguamish River watershed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that 61 percent of historically valuable coho habitat became dysfunctional without the beavers’ work.

MCR side channel Fritz (Small)
Beaver-shaped side channel near Maple Creek/North Fork confluence. Photo courtesy of Alan Fritzberg.

   Such assertions of loss make it hard for us to recall what it means to face the current. What stage are we at in this journey we call life? Are we hatching and bloated with egg sacs? Do we need to eek out of our stones and face the mighty flow? Or is it time to turn tail and let the flow sweep us to sea? Perhaps these questions can’t be answered for all, but only for the day where one happens to be. In the northwestern Alaskan interior, the Koyukon people have a tradition of riddles that help diffuse and illumine many of the paradoxes and promises of their own complex world. They always begin with “Wait, I see something” then follow with a statement and response. One goes like this:

            Wait, I see something: I drag my shovel along the trail.

            Answer: A beaver, with its broad, bare tail.

With some good rubber boots and polarized sunglasses, now is a fun time to strain your eyes into the shadowy pools of beaver-shaped side river channels, backwaters, and sloughs. Maple Creek Reach and Edfro Creek are among Whatcom finest, and in our fickle hints of spring, there’s no telling who will be swirling about. 

JOIN WLT’S STEWARDSHIP TEAM FOR A WORK PARTY AT MAPLE CREEK REACH ON SATURDAY, APRIL 16TH. AFTERWARD, ENJOY A TOUR OF THESE SWIRLING PLAYGROUNDS. DETAILS ON THE STEWARDSHIP PAGE, HERE.

MCR Beaver Dam_Rob Rich_10.16.2015 (Small)
Beaver dam on Maple Creek. Photo courtesy of Rob Rich
East beaver pond MCR (Small)
 Upstream from that dam. Photo courtesy of Alan Fritzberg.

 

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February 2016

Western Toads Homing: The Untamed Journeys

            Somewhere, where groundwater seeps round a boulder’s heel or down through a sword fern’s duff, a western toad wakes. He’s been holed there a month or two, wrapped in a miry old squirrel cache now overstuffed with leaves. It’s been drafty and dank, though his south-facing slope hid from the worst northeast gusts. He hasn’t seen the snow retreating, but now he feels its trickle quicken on his toes. Some Pacific chorus frogs are already yakking away in the lowland pools and puddles, but this toad rustles out for silent downhill travels at his own speed. He’s got a pond in mind. 

            The western toads’ homing journey to breeding ponds and other permanent, shallow waters is a little less perilous than summer’s foraging diaspora. For those born last year, life has actually improved quite a bit. Because they now travel solo and are more visible to vigilant motorists, the greatest hazards of migration are somewhat diminished. And while this visibility makes them more vulnerable to predation, these new-adult toads have acquired a mild “bufotoxin” which some less-desperate predators find distasteful. The toad’s own eyesight has also improved since metamorphosis, which helps them compass their course by the arc of the sun. We faintly understand how this solar navigation works, but somehow it funnels these far-flung pilgrims back to their ponds.  

            I haven’t found one yet this year, but I’ll never forget another late February encounter, when I met a male eager to be early at the homecoming party. His first defense was of one of disguise, worn quite well in the dun-dead maple leaves. And with it, his second defense: stillness. Stillness with a stout body stiffened in a staredown, one of those shall-I-outwit-or-outwait-you looks. But even with elbows knocked out and lanky toes turned in, I thought that little wannabe wrestler could be tamed, just for a minute. His body’s topography enticed me: the knobby warts, round as old mountains; the brown-blotched skin like a leathery glove. And I thought he’d fit my hand so perfectly! When I first clasped him softly in my palms, he seemed accepting. No squirming or struggling, no uttering of the “release” chirp he’d use if mounted by overaroused brethren in the pond. He was not heavy, but in those few seconds I felt like a surgeon with a heart, filled with precious, palpable life. But the moment stopped as it started, and the body released its great defensive finale: pee. As the wet oozed warm through my fingers, it took all I had not to throw him away. With urine, he won. I stepped aside, and he waggled on.

Two toads

Western toads appear in various shades of gray, brown and olive. A cream or light gray stripe runs down the back, from head to tail. 

You can learn a whole lot more about western toads with herpetologist Steven Nyman and wetland ecologist Vikki Jackson at WLT’s Conservation Conversation on Thursday, February 18. This presentation on Whatcom County’s amphibians will be a great primer for Vikki’s related citizen science training opportunity on February 20. But until then, keep your eyes peeled for western toads in the foothills of Whatcom County, especially at WLT properties like Wildcat Reach, Racehorse Creek, and Maple Creek Reach along the North Fork of the Nooksack River.

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 January 2016

Coming to Light

             In my freezer, often close to my precious snap peas, I’ve preserved a varied thrush. These motley birds are the robin’s kin, and they flock down from our mountains in winter. Something told me this window-struck soul just had to be saved, or at least savored. But after a year in the freeze he planned to escape, he’s hardened. Though his dark neck band remains, his orange breast and wingstreaks have rusted. Still, each time I rustle through my winter’s cache, he rests in his Ziploc like the turning year’s keepsake. Just as he sought the wizened fruits of snowless thickets, we live by the times we preserve. Every last one of use is a creature of seasons.

We have seasons because earth circles the sun every 365 days and because it spins round itself akilter, knocked 23.5 degrees off axis through the poles. Together, these cyclical feats ensure the sun’s light will strike no day’s latitude the same. And for any given latitude, light’s intensity will meet earth’s diversity – its textures, creatures, and weathers – in myriad ways. But the way our seasons result from these mashups of weather, ecology and light is not random. Earth’s roundness grants that a day’s sunstrike will return again next year, an echo of time re-placed.

Edged at the 49th latitude with weather that’s powerfully swayed by mountains and sea, the earthspace we call Whatcom County has seasons like no other. Many generations of Nooksack and Lummi people have thrived for millennia on the “seasonal rounds” offered here and nowhere else: a time when coho salmon return to earth, a time to harvest camas, a time to journey to mountains for berries. Many of us still carry these patterns today. Naturalists have a related word for it: phenology (from the Greek phaino, which means “to show, appear, or come to light”, and logos, which in this sense means “to study”). Together, this word now evokes the study of the seasonally recurring events, activities, and signs in the lives of plants and animals. Though unnamed in their time, phenology was alive in Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne (1789) and in Henry David Thoreau’s post-Walden work towards a “Kalendar” of flowering and fruiting. “No one, to my knowledge, has observed the minute differences in the seasons”, wrote Thoreau in 1851. He spent the last decade of his life pursuing “a book of the seasons, each page of which should be written in its own season and out-of-doors, or in its own locality wherever it may be.” And from 1935 until his death in 1948, Aldo Leopold’s phenological observations inspired A Sand County Almanac, the book that helped so many to see that seasonal changes are in fact “the arteries of the land.”

But it took Nina Leopold Bradley’s extension of her father’s study into the 21st century for us to appreciate phenology as a leading indicator for climate change. Their combined 61 years of observations in a single place revealed that springs spring sooner, and that the time had come to reckon with our landscapes in new ways. But their endeavor also showed that phenology was not just another tool for predictive mastery, but rather a concern – and a curiosity – for us all. Most of us amateurs (from the Old French for “those who love”) are drawn to nature’s changes because they are constantly charged in wonder. Whoever coined the cliché “be in the moment” must have been a phenologist, because deep in our human animal we know it’s a gift and necessity to live by light’s rhythms.

Over the next year, I invite you to join my exploration of seasonal signs in one of Whatcom County’s beaver wetlands. I’ll rely on firsthand observations from beaver-shaped ponds, sloughs, marshes, swamps and riparian edges across the County, and I’ll also glean wisdom from the latest research and our many local experts. Each month I’ll offer some words and images that meditate on the latest seasonal events to watch for. Though I won’t pin them down with the precision of days we assume from modern calendars, I’ll follow the times of dragonflies, coho salmon, salmonberries, western toads, beavers and wood ducks. Using their moments within our moons, these species may help us count the years’ round around us. And as we trace the light’s reflections in their lives, signs and adaptations, I hope you find your own pulse in our place, beating Whatcom seasons.

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Our 2016 Featured Species:

North American Beaver                          Flickr.CC.SteveHersey

 

Western Toad.FlickrCC.SheriTerris

Western Toad                                                   Flickr.CC.SheriTerris

 

WoodduckMug.FlickrCC.Nigel

Wood duck                                                                        Flickr.CC.Nigel

 

Salmonberry blossom.FlckrCC.Brewbooks

Salmonberry                                                           FlickrCC.Brewbooks

 

Common Gr Darner.FlickrCC.Mike Ostrowski

Dragonflies, like this Green Darner       FlickrCC.Mike Ostrowski

 

Coho.FlickrCC.BLM OR

Coho salmon                                                                  FlickrCC.BLM OR

Rob in Cascades (Small)

Rob Rich is a naturalist and writer based in the Padden Creek watershed. In addition to serving as Volunteer Land Steward for WLT, Rob has completed internships with Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association and the North Cascades Institute. He is currently a board member with the Natural History Network, and is publishing work in magazines such as Camas, Northern Woodlands, Sierra, and High Country News.