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The Daily Bucket is a regular feature of the Backyard Science group.  It is a place to note of any observations you have made of the world around you.  Rain, sun, wind...insects, birds, flowers...meteorites, rocks...seasonal changes...all are worthy additions to the bucket.  Please let us know what is going on around you in a comment.  Include, as close as is comfortable for you, where you are located. Each note is a record that we can refer to in the future as we try to understand the patterns that are quietly unwinding around us.

October 16, 2013                                                       Salish Sea, Pacific Northwest

There's no bridge to the island I live on. Getting over to "the world" and back requires a ferry trip for most of us, and we are limited to the space available on the half dozen scheduled sailings in the day. This isolated lifestyle is not for everyone. Every year newcomers move to the island, and usually move back off within a year...few stores, little entertainment, tiny population, everything shuts down at night. And you can't just get in your car and go where you want.

We islanders like this peaceful remoteness. But even for us, there are times we have to go off, for appointments and such. Then we scrutinize the current ferry schedule, and figure how early to get in line, calculating the car quota, the day of the week, the time of year, how critical it is to make that boat, and several other variables. Because when the ferry fills up, any "overloaded" cars will have to wait for the next boat, which might be hours later.

All of which is to explain why I was at the ferry dock an hour before departure this day. It was a bit overcast, but the crisp October fresh air drew me out for a little walk on the rocky headland there, instead of waiting out the time in the car.

These pics show the bluff where I walked, looking from and toward a ferry as it docks at the landing. I took these photos last summer to document some construction then.

Down through the parking lot, past the port-a-potty, a trail leads into a small habitat unique on the island. We pass Oceanspray shrubs first (Holodiscus discolor), and though the leaves are turning, it's evident the lower few feet have been heavily browsed by our very numerous Black-tail deer.
Looking back up the hill is a colorful assemblage of native vegetation. Oceanspray is orange, on the right, while a patch of Bracken Fern is beginning to yellow, on the left. Between them is bright evergreen Salal (Gaultheria shallon). All these species are adapted to fairly dry soil. Of the trees, the straight gray vertical ones are Coast Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii), common throughout the Pacific Northwest west of the Cascade Mountains, while the curvy red ones are Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii), my personal favorite of all trees. Both are named for  Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), an early naturalist in this area.
The contrast in color and shape between these two tree species is stark. By far, most of the trees in the Northwest are conifers, so it's delightful seeing the curved forms of our less common broadleaf trees. The shrub on the edge of the bluff is a Scouler's willow (Salix scouleriana), unusual for a willow in that it can handle poor dry soil.
All these trees are found throughout the island. But there are two kinds of trees that live only on this headland, and I don't really know why. This rocky bluff must have  a unique set of climate, soil, bedrock, and aspect factors.

(more of my stroll on the headland, below...)

One is the Seaside Juniper (Juniperus maritima), until recently classified as Rocky Mountain Juniper (J. scopulorum), a tree native to the Rockies. This headland is one of the very few places it is found, anywhere. Mostly its form is shrublike here, but there are a few trees too. Well adapted to a dry environment, it grows long matted roots. Some have been exposed where the cliffside has fallen away.

The other unusual tree is Garry Oak (Quercus garryana), the only native oak in the Pacific Northwest. They do best in open prairie where they aren't shaded out by faster growing conifers. Coast Salish people used to maintain the oak prairies with fire, to promote edible plants like camas. Efforts are underway on San Juan and Orcas islands to bring back Garry Oak prairie on public land, which will improve biodiversity in the county for birds and butterflies as well as vegetation. The patch on this headland is the only place they are found wild on Lopez, surviving in the light along the edge of this cliff where they can't be shaded. Garry Oak leaves are turning color and falling now.
Madronas drop curling sheets of their papery reddish bark in summer and fall. They drop their leaves too, but not all at once, and since new leaves grow out at the same time, the tree is always green.
Their orange clusters of berries are ripe now, a fall-winter food source for birds and mammals.
All this dry-adapted vegetation is surprising, considering that rainfall is higher at this northern end of the island (28"/yr) compared to the rainshadowed south end (20"/yr). Why do we have this preponderance of drought-tolerant trees on this wet northern-most tip?

It's the geology: the entire headland is composed of conglomerate, a very hard sedimentary rock, pebbles and boulders cemented in a matrix. Hard enough to withstand thousands of years of ice sheets grinding over it, while the softer rock nearby eroded and later filled with ocean. The hole in this outcrop was once filled with a small boulder.

The relentless scraping of glaciation scoured away all topsoil though, and only trees whose roots can get a purchase in the thin soil can survive this steep hillside of bedrock. Mostly, rainfall runs straight off into the ocean.

Lichens are well adapted to minimal moisture, as are succulents, like this Stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium), growing on bare rock.

Surprisingly, there are pockets of accumulated organic material in the shade that can soak up enough rainfall to support mosses and ferns in microhabitats. This is our old friend Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza), and several kinds of moss.
I even saw mushrooms out there. Our unusually wet September weather has mushrooms popping up in abundance this fall. There's also a Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) in this view, one of our native orchids, which I didn't notice until I looked at the picture. See the dark green basal leaves near the top?
Besides the birds, I didn't see much animal life that cold morning. But I did come across the remains of a young Sunflower Seastar (Pycnopodia helianthoides) which certainly did not crawl up here on its own. I'm guessing it was a gull...had a nice meal on this mossy table.
I could have walked around out there longer than an hour, looking at lovely assemblages underfoot, and overhead
but the boat was coming in. Time to head back to the car.


The Bucket's open for your observations of the day. What are you seeing in your neck of the woods?

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Originally posted to Backyard Science on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 06:30 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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