OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Sasquatch Moss at Staircase

Hiking and photographing in autumn along the North Fork Skokomish River of Olympic National Park, where draping Usnea Lichens and Bull Trout provided beautiful details under Bigleaf Maples and giant cedars.

Usnea lichen drips from a Bigleaf Maple like the Spanish Moss of the American South, though it is completely unrelated (and Spanish Moss itself is a flowering plant related to pineapple, and has nothing to do with moss). Perhaps I should call this lichen “Sasquatch Moss!” The golden color in the background comes from autumn maple leaves, thrown out of focus by focusing on the nearby lichen. 

Autumn in the Pacific Northwest has never seemed as glorious as those Upper Peninsula or Vermont or Adirondack or Colorado autumns that I knew and loved earlier in my life. The trees don’t glow as brightly and the days don’t feel as sprightly and brisk. On the other hand–and there are always other hands with me–autumn in the northwest has its own magic of spawning salmon and dripping moss and golden Bigleaf Maples and scarlet huckleberries.

In search of the special qualities of a northwest autumn, I went hiking on four October days at Staircase, in Olympic National Park. Staircase is located on the southwestern part of the national park and, at about an hour away, is the closest access to where I live. Staircase is known for its Elk herd and for its rocky trail along the steep course of the North Fork Skokomish River, which tumbles joyfully from the Olympic Mountains. At Staircase there is a ranger station and a campground, and other routes along the river to explore.

Footbridge across Elk Creek, along the Shady Lane Trail; everything on the Olympic Peninsula eventually gets covered with moss

Alas, I don’t recall any staircases: it turns out that the area was named for the extremely steep trail that an early explorer built, and is now applied to the Staircase Rapids along the steeply pitched river.

These photographs represent those four lovely October days–a time when I desired to be nowhere else on earth.

Elk Creek winds through a forest of Bigleaf Maples near the point where it flows into the North Fork Skokomish River

A split view of the Skokomish, with the photographer in waders on a cold and colorful autumn day

Huge Bull Trout (close to 30″ long), a threatened species that migrates up the Skokomish from Lake Cushman every October to breed–much like a salmon swimming upstream

Bull Trout with fiery reflections of autumn leaves

I walked out over the Skokomish on these 3′ diameter fallen trunks, and could see skittish Bull Trout in the shadows cast by the logs

Reflections of Douglas Fir trunks and autumn Bigleaf Maples on the North Fork Skokomish River

The most vivid mushroom I’ve ever seen: a coral mushroom that goes by its scientific name of Ramaria araiospora var. rubella

I have a photograph of my mother and I standing in front of this giant cedar 20 years ago, when it was still standing; it fell a few years ago

The Usnea lichens I photographed are on this tree, with limbs hanging out over the river. For the impressionistic photos I got, with the golden background, I estimated that there were approximately four hours per year when the light would do what I wanted it to do.  I figured it out by my third day, and on my fourth day of photography, I got exactly what I wanted (represented by the first picture of this blog post and by the photos immediately below).

I have come to love a style of impressionistic photography that I have returned to often over the last few years, in which a few objects are in sharp focus against a wash of beautiful color created by distant plants (or shadows, or whatever) that are out of focus.  It lends a dreamlike feeling that works really well with an exotic subject like these strange lichens.

And here is a photograph that puts the lichens into their context, where they drip off maple branches. Usnea grows in northern regions around the world, and is noted for its sensitivity to air pollution–it dies even where pollution levels are relatively low (Olympic National Park has some of the cleanest air in America, so the lichen can grow long and prosper). For more information about Usnea, go to Usnea Lichen.

Sun catches ripples on the North Fork Skokomish, with scattered Bigleaf Maple leaves on the river bottom

A springboard notch, where loggers once inserted a board into the tree trunk so they could saw the tree at an appropriate height using an old-fashioned hand-powered, two-man “misery whip”

Moss forms over Bigleaf Maple roots exposed by the scouring action of Elk Creek

And a final look at the lovely river and its autumn maples

For further information about visiting Staircase, go to Staircase in Olympic National Park. This is important, as the road is closed to vehicle traffic during the winter.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

February 2, 2009 Stories of Life on a Ragged Old Maple

Eagles, cormorants, ospreys, falcons, and woodpeckers all make use of an old Bigleaf Maple tree on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

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We awoke two days ago to dense fog over Fawn Lake. When we looked out the windows at dawn, there was a Bald Eagle perched atop the old and ragged Bigleaf Maple tree that sits along the waterfront. This tree has been just hanging on to life for the 18+ years we have lived on this little Olympic Peninsula lake, 2009_wa_23491and we desperately hope that it continues to live, because it provides so much benefit to the birds of Fawn Lake. Some of the major limbs are dead and the branches drip with mosses and lichens. Windstorms and eagles thrusting off have broken branches, and woodpeckers have excavated here and there, lending the tree a rough appearance that is anything but graceful. Yet the birds love it–and thus so do we.

During the summer of 1993, a pair of Ospreys roosted virtually every night on one of the high horizontal branches of the maple. They flew in at deepest dusk, then perched side-by-side like lovers and spent the night on their high roost. At the break of dawn, they flew off to

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go fishing. They often brought trout back to the tree for a leisurely midday meal. We really missed the Ospreys when they migrated that autumn.

Bald Eagles often land on the maple, because the bare branches at the top lend a panoramic view of the lake. When the eagle visited several days ago, it was apparently waiting for the fog to clear, and stayed several hours. At first, the eagle faced our house, where there was lively songbird activity at the feeders we maintain. The eagle appeared to take a lively interest in the small birds, moving its head when the birds suddenly flew. Later, when the lake started to clear, the eagle turned around on its perch to face the lake, then actively watched the Hooded Mergansers and Ring-necked Ducks as they courted and fed. The eagle reminded me of a cat watching the comings and goings at a bird feeder with intense interest. As the fog nearly cleared, the eagle took off.

A little over a decade ago, I installed a Wood Duck nest box and a Swallow box on the lower reaches of the tree. Actually, the installation taxed my strength and agility on a tall ladder, but I managed to get it done without breaking my neck. I don’t recall if we hosted any nesting ducks that spring, but we did have a Western Screech-owl take up residency in the nest box for a night, and I was able to photograph it at close range as it stuck only its sleepy face out of the entrance.

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That spring or the next, Violet-green Swallows nested in their designated box. I was really excited by the new family, and when I saw a Raccoon sticking its arm into the nest box in the dark and fishing around for the young, I reacted as if I was nature’s arbiter of what was fair and good, and shouted and threw stones at the Raccoon. The Raccoon 155801retreated, but I saw that it had a swallow sideways in its mouth, looking like a feathery mustache. After that, I installed a predator guard, using a piece of slick aluminum to wrap the tree at about my head height. About the same time, I also wrapped the base of a nearby cherry tree to prevent the Beavers from gnawing it down. With the predator guard, the Raccoon problems ceased, though Douglas Squirrels and Northern Flying Squirrels still have the run of the tree.

Black-capped Chickadees, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Yellow-rumped Warblers are among the songbirds that feed on insects tucked here and there on the tree. Probing the tree’s depths are Pileated Woodpeckers and Red-breasted152091Sapsuckers. On occasion in recent years, I have taken to yelling at a Pileated Woodpecker that hammers too long on the upper trunk, because I know it wouldn’t take much for the tree to weaken and lose one of its major limbs, which would harm the habitat of all the others birds that use the tree. It’s sacrilegious, I know, to scare away a Pileated, but sometimes it is just so rewarding to play God.

As the years went by, we began watching Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks 188581competing for the nest box, so I set up a second nest box on the opposite side of the tree. Then I installed an infrared camera in one nest box so that we could watch the lives of the ducks on live reality television. It was magical! That spring of 2007 we watched the nest box cam for hours at a time, and were finally rewarded by the hatching and fledging of a mixed family of young Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks leaping out of the nest box to the lake below. [I will recap this whole story in a blog entry soon to come]. We have now been hosting mostly Hooded Mergansers for years, and each year we see more of these beautiful ducks during the winter. There are also more Wood Ducks coming each spring, and they are simply beautiful in low morning sunshine as they perch on the mossy limbs of the tree. Some of the Wood Ducks even come to our platform feeder on the deck to nibble on sunflower seeds. We never thought we would have a duck coming to the feeder–especially an elegant Wood Duck! 

The latest birds to use the tree are Double-Crested Cormorants. There are some tall firs and cedars on a nearby lot that have been used each winter for resting and night roosting by a loose colony of cormorants that spend the day fishing the lake.
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Those trees seem to have an overpopulation problem, so several weeks ago a juvenile cormorant came and perched on the maple, and ended up staying all night. It became possessive, and after a sword fight with sharp bills, chased away a Great Blue Heron that took a liking to the cormorant’s favored branch. Soon more cormorants joined it, and we had four or five spending the night. I decided I had enough cormorants, and began harassing them so that we would not

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end up with a tree filled with cormorants–and breaking all the remaining delicate branches. My harassment campaign is not going so well; for the most part, the cormorants ignore me unless I walk directly under the tree and start waving my arms and yelling. Shouldering the task of balancing nature is such a heavy burden!

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Recently a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk flew up to the highest limb after an unsuccessful raid on our feeders. It perched for about two hours, actively watching the comings and goings at the feeders without making an attack.2009_wa_21651Perhaps it was planning a future raid, or maybe it just wasn’t hungry. We watched it grooming and stretching and reaching up with a yellow leg and needle-sharp talons to scratch its head. Then it flew off across the lake with a fresh mission on its mind.

And the beat of life goes on …

 

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

NEW: To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Click on the photographs in the gallery below for versions with captions.