Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Practice, practice, practice

Just some experimenting with the camera and trying to learn some things. 

This last photo is a reference to a character in the HBO series The Wire, that show that all white people like.  If anyone reading this can guess what the reference is, I'll buy you dinner with drinks.

We are finishing off the month of January with some beautiful clear and sunny weather that isn't too cold.  I took advantage of the dry and relatively mild weather to explore a part of forest that I have always been interested in walking through adjacent to a popular trail.  If you are not walking on a human constructed trail here in SE AK, your "hike" is generally more similar to bushwhacking through a jungle of sorts.  Fallen trees, dense undergrowth, sudden cliffs, deep ravines, and predominantly steep terrain make this type of "hiking" more akin to climbing fairly often.  There is also a similarity to swimming at times as the motions made to negotiate the sometimes dense understory vegetation is similar to that of a breaststroke or crawl.  Learning how to fall safely is an important and often relied upon skill to have for anyone spending much time off trail in this temperate jungle.  I know I am not the only person who has been driven to a fatigue and misery caused state of near utter despair and defeat by this country.  I am not ashamed to admit to having screamed profanities into the uncaring forest after getting smacked in the face yet again by a Devil's Club stalk.  And yet, a lot of us love it and can't stop going back for more as the rewards typically far outweigh the potential misery!  Yesterday's "hike" was relatively easy and uneventful and I only have about 5 Devil's Club spines in my hand to deal with.

This is the bark of a pretty big Alaska Yellow Cedar, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis.  Yellow cedar is a beautiful tree with beautiful wood that is coveted for certain building applications and firewood.  It is extremely rot resistant so is often used instead of chemically treated lumber for ground contact or wet area construction.  The wood is also a beautiful yellow color that can really be brought out with certain wood finishes.  A dead standing or fallen yellow cedar also can make excellent firewood that doesn't necessarily need to be cured before being thrown in the woodstove.  It is also light in weight for its size and is easy to split.  Yellow cedar trees have been dying off in certain areas for over a century now with the most likely and scientifically accepted cause being freezing of roots where the trees grow in wetter areas that are not getting enough snow cover to insulate them.  These trees that are weakened and dying because of their frozen roots are then more susceptible to being attacked by cedar bark beetles, fungi, and other invaders.  Yellow cedars are typically found in higher elevations than our other cedar tree, the western red cedar, Thuja plicata, and can be distinguished from them by their needles and bark.  My preferred method of identification is by stripping off a strip of bark and breaking it in half across the fibers.  There are small light colored specks visible in the bark of yellow cedar which are small resin pockets absent in red cedar bark.

More fungus!  This is a particularly glossy and pretty Red Belt conk, Fomitopsis pinicola,  that I lucked upon growing on a dead fallen tree.  These are very common here but I have never seen one with so many separate "shelves" coming from one central spot.  This one was also particularly shiny, black, and the red belt particularly red.  Fungi are very interesting things.  They are more similar to animals than plants in some ways - they can't make their own food like plants and they also have chitin rather than cellulose in their cell walls.  Chitin is the same compound that makes up the exoskeletons of insects, cellulose is the compound that makes up the cell walls of plants.  Fungi can also break down lignin which is the compound that makes wood impossible for most things to digest or break down.  If not for fungi, our forests would be much more crowded with the remains of dead and dying trees. 

 Old claw marks of a bear on an alder tree.  The tree is about 12" in diameter and these marks have been in this tree for at least 15 years.  I don't know this because of any particular skill I have, I first noticed them on this tree about 15 years ago.  This tree is visible from the bridge of a popular trail near here.  There is another bear clawed tree about 100 feet from this one on the other side of the creek spanned by the bridge.  Bears have 5 toes therefore 5 claws at the end of those toes which you can count in this photo.  Canines and felines only have 4 toes.  I can't tell if this is from a black bear or a brown bear but I feel okay about making a somewhat educated guess of a black bear.

Lichen?  mold? fungus?  I don't know to be honest.  It isn't an uncommon sight in this forest on decaying wood and I'm pretty sure I've seen it on rock as well.  Whatever the hell it is, it is kind of cool looking so I took its picture.

This is a really interesting root section of a log on the beach just below where I live.  There is probably a better picture to be gotten from this thing but this is my best so far.  It is about a 3 minute walk to this from my house so I'll be working on getting better photos.  There have got to be some better black and white photos somewhere in this thing too.  The colors were nice and the white spots are once again some kind of lichen? mold? fungus?

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Rain, snow, sun, repeat

It has been mostly a wet and cold day today but as the afternoon advances it looks like it is beginning to clear up a little in preparation for the upcoming stretch of clear and colder weather forecasted.  I made an attempt to get some photos in between rain and snow squalls but wasn't very successful but thought I'd post these anyway.

This little timber tiger must know that the weather is going to get colder and decided to freshen up the insulation in its nest.  This was as close as I could get before it climbed into a higher and more dense part of this little forest.

The ubiquitous crow.  The crows in SE AK are Northwestern Crows, Corvus caurinus.  These crows are most notable for their habit of dropping mussels and clams onto rocks, concrete, or other hard surfaces from the air in order to get at the meat inside and for their ability to create such a loud and grating ruckus that any humans in the area hoping for a tranquil moment of communion with nature will retreat to the peace and quiet of their vehicle.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Random nature

A Black-billed Magpie, Pica hudsonia, cousin to the ravens and crows which are much, much more common in the area.  According to Alaska bird guidebooks, these birds are common in SE AK in the fall and winter but in my experience, they seem to be somewhat less common than common.  I have only seen them during cold, clear stretches of weather in the winter months when the Stikine winds are howling downriver.  This particular bird, with two ravens, was harassing a Sharp-shinned Hawk that was in the area.

This photo really brought home to me what photography truly is - catching a very brief moment in time and hopefully representing that moment accurately.  This red squirrel was very agitated as I was walking by its tree and kept chattering at me to a much higher degree necessary than the threat that I was posing to it.  I wanted to try to get a photo of it but it frustratingly stayed in the shade of the moss and branches.  In an effort to either make it quiet down, go away, or run into the sunlight, I deliberately walked toward its tree while staring at it.  The squirrel's reaction to my action was to run closer to me and luckily right onto this branch in the sunlight and stop just long enough for me to get this photo.  Zooming in on the computer allowed me to see that this is a female.  This little squirrel has some really beautiful colors and interesting facial features like the ring around the eye and the distinct color change on its muzzle.

Back to the fungi and lichens.  This is some sort of shelf fungi, or polypore, I'm pretty sure these are Rainbow Conks, Trametes versicolor.  Its edibility as described in the holy book of mycophiles, Mushrooms Demystified, is "boil for 62 hours, squeeze thoroughly, and serve forth."  Basically the same recipe you would follow if you wanted to partake in a tasty meal of tube socks or old leather wallets.

Remnants of a mink's dinner.

This photo was taken last summer in early June up on the Stikine River delta at the peak of the wildflower season.  This is a Wild Flag Iris, Iris setosa, which grow in groups of up to dozens in an area.  They are much more beautiful in real life but for a photo taken with my smart phone, this isn't too bad.  A large number of wildflowers are edible, whether just parts or the entire plant from flowers to roots, but not this one!  This pretty thing is poisonous if eaten, especially the rhizomes which are like roots.  The most poisonous plant in North America, water-hemlock (Cicuta douglasii), can also be found on the Stikine River delta so if someone serves you a wild salad, make sure you know what is in it. 

Another pretty good smart phone photo I think.  This was another photo from the summer last year.  I rank this as in the top two or three most beautiful mushrooms I have seen in person.  I've seen blue chanterelles that were prettier but there was something about this one that was pretty outstanding.  It looked like a fake mushroom under a giant Sitka spruce.  This is a yellow version of the more well known red and white fly agarics, Amanita muscaria.  The Amanita genus of mushrooms contains some of the most poisonous mushrooms around with names like Death Cap and Destroying Angel (Destroying Angel has to be one of the best names for any dangerous anything - I picture a beautiful glowing winged being wreaking havoc with a flaming sword on your internal organs).  This particular Amanita won't kill you but does have some very interesting effects if eaten.  I do not have personal experience with that but have read interesting accounts of the effects and how it has been used by various cultures throughout history.  The main active component of this mushroom is converted in the human body to a more potent chemical that is passed out in the urine resulting in well, some accounts of certain cultures (like the Vikings) drinking their urine.  I always have to wonder who was the first person to discover things like that?  A really thirsty person or someone getting their freak on?  This mushroom is called a fly agaric because it has been used as a fly deterrent.  Also, according to Mushrooms Demystified, Amanita is an ancient term for mushroom.

Yes, I am a very rich man now.  But no, you can't borrow any money I need it for the island I intend to purchase.  Ok, this isn't really gold but in the light of the morning sun, this looked enough like it at first glance to have made my heart speed up slightly.  It is a pretty cool vein of quartz with this mica or pyrite or whatever it is in it.  I did enhance this photo a little bit to make the gold color more vivid.  This photo made me think about the 1982 Charlton Heston movie, "Motherlode".  That movie was about the search for gold in the headwaters of a river in interior British Columbia so takes place here in our neck of the woods.  I think it was filmed on the Fraser River but it could just as easily be the Stikine.  Kim Basinger is also in this movie.  I haven't seen it since I was a kid but it might be a fun one to watch now.

If only Life was like this..............

These photos were the results of my first dabbling in black and white photography, I'm sure there are several rookie mistakes!

We know just how smart these birds are, good ol' Corvus corax.  I've always been a little thankful that they don't have hands and opposable thumbs, we humans have enough difficulty staying a step ahead of them as it is!  This one came over to check me out as I sat in my truck on the city dock.  I was in a place that is not uncommon for people to do exactly what I was doing and where there are people, there is a chance for food.  This raven flew down from its previous perch on a streetlight to see what I had to offer.  I also had to wonder if it remembered my truck from back in November when I had a deer carcass in the back for a few days and had ravens following me until I disposed of it.  They are really just that smart!


This cropped version is a little blurry but it looks like it has human shoulders and arms this way.  An Egyptian god, Horus, or maybe Corvus.

Only a raven knows what this one is saying.  Was it getting impatient and hungry and telling me to help a brother out or was it calling some friends and family for some assistance?  "Hey!  That black truck from deer season is down here!"
When I looked at this photo on the computer, I zoomed in on its eye and could see a reflection of my truck in it.

This white rock on the beach seemed to be glowing in the murky light of a drizzly cloudy day.  It caught my attention out of the corner of my eye and I liked the pair of barnacles on it.

Barnacles on a beach cobble.  These were about 3" tall and made me think of the towering and crumbling ice of the face of a tidewater glacier.

 Some lines that looked interesting on a rotting stump in the mid day light of a sunny winter day.

Morning light on a beach rock that looks like it has some small bumps that were probably the beginnings of tiny garnets.

OK, not a black and white but pretty close.  The sun rising on a clear winter day with some low lying fog over Zimovia Strait and some ice crystals sparkling on the trees.

Not black and white either.  More early morning light glowing in the ice and snow on an alder twig.  I like the miniature sun glowing in the bottom of the photo.

This photo made me understand as a new photographer how a photo can tell a story.  This was another sunrise over Wrangell Island on another beautiful clear winter day and a "right time right place" moment.  So, the story......       The crane in the bottom right is part of the remnants of Wrangell's last timber mill that closed for good 8 years ago (?) or so.  There were two sawmills in Wrangell in the 1980s and 90s when the timber industry was the primary industry of SE AK.  The one in town is now completely gone and has become a shipyard while this one about 6 miles out of town has been slowly being dismantled and decaying.  The clear, snowy area just above the crane is a more modern example of the timber industry of today, a much smaller harvest located adjacent to an existing road.  And then over them both, the ancient and pristine primeval forest of this land.  It makes me think of the primacy of nature and our fleeting but impactful time in it.

A raven skull that I came across in a cemetery.

No story here, just thought this strange fire hydrant might make a cool black and white.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Sapsucker story

Here in Southeast Alaska (SE AK), we have one species of hummingbird that is very common in the warmer months, the Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus.  These guys show up in the Wrangell area in the early spring, the very early spring before there are any flowers blooming or leaves budding out and not even very many insects out and about yet.  Many years there is still quite a bit of snow down to the lower elevations as well so I was always interested to know how they were able to consume enough calories to meet their incredible daily energy needs.  It was a mystery for me until about 10 years ago in early April when I was walking a very popular trail here in Wrangell and had stopped to watch a Red Breasted Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus ruber, working a group of willows.  Sapsuckers are a type of woodpecker that specialize in drilling holes in trees in order to feed on the cambium and sap.  When the sapsucker flew off to another group of willows, a hummingbird immediately fly in to the newly drilled holes and fed on the sap!  Mystery solved!  A few days later, I saw the same sequence of events in a different part of town in a different group of willows.  I have since watched Ruby Crowned Kinglets doing the same thing in the winter.

This is a photo of sapsucker holes on the trunk of a dead willow.  The holes have effectively girdled the tree and are quite possibly the cause of its demise.  I find the relationship between the sapsuckers and hummingbirds really interesting and am now curious to know if a hummingbird follows the same sapsuckers throughout the spring until there are enough flowers blooming or feeders out on porches to allow them to go their own way.

Likin Lichens

Lichens are an arrangement between fungi and algae to create a whole new type of organism.  The algae provide the ability to eat the energy of the sun through the process of photosynthesis while the fungi provide the brawn and protection of a more substantial structure.  It seems to work pretty well for them both and results in some pretty interesting "plants" that make for some nice photos.

This particular lichen is called a lungwort because of its resemblance to a lung, especially green lungs.   The scientific name, Lobaria pulmonaria, makes sure that you get the comparison.

These photos were taken on the first damp and cloudy day after a two week stretch of cold, clear, sunny and dry weather in January.  The colors of the lichens and mosses were very vivid and eye catching and have since faded as the winter has become warmer and wetter.

I'm a new photographer so please excuse the flaws in my photos, hopefully as this blog continues, there will also be a noticeable improvement in the photography!  I can't promise anything and the writing is what it is.  These are lichens commonly called pixie cups.

So, there are probably lichens somewhere in this photo but I was mostly interested in the mushrooms.  I don't know what these particular ones are but there were a lot of them on the stem of this dead willow.  I was experimenting with the light of the cloudy day and am a bit of a mycophile.