North Cascades National Park

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Ross Lake and cloud-covered peaks photographed 08/16/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

North Cascades National Park is only three hours northeast of Seattle, but its remote location makes one of America’s least-visited national parks. Established in 1968, this federally-protected area encompasses 789 square miles (2044 square km) of mountain wilderness in the Cascade Range of Washington. Over 300 alpine glaciers decorate rugged peaks while pristine waters flow through dense conifer forests blanketed with lush lichens, mosses and ferns. The varied terrain hosts the largest number of plant species of any US national park, and a variety of wildlife call this place home. Amid this wilderness is also a scattering of historically interesting and economically important human structures.

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Mountains and trees photographed 08/16/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

North Cascades is actually part of a national park “complex” that incorporates Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas (NRAs). The only road through the park is North Cascades Highway (State Route 20) which follows the Skagit River through the Ross Lake NRA section.

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View along North Cascades Highway (State Route 20). Photographed 08/16/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

Although most of the park is designated wilderness and has strict restrictions on development, the narrow Ross Lake corridor hosts three major dams that are part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. Operated by Seattle City Light, these structures are all listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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Gorge High Dam and Gorge Lake. Photographed 08/16/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

Gorge Dam was completed in 1924 and was then replaced by Gorge High Dam in 1961. It impounds Gorge Lake, which is fed not only by the Skagit River but also by Gorge Creek and its beautiful waterfall.

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Gorge Creek waterfall photographed 08/16/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

When Diablo Dam was completed in 1930 it was the tallest dam in the world at 389 feet (119 m).

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Diablo Dam photographed 08/16/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

This dam created Diablo Lake, and like other waters in the area it’s tinted a beautiful light blue color by the minerals weathering from the surrounding mountains.

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Diablo Lake photographed 08/16/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

Ross Dam was completed in 1953 and impounds Ross Lake, the largest body of water in the area.

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Fingers of Ross Lake, photographed 08/16/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

These dams and their accompanying villages and power transmission lines are of interest and importance to modern society, and they have created some scenic alpine lakes. At the same time, however, they do have a tendency to invade what would be otherwise pristine views of nature.

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Cloud-covered peaks and power lines near Newhalem. Photographed 08/16/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

Thankfully within this park it’s not hard to escape human development, even along North Cascades Highway. One point of interest is the Newhalem Creek Campground, and this quiet spot along the Skagit River is serene.

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Skagit River photographed 08/15/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

A number of trails radiate outward from this spot, winding throughout the eastern edge of the Pacific temperate rain forest. These forests are dominated by towering spruces, hemlocks, and other conifers:

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Towering trees photographed 08/15/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

The forest understory is blanketed with lush ferns:

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Trees and ferns photographed 08/15/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

In the dim light and abundant moisture, lichens and moss seem to cover every surface:

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Lichens and moss photographed 08/15/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

The verdant plant life can create scenes that feel like they’re out of a fantasy novel or movie.

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Lichens and moss photographed 08/15/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

A hike up Newhalem Creek showcases a rocky, roaring stream that is typical of the Cascade Range.

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Newhalem Creek photographed 08/15/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

Here the abundant rainfall, thick forests, and steep rocky slopes lead to some really tranquil scenes.

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Newhalem Creek photographed 08/15/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

In these deep, dark forests animal life is everywhere. Most conspicuous are abundant insects like this beetle…

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Beetle photographed 08/15/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

…as well as these leaf-eating larvae:

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Insect larvae photographed 08/15/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

Steller’s Jay (Passeriformes: Corvidae: Cyanocitta stelleri) aren’t uncommon near the campsites where they can be found foraging for discarded human food.

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Steller’s Jay photographed 08/15/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

East of Newhalem Creek there are much higher elevations to be found in North Cascades.

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Cloud-covered peaks photographed 08/16/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

American pikas (Lagomorpha: Ochotonidae: Ochotona princeps) can be found along the rocky mountainsides:

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Pika photographed 08/16/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

Along exposed slopes, many of the higher-elevation trees exhibit krummholz formations. Also called “flag trees,” this type of growth is the result of a constant barrage of strong, cold wind.

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Krummholz trees photographed 08/16/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

Some roadcuts expose a glimpse into the geologic chaos that has been forming this region. For tens of millions of years the oceanic Pacific Plate has been thrust against and subducted under the continental North American Plate. Islands in the Pacific have been slowly squished against the continent, adding to the North American land mass. As oceanic crust has been pulled under the margin of North America it has melted and risen to the surface, creating the volcanoes of the Cascades. Further inland, intense depth, heat, and pressure have melted and recrystallized some rocks into different rocks. Below you can see the dark-colored Skagit Gneiss from the “crystalline core” of the Cascades. This metamorphic rock was formed by the recrystallization of older granite and sandstone. The light-colored bands are younger intrusions of quartz and feldspar.

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Roadcut photographed 08/16/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

A number of great interpretive signs can be found along North Cascades Highway, including this geologic cross-section of the region. Between this information and the first-hand views of the landscape, it’s not hard to imagine the massive forces at work in this area.

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Interpretive sign with a geologic cross-section. Photographed 08/16/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

Although North Cascades seems to be overshadowed by the better-known Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks, this quiet corner of America should not be missed. The historically and economically important dams as well as the natural beauty of jagged peaks, lush forests, rushing waters, abundant wildlife, and interesting geology make this park well worth a visit. It’s important to note that the locations shown here are only along North Cascades Highway. Hundreds of square miles of designated wilderness stretch out from here, and these more remote locations are sure to hold far more to discover.

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Cloud-covered peaks photographed 08/16/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

Posted in Entomology, Botany, Vertebrate Zoology, Geology, Ecology, Culture, Weather and Climate, National Parks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

This is cool you should watch it: Young elephant fights off fourteen hungry lions

From YouTube:

A young elephant somehow was separated from his herd when a 14 member pride of female lions descended on the helpless animal at Norman Carr Safaris Chinzombo Camp in Zambia. Clearly outnumbered, the elephant managed to bravely fend off the attack despite having three lioness on his back at one point!

This event was captured on video by guests on a game drive from Chinzombo; Journalist Jesse Nash, Artist and Professor at CW Post College in New York, Dan Christoffel, UK Naturalist, Steve Baker, and Australian TV personality, Nina Krakowski. At sunset, suddenly they stumbled upon this extraordinary sight and battle for survival. But this little guy beat the odds, fought back and got away unscathed.

“In the many years I have been a safari guide in Zambia at the South Luangwa, never have I seen anything like this,” said Innocent, one of the top safari guides that works with Norman Carr Safaris, and who was the one who drove us to this remarkable site. “We were all so worried the elephant would be killed right before us. What a fighter. It fought off all 14 lions. Incredible.”

Although it was nice to see this little guy get away, I couldn’t help but wonder how long the lions and their cubs went hungry after this.

Posted in Ecology, General, Organism Interactions, Vertebrate Zoology | 4 Comments

Random Plant: Indian heliotrope

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Indian heliotrope (Heliotropium indicum, Boraginaceae) photographed 11/01/2014 at Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge near New Orleans, Louisiana.

Although native to southern Asia, Indian heliotrope (Heliotropium indicum, Boraginaceae) has been spread by human activity throughout the tropical and sub-tropical areas of the world. Long ago it was introduced to the southeastern United States, and today it thrives in this warm and wet climate. It’s relatively common along rivers, open wetlands, and disturbed areas like trails, roads, and clearings.

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Indian heliotrope (Heliotropium indicum, Boraginaceae) photographed 11/01/2014 at Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge near New Orleans, Louisiana.

This annual features hairy stems and wrinkled, ovate leaves. Tiny flowers can appear from summer until well into autumn. They grow on long, narrow, and curling inflorescences that look sort of like octopus tentacles. The flowers can appear white, pink, or purple, with a pale purple perhaps being most common.

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A Beautiful Morning in a Louisiana Bayou

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Morning light over a bayou. Photographed 11/01/2014 at Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge near New Orleans, Louisiana.

This year my wife and I spent Halloween weekend visiting New Orleans. Although the extravagant parades, costumes, eating, drinking and celebration are outside of the scope of this nature blog, we did make a stop at a local wetland on our way out. Bayou Suavage National Wildlife Refuge is within the city limits of New Orleans, making it the largest urban wildlife habitat in the United States.

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Morning light over a bayou. Photographed 11/01/2014 at Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge near New Orleans, Louisiana.

Although the previous two days saw high temperatures around 75 F (24 C) and lows only around 62 F (17 C), this particular morning was a windy and chilly 42 F (6 C). The cold and early hour seemed to keep most wildlife in hiding, although some overwintering birds made a few appearances.

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Morning light over a bayou. Photographed 11/01/2014 at Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge near New Orleans, Louisiana.

There were also a number of interesting subtropical plants to be found here that I will write about in the future. The most rewarding feature of this visit, however, turned out to simply be the soft twilight tones of the sun rising over the landscape.

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Morning light over a bayou. Photographed 11/01/2014 at Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge near New Orleans, Louisiana.

Posted in Botany, Ecology, General | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Random Plant: Sweet after death

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Sweet after death (Achlys triphylla, Berberidaceae) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Sweet after death (Achlys triphylla, Berberidaceae) gets its common name from the fragrant aroma that is released by its dead and dried leaves. This scent has been compared to vanilla, and as a result it’s also known as vanilla leaf. In spite of this comparison this perennial is unrelated to the true vanilla plant (Vanilla planifolia, Orchidaceae).

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Sweet after death (Achlys triphylla, Berberidaceae) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

This plant is most easily recognized by its unique leaf arrangement. Three leaflets appear at the end of a single stem, and the center leaflet features three lobes. Between April and July each plant grows a second stem that bears a spike of tiny white flowers.

Sweet after death is found exclusively in the Cascades and coast ranges from British Columbia to northern California. This plant inhabits wet forests and stream margins up to about 5000 feet (1524 m) of elevation. The individual shown here was photographed in August near Box Canyon at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

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Bald Eagle

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Bald eagle along the Madison River. Photographed 09/07/2014 at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

The Bald Eagle (Accipitriformes: Accipitridae: Haliaeetus leucocephalus) has been an iconic symbol throughout United States history. Long sacred to several Native American cultures, it was adopted as the national bird of the United States in 1782. Since then it has appeared on most official US government seals and is widely regarded as the symbol of America. In spite of its prominence as a national icon and its importance to Americans, however, we nearly drove this species to extinction in the twentieth century.

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Bald eagle along the Madison River. Photographed 09/07/2014 at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

It’s estimated that several hundred thousand Bald Eagles inhabited the United States throughout the nineteenth century. By the twentieth century hunting, trapping, and poisoning of these birds became relatively common practices. People once mistakenly believed that Bald Eagles attacked livestock and left no fish for anglers, and treated the birds as pests that needed to be eradicated.

The threat to these eagles and many other birds of prey intensified with the widespread use of potent pesticides like DDT. These toxic compounds accumulated in water, found their way into fish, and then into the birds that ate them. This resulted in malformed eggs with thin shells, leading to a rapid increase in chick mortality. By the 1950s there were fewer than 500 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles remaining in the lower 48 states.

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Bald eagle along the Madison River. Photographed 09/07/2014 at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Increased awareness of the harmful ecological effects of DDT lead to public pressure that resulted in a ban on its use in 1972. Since then Bald Eagles have been recovering, and today it’s estimated that there are about 70,000 individuals across the continent.

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Bald eagles along the Madison River. Photographed 09/07/2014 at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

You can find these large, majestic birds throughout most of North America, but their range varies with the seasons. They overwinter mostly in the lower 48 states and northern Mexico, and breed in the summer across most of Canada, Alaska, and the east coast. In some parts of the northwest they can be found year-round. They’re often seen near rivers, lakes, and other shores where fish are common. Although they feed predominantly on fish, they will also prey upon smaller birds and mammals.

In their breeding range males and females work together to construct enormous and conspicuous nests of sticks in trees. Some of these can reach eight feet across (2.4 m) and weigh up to one ton (907 kg). Nesting pairs raise one to three young per year, and in the absence of human interference have been increasing their population and range. Although placed on the federal endangered species list in 1967, conservation successes lead to their removal in 2007.

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Random Insect: Halloween pennant

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Halloween pennant (Odonata: Libellulidae: Celithemis eponina) photographed 06/28/2014 at Metzger Marsh near Bono, Ohio.

Although I came across these Halloween pennants (Odonata: Libellulidae: Celithemis eponina) in late June, I thought I’d wait until a more festive time to post photos. The orange and black patterning does seem suggestive of jack-o’-lanterns.

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Halloween pennant (Odonata: Libellulidae: Celithemis eponina) photographed 06/28/2014 at Metzger Marsh near Bono, Ohio.

As with other dragonflies these pennants are typically found near ponds and marshes. Their aquatic young live in the water where they hunt a variety of arthropods. After emerging as adults they continue to hunt in the air, capturing flying insects on the wing. Adults are often seen resting on foliage throughout the summer, waiting for their next meal to buzz past them.

Posted in Entomology, Random Insect | Tagged , , | 1 Comment