Gray whales

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Gray whale (Cetacea: Eschrichtiidae: Eschrichtius robustus) photographed 04/18/2015 in Puget Sound, WA.

Gray whales (Cetacea: Eschrichtiidae: Eschrichtius robustus) were once abundant throughout coastal waters of the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Although hunted on a small scale for their oil, meat, and blubber for thousands of years, intensive commercial whaling in the late nineteenth century nearly drove them to extinction. By the early twentieth century the Atlantic population had been extirpated, and the Pacific populations were in sharp decline.

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Gray whale (Cetacea: Eschrichtiidae: Eschrichtius robustus) photographed 04/18/2015 in Puget Sound, WA.

In 1947 the International Whaling Commission (IWC) instituted a ban on the commercial hunting of gray whales. While the “western” Pacific population that inhabits the waters of Asia is still endangered, the “eastern” Pacific population off the west coast of North America has experienced a significant recovery. Today it’s estimated that there are approximately 20,000 individuals in the eastern population.

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Gray whale (Cetacea: Eschrichtiidae: Eschrichtius robustus) photographed 04/18/2015 in Puget Sound, WA.

Adult gray whales can approach 50 feet (15 m) in length and 40 tons (36,000 kg) in weight. Their streamlined bodies are dark gray in color, although by adulthood they’re typically covered with white barnacles and orange whale lice that cling to their skin. The mottled coloration gives adult gray whales a rather unique appearance.

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Gray whales (Cetacea: Eschrichtiidae: Eschrichtius robustus) photographed 04/18/2015 in Puget Sound, WA.

These whales make one of the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling anywhere from 10,000 to 14,000 miles (16,000 to 22,530 km) annually. In summer most members of the eastern population travel north to rich feeding grounds, some as far as the Bering Sea. Here these bottom-feeding animals gorge themselves on small crustaceans, tube worms, and other invertebrates, filtering them from seawater through the baleen that lines their mouths. In autumn most spend two to three months venturing south to protected lagoons on the Mexican coast to breed. Since gestation is around one year in duration, mating and calving both occur in this area. In the spring they head back north, and mothers continue to nurse their calves for up to eight months while ferociously protecting them from orcas, their only natural predator. Historically mothers were also known to fight human whalers with equal violence, earning them the nickname “devilfish.”

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Mount Hood, Oregon

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Mount Hood on approach to PDX. Photographed 04/17/2015 near Portland, Oregon.

If you’re ever lucky enough to fly into Portland International Airport (PDX) on a clear day, chances are you’ll be treated to a scenic view of Mount Hood. At 11,240 feet (3426 m) this stratovolcano is the highest point in the state of Oregon. Located only about 50 miles (80 km) east of Portland, Mount Hood dominates the city skyline.

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Simplified tectonic regime of subduction and volcanism in the Pacific Northwest.

Mount Hood is only one of many large volcanoes found throughout the Cascade Range from northern California to British Columbia. All of them have been formed by the same basic geologic process. For the last few millions of years the North American tectonic plate has slowly overridden the Juan de Fuca plate to the west. As the lighter continental crust has sunk the denser oceanic crust beneath it, the ocean crust has gradually melted and risen to the surface of the overlying continent. All of this ascending molten rock has lead to a chain of composite volcanoes along the margin, creating today’s Cascade Range.

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Mount Hood on approach to PDX. Photographed 04/17/2015 near Portland, Oregon.

These volcanoes have all been active over the last few thousand years, and the most notable recent event was the catastrophic eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980. While many of these volcanoes are in relatively remote areas, some are very close to major population centers. Mount Rainier is only about 50 miles from Seattle, and Mount Hood is only about 50 miles from Portland. If either of these volcanoes experienced an explosive eruption it would threaten the lives of millions of people and cause billions of dollars in damage. Because of this potential the United States Geological Survey (USGS) maintains a close watch on these behemoths of nature.

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Random Plant: Arctic sweet coltsfoot

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Arctic sweet coltsfoot (Petasites frigidus var. palmatus, Asteraceae) photographed 04/17/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Arctic sweet coltsfoot (Petasites frigidus var. palmatus, Asteraceae) is a cold-hardy herbaceous perennial that is native to northern Asia, Europe, and North America. It prefers moist soil and shade and can often be found near streams and wet forests throughout its range.

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Arctic sweet coltsfoot (Petasites frigidus var. palmatus, Asteraceae) photographed 04/17/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

In early spring individuals first appear by growing a stalk of clustered flowers that can range from white to pink in color. Broad palmate leaves soon follow, reaching considerable size (nearly 8 inches/20 cm across) through spring and summer.

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Arctic sweet coltsfoot (Petasites frigidus var. palmatus, Asteraceae) photographed 04/17/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

This plants goes by a number of other common names, including western coltsfoot, palmate coltsfoot, arctic butterbur, and palmate butterbur.

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Olympic National Park

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Ruby Beach photographed 04/17/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

It seems impossible to summarize the diversity of Olympic National Park in one photo. Spanning over 1441 square miles (3732 square km) in northwestern Washington, this park encompasses some of the most varied terrain in the entire US National Park Service. Along the Pacific coast sandy beaches are interspersed with rocky shores where tide pools teem with marine life. Dense temperate rainforests range from the coasts to the interior highlands where a variety of organisms benefit from the highest rainfall in the continental United States. Further inland the glaciated peaks of the Olympic Mountains dominate the landscape, providing a home for alpine plants and animals. Perhaps more than any other national park, there’s something for everyone here.

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Road along Lake Crescent. Photographed 04/18/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

My wife and I only had two days to see Olympic, but as tireless adventurers we set out to experience as much as possible in our limited time. Our first stops were along the string of beaches near Kalaloch where the Pacific Ocean meets the rocky edge of the temperate rainforest. Flight delays put us behind schedule but we managed to arrive at the coast just before sunset.

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Ruby Beach photographed 04/17/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Perhaps the most fascinating features here were the abundant seastacks. These resistant sedimentary and volcanic beds have endured the force of relentless ocean waves, eroding more slowly than the rocks around them.

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Pacific Ocean and seastacks near La Push. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Later in our trip we would see some more of these geologic features near La Push. Rialto Beach in particular was intriguing for its massive pile-up of driftwood and dead trees along the storm-battered shore.

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Pacific Ocean and seastacks near La Push. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Here we were near the mouth of the Quillayute River, where a misty morning shrouded the landscape.

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Misty morning near the mouth of the Quillayute River. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Among these brackish waters a number of California sea lions hunted, played, and barked occasionally. We spent some time sitting back, relaxing and observing, enchanted with their activity.

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Sea lions near the mouth of the Quillayute River. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

In this neck of the woods we also found an immature Bald Eagle perching on the driftwood…

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Immature bald eagle near the mouth of the Quillayute River. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

…a mature Bald Eagle among the foggy tree tops…

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Bald eagle near the mouth of the Quillayute River. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

…some kelp washed up on shore…

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Kelp washed up on Rialto Beach. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

…as well as innumerable purple sailors stranded on the beach:

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Purple sailors washed up on Rialto Beach. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

From the shore we traveled inland through the temperate rainforest that covers much of the Olympic Peninsula.

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Sunrise near Sol Duc. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

This region receives more rainfall than anywhere else in the continental United States. Twelve to fourteen FEET (3.7-4.3 METERS) of rain falls here annually, supporting massive trees. Dominant trees include Sitka spruce and western hemlock, along with a variety of other conifers and a few deciduous species.

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Massive conifers near Sol Duc. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

The forest understory here is filled with ferns, mosses, lichens, and other moisture-loving plants.

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Ferns, mosses, and lichens at the Hoh Rainforest. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Some of the more noticeable plants included salmonberries…

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Salmonberry near Kalaloch. Photographed 04/17/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

…as well as yellow skunk cabbage:

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Yellow skunk cabbage near Heart O’ the Hills. Photographed 04/18/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Lurking among the moist foliage were gigantic banana slugs…

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Banana slug near Kalaloch. Photographed 04/17/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

…and also the much more gigantic Roosevelt elk:

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Roosevelt elk in the Hoh Rainforest. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

From here we ventured into the foothills of the Olympic Mountains. The abundant snow and rain that falls on the highlands concentrates into raging rivers that support verdant landscapes.

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Salmon Cascades near Sol Duc. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Throughout autumn a number of salmon species fight their way up these rivers to spawn. At this time of year they can sometimes be seen launching themselves up the daunting rapids.

Water seems to flow everywhere in Olympic, and even the smallest cascades provide some idyllic scenes:

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Small mossy cascade along the Sol Duc Falls trail. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

The hiking trails around Sol Duc Falls are really nice, and the falls themselves aren’t too shabby either:

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Sol Duc Falls photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Here we found a few pairs of Columbian black-tailed deer does and fawns, and even the babies seemed unmoved by human presence:

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Columbian black-tailed deer fawn near Sol Duc. Photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Near Sol Duc is Lake Crescent, a clear and gorgeous body of water among the Olympic foothills.

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Lake Crescent photographed 04/18/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Near the shore we found this breeding pair of Common Mergansers shaking their tail feathers:

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Common Mergansers along Lake Crescent. Photographed 04/18/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

The sights around this lake were serene and beautiful, even more so when the sun settled into the mountainous horizon:

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Sunset along Lake Crescent. Photographed 04/18/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Moving ever higher in elevation, we eventually made our way up Hurricane Ridge into the heart of the Olympic Mountains.

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Forested mountains along Hurricane Ridge. Photographed 04/18/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Above about 4000 feet (1220 m) snow was still present in mid-April.

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Forested mountains along Hurricane Ridge. Photographed 04/18/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

The road was closed beyond the Hurricane Ridge visitor center, and the presence of snow-removal equipment was a sign there was still work to be done to clear the road.

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Snow removal equipment along Hurricane Ridge. Photographed 04/18/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

There was enough snow present at the visitor center that someone left a little snowman. He was a little melted from the mild temperature, but represented an otherwise welcoming host at this location.

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Little snowman near the Hurricane Ridge visitor center. Photographed 04/18/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

The enduring spring snow also made the Olympic Mountains rather lovely. These peaks are the result of an accretionary wedge that has formed as the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate has subducted under the North American plate.

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Forested mountains along Hurricane Ridge. Photographed 04/18/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

From the sandy beaches littered with driftwood and seastacks to the glaciated and forested peaks of the Olympic Mountains, Olympic National Park is astounding in both its size and scope of environments. Although my wife and I managed to sample the diversity in only two days, one could easily spend a week or more breathing it all in.

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Sunset near the Kalaloch Lodge. Photographed 04/17/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

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

Varied Thrush

Found throughout the Pacific Northwest, the Varied Thrush (Passeriformes: Turdidae: Ixoreus naevius) is a relatively common inhabitant of dense, wet forest understories. These birds live year-round in western Washington and Oregon. In the summer many migrate as far north as Alaska to breed, and in the winter some migrate as far south as Mexico in search of food.

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Varied Thrush (Passeriformes: Turdidae: Ixoreus naevius) photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

During warmer months these thrushes forage in leaf litter for insects and other arthropods to eat. As prey items become more scare in winter, they feed more upon fruits and seeds. They are often aggressive toward each other and other bird species, especially at feeding sites.

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Varied Thrush (Passeriformes: Turdidae: Ixoreus naevius) photographed 04/19/2015 at Olympic National Park, WA.

Over the last few decades these birds have experienced a marked population decline. Since they rely upon expansive and mature old-growth forests for habitat, it’s thought that logging and deforestation play a significant role in their weakening numbers. In more populated areas they’re also susceptible to collisions with cars and windows, as well as predation by cats. They’re one of innumerable species that stand to benefit from conservation efforts to protect habitat for the endangered Northern Spotted Owl.

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Steller sea lions

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Steller sea lions (Carnivora: Otariidae: Eumetopias jubatus) photographed 04/18/2015 in Puget Sound, WA.

Steller sea lions (Carnivora: Otariidae: Eumetopias jubatus) can be found scattered along northern Pacific coastlines from California to Japan. These ocean-dwelling mammals often congregate for breeding, feeding, and socializing. They’re perhaps most often encountered resting together on rocks and shores, basking in the warmth of the sun while they digest their food.

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Steller sea lions (Carnivora: Otariidae: Eumetopias jubatus) photographed 04/18/2015 in Puget Sound, WA.

These carnivores mostly hunt fish, squid, and octopus, but will sometimes kill and eat smaller seals if an opportunity arises. All this meat helps them grow to 7-9 feet (2.2-2.8 m) in length and reach body weights of over one ton, making them the largest sea lion species on earth.

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Steller sea lions (Carnivora: Otariidae: Eumetopias jubatus) photographed 04/18/2015 in Puget Sound, WA.

Although populations in northeast Asia and the Pacific Northwest have been relatively stable, numbers throughout Alaska have experienced a precipitous decline over the last few decades. Since 1997 these sea lions have been listed as “endangered.” Researchers don’t yet know the reason for their mortality but overfishing, increased predation by orcas, disease, and pollution are all being investigated.

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Random Hydrozoan: Billions of purple sailors washed up on Pacific beaches

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Purple sailors (Anthomedusae: Porpitidae: Vellela vellela) washed up on Rialto Beach at Olympic National Park, WA. Photographed 04/19/2014.

This past weekend my wife and I spent a few days exploring the Olympic Peninsula of Washington.  One of the more interesting discoveries we made involved innumerable blue marine invertebrates (Anthomedusae: Porpitidae: Vellela vellela) that had washed up on the Pacific beaches of Olympic National Park.

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Purple sailor (Anthomedusae: Porpitidae: Vellela vellela) washed up on Rialto Beach at Olympic National Park, WA. Photographed 04/19/2014.

Although vaguely similar to jellyfish, these animals are more closely related to Portuguese man 0′ wars.  These colonial carnivores float above the water and project tentacles filled with stinging cells down into the ocean below. Prey that happen upon them are paralyzed and slowly consumed. These hydrozoans move about by means of a simple sail that grows upward and are at the mercy of wind and water patterns.

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Purple sailors (Anthomedusae: Porpitidae: Vellela vellela) washed up on Rialto Beach at Olympic National Park, WA. Photographed 04/19/2014.

Every few years particularly strong and persistent westerly winds can strand vast numbers of these animals on beaches where they die. In recent weeks billions of these animals have washed up on the Pacific coast from Washington to California. Since this is a relatively uncommon event I thought we were pretty lucky to happen upon it.  Good for us, not so good for the purple sailors.

Posted in Invertebrate Zoology, National Parks | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments