Comox Valley Naturalists Society
Knowing Nature . . .
December 24, 2007
Christmas is often green in the coastal lowlands, but up in the mountains there is a snowy winter wonderland. Over the holidays, and through the coming months, many of us will be heading up the hill to enjoy skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding and sledding. It is a good time to become acquainted with the plants and animals that are adapted to these wintry, subalpine conditions. Here are a few tips, to enhance your appreciation of Nordic nature.
Make friends with a Gray Jay. Stop for lunch and you are sure to encounter a Gray Jay. With a reputation for petty thievery, jays approach with a “soft questioning whistled note” before swooping down to filch a sandwich or cookie. The Gray Jay is commonly known as the “Whiskey Jack” derived from the Indian name “Whis-ka-chon”, and is also called “meat bird” or “camp robber”. It is hard to mistake Gray Jays for any other mountain bird. Slightly larger than a robin, they are pearl gray with darker grey patches on the back of the head, shoulders and tail, and whiskers at the base of the bill. A young bird is distinguished by a uniformly dark gray colouration. The Jay’s feathers are very downy and fluffy, providing parka-like insulation from the cold. Humans are suckers for the needy and hungry looks of the Jay, but feeding the birds does them more harm than good. Try to resist the urge.
Learn the Trees. The most common tree in the subalpine is the mountain hemlock, which has small needles, a bit longer than a fingernail, and branches that slope upward at the tips. At higher elevations, yellow cedar is more common than its lowland relative, the red cedar. Yellow Cedar has scaly leaves rather than needles, flaky grayish bark, and branches that hang vertically, like a curtain. The small cones are round and knobby. Subalpine fir, another common mountain species, is often shaped like a perfect Christmas tree. Take a closer look at the bark of younger trees, which is smooth and grey with distinctive resin blisters. The blue-green, swept-up needles of subalpine fir are powerfully aromatic.
Track a Marten. If you can find a stretch of snow unmarked by snowshoes, ski poles and fallen bodies, chances are you will find wild animal tracks. A common track to find is that of the Marten, a member of the weasel, or Mustelid family. The Marten is roughly the size of a cat, with a pointed face, slender body, short legs and a bushy tail. In the winter, Marten’s have a rich brown coat with an orange throat patch. Unfortunately, Martens are more active at night than during the day, so don’t expect to see one. Marten tracks are about 3.7cm long, and it may be difficult to distinguish the 5 toes and claws due to thick fur on the feet during winter. The Marten travels with a loping gait, so look for tracks in groups of 2’s.
Find Enlichenment. What is that yellow-grey wispy stuff on the tree trunks? Is it a disease that is killing the trees? Before you become concerned that a plague worse than the pine beetle is killing all the mountain trees, relax and prepare yourself for enlichenment. Lichen, pronounced lie-ken, is a partnership between fungi and algae. Lichen fungi cultivate algae to provide them with food and nutrients, which the algae get from photosynthesis (a process of transforming light into food). The fungus provides the algae with a shelter from the elements, so the relationship is of mutual benefit. Lichens need light and moisture to survive, so clinging to a tree trunk or hanging from a bough is a perfect hangout spot. Lichens come in a wide range of forms and colours, but in the winter, the most evident kinds are the witch’s hair or old man’s beard (yellow-grey wispy) and horsehair (black wispy). Lichens cause no harm to the trees and plants they live upon. Most lichens aren’t too tolerant of pollution, so an abundance of lichen is a sign of good air quality. Breathe deep!
Season’s Greetings to all, and best wishes for a nature-filled 2008.
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