Hard for us sometimes, but
Harder for the birds
Photos © 2014 Sheryl McConnell
If you are an Oregonian (or a resident on planet Earth) this is important.
I had an arresting experience when I went out into the woodland the other day. It has been extremely dry this winter in Oregon, but there is often a lot of fog. As I walked under one of the larger Douglas firs there was a sound of dripping rain on dried oak leaves and yet, it was not raining.
I’m not sure if I have ever experienced fog drip first hand in quite this way. I learned about it many years ago as a very significant (in the statistical meaning) source of ground water and soil moisture in the western Cascades.
Have I ever been in the woods when they are dripping? Yes, but standing under one single tree, that is collecting and dropping water is kind of eerie when everything else is quiet, the ground is dry, and it’s just very foggy. Being present as a tree essentially waters itself and channels the water into ground storage, reveals how trees = water = more trees and life.
So, come along with me and experience it for yourself. You might be able to see the raindrops falling in this cellphone movie:
Here, stand in the open where no rain is falling, and look back toward the mixed oak and the big Doug fir in the ravine. These trees were left behind when the forest was logged the first and/or second time in the last century. We left them too, when we thinned trees to revive the oak woodland. They protect a riparian zone of seasonal streamflow – the source of some of that flow is now apparent! That’s a Steller’s Jay imitating a Redtailed Hawk in the background.
So, why fog drip under conifers and not oaks (I asked myself)? I believe that the answer lies in leaf architecture. Moisture runs off the vast surface area of thousands of needles intercepting fog. Oaks are leafless in winter, but besides that, they support a huge biomass of lichens and mosses, which are designed to soak up nutrients and water from the air, as it’s their life support. Hence, lichens and mosses may tend to increase the humidity around a tree, but they sponge up rather than repel moisture like fir needles. Fir needles don’t need the moisture – they send it to the roots where they can use it. Wow.
Beginning this week, I’ll post a few of my old favorites from months and years gone by.
It’s winter 2013 here on the edge of the Oregon Coast Range, the fog has rolled in after unseasonable cold weather, and now the skies are dripping – a good time to look at our beautiful lichens.
Mostly dormant during the long dry summer, any bit of moisture brings the neon greens of nitrogen-rich Lobaria pulmonaria (lungwort) popping out of the background, inviting us to look closer at all the clothing on the trees and logs, ground and rocks. Lobaria and Usnea lichens make a nice orange to orange-brown dye for wool which imparts a distinctive fragrance and, usually moth proof characteristics!
Here is my short look at some of the charismatic lichens of our woods, originally posted in December of 2010.
Lichens are incredibly diverse and able to grow in extreme environments. Their chemistry is important to the ecosystems where they grow. For example, they are an important source of nitrogen in forests, and in arid lands, they conserve valuable topsoil. But to do their job, they need undisturbed substrates to grow on.
They also provide an environment for many organisms to exist – tiny arthropods and invertebrates that keep nutrients cycling in the ecosystem.
Why away from cities? Because lichens absorb all their nutrients and moisture directly from the air, they are sensitive to air pollution. This quality is so specific, scientists use them to map air quality and pollution levels. They can also concentrate some metals and radiation and be hazardous to consumer.
In cities pollution-tolerant lichens predominate, some less tolerant ones are distorted or rather small compared to lichens in fresh, clean air. Several of the lichens on the tree branch above, and the two below are very sensitive to pollution, and also need very moist air so they can function. The high humidity in the coastal NW promotes the growth of large showy lichens in clean air zones like mature and old-growth forests.
They use plants as a place to grow but there is no evidence of damage. In fact the massive increase in surface area may be one reason why forests are able to extract and transfer appreciable amounts of moisture from “fog-drip” to watersheds even when it’s not actually raining.
Food, camouflage, dyes, and antibiotics are among the uses that other life forms have for lichens. The long strands of Old Man’s Beard and other Usnea species are collected to extract its chemicals which have antibiotic properties. It also protects animals that use it for nesting material.
The alga is able to photosynthesize, producing carbohydrates which are then channeled to the fungal partner. Interestingly, if the algal partner is cultured separately, the carbs hardly “leak” at all. The fungus makes it possible for the alga(e) to live in places it normally would not survive. The fungi and algae each look completely different individually, and only take on their lichen form when together.
Although the association is termed symbiotic, it appears that it’s not an equal partnership. Lichenologists consider the fungus to be the controlling partner “farming” the alga or algae.
Even though we’ve used them for millenia, there’s always something new to learn about lichens. Scientists are studying some extra fungi present whose exact function is unclear.
This can happen very quickly. If you spray a dry lichen with water, it will absorb moisture and change color immediately. This is a sign it is active.
In fact, lichens need alternate wetting and drying to cycle carbohydrates back and forth between the fungal and algal partners.
Thanks to lichenologist Katherine Glew (Univ of Washington) for teaching me about lichens. I can remember some of it.
If you missed the news this late summer about the patches of oak devastation near Sheridan and other places in the Willamette Valley, here’s a hyper-local update (our property). When the damage is in full spate (i.e. the larvae are making oaks and doug firs look dead and blighted) it’s all about the caterpillars. Right now (mid November) I am seeing these moths everywhere flopping around on the ground. Their diaphanous, transparent wings seem hardly up to the task of finding a mate and laying eggs, particularly when they are rain-soaked. However, I’m sure we’ll be seeing their leaf-chewing offspring soon enough. By the way, there is a nice description of life cycles in that first link above. I highly recommend.
Perhaps these adults arrived from Dupee Valley or even as far as Red Prairie, where the oaks looked blasted last summer, carried on the wind of fall storms? They seem to be weak flyers so it’s hard to imagine them making the trip under their own steam.
It will be interesting to see whether our oaks get the same treatment next year, having escaped till now. See previous post for a good control method: our beloved brown creepers.
It’s oyster mushroom season here in the Pacific NW. This is the domestic variety on our Oregon white oak logs. Soon it will be time to cut and inoculate a new batch. I think the next one will be combo logs of both shiitake and oyster. Should it be warm or cold weather shiitakes? Vote early and often using the contact form!
Great birding this spring and early summer here in Gopher Valley.
Since I finished Birding by Ear with Lisa and Don through the Corvallis Environmental Center, I have been obsessed with all the bird conversation going on. I took the class so I could learn to listen in on who is here, and I was not disappointed! I have been making some recordings (to come in future posts) and have identified many formerly unknown songs.
I found out there are birds out there I’ve never seen, and may never be able to see – Pacific Slope Flycatcher for example. Tom finally pointed out the elusive Swainson’s Thrush yesterday, when we visited Miller Woods, but we can’t seem to see our own, despite the fact that they sing practically all day long.
One great thing about our newly cleared oak woodland, is there is space between the trees – through which birds fly, and when they land, we can see them. Thus I was able to photograph the exotic, tropical-looking Western Tanager today. I think they live behind our house, because I hear their crickety chirping call from the trees. There seem to be two adult males here in the photos, the less exuberantly colored one is a non-breeding male, I think. Perhaps one of the kids. All the bird babies are out trying their wings and hunting skills.
The day before I took on the Scotch broom (previous post) I indulged in a day of scouting for birds and plants. It is so much easier to see birds since the tree thinning! I finally got a picture of the white breasted nuthatch (there are at least 2) in its element, with a tasty morsel of some kind – nowhere near a feeder!
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