A Living Fossil

The Paleozoic era re-emerges every spring. You thought it was long gone? Way before dinosaurs roamed the earth, the seas were full of trilobites, brachiopods, crinoids, corals and many other species. Between 251 million and 542 million years ago, the Paleo was rich with life forms. Such plants as cycads, ferns and primitive conifers were thriving.

The class Equisetopsida dominated forest understories, and within that class was the genus Equisetum, to which horsetail belongs. With spring comes the horsetail. In winter it disappears, but as the seasons change, the stalks begin to appear and, like little herbaceous soldiers, they mount their campaign of annexation. It’s easy to see why it’s survived for hundreds of millions of years and flourishes around the globe today. It’s an interesting plant. If you break it apart, you’ll find the stalk is strangely hollow. Primitive for sure, but persistent as cockroaches. It produces by spores rather than seeds, like mushrooms.

horestail6Right now, the reproductive stalks, which make me think of asparagus, are full of very fine pollen that releases into the air in small clouds when you disturb them. I discovered this as I was cutting down some stalks near my backyard. I was horrified to watch as the pollen drifted out. I do not wish to assist in the horsetail’s reproduction.

horsetail1Horsetail is not loved by homeowners. It’s invasive, marching across the ground by way of underground rhizomes, much like the bamboo so wisely planted by my home’s former owner. It grows about a foot tall. You can pull them up or cut them down, but you basically cannot eradicate it. It’s been declared a noxious weed in many places. My only defense is to whack back the growth a few times each summer. But I continue to marvel at the horsetail, secretly applauding the Paleo survivor.


Fields of Color

DSC_0803 - CopyDespite what you might think, the tulip originated in Turkey and didn’t get to Holland until the sixteenth century. To say that the Dutch went a little crazy for the new flower is an understatement.  During a period in the 1600s, known as Tulip Mania, people were scrambling to buy the most prized rare bulbs. They invested huge sums of money in tulips. The demand grew. Prices skyrocketed. Bulbs became as valuable as money in Holland, and, in fact, were used as money for a while.

Can you imagine if we used flowers as currency today? Gardens would flourish. We’d probably need guard dogs around our gardens and big chain link fences. That wouldn’t be much fun after all.

But, back to tulips. They may not pass for money today, but they certainly help bring the cash to the growers. In Washington’s Skagit Valley, tourists converge to see thousands of tulips and leave their cash behind as they pay for parking, take home flowers and bulbs and buy assorted merchandise.

Each April, the Skagit Tulip Festival welcomes flower fans to visit the fields of astonishing color. Rows and rows of red, yellow, orange, pink and purple petals stretch to the horizon. For a few weeks, the area is transformed to a little bit of Holland. There is an actual connection between this region and Holland. One of the bulb-growing companies, RoozenGarde, is run by the Roozen family, which has grown tulips in Holland since the seventeenth century.

People drive for hours to experience the spectacle in the fields outside of Mt. Vernon, Washington. They photograph each other against the painted landscape. They stand, they crouch, they smile.

Flowers bring such joy to us. What it is about them that is so captivating? The colors? The shapes? The fragrance? Of course, tulips have no fragrance. And one tulip is pretty, but not very exciting. In this case, we can be pretty certain that the visual effect of huge swaths of color over hundreds of acres is the irresistible thing. Bulb growers manage more than 1,000 acres in the Skagit for tulips, daffodils and irises.

But the tulips are not there just for their beauty. It’s a business, after all. As the blooms begin to fade, the growers “top” them, cutting off the very thing that draws the crowds. The stems and leaves are left behind to feed the bulbs. Nature’s beauty is sometimes fleeting. If we’re lucky, we’ve brought a few bunches back to transport a tiny bit of the fields to our homes.

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“Topped” tulips

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The Cranes’ Journey

DSC_0880 - CopyI traveled to Othello, Washington, to witness the spring spectacle of thousands of Sandhill Cranes that gather in the area during migration. Their favorite spots are well known to their followers and I had a good birding book to guide me as well. So, I was lucky enough to find some cranes when I went looking for them.

I saw the first group as the sun was setting. On two sides of the road, cranes were munching in some stubbly fields. Their gray bodies almost disappeared against the gray-beige landscape.

The next morning I headed to the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, where I hoped to see more cranes, but really went there to see the geological wonders of the region. The refuge is an incredible landscape of high desert, or shrub-steppe as it’s called, with numerous picturesque rocky cliffs. Basalt columns lord over the hills, with sagebrush dotting the parched land.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains habitat for the cranes, keeping water levels low so that the birds have a safe place to roost. They prefer rather shallow ponds and lakes. A FWS staffer, who was set up at a refuge overlook with a scope on the birds, told me that cranes’ biggest predator is the coyote, and the birds will spend the night in the water, away from any access of predators. The cranes like to have an open view, and the surrounding area should be free of hiding places for predators, such as woods and shrubs. I appreciated the view from the scope, though it was hard to keep a focus with the high wind gusts. What a windy day!

The refuge also provides access to an overlook of the Drumheller Channels, part of the channeled scablands of eastern Washington. It’s hard to appreciate the amazing aspects of the area from the ground. I suspect the best views are from the air. But I was happy to see part of the area I had read about.

I left the refuge and drove on to find another area further south that my guidebook said was favored by cranes. The roads are laid out pretty much in grids and I was able to find the road easily. I began to see some cranes, so pulled over and parked. I saw only one other car further down. I watched as small groups of cranes circled around. There were a few others on the ground at a distance. I decided to hang out for a while, and eat my lunch there. The sun was out, though it was windy.

As I was finishing my sandwich, I looked to my right and happened to see a cloud of cranes. I leapt up, grabbed my camera and was out of the car. Birds were swirling around, with groups passing under others. They made abstract patterns against the sky. They flew left and they flew right. Some landed. Others kept coming in from the east. The trumpeting calls announced their arrivals. They sounded so joyous, like they were all coming to a great family reunion. “We’re here,” they seemed to shout. “We’re coming.” I watched the spectacle for about a half hour. There were only a couple other cars by then, and I considered myself lucky to be there at the right time. I don’t know how many cranes were gathering there, thousands I’m sure. I watched until the strings of birds finally seemed to end.

What a great sendoff for me. I was ready to head home now. After I returned, I did a little research and was saddened to learn that many states allow hunting of Sandhill Cranes. I thought it was illegal to hunt cranes. I know Whoopers are protected, but I assumed so were Sandhills. These magnificent birds should be appreciated alive, in the air, not as stuffed trophies. What kind of thrill can it be to shoot one of these graceful birds out of the sky and then admire the dead creature in hand? At least there are refuges and communities in which to see these magnificent birds.

At Columbia NWR. Can you find the cranes?
Cranes near Othello


Western Painted Turtle
Western Painted Turtle


Can you find the cranes?
Can you find the cranes?


Drumheller Channels
Drumheller Channels

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Here’s a good site to hear the crane’s calls: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/sandhill_crane/sounds