Three Birds, Two Continents, One Burning Question

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“Each species is a masterpiece, a creation assembled with extreme care and genius.” — E.O. Wilson

As we mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, I wanted to present something intriguing. The one thing that leapt out at me was something that’s been nagging me lately and I’ve been meaning to look into it.

So, here it is. I’ll drag you along as I explore these incredibly colorful birds. These species have survived despite the onslaught of humans. They are similar yet different, if that makes any sense. You’ll see what I mean.

My question is, Why? Why has nature given these birds such similarly distinctive patterns?

Thousands of their ancestors suffered being trapped and moved thousands of miles, to live out their lives in cages. Today, some wild birds still face being sold for pets, but there is hope that wild populations can continue to exist.

Painted Bunting

These are perhaps the closest thing we have to parrots in the U.S. (though there are some introduced, non-native parrots.)

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Males are spectacular with a blue head, red on the breast and back, and bright yellow-green around the shoulders and upper back. Females are green-yellow.

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Female and Male Bunting

 

 

 

Native to North America, they breed in the southeastern and south-central U.S. and winter in Mexico and Central America. They favor scrubby and coastal habitat. With their thick bills, it’s easy to see that they’re seed eaters.

Painted buntings have always been prized for their beautiful feathers and they’ve long been captured to be sold as caged birds. In the mid-1800s, John James Audubon reported that thousands were being caught and shipped to Europe.

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Today, birds are still illegally caught and sold in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. I cannot imagine these wild birds living very long in a cage.

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Their overall population is said to be stable, though like most birds, they suffer from habitat loss. The eastern population favors swampy thickets and woodland edges that often are destroyed by human development.

Gouldian Finch

Also known as the Lady Gouldian finch or rainbow finch, these are native to the grasslands of Australia. Male plumage can vary in the color pattern. In the wild, males usually have black faces, but can have yellow or red variations.

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Captive birds for the pet trade are selectively bred for red faces. The males feature turquoise around the face, green on the back, purple on the chest and yellow on the belly. Females have a similar color pattern, though not as bright.

About the time that painted buntings began to be trapped and exported from America to Europe for pets, Gouldian finches also were similarly being extracted from the wild.

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By the 1980s, trapping had reduced the wild population to only about 2,500. In 1992 they were declared endangered in the wild by the Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Today, it’s illegal to export them from Australia, but they continue to face challenges to increasing their wild numbers. finch variations

Gouldian finches may be as challenging to save in the wild as our endangered orcas – the Southern Resident Killer Whales – native to Puget Sound. Both species have incredibly narrow, specific food preferences.

Gouldian finches eat seeds of certain native grasses and conservation biologists discovered that they nest only in specific types of deep hollow branches of only two types of eucalyptus trees. Researchers are hoping that by installing specially constructed nest boxes in the wild, they can help boost finch numbers.

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Other factors that impact Gouldian finches are their bright colors, which make them easy targets for predators, diseases and wild fires. They are still popular as pets, though all sold are captive bred. They do not like to be handled and don’t do well with a lot of human interaction, compared to other finches kept as pets. Their average lifespan is six to eight years.

Rainbow Lorikeet

This brilliantly colored bird is also native to Australia. A blue head, red beak, orange and yellow breast, blue belly, and green wings and back make this species distinctive among parrots. lorikeet3

They grow to about a foot long from beak to tail.

In the wild, their preferred habitat includes woodlands, and lowland forests, and rainforest. Like the Gouldian finch, lorikeets prefer to nest in hollow limbs and holes in eucalyptus trees.

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But they have been moving into more urban areas and easily adapt. Their diet includes fruit, nectar and pollen, and they will visit bird feeders and eat various seeds. They have even become pests in some areas, such as orchards and farmlands, and in New Zealand, where they were illegally introduced.

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Needless to say, this species not threatened or endangered. In fact, they can out compete other native species of parrot and cockatoo for nesting holes.

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Rainbow lorikeets are very popular as pets, with captive bred birds available worldwide. They can live up to 30 years.

In conclusion

I have not answered my question. Why? Why are there such brightly colored birds? It’s no camouflage against predators. I have noted that most such colorful birds live in more tropical environments. Does climate have something to do with coloration? More questions needing more research.

Mother Nature has given us many mysteries, but one thing we do know, she has it all worked out. Everything is the way it is for a reason. Everything is linked to something else. We are running out of time to preserve the links.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” — John Muir

 

*Not my photos

An Unforgettable Australian Adventure

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We’ve all seen the horrendous news coming out of Australia about their dreadful wildfires. My thoughts went back to the month I spent in Australia in the early 1980s. For two weeks I volunteered on an Earthwatch expedition in South Australia, helping collect data for a group of American graduate students from Cornell who were studying the native flora and fauna. My team members were wonderful, diverse American women who shared an interest in wildlife and travel. One of my teammates was Sy Montgomery, who since has become an acclaimed nature writer of numerous books. At the time, we were both journalists and nature geeks, and we haven’t changed much since then. Our team was camped at Brookfield Conservation Park, which is affiliated with Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. Our leader, Dr. Pamela Parker was a conservation biologist with the zoo then, but has been assistant director there for some time and is still very active in Australian wildlife research.

For two weeks after that I toured South Australia, New South Wales and Northern Territory. It was an incredible experience and one that will always be a fond memory.

I wrote this piece for Earthwatch’s magazine back then, but they did not use it.

So it seems timely to post this now.

Original Earthwatch project description
Note from Cornell University, which was running the project, updating us Earthwatch volunteers about drought impacts

*Photos included here are from scans of my color slides and B&W negatives.

 

We slice through the darkness with powerful spotlights. My beam illuminates something in the distance – the yellow glint of eyes. Instantly, I sweep back to the spot. We fix our binoculars on the eyes and discover they belong to a kangaroo. Panning the beam slightly, I see there are two kangaroos, frozen briefly in the light. We spend a minute just watching the creatures grazing and moving awkwardly about. Then, we slowly drive on, searching for more animals.

Our project, “Drought Refugia,” has brought us to Brookfield Conservation Park in South Australia.

Brookfield Conservation Park

We’ve come here to study the flora and fauna, with an emphasis on the Southern hairy-nosed wombat. The park was set up as a wombat preserve, but it’s also a refuge for kangaroos and other animals. Last year’s drought had a huge impact on the ecosystems here, and plant and animals alike suffered. Spotlighting is kind of a bonus activity for us volunteers. The researchers do it to catch animal behavior that they can’t see during the day.

Tuesday

As our principal investigator, Dr. Pamela Parker, gives us a tour of the park, we pause to watch a small group of gray kangaroos, survivors of the drought.

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Pam Parker with a “sleepy lizard”, AKA shingleback lizard or Tiliqua rugosa

We also feast our eyes on some beautiful birds –swift-flying mallee ring-necked parrots, raucous gray and pink galahs, and a tiny, vivid blue Splendid Fairy Wren.

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Galah

Further down the park’s dirt track, we get out of the car for a close look at a wombat warren.

Here, we get our first look at results of the drought – remains of a wombat that had starved to death.

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Wombat remains
Pam drives on, rattling off names of trees and shrubs we pass on the way – malleeacaciatriodiaspinifex
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Spinifex grows in circles

“How do you spell that? How big does it grow? Does it flower? Is it good food for the animals?” Our questions are endless.

Demonstration of how quickly spinifex burns
Some of the research area
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Kangaroo bones
Thursday

Today, I and another volunteer are inspecting color-coded wombat warrens.

Wombat warren, a series of burrows and tunnels

We stride across the sparsely vegetated, rock-strewn landscape, going from one warren to the next. We look for signs of activity, either by wombats or other animals, like rabbits or foxes.

We search for the most important unmistakable sign of wombats – fresh fecal pellets. Finding fresh pellets is not difficult, but identifying them can be confusing.

Wombat or kangaroo?

Just when you think you’ve got them pegged as wombat, Pam tells you that female grey kangaroo pellets can resemble wombat.

So, one of the things we learn to do is break open the pellets and examine the plant fibers inside. This takes some getting used to, handling fecal pellets, but after a while our curiosity overtakes our reluctance. Wombat fecal pellets contain short, fine fibers, while kangaroo pellets have fibers of varying lengths and textures. Even Pam sometimes has trouble telling the difference, so I don’t expect to become an expert in two weeks. But my partner and I give it our best try.

Another part of our warren study is to record the number of burrows. A warren can contain anywhere from two to more than 25 burrows in its elaborate tunneling system. After our first few inspections, we learn to walk gingerly over the warrens.

Me testing the ground around the warren, so as not to fall through

More than once we’ve felt our footing suddenly give way. In many instances, we come across bones and carcasses where starving wombats finally collapsed. It’s clear that the foxes found plenty to scavenge.

Earthwatch teammates, Sy, left, and Rhoda studying a dead wombat
Saturday

The research atmosphere in the park is very relaxed. I’m a bit surprised at the research staff’s willingness to trust us with pieces of their important projects. They send us out to collect specific data: avian use of water at troughs; wombat activity; fecal pellet transects, and rabbit behavior. We plunge into our work enthusiastically, trying out our new gear – binoculars, compasses and field guides.

We get to choose what we want to do, and the work gives us some private time alone with our thoughts.

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In my blind

One of the first things we learn is that “negative data is still data.” So, it’s important for us to note the absence of wildlife during our observations, as well as any activity. We have opportunities to see not only wombats, but red and grey kangaroos, lizards, echidnas, and many species of birds, including emus.

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Emu
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Getting lunch with the staff
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Acacias at sunset
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The one living wild wombat we saw
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Wally, a “pet” wombat we got to meet in Blanchetown
Saturday Night

Tonight I am spotlighting again. We go bundled against the mild winter night, standing in the open back of a four-wheel-drive vehicle, armed with spotlights in search of animals. Each of us is eager to see the wildlife that is so evasive during the day, and a little crisp night air isn’t enough to keep us glued to the campfire or in our tents. On our trip we glimpse a wombat before it disappears down a burrow. Then we spot a fox, hungrily tearing at some food, and later, a tawny frogmouth, a bird of prey.

Monday

What a lucky sight! Two emus have come to drink at the trough I’m watching.

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Until now, none of the volunteers had seen any signs on them except for their flat, circular “pies.” I suspect the emus are a male and female, after checking the head coloring in the field guide. As they are drinking, the emus are making low, booming sounds. When they finish drinking, they walk off as quietly as they came.

Thursday

The vegetation research is expanding and we have a chance to record density, growth and variety of species. EPSON scanner image

Only after getting down on my hands and knees do I discover the beauty of the microscopic flowers: candy cane-striped spears the size of toothpicks, and tiny yellow, purple and white flowers.  EPSON scanner image

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They all seem so fragile, I’m afraid to step anywhere. Pam says some of the plants take years to regenerate. In times of little or no rainfall, their root systems stay alive, enabling the plants to spring to life at the next rainfall. Pam has been very excited at the return of ephemeral plants and flowers, and her excitement infects us all. EPSON scanner image

More and more, we realize the devastation of the drought.

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                                                                          Ever-present thistle
Sunday

Brookfield Conservation Park has been a marvelous learning experience.

We’ve seen and done things no ordinary tourist ever could. The clear skies, sunsets and star-filled nights, the moaning ravens, bounding kangaroos, wombats and the warmth and patience of Dr. Parker, the research staff, and the park ranger are hard to leave behind.

I, for one, vow to return.

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A Recent Foggy Morning

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Fog is a frequent visitor to Seattle and I usually enjoy it. Sometimes I take my camera and dash out before the fog begins to lift. On a recent December morning, I awoke to find pea-soup fog obscuring the view.

I decided to go down by the water, across from the downtown skyline. Only, this  morning, there was no skyline! Imagine how it would appear, looking across Puget Sound to where the city is – or used to be!

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The scene reminded me of a fond memory of taking a Zodiac in Scotland across a bay to the Isle of May. We started out in thick fog. We could not even see the island. But as we neared the island, the fog lifted and there it was. 

Back to tstumphe foggy day in Seattle. It was a quiet, damp and chilly morning. Along with the fog, frost had covered some surfaces overnight. Shades of gray stitched together land and sea, with puffs of fog occasionally floating over the water.

 

A few distant lights broke through along the docks.

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The only signs of life included a few cormorants, geese, and pigeons.

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Humans included several determined anglers lined up on the dock, intent on hooking squid, and a few people boarding the Water Taxi for the commute over the water to the disappeared city.

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I took a close look at one squid pulled out by an angler and placed on a bench. It was exquisite, still wriggling and struggling to live.

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Its skin was surprisingly colorful and pearly, sprinkled with tiny colorful spots like confetti.

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I could not imagine killing and eating these intelligent fascinating creatures, especially out of that heavily used port. But the fishermen were happily loading their buckets.

 

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Water taxi

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Sailing into the unknown…

Where Birds and Planes Fly

Birding at Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge in Hoquiam, Washington, I walked from the parking area to the trailhead, past these old structures at the little Bowerman Airport.

The absence of people and planes, and the starkness of the hangars against the surrounding landscape and big sky drew me to photograph them.

The blue and white buildings; the blue and white sky; white building and white flowers.

Last time I was out here, the restaurant was still operating and was bustling with hungry customers. The retro décor and classic diner menu were lots of fun. Back then when my birding group stopped there for lunch I thought, what a strange place for a restaurant. But now I see it was likely a sort of landmark that drew birders, pilots, as well as locals for good food and company. Now, it was closed, enhancing or perhaps causing the atmosphere of abandonment.

Part of the Port of Grays Harbor, this airfield has one runway. The facility has fuel, a pilot’s lounge, rental hangars, and is touted as “jet-capable.”

The hangars have seen better days and I wondered whether there were any planes inside. What could be the purpose of the oddly shaped roofs?

I don’t know how often planes use the airport, but nearby, birds and birders flock to the wetland habitat at the wildlife refuge. Particularly in spring, the salt marsh and mudflats host thousands of migrating shorebirds. Raptors also are drawn to the abundance of prey.

This landscape is a magnet for wings of different sizes and shapes.

 

A Pigeon by Any Other Name

We call them pigeons. Birders have called them rock doves. Apparently now, the powers that be in the bird world have declared them to be rock pigeons.

One of the most familiar birds worldwide, these chunky, multicolored birds have adapted so well that we can find them in cities and farm fields, in parks and on rocky cliffs. They are members of the Columbidae family, along with all other pigeons and doves.

Their natural diet includes seeds and fruits, but they’re excellent scavengers, loitering in places where people gather and tend to drop morsels that can be snatched. They are equally creative in using various spaces for their nests.
Pigeon skills in navigation and homing proved valuable during World Wars I and II, when they were used by the U.S. Army Signal Corps to carry messages.

Numbers Declining

Though pigeons seem ubiquitous, the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) estimates that the population has declined by almost 50 percent since 1966. The survey is a long-term, large-scale cooperative effort of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the Canadian Wildlife Service.

The program began in 1966, led by Chandler Robbins, a researcher at Patuxent and good friend of Rachel Carson, who penned the landmark book Silent Spring. Her book alerted the world to the effects of pesticides on bird populations, but was considered quite controversial when it was published. Robbins died in 2017, just short of his 99th birthday. He was a renowned ornithologist and often birded with Carson. You can read more about them at http://www.rachelcarson.org/mChanRobbins.aspx

The BBS continues to be an important tool in avian research and the formation of conservation programs.

The global population of pigeons is estimated at 120 million and though declining in North America, they are not currently a species of concern.

Watching pigeon behavior can be a fun past time. Recently while waiting at a bus stop in downtown Seattle, I watched a group of them ambling about. It’s fun to make your own narrative of what’s going on.

Forming a strategy
Gone to the dark side
Walking the line
Going their separate ways

Stillaguamish River Festival and Pow Wow

I attended the annual Stillaguamish Festival of the River and Pow Wow recently. The Stillaguamish is one of our numerous rivers in western Washington, also the name of one of our native tribes.

 

 

 

 

 

It was exciting to see the regalia and dance competitions. Dance groups included veterans, senior men, senior women and children, representing tribes of the Salish nations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also featured were young Apache men from Arizona, demonstrating their skills at hoop dancing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The festival included various educational booths about the river, conservation, and wildlife. Exhibitors featured insect collections, birds of prey, and one large yellow boa! The snake seemed as relaxed as the children it was sprawled across.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beatles!

A Caterpillar Feast

In March, I journeyed back to the Anza-Borrego Desert in southern California. The big draw was an annual migration of Swainson’s hawks and the emergence of big colorful caterpillars, but as it happened, a third phenomenon blossomed simultaneously.

Big colorful caterpillars emerge every spring in Anza-Borrego.

They are the larvae of the white-lined sphinx moth and appear in various color combinations, from yellow with black stripes, to black with yellow stripes, to green with black stripes.

The caterpillars, sometimes called hornworms, feed on many types of flowers and plants, while the moths seek nectar.

The striking moths, also known as hummingbird moths, can be quite beautiful.

What I witnessed was the part of the life cycle when the larvae hatch and proceed to munch out on the desert flowers and plants.

It just so happened that this year the little guys were even luckier to hatch during a “superbloom,” a time when bountiful winter rains have produced carpets of wildflowers across the desert.

After eating nonstop and growing to 3-4 inches in length, the time comes for the next phase of their lives. The caterpillars burrow into the sand and pupate into a form that remains underground for 8-15 days. Then, the big transformation occurs and the moths emerge!

The moths spend their nights feeding and pollinating wildflowers, and then lay eggs on the undersides of flowers. The entire life cycle begins anew when the eggs hatch into very small caterpillars that begin to eat 24 hours a day on the flowers.

At the same time, Swainson’s hawks are making their way north from South America. They spend time in the desert around Borrego and have been known to feast on the caterpillars. Birders gather daily for the hawk watch. It was a gamble where or when they might be spotted. During my visit, I was disappointed to see that the hawks were in kettles a great distance away. Meer specks. I had expected to see them near the ground picking off the fat worms.

Unfortunately, I could not stick around long enough for the emergence of the moths, but I bet that’s something to see!

The superbloom, however, was a great treat.

Hidden Treasures

When I went for a long walk recently, I didn’t expect to discover hidden treasures. I walked down to the High Point pond, just a few blocks from my house. My usual route takes me around the pond, where I check out who’s there.

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Pond, with Seattle skyline in the distance

This day there were mallards, American wigeon, a cormorant, and gulls.

But I wanted to extend my walk and explore some new areas. High Point is a huge redeveloped area, with a variety of homes and landscapes. It’s a planned community, with mixed housing for single families, low-income families, and seniors.

There are rain gardens, permeable sidewalks, community gardens and green spaces. The planners did a good job of saving many monstrous mature trees, and a few are labeled. Today I noted a Lawson cypress, which I first thought was a Western cedar, along with a grand specimen of big-leaf maple, called “Papa.”

Along the way, I found these delightful pillars celebrating the Longfellow Creek watershed.

pillars1They are composed of blocks of concrete with carved and inlaid creatures representing plants, lizards, fish, birds, a fox and a dragonfly.

lizards img_20170216_103627070I love that nature is appreciated here. There are many immigrant families and children living in this community. I think it’s important to instill knowledge and appreciation of our local natural history. Nearby is also a bee garden, complete with a small building enclosing the hive and a flower and vegetable garden to nourish them.

As I turned down a street that I’d never walked or driven before, I discovered an intriguing sight: something out of a Greek ruin, or perhaps a group of standing stones from the British Isles.

img_20170216_104232494-copyA structure, similar to a pergola, but I’m not sure exactly what to call it, stands in front of a hillside that has large stones scattered about.

stones6-copyThe structure is supported by posts with carved wood that portrays such birds as owls and herons.

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And, even more fabulous, the concrete walk between the structure and the hillside is incised with a large winged creature reminiscent of the mysterious Nazca “geoglyphs” of Peru!

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Head detail
Head detail

 

 

 

 

These things inspire ideas for my own yard!

 

Discovery Park’s Remarkable Trees

big-trunk2-copyIn a previous post, I wrote about the amazing big leaf maple trees in my local park, Camp Long. Not only are they big in height, but also in girth, with a growth habit of multiple trunks.

But I just visited another gem of a city park, much larger than Camp Long and having an unmatched range of habitats, elevations and vegetation. I’m talking about Discovery Park, located across Elliott Bay from West Seattle. Within the park’s more than 500 acres, there are trails through open meadows, trails through woods, ponds, beach access, views of  Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, and a lighthouse. It’s good bird habitat.

I went specifically to see if I could find a snow bunting that had been seen there for several days. I did not find it, but in the course of hiking all over the park, on trails I had never before taken, I encountered numerous startling large trees. Not only did they have multiple trunks, but they had more than I could count!

multi1In Camp Long, I kind of made a game of counting the number of trunks on big leaf maples. I had decided that the average number was between six and eight. But in Discovery Park, the trees were more complicated.

multi2In many instances, they had so many thin trunks reaching out that it was impossible to count them all. Why were they so different from trees growing in Camp Long? For one thing, trees in Discovery seem to have much more room to spread out and grow. They’re not as crowded. Maybe they spend more time growing out rather than up.

img_20161111_124224500Whatever the reasons, the trees are magnificent and I’m glad they have been preserved. I snapped a few photos of the more impressive specimens along my walk.

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