Nature Watch: Winds of Change
About the author: Steve Ellis is a naturalist and Land Trust member who enjoys sharing his love of the natural world. His blog series, “Nature Watch,” will appear each month in “Habitchat,” chronicling native plants and wildlife you can expect to see during that particular time of year. We thank Steve for sharing his passion, illustrating the importance of island conservation.
Strong storms originating in the Pacific slam into our islands with fierce winds and abundant rainfall. Heavy gusts can down large conifers, opening the canopy and allowing more sunlight on the forest floor, where deciduous trees and shrubs quickly exploit the changes.
These same storms bring heavy snows to the North Cascades. With their food sources buried, many birds must migrate downslope. Large flocks of Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Pine Siskins and Golden-crowned Kinglets spread across the lowland forests.
Here’s a look at two species you might notice in November.
Flora: Pacific Madrone, Arbutus menziesii
Pacific madrones are broad-leaved evergreens that reach twenty to eighty feet in height. The leaves are stiff, leathery ovals, dark glossy green, and two to six inches in length. The distinctive reddish bark is papery, which mature trees shed to reveal a smooth ‘skin.’
Clusters of small, bell-shaped blossoms become orange-red fruits about the size of a pea. The fruits are a favorite food source for many bird species, including the Band-tailed Pigeon, American Robin, Townsend’s Solitaire and Purple Finch. Look for these unusual trees in places with well-drained, rocky soils. They tolerate some shade but grow best when not crowded by firs and hemlocks.
Fauna: Varied Thrush, Ixoreus naevius
Perhaps the most attractive fall arrival is the Varied Thrush. Slightly smaller than its robin cousin, this species has an orange breast and belly, two orange bars on the wings, and an orange ‘eyebrow’ arcing above the dark eye stripe. They can be found this month in local island forests, orchards and yards.
Varied Thrush forage on the ground for small invertebrates. Look for them turning over fallen maple leaves in their quest for prey. Fruit is also on the menu, particularly that of madrones. Studies show that seeds from fruit passed through the digestive system of this bird have a higher germination rate than from other bird species. The picturesque madrones we admire on Whidbey and Camano slopes were likely to have been sown by this most colorful of the thrush family.