Nature Watch: The Large and the Small
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.
Growth spurred by lengthening daylight and warmer temperatures isn’t limited to the land. Far greater changes are activated in the Salish Sea. Remarkable alterations occur on two fronts in saltwater: kelp and other algae, and the profusion of plankton.
Reaching 40 feet in a year’s growth, bull kelp forests form with June and July being the most productive months. This coastal aquatic plant can grow an astonishing 10 inches in a day. These underwater forests harbor an amazing assortment of invertebrates that graze on the kelp. In turn, a wide variety of fish come to shelter among the stipes and blades and to eat the invertebrates found there. Young rockfish, gunnels and juvenile salmon are some of the fish species found in kelp beds.
Even more impressive is the explosive growth of plankton, tiny organisms living free-floating in the water. While the plankton “bloom” takes off in May, the midpoint of growth roughly coincides with the summer solstice near the end of June. The importance of plankton cannot be overstated. There’s a direct line between the creatures that feed on plankton all the way up the food chain to salmon, marine birds and whales.
In nature, size matters – from the 40-foot bull kelp to the tiny plankton.
Flora: Orange Honeysuckle, Lonicera ciliosa
Native orange honeysuckle is a climbing vine that can reach a length of 18 feet. The twigs are hollow and support oval leaves that are green on top and whitish below. Blooms are orange trumpet-shaped flowers measuring 1 to 4 inches in length. Small orange or red berries ripen in late summer.
The flowers’ trumpet shape attracts the attention of Rufous Hummingbirds seeking nectar. Recently-fledged hummingbirds often visit honeysuckle. Other pollinators include various small bees. Though the ripe berries aren’t essential to the diets of birds, they are eaten occasionally by sparrows, juncos and finches.
Look for the showy honeysuckle blooms in forests and thickets where some sunlight is available. Unlike the non-native English ivy, orange honeysuckle does no harm to the tree or shrub it uses to “get a leg up” from the forest floor.
Fauna: Harbor Seal, Phoca vitulina
Harbor seals are a familiar sight to beachgoers and boaters. With an approximate population of 14,000, they are the most common marine mammal in Greater Puget Sound.
An adult seal can reach a length of six feet and weigh up to 300 pounds. They appear in various shades, predominantly gray or brownish, with blotchy spots or rings. The head shape has been described as doglike. Often, it’s the only portion of the seal visible above the water.
Harbor seals eat a wide variety of fish species. Dives can take them down to 600 feet and may last 20 minutes, though the average is five to six minutes.
In our region, pups are born in June through August. They’re 23 to 26 pounds at birth, a weight that will triple in the four to six week weaning period. This remarkable growth spurt is fueled by their mothers’ milk, which is 45% fat (compared to a cow’s 3-4%). Weaned young feed on shrimp and other invertebrates until they learn how to catch fish.
Aside from pollution, the main threat to harbor seals comes from transient orcas, who cruise local waters in small pods searching for seals and sea lions.
It’s important to stay away from a pup alone on the beach. The mother is most likely nearby, foraging for fish. Be sure to keep dogs away from seal pups because the latter may not be able to reach the safety of the water in time if attacked.