Nature Notebook with Betsy Howell

What signs of wildlife can you find at Olympic National Forest throughout the year? Share with us and help us track wildlife on the peninsula. Follow us on Twitter.

Forest Floor Notebook - Spring 2017

Now that the snow is melting, it’s time to consider once again the forest floor, the place where everything begins and ends in the life of a forest and all its inhabitants. There are many ecosystem processes occurring and many different species living at ground level and below; so many, in fact, that we could never list them all. But here are just a few of the creatures you may see as you hike on trails or bushwhack through the salal and salmonberry of Olympic National Forest. Don’t forget to look down!

A fully terrestrial salamander that lays its eggs under bark on the ground

Western red-backed salamander, photo by Robin Shoal. 

This species is an important part of the carbon cycling of the forest.

A fully terrestrial salamander that lays its eggs on the ground

Western red-backed salamander - is fully terrestrial.

It lays its eggs under bark on the ground and in cavities under rocks!

A very small mushroom growing in a patch of evergreen violets.

A very small mushroom growing in a patch of evergreen violets.

 

 

Ruffed grouse nest at the base of a Douglas fir

Ruffed grouse nest at the base of a Douglas fir—once the chicks hatch, the shells provide nutrients that return to the soil.

 

Coral fungi, shown below, grow on the ground on decaying vegetation or dead wood. A common type of fungi, the erect, branched structures are the fruiting bodies of the fungus and part of the sexual phase of the fungal life cycle.

Coral fungi grow on the ground on decaying vegetation or dead wood

 

 

Signs of Life - Winter 2016 - 2017

One of the great things about snow is that animals, generally unnoticed by humans unless we’re looking carefully, can be documented by the tracks they leave behind. Especially after a fresh snowfall that doesn’t leave too much snow, the tracks can be clear and even followed to get a better idea of what an animal was doing or where they were going. Here are a few tracks from previous winters that we’ve found on the Forest.

Cougar tracks in the West Fork Humptulips

Cougar tracks in the West Fork Humptulips, February 2007. 

Animals like cougars, bobcats, and
coyotes all have just four toes back and front.

Snowshoe hare tracks from Lena Lake

Snowshoe hare tracks from Lena Lake, distinguishable by the “snowshoe” look of the track.

Squirrel tracks in the snow at Lena Lake

Squirrel tracks also at Lena Lake, most likely from the Douglas’ tree squirrel.

Fisher tracks around Lena Lake

Fisher tracks around Lena Lake, March 2009.  Members of the weasel family, like fishers, martens, and minks, all have 5 toes on front and back paws.

Late Summer-early Fall 2016

Remote cameras help us understand wildlife use and presence in an area. Scientists are often surprised by how many different species move through one area in a relatively short period of time. Many thanks to Kyle Winton of Eyes in the Woods for recently retrieving the memory cards of two cameras we installed earlier in the summer in an elk habitat improvement area. Eyes in the Woods volunteers have been working with Olympic National Forest for three years to improve habitat for big game and other species, and it is definitely paying off!  

Bear and coyote caught on camera in an elk habitat improvement area:

Black bear caught on camera crossing a small meadowCoyote on camera at night in a small open area

We documented five different species, including Roosevelt elk, blacktail deer, coyote, bobcat, and black bear in one stand where volunteers have been piling slash created from pre-commercial thinning. This piling creates habitat structures for various species and also opens up the area for animal travel and forage production. 

A good number of elk came through on August 25 and stayed for 40 minutes feeding. This group included 6 calves:

A group of elk grazes in a meadow in early morning

Elk caught on camera in a restoration area

August 2016

It’s getting to be late summer and dry and the wild animals are moving out of breeding and rearing mode as the young leave the nests and dens and begin to live more on their own.

Bald Eagle nest Aug 2016, abandoned.

This eagle nest on the Forest is now empty of its occupants as the young will have fledged by now. Bald eagles will remain on the Peninsula until the fall when many fly north to follow the salmon runs.

Bald eagle nesting tree is very large.

This is the base of the eagle nest tree; I estimated this Douglas fir to be 100” in diameter.

Cedar waxwing hangs out on a branch near Wynoochee River. Cedar waxwing hangs out on a branch near Wynoochee River.

Cedar waxwings, which winter in the southern U.S., Mexico, and Central America, are still here! These birds were “sallying” out catching insects above the Wynoochee River.

July & August 2016 - Babies Everywhere!

It’s that time of year again when we are seeing babies of all species everywhere! Take care when driving on Forest roads or off as young animals don’t always understand the hazards of moving vehicles. This lack of fear can be dangerous, but it also sometimes provides an opportunity to see individuals close-up, as amply observed with the curious juvenile hummingbird and mink below.

Yong hummingbird on a rangers safety vest.

A young hummingbird in the Upper Wynoochee lands on Botanist Cheryl Bartlett’s cruiser vest!

Young mink on trail in Olympic National Park.

Young mink on trail in Olympic National Park.  Photo by Todd Karin.

June 2016; Common merganser female and 10 youngsters!

June 2016; Common merganser female and 10 youngsters!​ This species commonly
nests on Olympic National Forest.

August 2005; Western toad tadpoles along the West Fork Humptulips River

Western toad tadpoles along the West Fork Humptulips River.

Fisher Update:  Olympic Peninsula June 2016

2015 Monitoring Report

The 2015 Monitoring Report is nearly finished and will be posted online soon @ wdfw.wa.gov or www.nps.gov

One exciting development from last year’s surveys included the second second-generation fisher being documented (photo of her below). This female’s parents included a mother born on the Peninsula and a father who was a founder and had been released in 2010!

 Fisher at cubby
  

Similarly gratifying to new animals being born on the Peninsula is discovering that founders are still alive!  Males 011 and 064, released in 2008 and 2009 respectively, were documented by camera and hair analysis this season.  Both animals were 9-years-old in 2015.

Male 064, “high-wire” fisher at a cougar survey station..jpg
Male 064, “high-wire” fisher at a cougar survey station.

2016 Season

The 2016 remote camera survey season for the Olympic Peninsula fisher population has begun!  A crew of six dedicated full-time to fisher work will install and monitor cameras in Olympic National Park and Forest, while other partners, including the Makah, Skokomish, Quinault, Quileute and Lower Elwha S’Klallam Tribal Nations, Point-no-Point Treaty Council, Jefferson Land Trust, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Forest Service, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, and Washington Department of Natural Resources will conduct surveys on other lands.

The objectives of the work, similar to other years, are to document fisher presence across a variety of ownerships and obtain hair samples that can genetically identify individuals as either original founding members of the reintroduced group (released between 2008-2010), or new recruits born here on the Peninsula.

Putting together the cubby.jpg

 Lloyd Hill (left) hangs the station sign and Michelle Sagers works putting together the cubby (designed for the collection of hair samples). 

The Cubby, a long, narrow box perfectly suited for a fisher.

 
The Cubby (above):  a long, narrow box perfectly suited for a fisher’s long, narrow body.  

The chicken leg bait draws them in, and the gun brushes on the sides of the box snag hair without harming the animal.

Tree and bait for Fisher

Bait tree and cubby box; the camera is fastened to a tree approximately 12 feet away and aimed directly at the bait tree.

Camera stations are left in place for six weeks and checked every two weeks to collect hair, photographs, and to replenish bait and lure. These surveys will continue through October 2016.

Signs of Spring - 2016

Early flower bloom on the forest.March update by Cheryl Bartlett, US Forest Service Botanist: I’ve been out and about on the Olympic National Forest of late, and even though March has just begun, some of our native plants are beginning to show signs of life! Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) is in full bloom right now. Keep an eye out for these shrubs covered with hanging clusters of white flowers with fresh green leaves just starting to peak out from its’ branches. There’s also a native red flowering current (Ribes sanguineum) in my yard, that is ready to bloom any day...

These native shrubs are important parts of the ecosystem on the Olympic peninsula, and are great additions to western Washington landscapes. They look nice and benefit pollinators by providing food and shelter. Try some of these plants below in your garden, especially the natives, and see who shows up! 

Happy Spring! ~ Cheryl

Winter Wildlife on the Forest -2016

Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Large eagles congregate when the fish are runningWhat’s with all the eagles everywhere on the Hood Canal? The month of December 2015 has seen many individuals at the mouths of the Dosewallips, Duckabush and Hamma Hamma Rivers, as well as Eagle Creek and a few other random places in between. Fish runs are the main cause of the gatherings of resident and overwintering (from Canada) eagles. The raptors are on the ground, in the trees, flying and feeding. It’s great to see them! Bald eagles have made a tremendous comeback in Washington and other western states.

Pacific Martens (Martes caurina)

Carnivores, if not engaged in hibernation, are busy with their own work of hunting and staying fit through the colder, leaner times. Members of the mustelid, or weasel, family do not hibernate and winter is a great time to set up cameras and see if they’ll come into the bait (in summer, their appearance at remote camera stations is less reliable because there is so much more food available).

Pacific marten in Olympic National ForestPacific marten photographed on Olympic National Forest in June 2015 by Shemuel Harding of The Mazamas. This was the first documentation of the species in Olympic National Forest or Olympic National Park since 2008!

This winter, a great partnership between the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, and U.S. Geological Survey is making it possible to begin extensive camera surveys on the Olympic Peninsula to determine the status of Pacific marten, one of the smallest of the mustelids (only 1-3 pounds!). In December 2015, the field crew completed installation of 86 cameras in Olympic National Park. Now we wait several weeks to see what comes in!  - Betsy

Below a seal swims near Seal Rock Campground on the Hood Canal in December. Photo by Alex Weinberg.

Seal in the Hood Canal 

Rains Arrive! - Fall/Winter 2015

With the rain finally arriving and the rivers and creeks beginning to rise, one might wonder, “How are the stream salamanders doing?

On the Olympic National Forest, there are two salamanders that are found almost exclusively in streams or within splash zones, the Olympic torrent and the Cope’s giant.

Both species are superbly adapted for living in fast-moving, cold water, but the question might still be asked as to how they manage to not get washed away during winter storms?

Olympic torrent salamander is spotted under water.An Olympic torrent salamander is dwarfed in a biologists hand.

 

Olympic torrent in stream and in hand (above).

For the torrent species, greatly reduced lungs may be part of the answer as lungs can contribute greatly to buoyancy. Both species are often hiding under rocks and within very small crevices, so they wouldn’t be where the fastest moving water is rushing.

Cope’s giant; notice very small gills. Large head also diagnostic of this species (below).

Cope’s giant also have very small gills, which may not necessarily keep them in place, but is indicative of living successfully in fast, oxygen-rich water (as opposed to pond species that have longer gills to collect oxygen in still water).

Though you won’t see these salamanders this time of year, the migrating fish are very visible!  This is a photo from November 18 near Lake Quinault of a salmon milling about a pool.

Salmon body visible through the choppy water.

 

Fall Colors, Fungi, and Frogs - Fall 2015

The days may be shortening and the vegetation may be wet, but it is still a great time to be in the forest!

Leaves changing color in the autumn at Olympic

And since the birds are quieter and the mammals settling into winter mode, with some beginning to consider hibernation, looking at the forest floor can be the best place for observations.  

A frog is barely visible among the ground cover fall foliage.

Red-legged frogs, Pacific chorus frogs, and rough-skinned newts are some of the amphibians that may be spotted during fall rains while the temperatures remain a bit warmer. 

Large banana Slug crawls on a green forest floor.

I usually only see the frogs once they jump away, so it’s always good to be watching for movement. Can you see the red-legged frog hiding in oxalis above? 

Similarly, banana slugs are out in force and I find the many variations in color and pattern fascinating! 

Finally, we all know that fall is a great time for mushroom hunting, and even fungi that aren’t edible are great fun to look at and ponder.

Logs that were covered in only bark and some moss and lichen a few weeks ago have now erupted with wonderful mushroom cities.  

Colony of mushrooms sprouting out of a mossy log Beautiful mushrooms erupt out of a fallen log.

 

Slow Down for Wildlife - August 2015 

Last year at this time, the rain was falling in Quinault.  In fact, the entire week of August 11 saw great downpours and near-constant rain.  This made working outside a bit uncomfortable at times, but it also triggered a migration of juvenile rough-skinned newts from their wetland birthplace to upslope areas.  I came across this migration on August 14 when I stopped to help an adult newt off a paved forest road.  If I hadn’t done that, I never would have noticed the much smaller young newts making their way across the asphalt.

Newts cross the road. Photo at street level.Small newt in the palm of a hand.

This past week, on August 19, I was again in this same area of the forest, but as expected there was no evidence of any such migration taking place.  Streams are low, wetlands are low, or dry, and amphibians won’t be leaving the places of moisture until the first good fall rains.

Other animals, including the juveniles of many species continue to disperse and find their own territories.  Sometimes this take them to places they shouldn’t be, including roads where the dangers increase beyond predators or other animals competing for resources.  On my drive back from the Queets country this week, I came across a mountain beaver motoring around the same road where the newts had crossed last year.  After stopping, I began to encourage the mountain beaver to get off the road.  It argued with me briefly, with soft snaps and grunts, then finally moved into the vegetation.

A mountain beaver stands along edge of pavementMountain Beaver moves away into the roadside brush

The forest is hot and dry! - July 2015

Ensatina on the forest floor beneath pieces of bark and other woody material. The Forest continues to be hot and dry, more so than during most years but as we move into July, the high temperatures and low humidity are at least a bit more normal. How are the animals dealing with it? Various species cope in different ways, either by moving to higher elevations, sticking close to water, or by restricting movement to the night or cooler parts of the day. Additionally, some go far underground, including our terrestrial salamanders, the ensatinas and western red-backed salamanders. This time of year, you won’t see these anywhere and not until substantial rains fall will they make a reappearance on the forest floor beneath pieces of bark and other woody material.

Young animals born in the spring are continuing to grow and thrive during the heat and dry weather. One of our wildlife cameras recorded a sow black bear with twin cubs, a doe blacktail deer with twin fawns, and a herd of elk with at least two calves that appeared to be of slightly different ages. There also were two coyotes traveling together. This particular spot seems very popular with many species!

Black bear and two cubs walk in open area in long grass.

Coyotes and two pups crossing a clearing

 

Wildlife cameras can give us great information about where animals are in a landscape…and they also only show part of the story. The end of this series of photos showed the elk herd running at top speed. Then unfortunately the batteries in the camera died, so we don’t know what spooked them!

Elk run by the camera - what spooked them?

 

In other wildlife news, there continues to be a lot of birdsong in the forest even at midday. On July 8, I heard Swainson’s thrush (this bird has possibly one of the most beautiful of all songs), varied thrush (a close second, or tie?), Wilson’s warbler, chestnut-backed chickadee, Hutton’s vireo, and golden-crowned kinglet. A small flock of band-tailed pigeons scattered as I walked down a trail and I suspect they were taking advantage of the ripe red elderberries. In terms of other forage, the Cascara berries are still coming on, but with the warm weather will undoubtedly be ready soon! - Betsy Howell

green cascara leaves and green berries getting ripe in heat.

Cascara berries

 

June 2015

It's a warm summer from the start, a good time to monitor wildlife and see what's happening around us! This week visiting a high elevation wetland on the Olympic National Forest, Biologist Betsy Howell went looking for signs of amphibian life. Did you know newts, snakes, frogs and other amphibians are critical indicators of wetland health and water quality?

An elk looks up in a meadow wetland as human visitors arrive! 

Elk between trees in a meadow in the distance

 

A garter snake skims along the surface of water in a critical high elevation wetland. A good sign!

Snake skimming across the water

 

Lots of active newts were spotted swimming in the clean water.

Newt swimming underwater.

 

Beargrass in bloom in a high elevation meadow.

Bear grass blooming in a meadow area.

The forest is full of life! May 2015

A Harlequin Duck (sensitive species) catching a tasty meal on North Fork Skokomish River. Can you spot it’s mate? 

Harlequin duck eating a small fish.

 

Deer Fern (Blechnum spicant) is an important source of winter forage for deer and elk.  These ferns produce two types of fronds, a characteristic that separates them from other ferns. 

1.) Deer Fern unspooling the vegetative frond. 2.) A Deer Fern unspools its reproductive fronds.

Deer Fern unspooling the vegetative frond Deer ferns begin to unfold new reproductive fronds.

Black bears are out and about and are eating the fresh green grasses! 

Black bear caught on camera eating fresh grass . Bear caught on camera in Olympic NF April 2015.

Below is an Ensatina salamander found by Silviculturist Mark Senger in a commercially thinned stand. For more information on the important role ensatinas play in the life of a forest, read Betsy Howell's 2014 article in American Forests, Little Critter With Big Influence: How one tiny salamander affects an entire forest's carbon cycle.

Ensatina salamander found by Silviculturist Mark Senger in a commercially thinned stand

 

Spring has arrived! April 2015 at Olympic National Forest

What's in a ditch? Wetland habitats are so important for forest ecology and a diverse array of species! In the Queets area Betsy Howell and Cheryl Bartlett found a lot of life in a small wetland ditch including toad tadpoles and northwestern salamander egg masses! Very important creatures for the forest.

Forest wetland, a very important part of the forest habitat   Tadpoles and salamander egg masses

Volunteer Sarah Kelting did Taylor’s checkerspot larvae surveys in early April, and found a chrysalid (pupa), which will soon be an adult butterfly.  Very rare to see this. Way to go Sarah!

Taylor’s checkerspot chrysalid (pupa)

 

Karen K. Holtrop, our acting Wildlife, Botany, Invasive Plant & Ecology Program Manager, photographed butterflies including adult mourning cloaks and anglewings about a week ago. There were a lot of them flying near Upper Dungeness trailhead. These butterflies typically fly early in Spring; they overwinter as adults (as opposed to overwintering as larva/ caterpillars like checkerspots do). 

Adult Agelwings

Anglewings Butterflies

Adult Mourning Cloak

Adult mourning-cloak butterfly.

Nothing says spring like the birdsongs in the forest and around our urban and rural settings as well. These two males were spotted in the Sol Duc watershed in early April. Can you see the male Hairy Woodpecker by the trees below? If you look close you can see how they use their tail to help prop themselves vertically. Also check out this 'bird on a wire' in this case it's a male violet-green swallow. He's not quite in full breeding plumage yet…which makes sense given the swallows have just arrived!

Hairy woodpecker male Violet-green swallow male

Forest Wildlife, March 2015

Bald eagles in western Washington generally begin incubating eggs by the third week of March. This year it may be earlier! This eagle is perched outside the nest, but on Monday, March 2, I observed another nest where the eagle was inside. Winter migrants have probably started to head north. March is also the month I’ve observed turkey vultures returning, though haven’t confirmed them yet this year!

Bald eagle in a tree.

 

Robins are everywhere! They are equally at home in the National Forest as they are in the suburbs. Do you see any where you live?

Robin on the ground.

 

Many trees and shrubs are beginning to bud and flower in the lower elevations of the Olympics, including Indian plum, red huckleberry, coltsfoot, and salmonberry. Below is a photo of 1) a Douglas Fir with this year's smaller cones developing at the tips,  and 2) an Indian plum,

Conifer cones and tree branches.

Early flower bloom on the forest.

Have fun out there! -Betsy

Wetlands Wildlife, February 2015:

I briefly visited a wetland near Forks, WA looking for signs of wildlife. I found the red-legged frogs have also been laying eggs (another early breeder)! It was raining and low light so the picture is a bit hard to see... The red legged frog egg masses are more pillow-y and if you lift them up, they fall through your fingers, as opposed to the nw salamander whose egg masses are very firm. This wetland used to be a forested wetland but due to some logging in the past, it’s more open now. 

Red legged frog eggs Feb 2015.  Wetland near Forks, WA Feb 2015.jpg

Also here is a photo of a red-legged frog taken last August 2014; it was raining then too!

Red legged frog in the forest August 2014.

 

Meadow Wildlife, Thursday Jan. 29, 2015:

I was out in the Sol Duc watershed and observed some mountain lion tracks and some very recently laid northwestern salamander eggs! So, this salamander species is laying early this year as northwesterns generally begin depositing eggs in small ponds about the end of February.  Obviously everything is a bit early this year with the warmer weather!

Mountain lion tracks in  Sol Duc watershed by Betsy Howell.j Recently laid northwestern salamander eggs a bit early this year.jpg

When the egg masses are recently laid, they’re a bit blue in color and smaller from other ones laid earlier that have absorbed water.  If you can see the eggs on the stick in the photo below you will notice the masses on the right are the newer ones and the ones on the left are older.

Recently laid northwestern salamander eggs in Sol Duc watershed.

Below is a photo of an adult northwestern salamander taken at an inventory and monitoring workshop in 2010.  Adults are rarely seen because apart from when they move to ponds to lay eggs, they typically spend most of their time in gopher, and other animal, burrows! Have you seen one? - Betsy Howell, US Forest Service Biologist

Adult northwestern salamander by Betsy Howell.