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3 natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

by Timber Press on August 14, 2017

in Natural History

Photo by Dan Mathews.

So you’ve finalized your travel plans, now what? As you explore the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, don’t miss these three iconic wonders, and remember to leave what you find!










The cone of a sugar pine

Pinus lambertiana
Native, locally common, seed cones mature in 2 years, 100–200 ft.
West-side forest, eastside forest, subalpine, low to high elevation.

Tree: crown flat-topped, trunk straight, bark dark gray and smooth when young, becoming thick, cinnamon to grayish brown, furrowed with platelike ridges that flake off with age. Branches spreading to ascending at the tip, twigs grayish green to reddish tan, hairy.

Leaves: evergreen, in bundles of 5, needlelike, 2–4 in. long, flexible, bluish green, tips pointed.

Cones: clustered, yellowish brown, oval, 0.5 in. long. Seed cones dangling at branch ends, shiny yellowish brown, cylindric, 10–20 in. long, cone stalks 2.5–6 in. long. Cone scales with thick, yellowish brown tips, prickle absent. Seed winged, brown, egg-shaped, 0.5–1 in. long.

Ecology: grows scattered in mixed conifer forests, both moist and dry types; can be the dominant species in certain circumstances. Shade intolerant and long-lived, this is the largest pine, typically 3–6 ft. in diameter, but majestic specimens are recorded to be 250 ft. tall and 11 ft. in diameter. Its thick, fire-resistant bark and high, open crown help it survive low- to moderate-intensity fires. Fire exclusion has increased stand density and stress on sugar pines in many places. Increased stress, such as reduced water availability, makes the species vulnerable to attack by bark beetles and white pine blister rust.

History: Native Americans collected sugar pine seed and chewed its sweet resin as gum.


Illustration from Ellen Blonder, US Forest Service.

A Western spotted skunk

Spilogale gracile
Glossy black with intermittent white stripes more or less lengthwise; tail ends in a rosette of long white hairs. Low to mid-elevations.

Skunk coloration is the opposite of camouflage; it’s to a skunk’s advantage to be conspicuous and recognized, since its defenses are so good. The rare animal that fails to stay clear may receive additional warnings such as forefoot stamping, tail raising, or a handstand with tail displayed forward like a big white pom-pom. Spotteds can spray from the handstand, but usually return to all fours.

As a last resort, the skunk sharply bends its spine and fires its notorious defensive weapon—up to six well-aimed rounds of a musky liquid secreted just above the anus. This substance burns the eyes, chokes the throat, and of course stinks like hell. It can be shot either in an atomizer-style mist or, more typically, in a water pistol–style stream fanned across a 30- to 45-degree arc for greater coverage. Range is well over 12 feet. Folk antidotes to skunk spray include tomato juice, ammonia, gasoline, and incinerating your clothes; juice is the least unpleasant, fire the most effective. (Seriously, try a five-minute soak, avoiding your eyes, with hydrogen peroxide with a little baking soda and dish detergent mixed in.) The musk is extracted commercially, chemically stripped of scent, and used as a vehicle for perfumes. Talk about a silk purse from a sow’s ear!

Only great horned owls—with built-in protective “goggles” and very little sense of smell—seem to prey on skunks regularly. Many big owls smell skunky and have skunk-bitten feet. As far as the oddsmakers of natural selection are concerned, skunk defenses are superlative. But like porcupines, skunks seem to be as vulnerable to tiny parasites as they are well-defended against big predators.

Skunk foods include insects and grubs, mice, shrews, ground-nesting birds and their eggs, berries, grain, carrion, and kitchen scraps. Our skunks remain active most winters. Farther north, they sleep torpidly for days or weeks during cold spells. Typical dens are burrows dug by other animals.

Long known as denizens of North America’s farms more than its wilderness, skunks in this century are making their move on suburbs and cities.


Photo by Tom Crabtree.

An eclipse male Blue-winged Teal

Anas discors
Breeding on marshes and vegetated ponds of the interior Northwest, the Blue-winged Teal is the last duck to arrive on its breeding grounds and the first to depart for wintering regions, generally arriving in the Northwest between mid-April and early May and departing in early September. Broad blue shoulder patches, green speculum with white leading edge.

Lenth: 15 inches.

Wingspan: 23 inches.

Male: Rich brownish tan breast and flanks with dark spots, turning to vertical bars above legs; steely gray neck and head with bold white vertical crescent on face in front of eyes; black bill.

Eclipse male resembles female but may retain partial white face crescent. Eclipse plumage is a plumage molt stage, best known in ducks, during which the bird acquires a drab post-breeding plumage (late summer) before beginning to regrow breeding plumage for fall and winter courtship. Eclipse phase is a complete molt, including flight feathers, so ducks become temporarily flightless at this time.

Female: Mottled brownish gray-tan overall, darkest on back; pale grayish brown face with white spot at the base of the bill; dark crown and eye line; dark bill.

Voice: Male produces typically plaintive whistled peep calls. Female recognized by high-pitched scratchy quacking; flush call sometimes a
double-note grunting kwaak-ahh, rapidly repeated.

Behavior: Often feeds by dabbling in very shallow water and grazing on adjacent mudflats and wet shorelines. Very fast and agile flight; can change course very rapidly and often flies in small, twisting and turning flocks; launches straight up from water’s surface.

Habitat: Freshwater ponds, marshes; mudflats; weedy ditches; prairie and steppe potholes with emergent vegetation.

Status: Uncommon


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