Today I got the opportunity to go on a hike led by the San Juan County Land Bank at their Cady Mountain Preserve. This Land Bank property is the site of some of the Garry oak habitat restoration work being done on the island. The goal is to one day have walking trails on the preserve open to the public, but as that is not yet the case this was an awesome opportunity to get to see this Land Bank property. About 15 of us met mid-afternoon for our 2+ mile hike that was mostly off-trail (only primitive work paths exist).
The first thing I noticed as we headed up Cady Mountain was the wildflowers. The shooting stars were in full bloom, and in an abundance I haven't seen anywhere else. There were whole meadow patches just full of purple flowers:
As I went over my photos, I realized I took way more pictures of the shooting star flowers than I realized, probably because they're one of my favorite wildflowers. Here's a closer look at them:
We saw lots of other wildflower species during our hike, including chocolate lily, fawn lily, Calypso orchid, man root, small-flowered blue-eyed Mary, western buttercup, prairie star, spotted coralroot, common monkeyflower, small-flowered forget-me-not, field chickweed, and great camas. Whew! When I started that list, I didn't realize it would be so long, but we saw a lot of flowers!
It was interesting to see some of the Garry oak habitat restoration first hand. Garry oak prairie is a habitat that has declined greatly throughout the region, in part because of things like fire suppression that have altered native habitats. Work is being done not only on San Juan Island but in many regional areas to remove the Douglas firs that have encroached on these prairies. On Cady Mountain, there are still many adult Garry oaks that have been buried by the surrounding firs. Here's one that's been "freed". The fence at the bottom of the picture is protecting oak saplings from browsing deer, which are experiencing a population spike on the island.
We learned that there are several ways to deal with Douglas firs depending on their size. Small trees are removed entirely. Large trees can be "limbed" - many of their branches are removed to allow more sunlight in to the forest floor. Medium sized trees are "girdled", like this, to prevent nutrients and moisture from traveling through the live outer part of the tree to the rest of the tree:
Amazingly, some trees are still alive years after being girdled. How do they do that?!
I also learned that simply clear-cutting a fir forest area is not necessarily the best way to bring the native prairie habitat back. If you empty an area of trees, it's the weeds that will take over - blackberry, thistle, etc. If you partially clear an area, that allows the native undergrowth to re-establish itself. The bunch grasses and wildflowers will move back in, instead of having a weed explosion:
Some of the oak trees are pretty unique and have been given names. (Speaking of trees with names, as an aside, I recently read the book The Wild Trees, by Richard Preston. If you are at all interested in trees, I highly recommend it. It doesn't read like most non-fiction books in the sense that it's a real page turner. It's focus is on the canopies of the world's tallest trees and the people who study them, particularly coast redwoods. The largest trees are always named, which is what reminded me to recommend this book just now!) This oak tree is called the Octopus Oak:
This oak tree was one of the coolest things we saw on our hike: the Erratic Oak. It's a very old oak tree (no longer living) that has in its course of growth straddled a glacial erratic (a rock left behind by the glaciers that receded over 10,000 years ago). One of its largest branches was dated and the oak tree was over 300 years old.
We also saw some very impressive, large, old Douglas firs. This one that was cut down wasn't particularly large or old, but check out the size of those annual growth rings!!
Of course, it wasn't just about the trees and flowers. We saw lots of other interesting stuff, too, including quite a few morel mushrooms:
I saw and heard (mostly heard) over 20 bird species on our hike, including my first house wren (173) of the year. I heard four different warbler species: orange-crowned, yellow-rumped, black-throated gray, and Townsend's. I also heard a pileated woodpecker. In terms of other animals, we saw a tree frog, but as for mammals, it was mostly either scat or bones. There were quite a few deer skeletons around. This skull is from a young male deer. You can tell the gender because of the pedicles on top of the skull, where the antlers attach:
Mostly the hike was through the woods, but in a couple of places it opened up to some views. This vista was looking south over San Juan Valley towards Cattle Point:
Towards the end of the hike we traversed some private property of people who are working with the Land Bank to restore the landscape of contiguous parcels. Some of these lands may at some point be donated to the Cady Mountain Preserve. Here we were gathered on one of these properties, talking about the work these private land owners had done to restore their 20 acres of former Garry oak prairie habitat through a grant they had received. Notice the bluebird box? This is the same property I visited a year ago to help build a bluebird aviary. The western bluebird is one of many species that would benefit from more oak prairie habitat.
Overall, it was fun to see and explore the Cady Mountain Preserve. It never ceases to amaze me that there are always new places on this island to discover! After ten years of visiting and living here, I still see new sights every year!