Category Archives: Nature

Spring Movements

It is feeling like mid-spring here.

The early red rhodie is now in full bloom.

And the native bleeding hearts are getting started.

I saw my first bat yesterday evening, although I haven’t been keeping an eye out, so they may have been here for a while.

I went out to listen to the spring chorus a few times last week. Here’s who’s around (seen or heard):

  • Anna’s Hummingbird
  • Barred Owl
  • Brown Creeper
  • Chickadee, Chestnut-backed
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Crow, American
  • Dove, Mourning
  • (Finch, Purple)
  • Junco, Dark-eyed
  • Kinglet, Golden-crowned
  • Kinglet, Ruby-crowned
  • Mallard
  • Nuthatch, Red-breasted
  • Pine Siskin
  • Raven, Common
  • Robin
  • (Sparrow, Chipping)
  • Sparrow, Song
  • Sparrow, White-crowned
  • Stellar’s Jay
  • Towhee, Spotted
  • Varied Thrush
  • Wood Duck
  • Woodpecker, Pileated
  • Wren, Pacific

    I was surprised not to hear any black-capped chickadees. Maybe they migrate, and I just never noticed, since the chestnut-backed are around all year?

    It will be interesting to see who shows up in the next few weeks!

  • More Frost Flowers, iPhone

    We had the correct conditions for frost flowers (hair ice) two days last week: overnight Tuesday (with pictures Wednesday morning) and overnight Wednesday (with pictures Thursday morning).

    This sort of clustering is common, because the clear day/cold snap (for us!) conditions required for frost flowers tend to cluster.

    Olympia, March 7 2024, iPhone 15 pro

    Yesterday I talked a bit about the conditions that allow frost flowers and hair ice to “grow”; today I want to talk a little bit about photographing frost flowers, with a focus on my latest experience with the iPhone 15.

    Olympia, March 7 2024, iPhone 15 pro

    I have been photographing frost flowers for a few years now. I saw my first frost flowers on a cold morning along the Elwha river in 2015. The following winter, I discovered them growing in our home woods in Port Angeles.

    Elwha River frost flower, 2015, photographed with an iPhone 5

    When we moved to Olympia, I was delighted to discover that our local woods “grew” frost flowers even more frequently than our Port Angeles woods. Since moving, I have been photographing frost flowers happily with an iPhone 10, sometimes in combination with a hand lens.

    Olympia Frost Flower, January 2022, photographed with an iPhone 10

    I was able to get some great frost flower pictures with my iPhone 10, and was generally delighted with its macro quality. However, it did tend to lose detail when there was any degree of light; it would all just go to white (as in the top of this picture).

    When I got my iPhone 15 pro a couple weeks ago, I was initially extremely excited about its macro potential. However, a couple experiments with flowers had me concerned. This flush of frost flowers was my first opportunity to try my new camera (phone) with one of my favorite subjects.

    Olympia, March 7 2024, iPhone 15 pro

    Overall, I’m very pleased with the results. The macro setting did not have the same issue it did with flowers. I think the flowers failed because the sensors got confused about what to focus on; with the frost flowers, it was a larger field of focus, so it didn’t get confused.

    Olympia, March 7 2024, iPhone 15 pro

    The macro setting allows me to focus close-in at least as well as the iPhone 10 plus hand lens, which is lovely. They have also done some fancy footwork to take care of the whiteout issue that I often had with the iPhone 10. Each strand really stands out.

    Olympia, March 7 2024, iPhone 15 pro

    Is it hands-down better than the iPhone 10?

    Well… no. I love that it captures all the detail, and makes it easier to see the individual strands. But I think its focus has some issues, and everything winds up looking super crystalline (partly as a result of the lighting fancy-footwork). The pictures lose some of the satiny quality of the frost flowers.

    Olympia, March 7 2024, iPhone 15 pro

    I feel like the best of my iPhone 10 photos were better than my iPhone 15 photos, but the conditions had to be just right. With the iPhone 15, I can easily capture the wonderful detail of the frost flowers, but the feel is a little different. And it can capture frost flowers that would have just been a mass of white in the iPhone 10, such as this candy-floss type.

    Olympia, March 7 2024, iPhone 15 pro

    Anyway, I’m generally pleased, but I really hope Apple fixes the macro focus issues before (botanical) flower season is here in earnest!

    Late Frost Flowers

    We’re lucky enough to live in a region that usually gets frost flowers (hair ice) several times each winter. This winter was weird, though — too warm, and then too cold, and then too warm — so I was starting to wonder whether we would get any really good frost formations.

    We got a few, early, back in November, but we hadn’t had any truly good blooms.

    Finally, on the morning of March 6th, we got a very good bloom! It was clear, and hit around 28F, which is perfect for “growing” frost flowers/hair ice.

    Please note that the general frost flower commentary below is taken from this post from a couple years ago. All the photos are new.

    Frost flowers (hair ice) form when there are sodden sticks that dip below freezing overnight. Around here, the sweet spot is ~28-31 F. It needs to be cold enough to produce frost, but not so cold as to freeze the stick solid.

    The ice forms on the surface of the stick, and is extruded as it freezes to form “hair” which can take beautiful forms that look like silvery locks or silvery flowers.

    There is a fungal association with Exidiopsis effusa. Around here, there is also a clear preference for alder twigs and branches. I’m not sure whether that’s what the fungus prefers, or whether the wood somehow favors frost flower formation.

    Frost flower and hair ice are two terms used semi-interchangeably. As far as I can tell, the distinction is mostly based on the type of formation. If it’s a burst formation (e.g. from the end of a stick), it’s a frost flower. If it looks like hair growing out of the middle of a stick, it’s hair ice. Even though most of what we get is probably more hair ice than frost flowers, I like the latter term better 🙂

    Frost flowers and hair ice are relatively rare worldwide. They require specific conditions to “grow”. In climates with cold winters, you might be lucky enough to see a few in the autumns. 

    Here in the Puget Sound area, the winters are mild and tend to only dip below freezing occasionally. We also have an abundance of alders. That gives us the ideal conditions for hair ice and frost flowers.

    To see them, go out on a cold morning and check any local alder groves. They tend to be more common at the edges of alder groves, where the sticks are a bit more exposed… but that depends on the temperature range. On a very cold morning (25-28F) there may be such formations deeper in the woods.

    They are most common on mid-sized twigs and branches (~1/2-2″ diameter), but occasionally they grow on larger or smaller branches.

    Early Frost Flowers

    We got our first frost flowers (hair ice) of the year on Friday. It is rare for us to get them before December: it requires a very specific combination of sodden sticks and cold.

    These frost formations grow from alder sticks. The fine strands extrude from the stick as the surface freezes, so they truly do grow in a very similar way to hair.

    I waffle between “frost flower” and “hair ice”; my current understanding is that the terms are semi interchangeable, and are more based on the type of formation than the actual process.

    I admit I find “frost flower” a very appealing term, but this photo is definitely more on the “hair ice” part of the formation spectrum!

    I periodically do posts of frost flowers/hair ice, since we’re fortunate enough to get them a few times each winter. Check for tags “hair ice” or “frost flowers” to find them!

    Planting Notes: Giant Red Indian Paintbrush from Seed

    I tried growing a bunch of PNW native seeds in 2022-23. I got the seeds from Inside Passage.

    I had good success with Castilleja miniata (giant red Indian paintbrush).

    My basic protocol was to fill a sterilized 4″ pot with a soil-free mixture of 2 parts coir, 1 part perlite, 1 part vermiculite. I then planted the seeds and put the pots outside under a hardware cloth cover to get scarification over the winter.

    Based on the UW native plant protocols (available to the public here: https://jbakker.shinyapps.io/Protocols/ ), I planted the seeds on the surface and sprinkled a light layer of perlite on top.

    Note that you should be able to do scarification in the refrigerator; I’ll be experimenting more with that in the 2023-24 season. For my first attempt, I wanted to keep everything as “natural” as possible.

    When I checked my native seed pots in mid February, I had some sprouts starting! At around this time, I brought the pots in and put them under grow lights in the garage (about 50F).

    By 3/7 they had 2-4 true leaves, and I split them into multiple 2 and 4″ pots (scooping out small clumps of seedlings with a fork and transferring them as intact as possible), and added native yarrow seeds.

    Most paintbrush species are hemiparasitic: they can do their own photosynthesis, but they get a boost from their neighbors. I had encountered a reference indicating that they could be grown with native yarrow, which is convenient because yarrow is an extremely fast sprouter.

    The yarrow sprouted in less than a week, and they really started to take off.

    2″ pots of Paintbrush seedlings surrounded by host yarrow, 1 month after yarrow seeds were added.

    I up-potted into 4″ and gallon pots over the next two months. I moved them back outside sometime in April, probably late April.

    I got my first bloom at the beginning of June!

    This was a lovely surprise, because I had thought that I would have to wait until the next year to get any blooms.

    As it turned out, most of the Paintbrush plants wound up blooming, probably because of the boost they got from their time under grow lights through early spring.

    Another unexpected and pleasant surprise was how long the flowers lasted. That initial flower was still going strong 3 weeks later. I think it lasted a good month.

    The other paintbrush plants started blooming in late July.

    Some paintbrush plants are biennial, some are perennial. I think these are perennial, so I will plant them out in a meadow area this autumn, and hope they come back next year.

    One more planting note: these are listed as full sun, but we really don’t have full sun available; the best I could do was 6 hours of direct sun, with shade the rest of the day.

    That probably wasn’t optimal, but it was enough to get blooming plants!

    Let me know if you have questions! If you decide to give them a try, good luck!

    Operation Bee Rescue — Phase II

    This is a continuation of the bee rescue adventure.

    Phase I ended with  wild comb leaned semi-upright in three layers of boxes, with frames interspersed to help keep them semi-vertical (although not oriented correctly). This arrangement allowed us to close up the hive, but was not a good long-term configuration.

    The box had all sorts of awkward airspace, and there was no way of removing the upper boxes without wreaking havoc. The whole point of a normal modern beehive configuration is that  all of the frames are hanging, so you can freely pull the upper boxes to reach the lower boxes.

    One thing I couldn’t find any good information on was whether honeycomb orientation was critical for brood. Normally honeycomb has a slight downward slant (which makes sense for curing honey). I could imagine it being important for eggs and larva to stay put.

    Crazy comb and problematic hive management aside, it seemed very risky to go into winter with comb leaned sideways and upside-down.

    The only way to fix the situation was to take the wild/natural comb and insert it into frames. This would allow it to hang in the box with good comb spacing, permitting free bee movement and rendering the hive manageable.

    The catch is that frames aren’t really designed to have comb inserted. For it to work, you basically need to cage the comb into the frames. Somehow.

    My first “insert comb in frames” attempt used thread.

    I was able to extract the honey chunks from three combs and insert them. I was working on this Sunday morning, so the bees had mostly clumped up in one corner, giving me easy access to the last three combs (the biggest combs in the colony, which turned out to just have honey… mostly uncapped).

    It was a good start, but the remaining chunks are thick with bees (I’m sure they are surrounding the brood comb and — hopefully — the queen), and I need something a bit stouter and easier for the bees to escape.

    I set up a framework using BBQ skewers, and I think it has a good chance at working…

    But by the time I finished, the bees had gotten pretty frisky. It’s partly that it had warmed up, partly that I had been manipulating them, and partly that the yellow jackets had been mooching around the edges.

    I’ll try the final critical comb mounting tomorrow morning, when everyone is chilly/slow. It’s a calculated risk, because they will also be all clustered together, but it’s pretty distracting getting dive-bombed — even in a bee suit! That’s how you know I’m not a pro!

    I’m very much hoping that when I do the mounting of the brood section, I will see the queen. At this point her status is unknown. Although the bee casualties have been fairly minimal, it is always possible that she got squashed when one of the combs fell. Fingers crossed!

    Operation Bee Rescue

    The Situation

    A couple weeks ago we discovered that one of our two hives had split itself (probably in June), and the old queen/half the colony had settled on a Douglas Fir branch about 40 feet up.

     

    When bees swarm, the beekeeper has a limited window to tempt the bees back into an empty box. Otherwise, the bees will find whatever digs are available: hollow trees and house walls are favorites.

     

    Every once in a while, the bees don’t find any good sites, and they stay put in the open. Apparently that’s what happened here.

     

     

    How could we have missed this? Well, although the colony was clearly visible from one vantage, it was masked by the end of the branch from the house. And apparently we don’t inspect our tree line very often. Yes, it’s a bit embarrassing. But would you spot it in this picture? See red circle.

     

     

    At the time I thought it was neat but sad: neat, because it is amazing to see how the bees build their colony when left to their own devices; sad, because there is no way an exposed colony can survive the winter in our climate (cold + rain + wind = dead bees)… but it was too high to rescue. Or that was the initial conclusion.

     

    Of course, having given them up for lost, our brains immediately started working on how they could be saved. Ladders? No… none of ours were remotely long enough. Climb the tree? Doug Fir branches are made for breaking. Cherry picker? Cherry picker!

     

    We got some tips from friends and called around. A very nice electrician was inclined to help us… but once we got more accurate distance details, they realized their cherry picker wouldn’t reach. They told us that some tree services have big bucket trucks, and gave us a name to start.

     

    That tree service was favorably disposed (the owner has a wild colony in a cedar stump, and they actually tipped it upright when it fell over in a storm… hooray for heavy equipment)… but they couldn’t come until late October.

     

    So we got in touch with an arborist who had worked with us on another project. Conor thought he could do it, and was able to come Saturday morning.

     

    Here was the plan: go up, cut the end of the limb with the colony, bring it down, hang it on an A-frame ladder for better access, and try to rig the whole colony so that it could be settled in a bee box for the winter.

     

    Before we get into what happened, here are a couple pics of the colony that I got with my telephoto. The picture where all the comb is showing was taken first thing in the morning, so they’re huddled in for warmth. The picture where there is a big ball of bees on the bottom was taken in the middle of the day, so they’re working and protecting the nest.

     

    Phase I

    Conor showed up with his bucket truck (I missed the technical name, but it has a 2 part hydraulic pivot that can lift a small basket up to 50 feet). We spent a few minutes sorting out the plan, and by 9 a.m. he was suited up and ready to go!
       

     

    Since he had to go up solo, the plan was for him to cut the branch, holding it as best he could, and then bring it down to me. Two people would have been ideal, since with one person there was no way to hold the branch stable.

     

    Here is his final approach up to the colony and the cutting of the branch (click links for video).

     

     
    The branch twisted down pretty sharply, which did not help comb integrity, but it all held together!… at least temporarily….

     

    He brought it down and handed it down to me. Probably about 40 pounds, but most of that was branch. I was able to get it on the ladder, although a bit crooked initially.

     

     

    The comb survived the whiplash of being cut, but was a little the worse for wear.

     

    Note the bend in the comb, and the dangling comb on the left side. It was hanging on by a tiny little twig. It couldn’t last.

     

    While I was bustling around getting a box and seeing Conor off, the dangler fell off. In this shot I have scooped it up and leaned it in the box.

     

     

    Another comb was coming loose!

     

     

    I carefully snipped this comb off before it could collapse (the only controlled comb removal in the whole thing, unfortunately). Here is the comb, all ready to go in the box (both sides).

     

     

    Here it is in the box. Not a good long-term solution, but ok for starters….

     

    And then another comb fell off! Note comb now leaned on exterior of the box. So much for lovingly boxing up the whole comb unmolested. I hadn’t realized how fragile wild comb would be, especially in cool weather.

     

    Fortunately the bees were confused but not aggressive. I couldn’t wear gloves, because I needed to be able to gently lift the comb.

     

    Here are the combs that fell off, all tucked in snugly.

    Still, a few combs left! I got the colony level — more or less – and stuck with the plan of taking them intact.
    Narrator: she should have abandoned the plan.

         

    In order to get the rest of the honeycomb free, I either had to cut the branch or break the comb. In retrospect, I should have broken the comb… but instead I decided to cut the branch.

    Rob was working, but Mom and Dad were visiting for the day, so Mom held the branch stable while I made the cut.

    Shortly before the cut, the other two big combs sloughed off, and I added them to my growing box of traumatized bees.

    Phase I closed out with the pieces of comb tucked into three layers of hive, with commercial frames as spacers.

    The good news was that the colony could then be closed up, safe from yellow jackets and weather. The bad news was that there was way too much air space, the hive would be completely unmanageable with the chunks of wild comb propped up here and there, and most of the comb was either upside-down or sideways.

    Since the original plan of keeping the colony intact didn’t work out, we needed to wait until things quieted down, and then try to insert the comb into frames. See Phase II!

     
     
     
     

    Happy Equinox!

    It felt like mid-spring today, and has been feeling like spring for about a week now.

    It was a long time coming, though! After a very mild December and January, February came down like Thor’s hammer.

    We got almost three feet of snow over about four days.

    The kitties were not amused.

    Nor were the goats.

    Nor were the wild birds. I had to spread seed on the porch, because the snow was so deep and soft. We even got a family of quail coming by!

    Nor was the Rob. He was quite worried about the roofs, and whether our smaller structures would be able to hold the weight.

    Even once the snow was off the roofs, the snow barely melted until last week — it just compressed, and compressed, and compressed, but with a freeze every night it was excruciatingly slow.

    About a week ago the temperatures bobbed above freezing and stayed there.

    And finally, finally, the snow receded.

    There is still snow, especially in the shade, but the crocuses are in full bloom, and the bees are out enjoying them!

    Happy spring!

    Fimbulwinter

    A fourth hard freeze in a row, without an intervening thaw, has our landscape covered by delicate ice crystals. Each day they get a little bigger.

    Today, for the first time, I felt that a sense of scale was needed.

    This is not false scale. The ice crystals really are that big — although admittedly these were some of the largest in the landscape.

    They grow very differently on different surfaces, which makes for some neat contrasts.

    It is also fun to observe day-to-day changes.

    Here is the day three comfrey frost versus the day four comfrey frost.

    Comfrey frost, day 3

    Comfrey frost, day 4

    In principle they are the same, but all the ice crystals are just a little bigger, a little more compounded.

    I am enjoying the frost, but I’m also looking forward to the thaw we’re expecting tomorrow afternoon. The layer of ice and the cold are hard on the wildlife.

    I put the hummingbird feeder back out on day 2, and two hummingbirds are still around. I had to thaw the feeder out mid-morning today, which gives some sense of just how frigid it is, given that hummer water is usually good down to 27-28F.

    Soon it will be back to rain.

     

     

    Compounding Frost

    We have had three days of heavy frost, without an intervening full thaw.

    The frost-on-frost makes the lawn look like we’ve had a light snow.

    However, instead of snow, the white is caused by millions of tiny ice crystals grown directly on the plant material. Crystals 1/4 inch long are common. Certain grasses seem to be especially good seed material for the ice crystals.

    Plants that are aren’t quite as good a foundation material make for more interesting structures, since the frost can grow well on part but not all.

    I especially like how the frost looks on the sword ferns.

    The patterning is also more visible in slightly more sheltered areas. This dead comfrey leaf shows the wonderful variability of frost growth.

    We’re expecting one more frosty morning tomorrow. With each subsequent night the frost gets bigger, but some of the definition is lost. Pretty soon we’ll be lost under a forest of ice crystals!