Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Spring Signs at Mount Talbert

Earlier today I hiked around Mount Talbert Nature Preserve. We've had only a couple of warmer days in the 50's (10-12 C). Many herbacious 'winter' annuals and perennials already know its spring. Candyflower seedlings are very common there between the big sword ferns. Bittercress, one of our few native weeds, is showing new green. Tiny seedling of other types are showing wherever they may. But the champion for earliness is the snow queen, which was the only plant actually in bloom.

Actually I should say the only plant in bloom was a snow queen - I saw only one. The rest at most showed a new leaf or two. I've seem them blooming elsewhere blooming early in January, as there always seems to be one blooming well ahead of the others. The main flush of blooms comes in mid-March. Like spring bulbs this has a quick heavy flush of bloom early, with nothing most of the year. Unlike the bulbs, this is evergreen, with the deep green leaves often tinged purple over the winter.

Snow Queen near the Mather Road Parking on Mount Talbert

This plant likes dry rocky ground made humusy by fir needles. They also like more light than firs usually allow. So they are most common on the edge between oak and fir woodland. This ecotone or edge habitat is common at Mount Talbert. The blue blossoms are showy for their brief season in March, and they are gone - but still handsomely green.

The botanic name is Synthyris reniformis, and it is in the penstemon or snapdragon family. Now thru the end of March is the time to visit Mount Talbert to see this plant in flower.

About six weeks ago I watched three deer at dusk in the park. The doe and her two near-yearlings were not panicked by my presence, but sauntered between bites away at an angle from me. I had walked to perhaps 120 feet from them before noticing. I watched them for perhaps 5 minutes before proceeding on my intended path.

It would be interesting to know how many deer this acreage supports. There is over 200 acres (80+ hectares) of woodlands in the park area, not all preserved, and more on the very steep slopes across Mather Road. Only a few years back mixed farm and forest extended east to the Cascade Mountains, but now this area is isolated from other lands suitable for deer. How big an area is needed to support a viable population of blacktails? This might be a good area for a study on the subject. Experts tell us that in good lowland habitat a home range can be as small as 100 acres. The oak openings provide good grazing and the deer may be keeping the park more open by browsing the shrubbery. Deer don't like to eat sword fern so they actually encourage it, and indeed it covers much of the forest floor.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Mammoth Snowfall in the Cascades

The past few weeks have seen truly enormous amounts of snowfall up and down the left coast mountains - the Sierras in California and the Cascades from British Columbia south into North California. Locally in the Mount Hood area more snow - 7 feet (2.14 m) - fell in a week than falls in some entire winters. Santiam Pass south of here is closed due to avalanches and general conditions at the section with mountain-high steep slopes on both sides. Authorities asked people stay off the mountain roads of Mount Hood last weekend, but few listened with the prospect of all that powder and the potential for good skiing and snowboarding. In California both railroads and freeways have been shut down, trapping many in the mountains. The main east-west highway I-90 in the Cascades east of Seattle has closed repeatedly due to avalanche danger and deep snow. It is closed now but may reopen late today. In the mountain town of Leavenworth on the east side of the Cascades, a large home was flattened by an avalanche a few days ago, right in town! The Stevens Pass road to the town is closed due to avalanche danger. White Pass is also closed due to multiple avalanches burying the road and whiteout high wind conditions.

The snow is so deep and soft that snowmobiles have been lost and their owners stuck far into the backcountry needing rescue.

Reports give a current snow depth of 240 inches at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. Thats 20 feet (6.1 meters)! At Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park the depth is 210 inches (5.3 meters). Mount Hood east of Portland has 200 inches (over 5 meters) at high-elevation Timberline Lodge, dropping to 160 (still over 4 meters) at Ski Bowl 2000 feet (610 meters) lower. On Mount Hood these are very deep figures, especially at the lower elevations.

The Mount Saint Helens VolcanoCam is currently melting out of a snowdrift which completely buried it in recent days. This large-image webcam provides a view of the only actively erupting volcano in the 48 states. It's been steadily growing the now large lava dome since 2004.

After a less-precipitation today forecasts call for alternating rain and snow until just snow mid-week. This is sure to produce natural avalanches and makes likely traveler-triggered slides, making backcountry travel dangerous.

The network TV weathermen like scare stories to boost ratings, so several are available making it sound like a huge flood is in the offing due to all that snow. There are a few problems with the theory despite the deep snowpack. Required for a big flood is a several day 'pineapple express' rain event with very warm tropical downpours that melt snow to the tops of the mountains. That is not in the picture for the moment. And its getting late for a hard freeze down to the lowest elevations, required to give the frozen soils needed to shed the rains if they arrive.

If we get the necessary combination of factors - a hard freeze to the valley floor, heavy snowfall with some at low elevations, and a rapid warming with tropically warmed rain, then our rare huge floods will occur. They average about a 25 years spread, varying from 17 to 32, with the last one in February 1996. They are invariably labeled '100 years floods'. At our place on the river, these big ones are about 25 feet (8 meters) above summer levels.

My guess is a moderate snowmelt flood come mid-April, such as happened in our last high snowfall year, 2002. During that flood this mallard couple rather tamely allowed this photo taken on our lower lawn, despite the attentions of our cat lurking nearby. Another post on an earlier flood has a photo of cat and bird as close as they ever came.