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almost noon
Low angle of the sun at noon on January 4
The Daily Bucket is a place where we share our observations about the natural world. Whether we note the winter birds at our feeders or the dramatic weather events of the season, we are building a resource to learn more about the patterns of nature and how they may be changing. Everyone is welcome to contribute!  Just tell us what you are seeing in your backyard or wherever you are roaming and approximately where your observations come from.
I'd like to take you on a peaceful, wintertime walk around my property, here on the NE corner of the Olympic Peninsula.  

I live in an evergreen forest, so it remains a very green place and the signs of winter are subtle.  The quality of light is one noticeable feature of winter.  The low angle of the sun at 48° N means that, even on those rare sunny days, no direct sunlight is likely to hit ground level.  The sun peeks through the tree trunks underneath the canopy.

Follow me past the orange sunfleck to continue our walk through the shady woods.

The Trees

As we stroll along, we take an informal inventory of trees (anything larger than a sapling) in undisturbed areas of our yard (not around the house and driveway).  This second-growth forest seems to be about 62% Western redcedar (Thuja plicata), 16% Red alder (Alnus rubra), 13% Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), 6% Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and 2% Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), with the rest being a handful of Pacific madrona (Arbutus menziesii), Grand fir (Abies grandis), and one lovely Cascara (Rhamnus purshiana) large enough to be called a tree rather than a shrub.  

Even though it's the evergreens that dominate this forest, let's start by looking at the maples and alders, since winter is often associated with deciduous trees that lose their leaves.

Bigleaf maples covered in moss and ferns
Even without their leaves, it's easy to find Bigleaf maple trees in the winter.  They are often hosts to mosses and ferns growing along their trunks and branches.  Without the distraction of the huge, beautiful leaves, this is even more distinctive in wintertime.  These are probably Licorice ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) growing on the Bigleaf maple trunk. As you can see above the moss, the bark is ridged. The moss can get so thick as to provide a "soil base" in which seeds of other trees can sprout.  I was surprised to learn that Bigleaf maples are not considered a particularly long-lived tree.  
alder bark w lichens
Red alder covered in lichens

Leafless Red alders are easy to identify by their grey bark, often covered in lichens which give them a fuzzy or scaly look.  

PHScott's wonderful lichen diary is a good resource when considering the bark of a Red alder. The bark is grey (and green with lichens) unless you cut into it and then the "red" in its common name makes more sense.

Red alder is a fast-growing and short-lived tree.  Its roots host nitrogen-fixing bacteria and it thrives in disturbed sites as a pioneer tree.  It is growing along our road and in the wetland area.

Madrona bark
Another broadleaf tree is the Pacific madrona which is actually an evergreen. Several madrona trees are growing along the high bluff overlooking the beach.  The distinctive feature of these trees is their peeling bark, with the older bark being a reddish-brown and peeling off, primarily during the summer. The new skin underneath is smooth, looks almost polished, and may start out a light green. Over time, the newly exposed bark begins to age through peach to orange and then will continue to deepen in color. The branches of this tree are twisted and its leaves are leathery.  

Next, let's take a look at the conifers and, down here at eye level, we're still looking at bark.

Western redcedar

The predominate tree here is the Western redcedar.  They are not only the most numerous, but the tallest and broadest trees on our property. Looking up high, many have a dead or broken off top with multiple new leader branches developing into a candelabra top. The top die-off may have been caused by summer droughts.  Many of the biggest trees are probably hollow inside. The bark is stringy, soft, and flexible. I am not sure what the lime green stuff growing on the bark is. Could it be another kind of lichen? The wood is known for being quite resistant to rot.

Redcedar has been called the "tree of life" by the Coastal Salish people. Its bark provided fibers for clothing and baskets.  The wood supplied canoes, homes, and totem poles.  In fact, many of their needs were met by the Western redcedar.  I read in Pojar & MacKinnon's Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast:

The power of the redcedar tree was said to be so strong a person could receive strength by standing with his or her back to the tree.
I may just have to go lean up against a cedar until the debt ceiling posturing is done.

The other tree with a real presence is the Douglas-fir.  We don't have many, but all the Douglas-fir trees on our property are big and bold.  There are quite a few on the edge of the bluff. Eagles have built their nest in a Douglas-fir with a broken crown at the top of the bluff.  As you can see, the bark is thick and deeply furrowed and not immune to lichens.  

Douglas-fir bark with lichens
The Understory

Winter removes a bit of the undergrowth on the forest floor.  Stinging nettles, coltsfoot, and elderberries are gone.   But there are several common evergreen plants such as salal (Gaultheria shallon), oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), and sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) still covering the ground with green.

oregon grape
Oregon Grape
Sword ferns in a rare snowstorm
So, this is the "bare bones" of my forest that is here year-around.  In the springtime, we'll go on another stroll to see what we will be able to add to this picture.

In the meantime, what's going on in your winter woods?

Originally posted to Backyard Science on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 08:30 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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