A TEMPORARY REFUGE
Natural History of a
Wild Summer Steelhead Refuge Pool
in the Western Cascades of Oregon
© Lee Spencer
The North Umpqua Foundation
All rights reserved
THE LAST HALF
Sis and I arrive on the pool around the middle of the May. As a kindness to the Foundation, Mike and Elsie Marchando tow the Foundation’s twenty-five foot Airstream trailer up to the pool and a full 125-gallon propane tank is put in place beside it. The Forest Service supplies the commode and I have the company that delivers it place this crapper well away across the flat from our camp. The trailer, itself, is placed near the creek edge of the flat and next to a very large Douglas fir that has grown old here. I find myself wondering about this towering tree on windy nights and during lightning storms . . . and snows, yet would have it no other way. And, really, no matter where I had the trailer put on the flat, it would be within the reach of some giant old tree or another if it chooses fall.
Smaller firs, cedars, a towering sugar pine, dogwoods, cascaras, chinkapins, vine maples, and small broad-leaf maples make up the rest of the larger riparian vegetation that is crowded along the creek side of the flat. Away from the pool, here and there along the main creek, are found large broad-leaved maples and, quite a bit more rarely and usually overlooked, is a black cottonwood or two, the tallest of the native hardwoods, though hardwood is a funny term when applied to this native Pacific Northwest tree. Service berries, two species of ceanothus, viburnum, Oregon grape, wild rose, and salal make up the common smaller woody vegetation and grasses, wild blackberry, yerba de selva, moss, some ferns, and lichen make up the ground cover along with a variety of annuals and perennials, such as the bear grass.
It generally takes me several days to set the trailer and camp in order. Then the viewing area furniture is gathered from various places where it has been stored and is put together and set up on the small narrow shelf, the viewing area above the pool.
Our Perch is constructed close to the base of an old pistol-grip fir that curves eccentrically from the downcreek edge of the viewing area shelf. Because its root structure curved up along the surface in such a way as to form a good support for a platform, this fir was where I first chose to sit to watch the fish. Now, I realize there is an added advantage to being seated at the base of this tree. It shields me somewhat from being seen by the steelhead and other creatures in and around the pool.
It is clear however that this perch of mine is no blind, it shields me a bit, but the steelhead and most other creatures that use the pool and the creek local to it know Sis and I are here, though perhaps not whether we are using the Perch at a given time. During the first week or two when I first see a local creature at the pool, it often comes quite close on wing or on the ground to us and takes a good look. Robins, kingfishers, sharp-shin hawks, dippers, Townsend’s solitaires, ospreys, nighthawks, blue herons, and spotted skunks have flown or strode to within a few feet of our Perch. I don’t know whether they fly close to the Perch when we aren’t present, but after this initial dalliance, most of these creatures do not come nearly as close again during the season.
I have constructed benches in the viewing area for the public to sit on. These were built during the first season as I gradually realized that lots of people are in the habit of visiting the pool to see the steelhead. Initially, my concern was with the older people who were, at times, so unsteady on their feet that I built places for them to sit down. Later it became clear that the fish in the pool were less disturbed when people used the benches rather than standing out at the front of the viewing area. As with Sis and me at the Perch, however, it is now clear that the steelhead using the pool are well aware of everyone who visits and they respond accordingly. It took me a while to see this.
The Perch has also elaborated into a space with a shelf for books and binoculars, and a desk surface that I can settle a book onto. At the side of this desk is another surface where I lay out a notebook to accept whatever notes I may pencil into it. Near the notebook is a holder for a time piece and a pencil.
I sit at this desk on my knees using a pine meditation bench that I built a few years before first coming to the pool. It was serendipitous that this bench was still banging about in the back of the truck because I discovered that by using it, I took up far less space than I would using a more traditional chair. This bench is also far more comfortable and stable than a chair would be for lengthy sitting. The sloping surface of the bench makes it easy to sit with a straight back, using the muscles of the back in the way they were designed to be used.
A set of layered green tarps are finally flown over a structure of long bamboos and slender locally collected Douglas fir poles. The bamboo comes from a garden supply store in Eugene and the poles come from terraces along the creek where they have naturally died. The young slender firs are dead when I collect them and they stand up to weather and time far better than the more brittle alder and maple sticks do.
It takes me about a week to put everything in place and then I finally sit down and enjoy the pool until winter rolls around again with its shorter days and increasing cold and with its more regular precipitations and creek rises, volatile creek conditions that eventually empty the pool of the steelhead that have been using it as a refuge for the previous five to seven months. Once the fish go, Sis and I are no longer necessary at the pool and we pack things up and go on our way to wherever it is we will be during the winter and the early spring.
This pool, that by great good fortune—and the North Umpqua Foundation—Sis and I sit at, is located about one-hundred-fifty miles from and 1,600 feet higher than the ocean when this great entity is balanced between its average tides. Of the fish species in this main creek, only the summer and winter steelhead, the spring chinook, and the very small remnants of the lamprey populations native to the creek now make this journey from the ocean to get here.
Celestially, the path of the sun has moved northward in the sky and the days are longer in May than they were at midwinter and, here in the Pacific Northwest, this means generally that warmth and dryness have begun to manifest themselves in the region again . . . outside of the stream courses. Correspondingly, these realities having to do with the orbit and axial tilt of the earth in relation to the sun, with the prevailing onshore winds and where the biggest of the atmospheric cyclones and anticyclones have settled themselves, mean that the snows which fell during the previous winter and were stored above three thousand feet have begun to melt in earnest. In the four to six weeks centered around May 15th, the balance of the snows that are normally subject to melting in the Cascade Mountain Range do so. This extensive melting swells the creeks and rivers of the region into a secondary seasonal flow peak.
The highest flows of the year in the rivers and creeks of this southern part of the Pacific Northwest occur during spates in the late fall and winter because here most of the land surface is below the snow line and, thus, most of the precipitation falls in its liquid state. This rain makes its way down through drainage basins and into streams relatively quickly and is not stored, other than minimally in the soils and vegetation and in cracks in the bedrock, because these various reservoirs are generally full by late autumn. The individual floods that are produced by the movement through the region of notable storms, form the highest annual spikes on the graphs of seasonal flows compiled by the U.S.G.S. and other agencies. Because of the degraded nature of the majority of our present watersheds, these winter spates now flow a muddy brown too.
The spring snowmelt peak does not form the precipitous spikes on the streamflow graphs that winter rains do. Barring particularly unstable temperatures and significant rains, the spring snowmelt increases and decreases incrementally and it thus represents a much more stable acquisition of water by regional streams. The graph of this secondary peak in streamflow is more of a mound than a spike. It invigorates the whole of the North Umpqua and turns the river a beautiful blue-green color.
This vernal snowmelt peak—if there is snow to melt—is used by spring chinook as well as by the summer steelhead to ascend their natal streams. Both of these early-migrating races are named for when they leave the ocean and migrate up through their home streams. The spring chinook spawn in late summer and early autumn in the North Umpqua River Basin and the summer steelhead, as previously stated, reproduce in late winter and early spring.
Spring chinook are large fish, the largest of the Pacific salmon. Perhaps partly because of this, though these early migrating salmon enter small streams, they generally do not travel as far up them as the cutthroat trout, coho, and steelhead do. In the Pacific Northwest, in its generalized high-gradient creeks, most spring chinook fry are found in the lower reaches, with coho fry found in the next mile or two, then steelhead, and finally, stretching well into the upper reaches of the stream, cutthroat trout. In these small high situations, a cutthroat trout might not ever grow larger than five or six inches. Interestingly, it is at five-and-a-quarter-inches in length—somewhat smaller than the regional average—that a steelhead from the main creek readies itself for life in the ocean by making the transition from the parr to the smolt life stage and begins its single-minded downstream swim to the ocean.
Over the last six to nine million years, because the regional melting of snow in the spring is a statistical rule—as are all rules if any exceptions to them exist—and one of the more invariant rules in Nature’s changeable and interdependent systems, it has been used by early-migrating Pacific salmon populations for thousands of generations as it swelled creeks flowing from the higher reaches of the Western Cascades. Spring chinook and summer steelhead have adapted to it and use this snow-melt peak as a well-marked pathway that eases them over and around barriers to get to where they feel they need to be once summer settles in with its warming waters and diminishing flows. Generally speaking, the higher you get in stream basin, the cooler the water is . . . if the basin still retains a forest of trees of sufficient size not only to shade the stream but shade the ground on the slopes above the stream . . . and hold this ground in place. Streams also necessarily get smaller as they are ascended, but these well-shaded smaller flows are higher in elevation and closer to the permanent snow packs, if these are present, and closer as well to the ground water supplied by and stored from these same melting snows.
Adult Pacific salmon entering freshwater again are returning home. They are returning grown relatively huge from feeding in the highly productive ocean. The creek or the stretch of the creek they are returning to, where their parents shed them as separated gametes that fused as they dropped through the gentled currents into a pocket dug into the gravels, this creek is the same size. Some natal streams and stretches of streams may not even exist as flowing water during the summer and early autumn. Young salmon, newly emerged from the gravels, may be spending a full round of the seasons or two or even three of these full annual cycles in freshwater. If a particular stream dries up in the summer, the young-of-the-year salmon leaving the gravels a month or two ahead of this disappearance will often return to the stream once more when it is again flowing.
Spring chinook have been moving up the river on their migratory journey for several weeks by the time the summer steelhead begin to leave the ocean. However—like life itself—one of the interesting things about the Umpqua River is that this fluvial system remains particularly good at qualifying general statements. Some numbers of wild steelhead, of either the summer or the winter-run races, are entering the Umpqua during every week of the year.
A broad range of return timing is probably more the rule . . . or was more the rule, than the exception. Our industrialized consciousness has been trained to think that complex interlocking systems require machined parts, require local breeding populations that are on the move and only on the move between the first week of May and the middle of June. Organic systems and ecologies are much more fluid and generalized and this is one of the strengths of the natural world.
You cannot make a machine from living parts, life is too dynamic, too apparently uncertain . . . Or rather, you can make a machine with living parts, if you don’t mind it not working or you have a habit of not looking at it too closely. To an industrialized mind, however, uncertainty will probably be identified as a problem—or the problem—and an attempt will be made to regulate it.
The problem is not the uncertainty apparently inherent in life and living systems, the problem is the machine and the industrialized consciousness. By domesticating and machining life and natural systems, instability increases and with it the assurance of ultimate catastrophic failure. What we view as the uncertainty of Nature is actually the most stable balancing act possible, on this planet at any rate.
This broad range of wild native Pacific salmon return timings, this wide occurrence around fluid central tendencies, will probably be a good thing to keep in mind. Not only do all the natural populations of plants and animals that I know of exhibit it, but the whole of the range may be shifted to sooner or later by warmth or coolness, wetness or dryness. Dealing with Nature’s uncertainties is what the core of wild life is designed to do and does well.
The summer steelhead gathering off the mouth of the Umpqua River average between three and five years old, their last two years or so—including at least one coastal upwelling event—have been spent freely feeding in the more stable, food-rich environments of the ocean where they grow spectacularly. When juvenile steelhead enter the ocean, they are generally between five and seven-inches long and weigh perhaps three to six ounces and they spend relatively little time in the estuary before heading out into the ocean. The adults that are being drawn home to the North Umpqua River Basin are an average of twenty-eight inches long. A summer steelhead of this size weighs around eight pounds. There are some one-ocean-year (one-salt) adults entering that weigh perhaps five pounds and are around twenty-five inches in length and there are smaller fish. There are true giants of this species too, fish that have spent more than two years feeding in the ocean. These big summer steelhead can measure longer than a yard stick and weigh upwards of twenty pounds.
Size with a summer steelhead is directly related to how much time it has spent in the marine environment prior to entering its home stream for the first time. As was mentioned above, summer steelhead that survive spawning to re-enter the ocean and to spawn again do not grow longer while in the ocean for the second time. This is undoubtedly because of their long stay in fresh water, a stay that is effectively without feeding.
Steelhead are rainbow trout. They are the same species. And, yes, rainbow trout are members of the Pacific salmon genus. The reason I bring this up here is that, as a rainbow trout, one that exhibits a heritable habit of anadromy, a steelhead will live a maximum of only eight or nine years. Most summer steelhead that survive to return to the creeks and rivers of the North Umpqua Basin on their initial spawning run will die as four or five-year-old fish, almost two of which are ocean years. If they have had the luck to find a wild mate and they have exhibited the appropriate sexual selection behaviors, these steelhead will have reproduced before dying. However, should a summer steelhead be lucky enough to survive to spawn again, an ability that distinguishes cutthroat trout and rainbow trout from the other Pacific salmon, they will still only live potentially a few years longer.
On an average year, probably related to the amount of snow that is melting into the river basin and thus affecting the volume and temperature of the flows, the first summer steelhead show up at the pool in late May or the first half of June to take up residence. Little more than this can be said about the arrival of summer steelhead in the refuge pool because the major falls on the main creek is laddered and this ladder regularly gets blocked by the debris carried by the more powerful winter flows. The local state game department that is responsible for unblocking the ladder is haphazard about carrying out this task. Note, while native anadromous fish populations originally got over this falls, the construction of the ladder filled in the plunge pools with concrete and no fish can jump them anymore.
In the North Umpqua River there are a minimum of thirty different local breeding populations of summer steelhead and each seeks a unique set of gravels, a local stream environment to which they are adapted because their ancestors reproduced there and lived there during at least the first several months of the freshwater portions of their lives. Those summer and winter steelhead that enter the Umpqua River itself, in all likelihood, make up more than a hundred different local breeding populations. Each of these populations—if still with us—is or was adapted to something different, a unique set of environmental conditions. It is this multiplicity of populations, this network, this metapopulation, that has kept the Pacific salmon around for millions of years and thriving while living in the most tectonically active and thus environmentally uncertain region on the North American continent.
When a person looks at the many wild summer steelhead holding in the pool, there is a tendency to think of them as one group. In fact, these steelhead probably represent a minimum of at least eight local breeding populations, or demes. These populations are all joined by the need to return to the middle and upper portions of the main creek containing the refuge pool or to one of the creeks tributary to these portions. These populations are also joined by their ability to make use of this pool as a refuge during the time when most of the rest of the creek is seasonally either too warm and too low or both.
It is a combination of senses, memory, and instinct that draw Pacific salmon to their home stream reaches and, for now, the pinch-of-this, pinch-of-that recipe of this combination remains a mystery. However, Pacific salmon are known to place much reliance on the receptors in their nostril cavities and their ability to sense infinitesimal traces of scent. Steelhead have also been found to develop minute magnetite crystals in their brains and to rely of these particles of iron as well as polarized light to find their way in the ocean . . . or so it is assumed by those who are allowed to get away with assuming, that is, the people that generate and read peer-reviewed research. The reason for these assumptions about the magnetite crystals and polarized light probably has to do with the geographic uncertainty of the immense marine environment relative to streams. In creeks and rivers, there are only two directions, with or against the current—down or upstream—and, relative to the ocean, a stream is meaningfully bounded by a channel for creatures the size of even a three-quarter-inch long steelhead fry.
When Sis and I arrive at the refuge pool in middle May, the generally mild wet Northwest winter is done with, but for a residual coolness and periods of overcast with a few generally minor rains. The period of heavy precipitation that began statistically on the first of October, has just as statistically ended by the beginning of April. Ninety percent of the precipitation in an average Pacific Northwest year falls between these two dates. Because of this concentration of moisture in autumn and winter, the Pacific Northwest falls into a climate region known to some as the Summer Drought Zone. These dry summers are why broad-leaved deciduous trees in the Pacific Northwest are always found around water, either seeps, springs, streams, or lakes. To the east of the Rocky Mountains, where there is significant summer precipitation, broad-leaved trees are found or used to be found in extensive tracts of forest relatively independent of water other than these summer rainings. The conifers that characterize the Pacific Slope forests are more resistant to dryness than are their broad-leaved cousins many times removed.
By the middle of May, the growing season is usually well begun at the elevation of the refuge pool. This growth began with the onset of the more regular precipitation during the previous autumn and was interrupted by the short days and by the winter cold, such as it was. The annual plants generally are not very far along. If it has been an average spring, the bear grass may have sent up a dramatic spike of white flowers and the short-stemmed white iris may be blooming too, but the ground covering grasses, most of them, are just beginning the reach up and spread out. On a warm spring, say with an April that set warmth and dryness records as was true during 2004, by the middle of May, most growth is well along and the grasses and butterflies, some of them, are knee high or higher. Actually, the often indolent-seeming flapping of the butterflies also occurs at levels higher than Sis can jump and Sis is, or in her young days was, a jumper who could take a stick from my stretched-up hand.
By now some of the summer steelhead eggs laid in February—if creek conditions allowed and again if it has been warm enough—are alevins, or yoke-sac fry, and have already spread into the substrate, working their way away from the nest, or redd, through the dark interstices of the streambed gravels. These spaces between the gravels are their first migration medium and this first migration will eventually end in the unimpeded flows of their natal stream. The waters of this stream already encompass them and bring them oxygen, but it is not a freely flowing environment. The beginning of this initial journey has led these larval steelhead away from the discarded egg skins in the redd dug into the streambed and covered over by their mothers. It is as though the fish have abandoned the thin transparent skins of their mother’s eggs for the protection of the more armored, yet more permeable skin that is the bed of their natal stream.
After leaving the redd, the young steelhead and all other Pacific salmon have crimson yoke sacks swelling their bellies and the young fish wait in the gravels until these nutrients are just about used up. Obviously, other things are happening too and undoubtedly include getting used to moving and adjusting to currents, slight though these currents may be.
Under conditions of increased warmth, these alevins may begin to feed on small organisms they encounter in the gravels . There are probably predators hungry for the young salmon there in the substrate too. That said, let’s not create a rending tooth and claw and slaughter and eating environment of the streambed. Such environments exist only in fiction or, more likely, when some part of a system is quite out of balance. Perhaps the concept of these bloody tooth and claw environments primarily serve to allow us to erroneously pat ourselves on the back for having evolved and developed culture, certainly more of a uniformly rending environment than anything that Nature presents us with. But our culture, or the individuals in it, can show compassion too and that is our saving grave if we have one as a species. The natural world, while dramatically sometimes terminated on an individual scale, on the scale of populations probably works in increments only. The large changes and uncertainties that occur are those of increased warmth or cold or wetness or dryness and perhaps a new or evolved microbe or volcanic ash drifting down.
During late May, perhaps only on years with mild spring weather, I already see small three-quarters-of-an-inch long juvenile steelhead holding in small groups at the edge of the main creek, hundreds of them.
The eventual end of this first small interstitial migration, an infinitesimal one compared to the ones ahead for the salmon if they survive through the first freshwater portion of their life cycles, is the open, or free-flowing, stream. Those who have studied this time in the lives of salmon say that the alevins always leave the substrate at night and the first thing they do is swim to the surface and gulp air for their air bladders, thereby making themselves neutrally buoyant in whatever depth in the flow that seems appropriate to them. Interestingly, during their first few months of stream life, if spooked, I have read and I have watched young salmon reinsert themselves into the streambed among the pebbles and cobbles again.
The streambed gravels are a biologically active zone, so predators, as stated, are present there, but this early in the spring when temperatures are low, many or most of these predators are eggs themselves . . . or they are potentially moving very slow from the cold. The habit of spawning in the headwater reaches of streams, which characterizes the Pacific salmon species, has generally deposited eggs in an area of cold clean water that is rich in oxygen because of the high gradient channels found here. Additionally, headwater reaches have relatively few nutrients which means fewer animals that might prey on or compete with the small salmon too. This cold, nutrient-poor headwater zone probably helps set up the elegant synergy that has the adult salmon dying once they have spawned there as well.
Usually, in mid-May there is at least one winter steelhead male hanging around this part the creek and appearing periodically in the pool during what appears to be its constant wandering search for unspawned winter steelhead females. Very occasionally, a winter female who presumably has emptied herself of eggs is glimpsed like a silver ghost as she slips downcreek through the pool. Writing in terms of peak spawning times, the winter steelhead that spawn in the creek do so a few weeks to a month later than the summer steelhead do, during April or May or even later if conditions were not right earlier. Waters are warming and the warmer the water, the quicker the eggs mature, so winter steelhead alevins enter the gravels and eventually leave the creek bed for free-flowing waters over a shorter span of time than it took the summer steelhead fry to enter the creek.
On those occasions when the first adult summer steelhead show up in late May or early June, these new fish understandably appear to exert a strong attraction on those winter steelhead males that remain in the stream with unspent milt. The fresh summer steelhead still have, on balance, their ocean colors, colors that camouflage them in the marine environment. These winter steelhead males are easy to differentiate because they have metamorphosed into their spawning colors, developing red stripes down their bodies parallel to and below their lateral lines, red gill plates, white tips to their ventral and anal fins, darker olive green backs, and the elongated snouts which include a small dark conical projection like a blunt rubber tooth, a kype, in the tip of their lower jaw. This kype fits into a socket that forms in the upper jaw. The female winter steelhead generally do not change their look anywhere near as much as the males do.
As one would expect, there are ambiguities: for instance, a fish that appears to be fresh from the ocean, but that has some red already visible on it. While this red is never really ample, a few times I have been unsure which race of steelhead I was seeing. Under these circumstances, it is usually the presence of fungus that determines whether the fish is called a winter or a summer steelhead in the notes. Irrespective of damage or wounds, some minor fungus seems always to develop on steelhead over time here on the main creek. If the fish I see in the pool has white spots of fungus on the skin flaps that cover its nostril cavities—which don’t, by the way, lead to the lungs—or on the inside of its pectoral fins, this fish had to have been in the creek for some time and is, in the latter half of May, therefore, a winter steelhead.
It is their behavior identifies the winter females. They are either empty of eggs and moving fast downstream or they are holding over spawning gravels and digging their redds, usually in the company of a winter steelhead male or two. Another behavior that identifies the winter steelhead in the creek is an often active interest in rising to and taking items in the flow. These items, while usually plant debris, include insects, early stoneflies and mayflies, and flying ants. I believe this rising to items in the flow, when I see it, represents feeding, though it doesn’t amount to much. The food available, particularly in the middle of spring, is minute compared to what these fish need to replenish what they are losing during their time of in freshwater.
Winter steelhead rise to twigs, leaf tatters from the previous fall, fir needles, and other organic detritus perhaps because they have spent most of the previous two to three years in the ocean where the food is different from that available in freshwater. This is a long enough time that they may have forgotten or at least become hazy about the nature of food in the stream. Mature adult steelhead are much bigger—more than six times longer and fifty times heavier—than they were when they left this stream as juveniles, so it is not surprising to me that they may be somewhat confused as to what represents food and what doesn’t. In human terms, my own, it would mean being able to cross the campus of my high school in six running steps, watching out for the small fry in that human hatchery. If I was hungry, the sandwich I was looking for might not even be visible to me unless I was paying attention. In the case of these winter steelhead holding in the refuge pool in May, it is almost as if what they rise to is what catches their attention.
One May afternoon, my friend Dan Callaghan and Sis and I watched two winter steelhead males patrol up and down the pool under the current seam that carried most of the drift debris. These fish were rising and taking things at least once a minute. Often it seemed to be plant debris that was taken and drowned dark flying ants, which were common on that May day, were being passed up. I don’t know if these ants would have been passed up had they been struggling. Certainly, if you are a fish looking for something to eat, movement would be a clear hint that what you were looking at was alive and, thus, nutrition.
Besides a small number of early summer steelhead that may be appearing in the pool for varying amounts of time, and the winter steelhead that also appear to come and go. . . and the eggs and alevins in the gravels, there are also winter and summer steelhead carcasses present in the creek, in various stages of decomposition. As mentioned before, the nutrients these carcasses provide the stream—carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and others—are of unimaginable importance to the local ecology of the stream and its fabric of energy flows.
I use the term unimaginable because we do not know what has been lost, though we know that millions of tons of parental carcasses that used to build up in the streams on the edges of the North Pacific are gone, probably never to return during our time as an industrial species on this planet—this despite the sizable hatchery-enhanced runs of Alaska and rebuilding runs of the Fraser River in British Columbia.
The addition of parental carcasses to the stream and its banks and the slopes above it where carcasses are sometimes dragged and scat are voided, increase the amount of nutrients that will be there for the next generations of steelhead by increasing the amount of food that will be available, directly and indirectly, to a host of stream-dwelling and near-stream-dwelling organisms, many of which serve as food for steelhead fry. Usually, parental carcasses or large portions thereof have already been rendered by the time the alevins leave the gravels and take up life in the stream as fry. This increase in nutrients over what would otherwise be available also decreases the likelihood of competition between juvenile steelhead for available resources and between steelhead and other juvenile salmon species and with other genera of fish altogether.
The larger and more visible animals that make use of the carcasses include butterflies and other insects, weasels, minks, skunks, shrews, mice, squirrels, otters, raccoons, bear, bald eagles, ravens, vultures, and other birds down to the size of winter wrens, a half-dozen of which latter birds could be held together in my cupped hands. There is some evidence that on occasion even deer consume salmon carcasses.
My old friend from the Coast Range, Carroll Kirk, told me that he could tell where he had put a sore-back salmon in his oat field because of the more robust growth in that location for several years afterwards. I am unsure whether Carroll purposely put salmon carcasses in his field, or whether his great dog Dash did so. This clearly shows that the nutrients from a single carcass or a generation of carcasses are around for several years in all likelihood.
Not surprisingly, it seems as though all life in the basins of Pacific Northwest rivers and creeks that connect to the ocean is reliant to some degree on the bodies of these salmon and the other anadromous fish that are part of a one-way movement of marine nutrients to headwater areas of creeks and rivers. Studies have shown that salmon carcasses deliver several times the amount of nutrients from the ocean to the stream than were initially delivered from the stream to the ocean by juvenile fish. In a way, this makes the schools of salmon like the clouds that bring water from the ocean to the land, only, rather than water, the parental salmon are bringing themselves. Unlike the clouds, each different population of salmon is delivering most of its nutrients to its natal portion of a single drainage basin.
As I’ve stated above, spring is a time of new growth and flowering and this applies, as we see, also to the steelhead and other Pacific salmon that are native to the stream. Creatures other than steelhead are also arriving or hatching or metamorphosing and breeding. One of the birds that will shortly be leaving the area of the pool is the male common merganser. These drake mergansers are usually seated by themselves on banks, but sometimes with another male, watching the air over the stream. They fly and swim up and down the creeks and rivers of the Northwest during the winter and, by late spring anyway, appear always to be on the lookout for females of the species. In this respect they are like the late-holding winter steelhead males in their single mindedness.
Drake mergansers are handsome, dramatically marked birds with black wings and a white body, an iridescent green-black head, and a brilliant red bill and red-orange feet. After breeding with what females they can find, in early June sometime they are gone. Books say they are flying northward where they will breed with other females they encounter. A few years ago, Sis and I realized that the male mergansers and the winter steelhead males, when both are present, seem to disappear from the creek at about the same time.
Certain birds are present along the creek year round and these include but are not limited to the dipper, kingfisher, pileated woodpecker, blue heron, raven, varied and hermit thrushes, chickadee, nuthatch, and the diminutive winter wren. Other birds arrive from elsewhere, such as the spotted sandpiper, osprey, turkey vulture, Swainson’s thrush, and the hummingbird. All of these birds and others are raising families and three of the birds I see most often or hear along the creek during May are the spotted sandpiper, the robin, and the junco. It is primarily during the time when their young are in the nests or only recently out of them that the robins and the juncos appear to gather the aquatic insect life of the creek. Shortly after the young are flying, the robins in particular become much less frequent visitors along the creek. It is the spotted sandpiper that is most often seen and certainly heard on the creek and around the pool during the time of late spring and early summer.
As a rule the sandpipers eventually disappear completely from this portion of the main creek, but Sis and I continue to see robins and juncos regularly into the autumn during our walks. These sightings are away from the creek and its immediate banks though. Being a creature more closely adapted to the creek edges, the spotted sandpiper does not appear to have this option and they are just gone.
Occasional resource abundances along the creek may draw the robins and juncos back, abundances like a dramatic hatch of insects or the ripening of the seeds or nuts of certain plants. For instance, robins will show up in late September to gather ripe dogwood fruits if any are available and occasional dense hatches of autumn caddis or mayflies or flying ants or termites will suddenly have birds reappearing on the scene too. During some of these rich concentrations of insects, I occasionally see birds that are rare to the pool, such as gray jays, catching insects. Even dippers are leaping from rocks into the air for insects when these creatures are numerous and, now and then, the insects are so thick that I saw a kingfisher, the quintessential diving bird, wing out from its perch to take one of the large autumn caddis from the air in front of its perch.
If it is a warm dry spring, sometime in May the winter wrens and varied thrushes will retreat up the slopes away from this part of the main creek. On your average season, the retreat of winter wrens and varied thrushes occurs later in June. Blue herons will also disappear from this part of the creek around this time. Each of these birds will return with the rains and cooler temperatures of late summer and autumn . . . if it is rainy and cool by then. As has been stated above, life along the creek in the spring, or during any other season of the year, does not go through its motions or transitions like clockwork. The changes in temperatures and whether the weather is wet or dry has a visible and a profound influence on what goes on. At its most obvious, when there is a wet cold spring, terrestrial insect life disappears, yet it abounds when there is sunlight and the temperatures are in the upper fifties or higher.
In the early evening of the last day in May on our fourth season at the pool, Sis and I were at the Perch and looked up to see a full-size otter rubbing itself on a mossy rock on the far bank where otters seem to mark their territory. This otter continued to groom and rub itself oblivious to us, perhaps because we were both being relatively quiet.
This was as big as an otter as I have seen, with the possible exception of one near the edge of the Puget Sound about ten years ago. From nose to tail tip, this one was over four feet long and appeared to be fat.
Periodically the otter’s grooming ceased and it gradually uncoiled, letting its head drop back in a snooze. My notes indicate that during one of these short naps this otter loosed a sigh that was deep enough that I heard it from across the pool. Every minute or two, the creature seemed to start awake and to look around. Then it would slowly nod back again, resting with the top of its head against the sloping mossy surface of the rock.
Finally, the otter woke up and began to groom itself once more, chewing on its hide with a regular vigorous head shake every second or two. When it was done grooming, the otter climbed the rock and went to a group of fresh scat and sniffed them. It pissed there and copiously defecated while stamping its rear legs with its tail held out. It moved easily down the rock and slid into the water then, where it dove to the substrate and then surfaced, swimming down the pool.
Butterflies that were abundant one warm sunny day will disappear the next day if the sun itself disappears behind clouds. Several butterflies are present in the late spring and include the mourning cloak, occasional tiger swallowtails, whites, tortoise shells, sulphurs, the small blues, and, on some years, ladies. The tortoise shells that were common earlier in the spring are usually in the process of disappearing. Tortoise shells were the dominant butterfly on the steelhead carcass talked about above in late March. Like flowers, butterflies go through periodic blooms, called flights, and the tortoise shells will appear again with fresh brilliant-orange markings when it is colder and the nights are longer. So far, only the small blues have blossomed into veritable hoards of butterflies at this time.
During middle May in 2004, on a rainy day, I noticed a pale tiger swallowtail hanging, soaking wet, about eight feet off the ground in a service berry. It was positioned with its head highest. Twenty-four hours later and the next morning, the butterfly was still hanging in the same place, its wings together. It had been a dry night, but everything was beaded with drops. Later that morning, with the first sunlight in two days, the butterfly had spread its wings which were oriented perpendicular to this light. By noon the butterfly was gone, flown I think. There was no sign of its wings on the ground under the high bush, suggesting its disappearance was not due to predation. This tiger swallowtail had perched in a location on the flat that happened to be one of the very first places that received a lancing of sun rays in the morning at this time of year. Was this fortuitous?
Large dark flying ants that are almost an inch long, a carpenter ant of some kind, seem always to be on wing in May when we arrive . . . unless it is snowing or otherwise cold and wet. Occasionally, large blue-green darning needle dragon flies are about too, but they are rare and also appear and disappear with the warmth. On some years, the flying adder, another large dragonfly, is in the air and hunting earlier than the darning needle is.
Slugs, cyano-bacteria, and salamanders are usually out and about with the last of the spring rains and before the season heats up. Once the ground has dried out, they go wherever it is that they go, probably some shaded and moist refuge of their own. Of the numerous snakes and lizards that will eventually show themselves now and again in the viewing area at the pool, only the several different species of garter snakes are occasionally glimpsed this early and, when this is so, they are often paused and spread out in a patch of sun, apparently soaking in the warmth.
During the sixth season, 2004, and for the first time, the fence swift was out in May. The fence swift is a rough-scaled lizard that, prior to 2004, I saw only rarely in the area of the pool. This sixth season, rather than the western skink, the fence lizard was the dominant lizard at the pool for some reason.
On your average years, a small number of plants have already bloomed and are setting seeds by this time at the elevation of the pool. Some trees, perhaps most of the deciduous ones, are still in the process of sending out their leaves. Generally, the flowers of these trees are fading or already gone. The conifers also send out new growth which shows up at the ends of branches as brighter, emerald-green segments. The new leaves also have a bright emerald hue on the broad-leaved evergreens: the madrone, chinkapin, silk tassel, and other leathery-leaved trees and shrubs. The salal, a shrub and arguably the most common of the broad-leaved evergreen plants in this part of the Western Cascades, begins sending its new leaves out in the autumn after most of the deciduous leaves have fallen.
Grasses are still sprouting and the ground has yet to receive the coverage by various types of vegetation that it will have in another month. By the middle of May up here at the pool, there are lots of plants flowering, the more obvious of which include—depending again on how long and cold the winter was—dogwoods, vine maples, serviceberries, sedges, balsam root, white iris, strawberry, wild blackberry, golden pea, yerba de selva, and colt’s foot (as well as numerous other plants I am unable to identify). The broad-leaved maples are probably still unfurling their sometimes gigantic leaves and sometimes the vine maples are too. The early flowering gooseberries are done blooming and their pistils are swelling into spiked fruit. Oso berry (Indian plum) fruit is also swelling. Rhododendrons and the yellow sedums are blooming too.
Research that is published in peer-reviewed journals is, herein, used arbitrarily to differentiate research that is fully available to the public from that which is only anecdotal. While peer-review creates its own evils on occasion by excluding research from publication for theoretical reasons, in my opinion this evil is minor when compared with the assertions based on bad research that is kept from public view so that self-serving assertions can be made based on it.
It should be remembered that there is research that is made public—good useful research that presents all of it procedures and data, as well as, its results—that does not make it into peer-reviewed journals for theoretical reasons. Note: agency-specific publications and newsletters are not peer-reviewed journals.