Forest Creatures: Snakes and Slugs (Warning: graphic photos)

I was touring one of my favourite big tree haunts recently when I spotted thissssss beautifully patterned forest resident. It reminded me that I was visiting the homes of many creatures that reside in the rain forest, and make up the web of life here. The occasional pile of purple poo from passing black bears was also a reminder that I must be aware of the larger forest residents. Cougars are regular visitors, too. Out here I am prey.

Today the garter snake was the one to make its presence known. Found under the Sooke River Super Cedar of Gargantuan Proportions (I really must streamline this naming thing), this snake was surprisingly fast. When I slowed down, so did the snake. It stretched out before me and sunned a bit in a shaft of light piercing the forest canopy. We stared at each other for a while, his beady black eye to my blue one.

Here is how I envision a garter snake deciding on potential prey:
  • Is it alive?
  • Will it fit in my mouth and down my throat?
  • Can I catch it?
If the prey satisfies these criteria, it is on the menu. I found out on a hike last year, that the garter menu includes the second biggest slug in the world, the Banana Slug (more than 20cm). I didn't think anything ate slugs. Compared to dung beatle fare, slug could be considered a delicacy. After all, slugs are basically snails without shells - large escargot.

The snake did not move while I photographed it attempting to consume this large lunch. How could it? I was simultaneously mesmerized and mortified. I continued on my hike. Both snake and slug were gone when I returned. Note: you can click on any of the photos to get a blown up view of this amazing natural phenomena. Just thought you would like to know...

The garter snake will also eat small birds, leeches, amphibians, small rodents, and other snakes. This snake is very aquatic and in coastal areas fish makes up a large part of their diet. The snake I saw recently was next to the Sooke River, so the tiny salmon I was watching that day were no doubt in trouble when the snake hit the river.

Garters are fast on land and in water. As I watched the snake it slithered off quickly. I had to move fast to follow, hunched over and moving through the understory. About 10 meters away the snake bee-lined (snake-lined?) for a hole at the base of a fallen tree, right under the root ball. Had I discovered a snake den, or "communal hibernacula"?
Garter snakes spend the winter in communal dens, sharing space and warmth through the cold temperatures. This looked like one. I had a sudden urge to stick my hand in. Why? I resisted. One should not harass wildlife. Especially snakes. Do not touch garter snakes unless you want to see their defense mechanism - they will poop on you (it is very smelly). If they feel threatened they could also bite. Best to enjoy them from a distance, like all wildlife.

Here is a group that is trying to improve life for another coastal snake, the sharp-tailed snake, on Salt Spring Island. They remind us that snakes are an important part of our ecosystem and should be treated with respect. The Salt Spring group educates the public on habitat conservation and builds hibernacula for sharp-tailed snakes. You can build a hibernacula in your own yard or garden. How fascinating would that be?

I will be watching the Sooke River Cedar Hibernacula location in the spring when the snakes will be out on warm days to stretch their bodies (adults are 46cm to 1.3m) and warm in the sun. After being bundled in a coil with a hundred friends all winter, they will be ready for mating. Mating involves bundling up in a ball again, this time with many males surrounding a single female. Garter snakes are live-bearing and give birth in July or August. Baby snakes are born fully developed, and litters range from as few as 5 to as many as 80.

Every creature in the forest ecosystem is important, and that includes snakes and slugs. Slugs are the recyclers of the forest and clean up dead and decaying matter and return nutrients to the soil. Snakes keep insect and rodent populations in check. Many forest animals feed on snakes, including raccoons, blue herons, eagles, and owls. If you can respect slugs and snakes, and recognize their important place in the cycle of the forest, surely you can respect everything in the forest. Such respect is sssssorely needed today.


Sooke Basin - Big Salmon, Big Trees

It was not trees that initially motivated me to slide my canoe into Sooke Basin, west of Victoria, B.C. It was salmon. A variety of salmon have been spawning in Pacific coast waters for millions years. Salmon and human cultures have intertwined for many thousands. Every year the people of Salmon Nation celebrate the strength and gifts of this flash of lightning as it leaps toward home.

Recent news of 10.6 million Fraser River sockeye going missing was nothing to celebrate, and I wanted to see if I could find a bit of good news in local waters. The Billing Spit area has three public accesses, and I launched from one of them. The Sooke River empties into the harbour here, so this is a good place to view salmon and the things that feed on them, like fishermen and eagles... and the odd bear.

View Larger Map

Two or three paddle strokes into my voyage a chunky silver-sided salmon exploded from the water, glinting in the early morning light. Then another, and another, often two or three at the same time, breaking free of the water, then slapping back down. In the still quiet of the morning, salmon belly flops were all I could hear. A spectacle of the natural world and not something you see everyday. Humans need the salmon and now, the salmon need us. They need us to give them a fin up, so to speak.

Having found at least some evidence of returning salmon, I paddled into the morning sun. An easterly breeze was meeting with an incoming tide and raising waves. The bow of my canoe slapped out a rhythm to accompany that of the salmon slapping around me.

I like the fact that south Vancouver Island lacks obvious evidence of tree harvesting. Even from local mountain tops one sees an almost endless stretch of forested hunchbacked hills. From my canoe on Sooke Basin all I could see was an endless stretch of water, rocks and trees. Water, rocks and trees. And what beauty and variation in each.

The water ranged from silky flat and dark, to rolling with white caps. Rock formations plunged into the water, harbouring flowering succulents above and florescent starfish below. The forest also showed its variations. Above the evenness of the trees tower the emergents - genetic superiors, or lucky recipients of a choice location.

I paddle past the three small islands making up the Goodrich Islands group. They all have caps of bent trees that have been pruned into aerodynamic shapes by relentless winds. In many places along the shoreline of the basin the trees come right down to the water. The water-loving cedar branches add lime green to the dark blues of the watery depths below me.

I spot a Douglas fir in such an exposed area that it has been blown horizontal over the years. The trees I am seeing from the water are not in the huge category, but some are old none-the-less. These woody warriors are on the edge and are vulnerable to harsh winter winds and lashing rain. Since this exposure is not the best growing conditions, the trees I see are older than similar sized trees in more ideal locations.

The larger trees bordering the basin also show evidence of being battered and de-limbed by storms. You can see their hulking masses dominating the surrounding forest. Deeply furrowed bark, missing branches and shaggy lichens give these centuries old trees character they deserve after weathering everything the coast has thrown at them, year in and year out.

The tree in the header at the top of this blog is the largest shoreline tree I surveyed on my paddle, and one of the chunkiest trees I have seen in the area. It is in Roche Cove Park, and is a fine specimen of a Douglas fir. Note the bench below it and a bit to the right to give this giant tree some perspective. It is notable for the small amount of taper that the trunk has. It stays fat and massive for a long way up. I have sat at this tree's massive trunk, but what a sight from the water.

I pulled up on the beach back at Billing Spit, exhausted and elated. I had hoped to relax for a while on one of the many rocky beaches that I passed, and had even brought a book along. But alas, the wind was against me for the 4km to the east end of the basin, then it shifted and blew against me out of the west for most of the way home. Thinking of salmon migrating up to a thousand kilometers against the currents of major rivers gave me the inspiration I needed to battle the currents testing me all day. Pondering the stick-too-it-ness of old trees helped, too.


B.C.'s Biggest Trees Not Protected

British Columbia holds record breaking trees, both in the books, and out in the forest waiting to be discovered. In order to increase awareness and protection of these tree Titans and old growth areas, Randy Stoltmann single-handedly started B.C.'s Big Tree Registry in the 1980's.

Modeled after registries in eastern Canada and the U.S., it has grown from just 18 trees of 13 species, to 190 trees of 37 species in 2006. With Stoltmann's death in 1994 the Big Tree Registry passed through a variety of homes, and now is hosted by the provincial government in the Ministry of Forests and Range.

The B.C. Big Tree Registry records the 10 biggest trees for each species, but affords the outstanding listed trees no protection. The Victoria chapter of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee is recommending that the registry list the 100 biggest trees of each species, as well as legislating protection for them.

It seems unlikely that someone would cut down a record-breaking tree, and that is probably what Forests Minister Pat Bell meant when he said that big trees on the registry are not usually harvested. He added that he is not contemplating any changes to the registry or to old growth logging practices in the province.

Robert Van Pelt, author of Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast, insists that ancient giants still exist in little explored areas of our province. Particularily, he fingers Vancouver Island as a potential source of record-breaking sized trees yet to be found. Record-breakers usually gain some notoriety (the registries intended purpose) that gives them unofficial protection-like status. These valuable resources deserve full protection.

And what of Van Pelt's potential record-breaking trees yet to be discovered? Will we ever know about them, let alone protect them, before they become big stumps? WCWC has ample evidence that trees exactly like the ones we worship in our parks are being logged. Is there a record-breaking stump out there?

Let's protect these magnificent trees and remaining ancient groves. Let's do it for all those forward-thinking timber workers that have identified significant trees and groves in the forest and saved them. Or for the Red-backed vole that lives its life in single giant Douglas firs, like the Red Creek Fir (itself a Big Tree Registry champion). Let's do it for Randy Stoltmann.


Big Leaf Maple

A magnificent hardwood species is mixed among the monumental softwoods of the Pacific forest. The Big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) is a coastal broad-leafed tree which grows predominately in the southern coastal western hemlock biogeoclimatic zone. They grow in a narrow strip along the ocean from Alaska to California. Big leaf maple live an average of 200 years with 300+ not unheard of, and reach heights of 34m with a crown of equal width. While conifers are king (or queen) in the Pacific forest, the overlooked Big leaf maple is an important member of the court.

"It is so ubiquitous that many people, Douglas-fir tree farmers in particular, consider Big leaf maple to be a common and bothersome weed," says Mike Dubrasich, tree farmer, "but Big leaf maple is easy to grow, and on most sites it will out-grow any other native tree for the first twenty years."

Big leaf maple's preferred habitat is close to rivers or streams on gravely, moist soil, but it will also grow in dry areas. These trees can withstand temporary flooding and do well in nutrient-rich floodplains. The tree pictured is on the floodplain of the Sooke River, and grows in a field unchallenged by competitors. A bicycle is shown to provide scale.

When Big leaf maple grows in a forest, shaded by other trees, it develops a tall bole with no branching until 1/2 - 2/3 of the way up. Then a small crown grows above the single large trunk. These trees are increasingly valued in the forest industry since the single bole can provide larger pieces of wood.

Growing out in the open the maple's crown reaches its maximum  spread, and the bole splits into a multiplicity of branches just a couple of meters up.

The Big leaf maple featured here is in Sun River Nature Trail Park, a narrow park that stretches along the west bank of the Sooke River. It is accessed by a trail head off Philips Road, itself a gateway to big trees and beautiful vistas of the Sooke River valley and surrounding forest-cloaked hillsides.

The rough trail passes through a riparian forest of large Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, Western red cedar, and Hemlock. This flood-prone forest also has broad-leaf trees such as Red alder and Big leaf maple, and harbours bear, cougar, owl, and slug. Spawned out salmon fertilize this forest every fall. Valley bottom forests of Vancouver Island are the richest environments on the coast and the largest trees grow there. These valley bottoms are now mostly logged out.

Typical of a non-shaded maple, this tree has an expansive crown. Branching starts low on the trunk and spreads in all directions forming a massive green umbrella that almost touches the ground all the way around the perimeter. Big leaf maples can grow such a dense canopy of frizbee-sized leaves (up to 61 cm including the stalk) that only 1 to 2% of the light falling on the tree reaches the ground below. On a hot sunny day it was several degrees cooler in the shade of this glorious moss-covered giant. After some hard biking I was appreciative of the air conditioning. The soporific sun was held at bay and I felt revived.

Under the canopy of this tree were small tufts of grass and not much else. The huge leaves, when shed in the fall, will smother anything that tries to grow below the circumference of the crown. Also falling to the ground is a variety of epiphytic growth consisting of plants that live on other plants, but derive their nutrients from rain and the air, not the host.

Luxurious rain-soaked mosses adorn the branches of Big leaf maple. Lichen, as well as licorice ferns are also growing on the trees. Often this growth is so abundant that it weighs more than the leaves of the tree. When epiphytic growth falls to the ground it fertilizes the tree in exchange for providing a place to grow. Big leaf maple is a soil building species, and like Red alder, it improves the soil where it grows.

Although I do love standing, living trees, Big leaf maple is increasingly seen as a commercial product. It has a fine grain and is desired for furniture and instrument making. The market for figured wood (wavy, quilted, curly, flamed...) is growing as wood workers and instrument makers come to value this unique wood.

The Glimer Wood Company in Portland, Oregon sells specialty woods including Big leaf maple for instrument building. Their website shows chunk after chunk of amazing one of a kind blanks ready to be made into guitars, violins, mandolins and ukeleles. Unfortunately, instrument woods most in demand are those from trees older than 150 - 200 years. The wood from such trees is clear of knots with an even fine grain, and provides the resonance instrument makers and players alike enjoy.

As a guitar player, and tree lover, I experience some guilt about owning the remains of old growth trees such as Sitka spruce and Big leaf maple. The classical guitar shown here has a spruce soundboard and uses figured maple for the back and sides. The back is a book matched piece. This means that the maple blank was cut in half and "opened up" to show matching patterns. Looks beautiful, sounds great. Probably came from very old trees.

Trees are such a giving, and useful species. It is hard to imagine life without them. Is it even possible for large modern, developed societies to exist without trees? Forests are massive contributors to ecosystems around the world, providing us with benefits that can not be fully calculated, or replaced. Trees are also large contributors to economies around the world. I love the trees, but I love my guitars, too. Here is one group that is trying to resolve issues around dwindling supplies of instrument woods. Perhaps a donation will help soothe my conscience.

Not all uses of the Big leaf maple require killing them. Like its more famous eastern cousin, the Sugar maple (Acer saccarum), the Big leaf maple can also be used for making syrup. The sugar concentration in Acer macrophyllum is less than in Acer saccarum, so more sap must be collected to produce the same amount of syrup. At the BC Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan, one can learn all about Vancouver Island Big leaf maple syrup making during the Bigleaf Maple Syrup Festival in February.

Today I will honour the generous Big leaf maple by spending some time beneath the shady branches of the tree featured above meditating on the gifts it bestows, living or otherwise. When I get home, I will compose a song about this harmonious hardwood, then perform it on the guitar that owes its life to the ultimate sacrifice made by individual, old trees. Thank you, trees.