Help us monitor sword fern die-off with time-lapse photography

With advice and approval from Seattle Parks, yesterday I installed the first of two photo monitoring stations in the Magnificent Forest. The time-lapse (still at an early stage) can be viewed here. This photo, from the website, shows how it works: take a photo with your smart phone, and email it to the address on the sign. This photography post is at the intersection of the sqebeqsed and Windfall trails.

Here is our sign:

Denise Levertov

The unofficial Poet Laureate of Seward Park.

Reading six poems 1993 (including “Settling”) – click to see video

Denise Levertov lived the last eight years of her life a block from Seward Park. A plaque installed in 2016 marks her home nearby. She was an anti-war activist, a feminist, an environmentalist – “a fiery pilgrim who never wanted to be known as any of those things” (Rich Smith in The Stranger, 2015). If rankings and company matter, then she comes off well, grouped with Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop, a young correspondent with T.S.Eliot, mentored by William Carlos William, associated with the Black Mountain School. With her friend Robert Duncan she was viewed as among the most important post-war American poets.

Levertov knew and loved Seward Park. She walked the trails of what she described as this “almost island, almost wilderness”. She captured some of its strength and depth in her late poems.

In a 1991 essay “Some Affinities of Content” she wrote “People say that every poet of the Pacific Northwest has to write a heron poem now and then.” And she soon obliged. Here is her second heron poem, from the 1992 collection Evening Train.

Heron II

Elegantly gray, the blue heron
rises from perfect stillness on wide wings,
                        flies a few beats
                        trails his feet in the lake,
        and rises again to circle
from marker to marker (the posts
that show where the bottom shelves downward)
and lands on the floating dock where the gulls cluster —

a tall prince come down from the castle to walk,
proud and awkward, in the market square,
while squat villagers
break off their deals
and look askance.

And from the same collection (Levertov reads this live, the first poem in the video above):


I was welcomed here—clear gold
of late summer, of opening autumn,

the dawn eagle sunning himself on the highest tree,
the mountain revealing herself unclouded, her snow
tinted apricot as she looked west,
tolerant, in her steadfastness, of the restless sun
forever rising and setting.
Now I am given
a taste of the grey foretold by all and sundry,
a grey both heavy and chill. I’ve boasted I would not care,
I’m London-born. And I won’t. I’ll dig in,
into my days, having come here to live, not to visit.
Grey is the price
of neighboring with eagles, of knowing
a mountain’s vast presence, seen or unseen.

In 1961, witnessing the decline of her mentor William Carlos Williams, and the mental illness of Ezra Pound, she wrote these words – words which we may now apply fairly to her as well.

This is the year the old ones, the old great ones leave us alone on the road. The road leads to the sea. We have the words in our pockets, obscure directions.

And not always obscure: it is not easy to miss heron’s feet trailing in the water. And we all – knowingly, and maybe sometimes willingly – pay the price of grey to neighbor with eagles. This beautiful peninsula, almost island, almost wilderness, and with – almost – an official poet laureate.

Coyote Chorale

Photo courtesy of Craig Rochester, Seward Park, July 2020 (with permission)
Recording courtesy of Michelle McElhaney

The Forest’s coyote pack has become more vocal over the past weeks, a good sign that their breeding season has begun. Bonded coyote pairs announce their breeding territory with a multitude of vocalizations. Other pack members will often chime in. The result is a chorus of warbling yips, howls, barks, and more.

Brian Mitchell, a coyote researcher at the University of Vermont, explains:

“Group yip-howls are produced by a mated and territorial pair of “alpha” coyotes, with the male howling while the female intersperses her yips, barks, and short howls. “Beta” coyotes (the children of the alpha pair from previous years) and current year pups may join in if they are nearby, or respond with howls of their own.

…the group yip-howl is thought to have the dual purpose of promoting bonding within the family group while also serving as a territorial display. In other words, the coyotes are saying “we’re a happy family, and we own this turf so you better keep out.” In a sense, the group howls create an auditory fence around a territory, supplementing the physical scent marks left by the group.”

It could be that the Forest pack is letting the word out to adventuring coyotes who might be looking for a home in the Forest, or they’re just letting the humans who walk in the Forest know of their presence. However, Seward Park is an urban park and the Forest’s coyotes also respond to urban sounds. Stop for a moment over the next couple of months and listen for their replies if you happen to hear sirens from fire trucks on the Blvd or the rumble of a seaplane flying low overhead.

Coyotes are an important part of the Forest ecosystem. They’ve been here for years and are doing a great job of controlling the rats and feral rabbits that live in the Forest. Coyotes are usually shy around humans, but it is important to discourage them from getting too familiar with us. Get big and loud if you come close to one. They’ll leave. And please keep your dogs on leash, for their safety.

Construction Will Close Lower Parking Lot for a Month

Update February 23rd. In another update from Seattle Parks, we learned today that the project will cost about $160k, and is seen as an extension to the $2.1M electrical update completed late 2021.

Update February 20th. We finally heard back from Seattle Parks – the project manager has been gracious and detailed in her response.

This project starts Tuesday, February 22nd, last 3 or 4 weeks, includes extensive trenching in the lower parking lot by the Pottery Studio. Upper loop car and pedestrian access will continue. Fiber optic internet cable will be installed for use by the Pottery Studio and Seward Park Audubon.

February 22nd to mid- or late March.

February 9th, 2022: Digging will begin soon on a Seattle Parks-funded installation of high-speed fiber-optic cable, feeding the Audubon Center and the Pottery Studio. I will post schedule and budget as soon as I find out.

Update February 15th, 2022: My inquiry to Parks on February 10th has not yet garnered a response. So I called Parks again just now, obtained the email address of the project manager, and learned that this project is an extension of the electrical system upgrade, with which moth visitors to Seward are likely familiar. I am writing the PM, hoping for a clarifying reply.

Rare but welcome: a few new naturally occurring baby sword ferns have sprouted

May 1st, 2021

Catherine spotted these last year: small but healthy young sword ferns, a rare welcome and hopeful exception to what we have seen in eight years of the sword fern die-off – which is that sword ferns do not naturally re-establish themselves from spore in the forest at Seward.

For the most part, sword ferns colonize open ground on mineralized soil before the forest canopy forms, then plants each live very long lives (“a thousand years is not out of the question” – D. Barrington). Direct sunlight and bare, rich soil are the usual preconditions.

Years of close observation throughout Seward’s fern dead zones fits this model. (The research on germination and establishment are summarized here.) Catherine’s observations complicate the received wisdom – and offer some hope.

Osoberry in full bloom

The osoberry is among the earliest forest plants to leaf out, to blossom, and – starting in midsummer – the first to lose leaf chlorophyll, turn yellow and fall. Early start, early finish.

Quoting from the venerable Pojar, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast:

General: Shrub or small tree 1.5-5m tall (4-15 feet), one of the first plants to flower in the spring; bark bitter, purplish brown.

Leaves: Alternate, deciduous, pale-green, broadly lance-shaped, 5-12 cm long, not toothed, strong cucumber-like smell when crushed.

Flowers: Greenish-white, about 1 cm across, male and female flowers on separate plants (“dioecious”) , 5 petals, 15 stamens in 3 distinct series somewhat bell-shaped, appearing very early in the year (usually before the leaves), unusual fragrance (something between watermelon rind and cat urine (!); in 5-10 cm long clusters hanging from leaf axis.

Fruits: peach-colored, ripening to bluish-black with a whitish bloom, like small plums, about 1 cm long, edible but bitter, with a large pit.

Ecology: Dry to moist, open woods, streambanks, open areas (especially roadsides); low elevations.

Notes: Alternate common (settler colonialist) name is Indian Plum, Linnaean name is Oemieria cerasiformis. May be fertilized by hummingbirds. O. cerasiformis is the only member of the genus. “cerarisiformis” means “cherry shaped” in Latin.

What we have lost: sword ferns on the Hatchery Trail

February 13th, 2022: Sword ferns, what we have lost, what we are still losing; what we are still trying to figure out. I will update the February photo come June to provide a better comparison, but keep in mind that sword ferns are green all year long, and are now simply missing along much of this trail– dead and gone. (pshannon)

The Hemlock Graveyard

February 12th, 2022: Hemlocks, what we are losing – from the CHOOSE 180/FoSP summer project.

February 11th, 2022: The map is the product of 6 weeks of data collection last summer – focused on Western Hemlock decline and death in Seward’s old-growth forest. The project was led by FoSP, staffed by super competent interns from CHOOSE 180, and funded by a small Department of Neighborhoods grant. The photo above – the “Hemlock Graveyard” – is from the cluster of black and gray dots at the top of the map.

Fiber Optic Internet Coming to Seward

February 9th, 2022: Digging will begin soon on a Seattle Parks-funded installation of high-speed fiber-optic cable, feeding the Audubon Center and the Pottery Studio. I will post schedule and budget as soon as I find out.

Update February 15th, 2022: My inquiry to Parks on February 10th has not yet garnered a response. So I called Parks again just now, obtained the email address of the project manager, and learned that this project is an extension of the electrical system upgrade, with which moth visitors to Seward are likely familiar. I am writing the PM, hoping for a clarifying reply.

Ivy and Holly Removal

February 6th, 2022: Holly and ivy, popular at Christmas, are year-round deadly in Seward’s forest. Left to propagate and grow, they out-compete native species. Most of the forest was cleared of ivy between 2002 and 2006 in a massive and partly volunteer effort. But some eastside slopes north of the Fish Hatchery are seeing a resurgence. Here is a pile including both species, pulled and dug out this afternoon:

Eagle & Otters

February 5th, 2022: A bald eagle did its best to catch a pair of river otters swimming in the lake off the southeast corner of the peninsula. As described to us, the otters submerged as the eagle dove for them, in several attempts, and each time escaped unharmed. The eagle eventually abandoned the chase, was joined by a second eagle, harassed by a pair of crows, and then moved on to other pursuits.

Unsanctioned Camping

February 1st, 2022: Illegal camping in the old-growth forest. We received the report, then took these photos on a slope above Andrews Bay. Tomorrow we will contact Seattle Parks and SPD, maybe the mayor’s office also, to see what can be done. We offer sympathy to those in straitened circumstances, those left behind as Seattle inequities grow, and housing becomes increasingly expensive. But we do not wish to see Seward’s rare remnant old-growth forest become a campground.

Update (February 7th 2022): The tent remains, and an email from the City explained – plausibly, I think, that “our [ability to accomplish] removal of encampments is limited, with priority given to areas where there are the greatest health and public safety concerns.” I will keep an eye on the tent, which may be abandoned. It may have been associated with the now-removed derelict boat.

The Semi-derelict Boat

January 26th, 2022: A semi-derelict boat has been parked, listing slightly to one side,in Andrews Bay since early last Fall, with one or two part-time residents. Sometimes trash and refuse appeared on the shore. Numerous calls to SPD and the Harbor Patrol were answered graciously — and with the explanation that nothing could be done: the normal 48-hour maximum stay policy had been suspended. It seems that the city’s somewhat hands-off policy on inhabited RVs during the COVID-19 pandemic had been extended to boats . This week, however, the boat was towed away. We are grateful to SPD and Harbor Patrol – and to whoever in city government was responsible for returning Andrews Bay to pre-COVID policies.

Planting out the Lazarus Fern Babies

Seattle Parks/GSP plant ecologist Michael Yadrick found funds to hire Signature Landscape Services of Redmond Washington to do more restoration in Seward’s old-growth forest. Last year, Signature did lots of planting, and subsequent irrigation in several acres of sword fern die-off near the cisterns, at the intersection of the sqebeqsed and Hatchery trails. The crew, led by Hamilton, is skilled, industrious, committed to the forest, and a pleasure to deal with.

This year, with yet more support from Michael, Signature installed about 200 young sword ferns in depleted areas on either side of the sqebeqsed trail. Half of these young ferns are the offspring of the Lazarus Fern, so-called because it was one of the few survivors of the initial die-off at Ground Zero – and unlike most of the other survivors, is located at a distance from large trees or downed wood. Volunteer David Perasso collected spores from the Lazarus Fern, grew them out in flats, then transferred them to the Parks nursery/greenhouse (thank you Johan!).

Michael, Johan, Eric Sterner and FoSP designed a simple experiment on the hypothesis that these Lazarus offspring may have an allele protective against the (still unknown) agent of the die-off, and therefore will have better survival than generic nursery ferns planted nearby. Hamilton and the Signature crew platned the Lazarus ferns and the generic controls into the latest dramatic die-off zone, described here. FoSP will monitor survival over the next five years. Many confounding factors muddy the picture, but perhaps some useful pattern will emerge.