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Nature on Trail: Snowy Owl, Elk, Western Redcedar

Posted by Anna Roth at Jan 29, 2014 03:55 PM |

Northwest forests are teeming with life -- much of which may go overlooked or unseen. On your next hike, look out for the little things and discover something new on your favorite trails.

by Tami Asars

Bird: Snowy Owl

The first time you glimpse these magnificent and sporadic winter visitors you’ll be filled with questions. The first might be, why are they here? Though theories abound, the most common answer is that their food source, lemmings, has been less abundant in the Arctic, so they travel south to hunt.

Snowy owls are the heaviest of all bird species, possessing thick insulating feathers that protect them from the arctic cold. They are diurnal birds, meaning that they hunt both day and night. Adult females have darker markings, or a salt-and-pepper coloration, while adult males are mostly pure white.

The best viewing opportunities are from December through February at Boundary Bay Regional Park, just over the Canadian border from Blaine, or at Damon Point near Ocean Shores.

Beast: Elk

Elk Tami Asars 250
Elk. Photo by Tami Asars.

If you have spent any time on trails near meadows in the Northwest, odds are good you’ve heard the loud bugles of bull elk looking for mates during rut. Two subspecies of elk live here in Washington state: Roosevelt elk and Rocky Mountain elk.

Roosevelt elk live primarily near the coast and in the Olympic Mountains and have the largest body size of all subspecies, with bulls weighing upward of 900 to 1,000 pounds.

The Rocky Mountain elk, found in the foothills and on the eastern side of the Cascade Crest, are smaller, have less fingerlike antlers and lighter coloration than the Roosevelt. To add a confusing twist, hybrid mixes of both species are also common to see in the Cascades. One of the best places to observe Roosevelt elk is in Olympic’s Hoh Rainforest.

Bloom: Western Redcedar

Western Redcedar Tami Asars 250
Western Redcedar. Photo by Tami Asars.

All winter long, the western redcedar (Thuja plicata) provides an interesting draping texture and dark green coniferous color to the shady, moist habitats of the Cascades and Olympics. Arguably one of the most magnificent evergreens in the forest, this beauty exhibits a reddish brown bark and wood, and scale-like sharply pointed leaves that produce a strong, woody fragrance when crushed.

If given the right environment, these trees get huge! In fact, the largest western redcedar in our state, a whopping 174 feet high and 19.5 feet in diameter, is found near Lake Quinault, not far from the resort.


This article originally appeared in the Jan+Feb 2014 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Join WTA to get your one-year subscription.