Haida Gwaii Nature Notebook: aka “Homeschool Science Adventures”

One of the wonderful things about living on Haida Gwaii is that no matter where you are, Mother Nature is right outside your door.  In the late 1990s, our family went on a home schooling adventure.  Putting text books and worksheets aside, we embraced science as an outdoors activity, armed with handbooks from the local library to help us identify the myriad aspects of nature – plants, animals, birds, ocean life, geology, and more.  On our return from our outings, we jotted down our observations in our “Nature Notebooks.”  Like the children, Mom was an eager learner, and the following are some of the notes from her journal.
Bird Sanctuary
Date: December 17, 1998

Thursday, 11 am, blue sky with white and gray cumulus clouds, no winds (amazingly!), 3 Celcius, 1 to 1 inches mixed snow and hailstones.

Peter, Wendy, and I (mom) walk along Trumpeter Drive side of Deltakla slough. We see 2 groups of geese, about 1 to 2 dozen birds in each group, swimming in the middle of the slough. Flocks of small birds are grouped along the far (western) shoreline, and we watch them rise and fly parallel, close to the ground, and then land farther down the shore. They make a sound like “gwak, gwak”.

The huckleberry and salmonberry bushes are bare of leaves, but the salal are still dark glossy green. Some salmonberry bushes have new buds. Rose hips on bare wild rose bushes are shiny and red, but squash easily underfoot.

Small burgundy-red berries stand on slim upright stems rising from the moss. A few are shrivelled but most of the berries are firm and red. There are no leaves on the stems.

Many different kinds of moss can be seen on the bare branches of alder and other trees.

The tide is quite high, and the calm water is clear near the shoreline. Bare gray spikes of alder rising from the water remind us of the change in the water level since the causeway has been breached, allowing the tides to return, and bringing back with them the bald eagles and many other bird species that were disappearing as the tidal mud flats became overgrown with scrub alder and grasses.

We see an empty crab shell. Could it have floated in on the tide, or was it perhaps dropped there by a human, or by an eagle?

A flock of small birds is feeding along the bird-walk path. They allow us to get quite close before flying off into the bushes.

A few chunks of fungus grow on an old evergreen stump. They are about 3 inches thick at the thickest point, and quite lumpy in shape, with coloring ranging from yellow to brown.

An elegant black bird with deep blue tail watches us from a tree branch. Peter points out that the crown and crest are blue also. Our bird book identifies it as a Stellar’s jay.

As we return home we observe seagulls — some white with gray backs, some a speckled light brown (the bird book identifies the speckled ones as the young) — as well as ravens and crows feasting on the remains of cockle shells thrown on the roadshide by humans.

In our yard we observe some paw prints in the snow. They seem too rounded to be from our cat and definitely are not dog prints. The children suspect they are raccoon prints, as we have often seen ‘coons in our yard. They lead in a straight line, one by one, down the length of a log laying in the yard.

Tow Hill Road

Forest Discoveries: Date: January 4, 1999

Monday, 2 pm, 8 Celcius, pale gray sky, sun peeking through cirro-stratus clouds

Peter takes us on an adventurous walk through low bushy trails alongside the path between Swan Crescent and Teal Boulevard. Ravens sit starkly outlined along roof edges of homes bordering the bush. As we walk through the bushes we hear tweeting calls of unseen birds in the branches high above us. Our footsteps stir up pungent odors of decaying leaves and conifer needles. Low marshy spots are filled with spiky green plants introduced to this area some years ago, which have unfortunately flourished!

Huckleberry and salmonberry bushes are already in bud. We are surprised to see some huckleberry bushes, protected by the surrounding forest canopy, already in leaf. Tiny spiders, hanging from tree branches, curl up, then scurry up their long threads to safety if we brush against them.

One tree, with bark characteristic of young fir, is streaked with pale bluish-white sap running down from where branches have been snapped off. The sap is thick and sticky, and where it has dried, the trunk has turned black. Our tree book identifies the tree as Grand Fir (Abies grandis), which usually grows with western red cedar and salal — as indeed it is situated here.

The forest floor under the high canopied areas is home to a variety of ferns, mosses and berry bushes. Most of the trees have some moss on their trunks. We take small samples of the ferns and mosses home to sketch and identify.

We make sketches of the needles, bark, and cones of Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) and Western redcedar (Thuja plicata). We also sketch various fungi, one of which we tentatively identify as oyster mushroom.

We take a close look at a fallen tree trunk. A tiny pale green moss or algae grows in scattered clumps on the sawn edge of the trunk (we really must get ourselves a good magnifying glass!). The trunk is rotting slowly, and in the rotted areas we see decaying leaves and needles, and many small spider webs in the rotted-out cracks and crevices. Stirring up the decaying leaves causes small shiny black insects to scurry for cover. Various mosses and tiny new huckleberry bushes are making the old log their nursery home.

Wandering through our garden on the way home, we notice new growth on the parsley, thyme, and green onions. Allyssum are in bloom (!) in the greenhouse, and snapdragon buds just ready to flower. Somebody forgot to tell them it is still winter! The rose bushes sport some shiny new reddish-green leaves, and even a few early rose-buds. The dusty miller looks beautiful.


Animal Tracks and a Culturally Modified Cedar Tree: Date: January 8, 1999

Friday, 9 Celcius, 2:15 pm. Wind from the southeast, gentle breeze. Cumulus clouds, no direct sun.

Peter, Wendy, and I start an observation today. In the backyard we choose 2 branches of our highbush cranberry and mark them at the base of the outermost buds. We measure the length of the branches and the buds. We notice that the outermost bud on the longer branch has fresh green growth on the end. We will keep checking these branches to see how the weather affects the bush’s growth.

Lots of ravens are feeding at the northwest end of Dogwood Crescent where the grass is dug up following the removal of playground equipment. Wendy and Peter suggest that the dug-up turf makes it easier for the ravens to find bugs, seeds, and worms. The ravens are also enthusiastically digging at the mossy spots.

We walk through the muddy, boggy clearning which has been cut — slashed — through the woods to make way for new water mains. On the right is heaped-up high ground, on the left water-filled dug outs. Everywhere prints lead to the waterholes: raccoon, dog, deer prints (one set of tiny prints following closely beside adult-size deer prints suggest that the bambi season has begun already). Little holes tunnel into the muskeggy soil, suggesting that mice or other small creatures are already accomodating themselves to man’s rough raping of their environment. Suddenly we notice much larger prints, following after the deer tracks — and we are sure they are bear prints. Has the bear come down to drink, we wonder, or is he looking for his supper?

The muskeggy soil is soft, red, mucky. We try to tread on the crushed remains of branches, for stepping on bare soil threatens to suck us in. The smell of crushed, decaying cedar rises around us as we tread on the crushed limbs. The water in the ponds is dark brown, muddy, reflecting their new origin — water draining from the muskegy forest soil to the low open pits no doubt dug for that very purpose. A cedar tree on the very edge of a pond leans precariously over the water, its water-logged roots clinging desperately to what little soil they can still clutch at. Sandy, grey spots stand out in the boggy soil, patches of sand and clay, solid stepping-stones in a sea of mud.

Half-way through the slash in the forest, a tall lone cedar tree, topped by a tall barren widow-maker, stands alone. A few feet from its base is an old hole, hand-hewn long ago with rough tools. Lined with moss and green algal growth witnessing to its age, it still bears signs of the burning done as part of the hole-digging process. This is a culturally modified tree — a CMT — the hole cut perhaps a hundred or more years ago by Haida canoe-builders testing it for soundness. Why was it left standing? A narrow hollow core and the widow-maker crowning the forest giant suggest that perhaps it did not pass the test for soundness — or was it yet another tree that never had a chance to fulfill its purpose, as its human testers succumbed perhaps to the smallpox epidemic, or to the “progress” introduced by the yaahts haadaa — the white man — which made the giant cedar dugout canoes somehow obsolete? Whatever the reason, the tree still stands, a memorial to another age, to a strong and proud seafaring people — and even new watermains must humble themselves and take a detour path around this forest king.

As we reach the southern end of the slash through the forest, we are greeted by a tangle of wild rose bushes in the sudden open space between the forest on one side, and the highway following the inlet shoreline on the other. There has been just enough frost recently to make the rosehips perfect for tea-making, and the children joyfully gather a baggie full for a pot of hot, vitamin-C laden tea upon our return home.


At the Beach: Date: January 11, 1999 (Monday)

We go back to the water-main slash in the forest today with our home school friends Kelly, TJ, Brady, Rebecca and their dog. Fresh deer and ‘coon prints litter the boggy ground. We take another look at the CMT and are once more filled with awe at the sense that we are being drawn into another place and time — at once far, remote; yet still with us, the blood of their Haida forebears running warm and strong in the lithe young bodies of my children, Peter and Wendy.

We are reminded clearly of the strength and wildness of nature, as the dog, straining at its lash, pulls one of our party into soft mud. Within a minute or two, she has sunk to her knees in the murky, insistent stuff, and TJ and I both have to give her a good strong tug to pull her loose from its grip.

We spend quite a while on the inlet beach today. The kids are intrigued to turn over rocks close to the low tide line and watch dozens of tiny brown clams scuttle madly for shelter. Generally, each rock-bound colony also contains one larger crab (about 3 inches across) along with the dozens of smaller ones. Mama and her brood? Some of the tiny ones are palish green, but most are variegated shades of medium to dark brown. Under one rock a bunch of tiny round black shell creatures — or at least their shell remains — lay scattered empty around a largish, very satisfied-looking crab, sitting there apparently licking his chops! There are also a variety of snails clinging to the undersides of the rocks, some of them clothed in riotous shades of oranges and yellows. Most of the snail shells are about an inch long.

We come upon a section of beach scattered with scallop shells, empty, caught under the edges of rocks or partly buried in the sand. The shells range from white through ones with bright colorful shadings of browns and yellows. We wonder if they have been washed up here, or if, more likely, someone has cast them away after removing the meat. It would be unusual to find scallop shells on this rocky, inlet beach; most scallops are washed up on the long, sandy beaches on the east side of the island, especially in the area around Tow Hill.

I find a set of 2-point deer antlers with the skull attached, washed very clean by the sea. I will take them to my friend Adie, who will carve knife handles, musical instruments, or other useful items from them.

The children are quite horrified by the quantities of scrap metal, old car chassis, old plastic and metal piping, and so on, scattered along the beach — much of it having been there for many years, a reminder of a time when people weren’t really aware of how their actions might affect the ecology of this wilderness place.

As we leave the beach, I note the piles of kelp heaped along the high tide line and make a mental note to gather some soon to mulch and fertilize my garden.


Weather Changes: Date: January 28, 1999 (Saturday)

On Monday (Jan 18) it was so beautiful and spring-like that I went out and weeded my flower beds and green house — weeds unfortunately flourish here year-round! — and Lionel, catching the spirit, trimmed back his rose bushes. He piled dead leaves around the base of one rose bush, but didn’t get the others done. Overnight it snowed! Then the temperature started dropping — to -10 Celcius by Thursday, and -13 Celcius by Friday. Wild northern winds on Friday blew the snow off the rose bushes. Today is warmer, hovering around freezing — but we wonder how the rose bushes will do? And also what the sudden cold, the first sub-freezing weather this winter, will do to the many trees, bushes, daffodils and other plants which have been fooled by the mild weather into making an early start?


Early Signs of Spring: Date: February 19, 1999 (Friday)

After a cold spell… big wind storms (100+ mph winds)… rain, rain, rain…

Perfect day! Blue sky, sunshine, puffy lacy white clouds, 14 degrees Celcius! Even the usually gray, foreboding, barren, wintry trunks of the alder shine mottled silver and white in the sunshine. Tulip and daffodil leaves push up through the soil, promising spring and new life. New, fresh, deep red bud tips on fresh new salmonberry shoots stand out in bright contrast to the duller rust-red buds on young alder.

Suddenly I realize that the air is alive with a dozen different bird calls, all joyously announcing their pleasure with the sunshiny day. I am startled to hear the high-pitched peeps of new-born birds emanating from a nest tucked into the overhang of our house. Could it be? This early? Parent birds darting back and forth from the nest verify my amazed observation!

Tiny dark pink buds on huckleberry bushes make my mouth water in anticipation of a sweet, juicy summer harvest. I feel exhilarated — although the garbage strewn everywhere, the careless detritus of human passage, threatens to dampen my spirits. And a few dusky gray-purple, shriveled salal berries still cling to bushes, salal leaves no longer summer-dark and shiny, but now wearing browned, curled edges, also remind me that Ol’ Man Winter is still hovering close by.

I am reminded of the tale of the sun and the north wind competing to see who is strongest, who can first remove the traveller’s coat. I optimistically cheer for the sun on this beautiful day, even as I notice that the recent winter winds have caused cones, bits of mossy bark, mosses, dried and wrinkly alder leaves, and snips of grasses to be caught up in the bare, claw-like branches of huckleberry bushes next to the slough. Rose hips have mostly shriveled dull red, sprinkled with black frost spots, though a few defiantly remain firm and bright orange-red.

I take a deep breath and notice that the air still has a wintry smell, not yet the scent of new growth breaking through the earth. Under the trees hundreds of cones lay littered from the recent winds. Fresh yellow-green branches rise from old grayish twisted branches of mountain ash. I walk carefully, picking my way from high spot to high spot. Water, water everywhere… only the paved roads are drying off, despite the sunshine. My feet squish-squash through mossy grass. Puddle-sized ponds gather in low spots among the trees. Watery mud stretches from the slough’s edge to the high-tide line, as if the salty, winter-cold water can’t bear to let go during the change of tide. Along the road’s edge, run-off from winter rains has carved paths in the soft shoulder, and water sits there still, sluggish, barely tricking downhill despite the urge of gravity. Pussy-willow branches are still stark and bare of leaves, yet the small fresh buds promise that spring is on the way. Soft, rough, deformed brown-black lumps, studded with tiny holes, crumble open easily to reveal their burden of seeds. Sparse grass under pine trees is blanketed with a rich rust-red carpet of spent needles. Rhododendrons boast small, plump, upright buds, but the leaves are still yellowed and drooping.

Suddenly, a bright-plumed robin redbreast, back from his winter wanderings, swoops down and alights on a fence posts just a few steps from me, lifting my spirits with his cocky attitude! I start to head home, walking across lawns that are yellow-white except for clumps of yellow-green moss, and patches of winter-hardy, bright green wild grasses which defy the landscapers. Bare, mud-brown spots in low-lying damp areas and along ridges invite a dark brown fungus to fill in their worn-bare spots.

I shiver, and realize the sun has gradually been losing out to heavy gray clouds with ragged edges which have crept in surreptitiously. The air temperature drops markedly, the wind picks up. But I rejoice that the sun has won again, even if only for a while, as I zip up my jacket which I had opened while the sun shone its gentle rays. The cold, wintry wind quickens, and I pull my jacket tighter, and lift my collar around my ears. The songbirds have ceased their joyous chorus, and now the ravens shout raucously to each other, their rough, noisy calls well-suited to the cold windy gusts, and the big, cold drops of rain which — I hear them before I feel them — start to plop intermittently, then faster and faster. My fingers are cold. I pull them inside my jacket sleeves and run for the house.