A Strange and Wonderful Mystery Forest

Guest bloggers Doug and Joanne Schwartz – League members and dedicated volunteers – are serving this summer as our Redwood Explorers-in-Residence, exploring the northern parks, and ground-truthing and mapping the groves of ancient forest they find. Along the way, they’re documenting the many interesting plants, animals, and fungi they find in Redwood Watch, and blogging about their experiences. Continued from last week…

Many new redwoods grow in areas with old-growth cutting. Photo by Joanne and Doug Schwartz
Many new redwoods grow in areas with old-growth cutting. Photo by Joanne and Doug Schwartz

In one area of the forest we explored, we found a wild grove of redwood trees with some very strange qualities.

We generally recognize old-growth trees by certain forms they’ve developed during their long lives. They are typically thick-trunked and have rough, furrowed bark, often with burls or other odd growths. They stand straight and tall, sporting huge branches and complicated structures like side trunks and chandeliers up high, while their lower trunks have shed all branches. They might have epicormic sprays, clusters of small branches sprouting from their side and continuously falling off. As we were told at the beginning of this assignment, “When you see an old-growth redwood, you will be in awe and you will have no question about what you are seeing.”

We believed it — but that has changed now. On a ridge near the Pacific Ocean, we wandered into a strange world of gnarly redwoods which caused us, bearlike, to sit and just look and think. These were certainly old redwoods, with thick bases eight to 10 feet wide — and one at least 40 feet around — covered with rough, heavily furrowed bark. They had burls and reiterated trunks and thick, crazily crossing branches at their tops. But, they were short, perhaps 75 to 100 feet tall. Their trunks were almost all split into parallel towers close to the ground. The big limbs wrapped around oddly. And these redwoods were fuzzy, with a covering of thin epicormic branches starting near the ground. Very few of these little branches had been shed.

We guessed that trees in this grove might have suffered some stress, perhaps from being so close to the coastal winds, and had thus developed this “mutant” form. But the old Sitka spruce trees among the redwoods of this grove looked quite normal, perfectly tall and straight. And, other redwoods we surveyed in a nearby grove were in an expected old-growth form. Maybe this was a group with odd genetics? We had no idea!

For us, it was an exciting day to discover these very odd old-growth redwoods. We tagged their boundaries with our GPS and asked the biologists at Save the Redwoods League to shed some light on this mystery — so stay tuned!

Roosevelt elk with velvet hanging from his antlers. Photo by Joanne and Doug Schwartz
Roosevelt elk with velvet hanging from his antlers. Photo by Joanne and Doug Schwartz

Ay, There’s The Rub

This is a wonderful season in which to photograph Roosevelt elk in these Northern California parks. Females group to care for youngsters, closely watching the fawns while they hop and romp in the meadows, and responding to their shrill trumpeting calls. Bachelor herds of mature male elk roam together. Their antlers are fully developed, and many have already lost their velvety cover. Some are still rubbing their antlers against bushes and trees, until the velvet skin rips and wears away. It hangs like Spanish moss from their antler tips, leaving fresh blood on the white, newly minted antlers. These will soon turn to brown and the elk will start to demonstrate their strength and dominance in their quest to attract females. But now they rub and rub their awkward-looking racks with grace. We have watched and photographed elk for hours in the evenings.

Life in the Slow Lane

Making the downshift from fast-paced city life to hiking along park trails is always fun, it’s the experience many folks seek on vacations. But downshifting again to a slow and methodical crawl through the forest undergrowth has provided some fascinating observations and perspectives. These were some of our discoveries as we pushed ferns from our faces on our way to the next big tree:

  • Some critters — probably squirrels — leave a certain mushroom, Russula sp., on the branches of bushes, possibly where they were enjoying their fungal meal before we came along. We have found several of these remnants.

    A banana slug eats a decaying Beefsteak mushroom cap, Fistulina hepatica. Photo by Joanne and Doug Schwartz
    A banana slug eats a decaying Beefsteak mushroom cap, Fistulina hepatica. Photo by Joanne and Doug Schwartz
  • Northern red-legged frogs are everywhere, and are very willing to quiet down for a photo session. We have come across dozens.
  • Pacific giant salamanders love the tiny streams we cross, but move away quickly when they hear or feel our approach.
  • Bear scat right now contains primarily one kind of seed. We have not yet found the source of their food. Their scat quickly becomes covered with a dense coating of mold which we call Bear Angora.
  • Bear cubs really rough up the bark on redwoods from repeated tree climbing, making fuzz out of the sturdy tree sides.
  • Gnome plants, Hemitomes congestum (we think that’s what they are!), peek out of the redwood duff in August, showing their waxy white and pink and yellow flowers. These plants cannot make chlorophyll, so rely on an association with fungi and trees for nutrients.
  • Banana slugs are out even during this very dry season, eating everything in sight, including decaying mushroom caps and fungal mycelium (the root-like strands and mats which are the “plant” of what will later fruit as a mushroom) on the ends of logs.
  • Sitka spruce trees are host to tiny aphid-like creatures called adelgids, which infect the growth tips and cause an odd gall structure to form and fall to the ground in the summer. We have found perhaps a dozen of these weird-looking pompoms on the forest floor. Read Richard Campbell’s recent blog to learn more about this strange natural phenomenon.
  • Fungi are everywhere, despite the dry season. They appear in all forms and shapes, from a half an inch tall to two feet across. Coastal fog is good for both the redwoods and for fungi.

Be sure to visit the League’s Giant Thoughts blog to hear more about our redwood forest adventures!

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About the author

Doug and Joanne Schwartz focus much of their time exploring a variety of ecosystems and habitats around the world. They enjoy learning about each and its inhabitants, from fungi to critters and plants, and photographing whatever they discover.

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