Here, finally, is a summary of our ENVIR 280 spring field trip (May 7, 2016) to Beth Wheat’s SkyRoot Farm on Whidbey Island. This was a unique field trip for us because, unlike our other trips to more “pristine” habitats, this foray explicitly sought to describe the natural history of an actively managed landscape. Given that the number one reason for loss of natural habitats across the globe is the development of human agriculture, understanding the effects of agriculture on nature and ecosystem function is critical.
Beth gives the grand tour to get us started. We were also accompanied by former PoE director, Johnny Palka.
We surveyed the farm, from the intensively managed farm fields to the surrounding meadows and forest fragments which buffer the property. While we only spent a few hours on the farm, we were surprised by what we found in this working organic farming landscape. Hopefully our report can serve as a baseline as Beth grows her farm, restores the surrounding habitats, and generally seeks to make her farm more ecologically integrated into the natural landscape. Here’s our report:
Whidbey Island is famous for its glacial geomorphology. SkyRoot Farm sits at the base of a drumlin. Forests on the edge of the farm creep just up the base of the drumlin. Soils in this section are sandy, and resemble the advance glacial outwash (Esperance sand) so prevalent in Seattle.
SkyRoot Farm is located on the west side of the eroding drumlin which is crossed by French Road.
Sandy soils in the forest on the slope of the drumlin. These are glacial outwash sediments from the advance of the Vashon icesheet.
The farm is on a flat clay soil area on the west side of the drumlin. Clays were deposited in slow moving waters early in the advance of the Vashon icesheet. A creek originating from the porous soils of the drumlin, flows across this flat area, unable to percolate through the clay layer. Large cedar stumps (cedar trees being tolerant of wet soils), such as the one in this picture, remnants of the original oldgrowth forest, are visible on the landscape, sometimes overgrown, in places that were never intensively farmed. The meadows on this clay layer are naturally very wet, owing to the fact that water percolating through the drumlin is forced to flow outward along the impermeable clay layer. They are dominated by rushes (Juncaceae).
The riparian habitat running through the farm is home to a variety of native wetland plants, including Tolmiea menziesii (pictured here), Rubus spectabilis, sedges (Carex sp.), Alnus rubra, Sambucus racemosa, common horsetails, lady ferns, Tellima grandiflora, and Lysichiton americanus (skunk cabbage). Licorice fern grew on big leaf maples, along with a variety of common pollution tolerant lichens. such as Evernia prunastris (antlered perfume), Usnea sp. (perhaps blood spattered beard), various dust lichens, and “forking bone” lichen.
We identified this Ribes divaricatum, one of many gooseberry species in WA, (spines in clusters of 3 being diagnostic) along the creek.
Coyotes are active in the riparian strip, a sheltered habitat for mammals to move through the agricultural landscape in secret. We will place camera traps here in the fall to confirm this identification.
Banana slugs in the riparian strip: Denizens of the surrounding conifer forest fragments, they make their way into the farm landscape via the riparian corridor. This native species is absent in most of Seattle’s forest fragments, replaced there by a European species that probably has some negative consequences for the health of our forests.
Amphipods were abundant in the creek.
Red legged frogs were abundant in the riparian strip. This species has experienced significant declines in Oregon and California due to habitat loss, introduced bullfrogs, UV and more. It will be important to continue monitoring for this species. Tree frogs are also abundant on the farm. We recently found some on our fall trip to set up camera traps.
Trientalis borealis ssp. latifolia (Starflower, Primulaceae) is a common flower of the floor of conifer forests from sea level into the mountains.
Red legged frog, again.
The red admiral, a common butterfly of open areas. Larvae feed on nettle. Adults feed on nectar.
This Douglas fir stump is healing itself. Is it connected to living trees via mycorrhyzae? Sword fern is adjacent, with dull Oregon grape behind. Red huckleberry was also abundant in the woods. There is much potential on the farm for harvest of native perennial “crops”. In this second growth forest, the canopy is still fairly closed, and the forest floor is fairly devoid of plants. The forest has already gone through its self-thinning phase, however, and is beginning to show some more diverse structures. On our fall trip to set camera traps, we found a Barred Owl in this forest. We also noticed the invasive English Holly and endeavored to pull it out whenever we could.
The goldenrod spider on a vetch. This gorgeous spider is sitting in wait of its prey, perhaps a bee that would otherwise pollinate this flower (I have seen this species take bees before!).
Hannah holds a song sparrow, a common bird of forest edges.
One of the many insects we found on the farm (Carabus granulatus). This ground-dwelling beetle, found in both forest and field, is generally thought to be useful in controlling pests. Invertebrates are its main food in both larval and adult stages. We also found another invertebrate predator, the blue-eyed darner dragonfly, engaged in its amazing copulation flight. The fact that Beth’s farm is organic serves these predators well. The Carabus is particularly sensitive to pesticides.
Here’s our complete bird list (not bad for a few hours, and indicative of the variety of habitats available at SkyRoot, from conifer forest, to alder forest, to riparian, to open meadow):
Osprey (flying by)
Turkey Vulture (flying by)
Red-tailed Hawk (flying by)
Bald Eagle (flying by)
Add: Barred Owl in fall, and in later spring/early summer, Red-Winged blackbirds, Townsend’s Warbler, and Western Tanager. Undoubtedly there are many more birds that use or pass through the farmscape throughout the year.