Thursday, October 12, 2017

Tree Homage and Fire Suppression

Kathleen Sayce, October 12, 2017

Much of the Pacific Northwest coast is in the Coastal Temperate Rainforest Biome, a mouthful of words that carefully describe our climate and native vegetation. 

Western Red Cedar, Long Island Cedar Grove, a
lovely subject for tree homage. 


Coastal—on the Pacific Ocean, a climate dominated by onshore winds and rain. 

Temperate—a mild climate of cool wet winters and warm dry summers. Those summers have been getting hotter lately, and more often, not a good sign of what is to come, but generally, this is a great place to live. Not too cold in winter, not too hot in summer. 

Rainforest—a complex forest, so wet that they have a layered structure of big tall trees with epiphytes (plants that grow on plants), understory trees, tall shrubs, low shrubs and ground-covering plants. So much rain that growth is good year after year, in some of the highest site classes of North America, site class being forester-speak for good tree growing conditions. Tillamook County, Oregon, north to Grays Harbor County, Washington, is right in the middle of old deep soils, ample rain, mild summers, and high site classes for timber. 

Biome—the life forms of a region. In this place, multi-species coniferous forests with hardwoods as minor understory trees. 

In the midst of all this growth, then there’s the flip side:  dry summers, when the onshore winds alternate with easterlies, when the air and then the soil dry down to tinder, when all that lush growth shows its other face as fuel ready to burn. Major wildfires are uncommon in our area, but when they come along, they can go big very quickly.  Historically, fires in the dunes kept the pines and other woody plants down and the land in prairie, a mix of grasses, sedges and wildfires. As a culture, we pay homage to trees and we suppress fires. It’s a volatile mix.

The Tillamook Burn, 1933, was a spectacular series of fires that started slowly in the Oregon Coast Range, and built up into massive firestorms, burning 350 thousand acres in a few weeks. For a modern retelling, read http://www.oregonlive.com/history/2017/09/how_bad_can_a_fire_get_in_oreg.html.

In 2014, one fall night, we came over the dune to the bayside, and looked across the water to a fire in the WIllapa Hills. I know our forests and dunes are vulnerable to wildfire, and that small fire, which burned only a few acres, got me thinking harder about fire resistance in forests. I’d toured forests in the 1970s where fires were set to burn the underbrush out and make the forests healthier and fire resistant—a point of view and management approach that has been part of my own lexicon ever since. 

Then in 2017, there were fires in the Columbia Gorge, started by teenagers tossing lighted fireworks, growing into a firestorm that leaped the Columbia River. A week or so later, Karina Blake wrote about forest protection and blame in Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2017/09/furious_oregonians_should_save_some_forest_fire_blame_for_themselves.html

Morning sun over Willapa Bay in mid summer:  The hills are buried in ash and particulates, the sun is a red dot. Winds from the east.

There is a controversy going on in Gearhart, Oregon over tree preservation versus fire safety right now.  In 2017 we also had weeks of poor air quality on the coast from wildfires in British Columbia, Montana, and eastern Washington and Oregon. Weeks when the sun rose blood-red and the skies were yellow and orange, and the air tasted of ash. 

How prairies become forests:  pines appear, fires (or mowing) does not follow along, and in a few years, all trees, no prairie.

Then came the fires early fall 2017, and multiple in northern California’s wine counties, or “Sonapamendonoma”, my husband (who is from San Mateo), calls them. Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties are north of San Francisco Bay, in the California Coast Range, covered with oaks, grasslands, homes, farms, and now devastated by wildfire. Years of drought, a wet winter and lush spring of growth, another dry summer, red flag atmospheric conditions (very dry soil and air, strong dry hot winds), and Bam! Another area is burned. 

Which brings me to the concept of better living with trees and fire. Here are some things that aggravate fires:  dense, even age forests; wet springs and dry summers; carelessness with fireworks; homes in the middle of dense forests; tree homage as a culture that makes fuel reduction difficult. 

Tree homage? Yes. We love trees. I love trees. But around human settlements, trees can be dangerous. In high winds, they break and rip from the ground, and fall over on other objects. Like homes.  We removed five very large trees from our property a few years ago. All were over one hundred feet tall, one was rotten inside, and split into sections when the main trunk came down, and every one of them could hit at least two buildings. Storms were nerve-wracking:  which tree might come down and hit which building this time? I loved those trees, the neighborhood eagles perched in them, but they were too big for safety. 

Commercial tree plantations are basically monocultures of even-aged, single species trees. Often a single clone, planted to thousands of acres. Dense, with standing dead trees among the living. Fire hazard waiting to burn, just a matter of when.

A shore pine thicket with seedling spruces nearby, in the dunes.


On the ocean side of the sand spit where I live, there are young dense shore pine monocultures for more than twenty miles, with very few firebreaks. Shore pine adapts to fire; it has cones that open only when burned. It grows in dense forests, which if they burn down, release seeds for the next dense pine forest. The only way to live safely with shore pine is to remove, thin and limb so that canopies don’t touch, limbs are well above six feet above ground, and to keep out the seedlings that follow. Pines grow in uplands and wetlands alike, and it’s not legal to thin or limb wetland trees, according to state and federal regulations. In our area, you can take upland trees out, limb wetland buffer trees (but not thin), and wetlands must be left as is. 

That late summer fire in red flag weather conditions?—there’s no water in the coastal wetlands then, and fires burn right through them. The best you can do (legally) is to keep woody plants out of the two hundred feet of land closest to your home. 

Harvest brodiaea flowering a coastal prairie as the dry season begins.

It’s a start on fire resistance, but if we want communities to thrive with fire, we have to do better.  Think about a bit less tree homage and a bit more fire suppression for community safety. Think woodland savannah instead of dense forest, and wider buffers of low vegetation between trees and homes. It’s time to bring back the coastal prairies.  


Monday, June 5, 2017

The New Old Garden


June 5, 2017

Like knitting, beyond exotic species and new hybrids, there probably really isn’t anything completely new in gardening, only things to rediscover—AKA new-old topics. These new-old topics include lawns of mixed species, or lawn replacements, and layered green garden beds where no soil shows. 

Coastal dune prairie, with western buttercup and
early blue violets--the turf that jump-started
my new old lawn. 
Into the nineteenth and early twentieth century, lawns were closely mown or grazed turf, composed of a mix of species, including grasses, wildflowers, bulbs and sedges. In other words, any plant that could tolerate close grazing or mowing might be found growing in a turf, or low meadow. This treatment kept out or down most woody species. 

Grass-only turfs were the purview of the wealthy, who hired people to mow and weed lawns and remove the non-grass plants, often by hand. The tyranny of the grass lawn began after World War II with a shift by chemical manufacturers from wartime gases to fertilizers and pesticides. This meant that anyone could have a lush grass-only lawn, just by applying the right synthetic chemicals at the right time. 

The ‘new-old lawn’ is a mix of species of grasses and wildflowers, designed on prairie palettes of low to tall wildflowers with a grass framework. Mowing is hugely reduced. Pesticides are not used, except perhaps to remove historic exotic grasses. 

Sand-dune sedge in a bare spot
Never a fan of summer watering, lots of chemicals (including fertilizers), or excessive weeding, I began pondering the turf tyranny a few years ago. A series of dry summers meant that the grasses regularly died back over large areas of my turf. Several exotic daisies promptly made a bid for dominance, including hairy catsear, common hawkbit, dandelion and leontodon. English daisy, Viola labradorica, creeping buttercup, trailplant, strawberry and others also expanded. 

In the midst of the profusion of flowers, I found some areas of turf were still green and thriving—these were patches of sand dune sedge, Carex pansa. Dry summers did not bother them at all. Thus began my rethinking of what constitutes a lawn. I began transplanting sedge clumps into bare areas. When I weeded, I removed only the largest exotic daisies, which are nurseries for several exotic European slugs that eat many garden plants. I left the rest, including mosses, ribwort, English daisy, violet, gill-over-the-ground, and dandelion, to grow and seed around. 

Coast goldenrod, another lovely low flower for
low meadows, and a good nectar plant.


We reduced mowing from weekly to every few weeks, leaving low mown strips along flower beds and letting the lawn grow taller elsewhere. I added sea thrift. This year I began pondering bulbs, which would need to be left to grow until foliage died down. I pulled out a hedge of lilacs along the marsh to replace with tall native grasses and wildflowers—to make a belt of meadow plants that can be mown at most once a year, to keep out woody species—and will otherwise be left alone. 

There are plants I intend to exclude. Ivy, Scots broom, gorse, and several exotic blackberries grow here. If areas are never mown, these species soon run riot over everything else. When we moved to this house, most of the property was a thicket of the aforementioned species, plus wild rose, grape, honeysuckle and plum. It took us years to clear the lower slopes of the dune behind the house so we could walk completely around the house outside.
It’s a work in transition. Eventually I will have three areas that are occasionally to regularly mown, high to low. There will be more native plants, more flowers, and more habitat for insects and animals that use meadows. I already see more butterflies and bumblebees than in the past. 
Sisyrinchiums are tiny irids that do well in lawns,
just don't mow them when they are flowering.


Garden beds are undergoing the same transformation from meticulously weeded and mulched, planted with carefully grouped species, to a ‘new green garden’ with a ground cover of low growing greenery, with no bare ground at all. It’s new to early 21st century gardeners, but was the normal garden condition for centuries, beyond areas where food plants and medicinal herbs were grown.  

Fringe-cups like some shade and moist soil. 
In my garden, this means tolerating some ‘weedy’ species, and clearing areas when I plant, and only then, removing those major competitors from a few square feet of soil. It also means using slug bait or encouraging garter snakes, which eat slugs. If I lived in a low rainfall area, I might be able to justify a bare-earth garden. But with eight to ten feet of winter rain being the norm, along with dry summers, lush is the default for my garden. So my new-old garden has ground covers of sedge, oxalis, forget-me-not, mosses, and only the rapacious ‘take all the nutrients and run’ species are removed. 


It’s a new way for us to think about gardens, but it’s been around for centuries. As an ecologist the idea I like the most is that this promotes diversity in the garden, and diversity always leads to more productivity and better endurance of the ecosystem. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Desmostylia––Ancient Sirenians of the North Pacific

May 21, 2017

This area of southwest Washington and northwest Oregon was underwater for many millions of years. Ancient marine mammals lived here along with fishes and a wide range of invertebrates, even though we do not have fossils from every square mile to look at today. So we look around the Pacific Rim to learn about the diversity of former species.

One of the strangest animals from our watery past is Desmostylia. A chunky, stout aquatic mammal of shallow waters and shorelines, it is distantly related to modern manatees, which are Sirenians. 

Formerly much more common in geologic time, Sirenians include three living species of manatees, one dugong, and the recently extinct Steller's sea cow. Their closest living relatives are elephants and hyraxes. Fossil Sirenian species in the Desmostylia group lived from the Oligocene to the late Miocene, about 25 million years, ending about 7 mya (millions of years ago). 

By the Miocene this area was a shallow sea with several river deltas and emerging mountain ranges, and with extensive swamps along the eastern edge, near the position of the modern Cascade Range. Climate was warmer in the Miocene, tropical to subtropical, and sea level was a couple of hundred feet higher.

Desmostylia fossils, including full skeletons and partial bits of bones, teeth and skulls, have been found around the North Pacific, from the south end of Japan, through Siberia, the Aleutian Islands, Pacific Northwest, south to the south tip of Baja California. Teeth make particularly good fossils because they are hard and slow to break down. Desmostylia has interesting large molars, along with more typical mammalian tusks and canine teeth. These teeth have been described as bundles of columns, which gives them their name, from the Greek desmos (bundle) and stylos (pillar).

These mammals were aquatic, and from isotopic analysis of teeth and bones, we know that they were marine. Other marine mammal features include retracted nostrils (tightly closed when underwater), and raised eye sockets (to see better at the surface). Stocky and stout, they weighed up to 440 pounds and were about six feet long, with a heavy shovel-shaped head and large strong teeth, short strong legs, and broad feet. You can see a complete desmostylian skeleton of at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. This individual lived 10 million years ago, towards the end of the Miocene. The museum has also done reconstructions of living animals, to give us an idea of what they were like.

There are no modern analogs to these mammals. For size comparisons, black bears and wild boars (feral pigs) can grow to 400 pounds or more in size. Hippopotamuses weigh up to 3,300 pounds, and live in freshwater, though some populations live in mangrove swamps. Manatees weigh up to 1,300 pounds, and live entirely in water. We could think of Desmostylia as a small hippo, in a sense, though they are not closely related.

With broad grinding molars, Desmostylians were herbivores. In marine and estuarine waters, what did they eat? Sea grasses and seaweeds, including kelps, are the mostly likely food plants. These plants live in shallow saltwater in large, dense stands. There was another powerful reason to stay in shallow water: Megalodon cruised the open waters of the world's warm oceans and seas. Desmostylia were about the right size to this huge shark to be like chicken nuggets to us.

Imagine if today 400-pound, six-feet-long marine herbivores grazed eelgrass beds in Willapa Bay. They'd jostle with the seals for haul out space, or sprawl in the marshes around the edges, and graze down the eelgrass stands at mid to high tide. Water quality might be an issue. Herbivores tend to produce a lot of poop, about five to seven times the volume, based on body size, that carnivores do. Today, hippos are one of the most dangerous animals we live around. Desmostylia might be similarly dangerous––placid until someone gets too close, and then those large teeth come into action, and oops, there's another ex-kayaker or ex-hiker. It would definitely make boating on the bay lively!

For more information, and good reconstructions of a Desmostylia, see
http://a-fragi.blogspot.com/2011/07/desmostylus-2010.html  where a Japanese sculptor, Hirokazu Tokugawa, has done very nice reconstructions of this fascinating paleo marine mammal. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Water Greets Land And Brings a Gift

November 14, 2016

As a child I was fascinated by seasonal floods in Amazonia, where rainforest over millions of acres is flooded by many feet of water. Fish swimming among trees in the forest seemed totally bizarre to that child. 

Today I walked the road at Greenhead Slough, where Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, working with local and state partners, recently replaced a tide gate with a bridge, restoring tidal hydrology to several streams and associated floodplains. 

Three Chum salmon in the stream, two to the left, one to the right. All have begun to lose skin, hence the whitish appearance on their sides. 

Tides are very high and low now—a spring tide cycle, which occurs twice each month when the moon is full or new. I saw a near-full moon two days ago. On this full moon cycle, the local floodplains, marshes, and in some cases associated forests, are flooded at each higher high tide every 24 hours. 

Chum salmon came back to their natal streams this season in large numbers. Commercial fishermen caught their quota, and still the salmon kept coming. Last year, refuge stream walkers did not see any chum or coho salmon. This year, chum have returned to all the streams they monitor. Today I saw two streams with chum in them, splashing as they mated and dug out redds to lay eggs. There were dead fish too; I could smell the dead fish as I approached. 

Banana slug and fungi:  which one to eat first?


For the next generation of salmon this is good news:  the bodies of their parents fertilize the streams, tree roots pick up and share nutrients, and animals drag dead salmon off to eat and spread them up slope into the forests. For other salmon species, there is better news:  chum salmon smolt (return to salt water) when they are very small, so they are good food for other salmon species that smolt when larger in size. Seeing many adult chum salmon breeding this fall is a strong indication that other runs of other species will be plentiful four years hence, and their adults will be numerous, large, healthy, and strong. 

Forest underwater:  nutrients, fish, organics surge in with the water across the forest floor.


There was also water among the trees in several areas, taking me back decades in memory to that child, seeing photos of fish swimming among Amazonian trees. Marine anadromous fish not only give us pleasure in fishing for them, livelihood for commercial fishermen, and food for bald eagles, bears, and other animals, they give the forests important nutrients, including calcium, nitrogen, phosphorous, and other minerals. It’s a magnificent sight to see the fish, but the implications that carry forward for future health of both forest and fish runs are also important. When we see a healthy run like this, we see the future of both forest and fish in their presence. 

Rough Skinned Newt walking on a floodplain surface, among deep elk footprints.


The weather was wet, a mild day with light rain, though the wind rose as the hours passed and another storm approached. Rough Skinned Newts and Pacific Banana Slugs were out moving around, well sheltered from the sun by the clouds and rain. Thinking about the movement of nutrients from fish to soil to fungi to trees, I realized that these nutrients reach the slugs too, and any insects that feed on plants or fungi, and also newts. There's a bit of ocean in all of those species in a fish-healthy forest. 

Looking over the highway and across Bear River, salt water floods the marshes and streams from forest edge to forest edge. 



At high tide, there is a large sheet of water from the highway west across Bear River and its associated marshes to the Porter Point peninsula. With dikes gone, with hydrology restored, the winter high tides sweep across the entire landscape, just as they did more than one hundred years ago. Water greets land again, and brings a gift of fish. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Autumnal Slug Rain––another kind of rain

September 17, 2016

Friends of Willapa Refuge held a ‘Wonders of Willapa’ event at Tarlatt Unit today. The weather was wet, with steady rain during the morning and longer and longer breaks between rainy periods as the afternoon went on. We stopped by the site around 2 p.m., and walked out to the Tarlatt Slough viewpoint, where you can look north in clear weather to the Olympic Mountains. Not one peak was in sight today, low clouds obscured even the north bay. 

The view north along Tarlatt Slough:  Water and sky merge in the rain.

The highlight of the walk was multiple slug sightings. In some areas, there were slugs every three to five feet. Occasionally, there were three or more slugs within a couple of feet. 

Two Pacific Bananaslugs (lower left and upper center) and a Chocolate Slug (upper right).

I’ve walked in ancient forests in late February, in the rain, and stepped over a frog or salamander with ever step. We call these Salamander Rains, when the coldest temperatures of winter are easing into spring, the soil is thoroughly wet, the air is wet, and amphibians can easily move around from winter hideouts to spring mating streams and ponds. 

In late summer, after months of dry weather, the first soaking rains wet the ground, promote decay of drying vegetation, and voila! The slugs come out of their summer hideouts and frolic in the broad light of day, or so it seemed today. 

Low light, ample food (decaying leaves and fungi for Pacific Bananaslugs, introduced vegetation for Chocolate Slugs), and plenty of atmospheric moisture made this an ideal day for gliding and browsing by slugs, and while the calendar is not quite to Fall, it seems appropriate to name this an Autumnal Slug Rain––not a rain of slugs, but a rain that brings out the slugs. 

A buckskin Pacific Bananaslug, pale yellow and gliding over grasses on the dike.

Pacific Bananaslug, Ariolimax columbianus, is the largest native slug on the coast, commonly seen in forested areas. On the dike these slugs were many yards from the coastal forest, which is their usual habitat. Bananaslugs eat decaying vegetation, mosses and fungi.  The damp day and ample food lured more than one hundred bananaslugs out into the open for the first good noshing they’d had in wet daylight weather for many months. Coloration varied from pale yellow to ochre yellow, some with black spots (small to large), and others plain, or in local lingo, pinto, appaloosa and buckskin slugs. 

Another color form of Pacific Bananaslug, with black spots on an ochre brown body. 

Chocolate Slug, Arion rufus, is one of the larger introduced slugs in the Pacific Northwest. Colors vary from medium brown to very dark brown to black. Today we saw medium brown and very dark brown colorations. This slug is common in gardens, and rarely found in native forest. The dike is largely covered in introduced grasses and flowers, so it too was right at home, feeding in the open on a suitably wet afternoon. As with the bananaslugs, there were more than one hundred Chocolate Slugs in the short walk from the edge of the forest to the overlook area. 


Chocolate Slug, with a medium brown, milk-chocolate-colored body.
I did not see any native or introduced snails today. Shells provide them with some cover during dry seasons, allowing them to move a bit more freely than slugs can. 

Another Chocolate Slug, this one is more of a dark bitter chocolate brown color.



To read more about terrestrial mollusks, see the recent book, Land Snails and Slugs of the Pacific Northwest, by Thomas Burke, with photographs by William Leonard, OSU Press, 2013. There are dozens of native and introduced species in the coastal Pacific Northwest. As for rain terms, at last count, my rain words list has more than one hundred twenty terms. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ancient Trees, Young Trees, the Forest Abides

Kathleen Sayce, August 22, 2016

Last Saturday I walked in the ancient red cedar grove on Long Island. I first saw this grove in the 1970s while timber cruising on the island for the refuge. Forty-one years later, these trees are as magnificent as they were then. Their habitat is as complex and multilayered. This stand is a climax forest, and it richly expresses the diversity of a climax forest in a coastal temperate rainforest biome.  

What has changed most is the forest around the cedar grove. 

This stand along the trail from the beach at Smokey Hollow was too dense with young western hemlock to see into 40 years ago. Today, you can see sky among the canopies, and there are mosses and ferns on the ground, with young shrubs starting to grow in some spots. 

In the 1970s, most of the island had been logged and was regrowing as naturally sprouted western hemlock trees in dense 'dog hair' stands. These were young, many less than forty years old, and they lined the roads like green walls. No sunlight reached the forest floor. One could not see into the stands from the roads. I cored a few of those hemlocks four decades ago, and their growth rings were tiny, a few millimeters per year or less. 

Forty-one years later, natural loss has thinned the hemlock stands by more than seventy-five percent, leaving behind more widely spaced living trees that are three times as tall with trunks correspondingly bigger. Ferns and shrubs are scattered on the ground. Mosses now carpet the ground. Another two hundred years, and these young stands will be approaching solid middle age. Western hemlock trees live around four hundred years. 

As the stands of hemlock age, other trees will seed in, including Douglas-fir, red alder, Sitka spruce and, of course, western red cedar. When we walked these roads last weekend, it was easy to see more than one hundred feet into the forest all along the road.

The trail into the cedar grove has also opened up in the past 40 years. Sunlight reaches the forest floor. Ferns are lush. Some trees are more than 12 inches dbh (diameter at breast height, 4.5 ft from the ground) now. 


In the cedar grove, meanwhile, a few trees have died, one or two snags have fallen, and otherwise, the grove looks very much as it did then. There are abundant mosses on the ground, on logs and in the trees. There are layers of ferns and shrubs. Some of the shrubs are more than ten feet tall. There are young trees, many are hemlocks, with a few others. There are dozens of mature cedars, 850 to 900 years old. The oldest living trees are around 1200 years old. Study these trees, and you can see the signs of old nurse logs, where living trees now seem to be on their toes, hollows showing at the ground level where their supporting nurse logs have rotted away. Lightning scars are visible on many trees, signs of historic damage. 

Every tree species has a different feel as an elder, and when in groves. Here in the island cedar grove, the ancient trees are each distinctly different in shape, but all have multiple dead tops, showing the candelabra form that is distinctive to the coast.

More strikingly, these trees live close to the coast, a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, and this proximity shapes their form. They aren’t very tall, around 200 feet in height. Cedars can grow more than 300 feet tall. Winter storms, high winds and salt in the air kill the growing tips. Cedars respond by growing new tips, forming in time a crown of dead and living tops in the shape of a complex candelabra––candelabra cedars. The large trunks, often more than ten feet in diameter, rise in huge columns to these woody crowns. Shrubs, ferns and young trees sprout from pockets of soil and moisture, often one hundred or more feet in the air. 

A refuge manager here in the 70s, Joe Welch once told me that he was worried that there were so few young cedars in the stand. Dr. Jerry Franklin, a forest researcher who visited the grove soon after, told him not to worry. The cedars live such long lives that to them, the hemlocks are just passing through. Sitka spruces live eight hundred years or more, as do Douglas-fir, so the tree species  balance is not skewed to hemlocks over millennia. Cedars have been here for thousands of years, and will remain a major presence in this grove. 

Cedars may stand dead for many centuries before they fall to the ground, and then take more centuries to decompose. Living around one thousand years, the decomposition process also takes around one thousand years. There are logs in the grove that have been on the ground for hundreds of years, and still have bark firmly attached. 

A magnificent western hemlock snag, with pileated woodpecker holes, and polypore fungi fruits.

It is satisfying to know that natural forest processes are dominant here as they have been for at least four thousand, perhaps eight to ten thousand years. These aren’t sequoias or bristlecone pines, to individually live several thousand years, nor are they redwoods, which can resprout from the ground after fire, and live on after major wildfires, growing a new trunk and fresh canopy of leaves on old roots. 

During my own lifetime, I have watched logging trucks on the road, first with old growth, then with old second growth, and then, younger and younger trees. The average age of a conifer log on a logging truck now is less than thirty years. Knowing that this small grove, less than 300 acres, is preserved, intact, functional forest is also comforting. The cedar grove abides.  





Monday, August 15, 2016

Red Tide on the Columbia River

Kathleen Sayce, August 15, 2016

In mid summer on the Columbia River Estuary a color change appears in the water, red to purple, and persists into early fall. It’s a natural red tide, when billions of single celled animals, ciliated protozoans, called Myrionecta rubra (also called Mesodinium rubrum) bloom.  The bloom is particularly striking from the high span over the shipping channel, on the south end of the 101 bridge near Astoria. It is not toxic, but it is very red. 

The band of purplish-red water is a colorful streak of Myrionecta rubra cells, seen from the Astoria-Megler bridge on August 14th, 2016. 


The cells are less than 100 micrometers long, and have two rows of cilia between two round body sections, which give this tiny animal the swimming dexterity of a jet fighter. They look like two round balls of different sizes stuck together. The beating rows of cilia allow it to jump ten to twenty body lengths in one movement, which would be like a 6-feet-tall human jumping sixty to one hundred twenty feet. 

Seen under the microscope, they spin, dash and turn with amazing speed. The red color comes from a red alga that lives inside the cell.  The algae cells are not permanent residents; each cell lives around 30 days inside the protozoan. There may be several algae cells in each Myrionecta organism, and carbon fixed through photosynthesis by the algae feeds the protozoan. 

During warm, sunny weather the blooms form in long streaks in the Columbia River Estuary between the jetties to above (east) of the Astoria-Megler bridge. Sometimes they also form in Youngs Bay, and can be seen on that causeway and bridge. In some years, the entire river looks like it’s running with blood instead of water. Most years, the bloom is in streaks surrounded by otherwise normal-colored water, green to gray to blue. 

One spectacular year in the 1990s, the Myrionecta bloom in local waters coincided with a dinoflagellate bloom, of Ceratium species. Dinoflagellates are often golden to warm red in color. That year, the dinoflagellates were golden orange. The combination of strong red-purple and gold  from billions of organisms of different colors in different parts of the river gave the water a very weird red-orange color combination. Ceratium organisms gathered in warmer shallow water, and Myrionecta tended to the deeper waters of the main channels, so the colors were blended together in some areas, and distinctly separate in others. Both blooms stopped as the storm season got underway that fall.  

This species prefers lower salinity water, and warm weather. August and September are the usual months to see the long red to purple streaks. Cool storms disrupt the bloom in fall, and by mid to late October, unless weather has been unusually calm, it’s gone again for the year. Individual cells turn up in plankton samples throughout the year, however, it's only late summer to early fall when their numbers rise into the billions and become visible to us. 

Myrionecta has been seen and collected in the surf zone along the north coast beaches in Oregon and south coast beaches in Washington, on each side of the river. It’s also been found in Willapa Bay, and the Willapa and Palix Rivers. 


In Alaska, residents say that when the fireweed blooms, summer is almost over. Here, when we see the red tide of Myrionecta rubra on the Columbia from the Astoria-Megler Bridge, we know fall is going to arrive in a few weeks.