This is a blog about the native conifers of the Pacific Northwest. It is a companion to the Northwest Conifers site. The blog will focus on timely and interesting details about our conifers, their connections to the rest of the environment, and our connection to them.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Sugar Pine

John Muir called sugar pine the “King of the Pines.” It is the tallest of all the pines and can grow to over 200 feet. You can easily recognize it by its super long cones, which are longer than the cones of any other conifer, up to 20 inches long. Unlike the curved cones of western white pine, sugar pine cones are mostly straight. They have large seeds, but the seeds have large wings, so they can float long distances on the wind.

Sugar pine is primarily a California tree, growing throughout the mountains of the state. However, it has made inroads into the Cascades of Oregon. Some grow as far north as the Mount Hood National Forest, east of the Bull of the Woods Wilderness. 

Sugar pine is a white pine with needles growing in bundles of five. The needles are bluish-green, with stomatal bloom on all three sides. Like other white pines native to the Pacific Northwest, it has been decimated by white pine blister rust. Fortunately, foresters have found trees that are resistant to the disease. Sadly, most of the large sugar pines were cut down for lumber by 1950.

Sugar pine is named after the sweet resin that oozes from wounds to the tree. According to John Muir, the sap is better than maple sap. He thought Native Americans ate it but Aljos Farjon* notes that they chewed it like chewing gum. Note to anyone wanting to eat it: It is also a laxative. However, Native Americans did eat the seeds, which are as large as the seeds of the stone pines. You can buy stone pine seeds at your local grocery, where they are sold as pine nuts. They are tasty, but likely to deplete your bank account.

David Douglas gave sugar pine its scientific name, Pinus lambertiana, named after British botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert. Following the directions of a Native American, Douglas found a sugar pine October 26, 1826 and wrote this account of that adventure in his journal:

The large trees are destitute of branches, generally for two-thirds the length of the tree; branches pendulous, and the cones hanging from their points like small sugar-loaves in a grocer’s shop, it being only on the very largest trees that cones are seen, and the putting myself in possession of three cones (all I could) nearly brought my life to an end. Being unable to climb or hew down any, I took my gun and was busy clipping them from the branches with ball when eight Indians came at the report of my gun. They were all painted with red earth, armed with bows, arrows, spears of bone, and flint knives, and seemed to me anything but friendly. I endeavoured to explain to them what I wanted and they seemed satisfied and sat down to smoke, but had no sooner done so than I perceived one string his bow and another sharpen his flint knife with a pair of wooden pincers and hang it on the wrist of the right hand, which gave me ample testimony of their inclination. To save myself I could not do by flight, and without any hesitation I went backwards six paces and cocked my gun, and then pulled from my belt one of my pistols, which I held in my left hand. I was determined to fight for life. As I as much as possible endeavoured to preserve my coolness and perhaps did so, I stood eight or ten minutes looking at them and they at me without a word passing, till one at last, who seemed to be the leader, made a sign for tobacco, which I said they should get on condition of going and fetching me some cones. They went, and as soon as out of sight I picked up my three cones and a few twigs, and made a quick retreat to my camp, which I gained at dusk.**


See also

Sugar pine at Northwest Conifers

Sugar pine at Wikopedia

Conifers of the World, James Eckenwalder

*A Handbook of the World’s Conifers, Aljos Farjon

** Sugar pine at the Gymnosperm Database


Friday, November 13, 2020

Bird Calls

 One of the great gifts to hikers in the Pacific Northwest is the sound of birds in the forests. Even if you are not a dedicated birder, you can enjoy their chatter. However, you can enhance the experience if you can recognize the calls and songs of different birds. Bird songs are mostly heard in the spring and summer, so fall is a good time to focus on simple calls. Here are some of the calls of common birds heard in the forests of the Northwest. 

American robin. The American robin is a familiar sight in both cities and forests. It has a large vocabulary. The “tut,” “peak," and “whinny,” here are the most common calls. You will commonly see robins pulling earthworms from your yard.
Steller’s jay. Has a series of loud, harsh calls, often in conifer forests. The first three here are common. They also imitate other birds, especially red-tail hawks, probably a good strategy to clear their territory of competing species. Steller’s jays eat conifer seeds, nuts, acorns, and berries. 

Northern flicker. This call is similar to the typical call of a Douglas squirrel. Like most woodpeckers, the northern flicker also drums on trees to communicate with other birds.

Pileated Woodpecker.
This large woodpecker has a loud “cuk cuk cuk cuk” call that echoes through the woods. You can recognize it by its bright red cap. “Pileated” is Latin for “capped.”

Crows are common in cities, often in large flocks, so its “caw” call is all too familiar. 

The common raven is larger and its call is deeper and more resonant. Its translation is “Nevermore.” Ravens are often seen in pairs.

This is one of my favorite little birds, but it is very self-centered: It keeps saying its name, sometimes adding “dee dee dee” at the end. You may hear any of these, but the black-capped chickadee is the most common:
Black-capped chickadee
Chestnut-backed chickadee (pictured)
Mountain chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch. Like the knights* who say “Nee,” this little bird also says “Nee,” but much more softly. Also, it never demands a shrubbery. You can see it walking down the trunk of trees eating small insects as it goes.

*Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Spotted Towhee. This ground feeder looks similar to a robin, but it is slightly smaller. It seems to have a hearing deficiency, because it keeps saying, “What?” 

Walk quietly and listen for these birds when hiking in our forests. You may hear some friendly voices calling from the trees.


More info

A Beginner’s Guide to Common Bird Sounds


All About Birds

Birding by Ear

Tuesday, October 27, 2020


When walking in the woods, be sure to listen for the sounds of forest creatures. If you do, you may hear the high-pitched call of a chipmunk. It sounds similar to the excited call of a robin. You can hear the calls here:

Townsend’s chipmunk
National Geographic Guide to Chipmunk Noises

Chipmunks are magical leprechauns of the squirrel family. If you have ever watched them, you cannot help but wonder at the movements of these sprites. They move so quickly, it is as if they don’t move at all, but disappear from one place and instantly reappear in another. Running is a series of these magical appearances. The other magic trick of chipmunks is stuffing nuts in their cheeks. Just when you think a chipmunk's cheeks are stuffed full, it stuffs another one in. Then in an instant, it is off to store the nuts in its burrow.

Chipmunks are smaller than the Douglas squirrel. You can identify a chipmunk by the stripes on its back and the sides of its little face. Chipmunks live in our conifer forests and are adept at tree climbing. But they prefer to be near the ground and construct burrows underground. They feed on berries, nuts and seeds, but they don’t fatten up for hibernation like ground squirrels. Instead they store food in their burrow for winter. During their partial hibernation, they wake up from time to time to eat from their cache of stored food. In the spring, they emerge from the burrow at about the same weight as they were in the fall.

Three species of chipmunk are native to the Pacific Northwest:

  • The Townsend’s chipmunk (Neotamias townsendii) is the only species native to western Oregon and Washington. It’s about 10 inches long from its nose to the tip of its tail, about 3 inches shorter than a Douglas squirrel. At lower elevations, it is active throughout the year. You can see them in winter, perhaps munching on a fungus. All the photos here are of the Townsend's chipmunk.
  • The yellow pine chipmunk (Neotamias amoenus) lives from the summit of the Cascades to large areas of eastern Oregon and Washington. It’s about 8 inches long, 2 inches shorter than the Townsend’s chipmunk.
  • The least chipmunk (Neotamias minimus) lives east of the Cascades in Oregon and in central Washington. This chipmunk can survive in dry desert areas where no water is available. It’s nearly 8 inches long, slightly smaller than the yellow pine chipmunk.

Listen for these chipmunks when you are hiking in the woods. When you hear one, stop and look carefully. You may see it scurrying around in the bushes or sitting on a fallen log. Perhaps you can catch the magic of its movements.


More info

“Mammals of the Pacific States,” Lloyd G. Ingles, Stanford University Press.

Chiipmunks on Wikipedia