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NatureSpeak Articles

Chairlift Naturalist

Riding a chairlift gives you a unique perspective. Besides allowing you to more fully enjoy the radiant sunshine (or 100 km/h blizzard) it also shows you a continuous panorama of tree tops. Next time you ride the chair, take a look at the trees as you pass by.

On the upper part of the mountain (above the Wizard on Blackcomb, or the Creekside Gondola on Whistler) most trees will be either subalpine firs or mountain hemlocks. A good way to tell them apart is by their cones (see the photos above). Subalpine firs’ cones look like purple cobs of corn growing upward from the top branches. The smaller, brownish-orange cones of mountain hemlocks hang downward and are more numerous.

Back on the forest floor, mountain hemlock cones can blanket the ground, but fir cones are very rare. The reason we don’t often see them (except from a chairlift) is because they usually disintegrate on the tree and leave only the central stem (which some mistake for toadstools). One exception is when squirrels are stocking up for winter and gnaw off the cones to drop to the ground like bombs. (If you hear gnawing, duck!).

Another distinguishing feature for trees is whether their topmost part — called the leader, or apical meristem — is erect or droops. In our area there are only four species whose leaders droop: western and mountain hemlocks, western redcedar, and yellow-cedar. If you are high on the mountain and trying to figure out which is which, you can eliminate western hemlock and redcedar since they are low-elevation species.

Yellow-cedars are much less common than mountain hemlocks, and can be distinguished by the shaggy whitish bark and the hanging, scale-like leaves that make the tree look a bit like it just got out of the shower.

Upcoming Events:

Feb. 24 – Monthly Speaker Series. Max Gotz presents "The role of banding in bird conservation." Myrtle Philip School lounge; 7-9 p.m.

March 4 – Monthly Bird Walk. Meet at the base of Lorimer Road at 8 a.m.

Written by: Bob Brett


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