Have you checked out North Creek Forest, one of Bothell’s newest City Parks? Not yet, you say? Maybe you’re not sure how to find it or didn’t realize it was open to the public? Well, it is open, and you can explore it on your own or through a community program offered by Friends of North Creek Forest.
As far a City Parks go, North Creek Forest is unique. It doesn’t offer swing sets, paved pathways or a well-marked parking lot. Instead, this 64-acre parkland (with trees nearing the 100-year-old mark) provides cushiony earth beneath your feet, the fresh aroma of ferns and cedars, and tiny streams whispering through ravines. North Creek Forest paves the way for stepping out of city life and into a lush woodland setting -- without having to drive 50 miles or more to a mountain forest
In addition to offering a nature fix, this old forest will patiently teach us delightful lessons, if we're willing to learn. On a recent walk with a friend, I learned how to “read” a story sword ferns tell us about life, death and survival.
Consider visiting the forest and reading this story too—all it takes is some time, a friend (the buddy system is always a good idea when hiking) and keen observation skills. Here’s how:
Next time you are walking through the forest, start noticing the sword ferns. These handsome, sprawling ferns are easy to spot. Older ones have very large (2-4 feet long), leathery, dark-green fronds and grow abundantly along the trail edges in North Creek Forest.
For an easy way to remember their name, look closely at one of the leaflets attached to the frond’s long, arching stem (see photo below). Kind of looks like the type of sword that the pirate Jack Sparrow might brandish, doesn’t it? It's even got the handle at the bottom!
Most of the time these ferns cover the forest in an uninterrupted flow of dark green, but keep your eyes peeled for thick, cakey white stuff that stands out against the green. It’s surprising how obvious the white goop is once you know to look for it. Typically, you'll find these “whitewashed” ferns beneath tall trees (like Douglas Firs, Bigleaf maples or Western Cedars). Very often the trees’ trunks and nearby plant buddies are covered with white splotches too.
The day my friend and I were hiking, we came upon the whitewashed sword fern in the photo below.
Any guesses as to what the white splotches are?
If you said “bird poo,” you’re right. In fact, ferns and undergrowth peppered with white feces are often a sign that some kind of bird has been hanging out in the tree branches high above. I love spotting these ferns. I immediately begin imagining an owl perched up there, eyes sealed shut for a daytime nap or wide open at night, scanning the forest floor for four-legged food.
All kinds of birds have white poo, not just owls, so if you want to confirm that the whitewash indicates an owl’s daytime roost or nighttime feeding station, you’ll need to do a little more exploring. Owls eat small rodents, bugs and birds, but their bodies can’t digest the fur, bones, teeth, feathers or insect shells of these snacks. So, they eject the indigestible byproducts in the form of pellets (vomit balls), which can be as small as a grape or much larger (up to 4 inches). When you spot whitewash, snoop around. See if you can find an owl pellet.
My friend and I did just that — and after less than a minute of searching, found a large pellet! It had landed smack dab in the center of an Oregon Grape plant. Tiny bones (hollow ones – a small bird, perhaps?) and feathers were easily visible with the naked eye.
I wish I’d had a magnifying glass, gloves, tweezers and a biology teacher along. I don’t know how to “read” owl pellet, but I do know that dissecting it would have offered us more clues about the forest inhabitants--information like the kinds of owls, small animals or bugs inhabited the woods. Alas, we had none of the above, so had to be content with a photo.
The moral of this story? Check out North Creek Forest. Go slowly, and take time to learn about and notice clues about the different forest inhabitants. You never know what story you’ll end up reading in this beautiful wooded parkland.