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May 2016

A Day at the Beach with George Poinar Jr.

The Pacific coast provides beach goers with amazing sites to see. From the cliffs high above, to the tide pools down below, there is something for everyone to enjoy. However, what many people overlook is the hidden world of plants, insects, and parasites. Luckily for us, we have our very own guide! Today we join George Poinar Jr. as he takes his grandchildren down to the beach on an adventure to meet some of the plants and creatures depicted in his new book, A Naturalist’s Guide to the Hidden World of Pacific Northwest Dunes.


Going down to the beach for a nature walk makes a fun day. The kids are excited and bring their pails for collecting shells, agates, bugs and anything else of interest.  

Chasing beach hoppers is always an attraction, especially when these little crustaceans roll up in a ball and let the wind roll them down the beach at great speeds. Watching the shore birds picking them out of the sand shows how important beach hoppers are in the ecology of the strand, since they also help decompose the seaweed.      

With an especially heavy deposit of seaweed, the kelp flies are swarming over the twisted stalks.  Lifting up some holdfasts of Bull kelp exposes the white fly maggots.  Black dots often cover the older kelp stalks. They represent miniscule springtails, so-called because these insects have a spring that, when released, propels them quickly out of sight.    

There is also a wide range of life associated with driftwood. Turning over some pieces near the high tide line reveals ground beetles of all shapes and colors. Many were predators that emerge at night to search for prey. Larger logs washed up onto the dunes make wonderful homes for termites and beetle larvae. Some larvae take years to develop, but emerge as the largest beetles in the Pacific Northwest.

There are always Sea Rocket plants. Notice their thick leaves that can withstand the constant battering of sand grains and the seed pods that can float in the sea for months and still germinate. Some caterpillars develop in the flower heads, but weave a silken net around themselves to keep from being blown away. Another survival technique is to live inside the leaves, like this little leaf-miner fly.

Further up into the dunes are the beautiful flowers of Beach pea. There are several caterpillars that feed on its leaves but my favorite is one that lives in the pods and relishes the seeds as much as we do garden peas.   

There is a small grove of coast willows that recently bloomed. Willows support so many different insects that they can be considered keystone species. This little weevil develops on pollen inside the male catkin. Many insects beside bees develop on pollen, which is an excellent source of protein.   

The willow sawfly that forms red leaf galls is one of my favorites. The galls are formed when a chemical is introduced into a leaf by an ovipositing sawfly. While the gall provides a wonderful home for the sawfly larvae, they are not completely protected.

Parasitic wasps insert their own eggs into the galls and their larvae dispatch those of the sawfly. Then there are beetles and caterpillars that patrol the leaves, opening the galls and devouring the occupants. The complexities of life surrounding these red willow leaf galls is amazing.    

Piles of plant debris often turn out to be ant homes and you can find red-headed dune ants scurrying all over them. Any animal that disturbs the nests is at their mercy and the ants will rush out and bite the intruder, at the same time spraying formic acid into the wound. The worker ants search for food and plant material and bring back captured caterpillars in their jaws. These nests are a world unto themselves since aside from developing ant stages, they are inhabited by crickets, nematodes and a host of other creatures. 

But dune ants do have their enemies. One ruthless predator is a little wasp that cruises back and forth over the nest, waiting for the right moment when an unwary ant is exposed. In a fraction of a second, the wasp dive-bombs, inserts its ovipositor and deposits an egg into the ant.  The worker ant continues to live for a while with the developing parasite inside, but eventually dies.

These are just a few of the dramatic events that unfold in the hidden world of the Pacific coast dunes.




Into the Thorofare: Traveling Through Time and Space

There are few experiences in life that are worse than isolation. We all need to have a connection to others and the things that we love. A sense of community is vital to our wellbeing and the best kinds of communities are the ones that we have a passionate connection to. Books can bring us together and allow us to travel through time and space, escaping whatever brings us pain and uncertainty. In his new book, A Week in Yellowstone’s Thorofare, Michael Yochim takes readers on a journey through his personal experiences exploring Yellowstone National Park’s Thorofare. Today, Yochim shares a passage from his Acknowledgements section in which he describes his own experiences with isolation and community while writing A Week in Yellowstone’s Thorofare.