Walk along the beach. All kinds of things wash ashore, including kelp.

Bullwhip Kelp washed ashore

There is a good chance you can find a fresh piece of dark olive-brown Bullwhip Kelp. Storms and strong waves will occasionally tear pieces of the plant and throw them onshore. Sometimes the rough water can destroy a whole kelp forest.  

The idea of a kelp forest might be new to you. They are very similar to land, or terrestrial, forests…just wetter. A kelp forest has a canopy which supports sun-loving organisms and leaves. It also has a partially-shady middle section (with a very strong stalk) and darkly-shaded seafloor which acts as a nursery for new plants.

Where Found

Bullwhip kelp grows on rocks found in low to subtidal zones at depths up to 100 feet. It prefers semi-exposed habits and high-current areas. Offshore beds in deeper water may persist for several years.

Bullwhip kelp is found along the North American Pacific Coast from Alaska south to northwest Baja California, Mexico.

Plant Parts

Like land plants, kelp has leaves or ‘blades’ that can reach up to 13 feet long and nearly six inches wide. These leaves form the canopy cover and are often produced annually. Blades hang on for up to 18 months (depending on the weather and other conditions).

Numerous blades (30-64) sprout from a floating bladder. This bladder contains carbon monoxide which helps keep the blades in the sunny canopy.

Bladders connect to a long hollow flexible stalk, or stipe, which resembles an enlarged whip (i.e., the name sake). The stalk is very strong and has a fist-sized holdfast (think root-like structure) that grips onto the rocks.

Ecosystem support

Kelp forests offer protection and food for a variety of species besides human. This includes urchins, fish, invertebrates such as shrimp, snails (like Black turban snails), and brittle stars and worms. Marine mammals include whales, otters, seals, and sea lions, and shore bird such as great blue herons, snowy egrets, and cormorants also depend on kelp.   

Gives a whole new meaning to ‘kelp bed’ eh?

Reproduction

Kelp can form large forests or small beds. Different species of kelp often grow together favoring different depths and exposure.  

Bullwhip kelp drops mature spore patches to the seafloor near the parent’s holdfast which creates dense forests. It is the only kelp to do that.

Uses

Bullwhip kelp is edible and can be enjoyed dried, raw and/or picked. For a pickle recipe see Monterey Bay Seaweed (http://www.montereybayseaweeds.com/the-seaweed-source/tag/bullwhip+kelp).

Pacific Northwest Coastal Tribes used the kelp for creating a number of different products such as fishing lines and nets, ropes, and lightweight storage containers. It was also used for steaming and shaping various woods to create halibut fishing hooks and Yew bows.

Fresh kelp could also be eaten or included in recipes for cakes, curry, and chutney. It has also been used for pharmaceutical supplies, poultry feed, dairy products, and finishing agents.

But wait there’s more…

There are theories that kelp forests may have helped colonize the Americas. I can hear the disbelief in your laughing from here…  

Suppose that huge kelp forests stretched from northeast Asia to the northern American Pacific coasts.

These forests could have provided food and game, and buffered rough water and potentially acted as a highway for ancient colonists (and not just humans).  

Next time you see this lowly plant washed ashore and shredded from a storm, consider… “Did this plant make it possible for you to wiggle your toes in the sand today?”

Perhaps without it, explorers may not have survived the treacherous trip here. Certainly, food for thought!

REFERENCES:
–Wikipedia, Nereocytis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nereocystis) and Kelp forests (…kelp_forests)
–Island Herbs (http://ryandrum.com/articlekelp.html)
–Bull Whip Kelp (https://bit.ly/2CINwuf)

And I’d like to give my love to everybody, and
let them know that the grass may look greener on the other side,
but believe me, it’s just as hard to cut.

Little Richard
Beachgrass in the sunset, royalty free, Unsplash

As environmental mis-steps go, planting European Beachgrass at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, in the late 1800s probably seemed like a great idea. This grass successfully stabilized dunes in Europe and North Africa and many agencies planted thousands of acres, much of it in Oregon.

It seemed like such a good idea

European Beachgrass forms stiff, hardy clumps of grass that can reach nearly four feet tall. A strong rhizome mat holds clumps erect and facilitate fast colonization across an area. One small clump can produce 100 new shoots annually.

This plant provided a faster way to stabilize sand dunes, had few pests and predators, and grows very densely. The grass changes the shape of a dune and overall native ecology by displacing plants and animals by creating higher, steeper curve on the ocean side of a dune. This decreases sand flow to interior dunes impacting the long-term development of the whole coastal ecosystem.

Beachgrass on dune, royalty free Unsplash

One tough grass

Not only does European Beachgrass grow fast and dense, but it will tolerate a number of adverse conditions. For instance, the plant will survive for extended periods of time when buried by sea water and/or sand. In such a disturbance, rhizome pieces will break off. These pieces begin growing in new sites.

It will also grow in a variety of conditions both in pH, mineral or chemical issues, temperatures, and as a perennial live many years. A fungus that grows on the grass, may also make dunes less fertile and thus less likely to support other plants.

The impact?

Beachgrass is one of the most pervasive exotic plant species threatening the West Coast. It is everywhere and not only creating problems for plants but animals such as the endangered western snowy plover by increasing predator cover.

This noxious weed grows from California north along the Pacific coast into British Columbia. This grass was also planted in New Zealand and Western Australia and is considered noxious.

Is it controllable?

Maybe. Interest in controlling began about 1980. Finding a method that is effective, inexpensive, minimally invasive to other native species, flexible enough to use on steep slopes, and acceptable to a wide variety of land owner/managers is a tough challenge.   

Several research projects have been underway for years looking at various removal techniques such as manual, mechanical, chemical, and fire alternatives. Other methods are still being sought.

REFERENCES:
–US Dept. of Agriculture (https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=AMAR4)
–California Invasive Plant Council (https://www.cal-ipc.org/plants/paf/ammophila-arenaria-plant-assessment-form/, https://www.cal-ipc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Cal_IPC_Symposium_2018_Monique_Silva-Crossman_Effects-_of_Ammophila_arenaria_removal.pdf, and https://www.cal-ipc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/1997_symposium_proceedings1934.pdf)
–Wikipedia, Ammophila Arenaria (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammophila_arenaria)
–AZ Quotes (https://www.azquotes.com/quotes/topics/greener-on-the-other-side.html)

‘Little grass shack’

This 1930’s Hawaiian song kicked off a multi-ethnic music craze perfect for the Western Meadowlark.

Western Meadowlark (courtesy ODFW)

Female Western Meadowlarks build a ground nest that is often covered by a woven grass roof — a ‘Little Grass Shack’ so to speak.  

The ‘little grass shack’ nest is a small hollow hidden in dense grass cover. The shack has an entrance tunnel that may extend several feet with several narrow trails leading to it.

Identifying

Visually, this medium-sized bird sports a dapper Herringbone-like plume with a black V-lapel and yellow vest.  This color and pattern palette helps camouflage the birds in the open grasslands.  

Habitat and Range

Western Meadowlarks call meadows, fields, desert shrub-steppe, marshes, and agricultural grasslands home throughout their range. Low-growing vegetation provides foraging cover.

Western Meadowlarks are widely distributed from southern Canada to central America; and from the Mississippi River west. Many birds are permanent residences and breed along the Oregon coast.  

Food

Meadowlarks forage on the ground looking mostly for a wide variety of bugs, seeds, and berries. In the winter, the birds will often forage in mixed flocks of blackbirds and starlings. Winter diet often focuses on seeds and grains.

Meadowlarks, like other blackbird family members, use a feeding behavior called “gaping.” They drive their sharp, pointy bill into the soil, bark, etc. They use strong jaw muscles to force the material open. This hole provides access to foods other birds can’t reach.

Predators

Ground nests are inadvertently destroyed during mowing, and weather (droughts) can be very tough on nestlings.

Bird Song

Six states recognize the western meadowlark as their State Bird, including Oregon. In 1927, Oregon selected the Western Meadowlark as their State Songbird.

Western Meadowlark song is significantly more complicated and flute like compared to other closely related birds.

Males defend their breeding territory by singing. They often sing from the tops of fences, shrubs, and powerlines.

A Party in a Grass Shack?

The little grass shack this bird builds is quite unique, just like the Hawaiian song “Little Grass Shack.” This song is one of Hawaii’s “50 Greatest…” and featured in many movies, performances, and recordings.

The song features one full line in Hawaiian “Komo mai no kāua i ka hale welakahao.” This line or Dolly Parton’s 1987 interpretation may be a great way to remember this unique bird.

She translated the line as Come to my house, we’re gonna party!” Maybe that is what the male birds are really singing about.

REFERENCES:
–Western Meadowlark (https://myodfw.com/wildlife-viewing/species/blackbirds-grackles-and-orioles)
–Audubon Society, Western Meadowlark (https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/western-meadowlark)
–Wikipedia, Western Meadowlark (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_meadowlark) and (…My_Little_Grass_Shack_in_Kealakekua,_Hawaii)
–All About Birds, Western_Meadowlark (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/western_meadowlark)