Join Okanogan Highlands Alliance in learning about the ecosystems and wildlife of the Okanogan Highlands of north central Washington! In this podcast, scientists and educators share their stories and knowledge of the natural history of our unique area - the Okanogan Highlands. To learn more about OHA, please visit our website okanoganhighlands.org.
Wild Mushrooms of the Okanogan
Fungi, often only recognized as slimy masters of decay, make up a whole kingdom of life on Earth. They engage in all kinds of relationships with other species, they can be the size of football fields, or too small to see without a microscope, they exist in all shapes and colors, they live underwater, in the forest and in our food. While mushrooms are only one small part of a fungi's life - the fruit that emerges when conditions are just right to reproduce - they are a great way to recognize the diversity of fungal life when you are out in nature. It's not every day that we take time to appreciate the remarkable Fungi Kingdom, what fungi do to keep our world rolling along, and how little we really know about them. In this episode, Helen Lau, botanist with the US Forest Service, will pique your interest with all kinds of fungi facts, as we kick off Season 2 of the Highland Wonders Podcast.
A Story: Anna, Nature Detective, S2:E1 Wild Mushrooms of the Okanogan
Last year, Jack the Nature Detective took us along on his adventures in the Okanogan Highlands, as he explored with his family and learned all about local wildlife, from grouse to bats to owls to bighorn sheep to common loons. This year, Jack is off to kindergarten, and in a solemn ceremony that took place at the end of August, Jack presented his cousin, Anna, with her very own Nature Detective tools and an official badge. So let’s get to know Anna!
Anna is a different kind of Nature Detective than Jack. Where Jack is cautious and careful, Anna is daring and precocious, where Jack is quiet and observant, Anna spends half her time singing and the other half chatting. Where Jack is particular about calling things by their proper name, Anna makes up her own names for her discoveries. She LOVES animals, and she is the kid who can catch the cat that no one else can. She loves exploring things close up, touching them, peering at them through her Nature Detective hand lens. Sometimes, things that can’t run away suit Anna’s detective style best, and so, this month, Anna finds herself exploring the mushroom world!
“Hey mom, what are these slimy things?” Anna hollers from the back yard.
“Oh no, not again!” her mom is remembering back to the week before when Anna brought two heaping handfuls of deer droppings into the kitchen. She runs outside to find Anna poking at a perfect circle of mushrooms growing in the backyard. “Oh, how pretty!” Anna’s mom says “I think that’s called a fairy ring.”
Anna gasps, “A fairy ring? Made by fairies? Wow!” She pulls out her hand lens and looks at the top of one mushroom. It’s smooth, brown and slippery. She looks at the stem, tan and shaggy. Then she looks at the underside of the mushroom top. “Wow! What are those stripey things?” Anna and her mom look carefully at the mushroom, and then Anna draws what she sees in her notebook. Later on, they look in a book and find that the top of the mushroom is called the cap, the stem is called the stem, and the stripes underneath the cap are called gills.
“So...mushrooms have gills... like fish. And a cap, like an umbrella. And I don’t know why, but they grow in a circle like a fairy would make. I’ll this a Fairy Gillyhat!” Anna says. Anna and her mom go and wash their hands, because, as their book told them, some mushrooms can be poisonous. From that day on, Anna finds mushrooms all over the place - growing on tree trunks, in the grass, on logs in the forest, everywhere! But why are they everywhere? And why are some poisonous, but some you can eat? Anna has lots of questions, and luckily for her, Helen Lau, of the US Forest Service has lots of answers in the latest episode of the Highland Wonders Podcast!
Learn all about Wild Mushrooms of the Okanogan (or any Season 1 episodes that you may have missed) at: okanoganhighlands.org/education/highland-wonders/ or on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts.
Washington's Not-So-Common Loons
Who would have thought that our very own Okanogan Highlands is a great place to view one of the world’s most charismatic and endearing bird species? Although not many common loons nest in Washington any more, breeding pairs and chicks can be found on several highland lakes throughout the summer months and into the fall. This month’s Highland Wonders Podcast features Daniel and Ginger Poleschook - dedicated researchers, educators and advocates for common loons. They share what they have learned over 26 years of studying the species and getting to know the individual loons that inhabit our local lakes. Enjoy!
Jack, Nature Detective, Season 1, Episode 5: The Not-So-Common Loon
One warm spring day out on Bonaparte Lake, Jack the Nature Detective is fishing with his dad. Suddenly he hears a strange noise, “it sounds like a cross between a wolf’s howl and a chicken’s squawk.” Jack squints across the lake and he can’t believe what he is seeing! It’s a…a…penguin? It’s a very large bird, anyway, and black and white. What else could it be? Jack keeps watching. The bird is swimming around like a duck and keeps diving under water in a very penguin-like way. Jack is puzzled, though. He wonders aloud, “I thought that penguins live on the bottom of the globe, and we live closer to the top. If this is a penguin, it is very far from home. How could this be?”
From that day on, Jack watches his mystery bird friends often. There are two of them. He notices that they are good fisher-birds, and that they built a nest on a grassy tuft on the edge of the lake. One early summer day Jack sees something especially amazing. “Look!” he shouts. “One of the birds is carrying a fuzzy little baby on its back!” All of a sudden, the bird starts (what can only be described as) yodeling. She sounds scared and upset. Jack looks up and sees a bald eagle soaring above the lake. As the bald eagle is about to dive, Jack’s mom wades out into the lake waving her arms and yelling, “HEY! GET AWAY!” The eagle moves on, and the mama and baby glide away.
By this time, Jack is pretty sure this amazing bird is not a penguin, but he is still not sure what it could be. He decides, “It’s time to get to the bottom of this mystery.” Back at home, Jack gets to work with his favorite bird book, The Sibley Field Guide (it has, in the Nature Detective’s opinion, the best pictures). Soon Jack realizes that that his hunch was right – the mystery bird isn’t a penguin at all. It is a bird called the common loon! Now that he knows who they are, the Nature Detective can’t wait to learn more! Fortunately, the newest Highland Wonders Podcast is out, featuring Daniel and Ginger Poleschook, so Jack and everyone he knows can learn about common loons and what we all can do to protect them.
Stay tuned! Jack will continue to solve nature mysteries on topics related to upcoming episodes of the Highland Wonders Podcast. Episodes and stories can be found at: okanoganhighlands.org/education/highland-wonders/ or on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts.
The Secret Life of Bats
How do you feel when someone starts talking about bats? Warm and fuzzy? Uneasy? Disgusted? Cautiously curious? In the fourth episode of the Highland Wonders Podcast, The Secret Life of Bats, Roger Christophersen of the North Cascades National Park addresses our ideas about bats, and sparks a sense of wonder at these flying, fuzzy, leathery insectivores. To learn more about bats, how and where they live, and how we all can support bat populations (and why we should), check out the Highland Wonders Podcast wherever you normally get your podcasts! And now, a story from our intrepid Nature Detective. Enjoy!
Jack, Nature Detective: season 1, episode 4: The Secret Life of Bats
Jack’s family is enjoying a weekend camping in the highlands, escaping the heat of summer for a few days, and exploring the forests and lakes of the Okanogan. As they sit around the campfire, they notice something winging through the air in the little clearing, fluttering here and there. It’s flight pattern seems different from a bird, and the creature itself is bigger than the insects that Jack normally sees. “Eek! It’s a bat!” Jack’s mom exclaims. Jack gazes into the fire, thinking.
“What are bats, anyway?” Jack thinks about what he knows about bats, trying to sort them into a group with other animals he knows. Recently, he had a chance to get a close-up look at a bat during the day, as it clung to his house, sleeping. It was definitely fuzzy, with a pointy little snout.
“I don’t think they are birds because they don’t lay eggs. If they DID lay eggs, how would that even work? They hang upside down, and don’t have nests. The eggs would just crack on the ground! That would be bad.”
“Are they insects? Some insects are furry, like bumble bees. Maybe bats are insects?” Jack is not sure. He thinks, “Bees and other bugs don’t take very good care of their babies. But I heard that bat moms carry their babies around and feed them.” Jack glances over at his mom, who is giving his little sister a piggy back over to their tent. “Maybe bats are more like people. Mammals. Mammals?!? FLYING MAMMALS?!?! Is that possible?”
When they get home, Jack asks his mom to look up pictures of bats on the internet. One image of a bat skeleton pops up and Jack notices that the wing looks a lot like a hand - it even has a little thumb! He also notices their ears, “My what big ears you have, little bat!” Jack cackles at his own Little Red Riding Hood reference. So far, the evidence points to bats being mammals. But Jack still has a lot of questions. “Do bats have predators? Why do bats have big ears? Do they hibernate in the winter or go south like birds do? How high can they fly? I can’t wait to learn more!” Luckily, Roger Chistophersen, of the North Cascades National Park has the answers to some of Jack’s questions in the most recent, very fascinating, Highland Wonders Podcast!
Bighorn Sheep of the Okanogan
OHA is delighted to ring in the new year with Episode 3 of the Highland Wonders Podcast: Bighorn Sheep of the Okanogan. In this hour-long episode, Jeff Heinlen of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shares his fascinating expertise and entertaining stories of bighorn sheep, the history of the herds in our valley, and gives an update on how our local herds are currently doing. And now without further ado, a story from Jack, Nature Detective!
Jack, Nature Detective: season 1, episode 3: Bighorn Sheep of the Okanogan
Meet Jack, Nature Detective: Jack is inquisitive, skeptical, creative, quirky, determined, and a friend to ALL critters. His observations of subtle clues and brilliant reasoning make him, quite possibly, one of the world’s most talented nature detectives. Like most of us, Jack’s understanding of the world comes from his own life experiences. He is five years old, and his investigative skills are top notch. If you were to stop by his house you might find our Nature Detective in the midst of an experiential study of squirrel movement, or determining the optimal shelter and food stores for his new pet grasshopper, named Grasshopper. Today, we will share a mystery that Jack uncovered in the Okanogan Highlands. What clues can you uncover in the story?
“Hey dad, want to hear a riddle?” Without waiting for an answer, Jack recites, “What has a hard head, loves to climb and likes to lick salt?” His dad knows immediately: “Your sister.” “No!” Jack yells. “A wild great horn…” “...Owl?” his dad finishes for him. “No!” Jack yells again. “They have four legs, no wings, and huge, curly horns. We saw one on our hike today!”
Today Jack and his cousins adventured up the Whistler Canyon Trail near Oroville. After climbing the long, steep path, they stopped on a bench to catch their breath and look around. The kids brought their binoculars, so they scanned the hillsides and cliffs for signs of life – and there it was.
Silhouetted against the sky, high up on the edge of a cliff, an animal was standing very still. As Jack reported, it had four legs, a sturdy body, no wings, and a huge, curled head ornament. As they watched, the animal picked its way along the cliff, and the kids gasped to see it balancing so precariously on the rocks. “How does it not tip over? Its head looks so heavy!” Jack wondered out loud. “And how does it climb those rocks like that? I would fall!” As they watched, more animals “appeared” (they had been there the whole time but were so well camouflaged and so still that the kids hadn’t seen them). Some were laying down, others munching on something. Jack was curious why different animals had different size horns.
What was this amazing creature? Jack, the Nature Detective used his trusty process of elimination, “It can’t be a cat or a dog – they don’t have horns. It can’t be a goat – they are white, and live high in the mountains. Could it be a deer? Definitely not!” If there is one thing Jack knows, it is that: deer have antlers, sheep have horns.” Jack’s cousin, Fred adds, “Those have to be horns because antlers fall off, and those horns look like they have been growing for a loooong time.” The cousins decided that it must be a sheep! Elliot, who is a little older than the others, has seen signs along the road, warning drivers to watch out for “great horned...no, wait...bighorn sheep!” Jack, the Nature Detective is satisfied for now, but he is excited to listen to what Jeff Heinlen, from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, has to say about the bighorn sheep of Okanogan County. That should help him know for sure.
Grouse of the Okanogan
Learn a little bit about Okanogan Highlands Alliance and a lot about the grouse of the world, with special focus on the grouse species that inhabit Okanogan County, WA, with Dr. Michael Schroeder. Also, join Jack, the Nature Detective, as he explores the Okanogan Highlands in this story for kids of all ages:
“Look! A chicken!” Jack squawks. His little sister laughs, claps her hands, and hollers, “Let’s collect the eggs!” But Jack frowns, and says “Wait, hold on. It can’t be a chicken, that doesn’t make sense...” Jack and his family have just crossed a grassy field to get to the edge of a creek. They are looking for animal footprints in the new snow on an early winter day, and have just been startled by a heavy-bodied bird clattering away across the field. The bird didn’t go far, and it really didn’t fly very high. By Jack’s estimation, it only flew “about three cars high.”
“Where would a chicken come from? I don’t see any houses. Chickens need houses, and roosts, and nest boxes.” Jack gasps and his eyes get big, “Mom! Are there wild chickens? Or is this someone’s lost chicken? Or... is that not a chicken?” Jack thinks hard, “Time to collect clues. Nature Detective is on the case.”
This bird is smaller than the chickens that he knows from his grandma’s house. But the chickens he has seen fly three cars high, just like this bird. Jack thinks, “maybe it’s a baby, and that’s why it’s small. But... why would a baby chicken wander off on its own?” Jack has recently conducted a study of his grandma’s chickens and this is what Jack knows about chickens:
They can be lots of different colors.
They eat seeds and bugs.
They lay eggs, unlike bats, that have live birds.
Some chickens grow feathers right over their eyes so they can’t see.
The chicken facts that Jack knows sort of fit with the mystery bird, but it’s just too weird to see a chicken out in the wild. The family follows in the direction that the bird went, trying not to scare it again.
Jack stops and puts his binoculars to his eyes. He scans the branches of some trees along the creek. He scans the snow. He stops. “There it is!” Jack whispers. His mom, dad, and sister all put their binoculars to their eyes and aim the lenses where Jack is looking. There is a bird there, walking awkwardly right on top of the snow. “How does he do that?” Jack wonders. They can see that this is not a chicken. It is speckled, with bright yellow eyebrows, and it’s tail is too pointy to be a chicken. It could be a relative of a chicken. Suddenly the bird disappears. “Where’d he go? That’s not a chicken!” They decide to leave the bird alone, since winter is a hard time to be a wild bird.
When Jack gets home his dad pulls up their favorite website - Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Jack likes this website because he can search for birds by shape and color! It doesn’t take long for him to find a whole bunch of chicken-shaped birds with yellow eyebrows. He thinks his mystery bird was a grouse - but which one? Jack reviews his clues: a grassy habitat, smaller than a chicken, speckled, yellow eye brows, pointy tail, walking on top of the snow. “A sharptail grouse!” Jack hypothesizes. How can he know for sure? For more clues about whether Jack’s guess might be correct, and to learn all about the different types of grouse that live in the Okanogan, Washington and the world, check out this podcast episode, Grouse of the Okanogan, with Dr. Michael Schroeder.
Episode Credits: Presentation by Dr. Michael Schroeder, Grouse song by Julie Vanderwal with words by poet Will Nixon (find "My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse" and more at willnixon.com). Episode illustration by Diana Weddle. Theme song by Tyler Graves and Andy Kingham. Don't forget to check out OHA's website at okanoganhighlands.org for more information or to support our efforts to protect the Okanogan Highlands!
Great Gray Owls: the phantom of the north
Join Okanogan Highlands Alliance and Matt Marsh, wildlife biologist with the US Forest Service in Tonasket, Washington to learn about the biology of Great Gray Owls, the phantom of the north. We hope you also enjoy this accompanying story!
Jack, Nature Detective: inquisitive, skeptical, creative, quirky, determined, and a friend to ALL critters. His observations of clues and his brilliant reasoning make him, quite possibly, one of the world’s most talented nature detectives. Jack’s understanding of the world comes from his own experiences. He is five years old, and his investigative skills are top notch. If you were to stop by his house you might find the Nature Detective in the midst of an experiential study of squirrel movement, or determining the optimal shelter for his new pet grasshopper, named Grasshopper. Today, we will share a mystery that Jack uncovered in the Okanogan Highlands. What clues can you uncover in the story?
One day in October, Jack, the Nature Detective, is out on a hike in the Okanogan Highlands with his family. The needles of the Western Larch are lighting up the flank of Bonaparte Mountain with yellow, bright against the dark green of the other conifers. The afternoon is warm and Jack’s whole family is enjoying the way the sunbeams filter down through the forest canopy.
Suddenly, Jack detects something. His eyes open wide and he whispers, “Who’s out there? Mom? Is someone watching us?” Everyone stops and looks around, no one is there, just the quiet forest. But the whole family kind of feels like there is something there, so they come to a full stop and really look around. There is a fallen tree, leaning steeply against its neighbor. The trees are tall in this place - and big around. Some have broken off way up in the air. But no one sees any sign of eyes watching them.
Jack’s mom says, “Don’t worry, Jack. Sometimes when you are outside, it really feels like something is watching you. Maybe animals are watching. The creatures that live in these woods are adapted to be camouflaged here. The shapes of their bodies and their colors blend right into the shapes and colors of the forest. They stay very still, so our eyes just slide right past them without even seeing them. Their camouflage keeps them safe.” Just a little way farther on, Jack stops again, staring at small gray lumps that look a bit furry, and a little bit...bony. What is this? Does it have something to do with that creepy feeling of being watched?
This is a nature mystery and, fortunately, the Nature Detective is on the job. He pulls out his sample jars, some forceps, and a hand lens, and collects the gray lumps for analysis at home.
Back at home, Jack dons his lab coat, goggles, and protective gloves and examines the gray lumps. He uses the forceps to pull out a pile of tiny bones. He painstakingly counts the bones and declares that this is undoubtedly the droppings of a hungry rodent eater.
He considers his clues: forest habitat with big trees, snags, and leaning trees, a creature that eats rodents and lives in the Okanogan Highlands. He remembers that feeling of being watched. Jack’s hypothesis is that this nature mystery is an owl, but it could be a coyote, weasel, or snake, and he is not quite willing to dismiss the possibility that it could be a baby velociraptor or a saber tooth tiger. Do you think Jack’s owl hypothesis is correct? What other evidence would you need to verify Jack’s forest find? To learn more, check out this episode of Highland Wonders, produced by Okanogan Highlands Alliance. Great Gray Owls: The Phantom of the North, features Matt Marsh, wildlife biologist with the US Forest Service in Tonasket.
Stay tuned for more nature mysteries and more episodes of the Highland Wonders Podcast! And don't forget to check out our website at okanoganhighlands.org.
Love learning more about the animals of our valley, should be required for all who want to feel more connected to this wild and lovely corner of the globe.
Great Nature podcast
Fascinating podcast on all the critters in the forest. So you can be the brain guy around the camp fire that knows cool fact about cool animals.
Fantastic series that delves deep into natural history topics. Informative, rich with details, easy to absorb. A refreshing option, listen and learn!