Ecosystem in Peril: Oak Woodlands of California

Santa rosa plateau with snow-capped San Bernardino mountains in the background.

Santa rosa plateau with snow-capped San Bernardino mountains in the background.

California, the instant you hear that name, it conjures up images of palm trees, golden sand beaches and the glitz of hollywood but very few realize that it is one of the biodiversity hotspots in the world. Stretching from southwestern Oregon all the way down to northern Baja California in Mexico, this portion of the pacific coast is designated as the “California floristic province”. This region boasts plant species that are not found anywhere in the world. The flora here ranges from majestic Sequoia’s (Sequoiadendron giganteum) to beautiful ground pinks (Linanthus dianthiflorus). Today, only 24% of the original habitat remains and even these remaining areas are under tremendous pressure from development.

Engelmann Oak Woodlands


A lone Engelmann oak in Santa Rosa plateau.

The ecosystems that california floristic province encompasses is varied as it is beautiful. One of the rarest of these ecosystems is the Engelmann oak woodlands. Found only along a narrow stretch in Southern California from Pasadena to Northern Baja California in Mexico, Engelmann oak’s are one of the rarest trees found in California. One of the best examples of this ecosystem can be found in Santa rosa plateau, in Riverside county close to the city of Murrieta. Every spring, the rolling grasslands here springs to life with a multitude of wild flowers colouring these hills in subtle hues of pink, blue and yellow.

 Nemophila menziesiiLinanthus dianthiflorusSisyrinchium bellum

A strikingly beautiful and delicate endemic that blooms in profusion here is the ground pink (Linanthus dianthiflorus). Found nowhere else in the world, these tiny plants bloom in open sandy areas in chaparral, sage scrub and grasslands between February to April.


One of the most common flowers in Santa rosa plateau are the blue-dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum). The corms of these plants was once an important source of starch for the first nations. Other flowers found here include the Johnny jump-up (Viola pedunculata), chocolate lilies (Fritillaria affinis), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium spp.) and baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) to name a few.

Threats to Oak Woodlands

The mesas where these woodlands are found are under tremendous development pressures. Traditionally, the Oak woodlands were converted to rangelands for livestock and in recent years large-scale housing development is slowly destroying the remaining woodlands. Furthermore, highly invasive weeds such as yellow starthistle (Centaurea solstitialis) and medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusae) are choking out the fragile native species. The remaining woodlands will be lost forever if steps are not taken to reverse the unchecked development.

Useful links and Further Reading

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Ecosystems In Peril: The Coastal Douglas Fir forests of British Columbia


Forests in British Columbia seems to stretch forever. To someone who is seeing these forests for the first time, it seems like they have remained untouched since the beginning of time. But, even the remotest stands of pristine old-growth forests has been logged and only scattered patches of these forests remain today. Even these remnant old-growth forests face intense logging and development pressures.

Coastal Douglas-fir Ecosystem


Stands of Fir and Arbutus at one of the best remaining Coastal Douglas Fir ecosystem at the Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC.

A little more than a year ago,  I hiked through a beautiful forest in the suburbs of Victoria with a very good friend of mine. I wandered through that forest in awe without realizing that I am in one of the last remnants of an unique ecosystem known as the Coastal Douglas fir ecosystem. These forests are found as narrow band in the southeastern Vancouver Island, Gulf Islands and in the mainland along Georgia Strait.

This unique forest is a result of a milder climate that exists due to the rain-shadow effect of the Olympic mountains. The dominant tree in this forest is the majestic Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). Other trees in these forest include the Western red cedar (Thuja plicate) found in the wetter areas, the beautiful Arbutus and the gnarly Garry Oaks (Quercus garryana) found in  the much drier, mineral rich rocky outcrops.

Every spring, the understory of the Coastal Douglas fir forests comes alive with a beautiful carpet of wild flowers. The spectacular display of wild flowers is short lived but the sheer number and the diversity of this floral display is mind-boggling.

Flowers of the Coastal Douglas fir forest

Fawn lilySkunk CabbagePink fawn lily

Flowering season starts early in this part of the world. As early as in February, in the soggy wet areas of the forest, skunk cabbages start flowering with their unmistakable odour and bright yellow flowers. All over the forest floor, Western trillium’s (Trillium ovatum) and fawn lilies (Erythronium spp.) put up a dazzling display sometimes covering the whole forest floor with milky white flowers.


A Western Trillium from the Mill Hill Regional Park, Victoria, BC.

These forests are also home to an amazing variety of delicate orchids such as the Coralroots (Corallorhiza spp.), Goodyera (Goodyera spp.), Lady’s tresses (Spiranthes), Rein orchids (Piperia spp.) to name a few. One of the striking orchids of these forests are the diminutive calypso orchids (Calypso bulbosa). These beautiful pink orchids are found in shaded and undisturbed areas of the forest. Since these orchids are very sensitive to any disturbance, they have been classified as a vulnerable species.

Calypso orchidPhantom orchidCalypso orchid

The coastal douglas fir forests is also home for one of the rarest orchids in the pacific northwest. Phantom orchid (Cephalanthera austiniae) is a pure white, strikingly beautiful orchid that are found only in mature, old growth forests. These orchids have no chlorophyll and depend on the symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi for its nutrition. Phantom orchids are extremely rare and is a red listed species in Canada.

VioletWestern red columbineTiger lily

Throughout spring and summer various wild flowers carpet these forests. Western red columbine (Aquilegia formosa) and Columbia lily (Lilium columbinum) can be seen growing on the moist and shaded areas of the forest. Wetter areas and stream banks are lined with violets (Viola spp.) and different species of ferns.

Threats to Douglas fir forests

Nearly 95 % of the original douglas fir ecosystem in British Columbia has been lost to development and logging. The remaining forests still face intense development pressures and have been highly fragmented. Some of the best examples of the coastal douglas fir ecosystem can be seen at the Royal Roads University near Victoria, the Cathedral grove forests near Port Alberni and the East Sooke Park in Sooke.

Useful links and Further Reading

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The Realm of the Great Bears

Mist shrouded forests on the steep slopes of mountains along Knight inlet.

Shrouded in mist and carpeted in emerald green forests, the fjords and mountains of coastal British Columbia is home to some of the magnificent creatures that roam our planet today. These fjords are part of the Insular Mountain ranges that were formed by the violent collision of volcanic islands with the North American continent. During the last ice age these mountains were covered with glaciers that ground its way to the Pacific creating a complex network of deep channels and inlets. The Western slopes of Insular mountains receive very high rainfall (up to 300 cm/year in some areas) resulting in luxuriant growth of vegetation with trees that are moss-laden and epiphytes clinging to every branch. These temperate rainforests supports the growth of some of the world’s tallest trees such as the Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicate), Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis), Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Coast Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).

The Great Bear Rain Forest

The temperate rain forests that cloaks these mountains extends from Southern Alaska to Northern California. In the mid-90s several environmental groups campaigned to protect about 14,000 square kilometres of these pristine forests from clear cut logging. This region of the temperate rainforest that was earmarked for conservation was named the “Great Bear Rainorest. One of the magical creatures that roam certain areas of these forests is steeped in mythology and revered by the First Nations communities. According to one Tsimshian legend, Whe-Ghet the Raven, the creator of the world, decided to keep Moksgm’ol on earth to remind people of the times when the whole world was covered with ice and snow. Moksgm’ol is the Tsimshian word for a spirit-like, magical white black bear that is commonly known to us as the Spirit bear or the Kermode bear (Ursus americanus kermodei). Spirit bears are born to regular black bears and are born white due to a recessive gene. Only 1 in 10 black bear cubs are born white and there are probably 300 to 1000 spirit bears in the Great bear rain forest today. The spirit bear represents a flagship species in conservation of the Great Bear Rainforest. However, there is one species that lies central to all the life in the forest. Beginning its life in the pristine fresh water pools in the mountain streams and rivers, they migrate down to the ocean only to return as adults to the exact spawning pools where they’re born to repeat the cycle. The Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus sp.) has supported the people, the animals and the forests itself for eons. Each fall the whole forest waits for thousands of migrating salmon to arrive for spawning. The salmon and its eggs provide a feast for every creature that inhabits these forests. The rigour of migration and spawning takes a toll on their bodies and saps the life out of them.

A dead Chum Salmon in Gold stream river, Gold stream provincial park, Canada. (Note: Gold stream park is not part of the Great Bear Rainforest).

After spawning, the salmon die where they were born. Even in death salmon provide vital nutrients to the nearby forests. Squabbling sea gulls, eagles, bears, wolves and other creatures drag the dead and dying salmon deep into the forest where they decompose releasing essential nutrients rejuvenating the entire forest.

The Knight Inlet 

At the Southern end of the Great Bear Rainforest lies one of the largest inlets in British Columbia, the Knight Inlet. Carved out by glaciers thousands of years ago, this beautiful inlet is one of the longest in British Columbia, with its sides lined with towering peaks. The mouth of the inlet opens into an area that abounds in marine life. Porpoises, dolphins, sea lions and seals roam these straits. But, one animal reigns supreme in these waters. The killer whales (Orcinus orca) travel in small groups known as “pods” hunting for fish, marine mammals and even sharks. Three races or types of killer whales have been identified along the west coast of Canada and the United States. The residents are the most common type found in the waters near Knight Inlet. These killer whales feed exclusively on fish and squids. The second type are the transients. They travel in smaller groups compared to that of residents and actively hunt marine mammals. Transients do not eat fish. The third and the least studied type of killer whale is the off-shore type. They are found in open waters and form large groups  up to 200 individuals. The off-shore killer whales feed on fishes, mammals and have even been known to actively hunt sharks.

Transient killer whales in the waters of Knight Inlet near Telegraph Cove, Canada.

Birds abound these rich waters. Different species of sea gulls can be seen flying and floating lazily picking up scraps thrown out by fishermen and hunting for food when the opportunity arises. Apart from the sea gulls, these inlets harbour a wide variety of sea birds such as the Common Murre, Common loons, Rhinoceres auklets, Pigeon Guillemot and Cormorants to name a few.

A bald eagle on a perch in Glendale cove.

With a wingspan over six feet and talons like fish hooks, the Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a formidable hunter in these inlets.Even though they are partial to fish, these mighty birds are known to hunt a variety of other birds including birds as large as the beautiful Blue Heron.

The Blondes of the Glendale Cove

A mother grizzly and her cub on the banks of Glendale river, Glendale cove, Canada

Numerous glacier fed rivers and streams flow down into these inlets creating unique habitats that sustain one of the largest land carnivore in this planet. The grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) once roamed all of North America, but now they are confined in an ever shrinking habitat threatened by development and sports hunting. The inaccessible inlets of the Great Bear Rainforest remain one of the last bastion of this magnificent species. The Glendale Cove is  part of one such inlet lying at the southern end of the rainforest boundary. The Glendale River empties into the cove creating an unique habitat that is dominated by Lyngby sedge (Carex lyngbyei). In early spring, the grizzlies move down from their hibernation dens in the mountains to the mouth of the Glendale River to feed on fresh sedges. These plants provide them with essential nutrients until the salmon run starts in the fall. In fact, almost 80 % of the grizzly’s diet is composed for sedges, berries and other plants.

Grizzly cubs at play in Glendale river, Glendale Cove, Canada.

Early spring is also when the female grizzly’s bring their cubs down to the estuary. The protective mothers keep the cubs at  a very safe distance from big males while grazing on the sedges and foraging for sea-life on the shores. The cubs remain with their mothers for about two years before setting off on their own. The male cubs can grow to an average weight of about 400 to 790 pounds and occasionally some males can weigh as much as 1500 pounds. Females are much smaller and some females can weigh as little as 220 pounds. Grizzlies have vast home territories making them vulnerable to the Impact of forest fragmentation. Furthermore, sport hunting is also taking a toll of these majestic animals that once ruled most of North America.

Threats to the Rainforest

Clear cut logging is one of the most immediate threat to the Great Bear Rainforest. Even today large swathes of pristine old growth forest are being clear-cut with little concern to the impact that it has on the ecosystem. Recently, the Government of Canada has proposed to build an oil-pipeline that will traverse the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. A leak from these pipelines or an oil-tanker accident would destroy this unique ecosystem to irreparable levels. If immediate conservation measures are not taken we will lose these great forests forever.

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Born of Fire: The Garry Oak Meadows of British Columbia

Last summer I was having a conversation with my friend about native flora of British Columbia. I was quite disappointed that summer since most of the flower pictures I took turned out to be invasive and non-native species. For the first time during that conversation I heard the term “Garry oak meadows”. A little research about the Garry oak meadows had me itching to go see this unique ecosystem. But, I had to wait for a year since it was almost the end of the flowering season. Fast forward a year and in April 2011 I got my first opportunity to see this unique ecosystem.

The Garry Oak Meadows

Garry oak meadows are a part of the Coastal Douglas Fir ecosystem that occurs as a narrow strip along the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island in the rain-shadow of the majestic Olympic Mountains of Washington State in the U.S and the Vancouver Island ranges. These mountains block the moisture-laden clouds making the Garry Oak ecosystem tinder-dry in summers and mild and wet (not as wet as other regions of the Pacific North-West) in winters. The Garry oak meadows are sparsely forested and are dominated by the gnarly Garry oak trees (Quercus garryana). Other trees that are found here include the beautiful and the threatened Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii) and the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). The understory is composed mainly of grasses, shrubs and other herbaceous plants.


Fire and the Garry oak Ecosystem

Garry oak meadows are not entirely natural. The Vancouver Island Coast Salish people used controlled burning to keep these meadows open to allow the growth of Camas (Camassia spp.). The bulbs of Camas were an important food source for the Coast Salish. The Garry oak meadows maintained by the Coast Salish were of the deep soil type and are know as the Parkland Garry oak ecosystem. Nearly 95% for these Parkland Garry oak meadows has been lost to urban development and agriculture. The majority of the Garry oak meadows found now are the Scrub oak ecosystem that occurs in rocky habitats with shallow soil. Natural fire from lightning strikes probably played a major role in keeping these meadows open and free of large trees encouraging the growth of numerous flowering plants.

Flowers of the Garry oak meadows

The Garry oak meadows is one of the richest ecosystem in Canada. It supports hundreds of plant and bird species along with numerous reptiles, amphibians and mammals. Each spring and summer, the Garry oak meadows puts up an impressive floral display. One of the first flowers to bloom are the delicate Grass widows (Olysnium douglasii). Also know as Satin flowers, they grow in grass-like clumps with the flowers held at the tip of the stem.


Flowering at Garry oak meadows peaks during the month of May. The Camas dominate the meadows during this time of the year transforming them into a sea of blue. Camas are perennial plants and grows to a height of 12 to 15 inches. The flowers are generally deep blue but the colour can vary from deep purple to white. The sight of Camas in full bloom is a sight to behold.

Camas in bloom at Mt. Tzouhalem ecological reserve, Duncan, British Columbia

The Garry oak meadows also boasts a number of highly endangered plants and animals. One such highly endangered plant is the Deltiod Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza deltoidae.  With only 1600 mature flowering plants Deltoid Balsamroot is a red-listed species in British Columbia. Deltoid Balsamroot flowering peaks in May with showy large  yellow flowers resembling Sunflowers. A viable flowering population of Deltoid Balsamroot can be seen at the Mt. Tzouhalem ecological reserve in Duncan on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

Deltoid balsamroot among Garry oaks at Mt. Tzouhalem ecological reserve, Duncan, British Columbia

As flowering season progresses, numerous other plants come into bloom. Early spring the meadows are dominated by Shooting stars (Dodecatheon sp.), clumps of Satin flowers (Olysnium douglasii), Sea blush (Plectritis congesta), Fawn lilies (Erythronium oreganum) and Chocolate lilies (Fritillaria affinis). Late spring and early summer Camas dominate the meadows along with Western buttercups (Ranunculus occidentalis), Death Camas (Zigadenus venenosus) and Menzies’ Larkspur (Delphinum menziesii).


As the summer peaks, the meadows dry out and at the height of summer the meadows turn from a sea of blue and green to a golden brown as the sun beats down. The floral display is not as impressive as spring but the summer flowers make it up by their sheer vibrance. Deep purple flowers of Harvest Brodiaea (Brodiaea coronaria), pink inflorescence of Taper-tip Onion (Allium acuminatum), umbel-shaped white flowers of Fool’s Onion (Triteleia hyacinthina), yellow arnica’s (Arnica spp.) among other flowers dot the dry landscape. By the end of July the flowering season is over and the meadows wait for the next flowering season.

Harvest Brodiaea (Brodiaea coronaria) among dried grass at Witty’s Lagoon Regional Park, Metchosin, British Columbia.

Threats to Garry Oak Meadows

The Garry oak meadows is an ecosystem in peril. Land development is one of the biggest threats to the Garry oak meadows. Uncontrolled urban expansion and agricultural development has fragmented the Garry oak ecosystem making them vulnerable to extirpation. Fire plays an important role in keeping the Garry oak meadows open. Present day fire suppression encourages the growth of shrubs and Douglas fir that can eventually convert the meadows into a forested ecosystem. Invasive species such as Scotch Broom (Cystisus scoparius), English Ivy (Hedera helix), Himalayan Blackberry (Rubus discolor) and other introduced grasses pose a huge threat to this fragile ecosystem. If proper measures are not taken to revive and preserve this unique ecosystem it will be lost forever.

Useful Links and Further reading

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