Photos: Spring Color Comes to the Coastal Forests of Washington

By Kyle Smith, Washington Forests Manager

The winter months of low hanging clouds on the Washington coast can be difficult. Days working in the woods often feel like dusk all day long. But by mid-February to March, we begin seeing our first signs that Spring is truly around the corner.

Indian plum. Photo © Kyle Smith

One of our first plants to show signs of life is our native Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis). Its bright green leaves and delicate white, bell-shaped flowers provide a welcome contrast to many of the bare brown stems of neighboring shrubs. The early flowering of Indian plum is one of the first sources of early food for our spring pollinators.

Skunk cabbage. Photo © Kyle Smith

The next plant to add color to swampy coastal wetlands is skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus). Skunk cabbage gets its name from the odor that it produces to attract early pollinators to its flowers. In early spring, the flowering parts of the plant, known as the spathe and spadix, rise from the rain-drenched lowlands, which often catch that low spring sun in between rain showers and add a beautiful glow on the forest floor.

Once the insects come out to feed on the flowers, so do our winter residents of the forest, the ruby crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula). The kinglets move in small flocks, flittering through the shrubs to catch insects on branches and twigs. It’s often difficult to see, but when males are feeding and excited, they flash their bright ruby crown, which contrasts with the greens, browns and grays of an otherwise muted environment. In the haste of their busy days hunting for insects, you can often get so close that they don’t even notice you. It’s really fun to watch these tiny birds work so quickly through the forest, but difficult to photograph because of how fast they are.

Ruby crowned kinglets. Photo © USFWS

Trillium. Photo © Kyle Smith

Trillium (Trillium ovatum) is one plant that just about every Northwesterner knows. This iconic bright white flower rises from a single stalk in early March from three large leaves and can slowly turn to pink and often a deep purple as the days get longer. A lesser-known name for this plant is the wake-robin, typically flowering when the robins return to the forest. This plant in flower, conjures up images of cool damp forests of towering conifer trees, lush sword ferns and all that is the Pacific Northwest for me.  

Turkey vultures. Photo © Kyle Smith

Finally, the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) signifies that spring has truly arrived. Just as life and new beginnings show in the flowers and plants of the coastal forests, our avian garbage men the turkey vulture reminds us of the circle of life. In February and March, these huge birds — more related to storks and herons than Raptors — return from their tropical wintering grounds to begin their cleanup on carrion. Typically, spotted soaring in groups riding out the thermals, they use their keen sense of smell to find road kill, rotting salmon carcasses and other non-living matter to feed upon. Their distinctive “wobble” in fight helps distinguish them from other large predatory birds, and their bright red heads without feathers allow them to self-clean after diving head first into their dinner.

Spring is a wonderful time to get out and enjoy the coast and The Nature Conservancy has some great forest preserves, including the Ellsworth Creek Preserve, the Clearwater Forest Reserve and the new Hoh River Recreation and Conservation Area to explore. Get out and go for a hike!

Moss on conifers around the Hoh River area, Olympic Peninsula, in spring. Photo by Joel Rogers.