Archive for ‘Nature Notes’

Shucked Shells

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Oysters are one of the seafood crops harvested in the nearby bays. In efforts to protect the long-term health of the oyster fishery, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has closed six of the minor bays along the coast and is actively rebuilding oyster reefs. That time-consuming and expensive process will get a boost from the recently enacted law that requires seafood distributors to either return oyster shells equal to 30% of the amount purchased or pay $1.36 per sack (a sack can weigh no more than 110 pounds). So far, many of the distributors are opting to pay the fee, since oyster shells command a good price for use in the vitamin supplement market.

River of Grass

Shortly before Christmas, I finally had a chance to tour Everglades National Park.* It has been on my list of places to visit ever since I read an article in an issue of National Geographic magazine as a kid. Sunny skies and mid 70s temperatures were a welcome change from the dreary, gray, and cold weather of my Central Oregon Coast home.

Spanning 1.5 million acres, the park is the third largest in the Lower 48 (after Death Valley and Yellowstone). I spent the morning exploring the sawgrass prairie at Shark Valley (in the northern section of the park). Though it was the dry season, I was not disappointed. There were alligator moms protecting their broods, dozens of wading bird species (including the stunning Purple Gallinule – gasp!), turtles, and did I mention gators?

For the afternoon I zipped an hour south into the mangrove swamps along the Florida Bay coastline. I’m glad I made the drive down, the scenery was just that much different. The havoc wreaked by Hurricane Irma in 2017 was obvious – boardwalks were twisted out of shape and the damaged visitor center was still closed.

After all day exploring a tropical wilderness I was grateful to have had only one mosquito encounter! A colorful sunset wrapped up my first full day of exploring Southern Florida. Up next, Key West!

*Pre-government shutdown.

 

The Black Oystercatcher Needs a New Name

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching and listening to Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) but I hate their name. Yes, they are black in color but they don’t eat oysters, and oysters don’t need catching. This misnomer we can blame on the British (and who doesn’t enjoy blaming the British now and then).

A related species of these iconic coastal birds were named in 1731 by Mark Catesby, an English naturalist touring the southeastern United States. He described them as eating oysters and thus their new name was born, American Oystercatcher.

Previously, other species in England were called Sea Pies in reference to their pied coloration. I find that name quite charming (though sailors of the time might have confused it with a layered meat entree).

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If we’re going to name the bird after its food then a more accurate name would be Black Musselpicker. Since they dine primarily on mussels and limpets on intertidal rocks. As you can see in the above photo, Black Oystercatchers blend in fairly well. I usually hear them before I see them. Their loud ringing whistles can even be heard over the sound of crashing waves.

Sadly, they are a species of concern out here on the Oregon Coast. The Portland Audubon Society is working with other groups to monitor the birds, especially during nesting season. According to 2015 data there were 500-600 individuals in Oregon. Unfortunately, I learned recently that none of the Black Oystercatcher hatchlings along the Central Oregon Coast survived this year. No matter the name, I certainly hope they remain for a long, long time.

Hazelnut Harvest

Oregon farmers wrapped up the fall harvest season just in time, since the winter rains returned this past week. I recently shared my experience with my first prune harvest. Unfortunately, I did not have an opportunity to be hands-on for a hazelnut harvest, but that didn’t squelch my curiosity.

My first introduction to hazelnuts was through work during my college years: the rich, nutty tortes I served at Ilsa’s Konditorei (a German bakery) and the smooth, sweet Frangelico liqueur that I mixed with coffee for guests at the Westin La Paloma Resort.

I am not much of a nut, cake, or coffee lover so it wasn’t until 1999 that I became intimately acquainted with hazelnuts. My backpacking trip through Europe that summer was akin to being thrown into the deep end of the hazelnut pool (I do believe most every confection in Europe has hazelnuts in it).

I didn’t escape hazelnuts upon my return stateside either as I visited Oregon to celebrate Lisa and Gino’s nuptials later that summer. Oregon produces 99% of the US hazelnut crop. Though at that time, most of the Oregon growers were calling them filberts (with the massive increase in hazelnut popularity Oregon has switched to the more common moniker, wisely reducing consumer confusion).

Turkey is the world’s largest producer of hazelnuts with 420 thousand tons, Italy produces less than a third of that, and the US contributes just over one quarter of Italy’s production. Though the US share is increasing rapidly. Oregon now has 70,000 acres of hazelnuts with another 8,000 acres added every year to meet rising demand.

Quick foray into the wild world of math: figure an average of 108 trees per acre x 8000 acres added each year = 864,000 trees x 25 pounds per tree = 10,800 additional tons of hazelnuts. Add in the roughly five years before trees reach peak production and the US should meet or exceed Italy’s production in about twelve years!

The near-insatiable global craving for hazelnuts can be blamed on a certain creamy spread. The creation of Nutella was the result of wartime shortages during WWII. During the war, Italian confectioner Pietro Ferrero couldn’t source enough cocoa for his bakery. So he creatively incorporated locally grown hazelnuts to stretch his cocoa. The first creation was a hard block, the creamy spread debuted in 1963, and the rest as they say, is history. Nutella is so popular that the company utilizes roughly 25% of the world’s supply of hazelnuts. 225,000 tons is a staggering amount of nuts!

There are a few reasons why growers appreciate hazelnuts: they fall from the tree and slip easily out of their husks when ripe (making them relatively easy to harvest); they have a low water budget (especially in contrast to the obscene amounts of water almonds demand); they are easy to extract from their shell; plus, each tree can drop 25 pounds and produce for at least 70 years.

On a personal level, I admire the striking-looking trees with their thick, knobby trunks as well as the striped, caramel-colored shells. Oh, and, yes I hear they are quite tasty, too!