I am glad I can give back a little for all the assistance the Conservation District has given us. We are on the Prairie Field Day Tour – Check it out!
Phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate, as well as habitat factors (such as elevation). The word is derived from the Greek φαίνω (phainō), “to show, to bring to light, make to appear” + λόγος (logos), amongst others “study, discourse, reasoning”
I missed a week (two?) of posts because of being busy with the mushroom logs. Then when I started this post about one word – phenology – it took on a life of its own and went down several tributaries. But here it is at last.
The scientific world has been all abuzz about phenology for some time now, because the warmer climate is causing big changes in how early plants flower, when birds and butterflies migrate, and other appearances on the landscape. What’s the big deal?
Plants are a source of pollen and nectar for insects and hummingbirds, among others. Migratory species in particular time their movements based on available food along their routes and at their destinations. This is critical for survival.
You may have heard about the issues that monarch butterflies are having, what with habitat destruction, (in their overwintering areas, and along migration routes) and most recently, large areas of genetically modified crops that allow “weed” control on a scale previously impossible. Monarch caterpillars specialize on milkweed, a native plant that is considered expendable on corporate farms, and now almost completely destroyed by greatly increased use of Roundup herbicide.
But back to phenology: If plants flower before their pollinators arrive, the species don’t interact as they have evolved to. However, the arrival of birds and also their expanding ranges indicate that they and other species are probably adapting to changing availability of food resources – the complicated dance of adaptation and survival has been going on for aeons, after all. The difference now is how fast change is taking place, and how many species will get left out in the process. Accelerated change is the result of global climate change caused by humans. So much so, that there is a new word coined to describe the era that we now live in: the Anthropocene. It is hypothesized that it will be the era of the sixth great mass extinction. Here are top-notch podcasts about the topic from a group of nerdy science grads who can really communicate and entertain.
Here in Gopher Valley, I started taking photos of plants in bloom, and this year I thought to compare the bloom time for one or two. There is nothing like a photo to cut to the important features and make connections. As we all know, year to year variation is normal, so this isn’t a scientific study. However, over long periods of time, the signal or trends show up, and that is when it gets really interesting.
One of the most interesting aspects of adaptation is that species change at their own rates, so you don’t see whole groups or ecosystems changing simultaneously and marking north together across the landscape. Plants (and animals) form unique new assemblages as conditions change. This is well documented in the literature of post-glacial vegetation by many authors. This time, in the Anthropocene however, things will be even more complicated because human agriculture and habitation is blocking migration corridors, leading some to advocate for a controversial method of conservation called assisted migration.
As you look at my examples of phenology, and after you listen to the podcasts and poke around the links above, check out some long-term phenological studies that really say something about what is happening in the natural world. Here’s one to get you started.
I hope you will be able to put down all extraneous gadgets (except the one on which you are reading this), and just listen to this 40 minute podcast. Jenny Price is articulate, specific and eloquent on her subject. Humorous, and not righteous or dull. I am going to have to really try hard not to make “green porn” a new buzz phrase.
I cannot possibly add anything. HOWEVER – there are (a lifetime of) discussion possibilities here. I invite your comments and ideas!
I am reblogging this story by David Haskell, a scientist and natural history author that I follow. It is a great example of good ecological sleuthing, nice descriptive prose, and ecological principles that are very applicable to our own PNW forests. Read on!
This is unscientific, because their appearance coincided with an improvement in my birding skills, but I noticed three bird species last summer that might be new arrivals: Purple Finch, Western Wood-Pewee, and Lesser Goldfinch, plus the aforementioned White-Breasted Nuthatch this fall and winter.
Hoping that we had some rare and important new species, I cracked open the Land Manager’s Guide To Bird Habitat and Populations in Oak Ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest (note that link goes to part II). Of the six “obligate or near-obligate” species (don’t live anywhere else, or if they do, then much fewer outside this habitat), only two – Acorn Woodpecker and Slender Billed White-breasted Nuthatch have ranges in our part of the Willamette Valley. When we have a resident Acorn Woodpecker, we’ll have all two of them and the champagne corks will pop.
Moving into the more numerous “highly associated” species part of the list, we’ve seen or heard 13 of 20. The authors note that “highly associated species are those that are abundant in some other habitat(s), but reach some of their highest densities in oak habitats.” So not all of these are bell-ringers, so to speak.
The 13 in our neighborhood:
*For the record, these are pretty common in urban Seattle neighborhoods too
I think the neighbors’ 92 acres to the south are providing a lot of this habitat. We are watching closely for signs of a land sale at that location. It would be a tragedy if it was cleared, following the trend to plant crops on former woodland.
So, back to the ones that cropped up on the radar recently. Lesser Goldfinch prefers tree/shrub and shrub/tree edges and open areas. We saw them foraging on the open savanna area last summer on weeds (weeds!). They like the thistle and sunflower-family (Asteraceae) seed, and they were dancing around over the false dandelions in the savanna.
Purple Finch Listed as a short-distance migrant. Abundance is higher in larger patches (>25 acres). Since ours is 20 acres, the adjacent habitat is probably improving the chances of having them here. Here is a fuzzy photo of one at the feeder last summer.
Western Wood-Pewee. The guide lists this species as a “potential ‘early responder’ to overstory thinning or conifer removal that opens up the canopy of oak or oak-fir forest”. Ah-ha, I’ll take credit for that! I watched one fly to a nest in the fork of a tall skinny oak in the newly thinned woodland. They may have been here previously and we mistook it for some other sort of flycatcher, but they are making the most of the new habitat. They are really easy and fun to watch when they’re feeding because they perch near an opening and fly out and back catching insects. There is an audible ‘snap’ of their beak as they make contact.
Here is someone else’s Youtube video of one in Arizona
I was sorry to learn from The Sibley Guide that “recent population declines in…the Western Wood-Pewee may be due to major losses of wintering habitat in the South American Andes, the result of human activity”. The double liability of habitat loss for long distance migrants in both breeding and overwintering areas is a very complicated issue for conservation.
White-breasted Nuthatches are residents (non-migrating), and they use edges and small habitat patches. So they should be better off if the acreage in woodland restoration continues to increase. If I do nothing else this year, I am going to get a photo of ours that’s in focus.
Lesser Goldfinch. Another resident and edge-user. Good prospects for our population because we go edges galore! Here is someone else’s Youtube video of one at the Tualatin River NWR not far from us – and a really great place to visit.
Here, belatedly, is a short video of my Willamette Valley Specialization group in the Oregon Master Naturalist Program. This was the field portion of a day learning about birds and plants of the endangered Oregon White Oak Woodland and Savanna ecosystems. (With regard to Oregon white oak vs. Garry oak, see the note on Oregonian naming practices, on my other blog.)
I recently read this article in the New York Times, and it reminded me that I had also written a blog post on the same topic. Of course the great scientist, Bernd Heinrich, has thought way beyond my musings, but there are parallel observations nonetheless.
And here is the real deal, scientifically speaking. I must read that book!
A previous post showed the general lay of the land over time in our neighborhood. Here is a closeup of changes we have wrought since we’ve been there. If you click on a photo it will take you to gallery view.
The first conservation treatment brought in a mower to cut down huge old growth scotch broom – scourge of Northwestern natural areas. Smaller trees were sheared on the west side, and near the middle of the 20 acres (2006-2007) to create the savanna and oak woodland. The relatively filled-in appearance after 1994 is likely due to a lot of regrowth of weedy brush (broom and blackberries) over disturbed ground.
Our latest treatment began in 2011. This is where you can see change on the landscape more clearly. We had more trees sheared, and a lot of larger diameter trees were removed – 2011 and 2012 photos show the opening of the oak woodland/savannah in the center and lower left (SW corner) near the pond, where the “boulevard” was opened along an existing pathway with removal of many smaller firs and some oaks).
Although the first treatment brought major changes on the ground, the activity is more obvious from the aerial perspective in the last couple of views – possibly because of the size and number of trees removed with the last cut. Over 100 oaks, and about 100 firs were removed, and they were larger than the ones that were sheared initially.
Another change that is more visible recently is seen in a faint diagonal opening just above the middle in the land of moose and squirrel. This is where fir trees were girdled and are now standing dead trees, plus three large snags intentionally left alive but with most limbs removed. Dead trees and a trail just above them look somewhat like the 1994 view before trees and brush filled in.
So, some real habitat changes now, encouraging the ‘traditional’ residents of the oak savanna and woodland. Got those white-breasted nuthatches (two at least) so maybe they will build a nest this year!
Perhaps I will take you on a video tour soon…
This is a gallery of landscape changes in our little corner of the world. In a very short time (1994-2012), the local vegetation has been altered by land management quite dramatically. From our perspective (our 20-acre rectangle) it often seems overwhelming.
In 2005 we had a comfortable buffer of forest around us for the birds and wildlife we like to watch. We knew it was tree farm country, so logging was a given but, patchy as it was, it didn’t seem too traumatic. You can see the tree farms mostly blanketing the area in the earliest GoogleEarth map.
Then came a shift in land use – ‘conversion’ is the term – from timber to vineyards. Watch the photos as the trees begin to disappear. Vineyards and orchards sound like a sort of idyllic alteration, but think just a minute about what that entails. Conversion from old growth to tree farms is a step away from diverse, patchy habitat of a particular kind: spotted owls, flying squirrels, really big trees with a lot of carbon stored in their massive trunks, a lot of cavities for owls and other specialists. Old growth trees (250+ yrs) that store and hold – sequester – more carbon than any other type of forest. You can see that even in the earlier views, the connectivity between patches is important – those are corridors that allow wildlife and plants to move across the landscape either to escape the clearcutting or to find food or mates.
Timber farms, especially smaller ones cut in patches on a long rotation, (time between cuts), shelter many important organisms while they grow, and if those plants and animals are lucky, they can shift over to another patch when the clearcut begins. Technically, people are required to leave a certain number of trees and snags, but the rules about that are so lenient that it doesn’t really amount to anything ecologically important in most cases on private land. Federal forests are another story, as they are managed differently. The other thing about forestry is that there are relatively long periods between soil disturbance.
Now, step it up one notch with conversion from timber land to row crops, vineyards, or a hazelnut orchard. If you look, you can see that to the north and east of our 20 acres, all trees were removed, conifer, oak, even the ones that were formerly left by commercial forestry. Stumps were bulldozed, burned, and the land plowed. Two major changes that occur now are the absence of trees and shrubs, and soil disturbance on a regular schedule. Weed control and monoculture demand constant spraying, plowing, or both. All these activities restrict plant life and, importantly, affect the insects that can survive in disturbed habitat.
Unless a farm, orchard, or vineyard is conscientiously managed to leave patches of undisturbed habitat for native ground nesting bees, predatory insects, and other beneficials, the landscape is a depauperate one compared to a natural one.
In the gallery above, you can view the transition from 1) patchy timber harvest to 2) clearcuts on a larger scale (there is a large absentee landowner to the north and east of us who is progressively extracting all the monetary value from his timber, then selling off the land) then 3) conversion to vineyard to the east and north. Note the extremely clean patches and rows of plowed and planted crops. Oak trees that were left after cutting douglas firs were stripped off the land and sold for firewood. Thankfully, a few trees were left around a low spot on the east side, that is the source of a stream that flows across our property and down to Deer Creek. However, our hydrology is permanently altered. Erosion from the force of high water flows, and lower flows in summer are byproducts of vegetation stripped off the soil surface.
Next week – the closeup view of our patch before and after we acquired it.
In my post last week, I had to re-edit to mention that I actually did see a white-breasted nuthatch on our trees and at the feeder. I was probably so excited to report it that I mistakenly edited out that part.
This week, a news item just out reports that the Fender’s Blue butterfly numbers are up at a large reserve near Eugene in the Willamette Valley. Many have rallied around this small, but charismatic species. Unlike the nuthatch and acorn woodpecker, the Fender’s Blue is on the endangered species list. (The birds are slowly sliding toward it in some locales, but their numbers are still up).
A thought or two about insects: perhaps they can recover more quickly than some species (i.e. the spotted owl, mentioned in the article) because their populations have a quicker response time, or because their territories are smaller and more easily managed.
Many things going on there – they don’t have the competition from bigger more aggressive species like the spotted owl does. Insects also tend toward boom and bust cycles because of weather, food, disease and such, although some more than others (think aphids – at the bottom of the food chain and also designed for rapid reproduction). If their numbers drop, or rise, it may depend on environmental conditions other than the management strategies that people are using.
Nevertheless, these strategies are undeniably beneficial. It does one good to start the year with positive news. Maybe we’ll have some Fender’s Blues on our place soon. We have a patch of their larval host plants, some nectar sources, and it would be great if the Conservation District would decide we are worthy of burning the fields! I’m still pestering them about that…
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