Here, a brief article featuring local wildlife, natural history, and important local ecosystem connections. Thanks Statesman Journal!
For a previous item I wrote on gophers, see this post.
I had an arresting experience when I went out into the woodland the other day. It has been extremely dry this winter in Oregon, but there is often a lot of fog. As I walked under one of the larger Douglas firs there was a sound of dripping rain on dried oak leaves and yet, it was not raining.
I’m not sure if I have ever experienced fog drip first hand in quite this way. I learned about it many years ago as a very significant (in the statistical meaning) source of ground water and soil moisture in the western Cascades.
Have I ever been in the woods when they are dripping? Yes, but standing under one single tree, that is collecting and dropping water is kind of eerie when everything else is quiet, the ground is dry, and it’s just very foggy. Being present as a tree essentially waters itself and channels the water into ground storage, reveals how trees = water = more trees and life.
So, come along with me and experience it for yourself. You might be able to see the raindrops falling in this cellphone movie:
Here, stand in the open where no rain is falling, and look back toward the mixed oak and the big Doug fir in the ravine. These trees were left behind when the forest was logged the first and/or second time in the last century. We left them too, when we thinned trees to revive the oak woodland. They protect a riparian zone of seasonal streamflow – the source of some of that flow is now apparent! That’s a Steller’s Jay imitating a Redtailed Hawk in the background.
So, why fog drip under conifers and not oaks (I asked myself)? I believe that the answer lies in leaf architecture. Moisture runs off the vast surface area of thousands of needles intercepting fog. Oaks are leafless in winter, but besides that, they support a huge biomass of lichens and mosses, which are designed to soak up nutrients and water from the air, as it’s their life support. Hence, lichens and mosses may tend to increase the humidity around a tree, but they sponge up rather than repel moisture like fir needles. Fir needles don’t need the moisture – they send it to the roots where they can use it. Wow.
Had to share something I stumbled on while looking for a satellite image of the vast Eastern Oregon wetland that is the Malheur National Wildlife refuge. The accompanying text is very important. These carbon sinks are old growth conifer forests, not white oak woodlands, so a little departure from this blog’s theme.
Another feature not mentioned in the text is that “checkerboard lands” are very clearly defined on this map. These are our legacy from US government donation of the spoils of conquest to the railroad barons more than a century ago.
This short, wonderful message from the Times editorial writer Verlyn Klinkenborg floats off the page into the mind. His beautiful, simple style conveys, as it has many times in the past, meaning, imagery, feeling. And as he says, we all have our own farm in our mind’s eye. We make our own meaning daily. This reminded me of our Gopher Valley home, and also the place in my mind that has always been with me. I hope I can always see and share “something worth noticing and … (have) nearly always words to suit it” here in these pages too.
Beginning this week, I’ll post a few of my old favorites from months and years gone by.
It’s winter 2013 here on the edge of the Oregon Coast Range, the fog has rolled in after unseasonable cold weather, and now the skies are dripping – a good time to look at our beautiful lichens.
Mostly dormant during the long dry summer, any bit of moisture brings the neon greens of nitrogen-rich Lobaria pulmonaria (lungwort) popping out of the background, inviting us to look closer at all the clothing on the trees and logs, ground and rocks. Lobaria and Usnea lichens make a nice orange to orange-brown dye for wool which imparts a distinctive fragrance and, usually moth proof characteristics!
Here is my short look at some of the charismatic lichens of our woods, originally posted in December of 2010.
Lichens are incredibly diverse and able to grow in extreme environments. Their chemistry is important to the ecosystems where they grow. For example, they are an important source of nitrogen in forests, and in arid lands, they conserve valuable topsoil. But to do their job, they need undisturbed substrates to grow on.
They also provide an environment for many organisms to exist – tiny arthropods and invertebrates that keep nutrients cycling in the ecosystem.
Why away from cities? Because lichens absorb all their nutrients and moisture directly from the air, they are sensitive to air pollution. This quality is so specific, scientists use them to map air quality and pollution levels. They can also concentrate some metals and radiation and be hazardous to consumer.
In cities pollution-tolerant lichens predominate, some less tolerant ones are distorted or rather small compared to lichens in fresh, clean air. Several of the lichens on the tree branch above, and the two below are very sensitive to pollution, and also need very moist air so they can function. The high humidity in the coastal NW promotes the growth of large showy lichens in clean air zones like mature and old-growth forests.
They use plants as a place to grow but there is no evidence of damage. In fact the massive increase in surface area may be one reason why forests are able to extract and transfer appreciable amounts of moisture from “fog-drip” to watersheds even when it’s not actually raining.
Food, camouflage, dyes, and antibiotics are among the uses that other life forms have for lichens. The long strands of Old Man’s Beard and other Usnea species are collected to extract its chemicals which have antibiotic properties. It also protects animals that use it for nesting material.
The alga is able to photosynthesize, producing carbohydrates which are then channeled to the fungal partner. Interestingly, if the algal partner is cultured separately, the carbs hardly “leak” at all. The fungus makes it possible for the alga(e) to live in places it normally would not survive. The fungi and algae each look completely different individually, and only take on their lichen form when together.
Although the association is termed symbiotic, it appears that it’s not an equal partnership. Lichenologists consider the fungus to be the controlling partner “farming” the alga or algae.
Even though we’ve used them for millenia, there’s always something new to learn about lichens. Scientists are studying some extra fungi present whose exact function is unclear.
This can happen very quickly. If you spray a dry lichen with water, it will absorb moisture and change color immediately. This is a sign it is active.
In fact, lichens need alternate wetting and drying to cycle carbohydrates back and forth between the fungal and algal partners.
Thanks to lichenologist Katherine Glew (Univ of Washington) for teaching me about lichens. I can remember some of it.
If you missed the news this late summer about the patches of oak devastation near Sheridan and other places in the Willamette Valley, here’s a hyper-local update (our property). When the damage is in full spate (i.e. the larvae are making oaks and doug firs look dead and blighted) it’s all about the caterpillars. Right now (mid November) I am seeing these moths everywhere flopping around on the ground. Their diaphanous wings seem hardly up to the task of finding a mate and laying eggs, particularly when they are rain-soaked. However, I’m sure we’ll be seeing their leaf-chewing offspring soon enough. By the way, there is a nice description of life cycles in that first link above. I highly recommend.
Perhaps these adults arrived from Dupee Valley or even as far as Red Prairie, where the oaks looked blasted last summer, carried on the wind of fall storms? They seem to be weak flyers so it’s hard to imagine them making the trip under their own steam.
It will be interesting to see whether our oaks get the same treatment next year, having escaped till now. See previous post for a good control method: our beloved brown creepers.
Current news from the Yamhill Birders’ list. Wowwee.
Four birders and two local folks gathered at the BARN SWALLOW roost site on Grand Island Loop Rd. this evening. We saw few birds until sunset about 7:55. Then they gathered from all compass points and went down into the cornfield as advertised. I estimate about 80,000. The show lasted from about 8:00-8:20 PM.
Some (approx) migration schedules here http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/swallow/News.html
The day before I took on the Scotch broom (previous post) I indulged in a day of scouting for birds and plants. It is so much easier to see birds since the tree thinning! I finally got a picture of the white breasted nuthatch (there are at least 2) in its element, with a tasty morsel of some kind – nowhere near a feeder!
There is a class of weeds that are legally defined as NOXIOUS. This is a special term applied to weeds that are so aggressive as to be considered economic and ecological dangers. They can completely alter an ecosystem by changing the soil nutrients, pH, or forming a monoculture that excludes other plants. Dandelions may be weeds (a weed control specialist once termed them obnoxious), but they are not designated as noxious because they are not capable of destroying crop value or ecosystems. They and many others are “background weeds” we live with.
The people who decide who gets noxious weeds status are the state and county noxious weed control boards. The Department of Agriculture is the supporting agency for these boards, because noxious weeds were recognized as an economic problem for agriculture. Controlling noxious weeds also protects ecosystem integrity in natural areas. Many weeds that don’t seem that bad to the average person can be very bad when they are unleashed in the countryside.
Scotch broom (or Scots broom) is a noxious weed. Its natural enemies are back in the homeland (Europe) so it can spread at will here. However some insects that eat seeds and vegetative parts of it have been introduced and may help control it.
We are dealing with the legacy of soil disturbance from grazing, logging, and trail blazing followed by Scotch broom invasion. When our restoration work was done, huge patches of it were mowed, and mowed again in subsequent years. But mostly just keeps the plants short. To kill it, one can cut large stems during summer drought, spray when it’s in bloom (highly effective), or pull small ones. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. In an area where the seed has fallen and built up in the soil, it can take many decades to exhaust the seed bank. Pulling can bring seeds up to the surface and result in a whole new crop the following year.
Which brings me to my latest small project: due to weather and other circumstances, a couple of our scotch broom patches had not been mowed for one or two years, and it had grown taller. This actually makes is easier to spray, since when it’s short it is hard to kill because it doesn’t have enough leaf area and doesn’t bloom.
This winter I tried using a dormant spray on the evergreen stems which were more ‘alive’ due to the mild winter we had. It is more difficult to get all stems covered with a dormant spray, but easier to avoid killing the plants you want, as they have all died back. A combination of Triclopyr (Element 4A), and an oil/adjuvant (Mor-Act) seemed to do the trick, although it takes a heap-o-spray to get total coverage. I sprayed again during bloom, which was very effective.
One problem area was the nectar plots where we had planted wildflowers. The broom had invaded them over the years. Suddenly after a couple of years of no mowing, it was blooming. I couldn’t spray it without killing the wildflowers.
I hauled the weed wrench up the hill and brought along my spray bottle of herbicide and loppers. The ground was still soft from recent rain, so I thought perhaps I could minimize disturbing the seed bank by careful use of the weed wrench to pull the broom. It’s a satisfying plant for pulling – the taproot comes easily out of the ground with a ripping sound and not much fuss. But this was a rather slow operation. Actually weed wrenches are often more attractive as an idea than a tool. They are fun and easy to use, but the soil disturbance frequently outweighs their benefit.
I thought perhaps I could test the effectiveness of various methods, and speed things up too, so I switched to cutting with loppers, spraying the ends immediately with a 1:3 mixture of triclopyr (Garlon) and water from a spray bottle with a little surfactant – a variation on the “cut and paint” method. The weather was hot, the broom plants numerous, and so I decided to also add a third treatment – just cutting. I am curious about how late in the season cutting alone will kill broom. Ideally, that’s a method for older large stems that have more trouble resprouting and it is supposed to be done in the hot dry summer to make it doubly difficult. Some of the stems I was cutting were smaller, and we subsequently had several weeks of cold damp rainy weather, so I don’t expect those to disappear. However, at least the wildflowers had some light to grow.
same plot three weeks later – rose checkermallow in bloom. dead broom mulch
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’ve got 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.
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