A look back: The year and a decade in review

2017 marks a decade since we started our conservation projects in earnest.

How timely then, that we were scheduled for a review by the Forest Stewardship Council. The FSC logo you see on your recycled and green wood products indicates the product has been certified to actually be “green”. Members adhere to specific standards that make their forests more planet-friendly. An agency – in our case, the Northwest Natural Resource Group – holds the certificate for its members, shepherds us along, and makes sure we report pesticide use and generally keep to the righteous path. Every few years the FSC audits a portion of the properties that are members of NNRG. This year we were asked to compare current practices to our management plan and explain how we measure our progress. Short answer: mainly by looking, because our “crop” is conservation, so it’s pretty simple compared to an actual tree farm.

It was helpful to look back and see where we are. The original plan was to restore oak savanna and woodland throughout the property. Some areas needed to be logged, others could be sheared and mowed. We have stuck with projects laid out by the Conservation District which differ from the management plan done by a consultant because some of the steeper areas are just too difficult or expensive to access.

Below, a few reflections, photos and assessments.

Progress is incremental. Everything takes time. We will get the scotch broom corralled eventually. Some increments that I appreciate are:

The savanna (really almost a bald) is still savanna-like. Scotch broom was as tall as the tractor when we started but thin soil and hot exposure have slowed down growth.

In all parts of the property, legacy patches of native wildflowers continue to expand and I enjoy finding the odd new plant or population, which gives me great hope, even though there will always be weeds and non natives.

The woodland oaks have more space and continue to put on growth after being crowded for many years. These things are best seen in contrast with previous condition.

 

Maintenance is forever. Yes, it is. Scotch broom is not forever, but it seems like it.

Getting new stuff to grow is a challenge, but Roemer’s fescue has really been a friend. California oat grass was hanging on when we arrived, we’ve seeded more of it and it’s a lovely bunch grass.

In the absence of fire, a good mowing makes everything better. I would like to burn more. but we don’t have fire available for management (land area too small, too close to neighbors, too expensive, etc), so we must pick our battles and do what we can.

Early- or mid-summer is the best time to mow for our objectives, because this often will kill mature scotch broom. But it is difficult to find a mower operator who will do this when we need it. Tom’s walk-behind has been a great help to reduce the non-native grass thatch in many places and a get to some of the broom in a timely fashion after the natives are done blooming.

Some firs have died of drought in the last few years – a sign that they are not suited to this site and/or climate change in this location. Possibly the thinning took away some of their support system.

dying fir. 2017

Douglas fir dying from the top down from repeated drought

Trees that were girdled to make space in the Land of Moose and Squirrel are toppling over but the big snags live on, with their tufts of branches still green, for now. The plan was to make them last as long as possible and right now they pose little threat to the surrounding oaks while offering a perch and some cavities for birds and squirrels.

Some oaks will unfortunately be on the losing end as conifers outgrow them in the inaccessible areas. On the positive side, our steep slopes provide many niches that are home to a variety of species, and some prefer a mixed forest, or a more closed canopy and patchy landscapes are natural. The thickest scotch broom was even favored by common yellowthroats in past years, although that will not save it from the knife I’m afraid.

Our squirrel survey revealed that western gray squirrels were using some pretty dense vegetation, and we see them in conifers around the house. On moister lower slopes, birds like Pacific slope flycatchers and black-throated gray warblers prefer our damp, cool headwater streams, shaded by a mixed conifer/oak forest that protects the water table and is the source of our springs. Sword ferns and moss carpet the ground. Wilson’s warblers return to their low perches here every year. It is a cool and welcome spot during the longer, hotter summers.

2017-12-20 edge.wdlnd.mixedforest

Mixed woodland, young firs will overtop oaks in time. Dead scotch broom in foreground.

 

Current Projects

In partnership with the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation DIstrict, we are working to get the broom under control so we can manage it better. The woodland areas have a more benign microclimate and deeper soils than the savanna. Hence more weed invasion. Removing tree cover plus soil disturbance, while beneficial to oaks, has had the predictable result of releasing scotch broom to grow rampantly and outpace our control efforts. Repeated mowing early on kept the broom short, but did not kill it and it rebounded in the last few years. We were able to hire a contractor to spray and mow the worst of it this year.

In one area there are a lot of native plants hiding underneath, including rein orchids. We tried hand cutting and painting first (at my request) to see if we could avoid broadcast spraying. But after a morning of slogging, with the prospect of even taller and denser broom to come, I relented and agreed overspraying was a better choice. Fortunately James, our contractor, was quite careful (he really liked the orchids, which were new to him), and by the time he came back to mow, the orchids and other wildflowers were mostly underground, post-bloom. The wintertime “after” photo below makes me so happy!

Next year we’ll go in for a cleanup to spray regrowth missed on the first pass and make a plan for the seedlings – likely a combination of careful pulling and spraying in the dormant season. One mistake we will not repeat is to keep mowing the broom when it is small, since that just grows bigger roots for growth the next season.

In the third year of the project I plan to spray out non-native grass in several otherwise “clean” areas for a broadcast sowing of native plant seed. Non-native grasses are the second most vexatious problem we have. Burning a few smaller piles of slash works well to pave the way for broadcast sowings of California oat grass and Roemer’s fescue plus wildflowers. Checkermallow (Sidalcea spp) is still germinating from sowings more than a year or two ago, and slowly we are increasing the ratio of native to non native. I will be keeping an eye out, especially in the woodlands for new populations of natives(like the mystery lily below) and hand-weeding life rings around them .

Finally, aside from weeds, one of the challenges in the last few years has been unusually heavy winter rains that scour our small headwater streams. Adjacent land that formerly was covered with forests in various stages of regrowth has been cleared for agriculture, or just cleared and gone to broom. This means rainwater doesn’t get intercepted and soak slowly down to the water table like it used to. A rain drop takes hours, instead of days, to reach the creek across the road. We do what we can to slow it down, but as you can see, there is a large watershed area off the property. Our little paths have undersized culverts where they cross the streams, so the culverts get plugged up.

Again the Conservation District came through to quantify catchment areas and re-size some culverts that will be replaced, to handle the increased water volume. Eye opening views of our hydrology came to light in these maps. Ouch, no wonder there’s such a torrent.

We are slowly making some progress to bring back more native habitat and native plants. The weeds will always be with us, but we continue to make headway and enjoy our animals, birds, and plants through the seasons and the years.

Worth the price of the paywall to view this story

It would be great if ecosystem managers could bring Indians in to help with Traditional Ecological Knowledge to maintain meadows w/ fire. Grazing could be helpful too, because volunteers get worn out doing everything by hand. Long story short: noble firs on Mary’s Peak, relict population from more widespread extent during cold post-glacial times, are invading the meadows on the peak (no more grazing + fire suppression; climate is more conducive now because less snow). So firs are being manually removed and will be hand weeded in future. Otherwise, the biodiversity of the meadows would give way to thick forests. Trees will remain in the historically forested zone. We’ll still have a nice view, native plants will be happy.

Source: Climate change triggers triage in Northwest forests — High Country News

Prairie Field Day Arrives – May 31

Gallery

This gallery contains 13 photos.

Many thanks to Amie Loop-Frison of the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District and her prodigious organizing skills to pull this off. It was a beautiful day, a fun tour, and an inspiration to see so many people interested in … Continue reading

Resident WBNs

Aside

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!

© 2013 Taylor Gardens
All rights reserved.

© 2013 Taylor Gardens
All rights reserved.

Scotch Broom, Scourge of the Northwest

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.

IMG_0705

invaded area – previously sprayed broom is dead and dying. blooming plants are overtopping wildflowers in the nectar plots

IMG_0704-2One 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.

IMG_0706

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.

done at last

done at last

Same plot three weeks later - rose checkermallow in bloom. Others in foreground still struggling

same plot three weeks later – rose checkermallow in bloom. dead broom mulch

Phenology

phenology [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenology]

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”[1] + λόγος (logos), amongst others “study, discourse, reasoning”[2]

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.

dodecatheon on 3.23.13

Dodecatheon on 3.23.13

Dodecatheon on 3.21.11

Dodecatheon on 3.21.11

Dodecatheon 4.30.09 on 4.13.13 flowers were at or past this stage (no photo of those)

Dodecatheon 4.30.09.This year on 4.13.13 flowers were at or past this stage (no photo of those)

Erythronium on 5.16.11

Erythronium on 5.16.11

Erythronium on 4.12.13

Erythronium on 4.12.13

Trillium parviflorum on 4.26.09

Trillium parviflorum on 4.26.09

Trillium on 4.29.11

Trillium on 4.29.11

Trillium parviflorum on 4.12.12

Trillium parviflorum on 4.12.12

Trillium on 4.13.13

Trillium on 4.13.13

March marches on

On the savanna in the late afternoon, surrounded by lichen-draped oaks; noting the attractive old ones, the new straight ones with potential beyond our lifetimes, mistletoe, galls. Mindfulness comes naturally.

In this video of early spring you can see the effects of not mowing. The reason was fire hazard followed by soggy soil, (drought/deluge) last fall. A lot of thatch from old non-native grasses and taller scotch broom remain; but I hope that will make it easier to kill the broom this spring. Mowing as a substitute for fire is not ideal, although better than nothing.

Other interesting things I found this day out will follow in the next post!

Things Are Looking Up, (I think) Here in Gopher Valley

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:

  • Bewick’s Wren*
  • Black-capped Chickadee*
  • Black-headed Grosbeak
  • Bushtit*
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • House Wren
  • Lesser Goldfinch
  • Purple Finch
  • Spotted Towhee
  • Western Bluebird
  • Western Scrub-jay
  • Western Tanager
  • Western Wood-pewee

*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

Purple finch

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.

Good Tools, How We Love Them

20& to 30% slopes, very little level ground, lots of noxious weeds, stuff to carry for planting. I thought long and hard about equipment to get stuff up the hill (in the wet, in the blazing sun). I spent years carrying herbicide in containers, on my back, in a wheelbarrow, etc, dreaming of just the right conveyance. We need to haul rocks for daylighting our stream crossings. I need to get the mushroom logs down to the house.

Things that you ride, like ATVs, tip over, and they don’t have tracks – which I think is essential for secure maneuvering. Big machines like the skid steer, (which is a dream come true) are huge, and expensive. The one thing we tried that seemed comfortable was this baby:

Canycom1 Canycom2 IMG_0637This Canycom power wheelbarrow has a dump bed, (those are the kids dumping each other) and carries 450 kg. Wooooo Hoooo! Now we’ll get some stuff done.

Time. Maps. Closeup views

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…

A Map Of Time, Time In Maps

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.

Woo-hoo! Another Happy Day…

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…wbn

Fender's Blue on Kincaid's Lupine

Fender’s Blue on Kincaid’s Lupine

Oh, Happy Day

There are two birds whose presence, to me, would signify that we have attracted the holy grail of bird residents: the Acorn Woodpecker and White-breasted Nuthatch.

I looked out the window, and LO and BEHOLD! There was a White-Breasted Nuthatch!!

What these species have in common is their fidelity to, or requirement for, a vanishing Willamette Valley habitat – open oak woodland and savanna. The nuthatch will go for mixed conifer/hardwoods which is exactly what we have. They are not the only species of concern here, just a couple I particularly like. A brand new publication online in two parts [ here and here ] called the Land Manager’s Guide To Bird Habitat and Populations in Oak Ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest provides a larger list:

Oak-associated bird species designated as being of conservation concern by the primary wildlife natural resource agencies in the Pacific Northwest…

  • Acorn Woodpecker
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Vesper Sparrow (Oregon)
  • Lewis’s Woodpecker
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Western Bluebird
  • Western Meadowlark

As I noted, to my delight, a White-breasted Nuthatch arrived recently at our feeder and on the trees by our house. Because I don’t currently have the proper camera or skills, here is a nice photo swiped from the above publication.

wbn

White-breasted Nuthatch. Photo credit Tom Grey. Published in Landowner’s Guide to Bird Habitat and Populations in Oak Ecosystems of the PNW. 2012

Our species – the slender-billed subspecies – resides west of the Cascades. Fat white belly, an impression of upcurved bill because the lower bill curves toward the straight, sharp upper; used for hacking or ‘hatching’ open nuts and seeds it wedges in tree bark – a fun fact learned from my new Christmas book, the Sibley Guide to Bird Behavior. Oh, so cute and spunky. I hope they find lots of holes in our old trees to make nests.

The good news…

The post on the shrinking Willamette River system was unhappy. At the end of that post I mentioned that restoring the ecological functions of the river involved working with modern land use and human structures in the landscape. Here is how that might happen. This week in our Master Naturalist class, we visited a farm that is a step in the right direction.

Look at this current view of a section of the Willamette River:

Willamette River aerial view showing remnant channels and oxbow lakes

If you zoom in you can see labels for lakes along the right (east) side and over to the left of center. These lakes are hydrologically connected to the main river. Here is the diagrammatic view of the river at the time of European settlement and as sloughs and side channels were drained for agriculture from the mid-1800’s till now :

Size and complexity of the Willamette River Channel over time

Aerial views give a different perspective on the adjacent wetlands and their importance to a river. Those lakes in the color map are side channels and oxbow lakes that were part of the river at one time. During high flows and floods, juvenile fish (like the endangered Chinook salmon) will find refuge in side channels; there they grow larger and hide from predators. When the water level recedes, they move downstream, better able to survive the rigors of life in the main channel as they head out to sea. That’s just one of the many functions of channels and sloughs in adjacent wetlands. And one species. Another ecosystem service provided by these wide flat spots is to dissipate the force of stormwater coming down the channel and spread out the volume of water during high flows.

In this farmer’s field there are several native species of fish that hang out in the winter when the water rises (yes-IN the field! remember this was once the river). He has built water control structures to facilitate their movement in and out, so they don’t get trapped in the side channel when it dries out. He has planted trees and hedgerows along the river for habitat. These plants also provide a buffer to absorb fertilizer and insecticides, and protect the river bank and crops.

Here is a closer aerial view of the sloughs (the dark green shrubby areas between fields) and banks planted with trees. You can also see another feature that all farmers should have right in the field – hedgerows of native plants. They look like thin dark stripes in the field in the lower left part of the aerial map.

This view on the ground is dramatically set against the big storm that was on the way this weekend to dump about 2.5 inches of rain on us. The hedgerows are mostly hardhack (Spiraea douglasii) and the one in front is overrun with blackberries. Both provide a lot of value as insect rearing habitat. However, a mix of species provides multiple generations of beneficial insects nectar, food, and places to pupate. That saves on pesticides.

What do you think? If every farmer or landowner with property near a waterway was to enhance one ecosystem service their patch provides, instead of thinking only of protecting crops, houses, or buildings, could we integrate enough habitat and resilience back into the Willamette River system to bring it back to health? Would residents downstream perhaps be willing to provide assistance to upstream residents to help prevent flooding in the streets of Portland?

One last note: buy Flav-R-Pac and Santiam brands – it’s a local farmer’s cooperative that this farm belongs to, and it keeps farmland out of development. If you buy organic – look for the Ladybug logo on produce – this farmer’s neighbor grows organic produce for them. That’s a whole nother story.

Depauperate

1: falling short of natural development or size

2: impoverished depauperate fauna>

Origin of DEPAUPERATE

Middle English depauperat, from Medieval Latin depauperatus, past participle of depauperare to impoverish, from Latin de- + pauperare to impoverish, from pauper poor — more at poor

First Known Use: 15th century

Merriam-webster.com

This Dickensian word perfectly describes the flora and fauna of the modern world. We are now living among truly impoverished, pauperized landscapes.

In my Oregon Master Naturalist class this past week, we looked at this illustration of why the Willamette Valley biodiversity has plummeted since the mid-1850s:

Size and complexity of the Willamette River Channel over time

On the left is a diagram of the river as it was in 1854. You can see the narrowing, but from a physical point of view, consider the thousands of miles of edges, and surface area that were in the original system. The complexity was mind-boggling, and is the key to understanding the importance of river/wetland systems.

By the end of the century, the side channels and sloughs had been blocked or drained for farmland, the river was straightened for navigation and, significantly, an enormous quantity of large trees were removed from the channel. The result of these activities was a disconnection of the river from surrounding landscapes. The forests no longer contributed nutrients, shading and large woody debris. That impoverished the salmon support system of food and cover, as well as cool water and spawning gravel. Side channels and floodplains no longer dissipate the energy of floods, so Portland streets get inundated during big flood years. It is the equivalent of smashing up a finely tuned, complex and delicate mechanism. A fine clock for example.

The underground hydrology of the river systems is also very complex – with water entering and leaving the visible stream below and along the edges for some distance from the banks. The riparian zone is that belt along a river where you see green vegetation in a dry landscape, or where the tree type changes from conifers to mostly leafy deciduous trees. It can be 1.5 to 3 kilometers wide, yet most laws only protect less than a few hundred feet (sometimes only 50 feet) on either side of a stream.

The loss of wetlands is an enormous cost to us today, and surprisingly the loss from the tiny fraction of original wetlands continues at a rate of about 3% per year, despite laws to protect wetlands. (Previously, the loss was caused by farming, now the primary reason is development.)

Restoring the pauperized landscape: The replacement of lost function is the guiding principle in riparian and wetland ecological improvement projects, rather than “restoration” to an original state. People are just getting the hang of how to replace some elements of river/wetland systems so they perform their original services to wildlife and people, working around human structures to do so.

Three Things I Learned In Oregon Master Naturalist Class

Here are three of the many things I learned in my first two Oregon Master Naturalist Willamette Valley ecoregion classes (well, it’s hard to stick to just 3, and also it has been more than a week since my last post, but it’s just the end of this week so I’m sliding in):

1. Even with a long cultural history of death and devastation, people still find ways to work in useful, collaborative ways to move life forward

This is the second time I have been to a fascinating talk by a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. David G. Lewis, PhD, Tribal Museum Curator/Cultural Liaison, shared a lot of information about how the tribes of western Oregon lived on the land.

Tribes of the Willamette Valley
http://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/kalapuya_treaty/
from book Melville Jacobs _Kalapuya Texts_, 1945

The story of white settlement in North America is always a sad one. What would become western Oregon held 60 tribes and tribal bands during the pre-settlement period. There were around 100 languages spoken in Oregon when whites began to settle here.

In the mid-1800’s Indian leaders saw that they had no chance of keeping their traditional hunting and harvesting lands, and requested that they be allowed to live on a reserve “between the forks of the Santiam River”. Whites refused to give them their chosen place, and the Indians refused to leave. During the stalemate no treaty was ratified, but eventually a treaty was negotiated by Joel Palmer (a local historical personage in whose mansion in the town of Dayton, an upscale gourmet restaurant currently resides).

There are lots of interesting details about the treaties and subsequent ramifications, but what sticks in the mind is this: under 7 different treaties, all the Indians in the valley were removed in 1855-56 because they were in the way of full exploitation of the land by whites. This was a “trail of tears” march for those from southern Oregon especially, separating them from the land and their source of food and shelter, in the winter, when people were most vulnerable to starvation and sickness, which of course, happened.

The area ceded to the U.S. government comprised more than 14 million acres. In return, the Indians received 61,440 acres. All tribes were lumped together on a small area down the road from us where Highway 18 cuts through the coast range – the Grand Ronde reservation. Through a series of events, including the sale of some land by individual Indians, and “surplussing” (read: stolen a second time) of 30,000 acres by the US government, the tribes eventually were left with no property whatsoever. As late as 1954 (when the confederated tribes owned 400 acres of land) all treaties and tribal status and rights were TERMINATED by the US government, essentially wiping out what remained of a community and culture base. In 1983 the tribes owned about 11 acres of forest land and 7 acres with a grave yard on it. Finally in the 1980’s, congress had what David called a “change of heart” – tribal restoration occurred, including restoration of 9811 acres of land.

The good news: currently the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community own 11,000-12,000 acres of valley floor and upland timber property. There are several staff positions devoted to cultural affairs, heritage education, and archeological preservation. The tribes are planning a museum and David is working with many government agencies all over the state to restore and bring life back to the streams and traditional harvesting grounds on public and private property as well as tribal lands. The Confederated Tribes just received 100 acres of land purchased and donated by several US agencies and the Nature Conservancy, and more land is being acquired to manage for conservation.

In many places in the world, this history would fuel a long-simmering guerrilla war against the dominant group and government. In this case, Indians have embraced relationships that benefit everyone and although the process is long and complicated, it is moving on positive paths. We can learn a lot from their example.

2.  Wildlife see landscapes differently than humans do

Our next speaker was Dave Vesely, a wildlife ecologist who has trained dogs to sniff out endangered plants, among other species. He recounted a story to illustrate item #2.

He was asked to look at an open meadow to document how many dark-eyed juncos were using it. He discovered that the birds, which forage on the ground, were actually avoiding this meadow that had been created for them. They were in the trees and shrubs around the meadow instead. This particular habitat was not being used by these birds because the grass was too long. Juncos forage in the open, and they couldn’t see their surroundings or even penetrate the tall grass.

Dark eyed (Oregon) junco

His conclusion: “habitat type” is an ecological unit classified by vegetation and/or abiotic features. However, classification can get in the way of understanding how wildlife actually use habitat. We have to understand how wildlife view habitat to get the results we want. Harder than you might think, AND it’s more than just plants.

3.  Geology is everywhere

At Silver Falls State Park we had a great time looking at the geology around us and learning about how it shaped the Pacific Northwest. We learned that all you have to do to see rocks and learn about geology is walk around – the gravel in parking lots, the stones in buildings, and any number of everyday elements tell the story of local geology.

Looking at fossils in the dressed stones built by the CCC, Silver Falls St Park

It’s a beach – casts and molds of clam shells and marine sediments greater than 25 million years old

We enjoyed looking at these beautiful stone buildings constructed during the depression by the CCC. The walls were constructed of blocks of fossiliferous sandstone (sedimentary rocks that hold fossils created when the Willamette Valley was a shallow sea, or embayment). Rocks in the low wall to the right of the steps our instructors are standing on are 25-million-year-old volcanic tuff (cemented volcanic particles and rocks). The steps are younger basalt from Columbia basalt lava flows that began15 million years ago. All were quarried locally in the park.

Three lava flows are visible (a path follows the line between the second and first)

The falls cascade over three visible flows of Columbia basalt, separated by thin layers of paleosols (old or fossil soils) – accumulated in the time between lava flows. It’s a Columbia Gorge in miniature, complete with amazing water falls and enormously tall trees.

Close to the cliff face, the path follows a boundary layer where softer sediment creates a break between lava flows

  • Geologic processes create landforms
  • soil weathers from rocks with different chemical composition
  • vegetation is product of those soils and landforms.

The temperature was comfortable and the air moist, up here in the trees and cool gorges – when the valley was baking in the upper 80’s – and it can all be explained by big GEOLOGY.

These plants can thrive in the high humidity and shade created by waterfalls and overhanging basalt cliffs (liverwort, saxifrages and maidenhair fern)

Oh, the irony…

In April, NPR ran a story about shooting one species of owl to save another in Oregon. It just begs for commentary.

Although there aren’t any spotted owls on our place, this is an example – no, possibly THE example of the ethics and dilemma of ecological restoration and questions surrounding repair of damaged ecosystems:

  • Are the results of human-caused ecosystem change separable from change that occurs naturally?
  • If we are serious about saving species and habitat, how far do we have to go to change our own behavior that caused their decline?
  • Are we in a downward spiral – making the situation worse by reacting to the effects of our actions rather than addressing the true causes of extinction?
  • Is this whole endangered species recovery exercise going to work for some but not all species? Which species will be able to live with us?
  • Will that be enough to preserve the safety net we humans depend on to survive?

Okie doke, so in a nutshell here is the situation:

In the 1970’s, a biologist named Eric Forsman did groundbreaking research on the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). Forsman found that spotted owls depend on old-growth forest habitat. It was determined that they were endangered due to loss of old growth to widespread logging in the Pacific Northwest.

In 1990 the northern spotted owl was placed on the endangered species list. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) mandates protection for species if they are listed, plus a plan to bring them back from the brink. So in 1991 millions of acres of federal forestland were excluded from logging to save habitat for the northern spotted owl. All hell broke loose in the logging communities of the Pacific Northwest, because of their dependence on federal timber land. For an excellent account, see The Final Forest by William Dietrich.

So for the last 30+ years Eric Forsman and a lot of other biologists and managers have been working to bring the spotted owl numbers up by saving habitat. But in fact the numbers are sinking.

As early as 1998 reports about an aggressive cousin – the barred owl (Strix varia) – discussed it as a potentially game-changing threat to the spotted owl (The Owl: Spotted, Listed, Barred or Gone?). Now it has come to pass that yes, the barred owl is currently a big factor in the decline of the northern spotted owl. The biggest factor.

Where did barred owls come from? Apparently barred owls started moving west from the eastern US about the time settlers began plowing up the prairies and suppressing fire. They moved through Canada and Montana, and started expanding their range into the Pacific Northwest in the 1960’s. Was it because of us? Or would this have happened anyway? Impossible to say. The two species might have evolved from a common single species at the time of the last ice age – at least we can be reasonably sure humans didn’t have anything to do with that.

Interestingly, barred owl populations here did not explode until about 20 years ago – about the time the spotted owl was listed. Speculation about why this happened follows this line of reasoning: like many invasive species, at first there aren’t many of them, but gradually they become adapted to their surroundings, or perhaps their population builds to the point where they just produce a ton of offspring. Suddenly the population explodes – because they have few or no predators and parasites, or because they are just better at hogging resources.

In the case of the barred owl, not only are they more aggressive, they are omnivorous and voracious. Whereas the spotted owl is more retiring, and picky about what it will eat – which happens to be old growth-dependent species like flying squirrels and tree voles. Spotted owls are part of a wonderfully complex and delicate food web, involving truffles, arboreal mammals, and big tree cavities. Fat lot of good that did them.

Because barred owls scare off spotted owls (although not always – they also hybridise with them, meaning it is possible spotted owl genes could be lost or “swamped” by barred owl genes), and because they aren’t particular about what they eat, they have no problem supporting themselves at the expense of spotted owls. But when barred owls have been removed or shot, spotted owls show up again. This is where the idea of getting rid of the barred owls came from. But really, this is an idea that can’t get very far. If land managers could get past the outcry over shooting a sort-of native bird, according to Eric Forsman, “You could shoot barred owls until you’re blue in the face, but unless you’re willing to do it forever, it’s just not going to work.”

So were all those years of trying to save habitat wasted?

People who depend on timber for income, and who have suffered disproportionately during the recent economic recession are suggesting that okay, since you can’t save the spotted owl by setting aside habitat, it doesn’t matter. Let us start cutting timber in the reserves set aside during the 1990’s. This is the disadvantage to saving species instead of looking at the really big picture – people can argue that if we can’t save those species, we don’t need their habitats. But this would accelerate the degradation of ecosystems we all depend on.

…far from saying that the logging restrictions were a mistake, owl biologists largely insist that more forests must be spared, especially since heavy logging continues on state and private land.. .”If you start cutting habitat for either bird, you just increase competitive pressure.”

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/The-Spotted-Owls-New-Nemesis.html#ixzz1ywI7txwy

Besides the barred owl, It appears that other changes in the larger landscape have caught up with efforts to conserve spotted owls. A recent review on spotted owl protection lists wildfire as a major threat to spotted owls in drier areas of the Cascades (remember the Biscuit fire?). That is a result of first, more than a century of fire suppression and second, climate change and normal weather patterns leading to conditions conducive to fire in forests loaded with fuel.

In a landscape before habitat became so scarce, if a fire burned one part of the forest, animals and plants could survive in refugia or recolonize from neighboring undamaged habitat. Now that there is so little intact high quality habitat left and it is fragmented, it is a dangerously fragile situation – organisms may not be able to find a place to wait out a wildfire or there may not be an adjoining area that can donate species to it later. With only 10% of high quality intact ecosystems remaining, on average, in the Northwest (e.g. old growth forest, Willamette Valley prairie and savannah, shrub-steppe in eastern Washington) it’s no wonder things are falling apart.

Lots of species are suffering the effects of practices that began during settlement and development of the west. Saving iconic wild salmon runs has been a priority for decades – at least people like to say it is. But how is spending time and resources shooting sea lions and relocating Caspian terns that eat salmon congregating below dams helping the situation? It’s stopgap emergency action, not a solution.

There are currently 11 dams on the Columbia River; “…32 dams in the land mass drained by the Columbia River system (including other rivers), an area roughly the size of France.” Does this not suggest that all the efforts to plant trees in riparian areas, shoot sea lions, and barge fish around dams is really just window dressing? If we want hydropower and irrigation, large scale agriculture and forestry, we will not have wild salmon.

Salmon and owls are two species that are indicators of a healthy ecosystem. We need to recognize that our ecosystems are at risk, and while it is the job of land managers and biologists to manage species, it requires an effort from all of us to look at the whole and make changes that affect how we build our cities, farm our food, allow ourselves to live with other species.

Many species have learned to live with us – coyotes and crows are two that come to mind. The barred owl can be a member of this club too (they live in suburban and even urban areas). We consider them pests or invasive, and think we have nothing to do with how they came to be so numerous. But they are adapting to us, we facilitated it, and it is in fact all about us. Don’t blame the messenger.

The thing is, if we don’t attend to these problems, we may lose the ecosystems that keep us alive. As with past mass extinctions though, the planet will keep on turning. New combinations of species will appear. Maybe humans will be among them.

Yes, we have herbicide

If there was ever an indication that restoring natural areas is really horticulture, this is it. Even an artisanal project like ours would never be able to keep up with noxious weed growth and re-growth without a certain amount of pesticide application.

There is a difference between widely broadcasting pesticides that kill a lot of organisms and applying a small amount to a specific target at the right time in its life cycle. This is the time that my current target – scotch broom – is most vulnerable. And if there is poison oak adjacent, well, I might spend some time on that.

The two herbicides I use – glyphosate on(ingredient in Roundup®) and triclopyr (Garlon®) are the least toxic to me, and the assortment of creatures they’re likely to contact. (I prefer to use the ester formulation of Garlon because it is less poisonous to me, the applicator, than the amine). I occasionally use Poast®, an herbicide that kills grass but not broadleaf weeds.

Restorationists rely on spraying weeds to get native plants established. But they also are looking out for some of the organisms that can be damaged by overzealous use of chemicals. There is a growing conservation biology literature, for example, on pesticide effects on rare and endangered butterflies and their larvae.

Anyway, there are other ways to work on the weeds. One hand-weeding method developed by Joan Bradley and her sister relied on minimal disturbance, slow clearing, and fostering natural regeneration by working from the best, most intact areas outward. This method has a lot to recommend it. It requires discipline to not clear out all the weeds in the worst areas. It requires patience. But the good thing is, it doesn’t take a lot of intensive work – the two authors regenerated 40 acres in a public park in Australia by working just a few hours at a time.

I still aspire to mastering that technique. Meanwhile, the hybrid method of following machine-clearing with hand work, mowing, and spraying will have to do. I’m off to climb the hill with my 40 pounds of solution – 24 in the backpack sprayer, carrying a jug with the rest. Saves on the gym membership.

Scotch broom showing the effects of recent Garlon 3A application

P.S. Scotch broom flowers make a pretty good yarn dye. I experiment with the many I haven’t killed yet.