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.

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.

A lot of biology: Rodents

Well, there are rodents and then there are rodents. We had close encounters with our beloved western grey squirrels last year. In a more sinister turn, I just realized there is a fox squirrel inhabiting the yard and, possibly, the crawl space. The distressing thing other than the prospect of evicting it from the yard and house, is that fox squirrels aren’t from around here. Not only are they not local, they are in the class of exotic, non native species that are also ecosystem destroyers. The mammalian equivalent of a noxious weed.

I wrote to the Oregon Dept of Fish and Wildlife to inquire how bad it was to have this invasive species on our burgeoning restoration project. The reply was quick and decisive – essentially, “kill it, kill it now”:

Fox squirrels are a nonnative non protected species and were brought to Oregon from the Eastern United States and have established themselves in urban and suburban habitat through the state. They are the most common tree squirrels found in Portland and have contributed to the decline of native squirrel species.

Fox squirrels are reddish brown in color with large bushy tails and tan undersides. Oregon’s fox squirrels are notorious for breeding “out of season” and infant and very young squirrels found later than October 1st and earlier than April 1st are typically members of this species.

They are true omnivores, because they have also been known to eat insects. Not only that, but fox squirrels are also not above robbing the eggs from temporarily empty bird nests. Fox squirrels can compete for food and nest sites with your local western gray squirrels. Now is the time to rid yourselves of this invasive species. Fox squirrels have no protection and can be shot or trapped on your property. They can not be relocated and should be euthanized.

OK, I agree.

  • But I am not a euthanizer of mammals this big. I have mousetraps, and occasionally I accidentally get a chipmunk in the trap, which is cause for hand-wringing. I have successfully set rat traps, I have trapped moles (I am doing penance for that – it was earlier in my life when I was ignorant. I like moles now, and I defend them to everyone).
  • I can’t poison them (that’s the coward’s way anyhow) because they will poison whatever eats them afterward.
  • I don’t use guns and my neighbor declined to use hers on them. I could not possibly drown anything.

Eds. UPDATE (May 2014):  Not actually fox squirrels. What we have are California ground squirrels. They are native, but probably increasing with landuse that encourages them, also our brush piles that are great habitat for birds, but also other animals. Three years ago we had one squirrel below the garden which turned into many in subsequent years. The extended family now inhabits many corners of the yard and our ongoing battle with them is chronicled elsewhere in this blog. Suffice it to say, they are tenacious digging machines, have all the time in the world to get around many defenses, and have lovely pelts that would make nice clothing. If they don’t get under the buildings, things are all happy between us.

*****

Okay on to another rodent. We live in Gopher Valley. We have lots of gophers. Also lots of signs on telephone poles advertising gopher “control” as if it were a standard maintenance procedure like mowing your lawn.

Here’s the deal with gophers – they ARE from around here, and they’re part of the ecosystem. They have a niche and fit in like part of a jigsaw puzzle. I’ll let these nice biologists ‘splain it, because this video is very entertaining:

http://www.chronlinemedia.com/video/110425_mazamagophers.php

We have this species and one other in western Oregon, if my Internet surfing is correct. The other is the Camas Pocket Gopher Thomomys bulbivorus – how appropriate because there are so many species of bulbs here. In the process of eating bulbs, they redistribute them (if you’ve ever dug up bulbs, you remember there are smaller baby ones that get inevitably get left behind), mix them with soil and aerate the seedbed, thus promoting the growth of more bulbs. Gophers are one of the factors responsible for the abundant bulb fields that existed before large-scale development and agriculture. They add fertilizer to the soil, too.

Gophers are endemic, functional species of the wild ecosystem, but of course once agriculture and horticulture enters the picture, they become pests. People think they need to control them in order to carry on the soil-compacting, mono culture farming of economically important crops like, um, Fescue for suburban lawns.

Consider this passage from the Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheet on the mazama pocket gopher:

Current subpopulations of Mazama pocket gopher continue to be threatened by loss of prairie habitat due to residential and commercial development, invasive plants, and encroachment of non-prairie plants due to an altered fire regime; small-population effects; trapping and poisoning; predation by cats and dogs; and trampling and crushing of burrows due to heavy equipment use.

Who can cope with that and survive? Pretty good that there are still some around.

Here’s another thought: biodiversity is valuable because there are many species and many kinds of species adapted to a range of climatic and environmental conditions. If there are several species that can occupy a particular spot in the food web, that’s good, because redundancy equals protection against total loss of necessary species in case of say, climate change, or massive disease outbreaks. Here is the full list of subspecies (genetic variants, below the species level) of this one gopher in this little old corner of the US (western Oregon and Washington).

Mazama pocket gopher Thomomys mazama (ssp. couchi, douglasii, glacialis, louiei, melanops, pugetensis, tacomensis, tumuli, yelmensis)

A couple of subspecies are already assumed to be extinct.

Rodentia

Part of the work here involves modifying habitat so that it is more suitable for plants and animals that are losing ground in the competition for habitat, or succumbing to encroachment from aggressive invasive species. You might think that squirrels are not endangered since they are so common in urban areas, but it turns out that our own Western gray squirrel, (as opposed to the non-native, ubiquitous and annoying Eastern gray of the city) are listed as a sensitive species in Oregon, and threatened (one step before endangered) in Washington State.

The handsome Western grays – silver-grays in the local parlance – are larger than Eastern grey and fox squirrels and have white hairs that give their fur a silvery appearance and sport very big bushy tails. Western gray squirrels are denizens of oak woodlands, and of course since this habitat is much reduced, their numbers are falling. Eastern grey squirrels out-compete them in the same habitat, and they have also been over-hunted as a game species.

Our squirrel habitat project was especially fun, because as Dean (our contact at the conservation district) was learning new things, he passed them on to me. Dean had already scoped out a new section along the savanna and woodland for native squirrel habitat. The first step was to identify the species that were present, if any, using a hair trap (see below).

The trap is a tube baited with acorns or hazelnuts and some of that heavy double-stick picture hanging tape. When the squirrels go in the tube, the tape grabs a few hairs off their back. If you happen to have access to a squirrel expert, (as Dean did) she can tell you if it is a native or a non native squirrel by looking at the hairs microscopically. Our squirrel hairs were from a native. The forensics were a success.

Dean with his hair trap

Squirrel hair trap in place with goodies

Got the hairs!

Now that the squirrels were confirmed, habitat work began. This consisted of getting rid of firs and thinning out some oaks to allow the remaining trees room to bush out and form a continuous canopy. This makes it easy for squirrels to jump from tree to tree. Larger trees offer better nest sites too, because they have larger branches and may have holes the squirrels can use for nests. Gray squirrels also use the edge of the forest near the open savanna, and I’ve seen them near the house in the firs as well, so they seem pretty opportunistic.

The Doug firs and some crowded oaks were killed by girdling – chopping through the outer living layer all the way around the tree to cut off the flow of fluids. The land was too steep for good machinery access, and this method was less expensive, quicker, and had the advantage of creating some standing dead wood for future habitat for woodpeckers, owls and other critters.

As fungi soften up the wood in a dead tree by digesting the carbon, many organisms will move in. Beetles and other insects can be in living or dead wood; woodpeckers come looking for insects to eat and make holes which can offer nesting cavities for squirrels and owls and other birds. A dead tree on the ground or standing will end up have more biological action going on than it did when it was alive.

Cavities in living or dead trees are part of a diverse structure in either oak or fir woods and are normally present in older stands, but not usually tree farms. Processes that create structure for habitat naturally (broken branches, fungus, insects) will produce a “messier” look, which is normal. In the absence of a lightning strike or whole tree death, mechanically limbing and topping will create an artificial snag.

Girdling a tree makes it eventually fall over, breaking at the bottom where the cuts were made. Not so safe if you’re walking around, plus it doesn’t last as long as one that is top-killed. Topped trees tend to “melt” according to the cutter who made our snags. Altogether a longer-lasting and safer option. Since topping is a fairly expensive operation, we chose just three of the largest firs for this treatment. Some limbs are left on to prolong the life of what tree is left after the gory operation:

Tree before topping begins

Most of limbing complete. Climber checking the wind before the final cut on tree #1

Tree climber cutting the top off the third tree

The topping was pretty dramatic. It is exciting to see a fast tree climber work on these snags. See it in action:

 

Here is the view a few months later. It looks devastated, but the oaks will fill in over time and there will be lots of value in even the smaller dead trees as they decompose and offer perching spots as well as a carbon supply to the decomposition process.

dead trees and a snag a few months after girdling to open up oak stand

Two of the tall snags on right and left background of photo

southern edge of the Land of Moose & Squirrel w/ snag and oaks

 

That’s not the end of the squirrel story though. I often caught site of what looked like a gray squirrel on the ground near some of our outbuildings. It seemed quite at home on the ground. Hmmm … eventually some little squirrels materialized, and our dog seemed very excited to go out to the brush and wood piles in the yard. Could it be that a female decided she preferred the brush piles to the trees? I had never seen any reference to nests anywhere but trees, but we kept seeing these critters on the ground, running towards a hole in the ground or one of the wood piles. After consulting my Living With Wildlife book (chipmunks: small golf-ball sized holes; squirrels: baseball-sized holes), turns out, we have yet another species of native squirrels: the also handsome California ground squirrel aka gray digger. As the habitat opens up with farming and the climate warms, they feel more and more at home here. And they love to dig a big network of tunnels right under buildings if a boulder isn’t handy.

There seems to be a family of two kids and a mom. They forage quite busily every morning on green apples and seeds from various trees in the yard. Ominously, they have now intersected with a bunch of chipmunks tunneling under the house and possibly living in the crawl space.

That’s what happens when you live in the woods – everyone picks their favorite spot, heedless of the wonderful natural habitat that might be just a little less comfy than your human one.

The next strategy was to see if we could get the squirrel and/or chipmunk in a live trap to make sure they were not under the house, then build some barricades. I had originally gotten a chipmunk-sized live trap, but I thought I’d see if the squirrel would fit. Sure enough – the trap was just big enough to accommodate a (smallish) agitated California ground squirrel.

Squirrel and trap next to entrance hole

We covered the trap with a towel and walked her up the hill to the official “habitat” which Tom had christened the Land of Moose and Squirrel. As she burst out of the cage, I remarked that she would probably be waiting for us when we got back to the house. Which, in fact, happened. Turns out, the trees are not where the ground squirrels prefer to be.

Step two of this process, as advised by the trusty “Living With Wildlife” was to dig a trench along the house, line it with hardware cloth, and hope for the best (that last bit is my own).

the strategy – dig an even bigger hole and barricade with wire

This was beginning to feel like an arms race – small hole, large trench, what next? I finished filling in my trench, hoping it would be sufficient to foil the rodent that, after all only has its claws as tools, but they are called gray diggers for a reason. There have been some exploratory holes in the old spot, but so far I’m ahead. The chipmunks are determinedly working on getting back in.

A day or two later, an alarmed-squirrel sound outside inspired me to try to get close enough to take a couple of photos. This was indeed our wonderful Western gray – bigger bushy tail, silvery grey. She was barking at the cat, which probably does not outweigh her, and for once this tree squirrel did not mind me getting within range. Gray squirrels make an interesting chuckling sound. At the same time she was drumming on the tree branch with her claws, sending a complicated message to whatever other creatures could speak squirrel. Perhaps the ground squirrel,which also climbs trees.

So far the troublesome ground squirrels seem to be gaining each year and the gray squirrels are fewer and more shy. It will be interesting to observe them both in the coming seasons.

Western grey squirrel up a tree – where it belongs

Western grey squirrel in scolding mode