Beach Recreation Restrictions Lifted at Nehalem

Beach recreation restrictions on the spit south of Nehalem Bay State Park are being lifted for the remainder of the year. The restrictions went into place this April after a pair of western snowy plovers were found nesting on the spit and were scheduled until September 15, when the breeding period ends.

Lifting the restrictions means beachgoers may recreate in the dry sand, along with their leashed dogs. Vehicle use remains restricted, including bicycles. The park will continue presenting interpretive programs about shorebirds through the summer.

We have been surveying for the birds since first spotting them on the spit this past March, and at this point it is unlikely a pair would start a new nest. There just isn’t time for the parents to incubate eggs and raise young before winter. Even though their nest attempt wasn’t successful, it shows that we are on the right track for shorebird recovery at Nehalem. I would like to thank all our visitors for their compliance and understanding over the past few months. Restrictions will go back in place March 15, 2016, and OPRD will resume surveys for nesting shorebirds. Click here for more information on the HCP (Habitat Conservation Plan) and beach restrictions, and plover recovery.

 

Peeking at Plovers

It’s been a long, busy summer, and I’ve been out on the Spit many times since discovering our little plovers’ nest. Back on April 9th, I was out with USFWS biologist William Ritchie to “float” the eggs – floating is exactly that. You put the eggs in a jar of room temperature water and see where they float. Based on where they are in the water (bottom = freshly laid, surface = close to hatching), biologists can estimate how old the eggs are and when they will hatch! It isn’t the most precise effort, but it did give us an idea of when to expect the eggs might release the little balls of fluff that are plover chicks.

It also isn’t the easiest thing to do. The adults are not happy about people being close to them, and run away to safety. And you can’t just walk up to a nest, since crows and ravens (corvids) are smart and curious enough to follow a direct trail… or just watch you if they happen to be around. AND you can’t actually SEE the nest because it is so camouflaged, so there is some trial and error in approaching it! We use similar techniques that the corvids use, and follow plover tracks.

Western snowy plover tracks in the sand. MotoX phone for scale.

Western snowy plover tracks in the sand. MotoX phone for scale.

 

So, Will and I carefully checked around to make sure no corvids were hanging out, then carefully crept roundabout to the general area of the nest, then even more carefully floated the eggs. No pictures of that, we wanted to get the work done and get out as quickly as possible. It was a nice day and not too cold, but every moment the parents are away from the nest increases the chances of failure. Will determined the eggs were likely to hatch the last week of April, and then we carefully packed up equipment and snuck away, using a small broom to brush our tracks out of the sand to leave less evidence for curious corvids.

I had my date, and set the calendar! As the weeks went by, ODFW and I took turns checking on the nest, usually seeing the female only through spotting scopes to avoid disturbing her. Our beach rangers let the public know what all the signs were for, and beach visitors were (mostly) respectful of these birds’ privacy, for which I am very thankful.

 

What I saw on most nest checks - through the lens of a spotting scope.

What I saw on most nest checks – through the lens of a spotting scope.

Then I got the email from ODFW. Their Friday nest check had the female off the nest, foraging, and the male wasn’t sitting in her place. That is unusual. Winds were high, though, and ODFW didn’t linger on the beach. All weekend I worried over our little plovers, wondering if A/W/A:V and his unbanded female had lost their nest. I went out on the following Monday to check the nest – to confirm or deny that it was still there.

Nope.

Nothing.

The beach had changed.

What had been a relatively flat sandy spot was now an uphill slope, with no sign of eggs or nest (or my wildlife camera). To say I was sad is an understatement, but at the same time this is what happens out on our Oregon Coast. It is a rough, rugged place, and early nests are often lost to the weather. Since my wildlife camera vanished as well we don’t know exactly what happened to the nest. Did some people walk by on a windy day, bumping the female off the nest, and by the time she came back the sand had blown over her eggs? Was it a crow, or the resident beach coyotes? Was it simply such a windy gust that no matter how tight she sat she couldn’t keep the sand off her precious eggs? I don’t know, and never will (unless that camera washes up somewhere).

Taken April 9, the nest was in between the long, flat-topped board on the left and the tuft of beach grass.

Taken April 9, the nest was in between the long, flat-topped board on the left and the tuft of beach grass.

 

Taken April 23, that long flat log is in the bottom of the photo.

Taken April 23, at a slightly different angle. That same long flat board is in the bottom and the beach grass is at the top.

We continued to survey the Spit for any sign of plovers; they usually nest again after losing a nest, and will keep trying until it gets too late in the breeding period. After late July there just isn’t enough time for the birds to incubate, hatch, and raise their young to fledging before winter. I found some tracks shortly after the nest was lost, but then even those too disappeared.

And the beach continued to change. The southern half of the spit that had been such nice habitat early in the season kept getting more sloped as the winds sculpted the sand around driftwood. The northern half started getting more ideal, with flat expanses and bits of shell. Even though this nest attempt failed, it shows us that Nehalem is indeed attractive to western snowy plover and the HCP plans were not in vain. OPRD and USFWS have opted to lift recreation restrictions for the remainder of the breeding period, since there have been no sign of plovers all throughout May and June.

As for me, I’m planning some habitat restoration to get that beach a little wider, to give the birds a bit more room away from the wind, the predators, and the people. Maybe next year A/W/A:V will come back and try again. Or maybe one of his cousins. Either way, I’ll be waiting with a spotting scope to help them as best I can.

 

WSP two-egg nest

Jewels of the Fen

The round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) is one of several relatively uncommon insectivorous plants found in Oregon. Unlike its (perhaps) more well-known distant relative, the pitcher plant Darlingtonia, this tiny beauty (it’s only a few inches tall) requires one to get up close and personal with the ground to get a good look at it. This is no easy task in the type of environment they need to grow (wet, mushy and very sensitive to trampling boots). The fen that’s home to the below pictured sundews was discovered by our state park botanist during botanical surveys, and we were lucky enough to see it during a short detour on an unrelated site visit to the park.

round-leaved sundew

Sundew amongst sphagnum moss on the Oregon coast (fingernail for scale)

I discovered that the liquid on the “hair” ends (or maybe more aptly named, tentacles) is not dew as it may first appear. Instead it is a special sticky substance that helps trap insects lured in by the tips of the bright crimson hairs.

sundew tentacles

Close-up of bright crimson sundew tentacles

Once trapped, a process which involves the sticky tentacles wrapping around the victim, the insects are slowly dissolved. These carnivorous plants supplement their diet with bugs to get nutrients (particularly nitrogen), which are lacking in their bog-like environment. The sundews pictured here are living in a fen, a type of wetland, which is similar to a bog but hydrated with surface or groundwater (vs. primarily precipitation). Check out this Forest Service page for more information about bogs and fens.

Sundew with small bugs

Sundew with small trapped insects

Sundew with larger bug

Sundew with larger victim trapped in tentacles

Carnivorous plants, including almost 200 species (!) of sundews are found all around the world. Although the famed Venus fly trap isn’t native to Oregon, you can see insectivorous pitcher plants (aka cobra lilies) in Oregon by visiting the state park wayside named after them (Darlingtonia State Natural Site).

Darlingtonia

Pitcher plants (Darlingtonia californica) on the central Oregon coast.

Nehalem has some new residents

“I have a nest! I have a nest! I can’t believe I have a NEST!”

Those were my words at 1:30 pm Friday, April 3.

I was out on the beach at Nehalem Spit, looking for western snowy plovers. And boy, I found them!

Unbanded plover watching over its nest at Nehalem Bay State Park

Unbanded plover watching over her nest at Nehalem Bay State Park

See, March 15 – July 15 is the “detection period” for our north coast Shorebird Conservation Areas, and our dedicated Plover Patrol volunteers go out bimonthly to scan the beach for this tiny dune ghost of a shorebird. On March 26 our Patrol spied 3 snowy plovers, all banded: male A/W/A:V, female O/G:V, and O/Y:V. The V stands for the violet leg band on the right leg, and indicates these birds were hatched on the southern Oregon coast last year. These same birds had been spotted by birders loafing on the spit throughout the winter (check eBird!). But when I got the message that fateful Thursday I was excited! These birds were still on the spit, and the breeding period was at hand!

Cut scene to Friday April 3! I was on site meeting with Dan Elbert of USFWS and Herman Biederbeck of ODFW to strategize monitoring the birds, with intentions to head out and check on the birds. We didn’t really expect to find nesting; the earliest snowy plovers have nested in Oregon was April 17, and that was over two weeks away. The weather did not cooperate though – it was raining. It is so harsh out there for plovers that looking for them in the rain isn’t good for them, even if you can spot them hunkered down, hiding from the inclement weather. My wildlife biologist compatriots left the park, and I stayed around to discuss events with park staff. And then… the weather cleared! Sunny and beautiful and the perfect time to go out on the beach!

Nehalem Spit after the storm

Nehalem Spit after the storm

 

I didn’t really expect to find nesting – or even plovers! I honestly figured they would move on, head back down south, and that we wouldn’t get them to stay without some habitat restoration efforts first. The last time I was out on the Spit driftwood lay so think that you could scarcely put your foot down on dry sand. Near the jetty it was how I remembered –  driftwood packed tight like sardines in a tin. But the further north I went the more it opened up, and the beach was lovely. Dry, flat sand with bits of detritus scattered about, some logs to hide behind, and the occasional shell for camouflage. Maybe plovers were still here. I paused to take some photos – because you never know when you’ll need a good photo of the beach – and a small white thing ran and then halted at the edge of my vision.

Uh oh.

I switched to my binoculars. Plover. She bobbed up and down. My heart rate increased. She ran a bit further and bobbed again.

Uh oh!

That is a sign the bird is uncomfortable! Uncomfortable means nesty!  OMG!! I backpedaled away from the plover and bee-lined for the wet sand, spotting scope whacking my shoulder and bins bouncing! At this distance the plover was just a little white speck, easily missed a midst the driftwood and crab shells. She scurried across the sand and sat funny.

I had that spotting scope up faster than you can say “Big Year Birding.”

A tiny little plover, sitting in the sand. She picked up a little piece of something or other and put it down again. The plover version of knitting?

She stood up, turned around, poofed out her belly feathers like a dancer spreading her skirts and nestled back down again.

 

Western snowy plover on nest at Nehalem

Western snowy plover on nest at Nehalem

 

It’s been over 30 years since plovers nested at Nehalem Spit. Welcome back, little birds! Make your nests, sit tight on those eggs, and raise some little cotton ball babies! I’m honored to be the first to see it, and hope that many more to come will see the dune ghosts dart across the beach.

 

Gearhart Birdy Beach Trail!

In case you missed it in the Daily Astorian article, the new name for the trail along Necanicum Spit is:

Birdy Beach Trail!

The name was submitted by fourth-grader McKenna Roberts, and won out in a public vote over the 30+ entries.

Name the Trail!

Get your vote on!

OPRD, Gearhart Elementary, and the City of Gearhart invite you to help select a name for the new beach trail at Gearhart Ocean State Recreation Area! OPRD went to Gearhart Elementary and presented exciting information about the Esturary, the ocean, and the dunes that are right down the street from their classrooms. Students in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades rose to our challenge, submitting over 30 potential names for this new trail. We ranked the submissions on local, natural, and geographic resources plus that special “Wow!” factor. The students also went out to the beach itself with OPRD Coastal Visitor Experience Coordinator Brian Fowler. They learned more about the history of the area, the power of the ocean, and the creatures that use the beach right here in Gearhart.

Brian Fowler and local students investigate the beach!

Brian Fowler and local students investigate the beach!

Take the Survey

The top ten results are now open for the public to view! Which one is YOUR favorite? The survey closes by midnight on December 1, 2014! Feel free to take a moment and stroll along the trail or check out the photos below, get a feel for the place, and cast your vote! You can access the survey here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/gearharttrail

Where is the Trail Located?

In the City of Gearhart, leading from Little Beach at Necanicum Estuary out to Gearhart Ocean State Recreation Area. The new trail is a loop connecting the residential access point with the Little Beach access point near Wellington. Here’s a map!

New trail, ready and waiting for your feet!

New trail, ready and waiting for your feet!

 

What’s it Like?

The new trail winds through the dunes, letting visitors to shelter from the winds, pause to take in the rugged beauty of the North Coast, and loaf on benches that offer ocean views. The trail takes visitors along the Necanicum Estuary, where they can watch shorebirds and, during the right season, people clamming. Necanicum Estuary is an Important Bird Area, and thousands of migrating shorebirds visit its sands to forage and rest on their twice yearly journeys between breeding and wintering grounds. Eagles, gulls, and herons hang out year round, and maybe Caspian terns or the threatened western snowy plover might decide to nest in the Shorebird Conservation Area adjacent to the trail!

View of Necanicum Estuary from the new trail. At low tide all that sand provides great places for shorebirds to feed!

View of Necanicum Estuary from the new trail. At low tide all that sand provides great places for shorebirds to feed!

 

View point on the trail

View point on the trail

 

 

Students on the beach

Students on the beach

LaPine State Park – home to frogs and toads

If you love amphibians and missed the breeding season on the west side of the state, take a trek over the Cascades and you’ll find more breeding! With higher elevation and different rain patterns, the amphibians on the east side breed much later (in actual Spring!) than their west side counter parts that already did their thing last February.

The Oregon spotted frog (Rana pretiosa)  is a mostly aquatic species that used to occupy the Willamette Valley and the Cascades. In 1993, USFWS designated it a threatened species, but did not list it due to other higher priority species needs taking precedence (down side of being a wildlife biologist: prioritizing species’ lives). Last August, USFWS proposed to list the Oregon spotted frog as threatened.  So, USFWS is gathering more data about them, and invited OPRD to survey a known breeding site along the Deschutes River at La Pine State Park. USFWS wants us to go look for awesome amphibians to help the species? Absolutely!

So last week I drove over to Bend and met up with Greg Cianella, our Natural Resource Specialist for the Eastern Region. He had arranged everything – kayaks, data sheets, GPS and maps – so all I had to do was get in the boat and start paddling.

Paddling the Deschutes River - I love my job

Paddling the Deschutes River – I love my job

 

In contrast to our other breeding frogs, Oregon spotted frogs breed in very shallow water – preferring it less than a foot deep.  They like it still, shallow, and what a lot of us people consider “icky”.  Breeding areas are often devoid of emergent vegetation where the sun can warm the water – and the eggs – quickly. The breeding season is very short, only about four weeks long. That means when it’s time to survey you get out there and do it!

Oregon spotted frogs prefer to breed in shallow water, like this perched spring.

Oregon spotted frogs prefer to breed in shallow water, like this perched spring.

 

They lay their eggs as large masses that float on the surface when fresh. The masses are about the size of an orange, and as they mature the mass gets more “fluffy” and swells in size.

 

Oregon spotted frog egg masses posing with a kayak paddle

Oregon spotted frog egg masses posing with a kayak paddle

Oregon spotted frog egg mass that sunk to the bottom. My theory: the algae and sediment collected around the eggs made the mass heavy enough to sink!

Oregon spotted frog egg mass that sunk to the bottom. My theory: the algae and sediment collected around the eggs made the mass heavy enough to sink!

 

While we were trying to get a nice shot, maneuvering kayaks around, Greg noticed something different laying on the bottom of the slough. We did some more maneuvering – the wind was determined to move us where we didn’t want to go – and managed to get a good look at the stuff. Long strings! Everywhere. Like really long shoe laces crisscrossing the muddy substrate. Yet MORE maneuvering, and I managed to carefully lift the mystery shoelaces up to see them. The sediment dusted off and revealed a beautiful string of delicate eggs.

Western toad eggs! Don't try this at home, kids.

Western toad eggs! Don’t try this at home, kids.

All told, we found 30 spotted frog egg masses, the toad eggs, quite a few bufflehead, a slough of mallards, and sunshine on the water.

It was a good day to be a wildlife biologist!

 

Crafting a Future Forest

All over Oregon, landowners are planting native trees and shrubs to restore forests to places they once thrived. In the Willamette Valley, this work often focuses on restoring forests within the floodplains of rivers. When a water body interacts with its floodplain, whether it is for a few days or for months at a time, all sorts of amazing things happen!

Wintertime floodwaters doing their thing at Eldridge Bar Landing on the Willamette.

Wintertime floodwaters doing their thing at Eldridge Bar Landing on the Willamette.

Water quality can be improved significantly when water interacts with the floodplain. Water velocities will slow, allowing suspended sediments (dirt, sometimes carrying pollutants) to settle out of the water and deposit on the floodplain, resulting in less turbid (dirty) water, which is good for aquatic species and for people.

Depending on the composition of the soil in the floodplain, water can soak into the ground and replenish groundwater, or water can pond on clay deposits and create wetlands which support a diverse array of wildlife. When water soaks into groundwater, it can stay there for weeks or years, and over time will become cooler. This cooler water often seeps back into the river creating cold water zones that cold-water fish, like salmon, can use for migration, resting, feeding or spawning.

Several phases of planting in riparian and floodplain areas are underway at Elijah Bristow State Park, located on the Middle Fork Willamette.

Several phases of planting in riparian and floodplain areas are underway at Elijah Bristow State Park, located on the Middle Fork Willamette.

Water also picks up a lot of material when it interacts with the floodplain, ranging from small particles of leaves and insects to huge trees. Many of Oregon’s native fish and wildlife are dependent on these materials to provide food or suitable habitat to survive. Salmon, for example, will eat insects picked up by floodwaters, and they also depend on diverse habitat in the river that large log jams formed from floodplain trees can provide. Salmon are only one example of a large number of native species that depend on good water quality and complex aquatic habitat.

Darrow Rocks Landing was tilled as part of site preparation and broadcast seeded with native grasses to provide a cover crop. Planting crews installed over 11,000 native trees and shrubs in February 2014, and the site will now be maintained intensively through mowing and control of competing weeds using herbicide for 3-5 years until the plants reach a point that they will continue to thrive without management intervention. The Willamette River is located just off the property on the right.

Darrow Rocks Landing was tilled as part of site preparation and broadcast seeded with native grasses to provide a cover crop. Planting crews installed over 11,000 native trees and shrubs in February 2014, and the site will now be maintained intensively through mowing and control of competing weeds using herbicide for 3-5 years until the plants reach a point that they will continue to thrive without management intervention. The Willamette River is located just off the property on the right.

Even when floodwaters don’t actually reach a nearby forest, a mature native forest located near a river (a riparian forest) can still provide numerous benefits including shade to cool river water, and habitat for the large number of species who depend on riparian habitat in Oregon. These hardwood forests provide wintering habitat and movement corridors for songbirds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Breeding and migratory bird densities in cottonwood-dominated riparian forests are generally the highest of all habitat types in North America.

One small part of the expansive planting area at Luckiamute State Natural Area. This spot is in a wetland and was planted densely with shrubs that prefer wet conditions This park is located at the confluence of the Willamette, Luckiamute and Santiam Rivers.

One small part of the expansive planting area at Luckiamute State Natural Area. This spot is in a wetland and was planted densely with shrubs that prefer wet conditions This park is located at the confluence of the Willamette, Luckiamute and Santiam Rivers.

Oregon State Parks has partnered with numerous organizations and individuals to restore floodplain forests at sites along the Willamette River. The Willamette is one of many rivers that have been largely disconnected from its floodplain over time as other land uses have come to dominate the landscape. In the 1850s it is estimated that hardwood riparian/floodplain forests occupied 67% of the riparian zone along the Willamette River main-stem, reduced to less than 10% by 1990. Many of OPRD’s Willamette River Greenways and some of our state parks and natural areas contain areas that used to be dominated by forest, where land conversion has occurred over time.

Willamette Mission State Park floodplain area, prior to site preparation (control of Scotch broom and Armenian blackberry) which began in February 2014. The Willamette River is located just past the tree line in this photo.

Willamette Mission State Park floodplain area, prior to site preparation (control of Scotch broom and Armenian blackberry) which began in February 2014. The Willamette River is located just past the tree line in this photo.

To properly start a forest from scratch, you need to keep in mind a number of principles borrowed from the fields of forestry, botany, and agriculture. The density, arrangement and species composition that you plant in year 1 will influence how your forest appears and functions in 10, 50, and 100 years from now, at maturity.

Different species have vastly different tolerances to environmental conditions, such as flooding, animal damage (deer, voles, beaver, etc.), competition with other plants, drought, and other factors. These differences will influence which species survive over time and are present in your future mature forest. How you prepare your site prior to planting, and how you manage your planting area for the first 5-10 years will also greatly influence your future mature forest.

An example of a mature cottonwood gallery floodplain forest at Bower's Rock State Park.

An example of a mature cottonwood and ash dominated floodplain forest at Bower’s Rock State Park.

Restoration practitioners in the Willamette Valley have implemented a number of different approaches to floodplain and riparian forest restoration, with none of them being inherently “right” or “wrong”. Instead, your chosen approach will depend on your desired future condition (i.e. what you want your site to look or function like at some time in the future), what your starting site conditions are, what foreseeable problems may come up at a site, planned management interventions at the site , and of course, what financial and staff resources you have available.

Notable examples of floodplain and riparian forest restoration work occurring at Oregon State Parks sites within the Willamette Valley include Luckiamute Landing State Natural Area, Half Moon Bend Landing, Darrow Rock’s Landing, Elijah Bristow State Park, and Willamette Mission State Park. These projects are using a variety of approaches in their density, arrangement, and species composition based on site specific conditions. Over time, all of these project areas will mature and begin to provide the ecological functions of improved water quality, shade, habitat complexity, and food sources for native fish and wildlife.

At Half Moon Bend Landing, native trees and shrubs were installed in March 2013, with another smaller area planted in March 2014. This site was laid out in blocks where different densities and arrangements of species were installed.

At Half Moon Bend Landing, native trees and shrubs were installed in March 2013, with another smaller area planted in March 2014. This site was laid out in blocks where different densities and arrangements of species were installed.

Plover Patrol Flocking up for 2014

Hello Oregonians! We’re looking to start up our Plover Patrol again to hunt for western snowy plover at three of our north coast parks. For more details and to apply, go to our Volunteer Posting.

 

Plover Patrol is Flocking Up!

Plover Patrol is Flocking Up!

Brian Booth State Park – Amphibian Training Day!

It was a sunny day last Wednesday when our North Coast Steward and I took the NCC Silver 1 AmeriCorps team out for some training in wildlife surveys and marsh walking. Silver 1 is serving with Oregon State Parks on the central and north coasts for 10 weeks this winter. They are helping OPRD staff implement much needed restoration and research projects throughout our parks, focusing on the Beaver Creek State Natural Area. The team will survey areas of Beaver Marsh this late winter to count amphibian egg masses, which sounds pretty dull! But mincing around through a calm, cool marsh in highly stylish waders, surrounded by amazing birds, and looking through the water for egg mass treasures is a lot more fun than you might think!

Can you spot the red-legged frog egg mass

Can you spot the red-legged frog egg mass?

They will find egg masses and document some habitat features in the area, like water depth and vegetation. OPRD (me) will then be able to compare to last year, and do it again next year, and as the years go by we will have an idea about what the amphibian population is up to in the marsh. Amphibians are often one of the first groups of species to respond to changes in the ecosystem, which makes them excellent indicators of ecosystem health.

Sometimes the water levels drop after frogs lay their eggs. When this happens the egg masses can be left high and dry - winter and spring rains are good for amphibian breeding!

Sometimes the water levels drop after frogs lay their eggs. When this happens the egg masses can be left high and dry – winter and spring rains are good for amphibian breeding!

We can already see a difference from last year – it seems that spring came early! There were already a lot of egg masses in the marsh, when last year about this same time there were only a handful. For OPRD this is important information so that we can plan restoration projects during times of the year that will have the least negative impact on our natural resources, like breeding amphibians! For the Americorps team, who works on lots of trail building and community projects, this is a unique opportunity to experience a completely different set of work challenges. Maybe we’ll make a wildlife biologist out of one of them!

The team learns how to maneuver a marsh and not fall in.

The team learns how to maneuver a marsh and not fall in.

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