“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!
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!
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.
I switched to my binoculars. Plover. She bobbed up and down. My heart rate increased. She ran a bit further and bobbed again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
Cape Lookout State Park on the north Oregon coast is home to dramatic scenery and diverse wildlife habitats, containing everything from basaltic ocean cliffs, sand dunes, and majestic Sitka spruce forests. The park has an enviable location with facilities situated between the remarkable cape which juts 2 miles out into the Pacific Ocean and Netarts Bay, the latter of which is arguably one of the more pristine bays on the Oregon coast.
This summer, Cape Lookout has also been the host of a large stream restoration project designed to improve the park’s aquatic resources. Jackson Creek is an ocean tributary contained mostly within the park’s boundaries that flows through the picnic area before running out to the ocean on the cobble and sandy beaches just north of the headland. The Jackson Creek watershed encompasses just 1.6 square miles but provides excellent habitat for coho, sea run cut throat trout, winter steelhead, and many different species of amphibians. The upper part of the watershed is steep and Jackson Creek forms a deep, narrow canyon east of the Park. As the stream enters the Park, it enters the flat coastal plain, where the channel becomes less steep. It is here, within the boundaries of Cape Lookout State Park, the creek provides important spawning and rearing habitat for fish.
Jackson Creek has an interesting history and has long been impacted by a series of human caused disturbances that have resulted in its habitat being compromised. In 1950, the creek was diverted into an excavated channel and directed into Netarts Bay. According to an article in the April 9, 1950 issue of the Oregonian, this action was undertaken by Tillamook County with the hopes of improving the salmon fishery. It was also hoped by some that the increased fresh water into Netarts Bay would help clear out sedimentation and improve commercial oyster production.
These intentions were well meaning, but ended up having negative impacts on aquatic habitat. It turns out that Netarts Bay is naturally a very saline environment, with only 14 small perennial streams providing a source of fresh water to the bay. In fact, the bay flushes itself with only 1.6 tidal cycles which is pretty rapid for a bay of its size. The fresh water contribution from diverting Jackson into the bay was minimal. Also, the creek likely contributes more to sedimentation, particularly in the south side of the bay where it regularly delivers material from the steep slopes of the Tillamook Highlands.
Diverting the creek into the bay also effectively cut off the ocean tributary from fish use. But this didn’t last long. A few years after the creek was diverted, it broke through the construction dam and some flows returned to the original channel. The flow of the creek has then been split between both channels- the historic ocean tributary and the newly constructed diversion channel- for the past 60 years. This had dramatic effects on the aquatic habitat. While fish have been using both channels, neither channel has had enough water in it to effectively support high quality fish habitat. Additionally, the diversion channel frequently went dry in the summer months and would strand juvenile salmon in small pools that eventually went completely dry. The diversion channel was also very unstable. It transported large amounts of coarse gravel downstream, and then would jump its banks and flow into portions of the campground. It wasn’t uncommon during these events to see juvenile salmon stranded in puddles in the campground!
Clearly, something had to be done. This summer, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department teamed up with partners the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tillamook Estuaries Partnership, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board to implement a large stream restoration project on Jackson Creek. As part of the project, the diversion channel was plugged and historic flows returned to the original Jackson Creek channel. A road ford, which had park vehicles driving across the creek to access the water treatment plant, was removed and a timber bridge will be installed to provide safe fish passage for all life cycles of salmon. And finally, the water intake that provides water from Jackson Creek to the park for use was effectively screened to prevent fish from becoming trapped in the park’s water system.
With all these improvements, it is hoped that adult fish will have an easier time navigating the ocean tributary as they come in from the ocean to spawn. Natural resources staff also hope that the original Jackson Creek ocean tributary will become more connected to its floodplain with the increased flow, providing a better place for young coho to rear. All in all, the creek has been returned to its natural condition and will provide a better experience for all park visitors- both human and fish!
Many Oregonians flock to the Coast for July 4. The cool breezes are a welcome respite from the Valley’s summer heat, and there are so many things to do! People and pets will be playing on the beaches, where wildlife can be overwhelmed by the disturbance. What is fun and relaxing to us can be very nerve-wracking to wildlife, and can even cause the loss of young babies and nests.
Each year on our sandy beaches, imperiled western snowy plovers settle down to nest. Federally and state threatened, plovers have been forced into smaller and smaller areas as their habitat has been consumed by invasive plants and development. With no where else to go, the birds try to raise their young on the beach that is left – which is also where people go to play. Since plovers and their nests are well camouflaged, beach visitors often don’t even know they are there!
But the birds certainly know people are there. When an adult flushes away from its nest to avoid people and pets, the nest and young are vulnerable to predators and weather. A tiny shorebird nest can get covered in sand very quickly with our Coast “breezes”! Keep in mind that infrequent disturbance short in duration isn’t the problem – it becomes a problem when people are always walking by (different people!), or sitting down near a nest.
Each nest is critical to the survival of these birds, and thanks to Oregonians their population is on the rise! Some preserved areas serve as nesting grounds and affords these birds a chance at successful nesting, which is helping their populations to rebound.
This holiday, the main concerns are the large crowds and the use of fireworks. Fireworks and nesting birds do not mix; to a shorebird, fireworks are loud, startling noises rather similar to gun shots. Adults can panic, and leave nests and flightless chicks without protection. In order to help us protect these birds we ask that you not shoot fireworks into the nesting areas or on beaches (where it is illegal whether birds are there or not), keep your dogs on a leash and out of the nesting areas (where they aren’t allowed anyway), and do not cross any rope barriers that are established to protect nesting birds. There has been a large time investment by beach goers, OPRD staff, and many other agencies ensuring the success of this year ‘s flock of fledglings and we need your help for that success to continue.
Following these simple steps will help you share the beach and still enjoy it yourself:
- RESPECT POSTED AREAS– Nests are hard to see! They are well camouflaged and blend in with the sand. Walking or allowing your dog to roam in roped off areas puts nests at risk of being trampled or abandoned by their parents. Shooting fireworks, flying remote controlled planes, or flying a parasail adjacent to or within protected areas creates a disturbance and will chase birds away.
- NEVER INTENTIONALLY FORCE BIRDS TO FLY– Birds come to our beaches to rest just like we do. When we scatter a group of birds they have to use energy that they need to reserve for nesting activities or migration. While it creates a great visual it is the same as someone chasing you as soon as you sit down on the beach.
- KEEP PETS ON A LEASH AND AWAY FROM NESTING AREAS– While your dog might not chase birds, nesting shorebirds can’t distinguish a good dog from a predatory dog, or a leashed dog from an unleashed one. They assume all canines are predatory and react as such, flushing off of their nest when approached by anything resembling a threat; this includes your dog no matter how well behaved.
- KEEP THE BEACH CLEAN AND DO NOT FEED WILDLIFE– Food scraps attract predators such as crows and ravens to the beaches. It is against the rules to feed wildlife on the Ocean Shore not to mention it is impolite to your beach neighbors to attract gulls with snacks. They will eat anything and don’t know when to go away. It’s funny in “Finding Nemo”, but not so great when they are staring at you!
That’s it! Pretty straight forward, and so easy to do. Please go and enjoy our beautiful coast, and share the beach with the wonderful wildlife!
To work with wildlife you bend your schedule to fit whatever the critters require. So when you’re working with land birds, that means you get up before dawn, go to your site, and be in place before the birds really get going. The height of bird song, when everything is singing and you can hardly hear yourself think, is called the “Dawn Chorus” and starts right about sunrise. Some species start singing earlier – American robin, pacific wren, Swainson’s thrush – but to really get the prime diversity you want to be listening at dawn and for an hour or two afterwards.
So I was up before dawn, at one OPRD’s properties in the central Willamette Valley. The property has no facilities other than some old road beds and wildlife trails that wind between agriculture fields, through riparian gallery forest, past a meadow, and terminate at a large pond with an island in the middle. There’s also wetlands, a slough, and two smaller ponds full of carp.
Here is the big pond, with part of the island on the right. The up side to early mornings is that you get to see lovely views like this, a perk of the job.
The gallery forest is alive with birds; right now there are adults singing and calling to each other, hunting down prey, and delivering it to their fledglings that are squealing for food at all hours. Once you start listening to bird calls you’ll start to hear the fledglings. They have this insistent “eee eee eeee!” that is new to the forest in late May and common place by the end of June.
I set up a point count on this old road access, with full forest on one side and a small pond on the other. A point count is a spot where you stand for 10 minutes, listening and watching and recording all the birds around you. I use fixed-distance point counts so that our data can join Klamath Bird Observatory’s database, and we can calculate density and abundance. With data like that, you can survey a site over multiple years and see how the bird populations are changing. Determining just how many song sparrows are singing all around you can be an intense process when there are 12 other species all calling at the same time!
What is neat at this point station is this old snag:
It is home to a group of acorn woodpeckers! The whole time I stood there the woodpeckers were coming and going, feeding their young. Acorn woodpeckers are best known for their clown-like facial feathers and for shoving hundreds of acorns into trees (or utility poles) to feed on over the winter. They are also unique in their flocking. Most woodpeckers are in pairs for the breeding season, raising only their young. But acorn woodpeckers are very social, and multiple females will lay eggs in the same nest cavity, taking turns incubating and feeding. This makes for a very loud group effort!
All in all, I documented 38 bird species after 5 points and walking between them, including a surprise – common poorwill. That is a rare bird for the Willamette Valley, and I doubted myself when I heard it calling. But, there’s not much that sounds like a poorwill, and I checked the call in the field with my Sibley app (woo smart phones). Yep, common poorwill. I’ll be listening for him next time I visit to see if he was resident or a stray.
I also had another uncommon resident – black phoebe! This was the second time I saw this fellow, so he is a resident. I’ve not observed a pair, so he might be an early range expander thanks to climate change. Regardless of why he is there, the little phoebe is living in the Valley this summer!
Bird List on June 12, 2013
- Green heron
- Red-tailed hawk
- Osprey (pair with young)
- California quail
- Mourning dove
- Eurasian collared-dove
- Common poorwill
- Rufous hummingbird
- Belted kingfisher
- Acorn woodpecker
- Hairy woodpecker
- Northern flicker
- Western wood-peewee
- Black phoebe
- Western scrub-jay
- American crow
- Tree swallow
- Barn swallow
- Black-capped chickadee
- Brown creeper
- Bewick’s wren
- Pacific wren
- American robin
- Swainson’s thrush
- European starling
- Cedar waxwing
- Yellow warbler
- Common yellothroat
- Wilson’s warbler
- Black-headed grosbeak
- Spotted towhee
- Song sparrow
- Dark-eyed junco
- Brown-headed cowbird
- Red-winged blackbird
- American goldfinch
And after that lovely morning, I get to go back to the office and do some paperwork. Yay!