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Wildlife Habitat Improvements through the Natural Resource Conservation Program

Wildlife Habitat Improvements through the Natural Resource Conservation Program, Post and Photos by Sabra Noyes

Although living most of her life in Washington, Sabra had no idea about prairies in Washington until she retired and bought a farm, Rosefield, not too far from Glacial Heritage Preserve. She never ceases to be amazed by the complexity and interdependence of life on the prairie.

Last week the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) posted about their program. As I have held four contracts with this organization, I would like to share how they helped me restore the native habitats on my farm.

When I moved to my farm in Oakville in 2010, there were just a few oaks left, the property having been logged a hundred years or so ago. The Douglas firs that grew in after had also been logged in 1998. As I looked across the landscape, I was confronted with acres of stumps, holes big enough to swallow my tractor. and the most luxurious fields of Canadian thistle, six feet tall, dense, and persistent.

Wanting to improve the picture I contacted the Grays Harbor Conservation District. They brought in NRCS and as a team with a biologist, forester, program manager, and technician we walked the property and they offered suggestions of what could be done. Acting on their recommendations, over the next couple of years, I contracted with NRCS to make significant improvements to the habitats on the property.

The first project was to restore eight acres back to an oak savannah. Cost sharing was available for many practices. The huge holes had to be filled in, blue rye grass seed planted and mulched. Fencing was installed to protect the area.

Oregon oak saplings were purchased, planted, and caged.

A simple to build and inexpensive cage, yet very effective.  None of the 20 oaks planted were lost to browsing.  Photo by Sabra Noyes

A simple to build and inexpensive cage, yet very effective. None of the 20 oaks planted were lost to browsing.  Photo by Sabra Noyes

An old maple and a large fir were girdled to create snags for nesting birds.

A "slow kill" of a maple and a fir tree.  Bark was removed emulating wildlife destruction.  Photo by Sabra Noyes

A “slow kill” of a maple and a fir tree.  Bark was removed emulating wildlife destruction.  Photo by Sabra Noyes

A brush pile was created – a wonderful habitat for birds, bugs, rodents, and reptiles.

Brush piles and snags have a life cycle with stages supporting different organisms.  As  snags and piles mature, new ones are created.  Photo by Sabra Noyes

Brush piles and snags have a life cycle with stages supporting different organisms.  As  snags and piles mature, new ones are created.  Photo by Sabra Noyes

Bird nesting boxes went up. A wildlife corridor connecting wooded patches was created using Oregon ash and native crabapples to provide cover and food.

A portion of the fence cost shared with NRCS protecting plantings in the wildlife corridor.  Photo by Sabra Noyes

A portion of the fence cost shared with NRCS protecting plantings in the wildlife corridor.  Photo by Sabra Noyes

A second contract was signed for improving a small remnant stand of Garry oaks. The understory of vine maples, cherry, and cascara was cut away from the oaks. This allowed lower branches to form (making for a healthier tree) [707]as well as providing an environment where sprouting acorns could become established. Additional oak saplings were planted such that, over time, there will be a three acre oak forest.

"Lion tailed" Garry oaks created by years of over shading.  Cutting back competing trees, these oaks are now starting to branch out.  Photo by Sabra Noyes

“Lion tailed” Garry oaks created by years of over shading. Cutting back competing trees, these oaks are now starting to branch out.  Photo by Sabra Noyes

Finally, there were two contracts for establishing a prairie. This prairie is described in an earlier blog post. NRCS provided cost sharing on two years of weed killing in preparation for establishing prairie plants, sowing of native Roemers fescue, planting camas bulbs, and wildflower seeding.

As it has been a couple of years since my last contract with NRCS, most certainly their programs and practices have changed. But if you have any inkling of wanting to improve a habitat, please check out their programs. They are a dedicated group with a wealth of knowledge and experience to share.

I am very grateful for NRCS. The environment on this farm has changed dramatically, which could only have been done with help. Every year my count of native birds (76 species) and plants increases, pollinators are everywhere and two years ago the Douglas squirrels showed up. The farm is becoming an island in the archipelago of prairies being restored throughout southwestern Washington.

Working for NRCS and with Landowners: The Wonders Never Cease to Amaze Me

Working for NRCS and with Landowners: The Wonders Never Cease to Amaze Me, Post by Susan Hoey Lees

I have been involved with agriculture in one form or another all my life. I have owned and operated a stable. Horses are still a passion, so I diligently manage our pastures for them and the pleasure of the wildlife that come to graze nearly nightly.

We manage our own forest lands, and I am also passionate for all types of gardens whether they be for edibles, flower/prairie viewing, cut-flowers or purely sharing my heritage fruit trees’ bounties with the wildlife and horses. Watching wildlife on our properties has always been a delight for me; but watching land and wildlife return and thrive on a customer’s property is especially delightful to me.

I am currently working as a Resource Conservationist with NRCS in the Chehalis Service Center, serving ranchers, farmers, private forest landowners and managers.

Working for NRCS and with Landowners: The Wonders Never Cease to Amaze Me

It has been 10 years since I made a rather radical career change to follow my heart and try to marry my passions for healing/restoring the land, the environment, agriculture and technical and design skills all in one. I did not know if I would be able to find my dream job.

I can now fondly recall one of the questions that my potential supervisor asked me in my first phone interview for an engineering technician position for the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). The question was; why do you want to work for NRCS?

I had innocently answered that I was seeking a position that would allow me to marry my passions and to help people help the land; and I could hear the interviewer starting to softly chuckle. I was horrified and inquired if I said something wrong, to which he inquired if I knew what the agency’s (NRCS) mission statement was. My heart raced and I was abashed and began to feel that my interview was going in a direction that was not boding well for me as he continued to chuckle deeply into the phone. I was mortified and shyly stated; no, I did not know the agency’s mission statement. My interviewer’s chuckle got even deeper, yet it contained a tickle of a hint of delight; finally, he stated that he felt I would fit in quite well with the agency as the NRCS mission statement was “Helping People Help the Land”. He offered me the position as a Civil Engineering Technician. I had in fact found, and was offered, my dream job!

Over the last 10 years I have held a few different positions with NRCS, in a few different locations, and have had the privilege of working with a wide variety of private landowners and land managers addressing a wide variety of resource issues. Often these landowners would seek financial assistance through one of NRCS’s financial programs to implement/install some of the recommendations. The result is almost always “helping people to help the land” through addressing resource concerns, protecting natural resources, and/or restoring degraded ecosystems.

The beginnings of NRCS are rather humble, the agency was formed as a result of the urgings of one man, Huge Hammond Bennett, to Congress to address the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s by conserving the nations precious resources. Conserving resources throughout the nation, not just in Dust Bowl territory, so there would be healthy soils to grow food, clean water to drink and grow crops, clean air to breathe, healthy plants for food, fiber & ecosystems, and healthy animals.

The urgings were so compelling that Congress established a federal agency called the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), and the legacy of using science-based technologies to address resource concerns affecting soils, water, air, plants and animals was developed.

The agency’s vision was and continues to be a simple one; use a partnership approach to work with landowners, community groups, local governments, Tribes, States and other Federal agencies on a voluntary basis. Thus, the agency began and continues to be a non-regulatory Federal agency working with landowners and land managers, offering technical and science-based knowledge for free, through site visits by NRCS staff with a landowner or manager.

The agency’s name was changed from SCS in the 1980’s to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, with that name change also came the Farm Bill programs that began offering financial incentives/assistance to landowners and managers to implement the recommendations shared with them on how to address the resource concerns identified.

Here is a link to explore more about NRCS; who we are, the partnership approach, and a little about our Conservation Assistance. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/wa/about/

The list of NRCS practices (a term used to describe both management and physically installed components) is extensive. Recommended practices are dependent on the objectives of the landowner and the land use and resource concerns being treated, see examples below for common types of practices.

General practices used for many land uses: fencing, irrigation practices, livestock practices

Cropland practices often include: cover cropping, no-till, soil health, pest management, irrigation practices

Prairie restoration practices often include: invasive weed control, brush management, native species reseeding, upland wildlife habitat management

Ecosystem restoration practices often include: early successional habitat development/management, wetland enhancements or restorations, tree/shrub site prep & plantings, wetland wildlife habitat management, wildlife habitat planting (pollinator hedgerow)

Fish passage practices often include: barrier removals or aquatic organism passage elements, channel bed stabilization, critical area plantings, riparian buffers

Forestry practices often include: invasive weed control, tree/shrub site prep & plantings, pre- commercial thinning, riparian forest buffers, upland wildlife habitat management

The 2018 Farm Bill is the newest Congressional authorization that allows NRCS to have funding to incentivize landowners to implement practices to protect or restore natural resources. There are a few programs under this authorization, but the most popular is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Here is a link that covers all the current programs: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/wa/programs/farmbill/

NRCS is taking EQIP applications now, the deadline for all documents to be in is November 20th, 2020. It is a good idea to begin talking with an NRCS staff person to discuss your resource concerns, your objectives and then decide if you want only the advice and information from the agency, or if you want to seek financial assistance through one of the programs to install/implement some of the practices that may be recommended during an on-site visit. Here is a link that will guide you through the basic steps of applying for the EQIP program: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/programs/financial/eqip/?cid=nrcseprd1342638

There are NRCS offices throughout WA. I am working out of the Chehalis Office, in Lewis County, but have worked out of other counties. The attached link can be used to find the nearest local office to you. https://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app?service=page/CountyMap&state=WA&stateName=Washington&stateCode=53

The wonders never cease to amaze me when technical and environmental knowledge is shared with people who want to be good stewards of the land. Couple that knowledge with some form of financial assistance for the recommendations to be installed, and voila! the land & wildlife begins to recover, it becomes rejuvenated through the restoration process or management efforts. Follow-up visits are typically filled with delights as the landowner’s own passions and awe of the land’s healing process become re-ignited as they embrace a stewardship role for their lands!

 Five-Steps-Assistance-FACTSHEET

Working with Partners for Fish and Wildlife-A First Impression

Working with Partners for Fish and Wildlife-A First Impression, Post and photos by Sabra Noyes

Although living most of her life in Washington, Sabra had no idea about prairies in Washington until she retired and bought a farm, Rosefield, not too far from Glacial Heritage Preserve. She never ceases to be amazed by the complexity and interdependence of life on the prairie.

Working with Partners for Fish and Wildlife-A first Impression

After reading a previous post, “Partners for Fish and Wildlife: Voluntary Habitat Restoration on Private Lands” by Nick George, US Fish and Wildlife Service, I decided to investigate further. Habitat restoration on my farm could use some help.

Starting in 2011, with help from Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM), returning the land to what it once might have been prior to 1850 became my vision and never-ending labor of love. The woodlands, riparian, and savannah areas are progressing nicely and don’t require much tending. But the prairie – YIKES!

In some places, it does look a bit like a prairie:

An area starting to look like a prairie, photo by Sabra Noyes.

An area starting to look like a prairie, photo by Sabra Noyes.

But overall, there is a range of non-native vegetative nightmares. Where it is wetter, reed canary grass

Reed Canary Grass, photo by Sabra Noyes.

Reed Canary Grass, photo by Sabra Noyes.

 and where it is a bit drier, rat tailed fescue:

Rat-tailed Fescue, photo by Sabra Noyes.

Rat-tailed Fescue, photo by Sabra Noyes.

This is a non native invasive annual whose dead leaves smother everything. Then there are all the usual suspects of tansy, broom, thistles, and broad leaf grasses. Perhaps a bit unusual is that in some areas, the native Roemer’s fescue is just too happy

Roemer's Fescue that's gotten a bit carried away, Photo by Sabra Noyes.

Roemer’s Fescue that’s gotten a bit carried away, Photo by Sabra Noyes.

 It grows so lushly it chokes out all the forbs. Could FWS come to the rescue and help this wannabe prairie?

I contacted Nick and scheduled a site visit. He was here for three hours, most of which was spent walking the land. He wanted to know what my objectives (restoring the prairie) were and then we discussed what actions could be taken. Some actions are relatively simple, such as stopping the growth of non-prairie trees; this maple

A Maple on the Prairie, photo by Sabra Noyes.

A Maple on the Prairie, photo by Sabra Noyes.

 should look like this one:

Dead Maple on the prairie, photo by Sabra Noyes.

Dead Maple on the prairie, photo by Sabra Noyes.

 A standing snag that provides nesting cavities and insects preferred by prairie birds

A much more complex action, and a bit daunting to me, is to do a controlled burn across the area.

We then sat down and discussed the Partners Program and how it works:

is my objective a program fit for FWS, or are there other agencies such as NRCS or the Conservation District that can better help? 

can my objective be met with technical assistance from FWS, or will I also request financial help?

if I request financial help, am I prepared to do a 50/50 cost match? Nick explained that the landowner can do an “in-kind, or sweat-equity” contribution to help reach that 50% match.

and if I do enter into a contract with FWS, am I prepared to hold the contract for 10 years and allow annual monitoring for the first three years?

At the end of the visit, I let Nick know that I was interested in obtaining FWS Partners Program assistance for a burn of the prairie. He agreed to investigate it further. He will gather more information on whether a burn is the best solution and how it could be accomplished. Then there is the matter of how much funding his agency receives for the program, and where my project ranks with respect to other proposed projects.  Should I make the cutoff, it will then be a matter of signing a contract that clearly states the requirements and obligations of each of the parties involved.

Even if the “Partnership” goes no further than the initial site visit, it was time very well spent. Nick is highly knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and a good communicator. I know I can call on him in the future for guidance and tossing around restoration ideas. I’ll keep this blog informed as to the progress of my request for Partners Program assistance.

Spring Fling

Spring Fling, Post and photos by Ivy Clark

Lauren ‘Ivy’ Clark studied the hybridization of Castilleja levisecta and C. hispida in restoration sites for their Masters thesis at the University of Washington before becoming a restoration technician for the Center for Natural Lands Management.

Spring Fling

Summer is full on these days, toasty and dry. Bet you didn’t think back in mid-winter you would be missing the rainy cloud-cover, as you have to regularly water the yard and dodge mosquitoes? As the natural landscape dries out and you battle to keep the horticulture green and spry, how about a look back to the fresh spring and lush blooms we had that are now going into seed? What we see senescing now was a mere baby bud a few months ago. They grow so fast don’t they?

Chocolate Lily just getting started, photo by Ivy Clark

Chocolate Lily just getting started, photo by Ivy Clark

Recognize this little distinct gem? The single flower starts plain and green but that trio whorl of leaves is a dead give-away for a young chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis). The green tepals (not quite petals not quite sepals) would develop into the checkered chocolaty brown, almost purple, for which it is named. They later turn into interesting multi-ribbed seed pods, turning upright from the nodding flower.

Chocolate Lily in full bloom, photo by Ivy Clark.

The nodding chocolaty flowers of Fritillaria affinis in midbloom on Glacial Heritage. Photo by Ivy Clark.

 

Sickle-keeled Lupine, photo by Ivy Clark

Sickle-keeled Lupine, photo by Ivy Clark

The brand new stubby bright green stems of sickle-keeled lupine (Lupinus albicaulis), emerging among last year’s woody stems. It is a mere hint of the Fabaceae grandeur that it will grow to be.

Like so many youths, the columbine (Aquilegia formosa) looks a little awkward as a bud,

Columbine in bud, photo by Ivy Clark

Columbine in bud, photo by Ivy Clark

but quickly develops into the complex drooping star structure best viewed from below and backlit by a crystal blue sky.

Columbine in full bloom, photo by Ivy Clark

Columbine in full bloom, photo by Ivy Clark

For those familiar with Little Shop of Horrors, don’t fear the little cutleaf Microseris (Microserus laciniata). It is a bit Audrey II yes (“Feed me!”), or perhaps like a Paleolithic dandelion, but it is a stellar pollinator-feeding, mid-season bloomer and prairie staple. Look for fluffy globes more dense than the common dandelion seed heads out there now. And feel free to make a wish for more natives as you blow them off the stem.

Cut-leaf Microseris, photo by Ivy Clark

Cut-leaf Microseris, photo by Ivy Clark

 

Pacific Lupine and Golden Paintbrush, photo by Ivy Clark

Pacific Lupine and Golden Paintbrush, photo by Ivy Clark

This is just what we botanists call a sexy plant picture. Purple of the Pacific lupine (Lupinus lepidus) in a tiered spire before the endangered golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) burning yellow columns. They have complementary colors (remember your color wheel?) and very different leaves but are both delights on the prairie. Sometimes they grow and line up just right for you where you have to drop whatever you were doing and take a picture!

After seed dispersal, the Lupinus lepidus is still green but with curly-cue brown seed pods that have flung the brown hard lentil-like seeds outward. The mechanical dispersal is simple and fun to try to catch. You can hear the little popping sounds as the pods slowly dry tighter and tighter until they snap apart and twist under the sudden release.

Lupinus lepidus, photo by Ivy Clark

Lupinus lepidus, photo by Ivy Clark

 

Young Yarrow plant, photo by ivy Clark

Young Yarrow plant, photo by ivy Clark

Awe, look how cute and little those flower buds are! Like a fuzzy little puppy, yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is just starting to produce the “million” tiny leaves and nearly as many flowers, for which it is named- “thousand leaves”. Well, maybe not really a thousand, or million, but you know how taxonomists can exaggerate. And you may have heard of its healing properties, hence the genus named for Achilles of Greek myth whose soldiers used the plant to tend their battle wounds.

Yarrow starting to bloom, photo by Ivy Clark.

Yarrow starting to bloom, photo by Ivy Clark.

Recently yarrows have been going to seed, crispy brown frilly cups of tiny seeds ready to grow new clumps of healing gray fluff.

Yarrow in seed, photo by Ivy Clark

Yarrow in seed, photo by Ivy Clark

One of the first wildflowers spotted on Glacial Heritage preserve this year was the shooting star (Dodatheon hendersonii). A well named genus, meaning “of the twelve gods”, these plants and close relatives are just gorgeous and interesting. The flowers start out upside down to utilize dangling bee pollinators.

Shooting Star in bloom with unpollinated flowers. Photo by Ivy Clark.

and then they turn upright to the blue skies after pollination. So if you see small brown cups with little ridges on the rim, upright instead of downward like falling stars, that’s actually their mature fruits. Who says plants don’t move? They can even reposition their fruits. See the mid-spring photo showing the fading flowers pointing skyward and the recently pollinated ones starting to turn. And don’t forget to note the cute lush succulent round leaves anchoring the long flower stalks. I always want to pet their smooth sleekness.

Shooting star showing pollinated flowers pointing up, photo by Ivy Clark.

Shooting star showing pollinated flowers pointing up, photo by Ivy Clark.

 

Solidago simplex in bud, photo by Ivy Clark

Solidago simplex in bud, photo by Ivy Clark

 

Goldenrod in bloom, photo by Ivy Clark.

Goldenrod in bloom, photo by Ivy Clark.

And so the beautiful season seems over and the prairies may look dried and dead and unappealing. But like the “amber wave of grain” we know so well, if you look a little closer, or perhaps a little broader at the full landscape of clear blue sky and hints of mountains aloft, then you can see the beauty still in the senescence season of the prairie. It’s sprinkled with color here and there too and not devoid of birds or other creatures. Take a moment to enjoy the shades of brown, like a sepia photograph, and shake a few native seed pods to give the plant dispersal a hand.

 

 

Seed Cleaning

Seed Cleaning, Post and photos by Forrest Edelman

I am Forrest Edelman, I work for the Center for Natural Lands Management within the Nursery Department and perform the functions of a seed processor.

Seed Cleaning

After flowers have finished and seed pods have ripened, the plant material is harvested and laid out to dry in a drying shed. When the material is good and dry it is binned up and goes to the seed processing shop for the separation of seed from the rest of the material. The species being processing here is Primula pulchellum or the Few Flowered Shooting Star.

Raw Material, photo by Forrest Edelman.

Raw Material, photo by Forrest Edelman.

 

Most of the seed falls out of the open cup style pod during the drying processing, for those that are caught in the pods and between the material, they will be sent through a hammer mill to dislodge the remaining seed.

Hammer Mill, photo by Forrest Edelman.

Hammer Mill, photo by Forrest Edelman.

 

The hammer mill is a threshing type machine which uses a motor to spin and swing nylon rectangles which abrade the material in a closed metal compartment, thereby mechanically dislodging seed from inert material.

Feeding the Mill, photo by Forrest Edelman.

Feeding the Mill, photo by Forrest Edelman.

 

The material is fed down a metal chute through a metal gate into the threshing compartment. All of the seeds and plant material will be threshed and dropped in a single steam, to be screened down next. In short; when the machine is spinning, material is fed into the machine and it lightly chews it up and spits the mess into a bin to be moved on to the next step.

Output from the mill, photo by Forrest Edelman.

Output from the mill, photo by Forrest Edelman.

 

Removing most of the large chaff with a brass sieve is the next step. It consists of dropping handfuls of material into the sieve and shaking the smaller pieces of plant material and seeds through then removing empty pods, sticks, and other large chaff.

After the screening process, photo by Forrest Edelman.

After the screening process, photo by Forrest Edelman.

 

Afterward the material should be more even in size and drastically reduced in bulk, which makes it easier to load into the next machine, an office clipper.

An office clipper is an air screener separator machine, it allows seeds to drop through a larger top screen and get rid of more chaff.

Clipper and Bins, photo by Forrest Edelman.

Clipper and Bins, photo by Forrest Edelman.

 

Back view of Clipper, photo by Forrest Edelman.

Back view of Clipper, photo by Forrest Edelman.

 

The lower screen allows for fine chaff and dust to fall through but seeds and material of similar size roll off the lower screen.

Clipper Screens, photo by Forrest Edelman.

Clipper Screens, photo by Forrest Edelman.

 

Loading the Clipper, photo by Forrest Edelman.

Loading the Clipper, photo by Forrest Edelman.

 

This in between size material falls into a compartment which has air blowing up through it. Seeds are generally heavier than dried plant material fragments of the same size, so the air stream will winnow away the remaining chaff and drop good seed into a bin. After a couple of runs though this machine the final product is seeds.

Close up of the final product-nearly pure Primula pulchellum seeds, photo by Forrest Edelman.

Close-up of the final product-nearly pure Primula pulchellum seeds, photo by Forrest Edelman.

 

This is just one method for one species.  There are many ways to reach a final product for each of the 80 or so plant species processed every year.

Western Meadowlarks at Glacial Heritage

Western Meadowlarks at Glacial Heritage, Post by Michelle Blanchard, images as noted.

Michelle Blanchard is a long time prairie volunteer and self-described “muddy boots biologist”.  She learned her bird banding at Ft. Hood in Texas where she volunteered with The Nature Conservancy on a very successful Golden-cheeked Warbler recovery program.

Editor’s Note:

I was out at Glacial Heritage pulling Scotch Broom and enjoying the wonderful flowers on June 2nd this year. Meadowlarks were singing from all sides and the females were giving their “telephone” calls, when suddenly the air seemed filled with male Meadowlarks chasing one another around the area and singing at the top of their lungs. While it was actually only four or five birds, it was an amazing experience. Even more amazing, a short while later, I heard a male singing in a very different way. It was soft and a bit more melodious and the song went on and on. I told Michelle about it and she thinks it’s the male just singing to its mates telling them that he’s there and all’s right in the meadowlarks world. I thought then that it was so wonderful that we were able to restore a place where Meadowlarks can sing. It made me very happy to have Michelle write this post.

P.S. It’s about as hard to photograph these birds as it is to trap them, so the images in this post are from a variety of locations where I got lucky.

-Dennis Plank

Western Meadowlarks at Glacial Heritage

If there is an iconic bird of the prairie, it can only be the Western Meadowlark.

Sturnella neglecta is an icterid, also known as ‘blackbirds’.

Great-tailed Grackle from the Texas Coast, Photo by Dennis Plank

Great-tailed Grackle from the Texas Coast, Photo by Dennis Plank

 

Altamira Oriole from the Rio Grande border of Texas, photo by Dennis Plank

Altamira Oriole from the Rio Grande border of Texas, photo by Dennis Plank

 

Most-not all, (for the orioles are icterids, too) icterids are somberly clad in blacks and browns. The meadowlarks, though, have a brilliant yellow breast, emblazoned with a black chevron at the base of the throat. If that weren’t enough, they are singers, too, something icterids are not known for.

Western Meadowlark at Glacial Heritage Preserve, photo by Dennis Plank

Western Meadowlark at Glacial Heritage Preserve, photo by Dennis Plank

 

Our Western meadowlark is almost indistinguishable from the Eastern meadowlark, but the moment you hear the two sing, you know that the Western is by far the better singer. Here are the clips from the CD accompanying “Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America”, Little, Brown and Company, 2010.

 

As well, the Western is much fussier about his habitat. All meadowlarks are obligate grassland species, but the Western demands just the right height of grass-not too tall and not too short. It’s why you’ll never see a meadowlark on a golf course.

I was stationed at Ft. Lewis in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Being that my specialty was tanks, I spent a great deal of time in ‘the field’ and often heard meadowlarks. I began to appreciate them for their singing. Eastern Meadowlarks have only one or two songs. Westerns have a much larger repertoire of several songs, the number increasing with age and dominance.

I began volunteering on Glacial Heritage in the late 90’s. Considering its size, it was worrisome and depressing that I counted only three singing males on all of Glacial.

The three territories identified at Glacial Heritage. Map courtesy of Google Maps

The three territories identified at Glacial Heritage. Map courtesy of Google Maps

 

This I attributed to the fact that GH, at the time, was a vast expanse of Scotch broom and Douglas firs. In a treeless prairie, meadowlarks will sing on the ground, but Glacial Heritage had plenty of invasive Douglas firs from the tops of which they’d sing. Their territories were small due to very little suitable grassland, not enough to support any sizable population of meadowlarks. It appeared that the tiny resident population was hanging on by a thread. In fact, I was showing a person around the preserve one time, and one of the three males sang. I said, ‘Oh, there’s one of my meadowlarks.” Her voice dripping scorn, she said, “No, it’s not, there’s no meadowlarks west of the Cascades.”

Oh. I guess I have a really vivid imagination.

Western Meadowlark singing from the ground. Photo taken at the National Bison Range in Montana by Dennis Plank

Western Meadowlark singing from the ground. Photo taken at the National Bison Range in Montana by Dennis Plank

 

The more I learned about them, the more I grew enamored with meadowlarks.

I mapped out where the meadowlarks were, and got to know them by their songs. I learned to tell who each male was by where and what he was singing. They impressed me with their intelligence. But, alas for this birder, they’re highly suspicious of humans. If she knows her nest has been discovered, the female will abandon it immediately. Meadowlarks are unwilling to tolerate close human proximity or even observation. One time I had my binoculars focused on a female that was perched atop a small shrub. She held a wriggling grasshopper, telling me she was feeding hatchlings. Would she show me where her nest was? It became a grueling duel-my increasingly tiring arms, and her refusal to move an inch while under my observation. Finally, after an eternity, I blinked-and she was gone.

What would happen, I wondered, when we had Glacial at least partially restored to open grassland? Would the meadowlarks respond? Would they be able to survive the lengthy time it would take to restore Glacial?

I had to know.

I possess a Master Bander’s Permit. I developed a research plan to identify individual meadowlarks and applied to the Bird Banding Lab for a string of bands for Western Meadowlarks. Florence Sohenlien, the BBL’s band manager at the time, approved my study and sent me a string with the warning: “You’re the fourth person I’ve sent this string of meadowlark bands to. It’s never been broached. Good luck.”

Western Meadowlark in full glory at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, photo by Dennis Plank

Western Meadowlark in full glory at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, photo by Dennis Plank

 

She was right. My approval to band Western Meadowlarks was for three years. In those three years, I got up before dawn to set up nets. I deployed walk-in traps, baited with live grasshoppers. I created and painted a meadowlark decoy out of Play Dough. It was hideously ugly but I hoped the birds wouldn’t mind. I bought (at nosebleed prices from Cornell) a CD of W. Meadowlark calls, along with the game caller to play it. I’d set up my nets in areas I knew males held as territory, and would hear them warning their mates of my presence.

The resident male always responded to the CD. He’d swoop in, looking for the brazen interloper singing on HIS territory. He’d perch on the net poles and sing. Walk the top panel of the net like a tightrope, looking, looking. He’d stand atop the walk-in trap. Circle overhead, sounding his battle cry, daring the intruder to come out from hiding (or was he mocking the decoy, saying, gads, you’re ugly!) But actually fly into my nets? Or to take the bait in the traps? Nope. Not once. Not in three years.

What was I doing wrong? Was it my method? My set up? I contacted every bander in the US and Canada who had banded meadowlarks and asked, how did you catch them? Was it your net configuration? CD calls? Traps, bait, time of day? The answer was always “dumb luck”. I didn’t have luck of any level, dumb or smart. I returned the string of bands after three years, not once ever having been broached.

Federal bird bands managed and distributed by Craig “Tut” Tuthill, Photo taken Thursday, September 14, 2017. Unidentified Photographer. He didn't have to return them all.

Federal bird bands managed and distributed by Craig “Tut” Tuthill, Photo taken Thursday, September 14, 2017. Unidentified Photographer. He didn’t have to return them all.

 

However, despite my never banding a meadowlark, I can say that my theory was proven correct. With the restoration of their preferred habitat, especially through controlled burns, by removing scotch broom and trees, the population of meadowlarks has grown. I can no longer count how many males I hear singing because they’re everywhere. In the spring and summer, the prairie rings to their songs. In the fall and winter, you’ll see them in large flocks, arrowing over their beloved grassland.

Glacial Heritage’s prairie icon has returned. And he likes what he sees.

Glacial Heritage panorama taken from the northwestern edge of the WEME 3 territory on May 9th, 2020.  Photo by Dennis Plank

Glacial Heritage panorama taken from the northwestern edge of the WEME 3 territory on May 9th, 2020. Photo by Dennis Plank

 

Sad News for Our Prairies

Sad News for Our Prairies

Sad news Patrick Dunn died July 28, 2020 of a heart attack.  He will be missed as a leader in conservation in Washington’s South Sound and his vision for the state’s prairie lands.

“Prairies are part of Washington’s natural and cultural heritage,” says Patrick Dunn, Director of the Center for Natural Lands Management’s South Puget Sound Program. “We value open space and want to protect the land and wildlife so future generations can enjoy these special places, too.”

Pat worked to bring resources and people from many disciplines to protect the area’s amazing prairie oak savannas with their species in decline. Now it is to us to continue his vision.

Gail Trotter FOPP President

Camas – Teachings in Reciprocity

Camas Teachings in Reciprocity, Post by Elise Krohn and Mariana Harvey, Photos by Elise Krohn

Elise Krohn is the GRuB Wild Foods and Medicines Director and Mariana Harvey (Yakama) is the GRuB Wild foods and Medicines Program Manager

Camas – Teachings in Reciprocity

Camas prairies have offered Native People a food basket of game and edible plants since time immemorial. These open landscapes are home to many edible plants including camas, edible lily bulbs, bracken fern rhizomes, biscuit root, acorns from oak trees, and several types of berries. Medicinal plants including yarrow, kinnickinnick, violet, wild rose, and balsamroot flourish there. The prairies are also home to many species of butterflies, birds, and small land mammals.

Native stories and cultural practices passed down through the generations teach us how prairies have been cultivated like gardens. Many Native families historically traveled to prairies and camped for several weeks to harvest camas bulbs, cook them, and preserve them for later use. Cultivation techniques, including burning, aerating the soil with digging sticks, and weeding out unwanted plants, prevented the prairies from becoming forests. Without these practices, most of the prairies would have turned into dense forests thousands of years ago. Native People have taken care of the prairies and the prairies have taken care of them in return. This care continues.

What we see today are tiny remnants of vast prairies that were common just a few generations ago. European settlers made burning the prairies illegal because they saw fire as a destructive force rather than a life-giving one. In just a few generations, colonial land management practices such as farming and grazing reduced prairies to less than three percent of their former size. The prairie lands that had been managed and maintained by Native people for thousands of years were those very places that Euro-Americans settled and converted to prime farmland in places like Cowlitz Landing, Chehalis, and Centralia (then Cllaquato, Newaukum prairies), Boistfort, and other places where the deep, loamy soil prairies used to be.

A Camas Prairie in full bloom.

A Camas Prairie in full bloom. Photo by Elise Krohn.

Many tribes and other agencies are actively working to conserve and restore prairies and prairie foods. Camas is a main focus because it is a prized staple to many Northwest Native People. In fact, for many communities, it was the second most traded food next to salmon. Squaxin Island Tribe has planted camas in their garden and in fields on the reservation, and is working with several organizations on prairie conservation and partnerships for tribal members to access camas as a food. This year Squaxin Island collaborated with Delphi Community Club so that several tribal members could harvest camas in their traditional territory. Squaxin Island Community Garden program manager, Aleta Poste (Squaxin Island) says, “We have taken a moment to slow down and to think of what life is about and we are honoring life givers including camas. I see camas as being one of those life givers that has the ability to help our bodies heal. It’s really inspiring and empowering to be digging camas at Delphi School today because we get to look back and see that the legacy of our people is living on and that it continues today. One way that we practice giving back and having a reciprocal relationship with camas is when we harvest and we are digging the bulb. We are aerating the soil and we are enhancing the space around each bulb—giving those seeds the oxygen they need to breathe. It is giving them room to grow because we are removing the largest bulb. This is an ancestral practice that is being revived through many different communities.”

Aleta Poste

Aleta Poste (Squaxin Island Tribe), Photo by Elise Krohn.

 

Camas continues to be an important cultural food that is celebrated in First Foods feasts and other ceremonies. Tribal and multi-agency partnerships are an important step in support of the revitalization and care for cultural ecosystems like camas prairies, and to increase access of culturally significant foods for Northwest Tribes.

Other Names: common camas: Camassia quamash, giant camas: Camassia leichtlinii, Twana: Quamash, Qa’?w3b, Lushootseed: cabidac, Klallam: Ktoi, Upper Chehalis: quwm or quwam“

Identifying Camas: Camas has six-petaled, purple flowers and grass-like leaves. Bulbs grow four to eight inches beneath the surface and resemble small potatoes or onion bulbs. Giant camas (Camassia leichtlinii) has darker purple flowers and thicker leaves than common camas (Camassia quamash). Giant camas blooms a couple of weeks later and is more common east of the Cascades, in the San Juan Islands, and in Southern British Columbia.

Elizabeth Campbell demonstrating the use of a digging stick.

Elizabeth Campbell (Spokane Tribe) demonstrating the use of a digging stick. Photo by Elise Krohn.

 

 

Food: Camas bulbs are dug in spring to early summer when the flowers or seeds are visible. This helps to distinguish it from a similarlooking poisonous plant, called death camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum), which has white flowers and similarlooking leaves and bulbs. Narrow t-shaped digging sticks that are made from hardwood, bone, antler, or metal make it possible to selectively harvest bulbs without damaging them or disturbing large sections of prairie. Harvesting also aerates the soil and allows moisture pockets to form, making it easier for new seeds to sprout.

Camas bulbs are cleaned by pinching off the stem where it enters the bulb and the roots from the base of the bulb. The brown outer skin peels off easily and you are left with a white bulb that resembles an onion.

Freshly dug Camas and the cleaned bulbs.

Freshly dug Camas and the cleaned bulbs. Photo by Elise Krohn.

 

If camas has gone to seed, people sprinkle the seeds back on open soil. Harvesters are careful to only keep bulbs that are attached to seeds or flowering stalks, since death camas bulbs and leaves look almost identical.

Northwest Coastal Native Ancestors developed ingenious and efficient techniques for cooking camas that people still use today such as roasting over a fire, baking food wrapped in skunk cabbage or fern fronds in a pit or earth oven over hot coals, boiling in bentwood boxes or tightly woven baskets with hot rocks, and steaming foods with hot rocks in earthen pit ovens.

Before sugar was introduced, roasted camas was used to sweeten other foods, and many people continue this practice today. Cooked bulbs are often made into cakes and dried for later use. A compound in camas called inulin helps to support gut health and provides carbohydrates without raising blood sugar.

Tend, Gather and Grow Curriculum

Tend, Gather and Grow is a place-based curriculum that includes Northwest Coastal Native culture and plant traditions. It is intended to support the movements for Indigenous sovereignty and cultural reclamation, as well as encourage non-Indigenous communities to live more respectfully and sustainably in relation to the natural world. Tend has been designed by Native and non-native educators and is intended for use by Native and non-native educators and their students. Learn more about our work and team, here: https://www.goodgrub.org/tend-gather-grow

Reciprocity is a key teaching throughout the curriculum. A lesson on camas and a module on cultural ecosystems highlights how people care for plants and plants care for people. Students draw a camas circle of care and then draw their own circle of care. This helps students explore who they are connected to and how they might give back to their community of people, plants, animals, and places. Questions to reflect on include:

  • Who do I care for, and who cares for me?
  • I receive and appreciate the gifts of the land. What does this look like for me?
  • I give back to the land to support future generations. What is my commitment?

Camas – A Plateau Native Story, as told by Roger Fernandes, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

A long time ago in a village, there was a time of great hunger. There was no food to be foundno game to hunt, no plants to gather. The People were very hungry. There was a grandmother who heard her grandchildren crying because they were hungry. She was so sad that she had nothing to give them. She left the village and went up a hill nearby. She began to cry. She cried for her grandchildren. As she cried, she began to sink into the ground. After a while, she was gone. She was under the earth. Her grandchildren missed their grandmother. They wondered where she was and began to look for her. They climbed the hill, and as they reached the top, the granddaughter said, “Grandma is under the ground! I can feel her!” The children dug into the ground and found camas bulbs. Grandmother had become camas, and now the children and the People had food to eat. Camas is a main food of the Native people of the Plateau region. And that is all.

Camas flower.

Camas flower. Photo by Elise Krohn.

 

Growing Tips: Camas can be easily started from seed and grown in a garden or schoolyard. It thrives in well-drained sandy or pebbly soil with full sun. It is best to start growing it in trays in a greenhouse, as it closely resembles grass. Keep camas root gardens carefully weeded to avoid confusion with grasses. Other companion plants include chocolate lily, violet, yampah (wild carrot), wild strawberry, yarrow, and Roemer’s fescue (a bunch grass). GRuB is currently developing a handout on creating a microprairie as part of the Tend, Gather and Grow curriculum. See https://www.goodgrub.org/wild-foods/wild-foods-medicine-resources for additional information.

References

Krohn, E. (2007). Wild Rose and Western Red Cedar.

Kruckeberg, Arthur R. The Natural History of Puget Sound Country. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 1994.

Leopold, Estella B. and Robert Boyd. “An Ecological History of Old Prairie Areas in Southwestern Washington.” Indians, Fire and the Landscape in the Pacific Northwest. Ed. Robert Boyd. Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 1999.

Turner, Nancy. The Earth’s Blanket. Seattle, The University of Washington Press, 2005.

Fire on the Prairies

Fire on the Prairies, Post by Kelsey King and Samantha Bussan, Photos by Rachael Bonoan, Samantha Bussan and Kelsey King

Kelsey King (kelsey.king@wsu.edu): Kelsey is a PhD student at Washington State University. For her dissertation, Kelsey is investigating the potential of resource mismatches between butterflies and nectar plants, as well as demonstrating the ways nectar resources can impact population dynamics.

Samantha Bussan is a PhD Candidate in Cheryl Schultz’ Conservation Biology Lab at Washington State University Vancouver. Her work is focused on conserving native species in working lands. She can be contacted with further questions at samantha.bussan@wsu.edu.

Fire on the Prairies

If you’ve been following the prairie appreciation blog you’ll know that we have mentioned prescribed fire a few times. This post is dedicated to talking about the why and whats of prescribed fires. In previous posts, we’ve discussed how the South Sound prairies ‘improve’ once this management technique is used. Here we’ll give you some more specific information!

The left side of the prairie was not burned in the fall, but the right side of the prairie was burned the previous year. Note the floral diversity on the right. Photo by Rachael Bonoan

The left side of the prairie was not burned in the fall, but the right side of the prairie was burned the previous year. Note the floral diversity on the right. Photo by Rachael Bonoan

In prairies across the United States we know that a combination of wildfires and intentional burning by Native Americans maintained the seas of grass, and in our region camas (Camassia sp.) that we now call prairie. For the past century or more, those that study grasslands underestimated the management of these lands by Native peoples, and recognition is still infrequent today. However, the link has long been clear for Puget Trough, South Sound, and Willamette prairies that contained the root vegetable, camas. The recognition came from the knowledge that wherever camas grew native peoples consumed, traded, and propagated this plant, which features a nutritious bulbed root, and the plant floods recently burned prairies. See this excellent blog post to learn more about camas as a food crop. 

Prairie in early spring, with many camas blooms following a fall burn, photo by Samantha Bussan

Prairie in early spring, with many camas blooms following a fall burn, photo by Samantha Bussan

If you want to encourage camas to be dominant on a prairie, you can light a flower, which clears the ground of tree seedlings, reduces shrub density, and removes thatch, or layers of dried grass, as well as typically leading to decrease in invasive species cover. The benefits of fire on the South Sound prairies can best be seen the following spring with the spring bloom of wildflowers. In addition to camas, other native flowers produce many more blooms in the areas following the burns such as the Lomatium sp. below. 

Lomatium sp blooms after a fall prescribed burn at West Rocky Prairie, photo by Samantha Bussan

Lomatium sp blooms after a fall prescribed burn at West Rocky Prairie, photo by Samantha Bussan

Today we burn in fall because this is when the fire can burn hottest, due to the plants being dry, which is thought to kill the seeds and roots of invasive plant species, which are usually not adapted to fire. Management goals for South Sound prairie prescribed fire today include killing Scotchbroom (Cytisus scoparius) plants, which has a clear tendency to exclude other native plants, and turn grasslands into monocultures of Scotchbroom. Another goal is to decrease the invasive grass cover. How can you tell without identifying grass? Many native South Sound prairie grasses are bunchgrass, which means they form hummocks or clumps and do not create lawns.

Scotch broom that was mowed and burned in the fall (picture taken in the early spring). This area was covered in Collinsia sp. blooms a few weeks later. Photo by Samantha Bussan

Scotch broom that was mowed and burned in the fall (picture taken in the early spring). This area was covered in Collinsia sp. blooms a few weeks later. Photo by Samantha Bussan

Today, those who manage lands are often interested in supporting an ecosystem that is not dominated by invasive species, recognizing that it is impossible to remove them completely, and/or supporting specific native wildlife. Promoting specific wildlife is common amongst land management today, in part due to the Endangered Species Act and other conservation laws or interests. South Sound prairies are burned in combination with other management techniques to maintain quality habitat for some of the unique butterflies such as: Puget blues, Taylor’s checkerspots, Valley silverspot, and mardon skipper. There are many species that live in these prairies and now we want to preserve them, and ensure that these ecosystems do not disappear. Learn more by checking out our other posts!

Puget Blue butterfly, photo by Kelsey King

Puget Blue butterfly, photo by Kelsey King

 

South Sound Lupines

South Sound Lupines, Post by Kelsey King, Photos by Kelsey King et al.

Kelsey King (kelsey.king@wsu.edu): Kelsey is a PhD student at Washington State University. For her dissertation, Kelsey is investigating the potential of resource mismatches between butterflies and nectar plants, as well as demonstrating the ways nectar resources can impact population dynamics.

South Sound Lupines

The typical palmate leaf pattern of the Lupines, photo by Kelsey King

The typical palmate leaf pattern of the Lupines, photo by Kelsey King

 

If you have visited a South Sound prairie lately, you have probably seen blooms of purple-blue peeking over the top of grass. These flowers are probably lupine, which is a leguminous plant with distinctly palmate leaves (a leaf split into multiple lobes or fingers). There are three species of lupine most common in the South Sound prairies, with many more present throughout Washington. The biggest, and most bush like species, is sickle-keeled lupine (Lupinus albicaulis). This lupine is one of the most distinct species because it has prominent keels, part of the flower that is shaped like an upward pointing thorn, that stick out prominently after the flower has been visited by bees. This trait, along with the height of the flowers (up to 3 ft), will help you distinguish it from many lupines without having to dig out a field guide.

Sickle-keeled Lupine inflorescence, photo by Kelsey King

Sickle-keeled Lupine inflorescence, photo by Kelsey King

Sickle-keeled lupine is a host to many arthropods. It is a favorite of bumblebees to pollinate and a nectar source and host plant for some blue butterflies including the Silvery blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus) and the Puget blue (Icaricia icarioides blackmorei). Silvery blue caterpillars consume the flowers, while Puget blues consume the leaves, which is part of the ecological phenomenon known as resource partitioning. Resource partitioning is when multiple species use the same resource, say a lupine plant, but consume separate parts of the plant and therefore they do not compete so heavily for their food!

Sickle-keeled with silvery blue butterfly egg, photo by Kelsey King

Sickle-keeled with silvery blue butterfly egg, photo by Kelsey King

The other two lupines on the prairies are small and low to the ground, often not taller than the surrounding grass. Bicolored lupine (Lupinus bicolor) is an annual lupine that typically flowers a few weeks before our other lupines start to flower. It grows in dry areas and has sharply contrasting flower petals in white and blue/purple, which is why we call it bicolored lupine. This lupine is used by smaller bees than you might see on sickle-keeled lupine, and there are typically only a few flowers on each raceme. When the plant is not flowering you might mistake it for a plant in the carrot family until you look closer.

Bicolor Lupine, Lupinus bicolor, photo by Rachael Bonoan

Bicolor Lupine, Lupinus bicolor, photo by Rachael Bonoan

Our final lupine is an amazing plant found in areas that have been recently disturbed. Pacific lupine, prairie lupine, or dwarf lupine are all names for this lupine (Lupinus lepidus), commonly found in grasslands after rockslides, severe wildfire, or as one of the first plants on the pumice plain after the Mt. St. Helens eruption. Historically, you can imagine this plant as one of the first plants to appear after the Cascades volcanoes erupt and create new peaks valleys, and pumice plains. The unique nature of legumes as nitrogen-fixers makes them perfect facilitators. Facilitators are those species that make the place they are found more hospitable for other species. Prairie lupine does this by creating the first leaf litter as a base to the soil and fixing nitrogen, which gets released into this newly created soil. Nitrogen-fixing plants partner with bacteria to take nitrogen gas out of the air and use it to grow. This allows the plants to add nitrogen to soil that is very poor in nitrogen, which over time makes the habitat hospitable for other plants.

Lupinus lepidus, photo by Dennis Plank

Lupinus lepidus, photo by Dennis Plank

These three lupines of the South Sound prairies are pops of color on the prairie, but also important components of the ecosystem. You can find all three of these in the same prairie, but each might be abundant in different locations. The native insects often rely heavily on lupine for pollen or other resources as these lupines can sometimes stay very abundant even when there is a high invasive species component in the prairie; generally, this leads to native plants being pushed out. However, the invasive plant Scotchbroom (Cytisus scoparius) is especially harmful to lupine dominated prairies as this plant disrupts the microbial community lupines rely on and may also alter the nitrogen cycle into one that favors the non-native plants. Prescribed burns are one of the tools often used to promote lupine and native plants. Watch for new posts soon to learn more about prescribed burns and other land management!

Sickle-keeled Lupine in all its glory, photo by Kelsey King

Sickle-keeled Lupine in all its glory, photo by Kelsey King