Author Archive for Dennis Plank

The Black History of Prairies

The Black History of Prairies, Post by Ivy Clark, photos as attributed.

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.

The Black History of Prairies

Caveat: I want to first address an elephant-sized grain of salt to take while reading this. I, Lauren “Ivy” Clark, author of this post, am not Black. My skin is White to the degree that parts never seeing the sun are more like translucent. I need plenty of sunscreen on the prairies, yes. I will try to resist any urge to get on a soap box here or attempt to lecture and certainly cannot speak from experience regarding feeling the historical wound of racial discrimination. I think this information on the Black/African-American history of the prairie ecosystem is interesting and pertinent and should be shared. I am always in favor of sharing factual information because, as you may have guessed, I am a nerd.

On a whim, I decided to look into any history I could find (easily) about a connection between prairies and Black history, since February is Black History Month, and the past year has seen so much racially related news. It seemed like a good time to learn something new in that topic. I did not already know of any link between the two but it was worth a look. Now, my first search yielded information on cute critters like the black-tailed prairie dog, and black-footed ferrets. See pictures below (from Wikipedia).

Blackfooted Ferret and Black-tailed Prairie Dog, photos from Wikipedia

Blackfooted Ferret and Black-tailed Prairie Dog, photos from Wikipedia

Adorable yes; not what I was going for. I searched for any publicized Black researchers working on prairies which only led me to many graduates of a “Prairie View A&M University” which I had not heard of before but I like the name. Then I found a book titled “Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology” by Karina Vernon of the University of Scarborough as a culmination of a PhD thesis and subsequent research. That lead me to a documentary called “We Are the Roots: Black Settlers and Their Experiences of Discrimination on the Canadian Prairies”. Bingo! It opens with this quote: “In 2017, 19 descendants of the Black settlers from Alberta and Saskatchewan were asked to discuss their experiences of discrimination.” The story is one of creating rural farming communities cut straight from the tall grass Canadian prairies. And it goes a little something like this:

Not a photo of an Alberta prairie, but it is a northern site with prairie species, Dan Kelly Ridge near Port Angeles. Photo taken by Ivy Clark.

Not a photo of an Alberta prairie, but it is a northern site with prairie species, Dan Kelly Ridge near Port Angeles. Photo taken by Ivy Clark.

In Alberta in the early 1900s there was a call for people to come homestead the wild region, and over a thousand African Americans left Theodore Roosevelt’s America to immigrate to western Canada. Thousands of advertisements were sent to America from the Canadian government beckoning people to move to the “Last Best West” to purchase 160 acres of land for a fee of $10. Wow, don’t you wish that were still available, even after inflation? From a distance, it seems like a great time in the US though, with the Ford Model T hitting the market and Albert Einstein publishing his “Theory of Relativity”, and the Wright boys building the first powered flying contraption. Then again there was the whole Titanic tragedy and the largest industrial accident of US history killing 361 coal miners in West Virginia, then the infamous Shirtwaist Factory fire (another of the largest industrial accidents in our history, leading to changes in safety for workers). So there were ups, and there also were downs, perhaps those naturally following ‘going up’ too fast with too many unknown factors.

Flier examples of the call for Canadian settlement.  From We Are the Roots.

Flier examples of the call for Canadian settlement. From We Are the Roots.

But that zoomed-out history does not reflect the experiences of African Americans, not long emancipated after the Civil War. The societal push back against that, more so in the southern US, was harsh and accelerating; cue the Jim Crow laws. President Abraham Lincoln declared African Americans free from slavery but it wasn’t like they instantly got all the same rights as every White American. Culture and laws are not like a video game with an ‘undo’ button that changes everything. At the time, only about 20% of African Americans owned their homes compared to the roughly 50% of White Americans. During the Civil War it was North vs South with the North being in favor of African American freedom, so one could presume a general favorable view of anything “northern” for Black people. And living in the south was growing not just difficult but rapidly more dangerous, with violence and lynching on the rise. So when Canada said, [insert friendly Canadian accent] “Hey there, wanna come up here and have a home and land to expand our country, eh?”, it’s understandable a large group of African Americans packed up and moved over the northern border, leaving predominantly from many southern states.

Snapshot from documentary with actor depicting John Ware, late 19th century immigrant and rancher.  From John Ware: Reclaimed.

Snapshot from documentary with actor depicting John Ware, late 19th century immigrant and rancher. From John Ware: Reclaimed.

Not that Canada was an all-welcoming nation with nothing but big bear-hugs for all. The advertisements were not specifically targeted to African Americans, so crossing the border wasn’t always smooth; petitions against this immigration were sent around, and in 1911 the Boards of Trade convinced the Prime Minister to prohibit any further migration of such folks. That legislation didn’t last long and already a large number made it through. They were again segregated from White people, like the Jim Crow US south. This initial separation created communities of mostly Black people in western Alberta and Saskatchewan, the largest being Amber Valley with 300 Black settlers and three White immigrant families, living together without conflict. Life was rough, clearing farming land, building homes and schools with cut timber. But there were also dances and huge summer cook-outs that drew people from many miles away. Children played in the adjacent untouched native prairies with the tall waving grasses reaching above their heads. They played with rainbow-colored foxtails and walked along the railroad tracks until the heat & smell of metal was too strong in the sun, opting then to amble slower through the sweet flowers of the open prairie. Interviewees, those children grown now into elders, talked a lot of integrated communities and help from neighbors, including the White ones, and of integrating immigrants from distant nations as well. Everyone generally just wanted to get along and get by because they were all equally new in this wild and beautiful rural area.

Homestead in western Canada prairie with recently cleared farmland near a tree lined river.  From We Are the Roots.

Homestead in western Canada prairie with recently cleared farmland near a tree lined river. From We Are the Roots.

Life on a Canadian prairie would see more extremes than our milder Washington prairies. The southern pioneers had to adjust to new farming patterns due to the more severe Canadian winters, but still they thrived. Plentiful wild game in the area made up for lower farm yields. Created on very isolated lands, these communities were hewn straight from the local timber with tree branches for school bench legs. They helped build these western Canadian provinces into what they are today. Yet over time, especially during the Great Depression, the community populations declined as families moved to neighboring cities for work. But the prairies were the safe harbor against discrimination and violence.

Alberta’s rural areas left behind.  Photo from Flicker open source.

Alberta’s rural areas left behind. Photo from Flicker open source.

The early 20th century migration was not the beginning of Black people in Canadian prairies. There is documentation of Black fur traders and voyageurs since the 18th century. And today prairies have the fastest growing population of Black people in Canada.

For the classic western fans, you may be interested in a recent documentary about essentially a Black John Wayne- the famous John Ware. John Ware: Reclaimed documents a Canadian prairie icon, a Black cowboy known even among the local indigenous tribes for his horsemanship skills. He arrived in Alberta in 1882 with the first cattle drive there. Ware was a charismatic skilled rancher owning a thousand head of cattle. Even John’s wife Mildred was iconic, being the first Black woman writer on the prairies.

Photo of cowboy John Ware. From John Ware: Reclaimed.

Photo of cowboy John Ware. From John Ware: Reclaimed.

Today there of course is still racism in these regions of Canada. It’s more subtle than in the US, but the journey to equality continues much like everywhere else. The Canadian Black settlers are larger scale story of community and prairie homesteading, similar to our very local Black figure- George Bush (whose middle name was once thought to be “Washington” but found incorrect, perhaps a homage to his part in settling the state or for the president in office at the time of his birth). George and Isabella Bush arrived in the Washington Puget Sound region in 1844 with their four sons in tow and two more born after. George Bush (no relation to the president I assume) brought his and four closely connected families along the Oregon Trail in a wagon train from Missouri. George had already done fur trapping in the western regions and figured the west would be a good escape from southeastern discrimination. He thus was a very useful leader for this first non-indigenous group to settle north of the Columbia River. Originally intent on the Oregon Territory, but with discriminatory legislation having arrived first, the group turned their wagons north to what was then a territory of both the US and Great Britain. The group established Bush Prairie community, farming near present-day Tumwater, WA and building the region’s first sawmill and first gristmill. After Washington became an official US territory in 1852 and the adjoining discriminatory US laws took hold, the Bush’s weren’t legally permitted to own the land they settled. Thanks to the Bush’s friendship with the new Washington Territory Legislators, there was a unanimous vote in 1855 to allow this Black family to have official ownership of their farm of 640 or more acres. This made George the first African-American landowner of Washington State. Part of their homestead is now the Olympia Airport in Tumwater. Keep an eye out for their namesake and history and take a look at the last five acres of historic Bush Prairie Farm, protected as of 2017 by the Capitol Land Trust. The farming skills of the Bush family still show in a grand butternut tree they brought west from his farm in Missouri which is now 174 years old and probably the oldest living butternut tree in the world. It even has a good size offspring now planted at the Capitol grounds (check out this link for fun details). The Bush family was well known for their generosity, giving away some of their own food stores to new settlers, further helping build a successful community and friendship around them. Let us try to remember this founding principle as our now much larger south Puget Sound prairie community grows and overcomes new challenges, while still holding on to as much native prairie as we can.

Photo of three generations of Bush family on their Bush Prairie Farm, date unknown.  From Historylink.org.

Photo of three generations of Bush family on their Bush Prairie Farm, date unknown. From Historylink.org.

The prairie landscape doesn’t care what color you are. It is a place of huge natural biodiversity with complex interactions of many species. Every landscape and community benefits from diversity of all kinds. Take a tip from ecologists who know that is great for building a more robust resilient system. If our South Sound Prairies were ONLY camas, as lovely as those are, it would be vastly less beautiful without the yellow spring golds and buttercups, white field chickweed, pink seablushes, golden fescue inflorescence or occasional evergreen kinnikinnick patches.

Diverse beauty of prairie flowers and golden paintbrush plundered by a bumblebee.  Photo taken by Ivy Clark.

Diverse beauty of prairie flowers and golden paintbrush plundered by a bumblebee. Photo taken by Ivy Clark.

If you would like to watch the moving documentary of Canadian Black immigration for yourself, the link that follows will take you there. https://vimeo.com/257364347

Photos sourced from author, cited materials, or Flicker open source.

Sources Used:

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/john-ware-documentary-black-prairie-cowboy-history-1.5732635

https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/perspectives-global-african-history/quest-land-and-freedom-canadas-western-prairies-black-oklahomans-alberta-and-saskatchew/

https://eh.net/encyclopedia/african-americans-in-the-twentieth-century/

https://www.utoronto.ca/news/black-history-month-u-t-researcher-s-work-explores-black-history-canadian-prairies

https://sos.oregon.gov/archives/exhibits/black-history/Pages/families/bush.aspx

http://www.bushprairiefarm.com/bush-farm-history.html

https://capitollandtrust.org/bush-prairie-farm-now-protected-forever/

https://www.historylink.org/File/5645

Seedlings to See Now (Well, After the Snow Melts)

Editor’s Note:  I was supposed to get this posted yesterday.  Now you’ll have to wait for the snow to go away or do some digging.  At least the snow will protect the young seedlings from the very cold nights predicted the next few days.

Seedlings to See Now, 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.

Seedlings to See Now

Doesn’t it feel like lately every spring starts trickling in too early, with plants peeking up through the soil well before you think they should? We have had a warmer January than usual this year. I am already seeing a lot of spring early-blooming species growing vigorously and we are not in spring yet.

So now that we are starting to stare at the ground, and feeling a bit obsessive about it (if you’re like me), first- stretch your neck & check out the clouds for a minute. Second- let’s refresh on a little plant anatomy so we can identify what seedlings and other young sprouts are emerging right now. That way, you can tell which plants are ‘friends’ and which are ‘foes’ while it is easy to clear away some foes to give extra room to the friends. Give the enemy no quarter. We’re going to focus on dicotyledonous plants (those with two “seed leaves”) aka- broad leaf plants as opposed to monocots (grasses, sedges, lilies, etc). It’s only because monocot seedlings are hard to ID with the naked eye.

1- seedling anatomy

To know what seedlings we see pushing up through the soil we may need to refresh ourselves on seedling anatomy. Step 1 in germination is for the seed to absorb water so the embryo inside can start growing. That’s the wee little tiny baby plant that was dormant and waiting for a cue to awaken. That cue can be temperature change or just getting enough water to cross the seed coat to rehydrate the embryo tissues. Smaller seeds generally also need light to germinate because their smaller embryos won’t make it through a significant (dark) depth of soil before they run out of stored energy. A big seed like an avocado pit can grow 1-2 feet long before needing light for photosynthesis.

As the seed germinates, aka- makes a seedling, you will likely see two prominent parts- first the cotyledons and later some small true leaves, both on the young stem called first a hypocotyl (supporting the cotyledons) and then the epicotyl above the cotyledons that supports the true leaves. Cotyledons are very simple-structured “seed leaves”, having made up the major part of the seed. They are food storage for a tiny new shoot tip and the first root of the plant (the radicle) which are tucked between the cotyledons before germination. I think of cotyledons as the packed lunch provided by the momma-plant for its baby, and the bigger the lunch the bigger the seed thus the further it can grow before needing to make its own food via photosynthesis. Though cotyledons don’t give many clues to the identity of the plant, they do narrow it down a bit. It’s like seeing only a person’s feet and legs. Flowers are the face; the most useful in identifying a plant just like with people. But you can still get info from someone’s legs. Some are more athletic, longer or shorter, tanned or very pale. A professional hockey player will have different legs from a bikini model. Big thick cotyledons won’t be on an annual plant that makes many small seeds like a Collinsia but they would be present on a big perennial lupine.

The large fleshy simple cotyledons of a lupine seedling distinct among lush moss.  Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

The large fleshy simple cotyledons of a lupine seedling distinct among lush moss. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Then of course the small true leaves will give us even more information about what species or at least genus the plant is because they will be the shape of the regular lower leaves you will see on that plant. Knowing all these clues, now we can start identifying some seedlings on the prairie. Location is of course the final clue since you probably won’t find non-invasive horticulture plants on a natural prairie. So a “wild lupine” (L. perennis) will probably not have jumped from the east coast to our western prairies, leaving one likely candidate for a big lupine-looking seedling we see there.

Speaking of lupines, Lupinus albicaulis is already popping up around their big remnant momma plants. They are probably our biggest seeds of the Washington prairie plants, looking like pea-sized pebbles. Below are two at progressively advanced growth showing the palmately divided leaf as it gets bigger.

Big young seedlings of sickle-keeled lupine (Lupinus albicaulis), with hairy cat ears around them. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Big young seedlings of sickle-keeled lupine (Lupinus albicaulis), with hairy cat ears around them. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Other native seedlings popping up right now, and quite early we may add, include biscuitroot, buttercups, larkspur, pink seablush, bluebell, blue-eyed Marys, and (drumroll please!……) lady tresses! I only spotted the lady tresses seedling while looking closely at another species because it was so very small and looked at first like a less interesting non-native plantain. I was definitely talking excitedly to myself and our cutesy prairie orchid baby for several minutes. You know…like we crazy botanists do.

Western buttercup seedling (Ranunculus occidentalis) Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Western buttercup seedling (Ranunculus occidentalis) Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Weed vs wildflower, can you spot the difference?  Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Weed vs wildflower, can you spot the difference? Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

The spikey trichomes (hairs) of the leaves on the top seedling give it away as the invasive hairy and very prevalent false dandelion/hairy cat’s ear (Hypochaeris radicata), which I feel is misnamed because it looks more like a cat’s tongue. Don’t you think? Below to the right is what appears to be a native blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia spp.), an annual that is indicative of a prairie with enough disturbance like low-intensity fires to keep open ground for them to germinate and reseed. They have very round cotyledons with more elliptical first leaves which are similar to a young Hypochaeris but so very much less hairy and have more of a tapered tip from a fat middle of the leaf and a distinct short middle vein indentation. You can’t tell the difference yet between the species of Collinsia, grandiflora versus parviflora.

Another mix of native blue-eyed Marys (middle and lower right, I think) and an invasive ox-eyed daisy to far left and hairy cat’s ear to upper right.  Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Another mix of native blue-eyed Marys (middle and lower right, I think) and an invasive ox-eyed daisy to far left and hairy cat’s ear to upper right. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Perfect example of how much blue-eyed Mary associates with open ground, as a bunch of seedlings coming up at the cleared entrance of a small animal den.  Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Perfect example of how much blue-eyed Mary associates with open ground, as a bunch of seedlings coming up at the cleared entrance of a small animal den. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Not really a seedling any more, but a young Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum). Note the narrowly elliptic leaves with velvety white hairs, no cotyledons anymore. Don’t be fooled by small plants in clumps as these are older growing up from rhizomes.  Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Not really a seedling any more, but a young Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum). Note the narrowly elliptic leaves with velvety white hairs, no cotyledons anymore. Don’t be fooled by small plants in clumps as these are older growing up from rhizomes. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Pink seablush (Plectritus congesta), not pink but a bright green on delicate thin boxy-round leaves with clear web veination, clearly smaller than the moss’s long sporophyte (the diploid stage of those plants).  Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Pink seablush (Plectritus congesta), not pink but a bright green on delicate thin boxy-round leaves with clear web veination, clearly smaller than the moss’s long sporophyte (the diploid stage of those plants). Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

The biscuitroots were the first new growth I noticed this year, being so feathery and bright. They are typically one of the first plants to grow and bloom but this year is a bit accelerated. They were popping up in the middle of January. JANUARY! Kids these days…. Slow down.

Four seedlings of biscuitroot/spring gold (Lomatium utriculatum).  See the non-lobed cotyledons?  Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Four seedlings of biscuitroot/spring gold (Lomatium utriculatum). See the non-lobed cotyledons? Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Larger seedling without cotyledons or possibly regrowth on a young rhizome. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Larger seedling without cotyledons or possibly regrowth on a young rhizome. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Distinct fluffy tufts of regrowing biscuitroot seen all over right now.  Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Distinct fluffy tufts of regrowing biscuitroot seen all over right now. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Super early blooming biscuitroot.  Spring gold?  More like “late winter gold”.  Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Super early blooming biscuitroot. Spring gold? More like “late winter gold”. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Upland larkspur (Delphinium nuttallii) seedling or young adult.  Cotyledons are generally linear & simple. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Upland larkspur (Delphinium nuttallii) seedling or young adult. Cotyledons are generally linear & simple. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Another more red-edged larkspur with hairs visible along edges as well.  Young Luzula comosa to the right as well, like a long-haired grass but more closely related to sedges. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Another more red-edged larkspur with hairs visible along edges as well. Young Luzula comosa to the right as well, like a long-haired grass but more closely related to sedges. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Young, possible seedling, of a bluebell/harebell (Campanula rotundifolia).  Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Young, possible seedling, of a bluebell/harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Some older bluebells flanking a young seedling of hooded lady’s tresses (Sprinanthes romanzoffiana)*. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Some older bluebells flanking a young seedling of hooded lady’s tresses (Sprinanthes romanzoffiana)*. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

This is likely an adult regrowing from its stubby finger-like bulb, but is still a lovely young hooded lady’s tresses. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

This is likely an adult regrowing from its stubby finger-like bulb, but is still a lovely young hooded lady’s tresses. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

*I’m pretty sure that is what these plants are, but it is very hard to find any photos of the young leaves. It’s a bit shallow of plant photographers to only snap the sexy flower photos, if you ask me. So if anyone knows better, let me know. But from my long digging this is our local orchid Spiranthes. Notably they look most like the classic nursery orchids before the inflorescence stalk develops, then the leaves look more grass-like, which is what you see in all the photos available online. Changing that! These are the only monocots on the prairie with fat leaves ending in very bluntly rounded tips and with perfectly parallel linear veins along with what I think of as an alligator color pattern. They are very different from chocolate lilies or shooting stars or the more riparian fawn lilies.

The densely shiny hairy regrowth of a paintbrush (Castilleja spp.).  Until they start blooming, you can’t tell which species (C. hispida or C. levisecta).  Note the small bluebell and larkspur at bottom.  Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

The densely shiny hairy regrowth of a paintbrush (Castilleja spp.). Until they start blooming, you can’t tell which species (C. hispida or C. levisecta). Note the small bluebell and larkspur at bottom. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Plenty of other plants are regrowing for spring now, like violets, yarrow, strawberries, saxifrage, and self-heal, plus vetches, ox-eye daisy and the various clovers not native to the prairie. But we’re focusing on the baby seedlings and I haven’t seen any of those natives as new germinants. Plenty of species germinate in fall as well, which is a common drought adaptation of going dormant in dry summer months then germinating and developing a good root system in fall and mild winter months to get a jump on spring growth later.

Strawberry’s common alternate form of reproduction which can create large patches of clones- stolon growth, shown as the long thin differently adapted stem connecting the top and bottom strawberry plants.  Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Strawberry’s common alternate form of reproduction which can create large patches of clones- stolon growth, shown as the long thin differently adapted stem connecting the top and bottom strawberry plants. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Now that you know what natives to look for in the next few weeks, keep an eye out for these non-native seedlings as well. The sooner you can pluck the interlopers from where you don’t want them, the easier it is to make sure they won’t regrow. Invasive seedlings will also likely be at a more advanced growth stage, with plenty adults of perennials having not really gone dormant during our mild winter which we are technically still in. Can someone tell these seedlings that? They think it is April.

Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) with very identifiable leaf shape.  Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) with very identifiable leaf shape. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Sheep sorrel has probably the most easily distinguishable leaves on our prairie, looking like a fancy spear head though the cotyledons lack the basal lobes, so these may be from older roots instead of seedlings.

 

Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius). Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius). Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Long young Scotchbroom, probably germinated in the fall and is making a run for bloom-status through our mild winter. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Long young Scotchbroom, probably germinated in the fall and is making a run for bloom-status through our mild winter. Photo by ‘Ivy’ Clark.

Doug Whitlock

Doug Whitlock

Doug the Lumberjack, Photo by John Crawford

Doug the Lumberjack, Photo by John Crawford

I just received news that Doug Whitlock, one of our staunchest volunteers and a good friend, passed away last night.  He’d been fighting pneumonia for some time and was in the hospital.   It’s unclear whether there was any involvement from Covid.  As it happened, I was out on Glacial Heritage this morning and the Meadowlarks were singing like crazy.  I hope they were welcoming him to the happy hunting grounds (though he quit hunting many years ago).

I’ll post a follow-up when I know more.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, Post and Photos by Dennis Plank

Dennis has been getting his knees muddy and his back sore pulling Scot’s Broom on the South Sound Prairies since 1998. In 2004, when the volunteers started managing Prairie Appreciation Day, he made the mistake of sending an email asking for “lessons learned” and got elected president of Friends of Puget Prairies-a title he appropriately renamed as “Chief Cat Herder”. He has now turned that over to Gail Trotter. Along the way, he has worked with a large number of very knowledgeable people and picked up a few things about the prairie ecosystem. He loves to photograph birds and flowers.

September Sunrise on Glacial Heritage.

September Sunrise on Glacial Heritage.

This year with so many things seeming to go wrong (and a few right) it seemed like a good time to go back to the simple things.

I am thankful:

For Meadowlarks singing, Harriers dancing and Kestrels hovering;

For frost on bracken ferns and dew on spiderwebs;

For the first tiny bloom of Spring Gold and the first Shooting Star.

Shooting Star

Shooting Star

I am Thankful

For a prairie sunrise on a perfect May morning;

For a herd of elk grazing in the distance;

For a Savannah Sparrow tsee-tsee-tseeing in the grass tops.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

I am Thankful

For the first rain of fall and a sunny Prairie Appreciation Day;

For winter oaks blooming with mosses and lichen;

For spring woodlands blooming with Lilies and Trilliums

2020-04-14 13-29-50 (B,Radius8,Smoothing4)-Edit-Edit-Edit

Small Flowered Trillium

I am Thankful

For a rainy spring day of pulling Scotch Broom;

For a sunny day in July digging out Tansy Ragwort;

For a crisp November day planting prairie flowers;

Planting Forbs for Butterflies

Planting Forbs for Butterflies

I am Thankful most of all

For each and every one of the hundreds of people

working so hard to restore and preserve

this wonderful ecosystem we call prairies.

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Winter Birds

Winter Birds, Post and Images by Dennis Plank

Dennis has been getting his knees muddy and his back sore pulling Scot’s Broom on the South Sound Prairies since 1998. In 2004, when the volunteers started managing Prairie Appreciation Day, he made the mistake of sending an email asking for “lessons learned” and got elected president of Friends of Puget Prairies-a title he appropriately renamed as “Chief Cat Herder”. He has now turned that over to Gail Trotter. Along the way, he has worked with a large number of very knowledgeable people and picked up a few things about the prairie ecosystem. He loves to photograph birds and flowers.

Winter Birds

Not our favorite winter scene.  Photo by Dennis Plank

Not our favorite winter scene. Photo by Dennis Plank

Birders and bird photographers are fond of whining about the paucity of species to be found in the winter months, though luckily our winters rarely look like the picture above. When I started thinking about this post, I was predisposed to thinking I could count them on my fingers. Then I started listing them and before I knew it, I had a list of forty species that could be seen on our property. To verify my list, I asked my wife, Michelle, to compile her own list and then combined the two. That added nearly another ten.

While we are on prairie, we are bordered on the back by an old gravel pit that’s grown up to alders and a belt of youngish Douglas fir between it and our property line. We also have a small clump of Douglas Fir on the property, and I have a feeding station and my photography blind there. This obviously helps with the count. There are some species, such as the Varied Thrush that we only see when it snows.

Varied Thrush, Photo by Dennis Plank

Varied Thrush, Photo by Dennis Plank

 

Others, such as most of the owl species, that we’ve identified only by their calls.

The most abundant species on our property is the Dark-eyed Junco and we have almost exclusively the Oregon race.

Dark-eyed Junco, Oregon Race. This is our common Junco in the northwest and is present year around on the prairies. Photo by Dennis Plank

Dark-eyed Junco, Oregon Race. This is our common Junco in the northwest and is present year around on the prairies. Photo by Dennis Plank

However, last winter we had a stray from further east in the form of a Slate-colored variation.

Dark-eyed Junco, Slate Colored Race. While the range maps show this area as part of their winter range, they list them as rare to uncommon and this one from last winter is the first I've seen. Photo by Dennis Plank

Dark-eyed Junco, Slate Colored Race. While the range maps show this area as part of their winter range, they list them as rare to uncommon and this one from last winter is the first I’ve seen. Photo by Dennis Plank

The second most abundant group is the Black-capped Chickadee and Chestnut-backed Chickadee, which are hard to separate, though they don’t really seem to hang with one another. The numbers and proportions of the two species vary quite a bit from winter to winter.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee (left) and Black-Capped (right). Both common feeder birds in the winter, though I haven't seen the Chestnut-backed at my feeders yet this winter. They tend to summer in the mountains and move down, but we did have a pair nesting here this past summer. Photo by Dennis Plank

Chestnut-backed Chickadee (left) and Black-Capped (right). Both common feeder birds in the winter, though I haven’t seen the Chestnut-backed at my feeders yet this winter. They tend to summer in the mountains and move down, but we did have a pair nesting here this past summer. Photo by Dennis Plank

We have discovered an interesting phenomenon in bird psychology here. In the eastern part of the country, it is very common for people to feed Black-capped Chickadees from their hands. Here, we have never been able to get them to do more than a touch and go, though the Chestnut-backed Chickadees are quite willing.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee taking peanuts from hand. Photo by Dennis Plank

Chestnut-backed Chickadee taking peanuts from hand. Photo by Dennis Plank

On rare occasions (it’s happened once in the 15 winters I’ve been here) we get a heavy influx of Red-breasted Nuthatches competing with the Chickadees. They’re not big sunflower seed consumers, but they do like the peanuts a lot. In the winter when they were so abundant, they got to the point where I would have more of them eating from my hand than I would the Chickadees, though most years it’s difficult or impossible to entice them.

Red-breasted Nuthatch taking peanuts from hand. The same session as the Chickadee photo above. My hand using a remote shutter release. Photo by Dennis Plank

Red-breasted Nuthatch taking peanuts from hand. The same session as the Chickadee photo above. My hand using a remote shutter release. Photo by Dennis Plank

Away from feeding stations, the Chickadees tend to form mixed flocks with Bushtits and Kinglets foraging through the trees and shrubs, but neither of those species is attracted to feeders so seeing them is a very rare occurrence.

Another common set of feeder birds are the “red” finches. We regularly have Purple Finches and House Finches in the winter, with their relative populations again varying quite a bit. Some winters it seems like we have all one species. When I first started doing bird photography we also had Cassin’s Finches, but I haven’t seen one since 2016. They are typically not Western Washington birds, but the prairie tends to attract plants and animals more typical of the drier side of the state.

The three "red" Finches. From left to right, House Finch, Purple Finch, and Cassin's Finch. All males. Photos by Dennis Plank

The three “red” Finches. From left to right, House Finch, Purple Finch, and Cassin’s Finch. All males. Photos by Dennis Plank

Feeding the birds can have it’s drawbacks for a bird photographer. The last few winters, I’ve had difficulty with our local deer population photobombing me.

Photobombed by one of our local deer. Photo by Dennis Plank.

Photobombed by one of our local deer. Photo by Dennis Plank.

Another species with a surprisingly large presence on our property is the Western Bluebird, that comes through in flocks of up to a dozen birds once or twice a day and lets us know that they’d like us to put out some mealworms for them (see the Aiding the Bluebirds post my wife wrote).

Winter Bluebirds at a snack of mealworms. Photo by Dennis Plank.

Winter Bluebirds at a snack of mealworms. Photo by Dennis Plank.

They are invariably accompanied by a few Yellow-rumped Warblers and a horde of Juncos.

Yellow-rumped Warbler in winter from a few years ago. Photo by Dennis Plank.

Yellow-rumped Warbler in winter from a few years ago. Photo by Dennis Plank.

This year, they have also been had an American Kestrel following them in. Thus far we haven’t seen it succeed in taking any birds, but I suspect it’s done so or it wouldn’t be so persistent.

My Christmas present a few years ago was this beauty posing for me. Photo by Dennis Plank

My Christmas present a few years ago was this beauty posing for me. Photo by Dennis Plank

The Kestrel is one of the iconic prairie birds of our area and seems to be on the increase. They’re a common sight on the wires along the road in prairie areas. I’ve been seeing one this winter along the Elk Refuge north of Littlerock where I’ve not seen one in the past.

Another iconic prairie species, that unfortunately does not pay us visits, is the Western Meadowlark. They can be found on prairies like Glacial Heritage in flocks at this time of year and on any half-way sunny day, if you’re out pulling Scotch broom like a good volunteer, you’ll hear the males singing.

Western Meadowlark on frosted wire. I ran across this in my files. Taken on Glacial Heritage. Photo by Dennis Plank

Western Meadowlark on frosted wire. I ran across this in my files. Taken on Glacial Heritage. Photo by Dennis Plank

A prairie species that I haven’t included on the list because we’ve only seen it on Glacial Heritage once and that on only one Saturday workday a number of years ago, is the Short-eared Owl. They look and hunt amazingly like a Northern Harrier and when we first saw them that day, we mistook them for Harriers.

Male Northern Harrier (left) and Short-eared Owl (right). The female harriers are brown instead of gray and the owls look a lot like them except for the absence of the white rump patch. The owl photo was taken in the Skagit Valley. Photos by Dennis Plank.

Male Northern Harrier (left) and Short-eared Owl (right). The female harriers are brown instead of gray and the owls look a lot like them except for the absence of the white rump patch. The owl photo was taken in the Skagit Valley. Photos by Dennis Plank.

In the winter, our female harriers seem to leave the area, but we do sometimes see a male and some years they include out property on their regular hunting route.

This Male Northern Harrier had taken a vole in our front yard and wasn't about to fly despite me and my camera. Photo by Dennis Plank

This Male Northern Harrier had taken a vole in our front yard and wasn’t about to fly despite me and my camera. Photo by Dennis Plank

Our list of winter birds is below. For simplicity, I just arranged them in alphabetical order by common name. If anyone has additions to this list, please leave a comment and we can augment it for later use. Please note that I’ve deliberately left off the water species other than Canada Goose since it spends so much time in open fields.

American Crow

American Goldfinch

American Kestrel

American Robin

Anna’s Hummingbird

Bald Eagle

Barn Owl

Barred Owl

Bewick’s Wren

Black capped Chickadee

Brewer’s Blackbird

Bushtit

California Quail

Canada Goose

Cassin’s Finch

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Chipping Sparrow

Crow

Dark-eyed Junco, Oregon Race

Dark-eyed Junco, Slate Colored

Downy Woodpecker

European Starling

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Great-horned Owl

Hairy Woodpecker

House Finch

House Sparrow

House Wren

Killdeer

Long-eared Owl

Mourning Dove

Northern Flicker, Red-shafted

Northern Harrier

Pine Siskin

Purple Finch

Raven

Red Breasted Nuthatch

Red-tailed Hawk

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Savannah Sparrow

Scrub Jay

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Song Sparrow

Spotted Towhee

Stellar’s Jay

Varied Thrush

Western Bluebird

Western Meadowlark

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Beautiful Moments on the Prairie

Beautiful Moments on the Prairie, Post and Photos by Meredith Rafferty

Meredith is a photographer who marvels at the world around us, night and day. Her happiest moments are connecting with nature and capturing special moments to share with others. She volunteers with the Center for Natural Lands Management and the Nisqually Land Trust, and is past President of the Olympia Camera Club. She delights in the wonders of the Pacific Northwest, from prairies to mountains, rivers to Puget Sound, morning sunrises to magical night skies. You are welcome to explore with her on Instagram.com/ImageConnections.

Beautiful Moments on the Prairie

Four years ago in April, it was my first day as a volunteer with the Center for Natural Lands Management which leads volunteers for Glacial Heritage Preserve and several other prairie properties. A retiree, I felt I was game to spend the day on the South Puget Sound Prairies pulling scotch broom. I was a novice as far as prairies go but had picked up some knowledge of plants and certainly had experience with digging and hauling from a lifetime of gardens and yards. Besides, I knew that volunteers are the very best group of people to be around and looked forward to learning from them.

I did carry one tool unique to me that day, a camera. For me, every outdoor experience is an adventure of discovery. I view the task at hand as a contribution to the flow of life around me. My reward is to look beyond the task and see a special moment and capture it in an image to share with others. It could be a beautiful scene, a special creature, an intricate bit of life, connecting us to the greater world. There is always wonder and surprise. What would I find this day?

The surprise wasn’t the stubborn scotch broom. Many of you reading this blog know it well. A lover of open spaces and sun, scotch broom moved in and overtook many areas in the South Sound prairies. I remember as a kid when roadsides were planted with this drought tolerant, tough plant to help address soil erosion and provide green landscaping. My childhood home was next door to acres of it. The bounty of yellow blossoms turned into seed pods that twisted and popped the seeds; the sound could be heard like a sort of popcorn across the fields on a hot day. What I didn’t know then was the seeds were carried far beyond and lived up to 50 years in the soil, waiting for the opportunity to sprout. This means that pulling broom is a never-ending task of stewardship.

Volunteers set off for a day’s work, “weed wrenches” in hand. This is Deschutes River Preserve, a protected property of CNLM under restoration near Tenino. It is part of a network of preserved prairie lands that includes the familiar Glacial Heritage. A perk of volunteering is to be able to visit many of these scenic sites. Photo by Meredith Rafferty

Volunteers set off for a day’s work, “weed wrenches” in hand. This is Deschutes River Preserve, a protected property of CNLM under restoration near Tenino. It is part of a network of preserved prairie lands that includes the familiar Glacial Heritage. A perk of volunteering is to be able to visit many of these scenic sites. Photo by Meredith Rafferty

But what would be the surprise this day? It was a silkmoth, clinging to the grasses! Apparently newly emerged, it didn’t move much as I struggled to line up my camera about a foot off the ground. Cameras are little computers and this one was new to me so there was fumbling with its menus and buttons. Plus, I was learning that many of my photos would require me to sit, if not lay, on the ground to get level with my intriguing subject. People have often been alarmed to find me spread out in the grasses, unmoving. I’ve noticed that the older I get, the more alarmed they are!

The silkmoth (it is spelled as one word) is mostly nocturnal and does not eat during its short adult life. Photo by Meredith Rafferty.

The silkmoth (it is spelled as one word) is mostly nocturnal and does not eat during its short adult life. Photo by Meredith Rafferty.

 

While I’m down on the ground, I encounter other special residents of the prairie. This is the Silvery Blue butterfly, a mere inch wide in wing span but its bright blue color during flight makes it larger than life. Butterflies are important pollinators of the wildflowers. Photo by Meredith Rafferty

While I’m down on the ground, I encounter other special residents of the prairie. This is the Silvery Blue butterfly, a mere inch wide in wing span but its bright blue color during flight makes it larger than life. Butterflies are important pollinators of the wildflowers. Photo by Meredith Rafferty

 

Look closely for the white spider on the prairie’s iconic wildflower, Camas. Instead of weaving a web, this spider relies on a surprise capture of an insect. Photo by Meredith Rafferty

Look closely for the white spider on the prairie’s iconic wildflower, Camas. Instead of weaving a web, this spider relies on a surprise capture of an insect. Photo by Meredith Rafferty.

 

An interesting find will bring a break in the work and a few minutes of sharing (pre-Covid era). The find this time was Broomrape, a plant that draws nourishment from the roots of other plants. At a whopping two inches tall, it requires a low-down view by a photographer.  Photos by Meredith Rafferty.

An interesting find will bring a break in the work and a few minutes of sharing (pre-Covid era). The find this time was Broomrape, a plant that draws nourishment from the roots of other plants. At a whopping two inches tall, it requires a low-down view by a photographer. Photos by Meredith Rafferty.

 

As we worked and talked, I began to see the broom-pulling as part of a much bigger restoration cycle.

There is the clearing and the planting. There is also the collection of seed from native plants growing in the prairies. Cultivated at Violet Prairie seed farm and nursery, the collected seed yields more seed and young seedlings in quantities, which will cycle back to rejuvenated areas and give them a boost.

Intrigued, I wanted to learn more. In future blogs, I’d like to share more of the restoration and life of South Puget Sound Prairies as a volunteer with a camera.

 

A classic view of Glacial Heritage Preserve. No scotch broom in sight, thanks to the years of diligence by volunteers and organizations.  Photo by Meredith Rafferty.

A classic view of Glacial Heritage Preserve. No scotch broom in sight, thanks to the years of diligence by volunteers and organizations. Photo by Meredith Rafferty.

 

Ecostudies Institute Broadens Its Conservation Capacity and Vision

Ecostudies Institute Broadens Its Conservation Capacity and Vision, Post by Gary Slater, images by staff of Ecostudies Institute or as attributed.

Gary founded Ecostudies Institute in 2001 and has worked to identify situations where Ecostudies’ knowledge, experience, and skills can be most effective towards advancing the conservation of birds, other wildlife, and their habitats. In 2020, he returned full time to Ecostudies as part of a transition team broadening the vision and conservation capacity of the organization. Gary has nearly 30 years of experience in nonprofit administration, conservation, and avian research, including work in the Pacific Northwest, south Florida, Venezuela, and the Bahamas. Most recently, his work has focused on conserving imperiled birds in prairie-oak habitats. 

Ecostudies Institute Broadens Its Conservation Capacity and Vision

In the last few weeks, Ecostudies Institute has undergone quite the transformation as a group of conservation scientists and practitioners in the South Sound Prairie community have joined the organization. This group, former employees of the Center for Natural Lands Management, is excited about embarking on a new course and using their skills and expertise to achieve tangible conservation outcomes.

Ecostudies Institute has a long conservation history in the Pacific Northwest. It was established in 2001 as a 501(c)(3) scientific non-profit organization in Washington State with a mission focused on conserving birds and other wildlife and the habitats they rely on in both Washington and Florida. For nearly two decades, Ecostudies has accomplished its mission through a combination of restoration, science, and outreach.

Pine Rockland, Florida. Photo by Ecostudies Institute

Pine Rockland, Florida. Photo by Ecostudies Institute

During its history, Ecostudies has built a strong foundation of conservation work. Ecostudies has coordinated and successfully completed large-scale projects for The National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and collaborated with numerous non-profit and academic institutions and private organizations. In Florida, Ecostudies worked on a number of projects in the Everglades ecosystem, including reintroducing two extirpated cavity-nesting birds, the brown-headed nuthatch and Eastern bluebird, to Everglades National Park. This Florida activity ultimately contributed to work here in the Pacific Northwest, where reintroduction efforts for the Western bluebird in North Puget Sound and Vancouver Island were modeled after those successful efforts.

Brown-headed Nuthatch, Photo by Ecostudies Institute

Brown-headed Nuthatch, Photo by Ecostudies Institute

 

Western Bluebird Release on San Juan Island, photo by Ecostudies Institute

Western Bluebird Release on San Juan Island, photo by Ecostudies Institute

With the recent arrival of new staff and expertise Ecostudies is broadening its capacity and vision. Based in Olympia, Washington, we now focus our efforts solely in the Pacific Northwest, where we will bring over 60 years of combined conservation experience to a region we are continuously fascinated and inspired by. One area where we expect to make a significant and immediate conservation impact is on the prairies and oak woodlands of Cascadia, especially here in the South Sound region where we are based.

Glacial Heritage panorama taken from

Glacial Heritage panorama taken from

 

Although we are still getting our feet under us after a period of inactivity, Ecostudies has already begun helping Joint Base Lewis McChord Military Base (JBLM) through a cooperative agreement. Under this agreement, we will assist our partners at JBLM in restoring, managing, and monitoring their prairie resources through a diverse array of activities, including prescribed ecological burning.

One of the fundamental approaches that Ecostudies will employ to achieve conservation goals is cooperative conservation. This model strives to realize improved conservation outcomes by developing shared goals and vision through partnerships, which, in turn, encourages information transfer, advances in cutting edge restoration techniques, and the development of integrated range-wide conservation approaches. Ecostudies will now coordinate the Cascadia Prairie-Oak Partnership, a community of people and organizations that are involved in prairie-oak conservation and species recovery efforts in western Cascadia.

In the coming months, we look forward to sharing more information about our conservation activities on our web page and social media; such as our new work with two federally listed butterfly species, the island marble and Taylor’s checkerspot.

We hope you check back with us and we look forward to seeing you out on the prairies!

Aiding the Bluebirds

Aiding the Bluebirds.  Post by Michelle Blanchard, photos by Dennis Plank

Michelle had been a volunteer on the south sound prairies since the late 1990’s when she was riding her horse on Glacial Heritage and Dan Grosboll stopped her to tell her it was a nature preserve and horses weren’t welcome.  Rather than get up in arms about it, she asked how she could help and she’s been doing it ever since.

Aiding the Bluebirds

I’d been volunteering at Glacial Heritage for a couple years when I
was asked to help install nest boxes for Western Bluebirds.

We’d been trying to encourage bluebirds to nest on Glacial for a few
years. Dave Clouse and Sam Agnew were banding bluebirds by the dozens
at Ft. Lewis, and we were hoping that we’d get the overflow.

I spent an afternoon with two other folks, nailing bluebird boxes to
the oaks on the edge of Glacial’s riparian zone. I was frustrated.
Being a biologist, a birder and a licensed birdbander, I knew that
bluebirds, like most cavity dwelling birds, preferred a box that was
facing east or south, to catch the morning sun. But, as I was just a
‘helper’, with no say in where the boxes would go, the boxes were
placed facing west. I am sorry to say that, in the years after that I
spent monitoring those boxes, the only things I found nesting in them
was yellow-jackets and, once, a house wren. Not a single one hosted
bluebirds.

Later on, many more boxes were erected out in the middle of the
prairie, all facing south or east, and not only did we get bluebirds,
but also violet-green and tree swallows. Now the bluebirds on Glacial
Heritage are well established and have been raising broods for several
years.

I wanted bluebirds on my property, as well, so I put up several boxes
around my house. I went for several years without bluebirds and then
one day in 2008…jubilation! A pair of bluebirds were shopping boxes
and chose the box closest to my front window. They found it just right
in which to raise a family. In fact, they raised two.

I spent many hours watching the family dynamics. I learned that the
adults will feed the babies as long as there is a smidgen of daylight
left. At sundown, the female would enter the box for the night, and
the male would sit atop it until it was full dark. On several
occasions, I heard him ‘sing’ to the family. Bluebirds don’t really
have a song. They say “pew”. When the male sang, it was a soft, sweet
chain of ‘pews’, telling the family that all was well and he’d been
coming in a moment.

The summer went past, as it is wont these days, far too fast. I had
thought that, once the babies had fledged, that they’d leave. But no!
They seemed content to stay. I didn’t see them as often, but it wasn’t
uncommon at all to see them, hovering over the grass, plummeting onto
their prey like miniature blue kestrels. Late in the summer, I’d see
the juveniles practicing skills they’d need as adults. They’d check
out all the nest boxes, entering this one, perching atop that one,
even carrying grasses into a box.

Then came fall, with its rains, and then winter. 2008’s winter was a
brutal one. We had very cold weather and early in December, it began
to snow. It snowed virtually every day (with one or two days with just
a light dusting) for about three weeks. As snow does, it got deeper
and deeper. We made trails through it to get to the garage, the truck,
the bird feeders.

My home is in a ‘micro-climate’. I learned years earlier that most of
W. Washington was considered zone 8 for gardening. I was a failure at
raising vegetables until I tried growing as if it were Zone7…and
that did the trick. Even so, our weather here is one of extremes. If
the temperature in Olympia is 50°, guaranteed it’s only 40° in
Littlerock. We get higher temps in the summer, colder ones in winter,
heavier fog, more and longer lasting rain, higher wind, and more snow
than anyone else in Thurston County.

I grew up in Michigan so I am more than familiar with snow. I am not
ashamed to say I hate it. Yes, it rains a lot here, but I don’t have
to shovel it. I love living in Western Washington, because if we do
get snow, it’s not often and it’s not much. Except in months like
December 2008, when the snow demons felt particularly energetic and
decide to dump everything they had on my house.

I am not exaggerating that, after three days of  particularly heavy
snow with winds pushing it into drifts, the snow was up to my thighs.
I’d given up trying to keep my truck shoveled out. I was resigned to
being snowbound. I was well prepared for it. It was just snow. Until
the snow demons decided it wasn’t ugly enough. One day, they kicked
the daytime temperature just high enough for the snow to change to
rain.

Of course, it was rain for just a couple hours, then the demons
dropped the temperature again.

The next day, the rain had frozen into a thick sheet of ice atop the
snow. The feeder birds-juncos and chickadees-were skating about on the
surface. They’d done okay with just snow, but the ice locked ground
feeding birds out of their normal winter fare. It was the only time in
my life that I saw 7 Western Meadowlarks, (birds that normally migrate
south when the temperatures drop to below freezing) underneath my
hanging feeders, eating bird feed.

The ice was thick enough that I could slide my filled buckets of bird
feed on the ice without them breaking through.

My bluebirds were in trouble. Unlike many birds, bluebirds like their
food alive and kicking. They eat only insects. They don’t eat bird
feed.

They were fluttering around my house and garage, trying to find
something to eat. One was perched atop the roof, so puffed out to
conserve heat she looked like a tennis ball. At that time I’d been
taking the nest boxes down for the winter, so they didn’t even have a
box in which to shelter. (I keep them up year round, now, for just
that purpose.)

Western Bluebird puffed up to try to stay warm with it's food source covered in snow and ice. Photo by Dennis Plank

Western Bluebird puffed up to try to stay warm with it’s food source covered in snow and ice. Photo by Dennis Plank

I had nothing for them. I even tried putting out raisins, as robins
will eat raisins, and while bluebirds aren’t robins, they are…or
were..considered thrushes. They ignored them.

The snow hung around for three weeks, with the heaviest snowfall and
the ice at the very end. The Pineapple Express came early and was very
welcome. The weather broke and the snow began to melt. I found dead
bluebirds, huddled in little pathetic bundles in the lee of the
garage. I found a total of 6. It broke my heart. Their keels felt like
knife edges under my thumb. The birds had no fat on them whatsoever.
They’d literally starved.

Just another reason for me to hate snow.

It seemed that that winter had killed every bluebird in the area, for
I saw none for several years. Then, one fine morning in 2011, a mated
pair showed up in my front yard. They set up housekeeping in the same
box as my original pair. They successfully raised a brood and were on
brood #2 when disaster struck.

My neighbors at the time (thankfully, they’re gone) allowed their
dogs and cats to roam. They refused to obey the RCW that says it’s
illegal to let your cats roam. Animal Services does not enforce it,
nor does the Sheriff.

I saw one of their cats kill the male bluebird. I swear, if I’d had a
gun handy I would have shot it. I was devastated. And worried…now
the adult female bluebird had babies needing feeding and no male to
help.

I’m not certain why I thought of it, or where I read it, but I learned
that folks back East feed their Eastern Bluebirds live mealworms.  I
found a place in Tumwater (Fluffy and Floyd’s, a most excellent pet
food store*) that, at the time, sold live mealworms. I bought two
dozen. Would the birds eat them? Even recognize them as edible?

I put a bowl of mealworms directly beneath the opening to the nest box.

The adult female bluebird ignored it. She made several trips to the
box but didn’t look twice at the bowl.

My heart sank.

Then, salvation, in the form of one of her juvenile daughters from her
first brood entered the box. In a few moments, she poked her head out.

She looked down at the bowl. She flew out of the box to its roof and
cocked her head, focusing her attention on the worm bowl.

She dropped down to land next to the bowl. She watched it warily for
several moment, making sure it didn’t attack her. Then she hopped
onto the rim, looking intently at the crawling mealworms at its
bottom. She thought, aha! They move! She hopped into the bowl, ate a
worm, then another. Then she began to ferry the rest of the worms to
her siblings in the box!

Juvenile Bluebird retrieving mealworms. Photo by Dennis Plank

Juvenile Bluebird retrieving mealworms. Photo by Dennis Plank

I was indoors, so she didn’t hear my shouts of joy.

Bluebirds are a ‘helper’ species. It is not unusual for the older
hatchlings help feed their younger siblings. In addition, they’re far
more willing to try new foods, ones their parents ignore.

While the adult and the juvenile were gone, I hurried out and dumped
every mealworm I had into the bowl and watched the juvenile feed them
all to her siblings. The next day I bought a LOT more. The juvenile
taught her mother to eat the worms. Even better, several days later,
an adult male bluebird showed up. The mother had found another mate!!

Now, my husband and I feed the bluebirds mealworms starting the moment
we see them hunting boxes in the spring.

Through trial and error, we’ve learned that the best worm ‘bowl’ is a
flat bottomed one, with sides high enough that the worms can’t crawl
out of it. In case of possible rain, we’ll put it under a covered
storage shed so that the rain doesn’t drown the worms.

Male carrying a mealworm to a convenient perch we've set up. Photo by Dennis Plank

Male carrying a mealworm to a convenient perch we’ve set up. Photo by Dennis Plank

We’ve trained them to come to a specific cue. We make a kissing sound
as we’re walking out with the worms. The bluebirds have trained US as
well. They’ll swirl around our heads if we’re outside or chitter when
they hear us on our porch. The males-for we have several pairs,
now-perch in our backyard and say “chuckchuck’. They’ll wait as we,
kissing ’til our cheeks hurt, place the worm filled bowl on the
ground. We’ll back off…not too far, and they’ll land. When they have
babies, the male, especially will take the worms to the box rather
than eat them.

We’ve watched as the male of the pair will encourage a fledgling to
land on or in the bowl, where he feeds it a worm. The babies don’t
take long to figure it out!

Male Bluebird feeding a youngster in a bowl we used to use. Photo by Dennis Plank

Male Bluebird feeding a youngster in a bowl we used to use. Photo by Dennis Plank

They’ve given us so much enjoyment, not to mention the opportunity for
my photographer husband to get some really great shots.

In the past, once they’ve all fledged, we’ve stopped feeding them. But
this is a La Nina year, and I bet my boots we’re going to have a heavy
snowfall. So we’ll be feeding them mealworms throughout the year.

Tonight, (it’s mid October) I placed the bowl filled with mealworms in
its usual spot. It’s actually a Tupperware box, much larger than the
original glass cake pan we’d used. I had to buy a larger container to
accommodate the crowd we have now. This evening, I watched as 11
bluebirds came to the new container and cleaned up the worms. Even as
often as I’ve seen it, it still thrills me. I’m not worried about snow
this year. When the snow demons hit us, I won’t let the bluebirds go
hungry.

One of the mobs from this year feeding. We believe there are at least two groups coming this year. Photo by Dennis Plank

One of the mobs from this year feeding. We believe there are at least two groups coming this year. Photo by Dennis Plank

* Fluffy and Floyd’s no longer sells live mealworms. But the Pet
Works in downtown Olympia,(right next door to the artesian well)
sells several types of live worms.

Wildfires and Prescribed Burns

Wildfires and Prescribed Burns, Post by Dennis Plank with input from Mason McKinley, Sanders Freed, and Ivy Clark.  Images by Dennis Plank and Ivy Clark

Dennis has been getting his knees muddy and his back sore pulling Scot’s Broom on the South Sound Prairies since 1998. In 2004, when the volunteers started managing Prairie Appreciation Day, he made the mistake of sending an email asking for “lessons learned” and got elected president of Friends of Puget Prairies-a title he appropriately renamed as “Chief Cat Herder”. He has now turned that over to Gail Trotter. Along the way, he has worked with a large number of very knowledgeable people and picked up a few things about the prairie ecosystem. He loves to photograph birds and flowers.

Wildfires and Prescribed Burns

The Mima Fire of the afternoon of September 8th caused us to be evacuated and was stopped on the other side of the road we live on.

View Looking toward Mima Road from our driveway after the burn.   We're on the unburned side.  Photo by Dennis Plank

View Looking toward Mima Road from our driveway after the burn. We’re on the unburned side. Photo by Dennis Plank

The Fires:

In the aftermath of this rather traumatic event, I started to consider the difference between the controlled burns I was familiar with seeing and this event. To help clarify my picture, I sent an email to Mason McKinley, the long time burn boss for the Center for Natural Lands Management and an expert in controlled burns of prairie habitat. Here’s a copy of my question and his reply:

To Mason:

The part of the Mima fire east of Mima road ended at the road I live on.  We’re on the safe side so we suffered no damage.  However it occurred to me to white a PAD Blog post on how not to do a controlled burn.  When I proposed it to Sabra, her first question was:  “How hot was it?  Was it hotter than a controlled burn?”  Thinking that over and taking some pictures of various locations today I had the thought that it would be good to get an expert to come down and look it over and tell me how it compared with a controlled burn.

To Dennis:

“Interesting question. You can answer the question of “was it hotter than a controlled burn?” in many ways. From a safety perspective, it was definitely drier and windier that day than a day we would pick to burn. As fuels cure and dry out, and as wind adds more oxygen, the “energy release component” increases for any given fuel. This just means that more of the fuel is completely, rather than partially consumed and the fire needs to use less energy to first drive off water from within the fuel to get the volatile gases to release. That is the same thing that explains why damp firewood doesn’t burn as hot as bone dry wood and it leaves more residue in your chimney because fewer of the released gasses actually get hot enough to combust. So, it is scientifically reasonable to say that more energy was released per unit of fuel on that day than on one of our cooler, more humid and less windy burn days.

But really, the difference in heat released itself might not be a reason not to burn. With cured and dried flashy fuels, they just burn hot and a few extra degrees of temp or less RH doesn’t make a huge difference (though it can lead to more smoldering moss and heavy fuels). Sometimes you want a lot of heat and consumption – you just want to be able to control it. In this case, it was the wind in particular that was bad and the low RH means that broom and fir trees are going to be better able to send embers to quickly create spot fires that in turn can spread fast. Woody broom and firs are also more likely to get really hot and throw big flames in those conditions too (which I think describes the old race track). We would not burn here with that RH and how cured the fuels are and we would have prepped broom and firs to facilitate containment prior to burning. But I have burned other places where they are ok burning with RH in the teens. In the Midwest grass areas, they are not even afraid of stronger winds. It just depends on the burn objectives, types of fuels, what the containment lines are like and the various risks.

Even with that wind and those flashy fuels, if there had been an engine or three on site ready to respond right away when the transformer blew, chances are they would have been able to stop it quickly or hold it at roads or deploy other tactics. That is a huge difference between wildfires and RX. With RX we have the luxury of planning, scouting, prepping, getting equipment and firefighters lined out to address the biggest risks before there is even fire on the ground. Coming into an unscouted situation that has already been burning for 10-30 min, with flashy fuels, obscuring smoke, houses, fences, panicked residents, different fire teams from different agencies showing up at random times adds several magnitudes of chaos.”

So from the point of view of the person controlling the burn, it’s the lack of preparation that makes the real difference between a controlled burn and a wildfire.

The discipline of a controlled burn.  Photo by Dennis Plank

The discipline of a controlled burn. Photo by Dennis Plank

Mason mentions the panicked residents. While I didn’t see any examples of real panic amongst my neighbors; everyone wanted to get back in to see their property and check on animals. They let people in for awhile (we happened to be at dinner then), and when we came back they had quit letting people in because the congestion caused by all the residents on these small side roads was impeding the mobility of the fire crews (of which there were an incredible number, especially considering how many worse fires were in existence at the time). This seems to me a good reason for evacuating residents in and of itself: it gives the fire crews a free hand to do their job and they did it incredibly well in this instance with only one house lost, even though the fire was right up to the walls of several.

One of several houses where the fire burned right up to the house.  This particular house had dense shrubbery around three walls.  Photo by Dennis Plank

One of several houses where the fire burned right up to the house. This particular house had dense shrubbery around three walls. Photo by Dennis Plank

In contrast, in a controlled burn, everyone knows what’s happening, the crews are in place, firebreaks are established and fall-back plans have been developed and are known by the fire crews.

Aftermath:

With the Mima fire, the event essentially ended with the fire being under control and the elimination of hotspots, an activity that lasted from Tuesday, when the fire started and didn’t cease until the following Monday. This seems to be typical of wildfires.

DNR Helicopters spent most of a day after the fire dumping water on the field surrounding a horse facility that spreads it's manure on the fields.  It smolders really well.  Photo by Dennis Plank.

DNR Helicopters spent most of a day after the fire dumping water on the field surrounding a horse facility that spreads it’s manure on the fields. It smolders really well. Photo by Dennis Plank.

A fire crew going in to check for hot spots after the fire.  Photo by Dennis Plank

A fire crew going in to check for hot spots after the fire. Photo by Dennis Plank

I asked Sanders Freed, the Center For Natural Lands Management’s south sound preserves manager and one of his people Ivy Clark, a regular contributor to this blog, for input on what happens after the burn. Sanders, as is typical of him was very brief and to the point. Here’s his reply:

“The general prescription after a fire is an herbicide application- right when things pop back up, which are mostly non-native and invasive like hairy cat’s ear and ox-eye daisy. Then you seed back natives, usually with a drop seeder followed by a harrow to increase soil/seed contact. That’s about it- then you wait for spring to see what grows! There can be alterations of the plan for specific species and burn intensity- but that’s the gist.”

Ivy provided more detail and some graphics to help clarify the process:

Restoration with Burns.  Graphics by Ivy Clark

Restoration with Burns. Graphics by Ivy Clark

“As we are back in the prescribed burning window for habitat restoration, we can see that essential irreplaceable part of prairie restoration that’s scary and exciting all in one. Fire doesn’t just kill weeds like broom and European hawthorn, it clears debris (fuel as we call it) that covers up ground and smothers more sensitive plants. Native prairie plants are adapted to germinate their seeds on exposed soil and when fire is kept out for too long, moss and duff and grasses fill in all the gaps they would need to keep reproducing. Fire clears ground for natives to get ahead. It also knocks back weeds that don’t actually die in fire, like hairy cat’s ear and blackberry.

Controlled Burn in Progress.  Photo by Ivy Clark.

Controlled Burn in Progress. Photo by Ivy Clark.

 

Crews Governing a Prescribed Burn.  Photo by Ivy Clark

Crews Governing a Prescribed Burn. Photo by Ivy Clark

Since weeds are invasive because they tend to grow faster and earlier than natives, they will start regrowing before native plants come back up or seed newly encouraged by the fire germinate.

Hairy Cat's Ear after a Fire.  Photo by Ivy Clark.

Hairy Cat’s Ear after a Fire. Photo by Ivy Clark.

 

This gives a great opportunity to spray herbicide over the burn area so that only weeds will die, making even more room for natives. With this newly cleared area and just about to emerge natives as fall rains begin, we can augment the native population with more seeds, possibly returning species that had been extirpated, further increasing native diversity and habitat function. And since it’s a prairie, it’s all the more beautiful as well. Each site gets a tailored mix of seeds, mostly forbs and plenty of annuals which suffer the most in degraded areas.

A Selection of Seeds to Be mixed with Fescue for Seeding after a Burn.  Photo by Ivy Clark.

A Selection of Seeds to Be mixed with Fescue for Seeding after a Burn. Photo by Ivy Clark.

And of course Roemer’s fescue along with a few other native grasses. For high quality high priority sites that may get a checkerspot release within a year or two, we will also add thousands of plant plugs to boost the population of a few important flowers for the butterflies, ready to bloom for them the following spring.

Volunteers Planting Plugs on Glacial Heritage.  Photo by Dennis Plank.

Volunteers Planting Plugs on Glacial Heritage. Photo by Dennis Plank.

Fire is the start of this chain of restoration events that return health to the area that you just can’t get with any other method. It also kills a few established conifers and releases any oak seedlings struggling in their shade to grow faster into healthy full oak trees.”

And this is just part of the restoration process because fire rarely kills all the Scotch Broom and follow up pulling and/or spraying is required. And, of course this is not a one-time activity. On average, the prairie needs to be burned every four years or so to keep it in a healthy condition.

To me, the saddest thing about a wildfire like this (aside from loss of houses and lives) is the missed opportunity to put them to good use. This fire, coincidentally, followed a corridor from the south end of the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve to a within a five acre parcel and an old gravel pit of Glacial Heritage Preserve.

Some idea of the scope of the Mima Burn.  Photo by Dennis Plank

Some idea of the scope of the Mima Burn. Photo by Dennis Plank

Local Prairie Restorationists have long dreamed of connecting the two and most of the connecting properties are small private parcels that are not farmed, though they might have a few horses or other animals on them. Getting those parcels restored to healthy prairie would go a long way toward creating that larger ecosystem that’s more resilient to damage and degradation. It would take a lot of education of the local landowners and some means of accessing the herbicide and seeding equipment (and seeds-which are not cheap!) for the follow-up treatment. But if it could be done, it might be a way of turning what look like disasters into long term benefits both for the prairies and for the people who now live on them. We’re going to have more of these. Almost every summer brings a scary period where we’re afraid to leave the property for fear of fire and it’s only been a few years since the Scatter Creek fire just a few miles south of here. They’re going to happen, but they can be useful and good native prairie habitat doesn’t burn with the intensity of the non-native grasses and Scotch Broom.

DC-10 Adapted for Fire Retardant Dumping Turning for another Pass at the Scatter Creek Fire in 2017.

DC-10 Adapted for Fire Retardant Dumping Turning for another Pass at the Scatter Creek Fire in 2017.

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.