Butterflies, Cows and Caterpillars: Can Cattle Grazing Help Butterflies?

Butterflies, Cows and Caterpillars: Can Cattle Grazing Help Butterflies?, Post by Samantha Bussan, Photos by Samantha Bussan and Christopher Jason.

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.

Butterflies, Cows and Caterpillars:  Can Cattle Grazing help Butterflies?

Curious cattle inspecting us in the pasture. Photo by Samantha Bussan

Curious cattle inspecting us in the pasture. Photo by Samantha Bussan

Fields full of cows are a familiar sight around the South Puget Sound. But did you know that much of what is now pasture used to be prairie? South Puget Sound prairies have suffered a dramatic decline since European settlement due to fire suppression, urbanization, and conversion to agriculture. This severe habitat loss puts many native plants and animals at risk of extinction. Some people believe that the only way to provide habitat for these plants and animals is to remove cattle grazing and restore the prairies.

However, there is research showing that cattle grazing may benefit grassland butterflies, plants, and many other groups by increasing plant community diversity and the proportion of flowering plants, and by preventing the encroachment of woody plant species which would shade out grassland plants. Much of the research on cattle grazing and butterflies has taken place in semi-natural grasslands in Europe. There is comparatively little work in the US, and most of the US-based studies have focused on Midwestern prairies.

My work aims to understand whether there is a potential for cattle grazing to contribute to prairie butterfly habitat in the South Puget Sound. I have two main projects related to cows and butterflies.

My two study species. Left: Silvery blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus) male. Photo by Samantha Bussan. Right: Ochre Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia eunomia). Photo by Christopher Jason.

My two study species. Left: Silvery blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus) male. Photo by Samantha Bussan. Right: Ochre Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia eunomia). Photo by Christopher Jason.

The first project used butterfly behavior as an index of habitat quality under different types of management. The first type was “conventional” grazing, which I defined as cows having access to the whole pasture throughout the season. The second type was “conservation” grazing, which I defined as rotational grazing, where cows are moved around to give the plant community more time to recover between grazing periods, and a spring rest period, where cows are kept off the pasture in early spring when many plants (and caterpillars) are more vulnerable to grazing. There were also two native prairie sites, Johnson Prairie on Joint Base Lewis McCord, and West Rocky Prairie which is owned by WDFW. I followed adult butterflies of two common native species (silvery blues, Glaucopsyche lygdamus; and ochre ringlets, Coenonympha tullia eunomia) to see how they behaved under the different management types. Anecdotally, I found that as long as the host plant and nectar resources that they needed were present, the butterflies seemed to use them regardless of grazing management. This tells me that there is a potential for conservation grazing to contribute to butterfly habitat in the landscape.

My second project, which I am working on this summer, is comparing adult butterfly habitat preference with larval performance. I am working on a ranch with two different grazing treatments that are similar to the conventional and conservation grazing types described above. I release butterflies along the border between treatments to see if they have a preference for one type of habitat over another. I will also place caterpillars in the treatments and compare their residence times (how many days we were able to observe them), which is a proxy for survival. I am currently about halfway through data collection for this project, so stay tuned!

While more analysis is needed before I say for sure, conservation grazing may help maintain or improve habitat for butterflies by increasing nectar and host plant availability, which butterflies seem to recognize as good habitat.

Pastures that are managed in a way that provides resources for butterflies as well as cows may have a potential to contribute to butterfly habitat in the landscape.  Left: A pasture with lots of Camas bloom.  Camas is an important nectar plant for early season butterflies.  Right: A female silvery blue butterfly lays eggs on lupine in a pasture.  Both photos by Samantha Bussan.

Pastures that are managed in a way that provides resources for butterflies as well as cows may have a potential to contribute to butterfly habitat in the landscape. Left: A pasture with lots of Camas bloom. Camas is an important nectar plant for early season butterflies. Right: A female silvery blue butterfly lays eggs on lupine in a pasture. Both photos by Samantha Bussan.

Prairie Flower Update and Special Announcement

Prairie Flower Update and Special Announcement, 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.

Prairie Flower Update and Special Announcement, May 29th

Another good find from Gail Trotter for those who want to make their property more wildlife friendly.

The National Wildlife Federation Habitat Steward training

Are you interested in creating habitat for wildlife? Do you want to do your part to keep Thurston County wild? Now is your chance to become a Habitat Steward.

The National Wildlife Federation is offering a specialized, multi-week online workshop to teach you how to help others create and restore wildlife habitat in backyards, schoolyards, and other private and public areas. Workshop sessions will take place the first four Tuesdays in June from 6:00 – 9:00 pm via Zoom.

During this online workshop, you get to meet and interact with local conservation professionals and other similarly interested folks while participating in this engaging, fun and highly informative training! Expert speakers from the community will present on topics such as: gardening for wildlife, improving water quality, managing noxious weeds, prairie restoration, and more! 

The cost of the training is $25 to cover program materials. Note: scholarships are available! No one will be turned down due to lack of funds. To register for the training, please visit: http://thurstonhst.brownpapertickets.com or contact us at WAEducation@nwf.org or (206) 577-7816.

Prairie Flower Update

On the late spring bloom front, the star of the show has to be Oregon Sunshine, Eriophyllum lanatum, with that lovely silvery blue-green foliage and the prolific yellow daisy-like flowers. It’s just getting started now and the nice weather this week has produced a few larger patches of bloom.  For this I preferred to concentrate on the simplicity of a single bloom.

Oregon Sunshine, Photo by Dennis Plank

Oregon Sunshine, Photo by Dennis Plank

 

Another favorite yellow composite that is just barely getting started is Cutleaf Microseris, Microseris laciniata. I like this plant in its immediate pre-bloom stage almost as much as when it’s in bloom. The large buds on their long stems bend down in an elegant curve against the beautifully cut basal leaves. In bloom, they look somewhat like an over sized dandelion until you look closely and see the difference in petal structure. As of yesterday, I had only found two that had started to open and both had another couple of days to reach the fully opened condition.

Microceris Bud, Photo by Dennis Plank

Microceris Bud, Photo by Dennis Plank

 

Cut-leaf Microseris. Photo by Dennis Plank

Cut-leaf Microseris. Photo by Dennis Plank

 

Speaking of composites, though they aren’t welcome from an ecological perspective, it is very difficult to miss the Oxeye Daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare beginning to whiten the Mima Mounds or the Hairy Cat’s Ear, Hypochaeris radicata imitating dandelions all over the prairie.

The daisies seem to grow best on the mounds themselves and I have encountered them in such concentrations when trying to get at Tansy Ragwort that I’ve nearly denuded the mound to get at the weed of most concern. I have to admit that there’s a bit of love/hate relationship with this species as it is a handsome flower with attractive foliage. The other morning, after a heavy dew, the love part came to the forefront.

Dew covered Oxeye Daisy in early morning light.  Photo by Dennis Plank

Dew covered Oxeye Daisy in early morning light. Photo by Dennis Plank

 

The Hairy Cat’s Ear is also known as Flat Weed from the habit of the leaves to grow flat against the ground. It has two amazingly effective habits for proliferation. It continues to send up new bloom stalks all summer no matter how many times they’re removed and in any reasonably mild fire, the blooms seem to mature seed heads overnight without the need for external pollination. I recall a burn on Glacial heritage where that happened and the post-burn treatment couldn’t be done due to weather conditions. The whole burn became a sea of this weed until the next time it could be burned under better conditions.

Hairy Cat's Ear.  Photo by Dennis Plank

Hairy Cat’s Ear. Photo by Dennis Plank

 

Leaving the Composites, the next lupine in line, and to me the most obviously beautiful of our locals, the Prairie Lupine, Lupinus lepidus, is in full bloom. While far from the exuberantly enormous blooms of some species, I like the relatively delicate structures of the leaves and conical bloom heads and the color of the individual blooms is beautiful.

Prairie Lupine, Photo by Dennis Plank

Prairie Lupine, Photo by Dennis Plank

 

Ivy’s post “Faded Prairies Renewed” contained a flower that I had not encountered previously, and I was astounded to find it on our property where I had sown some prairie annual seeds that couldn’t be used in conservation areas. It’s the entrancingly lovely little Baby Stars, Leptosiphon minimus. Luckily these are so tiny that they’re pretty much out of the wind and it was possible to photograph them, though DSLRs aren’t really designed well for getting that low to the ground and still operating them easily.

Baby Stars.  Photo by Dennis Plank

Baby Stars. Photo by Dennis Plank

 

Sea Blush or Rosy Plectrities, Plectritis congesta, is in bloom now as well and is forming large patches in places on some of the prairies. It’s a welcome splash of a different color.

Sea Blush, Photo by Dennis Plank

Sea Blush, Photo by Dennis Plank

 

A patch of Sea blush,Photo by Dennis Plank

A patch of Sea blush,Photo by Dennis Plank

 

The last of the flowers for this week is the first Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia, of the year. Though my wife doesn’t find this flower attractive, I love it. The blue (or rarely white) bells on the very thin stems dance in the prairie breezes all summer and even into early winter. I don’t know if this one bloomed early because of the spit bug or if it was just a favored plant, but I was happy to see it regardless of why it was out. Late note:  I’m seeing more open since I wrote the draft of this post.

Harebell, Photo by Dennis Plank

Harebell, Photo by Dennis Plank

 

Species Interactions in a Prairie Butterfly: Puget Blues, Ants and Nectar Plants

Species interactions in a prairie butterfly: Puget blues, ants, and nectar plants.  Post by Rachael Bonoan, Kelsey King and Hanna Brush, Photos by Rachael Bonoan.

Rachael Bonoan (rachael.bonoan@tufts.edu): Rachael is a post-doctoral researcher at both Washington State University and Tufts University. Rachael spends the Puget blue season searching for caterpillars and chasing butterflies in the South Puget Sound and the rest of the year in the lab and analyzing data at Tufts University in the Boston Area. This fall, Rachael will be joining Providence College (Providence, RI) as Assistant Professor of Biology where her lab will study nutritional ecology of bees and frosted elfins.

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.

Hanna Brush (maria.brush@tufts.edu): Hanna is a Portland, OR native and an undergraduate student at Tufts University who has been helping Rachael study Puget blue butterflies since 2018. This season, Hanna will be investigating nectaring preferences and behavior of Puget blue butterflies for her senior honors thesis.

Species interactions in a prairie butterfly: Puget blues, ants, and nectar plants

This time of year, Puget blue butterflies (Icaricia icarioides blackmorei) have just emerged from their underground pupation at our field site, Johnson Prairie (Joint Base Lewis-McChord). Soon, hundreds of Puget blues will be flitting around the prairie, laying eggs on their host plant, sickle-keeled lupine (Lupinus albicaulis). When it comes to preserving habitat for host plant specialists, biologists rightfully focus on preserving the host plant. This focus, however, may be missing other key interactions in the butterfly’s biology.

Sickle-keeled lupine (Lupinus albicaulis) and other wildflowers on Johnson Prairie.  Photo by Rachael Bonoan

Sickle-keeled lupine (Lupinus albicaulis) and other wildflowers on Johnson Prairie. Photo by Rachael Bonoan

 

Puget blue female with her abdomen curled to lay an egg on the underside of this lupine leaf. Photo by Rachael Bonoan

Puget blue female with her abdomen curled to lay an egg on the underside of this lupine leaf. Photo by Rachael Bonoan

Caterpillars and ants

Soft and squishy, Puget blue caterpillars are vulnerable to predators such as carnivorous wasps and spiders. When threatened, Puget blue caterpillars signal for help via scent, sound, or both. In response, nearby ants come marching. The ants protect the caterpillar by patrolling the plant, physically standing on top of the caterpillar and in some systems, the ants carry the caterpillar underground to their nest. Once the threat has passed, the caterpillar uses a specialized organ to secrete a tiny sugar droplet as a “thank you” to the ants.

Ant receiving a sugar reward from a fourth instar Puget blue caterpillar. Photo by Rachael Bonoan

Ant receiving a sugar reward from a fourth instar Puget blue caterpillar. Photo by Rachael Bonoan

This ant-caterpillar interaction is part of the life cycle of many butterflies in the Lycaenid family. While very little is known about this interaction in Puget blues, the ants are often beneficial for caterpillar survival. For example, silvery blues (Glaucopsyche lygdamus) tended by ants showed 45 – 84% less parasitism than untended caterpillars; experimental exclusion of ants from Reakirt’s blues (Hemiargus isola) doubled caterpillar mortality; and in the lab, Miami blues (Cyclargus thomasi bethunebakeri) raised with ants were significantly more likely to successfully pupate. Though tiny, ants may be an important piece to preserving rare Lycaenids such as the Puget blue and the closely related Fender’s blue (Icaricia icarioides fenderi).

Butterflies and nectar plants

Being a butterfly is hard work. Butterflies need lots of energy to fly, find mates, and lay eggs. So where does all this energy come from? Although butterflies do have some resources saved up from their time feeding on leaves as caterpillars, many species need to supplement their stores by collecting carbohydrate-rich nectar as adults.

Puget blue male nectaring on oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare). If you look closely, you can see the proboscis (i.e. butterfly “tongue”) in the flower.  Photo by Rachael Bonoan

Puget blue male nectaring on oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare). If you look closely, you can see the proboscis (i.e. butterfly “tongue”) in the flower. Photo by Rachael Bonoan

We assessed the importance of adult nutrition for Puget blue survival and fecundity (how many eggs they can lay) by maintaining freshly emerged female butterflies on different diets in the lab. We found that regardless of diet treatment, Puget blue females lay about 20 eggs per day. But, even without flying, if fed water alone, they only live for about 5 days. Given as much sugar (i.e. carbohydrates) as they want, Puget blue females lived for about 25 days. This means that with carbohydrates collected from nectar, a female butterfly lives 5 times longer and thus, can lay 5 times more eggs! Our research suggests that we need to conserve both nectar and host plants to preserve and bolster Puget blue populations.

Puget blue female nectaring on Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum). If you look closely, you can see the proboscis (i.e. butterfly “tongue”) in the flower.  Photo by Rachael Bonoan

Puget blue female nectaring on Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum). If you look closely, you can see the proboscis (i.e. butterfly “tongue”) in the flower. Photo by Rachael Bonoan

While our lab-based research shows that adult-collected nectar is in fact important for Puget blue population dynamics, little is known about which flowers they visit for nectar. We followed Puget blue butterflies to figure out what they like to eat.

Hanna following a Puget blue butterfly. Can you spot the butterfly on the lupine? Photo by Rachael Bonoan

Hanna following a Puget blue butterfly. Can you spot the butterfly on the lupine? Photo by Rachael Bonoan

It turns out, Puget blue butterflies can be picky eaters. Out of the 50+ species of flowers recorded on the prairie, we observed Puget blues feeding on only 9 species, many of which are introduced. Surprisingly, Puget blue females do not collect nectar solely from open flowers—they spent most of their time (60%!) probing closed flowers of their host plant. To examine this behavior further, we did a bit of chemistry and found that closed lupine flowers contain carbohydrates as well as amino acids (proteins!). Though there is still much to learn, amino acids may also help Puget blue females lay more eggs and/or survive longer.

From left to right, TOP: two closed Lupinus albicaulis racemes, open L. albicaulis raceme; BOTTOM: vetch (Vicia sativa), slender cinquefoil (Potentilla gracilis), spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium), spreading snowberry (Symphoricarpos mollis); BOTTOM: yarrow (Achillea millefolium), false dandelion (Hypochaeris radicata), Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum), oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare).  Photos by Rachael Bonoan

From left to right, TOP: two closed Lupinus albicaulis racemes, open L. albicaulis raceme; CENTER: vetch (Vicia sativa), slender cinquefoil (Potentilla gracilis), spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium), spreading snowberry (Symphoricarpos mollis); BOTTOM: yarrow (Achillea millefolium), false dandelion (Hypochaeris radicata), Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum), oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare). Photos by Rachael Bonoan

Shake The Dirt Off

Shake the Dirt Off, 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.

Shake Dirt Off

A broom parody of the Taylor Swift “Shake it off” pop song

By Taproot Shift, produced by IV Clark

Note:  If you wish to try singing this, here’s a link to a karaoke version of the Taylor Swift song.

I stare at my plants! Got worry in my brain!

That’s what invasives do to me, mmm hmm, the weeds that I can see, mmm hmm

Gotta kill too many weeds! But can’t do enough to please!

At least that’s what you may think, mmm hmm, that’s what you may think, mm hmmm

So I keep pulling, can’t stop, must keep killing

It’s like they’ll take over every inch in the warm Washington sun

20200512_122314(1)

Cause the broom’s gonna bloom bloom bloom bloom bloom

And the seed’s gonna spread spread spread spread spread

Baby I’m just gonna pull pull pull pull pull pull

Then shake it off, shake it off

If soil comes up with the root root root

It could still bloom bloom bloom bloom bloom bloom

Baby you just gotta shake shake shake shake shake

Shake dirt off, shake dirt off

20200505_152404

 

I never miss a weed! Can’t let em go to seed!

And it makes them all afraid of me, mmm mmm, yeah they all afraid of me, mmm mmm

I’m pulling on my own (pulling on my own), I’ll take some friends when they can go (friends come on lets go)

They can’t kill as much as me, mmm mmmm, can’t kill as much as me, mmm mmm

20200504_135715 (2)-Edit-2

 

So I keep pulling, can’t stop, must keep killing

It’s like they’ll take over every inch in the warm Washington sun

Cause the broom’s gonna bloom bloom bloom bloom bloom

And the seed’s gonna spread spread spread spread spread

Baby I’m just gonna pull pull pull pull pull pull

Then shake it off, shake it off

If soil comes up with that root root root

It could still bloom bloom bloom bloom bloom bloom

Baby you just gotta shake shake shake shake shake

Shake dirt off, shake dirt off

Shake dirt off, shake dirt off

I, I shake dirt off, shake dirt off

I, I shake dirt off, shake dirt off

I, I shake dirt off, shake dirt off

broom root with soil

Hey hey hey!

Just think when those invasive plants get the habitat down ,with their dirty dirty tricks

You could be making a difference, with these sweet tips

My weed wrench pulls more than just broom

Pulls hawthorn and holly, and even some blackberry

It kills them with such ease with some aim and then a squeeze

When you pull it on over, baby, then you shake shake shake, yeah oh

20200417_092359

Cause the broom’s gonna bloom bloom bloom bloom bloom

And the seed’s gonna spread spread spread spread spread

Baby I’m just gonna pull pull pull pull pull pull

Then shake it off, shake it off

If soil comes up with that root root root

It could still bloom bloom bloom bloom bloom bloom

Baby you just gotta shake shake shake shake shake

Shake dirt off, shake dirt off

Shake dirt off, shake dirt off

I, I shake dirt off, shake dirt off

I, I shake dirt off, shake dirt off

I, I shake dirt off, shake dirt off

Shake-it collage

 

Shake dirt off, shake dirt off

I, I shake dirt off, shake dirt off

I, I shake dirt off, shake dirt off

I, I shake dirt off, shake dirt off

Scotch Broom Revisited

Scotch Broom Revisited, Post and photo by Dennis Plank

Scotch Broom Revisited

Scotch Broom in Bloom at a local "conservation" set aside for development.  Photo by Dennis Plank

Scotch Broom in Bloom at a local “conservation” set aside for development. Photo by Dennis Plank

Such a worthy opponent bears addressing more than once, just as it often needs pulling more than once. Today we have a pair of posts. The first, included below, is an announcement for an on-line symposium on control of this species, forwarded by Gail Trotter, who knows everything that’s going on. The second is a humorous song lyric on pulling it from Ivy Clark. Ivy’s still looking for someone to sing it and do the music video. If you’re willing, drop us a line and we’ll put you in touch.

Washington Invasive Species Council

Announces A

Web-based Scotch Broom Symposium, June 2-4

Scotch broom is one of the most costly invasive species in the Pacific Northwest, with an annual potential impact of $143 million. This symposium will share information between natural resource managers and researchers, bringing new and best practices to a wide audience. The symposium will be held on three consecutive days, June 2 through June 4. For more information about each session, go to https://invasivespecies.wa.gov/event/scotch-broom-2020/

Sign up for the three sessions individually:

Impacts and Research June 2, 2020 11:00am to 2:00pm
Management Actions June 3, 2020 11:00am to 2:00pm
Successful Approaches June 4, 2020 11:00am to 2:00pm

If you go to their Home Page, you’ll also see that they’re doing a Scotch Broom Census this month, so you still have a week to report your sightings of this plant.

Bluebird Recovery on the Prairies

Bluebird Recovery on the Prairies, Post by Karla Kelly, photos by various.

Karla is an avian field technician AmeriCorps with the Center for Natural Lands Management currently in her second field season of monitoring Western bluebirds and Oregon vesper sparrows. She attended The Evergreen State College and earned her Bachelor’s of Science degree in 2017. She is looking forward to graduate school in the near future and is working to build a career in avian research and conservation.

Bluebird Recovery on the Prairies, Post by Karla Kelly

The Western bluebird (Sialia mexicana) is a charismatic blue and rust-colored thrush that is considered a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) in prairie and oak habitat in western Washington. It is also a conservation focus of the Avian Conservation Program at Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM). Volunteers monitor bluebirds on CNLM preserves and other conservation lands in the South Sound region as part of a large-scale effort to increase their numbers and distribution.

Male Western Bluebird in Flight, Photo by Tony Varela

Male Western Bluebird in Flight, Photo by Tony Varela

 

Formerly common in open prairie and oak habitats, the species disappeared from much of their range, including mainland and island habitats north of Tacoma and the Olympic peninsula. Bluebirds are cavity nesters and historically built their nests in hollowed-out spaces in trees. Today, they mostly rely on artificial cavities. By building wooden nest boxes and strategically placing them on trees in prairies around the South Sound, we can compensate for the loss of available cavities which was a major factor in their decline.

A Common Design for Bluebird Nest Boxes, unknown photographer

A Common Design for Bluebird Nest Boxes, unknown photographer

 

Over the last five years, CNLM and its volunteers have been establishing and monitoring boxes at over six preserves and other conservation lands. In response, bluebirds have occupied new areas and increased their numbers. These conservation efforts in South Sound may also benefit other populations, such as smaller reintroduced populations to the north on San Juan Island and Vancouver Island (Canada).

Five Beautiful Blue Eggs-More Bluebirds on the Way, unknown photographer

Five Beautiful Blue Eggs-More Bluebirds on the Way, unknown photographer

 

Nestling, Only a Mother Could Love These, unknown photographer

Nestling, Only a Mother Could Love These, unknown photographer

 

All of the work that we do with bluebirds would not be possible without our dedicated volunteer nest box monitors. Their keen interest and willingness to participate ensure that bluebirds are counted and boxes are maintained, producing positive outcomes for the conservation status of this iconic species in South Sound.

A More Rustic Take on Bluebird Box Design, unknown photographer

A More Rustic Take on Bluebird Box Design, unknown photographer

 

2020 – Sharp Lark

2020 – Sharp Lark, Post and Photos by Adrian Wolf

Adrian Wolf has been working on habitat restoration projects for endangered birds for over 25 years. He attributes the inspiration to pursue this profession to his undergraduate professor at the University of California, Irvine. For his Master’s Degree at the Evergreen State College, he climbed up into the forest canopy of old growth Pacific Northwest trees to study the importance of epiphytic resources for birds. Currently, he is a Conservation Biologist with the Center for Natural Lands Management charged with restoring and recovering the imperiled avifauna of prairie oak habitats.

2020 – Sharp Lark

20/20 is often associated with “clarity or sharpness of vision”. Well, this couldn’t be more apt during this remarkable time in our lives. This pandemic of 2020 has certainly cast light on all the things we too often take too much for granted to see clearly; and at times the necessary changes and adjustments have felt quite sharp indeed. This is also apparent in the breath and wild things of the natural world. Yet, on this matter, the changes have been for the better.

Mount Rainier (Tahoma) from the Streaked-Horned Lark restoration area.  Photo by Adrian Wolf

Mount Rainier (Tahoma) from the Streaked-Horned Lark restoration area. Photo by Adrian Wolf

There is talk of dolphins returning to the canals in Venice, evening stars noticed again in densely populated cities, and even the Olympic Mountains seen daily from the I-5 corridor. The pause of everyday life has given nature a bit of respite, a time to breath, a break from the hustle and bustle of us bipeds and our machines.

I feel that the prairies of South Puget Sound are also benefiting from this lull in air and noise pollution. The flowers seem more colorful, the bird songs more robust, the raindrops sweeter, the oak lichens more enthusiastic and the views of Mount Rainier as sharp and clear as can be.

Oak Trees Still Clothed in their Winter Lichen.  Photo by Adrian Wolf

Oak Trees. Photo by Adrian Wolf

The streaked horned larks have returned to the prairies of JBLM and their numbers appear greater than that of last year. Their color bands are sharp and clearly indicate their place and time of birth. Their songs trickle into the clear skies, accompanied by the buzz of savannah sparrows and the joyful accolades of the western meadowlarks.

Streaked- Horned Lark.  Phto by Adrian Wolf

Streaked- Horned Lark. Phto by Adrian Wolf

At one prairie on base, the larks are now accompanied by Taylor’s Checkerspot butterflies. Unassisted, the scaled winged insects dispersed and colonized this new location, and it is no surprise after observing all the nectar and larval foods available. It is clearly a time of plenty at this location (see photo of Tahoma watching over her lowlands erupting with paintbrush). The apparently sharp increase in lark numbers and the arrival of the butterfly is due, in part, to the tremendous improvement in native plant cover, a result of dedicated folks at CNLM and JBLM burning, weeding, seeding and planting.

Tahoma watching over her lowlands erupting with paintbrush Photo by Adrian Wolf

Tahoma watching over her lowlands erupting with paintbrush Photo by Adrian Wolf

It is too early to estimate the exact number of breeding larks because they are still flocking and haven’t settled into territories. Although, in general, these birds don’t really have sharp territorial boundaries, in fact their territories often overlap. When I started working with these birds 10 years ago, the prairie I speak of was dominated by Scots broom and fewer than 10 pairs were all confined to the roadside edges.  The landscape context has changed sharply with the return of more native habitat, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of pairs this year is triple that of 2011.  Wouldn’t that be an unexpected sharp and clear vision. 2020 – there is hope yet.

Mount Rainier from the Lark Restoration Area.  Photo by Adrian Wolf

Mount Rainier from the Lark Restoration Area. Photo by Adrian Wolf

Stay safe

Adrian

Prairie Flower Update, 17 May

Prairie Flower Update, 17 May.  Post by Dennis Plank, photos 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.

Prairie Flower Update, 17 May

The Camas, though not spectacular this year is just about over. Now it will start forming those wonderful “castanets” of seed pods that rattle as we walk through the prairies a month or so from now. Similarly, the Spring Gold is pretty well past, though it’s yellow will remain with us a while longer, as it continues to put out new blossoms longer than the Camas.

In their place, the early Goldenrod (Solidago simplex) is starting to bloom in abundance. While not a particularly impressive plant, the racemes of gold composite flowers are still quite showy, especially when there’s a patch of them. I love their little puff balls when they go to seed, but we’ll save those for later.

Goldenrod, Solidago simplex.  Photo by Dennis Plank

Goldenrod, Solidago simplex. Photo by Dennis Plank

Death Camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum) is just getting started. The one furthest along that I’ve found thus far has the two bottom rows of buds opened, but that’s as far as it’s gotten here. With that scientific name, no one should even think about eating this plant, and given the large difference between it and common camas in the blooms and seed heads, a mistake seems unlikely most of the summer. Besides, the side effects described from eating camas don’t exactly encourage it’s adoption as a staple starch.

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Death Camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum). Photo by Dennis Plank

Miniature Lupine aka Small-flower Lupine aka Two-color Lupine (Lupinus bicolor) is blooming profusely near the road end of my driveway. This little annual seems to like desolate looking areas. Where it grows here is in an area of moss and very thin soil. The first time I recall seeing it was in the middle of one of the roads on Glacial Heritage Preserve. It rarely gets more than 5 or 6 inches tall here, though “Vascular Plants of the South Sound Prairies” says it can get up to 40 cm (16 inches), I’ve never seen it anywhere close to that. I went out and measured some plants yesterday and they ran from about 3-4 inches in height at this stage, though they will continue to grow awhile. The flowers were 0.10-0.12 inches across and the seed pods at their current stage of development were about 0.8 inches long. Very inconspicuous little flowers, but one of my favorites.

Miniature Lupine aka Small-flower Lupine aka Two-color Lupine (Lupinus bicolor). Photo by Dennis Plank

Miniature Lupine aka Small-flower Lupine aka Two-color Lupine (Lupinus bicolor). Photo by Dennis Plank

A close-up of the tiny flowers of this plant.  Photo by Dennis Plank

A close-up of the tiny flowers of this plant. Photo by Dennis Plank

Much more common on our property is the much larger Lupinus albicaulis which is just starting to show flower buds and I’ll discuss that plant and another lupine as they start to bloom.

Another flower that can be pretty easily missed on our property is Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium idahoense). Don’t trust your spell checker on that one! Mine came up with “trichinosis insecticidal”! In the cool damp mornings we’ve been having lately it just looks like a clump of grass blades 6-8 inches tall with rather feeble pale blue pennants hanging from the tips. As the day warms up and the blossoms open they look like the photo below and are utterly gorgeous. They’re attached to the tip of the “grass blade” by a thin twig and can bounce around in the breeze very easily which makes them something of a challenge to photograph, particularly on the prairie where it is rarely completely windless. I used an umbrella to block the wind and provide some shade when I took this photograph, but it did mess with the color a bit which had to be fixed.

Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium idahoense).  Photo by Dennis Plank

Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium idahoense). Photo by Dennis Plank

 

A better view of the whole plant.  Photo by Ivy Clark

A better view of the whole plant. Photo by Ivy Clark

The native Red Columbine (Aquilegia formosa) in my gardens (We don’t have any naturally occurring on our property) is blooming now and will continue to do so for quite some time if it gets enough water. It should also be blooming in some of the swales on the public prairies. This picture was taken on the Glacial Heritage Preserve a few years ago. I took a number of images that year because there were some interesting color variations showing up.

Red Columbine (Aquilegia formosa).  An unusual color variation from the Glacial Heritage Preserve in 2016.  Photo by Dennis Plank.

Red Columbine (Aquilegia formosa). An unusual color variation from the Glacial Heritage Preserve in 2016. Photo by Dennis Plank.

The hummingbirds like this plant and are good pollinators for it.

Hummingbird nectaring on Columbine in my garden.  Photo by Dennis Plank

Hummingbird nectaring on Columbine in my garden. Photo by Dennis Plank

And other birds will sometimes use it for their own purposes, even if it’s just to perch on.

American Goldfinch perching on Columbine.  One of my all-time favorite photographs.  Photo by Dennis Plank

American Goldfinch perching on Columbine. One of my all-time favorite photographs. Photo by Dennis Plank

This coming week we’ll be having a couple of guest posts on restoration of rarer species of birds on the South Sound Prairies.

Stay safe and find a prairie to enjoy,

Dennis

State Lands and Covid-19 Update

State Lands and Covid-19 Update, post by Dennis Plank

State Lands and Covid-19 Update

It was wonderful last week to have the State lands reopen for our exploration and enjoyment of the prairies. However, the WDFW sent out a note that they noticed an uncomfortable number of infractions to the social distancing guidelines and some people actually camping on WDFW land. The sent out a note asking people to remind people that the pandemic is NOT OVER and they should behave accordingly.

I agree wholeheartedly with their recommendations. The last thing we need is a resurgence of this epidemic and I’ve seen way too many people lately acting like it’s over.

Guidelines for #ResponsibleRecreation

Before you go

  • Check what’s open. While many state-managed land destinations are open for day-use, other local, tribal, and federal land may still be closed.
  • Opt for day trips close to home. Overnight stays are not permitted.
  • Stay with immediate household members only. Recreation with those outside of your household creates new avenues for virus transmission.
  • Come prepared. Visitors may find reduced or limited restroom services as staff begin the process to reopen facilities at wildlife areas and water access sites. You are advised to bring your own soap, water, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper, as well as a mask or bandana to cover your nose and mouth.
  • Enjoy the outdoors when healthy. If you have symptoms of fever, coughing, or shortness of breath, save your outdoor adventure for another day.

When you get there

  • Avoid crowds. Be prepared to go somewhere else or come back another time if your destination looks crowded.
  • Practice physical distancing. Keep six feet between you and those outside your immediate household. Launch one boat at a time to give others enough space to launch safely. Leave at least one parking space between your vehicle and the vehicle next to you. Trailer your boat in the same way.
  • Wash your hands often. Keep up on personal hygiene and bring your own water, soap, and hand sanitizer with you.
  • Pack out what you pack in. Take any garbage with you, including disposable gloves and masks.

 

Faded Prairies Renewed

Faded Prairies Renewed, 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.

Faded Prairies Renewed

I’d like to go a bit into how the restoration team works at restoring the prairies. But first, a little background to chew on. The prairie ecosystem of the South Puget Sound and the greater Pacific North West, running from the Willamette Valley through Oregon to the south and up north into British Columbia, is a truly unique habitat. You may have heard of the grand vast prairie land of the Midwest, the Great Plains. Imagine the bison freely roaming through tall thick grasses that would brush the bellies of horses, surely carrying cowboys. Yet this is not the image you would see in our healthy PNW prairie. Actually the sight line is much better, and dare I say more interesting. Perhaps a biased opinion, since I work on these prairies, a transplant from a truly cowboy-littered southern state. But a key difference here is height. The native grasses of the PNW prairie are much shorter than those of the Great Plains. Hence, you can see even more. More hints of the little vole tunnels persistently nudged daily through the foliage, more unique puffy crunchy lichens, more elk antlers and many of the tiniest most adorably interesting mini plants you may ever see.

Small Viola adunca (early blue violet) starting to bloom in early spring, Phto by Ivy Clark

Small Viola adunca (early blue violet) starting to bloom in early spring, Phto by Ivy Clark

 

Leptosiphon minimus (baby stars), only about 1” tall! Photo by Ivy Clark

Leptosiphon minimus (baby stars), only about 1” tall! Photo by Ivy Clark

Every step can be distracting because there is some new small beautiful thing just about to be underfoot. “Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.” I have been lucky to help restore these short grass prairies, and see them slowly transform from degraded, non-diverse, and even simply junk fields of weeds, into vibrant, healthy oases of rolling color among short puffs of wispy green Fescue grass.

Post prescribed burn growth over mounded Glacial Heritage prairie. Photo by Ivy Clark

Post prescribed burn growth over mounded Glacial Heritage prairie. Photo by Ivy Clark

So many paths are cycles, and the path of the prairies starts with fire. That so scary thing some learned to fear, and then taught others to fear it until nearly everyone did. It turns out the more we fear fire, the more we keep it away and then the more dangerous it becomes. Like stress. The more you suppress it, the more it will rage and destroy once it finally escapes. Fire has always been part of the prairie life cycle. Lots of little fire, more gently smoldering and sweeping away the taller woody species and those less tolerant of drought, like shrubs and the coniferous Douglas firs. The tall slow growing Garry oak can handle both drought and fire, so it stands scattered in clumps in oak-prairie woodlands or following rivers as a ribbon of forest dividing prairies.

FF2 firefighter & engine suppressing flames along the fire line on one edge of unit on Oregon burn, creating “black” border around fire to burn as it burns safely interior. Photo by Ivy Clark

FF2 firefighter & engine suppressing flames along the fire line on one edge of unit on Oregon burn, creating “black” border around fire to burn as it burns safely interior. Photo by Ivy Clark

Despite our fears of fires, and the great damage they do in certain areas for a variety of reasons, we regularly light the prairies of the PNW, safely with great care and lots of water on hand (or our back). Because it starts the cycle of healing that they need to stay diverse and functional, to house the butterflies and birds and elk and gorgeous flowers and oaks with their branches meandering in the sky.

Oak stand on Glacial Heritage in large diverse prairie bowl Photo by Ivy Clark

Oak stand on Glacial Heritage in large diverse prairie bowl Photo by Ivy Clark

But of course, you can’t just light a huge old nine foot tall solid broom field, reclaimed from abandoned ranch land or homestead. Scotch broom burns hot and fast and dangerous. And that is often how we find sites to restore that were long ago prairie, and long since been so. If it isn’t infested with invasive Scotch broom, then it is likely mostly invasive grasses, which also grow too big to just light on fire safely. So fire is the first step in the life cycle, but not necessarily the first step in restoring a prairie to life. Often we have to start by mowing the area, sometimes through broom taller than the tractor, or broadly spraying herbicide when there is little to no native plants left. Then we can start reestablishing the native short bunch grasses (Festuca roameri, Danthonia spicata, Koeleria macrantha, etc.) that will burn slower and less hot, and less dangerously than all the non-native invaders. Then we burn. And what a cycle of life that starts!

Fisher Prairie, 1st prescribed burn for this unit. Photo by Ivy Clark

Fisher Prairie, 1st prescribed burn for this unit. Photo by Ivy Clark

After a burn the prairie isn’t dead or as barren as it may look. The camas bulbs that were barely surviving through years of smothering by weeds are there underground waiting. So are a few native seeds. But before they can pierce through the soil, the weeds that are so good at growing where they don’t belong get a head start. That’s why they are so good at taking over. But that is their downfall during restoration. They get sprayed with specific selective herbicide, so that only the weeds die, giving the native plants more growing and seeding room. Now they have a fighting chance. For a second blow against the weeds, we cast a diverse mix of new seeds, reintroducing species long lost from that site and adding to the numbers of those that clung to life.

Lomatium utriculatium seedling emerging in early spring post fire. Photo by Ivy Clark

Lomatium utriculatium seedling emerging in early spring post fire. Photo by Ivy Clark

 

Prairie plants, like their habitat, are amazingly hardy. Within a few years of active restoration work, a prairie can go from an area you’d tell your kids to stay out of to an oasis of color and bird song, where even the parents want to play. Just don’t pick the flowers okay? They are still getting their seed bank established and need to make as many seeds as they can because the weeds are still lurking nearby. Unless you see some blooming Scotch broom we missed. Help us out and take that home with you as a trophy of prairie restoration. After all, there is only about 3% of the short grass PNW prairie ecosystem left. That’s 97% of an entire ecosystem, unlike any other in the world, gone. Or is it 97% waiting to be restored? Well minus the percent with homes, and active farms, and ranches, and businesses. Still, there’s more work we can do and we look forward to bringing this interesting, valuable and all around attractive ecosystem back, one step at a time, treading softly.