Fun in the Field – Memories of the Christmas Bird Count

Fun in the Field – Memories of the Christmas Bird Count, post by Mary O’Neil, photos as attributed.

Mary was born an Oregonian, but adopted Washington as her home state in her early 20’s. She lived most of her life in the Puget Sound/Seattle area relocating to Grays Harbor in 2005 when she retired from her career as a Ship Agent. After retirement she took a part time job with the Lake Quinault Lodge as an Interpretive Program Worker leading guided walks in the woods pointing out the birds, animals and plants of the Pacific Northwest Rainforest.

Mary was inspired to take up Bird Watching by her sisters, all 3 of which are avid Bird Watchers. She studied with the Rainier Chapter of Audubon of Washington and continues to expand her horizons with private study through Cornell University and its Ebird extension as well as Bird Canada’s study programs.

Mary has worked with Dan Varland of Coastal Raptors doing Beach Surveys for raptors like Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles. Prior to moving to Grays Harbor, she had assisted in the monthly Kent Ponds Survey which was conducted to prove to the City of Kent, Washington, that the little area surrounding these ponds was vital for the preservation of wild life, particularly birds and water fowl. It was there she enjoyed the very rare sighting of the Baikal Teal and rare to Western Washington Yellow Breasted Chat. Mary has worked with the Shorebird Festival over the last 15 years assisting in guiding various tours. Mary currently serves on the Board of the Grays Harbor Audubon Society. She is active in the Habitat Committee and is the current Field Trip Coordinator.

FUN in the FIELD

Memories of the Christmas Bird Count

The Christmas Bird Count got its start at the beginning of the last century, but I didn’t get involved until the beginning of the 21st Century. In the fall of 2001, I took a bird identification class through the Rainier Chapter of the Audubon Society (in South King County). Our teacher kept us involved with field trips and bird surveys over the next couple of months. She invited us to join her on the Christmas Bird count although she let us know this was very serious and not normally open to beginners. A number of us tagged along behind her as she methodically counted her territory – the DesMoines, Normandy Park area of South Seattle. I remember we took a break around 2 pm at her friend’s place off of S. 200th and DesMoines Memorial Drive. While some were sipping tea and relaxing, others of us walked a side street where we were very much entertained by a flock of drunken robins. It was fairly easy to count the robins as they would feed on the fermented berries until they would litterally fall out of the tree and flounder on the ground until their stupor wore off enough to return to the tree to continue feasting. The festive mood got a little intense when a Sharp-Shinned Hawk moved in to watch the drunken brawl as well. Our teacher was trying to get us to move along and was a bit reluctant to check out a bird I spotted which looked quite different to me. Finally at my insistence, she set her scope and zeroed in on the Townsend Warbler. It was my first, and she ended up being very delighted to add it to her CBC list.

Townsend's Warbler, photo by Tammy Mandeville.  This is her first Townsend's Warbler and was photographed very recently at the retention ponds in Lacey, WA.

Townsend’s Warbler, photo by Tammy Mandeville. This is her first Townsend’s Warbler and was photographed very recently at the retention ponds in Lacey, WA.

 

After moving to Grays Harbor, I eagerly signed up with the GHAS chapter of Audubon and have participated in their CBC ever since with minor exceptions. One year I helped with a group that covered the Westport area of the Grays Harbor Circle. We parked at roads end near the (now) Shop’n Kart Grocery. One in our group who was far more physically fit than myself and another older gentlemen offered to scout along the edge of the marshland. Meanwhile we were to check out the side streets and park area. It was a biting cold day and few birds were showing themselves. The older gentleman and myself settled in the van waiting for the third person to return. While in the van, I pointed out a distant leafless tree – Big Leaf Maple, perhaps. At the top I could see some birds flitting about. At the time, my optics were very poor and I could make out no details on these distant blips. I tried pointing them out the fellow with whom I was sharing the van. Once he caught sight of them, he said: Common Redpolls. I said, “No. We are too far away for you to be able to say what kind of birds those are.” “Common Redpolls” he said again. “You can tell by the way they are behaving.” Finally he sacrificed the security of the van to brave the icy weather. He set up his scope and, sure enough, Common Redpolls. This was my first and only time I have ever seen Common Redpolls. When the third person in our party returned, he was very cold but very excited about finding one of the rarest birds of that CBC, a Harris Sparrow.

The rag-tag crew is me and my sisters and a nephew:  l to r:  Tanner Pinkal, Rita Schlageter, Mary O'Neil, Margaret Beitel and Cecilia Pinkal at Ocean Shores

The rag-tag crew is me and my sisters and a nephew: l to r: Tanner Pinkal, Rita Schlageter, Mary O’Neil, Margaret Beitel and Cecilia Pinkal at Ocean Shores

 

I think the point I am trying to make is: Even if you do not consider yourself and Ace Birder, your ‘third eye’ is going to be a valuable contribution to the group effort. Beginner, Tag Along or Master Birder – it’s calling attention to that brief flick of motion that creates a scientific record dating back 120 years now. I’ll miss the compilation party this year but hope to make up for it in years to come.

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.

Beautiful Moments on the Prairie: Renewed Life from Seeds

Beautiful Moments on the Prairie: Renewed Life from Seeds.  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: Renewed Life from Seeds

Volunteering on the South Puget Sound Prairies is always an adventure. I’ve enjoyed every outing for its discovery and learning. I started with Scotch broom pulling, a straight-forward task, and discovered a larger world of complex prairie restoration.

While out on the prairie, I was of course first attracted to the blooming wildflowers. But there was much, much more to the story of the prairies. My next discovery came inside at the “volunteer house” at Glacial Heritage. Walking in, I found volunteers seated at tables, very engrossed, heads down, with bright lights focused on small piles of debris in front of them. I heard murmurs of “doe-hee” which I thought might be a common name for a plant liked by deer. And “viper” brought up images of a snakelike shape. On the tables were small manila envelopes marked with “SCS” (hmmm, was that Second Class Sorting?}.

The volunteers emptied the contents into round brass tins with screening across the bottoms. They shook the tins and then I could see the seeds falling through, leaving behind much of the bits of leaves, seed pods and such. Many of the seeds were tiny. Placed on a white plate to heighten their visibility, they were further separated from the chaff using hand tools into small piles of very clean, single seeds.

Volunteer Don Guyot, whose hands you see in these photos, was one of the best at the intricate work of coaxing small seeds away from the plant debris. This hand work is reserved for small amounts of collected seed. Larger amounts from the seed farm are processed mechanically as much as possible. Sometimes the seed pods needed to be broken apart to release the seed. In the left photo, Don used a hunk of board to grind the pods and encourage the seed to fall through the tin’s screen. Photos by Meredith Rafferty

Volunteer Don Guyot, whose hands you see in these photos, was one of the best at the intricate work of coaxing small seeds away from the plant debris. This hand work is reserved for small amounts of collected seed. Larger amounts from the seed farm are processed mechanically as much as possible. Sometimes the seed pods needed to be broken apart to release the seed. In the left photo, Don used a hunk of board to grind the pods and encourage the seed to fall through the tin’s screen. Photos by Meredith Rafferty

 

It turned out that “doe-hee” was actually the acronym DOHE which stood for the early Spring wildflower, Dodecatheon hendersonii. And VIPR stood for the yellow-flowered Viola praemorsa. Their seeds had been collected on the prairies at SCS which was the property, Scatter Creek South. Indeed, wildflower seeds are collected at a dozen different conservation sites across the South Puget Sound prairies and the manila envelopes were marked with their locations. The four-letter plant acronyms have now expanded to six letters. Acronyms are formed from the plant’s Latin name, using the first three letters of each part of the name. Accurate identification and labeling are critical to maintaining the genetics, inventory, and production of hundreds of different native plants.

Dodecatheon hendersonii is the unique Shooting Star of Springtime. It presents a photography challenge to get down at eye level to capture its downward pointed shape. The seed pods will form as shown in the right photo (hey, there’s a surprise occupant in the bottom seedpod!) The ripe seeds usually shake right out but are tiny and must be carefully contained. Photos by Meredith Rafferty

Dodecatheon hendersonii is the unique Shooting Star of Springtime. It presents a photography challenge to get down at eye level to capture its downward pointed shape. The seed pods will form as shown in the right photo (hey, there’s a surprise occupant in the bottom seedpod!) The ripe seeds usually shake right out but are tiny and must be carefully contained. Photos by Meredith Rafferty

 

The fuzzy leaves of Viola praemorsa become apparent when viewed closely. The yellow flower will yield a seedpod to be picked when it is ripe. Photos by Meredith Rafferty

The fuzzy leaves of Viola praemorsa become apparent when viewed closely. The yellow flower will yield a seedpod to be picked when it is ripe. Photos by Meredith Rafferty

 

In those earlier days of my first visit, much of the wildflower seed collected from the areas were cleaned by hand. Volunteer Gail Trotter still regularly contributes her experience to help out. But now CNLM staff member Forrest Edelman applies mechanized tools along with hand labor, to produce piles of clean, single seeds. He cleans not only the wild-collected seed but also the quantities produced by the Violet Prairie Seed Farm in the Tenino area.

Forrest Edelman readies a collection of Sericocarpus rigidis, also known as Aster curtus. It is a challenge to separate the seed from its fluffy part (I’m sure there’s a technical name for the fluff). Mechanical extraction works. Other seeds require other machinery. Photos by Meredith Rafferty

Forrest Edelman readies a collection of Sericocarpus rigidis, also known as Aster curtus. It is a challenge to separate the seed from its fluffy part (I’m sure there’s a technical name for the fluff). Mechanical extraction works. Other seeds require other machinery. Photos by Meredith Rafferty

 

Seriocarpus rigidus Seedhead MRafferty reduced

Seriocarpus rigidus seedhead, Poto by Meredith Rafferty

Ultimately, all this preparation of the seeds brings us to the next critical phase of restoration: planting which includes its site preparation. Some types of seeds will be sown directly at their conservation or farm sites; others will be planted in “plugs” in a nursery setting and later transplanted.

Starting seeds in “plugs” enables closer management of their growing conditions and easier transporting to their final destinations. Photos by Meredith Rafferty

Starting seeds in “plugs” enables closer management of their growing conditions and easier transporting to their final destinations. Photos by Meredith Rafferty

 

Pictured are the seed cleaning and nursery operations at CNLM’s Shotwell’s Landing site. Spring brings a burst of life in its beds beside the Black River. Photo by Meredith Rafferty

Pictured are the seed cleaning and nursery operations at CNLM’s Shotwell’s Landing site. Spring brings a burst of life in its beds beside the Black River. Photo by Meredith Rafferty

 

The moment of truth will be when the plants start popping up, reaching for the sun, on their way to be part of the prairie ecosystem. But there is more to the journey before planting. Indeed, in the next blog, let’s go to the wildflower seed collection. It turned out to be an interesting and far-ranging process.

Intrepid Inspectors

Intrepid Inspectors, Post and Photos by Keith Muggoch

Howdy everyone, I am Keith Muggoch and I have lived in Washington all my life, with my beginning years growing up in Olympia. Early on I spent as much time as I was able outside. In high school I started hiking and climbing around the Cascades and Olympics and became quite keen on the experiences I had in the mountains. I also enjoyed being on the water around lower Puget Sound. I moved to Leavenworth in the 70s and concentrated on rock climbing for several years, becoming a carpenter to feed my habit. After a time the physical toll my activities took on my body made me rethink my direction a bit. So I went to school and achieved a degree in civil engineering, using my head instead of my body. After graduating WSU 1993 I took a job with Ferry County Public Works working all over the county and living a bit west of Malo. The country thereabouts is very beautiful, a mix of Cascade and Rocky Mountain bio-zones. I spent my off hours hiking about and took up paddling again on the Columbia and Kettle Rivers and enjoying canoeing in the San Juans while on vacation. I left my job in Ferry County and came to work for Lewis County Public Works in 2007, though I kept my house in Ferry County and still spend considerable time there. Since being back on this side of the crest I spend a lot of time paddling about all over between the Columbia and Clay0quot Sound. I still get into the mountains on a hike now and then, as Rainier is so close as are the Olympics. As I am now retired I have decided to give back to the community and help out here at the Chehalis River Basin Land Trust. I love paddling on the Chehalis so it is a real joy helping preserve it. So there is a bit about me, hope to see you at the members meeting on the 16th or maybe even on the water.

Intrepid Inspectors

I am Keith Muggoch and am happy to be a part of a team of folks that monitor thousands of acres in the Chehalis river basin. The Chehalis River Basin Land Trust (CRBLT) are stewards to approximately 4500 acres of land in the Chehalis River Basin.

Lazy Afternoon on the Chehalis, photo by Keith Muggoch

Lazy Afternoon on the Chehalis, photo by Keith Muggoch

This basin is a unique, and for western Washington, a relatively undiscovered and undeveloped landscape. Our stewardship consists of conservation, protection and restoration of the lands under our care. About half of the lands we visit are owned by CRBLT and about half are conservation easements. In order to help manage these properties we monitor them by visiting them once a year and it is a delightful experience. The parcels vary in size and character and each has its own potential, and problems. We set out about twenty times a year on our goings-over. We go afoot mostly but with some kayak/canoe trips too, whichever suits the site’s accessibility.

Intrepid Inspectors on the Wiskah, photo by Keith Muggoch

Intrepid Inspectors on the Wiskah, photo by Keith Muggoch

For most sites a typical visit is hiking through the parcel to determine how the land has changed during the previous year. Our parcels consist of riparian, wetland, prairie and forest environments. Some are easily accessible and others not so much, which is why we take to our boats for some of the parcels. When we evaluate a property we look for; littering, dumping and destruction of vegetation. We have noted anything from illegal docks to the odd couch to the more mundane beer cans and not so mundane cedar piracy. Also we note the invasive species, English Ivy, Scots Broom and Reed Canary Grass come to mind. There are also meandering rivers and occasional erosion problems. These visits are all documented with written reports and are documented on a tablet with photos and GPS; we also fly a drone over some of the parcels, allowing us to view lands not accessible by foot or water. Over time we form a record for each parcel and that gives the CRBLT an excellent overview of the properties.

Green Heron, left and Kingfisher, right, photos by Keith Muggoch

Green Heron, left and Kingfisher, right, photos by Keith Muggoch

With this information we can determine what course of action we believe we should pursue with each property. Much of the property we review is older second growth and is in excellent shape, and so is left to mother nature to manage on her own. We have also looked at a parcel and determined that human intervention has been too intrusive. An old logging railway on the Hoquiam River comes to mind, in this instance a railway embankment cut a brackish slough in two. We were able to procure a grant that will allow us to reunite the two pieces of this slough into one as well as remove several culverts along the railway embankment. So we are able to restore salmon habitat as a result of our intrepid inspectors’ efforts, along with many others help.

Wetlands Near Hoquiam River, photo by Keith Muggoch

Wetlands Near Hoquiam River, photo by Keith Muggoch

We also are able to get a handle on invasive species before they get well established, it’s so cool to be able to remove an ivy patch before it starts strangling the trees and smothering the understory. All of this is very rewarding, but most rewarding is being able to visit these properties knowing that they will be there next year without worrying about whether they will be appreciably changed from this point forward.

Greater Yellowlegs, photo by Keith Muggoch

Greater Yellowlegs, photo by Keith Muggoch

Look us up on Facebook or the web at www.chehalislandtrust.org to get a closer look at how we are helping the beautiful Chehalis River overcome some of the wrongs of the past. Get in touch with us if you would like to become more familiar with this treasure hidden within within our midst.

On the Chehalis River, photo by Keith Muggoch

On the Chehalis River, photo by Keith Muggoch

 

Otters on the Chehalis, photo by Keith Muggoch

Otters on the Chehalis, photo by Keith Muggoch

 

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.