Puget Sound Prairie Soils

Puget Sound Prairie Soils, Post by Elizabeth Carp and images as noted.

Lizzie Carp moved to the northwest to work as a wildland firefighter, but after working in two communities devastated by heavy metal soil contamination due to mining, she decided to earn a master’s degree in soil remediation. She now works as a soil scientist for USDA-NRCS, where she is currently mapping the soils of Olympic National Park.

Puget Sound Prairie Soils

The Puget Sound prairies are a unique ecosystem supported by unique soils. Droughty and nutrient-poor, these soils provide a leaner existence for plants than prairie soils in other parts of the country, but that is in part what gives them their unique ecology. This post will describe the origins of these soils and why they matter.

The formation of Puget Sound prairie soils began about 15,000 years ago with the retreat of the Vashon ice sheet, a massive glacier that formed the Puget Trough and terminated in southern Thurston County, Washington. As the glacier melted, it left scattered deposits of sand and water-rounded gravel throughout Puget Sound. Since then, this glacial outwash has weathered to form today’s prairie soils.

A recently formed outwash plain. (http://geologylearn.blogspot.com/2015/07/continental-glacier-deposition.html)

A recently formed outwash plain. (http://geologylearn.blogspot.com/2015/07/continental-glacier-deposition.html)

Five factors influence how a soil develops and behaves: parent material, climate, organisms, relief, and time. Parent material is the geologic origin of the material that weathers into soil. Glacial outwash is a parent material that consists of larger, heavier mineral particles, like sand and gravel, that were deposited by the torrent of meltwater, which carried off the lighter silt and clay. This coarse texture gives Puget Sound prairie soils their low water- and nutrient-holding capacity.

Spanaway, a Puget Sound prairie soil that formed in outwash. Note the water-rounded gravel. Photo by Dan Ufnar, NRCS.

Spanaway, a Puget Sound prairie soil that formed in outwash. Note the water-rounded gravel. Photo by Dan Ufnar, NRCS.

Climate influences what can grow in the soil, the rate of microbial processes like decomposition, and the mineral content of soils. Western Washington’s prolific rainfall washes away nutrients and minerals that balance pH, creating acidic and nutrient-poor prairie soils.

Organisms add, alter, and move materials in the soil. Microbes decompose organic matter and weather minerals. On the Puget Sound prairies, humans historically used controlled burns, which added charcoal to the soil, to maintain grassland cover, such as camas, and prevent forest encroachment. Due to their abundance of fine roots, grasses contribute large quantities of organic matter to the upper parts of prairie soils, giving them characteristically thick, dark surface layers. Roots host fungi that exude a sticky substance called glomalin, which strengthens soil aggregates, improving aeration and water infiltration.

Roots add organic matter and improve soil structure. (https://gardenerspath.com/how-to/composting/benefits-soil-inoculants/)

Roots add organic matter and improve soil structure. (https://gardenerspath.com/how-to/composting/benefits-soil-inoculants/)

Relief, or topography, is the physical shape of the landscape: its slope, aspect, and tendency to collect or shed water and sediment. Soils on warmer and drier south-facing slopes support different vegetation than those on north-facing slopes, which tend to have more moisture. Soils that form on convex, erosive surfaces, such as the shoulder of a hill, are shallower than soils at the bottom of a slope, where they accumulate thicker surface layers. Soils tend to be drier on sloping or convex surfaces, which shed water. Spana, a Puget Sound prairie soil found in swales and depressions, is somewhat poorly drained while Spanaway, a geographically associated soil found on flat or convex surfaces, is somewhat excessively drained.

A topographic map shows the location of different soils. (https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-topography.html)

A topographic map shows the location of different soils. (https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-topography.html)

Finally, soils need time to develop. Older soils function differently than younger ones. With time, soils undergo significant weathering by organisms and rain. Soils acidify, and their original minerals dissolve to form red clays. Leaching carries dissolved substances downward, creating discernible layers called horizons. Young soils, which may have been deposited relatively recently by a river or a glacier, contain the original minerals of their parent material and show little horizon development. At only about 15,000 years in age, Puget Sound prairie soils are considered young soils.

Left: A well-developed soil (Alfisol) with layers of clay and calcium carbonate accumulation (A.R. Aandahl, Soils of the Great Plains: Land Use, Crops and Grasses, University of Nebraska Press, 1982; https://www.uidaho.edu/cals/soil-orders/alfisols#gallery-cbc9288e-2c8a-4900-b81e-210206d4522c--slideshow) Right: A soil that formed in recent outwash in Alaska. (http://web.unbc.ca/~sanborn/Photo_Galleries/Yukon/Stewart-neosol-(nr-Mayo-YT)(L).jpg)

Left: A well-developed soil (Alfisol) with layers of clay and calcium carbonate accumulation (A.R. Aandahl, Soils of the Great Plains: Land Use, Crops and Grasses, University of Nebraska Press, 1982; https://www.uidaho.edu/cals/soil-orders/alfisols#gallery-cbc9288e-2c8a-4900-b81e-210206d4522c–slideshow)
Right: A soil that formed in recent outwash in Alaska. (http://web.unbc.ca/~sanborn/Photo_Galleries/Yukon/Stewart-neosol-(nr-Mayo-YT)(L).jpg)

The five soil-forming factors are a useful tool for understanding soil development, but there is still a soil mystery on the Puget Sound prairies: the mima mounds. These mounds have a thick, dark, less rocky surface and sit atop very gravelly soil. From these observations, scientists have come to different conclusions on how the mounds formed, including from earthquakes, shrink-swell action, or windblown soil. The first theory has been debunked, as recent earthquakes have not been observed to form similar mounds. More recent studies claim that the mounds formed over centuries as gophers built homes above the rocky surface or as plants depleted water and nutrients from the inter-mound spaces, leading to accumulations of soil—the mounds.

Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve. (Frank Zack/Shutterstock; https://www.treehugger.com/uncovering-the-mysterious-origins-of-the-mima-mounds-4867783)

Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve. (Frank Zack/Shutterstock; https://www.treehugger.com/uncovering-the-mysterious-origins-of-the-mima-mounds-4867783)

Understanding soil is essential for understanding prairie ecology. Relationships between native plants and soils can be specific. Native plants may specialize by nutrient or moisture levels in soil, sometimes because they can live in adverse conditions, like droughtiness or low soil fertility, where others cannot.

If you would like to learn more about soils for prairie restoration, you can see which ones are mapped at your location using NRCS’s Web Soil Survey and SoilWeb. With these tools you can explore soils’ uses, limitations, and intrinsic properties that determine what kind of vegetation they can support. You can also learn how to recognize different soils in the field based on their profile description and where they occur on the landscape. When in doubt, you can always contact a soil scientist!

Web Soil Survey: https://websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov/App/WebSoilSurvey.aspx

SoilWeb: https://casoilresource.lawr.ucdavis.edu/gmap/

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

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

Seedlings to See Now, Post and Photos by Ivy Clark

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

Seedlings to See Now

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

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

1- seedling anatomy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Prairies Can Have Resolutions: And Won’t Break Them

Resolutions: a note from the editor

Now that it’s Groundhog Day and all those resolutions we made have been blissfully ignored into oblivion, maybe it’s time to sit back and look at what went wrong and make some new ones that we can actually achieve. Our regular contributor, Ivy Clark has some great ideas. And maybe we can all resolve to get out and help the planet a little more-whether it’s the prairies or the waters or the forests.

Prairies Can Have Resolutions: And Won’t Break Them, Self-help lessons from the prairie,  Post and images 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.

Prairies Can Have Resolutions, and Won’t Break Them:

Self-help lessons from the prairie

Yes…we’re using that January buzz word in the prairie blog, like pumpkin spice in October. And it may seem too unpredictable and scary in the world outside the gentle rolling mounds of winter-golden prairies right now, but I promise to make it fun & maybe even helpful to YOU if you keep going. Here’s a pretty sunset to remind us the world keeps turning on its axis and the sun will rise again with a new day’s hope and possibilities; or something else from a greeting card.

Recent lovely cloud streaked sunset over Glacial Heritage with smoke from neighbor’s burn pile, not ours. Photo by Ivy Clark

Recent lovely cloud streaked sunset over Glacial Heritage with smoke from neighbor’s burn pile, not ours. Photo by Ivy Clark

In restoration, we always have a goal- a determination- for our prairie sites, usually set at specific times like the start of a new grant or acquiring a new site. Probably more than the average person, we work very hard to keep these “resolutions” for our prairies; the resolution to shed those pesky extra pounds of invasive species, and gain a new six-pack of native ones.

Since you probably have already slacked or even failed on a resolution, if you took part in the custom this year, I have some helpful tips about them to go along how we do them on the prairie. You may have heard before- it’s important to set attainable goals. According to Forbs.com, about 80% of people’s New Years’ resolutions have already failed by February. So maybe our own six-pack abs should be a goal for later years. Make the baby-step goal of a healthier diet, then some added cardio activity once a week, then an attainable reduction in pounds. You get the idea. If you aim too lofty you are likely not only to fail, but also feel terrible and give up entirely, even slip back further from your goals. Our hearts are delicate organs when set on anything. Don’t set them up for failure right at the start. You won’t see us deciding to eradicate every SINGLE non-native plant from a site all in one year, while also keeping the native species- entirely unrealistic. That’s not how we roll…

A furry volunteer-greeter, dubbed “Loppers” by me.  Hitchin’ a ride to work!  Photo by Ivy Clark.

A furry volunteer-greeter, dubbed “Loppers” by me. Hitchin’ a ride to work! Photo by Ivy Clark.

There is also an inverted bell curve in our motivation, which affects a resolution’s success. In the beginning, we are pumped! Our aspirations are sky high, we make a plan, and then jump in! Then the novelty wears off and it feels like work but without any visible gain yet and after the first few all-out efforts, our motivation quickly sounds like a slow trombone slide- fizzles out. If you manage to stick with it, the closer you get to the goal the higher your motivation will climb again. But it’s that valley between that kills most resolutions. Call it “motivation death valley”? It’s actually called the “middle dip of motivation”, but that seems less imaginative. And it can happen fast when we set too high a goal. The cliché personal resolution is fitness and that’s often tackled at a gym (in other years obviously). We can see the results of this motivation death directly through gym memberships, or maybe for this year online workouts enrollment. We see it year after year go up early January then drop dramatically heading into February. One month! That tells me the membership was from a too distant a goal set by a lot of people. But whether it is a goal to get in shape, save more money, volunteer more, get a raise, build a tree house, or learn to cook more than just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (I’m looking at you sis…) the trick to successfully navigating “motivation death valley” is to not make it so extreme; set the end within reach by setting a series of smaller goals on a longer timeline. We won’t get rid of ALL the weeds on the prairies, but we can pull every visible Scotch broom within a certain unit of set acreage. Then next year, pull the neighboring unit. This taps into what’s called the “progress principle” where the perception of some forward momentum will itself give motivation. I’m sure that’s a law of motion too. It will become self-perpetuating if you can make some early progress. If only we could get abs one at a time… right? Similarly, in prairie ecology, initial achievements will lay the foundation for the end goal/ecosystem, such as clearing the trees from an area to open up new sunny land for prairie plants to expand to and that will support butterflies for the end goal of reintroducing our endangered butterflies. You definitely can’t just toss them in a forest edge and expect establishment. Shudder to think!

Cleared overgrown Douglas fir field at Cavness Ranch to expand prairie.  Photo by Ivy Clark.

Cleared overgrown Douglas fir field at Cavness Ranch to expand prairie. Photo by Ivy Clark.

Just like a personal resolution, our prairie goals require a lot more work in figuring out how to achieve them than to pick which one to aim for. We can’t expect 10 more native species to show up on a site without doing anything to make it happen. This is where we set ourselves up for success, the “how”. We figure out where to get the seed from, what’s obtainable in the numbers we need for establishment, and how likely to succeed they’ll be with all the other conditions there. We figure out the many details of a budget, worker hours, timing, etc. And then we get to work and assess progress as we go.

Once you have attainable goals, and planned hard, you can keep motivated and probably won’t fail. That’s good, because failure will come with consequences, even if only as mild as feeling a little bummed and then forgetting about it. Luckily we have a lot more motivation to avoid failing than the average champagne-infused New Year’s Eve aspirational planner, and more risk. It’s like there’s a twisty rope bridge across the “motivation death valley”. It may be scary and very difficult, but we WILL get to the end. Of course life in the field is unpredictable and big things happen like major droughts, sudden budget cuts from economic shifts, or say… pandemics. But those are set-backs, not total stops. Like when your personal trainer understands you can’t do the usual work-out with a broken leg, but you can do some upper body strengthening.

Seems some underground hungry critter found a plug staged for planting overnight.  Plant it anyways!  Photo by Ivy Clark.

Seems some underground hungry critter found a plug staged for planting overnight. Plant it anyways! Photo by Ivy Clark.

If we are all wise, we put buffers into our resolutions, both personal and for prairies. Add a few weeks of wiggle room for finishing some steps because the one thing you can rely on is unpredictability. And it’s all the better to finish early. If all goes well, then we wake up one morning with that savings account already at the set goal amount, or the four pack abs you were going for turns out to be a six pack. Can you get an eight pack, or is six the max? I’m a botanist, not a kinesiologist. Anyway, there is one special distinction that separates the personal resolution path from the prairie resolution path, and that’s the fact that us restoration workers will probably never give up even if we have a big set-back. That’s just not a viable option. We care too much and know there is so much at stake and the scope of effects reaches far beyond the area we can see or touch, probably even imagine. You don’t go into ecology work for the six-pack abs (why is that the example at the forefront of my mind??); aka- a single goal. We have an emotional commitment that most people would lack for mere resolutions. Sorry, but the prairie is bigger than your New Years’ resolution. It’s the special magnetism of such a complex interwoven world that also needs help and has so many interesting organisms in it. We’re suckers for the butterflies, the bees, and the balsamroots. That’s our rope bridge.

Here are some Prairie Resolutions I know we’re working on.

  • Keep Scotch broom weed from blooming & setting seed on any sites that have it
    • Clear more acreage of it entirely and prevent from establishing where it isn’t already
  • Decrease percentage of cover of other non-native plants
  • Increase percentage of cover and number of native plant species
  • Reintroduce endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies (as caterpillars) onto select high quality site(s).
    • Give them immense love and care, talk sweetly to their delicate little furry selves
  • Save more native seed in the “seed bank” for sowing on receptive fields (mainly- post prescribed burns)
  • Open up more acreage to expand prairie habitat by cutting down/girdling Douglas firs at edges
    • Open up sun access for baby Garry oaks
  • Plant more native plugs in future checkerspot release areas
  • Study how cattle can help reduce agriculture weeds, and improve Oregon spotted frog habitat
  • Increase habitat for bluebirds, and Vesper sparrows, and osprey, etc.
  • Get more bats in the prairie nights
  • Burn more acreage to improve and maintain high quality prairie
  • Drink a beer after a hard day’s work & toast to the diverse majesty of the prairies
    • Pour a little out for our lost friends.
The boss working along Dan Kelly Ridge by Port Angeles, making room for more colonizing Taylors checkerspots, working under what would become a DOUBLE rainbow.  Can you spot him?  “Where’s Wal-ders” ;) Photo by Ivy Clark.

The boss working along Dan Kelly Ridge by Port Angeles, making room for more colonizing Taylors checkerspots, working under what would become a DOUBLE rainbow. Can you spot him? “Where’s Wal-ders” 😉 Photo by Ivy Clark.

I hope you feel more inspired to tackle any resolutions you may have, knowing that the prairies are working hard toward their goals with a whole lot of motivation. One last tip: try to think of all the other people your goal will be beneficial to like how widely beneficial prairies are. If you need to save up money for your children’s college fund (not just to reach a number for “future stuff”), then you are more likely to succeed. From us among the mounds, we’re ‘rooting for you’.

Sorry, I’ll leaf you bee…

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.

-20200509-5DIM2022-untitled-Pano

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.