Monday, April 28, 2008

Hells Canyon by Tractor

The Nature Conservancy's Hells Canyon staff is used to unusual working conditions. This is, after all, a canyon that caused Lewis and Clark to make a detour. To find non-native weeds, they're often sitting in a helicopter as it goes 40 miles per hour just above the ground, while zipping in and out of side canyons--a difficult test for even the toughest of stomachs. The seasonal staff are often on foot in the steepest canyon on the continent. It's hard work. And hot. As Mike Atchison, who leads the field crew, says: "You follow the canyon's cues or you end up feeling like your brains have been fried."

So it's probably not that unusual that this spring, the Hells Canyon staff loaded a jet boat with a Kubota 4-wheel-drive tractor and headed to the Conservancy's Garden Creek Preserve, deep in the canyon. Why?

Last year, Hells Canyon burned, including Garden Creek Preserve (above). The Chimney Complex Fire burned 80 square miles, including much of the remaining native bunchgrass habitat as well as trees along the creeks and waterways. Lush fields used by grazing elk and deer overnight resembled Craters of the Moon.
Fire is a natural part of the landscape, and many natural habitats are very resilient to it. However, there is one complicating factor in the canyon: non-native weeds. These weeds can quickly overtake a burned area. Once these weeds are established, native plants take a long time to recover.

And so, with the generosity of a private donor, the Conservancy brought in the tractor, as well as a rugged rangeland seeder and some hard-working staff and volunteers.

Some of the native grasslands will bounce back on their own, especially on north slopes and higher elevations. But on lower elevations (above), the Conservancy must restore these areas using native grasses, or risk invasion by non-native plants.
This April native bunch grass and forb seed was purchased and planted on the lower elevation benches, utilizing the tractor brought in by jet boat. The Conservancy's always intrepid Western Idaho conservation manager, Art Talsma, put in 13-hour days to ensure that every place that needed seed was covered.

Staff and volunteers also planted 600 native trees, including cottonwood, serviceberry and ponderosa pine. These trees will help control erosion, and provide great cover for birds and other wildlife. More trees will be planted this fall. (The white flags in the photo above mark where trees were planted along one of the creeks).

These conservation practices are labor intensive for field staff, and the Conservancy thanks all those who helped out. The work will help protect what makes Hells Canyon so special: the beautiful grassland and spring wildflowers, abundant wildlife and world-class outdoor recreation opportunities in this remote landscape.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Duck Spotting

All photos courtesy of Tom Grey.

Perhaps no birds are more rewarding for the beginning birder to identify and watch than ducks. They're fairly large and the drakes are colorful, making them easier to locate in a field guide than, say, warblers or sparrows. They're perfect for learning birding skills such as identifying species by call (not all ducks quack), or in flight (a good birder or duck hunter can identify species by profile or even wing sound).

With more than 40 species of ducks, geese and swans in North America, finding all the different species can keep any birder occupied.

Large migrating flocks of waterfowl are one of the most impressive natural spectacles in North America. I once watched a flock of flying snow geese that took 45 minutes to pass overhead--literally tens of thousands of birds.

April is the perfect time to check out migrating ducks, geese and swans in Idaho. You might be rewarded with the sight of thousands of diving ducks on the Snake River, an unusual species on Lake Lowell, or a flock of swans landing on the Henry's Fork.

Here are a few places where you can see interesting species around the state:

Thousand Springs - The Thousand Springs area near Hagerman is one of the birding hotspots of Idaho, and you can nearly always count on interesting waterfowl sightings. Large flocks of scaup (above) and other diving ducks can be spotted on the Snake River, while the wetlands and springs host wigeons, gadwalls and green-wing teal. Other water birds, including Western grebes and pelicans--are also quite common. Check out Idaho' newest state parks--Ritter Island and Box Canyon--for some of the best viewing.

Silver Creek - The Nature Conservancy's Silver Creek Preserve is one of the best places to photograph and observe cinammon teal (above). Many other species are also present, including difficult-to-spot species like canvasback and ring-necked duck. The wetland areas, ponds and moist fields of the nearby Camas Prairie also offer rewarding duck spotting.

Kootenai River Valley - Wetlands once covered this North Idaho valley; today only 5% remain. Fortunately, a number of conservation projects have restored beautiful wetland areas--drawing large flocks of ducks, geese and swans in the spring and fall. Visit The Nature Conservancy's Ball Creek Ranch Preserve, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, and Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Boundary Creek Wildlife Management Area. A great variety of birds can be found. Just across the border in British Columbia is another wonderful waterfowl watching spot--the Creston Wetlands.

Boise River Greenbelt - A surprising number of ducks and geese can be found right in downtown Boise. Of course, mallards and Canada geese are everywhere, but mixed in with those flocks are a variety of other species. Look for wood ducks and wigeons in the city parks, and hooded mergansers and goldeneyes in the Barber Pool area. You can even sometimes see much rarer birds: my sightings include a pintail, a tundra swan and even an Eurasian wigeon (above).

The Nature Conservancy has an ambitious goal to restore or enhance more than 8000 acres of wetland habitat around Idaho in the next five years, meaning more places for ducks to feed, rest and breed each year. --Matt Miller

Monday, April 14, 2008

Willows in a (still) Winter Wonderland

Last year, The Nature Conservancy completed a restoration project on its Flat Ranch Preserve (located 15 miles west of West Yellowstone), to reduce river sediments in the Henry’s Lake Outlet. These sediments clog up rivers and reservoirs, and were recognized as one of the greatest threats to spawning trout in the famous Henry’s Fork. The Conservancy and the Henry’s Fork Foundation took an artificially straightened portion of the Henry’s Lake Outlet and diverted back into its historic, meandering channel. Although “spring has sprung” in parts of Idaho, it’s still a “winter wonderland” at Henry’s Lake—meaning that now is the time to collect willows to stabilize the banks on the protection project. East Idaho conservation manager Chet Work files this report:

The outlet restoration project we completed last year is in need of bank stabilization. Not having water in the creek for the last 60 years has made some of the banks vulnerable to the pressures of moving water. As we bring river flows back to the channel this spring, we will need to begin working on stabilizing the banks with vegetation. Grasses and forbs do pretty well, but their roots are relatively shallow and can be undercut. We need to get woody (deep rooted) vegetation back on the banks and willows are the best!
Willows, like many deciduous plants have the ability to resprout from clippings, segments of branches and stems. Similarly, willows are difficult to regrow from seed so it makes sense to use clippings. Willows are also highly prone to hybridization when grown from seed. Though it is possible to identify individual species of willow, many times we have hybrids that are tough to classify. Because we do not want to introduce new hybrids to our ranch, we go get clippings from the restoration area.

Like all deciduous plants, willows lose their leaves and go "dormant" during the winter. The best success for clipping is to cut a dormant plant and as it wakes up it will re-sprout roots and leaves all at once. Cutting a clipping in the summer will only kill the clipping. So we have to do this before they wake up for the season, hence the need for snowmobiles.

Our goal is 500 new willows. Half of our clippings will go to a a group called Upper Valley Natives to be grown into 5-foot willows in 5-gallon pots. In late summer they will deliver 200 willows (of our exact species) to us and we will dig holes and drop them in. The other 300 are currently in a walk-in freezer, hopefully staying dormant. When the weather heats up and we can get out on the ground we will drill small holes for these clippings in the stream bank using a pressure washer, and will insert them into the holes. The success for these "water jet" plants is much lower than the greenhouse variety, but so is the cost. I hope you can visit Flat Ranch Preserve this season, and see the results of our willow planting and stream restoration efforts. –Chet Work, East Idaho conservation manager

Monday, April 07, 2008

Cedar Waxwings

Spring migration: thousands of snow geese landing in wetlands, sandhill cranes calling overhead, raptors appearing at their spring nesting spots in Idaho canyons. Keep your eyes open, and you never know where you might see migrating birds.

Recently, I heard the loud, excited twittering of birds just across the street from The Nature Conservancy's office in downtown Boise. A look into the trees revealed hundreds of birds feeding on berries: cedar waxwings.
Waxwings are one of my favorite birds. From a distance, they look like garden-variety little brown birds. But a closer look reveals the striking crown and beautiful red and yellow hues. The tip of their tail is especially brilliant:
According to National Geographic's Reference Atlas to North American Birds, cedar waxwings migrate from one patch of sugary fruit to another. When a particular patch of trees contains large amounts of berries, several flocks of birds will join together, creating a super-flock of hundreds--as I was seeing in downtown Boise. Nearly every branch of the parking lot's trees contained a hungry waxwing, picking off nutritious berries.

Waxwings are one of the few species outside the tropics that subsists mainly on berries. While their diet also includes insects, some 75% of their caloric intake comes from fruits. They gobble up berries with great gusto:

They migrate in an irregular pattern, moving from one patch of fruit to another. Their visit to a new area involves a feeding frenzy--stripping as much fruit as they can off the trees, before quickly moving on. I enjoyed their presence in Boise for two days, and then they were gone. Maybe somebody farther north is now enjoying them as they devour a new patch of fruits. --Matt Miller

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Spring again (finally!) at Silver Creek Preserve

How do you know its spring at Silver Creek? Even though it snowed on Saturday and the road was impassible, I knew it was spring.

The first real sign--- the sandhill cranes are back! Their haunting song is heard throughout the day and if you look hard enough, you can see them riding the wind currents high in the sky.

The next sign---the moose have re-emerged and have been nibbling the buds on the trees and shrubs. I don’t know where they have been all winter, but this mama moose (above) made her presence known again yesterday morning as I walked out the front door and nearly ran into her.

There are many other things that happen at the Preserve that signal spring- the fish start moving up to spawn, the insect hatches get more frequent, our ropes are put back to use as we pull sightseers out the the muddy rutt of a road, and the air is alive with the music of birds and insects. You can’t help but appreciate the beauty, energy, and excitement of spring when you’re at Silver Creek. I hope you all join us in one of our ‘Welcoming of Spring’ or other events this year.--- Dayna Gross, Silver Creek Preserve Manager

Welcome Spring!!!
Every Saturday in April, join the Silver Creek Preserve Manager for spring nature walks. Come see the Herriers perform their amazing mating dance and watch the Preserve come back to life after winter. Please call ahead to register. 788-7910

Opening Day!! Saturday, May 24th
3:00 -:6:00 p.m.
It’s opening day of fishing season on the creek!!! Join the Silver Creek staff for drinks, snacks, and a b-b-q at the visitor center to celebrate!!

Weed Night, Wednesday June 11th
5:30-7:00 p.m.
Weeds are one of the biggest threats to native habitats! Come learn what you can do to help.
In collaboration with Blaine Co., the preserve staff will be hosting an invasive species evening. Learn about noxious weeds, invasive species, and different methods of control. Talk with preserve staff and neighbors to try and develop a way to work better as a team in the effort to control noxious weeds and invasive species.

Throughout the summer:
Natural history walks:
Join the Silver Creek staff on a tour of the preserve. We will talk about the unique ecology, hydrology, and history of Silver Creek.
June 7th, 14th,21st,28th July 5th, 12th, 19th, 26th August 2nd,9th,16th,23rd, 30th
Every Saturday throughout the summer starting on June 7, 2008.
9:30am -11:30pm at the visitor center

Wildlflower and Plant Walks:
Join our visitor center host, Ruth, a naturalist and plant expert for a tour of the preserve and the unique plant communities found here. She will point out interesting plants, point out birds and wildflowers, while explain the different processes of a spring fed creek. This is a great way to be introduced to the area!!

Wildflower/ plant walks
May 14th, 17th, 24th
9:30 am- 12:00 pm
Mothers Day at Silver Creek- Birding and a walk
Join us for birding, a wildflower walk and brunch coffee and cookies to honor mom’s!!
May 11th 8 am- 11:00 am

‘Day at Silver Creek’ Saturday July 26th
8 am- 3:30 pm.
Join the Silver Creek staff for a Natural history walk, bird watching tours, fly-tying class, scavenger hunt, and canoe floats. Canoe floats require registration, please call ahead. Come see all of what Silver Creek has to offer!