Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Counting Silver Creek

I get a lot of questions about what goes on at the Preserve in the winter months.

We do a lot of monitoring at Silver Creek in order to track and ensure that the habitat is remaining healthy and viable. In a nutshell, we spend a lot of time counting things throughout the year and when the weather gets bad, we analyze the things we have counted. We watch the water quality and quantity, track bird and fish numbers, monitor upland vegetation and willow communities, and much more. We also monitor visitation- where do the people come from, how many are there, and what are they doing. Counting things. Analyzing them. What does it mean when visitation has increased? When trout numbers are down? Bird numbers up? More vegetation? Less weeds? These are the things I think about in the winter.

This summer (June), with the help of Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Geological Survey, we will be monitoring trout populations. It is a really exciting time on the Preserve. The fish monitoring only happens every three years and, yes, we need volunteers. We usually shock (in order to measure and weigh them) the fish at night, and then the next morning I kayak the creek to make sure there were no fish fatalities. It is a great way to spend time and easily the most exciting monitoring that we do.

Sometimes, in the winter when I am thinking about the exciting things to come in the spring and summer like the fish population surveys, I like to try and make connections in our data analysis where there may not be connections (I do this in my free time, at work, my focus is more serious).

For instance, you would think monitoring people and monitoring fish would be completely different. But it seems to me that there are some of the same challenges and there are definite parallels. You would think it would be simple to count people and to count fish. Amazingly, counting things is not so easy.
For instance, to count visitors, we ask that people sign in (Please do it. Since the Silver Creek Preserve is private property, it gives visitors a ‘trespass permit’ for the day). Some people treat signing in at the visitor center as a very important ritual. They park their car, amble up the walk, look around, talk to the volunteers, sign in slowly (often in all capital letters), and meander back to their cars while they get ready for their visit. Others screech to a halt in the parking area, run up the walkway, scratch their name on the sign in sheet, and then peal out in the parking lot on the way to their fishing spot. As far as the trout, the same behavior occurs. Some of them just meander into our nets. Others hear us coming from a mile away and are long gone by the time we reach them. You can see their wake in the moonlight… much like the night fishermen who never sign in. In the summer, the trout are everywhere. In the winter, they disappear. In the summer we get about 80% of visitors signing in, and in the winter we get about 80% not signing in.

So, as the summer and spring season are upon us and more people are visiting the Preserve, my advice to you--- please don’t be a bad fish. Sign in.
-Dayna Smith

Friday, March 26, 2010

Cinammon Teal

After spending the winter in the Caribbean or South America, cinammon teal are back in Idaho.

A small but colorful duck, migratory cinammon teal nest almost exclusively in the western United States. They are quite common in shallow wetlands around Idaho, and are easy to see on the Camas Prairie and at Silver Creek Preserve.

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and wetlands around the Great Salt Lake are also important habitat.

You will almost never see a cinammon teal in the autumn here. They rest in the Salt Lake area before heading south.

So now is the time to observe this small but colorful duck. Spring is a great time to visit Silver Creek--birds of many species are very active, and many waterfowl are starting to set up nesting sites. The preserve is open all year, so we hope to see you there this year!

Photos by Tom Grey.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Join Our Silver Creek Public Meetings

Tomorrow--Thursday, March 25--will begin a series of public meetings to gather public input on the Silver Creek enhancement plan.

The Nature Conservancy has announced that it will work with Ecosystem Sciences, a non-profit Boise-based consulting firm, to develop a comprehensive plan to restore stretches of Silver Creek and its tributaries that need most help, and to use the restoration methods that will have the most conservation benefit.

The effort will result in habitat projects that benefit the fishery as well as many wildlife species.

Silver Creek has been a community-based conservation project since the Conservancy purchased the preserve in 1976. That's what has made it such a success.

Your input is important. Tomorrow's meetings will be at noon at the Picabo General Store and at 3:30 pm at the Conservancy's Hailey Office on 116 First Avenue North.

Other public meetings include:

April 22 – noon, Picabo Store

April 24 – noon, Picabo Store

April 26 – 5: 30 pm, The Nature Conservancy’s Hailey Office

May 29 – Opening Day. Presentations for review and input at the Silver Creek Visitor Center all day.

You can also stay informed of the enhancement plan and provide your feedback on the Silver Creek Enhancement Plan blog.

If you have questions or want more information, please contact Dayna Gross at 208-788-7910.

Photo by Kirk Keogh, first2lastlight.com

Monday, March 22, 2010

Nutritious, Delicious Native Shrubs

With the official beginning of spring, it may seem like the worst of winter is past. But for mule deer and other big game animals, March is often the cruelest month.

Having starved much of the winter, many animals are simply too stressed to make it through spring--particularly if there is little forage available. (Learn how you can reduce that stress).

A healthy sagebrush ecosystem can provide the nutritious food that deer, elk, pronghorn and bighorn sheep need to make it through the winter. A landscape still covered in shrubs can often make the difference between a thriving deer herd a non-existent one.

Sagebrush is a protein-rich, highly digestible plant. Numerous studies have shown that sagebrush often makes up a majority of a deer's winter diet.

There are 16 species of sagebrush, and they vary in palatability for mule deer. But as Dr. Carl Wambolt of Montana State University notes, even the least palatable species are valuable as forage.

Sagebrush sticks out of the snow, so deer can browse on it even in harsh winters.

A healthy sagebrush ecosystem, though, consists of more than just sagebrush. Other plants help vary a deer's diet and provide additional nutrients.

Other shrubs--like bitterbrush (pictured above), horse brush, winter fat and salt brush--are an important part of a mule deer's diet. Bureau of Land Management botanist Roger Rosentretter calls bitterbrush "deer candy" and notes that it aids in the deer's digestion to have a variety of shrubs.

"A mule deer diet of sagbrush and a little bit of bitterbrush is high-quality winter forage," he says. "The deer prefer the bitterbrush but they will do very well if you have both. They compliment each other with proteins and nutrients. It also aids deer digestion to have both."

In a healthy sagebrush ecosystem, native bunch grasses cover the area between the shrubs. Unlike non-native cheatgrass, bunch grasses stand upright all year--even during periods snow, allowing deer to access them more easily.

Non-native cheatgrass exists as a monoculture. It can be eaten by deer when it greens up in the spring, but it makes it very difficult for deer (and other wildlife) to thrive. As is almost always the case: Diversity rules. A healthy sagebrush system has so many values for wildlife. By protecting and restoring this habitat, we can ensure thriving big game herds remain a part of Idaho.--Matt Miller

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Lend a Hand at Thousand Springs

Our state parks have received severe budget cuts, so volunteer help is more important than ever.

There will be an active volunteer effort at Thousand Springs State Park this spring and summer. By pitching in, you can assure that this park--consisting of five units--continues to protect beautiful springs, canyons, hiking trails, wildlife habitat and historic facilities.

The next volunteer outing will be March 27, planting trees at Billingsley Creek.

Email contact@visitsouthidaho.com if you would like to participate.

The Nature Conservancy donated the Ritter Island portion of Thousand Springs to the State of Idaho in December 2006. We also played important roles in the creation of the Box Canyon and Billingsley Creek units.

Our state parks deserve an adequately funded department. They also deserve our help. This park can continue to be a jewel in the Hagerman Valley. Please lend a hand for our parks!

Keep informed on Thousand Springs issues at the Visit South Idaho blog.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Snake River Birds of Prey

The Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area--located near Kuna, Idaho--has one of the highest densities of nesting raptors in the world, not to mention the highest density of badgers, many sagebrush bird species like Says phoebe and canyon wren, and stunning views of the Snake River.

In short: It's a great place to visit if you're a birder or naturalist.

And now is the time to catch incredible raptor interactions there.

Yesterday, I visited the conservation area with friend Ryan Andrus, a falconer, raptor enthusiast and biologist.

We hoped to see some interesting raptor behavior; we weren't disappointed. Prairie falcons (pictured above), golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, red-tailed hawks, harriers and kestrels were numerous.

At one stop, we watched as a prairie falcon snagged a ground squirrel, only to be chased by a harrier and two ravens. When the falcon dropped the dead squirrel in mid-flight, a golden eagle swooped in and calmly took it away.

At Dedication Point, we watched territorial disputes among prairie falcons.

The best way to catch the action yourself is to take Swan Falls Road from Kuna. Here are a few stops to make along the way:

Dedication Point offers excellent views of the Snake River Canyon, and is a fantastic viewing spot for prairie falcons and other raptors. The birds will often soar right by the viewing area.

Initial Point is the best spot to see badgers. The road is rough in this area so drive carefully.

Swan Falls Dam is a good place to look for ducks, pelicans, grebes and other water birds, as well as marmots in the nearby canyon.

The 485,000-acre conservation area is a great place to explore and see raptors hunting, soaring, fighting and breeding. Sit quietly and you'll be amazed by what you'll see.--Matt Miller

Photo courtesy USGS.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Want to Help Idaho State Parks? Buy an Annual Parks Pass.

Earlier this week, the Idaho Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted to cut the fiscal year 2011 general funds budget for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation by 80%.

This obviously has major implications for our state parks and their management. Many people have asked how they can help.

The Nature Conservancy continues to advocate for an adequately funded state parks department, which we believe offers so much to Idaho. We need to continue to work to ensure more adequate funding in the future.

However, our parks need your support now. One of the best ways to help this year is to buy an state parks annual pass.

Doing so will provide vital funds to continue management, maintenance and visitor services at our parks. At $35 per year, your pass will enable you to visit our parks without paying the daily fees. Whether you're climbing dunes at Bruneau, hiking along the crystal clear springs of Box Canyon (pictured above), skiing at Priest Lake or fly fishing at Harriman, the state parks pass has you covered.

If you are on Facebook, please become a fan of the Friends of Idaho Parks and Recreation.

This fan site is growing fast, and it's a great way to organize and show your support. The Friends Facebook page has all the latest news and information on the parks situation.

Our parks provide us so much. Now is the time to show your support for an adequately funded department.

Photo: Box Canyon, a unit of Thousand Springs State Park near Hagerman, by Phares Book.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Horned Larks

I saw the first horned larks of the year yesterday (along with migrating sandhill cranes and snow geese), on grassy flat areas of the Boise Foothills.

I see horned larks fairly frequently around southern Idaho. They're a bird of open ground, so they prefer areas without much cover.

Like many grassland birds, horned larks are in decline over much of their range. This is due to a variety of factor, including the dramatic loss of prairie habitat. These birds are also one of the species most likely to be killed by wind turbines.

Interestingly, I've often seen horned larks--and other grassland species like burrowing owls, long-billed curlews and Western meadowlarks--in degraded sagebrush habitat. Is it possible that these declining species are actually utilizing areas converted to non-native annual grasses?

I have not seen any studies suggesting this, but I think it would be worthy research. Oftentimes, conservation in our altered world presents many interesting dilemmas.

This is undoubtedly another instance where birders and citizen-conservationists can help researchers in tracking where horned larks are now living, and whether they are utilizing new habitats.

So keep an eye out for horned larks this spring. They're a distinctive bird and well worth searching for on your next outing.--Matt Miller

Photo by Tom Grey, of Tom Grey Bird Photos.

Thursday, March 04, 2010


The canvasback is known as a duck of large ocean bays and other big water, where they congregate in large flocks. However, they nest in small wetland areas. Look closely in the coming months, and you may be lucky to see some around Idaho.

The canvasback is a large, striking duck, easily distinguished from other speces by its sloping beak profile.
It was once the famous waterfowl species of the Chesapeake Bay, but has declined significantly there due to the loss of its primary food source, wild celery. In fact, in the 1980's, the canvasback population crashed across the continent.
According to Ducks Unlimited, this was due to a loss of nesting habitat in the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas and Canada and also due to ingesting spent lead ammunition (this ammunition has since been banned for waterfowl hunting).
The bird's populations have since rebounded, but they are still heavily dependent on healthy wetland habitat, particulary in the prairies.
Idaho is not in the canvasback's main nesting range, but some do nest here.
Last year, two batches of canvasback ducklings were recorded at The Nature Conservancy's Silver Creek Preserve. You can also often find a few on the wetlands of the Camas Prairie near Fairfield, including Centennial Marsh.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Property Acquisition Benefits Salmon, Agriculture

When the summer heats up, young kids go to the pool. Young salmon go to Kenney Creek.

The Lemhi Regional Land Trust has announced the purchase of a 520-acre ranch along Kenney Creek, a tributary of the Lemhi River important for salmon, steelhead and other native fish.

The Nature Conservancy played an important role in the project from its beginning.

The acquisition is part of a complex conservation project that will ensure that sufficient water remains in the creek to meet the needs of both fish and agriculture.

The property will be protected with a conservation easement and transferred to a local rancher, in exchange for another conservation easement that will protect additional salmon habitat.

Read more about the Kenney Creek acquisition.
Photos by Jim Foster.