Monday, April 29, 2013

A Place To Call Home

By Dayna Gross, Silver Creek Preserve Manager

When you live in a climate where winter dominates much of the year, the first signs of spring are enough to get your blood flowing and optimism churning. In February, the Red-winged Blackbirds return and mark my favorite day of the year- when I first hear them singing. Like many things that are ‘common’ it may not be the most newsworthy event. The Sibley bird guide states, “common; our most widespread blackbird,” but to me their song is the best sound of the year as it marks the beginning of the snow melting, longer days, and warm sunshine on my face. The year is marked by the movement of animals and birds to and from the preserve. And there is no better way to watch the birds than to put up a birdhouse and give them a place to nest. Thanks to our wonderful volunteers last year, Pete Martin who built the houses, and Doug and Nan Little who put them up, this year the preserve is covered with great nesting boxes for swallows, wrens, kestrels, owls, and ducks.

If you build it, they will come. Photo ©Dayna Gross/The Nature Conservancy

How hard is it to build a birdhouse? Not that hard- four sides, a roof, and a base with a hole of some sort. At least that’s what I thought; in actuality, in order to get the ‘right bird’ to the ‘right box,’ it is important to be a little more detailed than that. For instance, you need the right size hole—having a hole too big will bring in the starlings or magpies. And you need to mount them at the right height. Put a kestrel box at 8 feet instead of 15 feet and you may end up with a Saw-whet Owl (maybe not such a bad thing). And maintenance is necessary too. Boxes must be cleaned annually. For nest-building birds, last year's nest materials must be removed as well as leftover food remnants and droppings. Nest materials left to accumulate put young birds closer to the box hole and make them easier prey for squirrels, raccoons, and other opportunistic predators.

Pete Martin, the visitor center host in September at the Silver Creek Preserve, took my suggestion to build a few birdhouses to the extreme last year. He researched, scrambled for the least expensive materials, and $300 and six months later, delivered over sixty birdhouses to the preserve.

This is important because many bird species have suffered from dramatic population declines due to loss of habitat and nesting structures (tree cavities in many cases). Loss of habitat is often a result of logging, industrial and residential development, cultivation of land for agriculture, and other influences. Providing suitable nest boxes can have a very positive impact on bird populations in rich settings like the Silver Creek Preserve.

Pete displays his work. Photo ©Dayna Gross/The Nature Conservancy

Each species requires a different maintenance and mounting plan, but the birdhouses themselves are relatively simple to build. Click here for a nest box spec sheet.  Don’t worry about making them beautiful- we found that the most simple and boring birdhouse, if designed and mounted correctly, attracted exactly the right birds. 

It’s spring—and there are birds out there looking for a place to nest!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Are You Going to the Dance?

By Art Talsma, Director of Stewardship and Restoration

Thank goodness sage grouse like to dance. Male sage grouse "strut their stuff" by puffing up, creating one of the most memorable spring spectacles out there. Combined with deep music tones, their display is designed to attract females to the dancing ground. The males gather in remote sagebrush country throughout their native range in the western states. These gathering grounds are called leks. Just like the prom, the dance is occurring now. In Idaho’s good sage grouse range you may find 8-20 male sage grouse displaying to attract the sage hens to the dancing grounds.  If you are going to the dance, plan to get up at 4:00 a.m. and expect a long drive to arrive near the lek before sunrise. Bring a warm jacket, good field glasses and your camera. Soon the historic dance will begin.
Here they come! Sage grouse in flight. Photo ©Ken Miracle

So why are wildlife biologists and conservationists drawn to this spectacle and why are we so focused on the historical location of sage grouse leks? The birds are telling us where they want to be and where safe haven is found year after year for the mating dance. Leks are where they will begin their annual reproductive cycle. Hens nest nearby in the best available habitat to be successful. They hope to find safe brood habitat with an abundance of insects, forbs, and native grasses to hide their young while feeding. Most importantly the lek locations tell us where to focus our conservation work.    

In the Owyhee uplands we have learned that sage grouse avoid areas that are encroached by juniper trees. Juniper trees provide perches for predators like ravens, so grouse will not nest near them. Ideal habitat is a place where they can hide their nest under sage with tall native grasses. They need a wet meadow nearby to get their broods to water and feed. To restore sage grouse habitat, ranchers, land managers, biologists and volunteers are all working together to focus our conservation work in CORE areas where leks are concentrated in the landscape. These priority areas allow us to team together as partners in conservation. We do conservation practices that benefit both the birds and improve range conditions for all wildlife. We remove young junipers by a process called mastication—chomping up junipers and turning them into mulch-- or simply cutting the invading trees.

Art presenting juniper mastication at Josephine Creek. Photo ©Art Talsma/The Nature Conservancy
We protect and enhance wet meadows for brood habitat.  We mark fences that are close to leks so grouse are less likely to hit fences. We plant native seed and sage after summer wildfires. We control weeds and are working on innovative methods to control annual grasses.

Method to mastication. Art with Dave Bunker, designer of machine's cutting teeth. Photo ©Art Talsma/The Nature Conservancy
If you would like to learn more about these conservation practices there are a number of good web sites like the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI). You can even click on a lek and "like" it.