Thursday, July 31, 2008

All Your Base

Working on a large military base can be confusing sometimes; there's lots of protocol to follow and lots of activity. The geography itself is very confusing, with so many roads crisscrossing the prairies and woodlands that it seems like a maze... in fact one of the training areas is referred to formally as The Maze.

We continued our activity of clearing Reed Canary Grass from Muck Creek. Muck Creek was once an important Coho & Chum salmon hatching site, but it has become so choked with vegetation that the water level dropped too much and weeds became too thick for the fish to swim through. The Nature Conservancy and the Fish & Wildlife biologists hope to restore the hatchery by removing the tangled mass of invasive grass and planting native ash trees to shade the banks and steal the sun away from the weeds.

This past Friday, my previous boss from the Florida Keys Nature Conservancy came to the Northwest to attend a wedding. We caught up on news and then spent the day playing in the snow at Mount Rainier National Park. We went to the Paradise area, since it has lots of trails that loop through alpine meadows, with nice views of the summit and surrounding peaks. It looked as if springtime had just arrived. We walked past Myrtle Falls, and next an area scoured a thousand years ago from a jokelhaups; a catastrophic debris flow caused when a volcanic eruption occurs underneath a glacier. The landscape, devoid of any topsoil, still resembles the moon, even though nearby ridges are filled with cheery wildflowers. Another great sight was seeing a waterfall disappear underneath the Nisqually glacier, emerging again a few miles down the valley where the snout of the glacier forms the headwaters of the Nisqually River. I can also check Hoary Marmot of my lifelist, and have now seen all three species of marmots in the USA.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Up on the watershed

I just added yet another weed to my death-list, Reed Canary Grass. This grass has the bad habit of smothering riparian habitats, which is very detrimental to wildlife. The grass forms a dense matting of roots and grows over 6' tall, which totally chokes out any plant diversity. Over a few years, the grass becomes so thick that it actually begins lowering the water table, slowing stream flows, and making it difficult for aquatic animals like fish, frogs and newts to make a living. About the only good thing to be said for it is that it controls erosion very well, which astute readers might recall is also the reason the invasive plants Kudzu and Salt Cedar were intentionally planted with eventually disastrous results.

Treating Reed Canary Grass is difficult, since the grass first must be cut down, and then after the shoots begin reemerging from the root mass, the plants must be sprayed with glyphosate, with care to protect the aquatic habitat. Stream beds are often tricky terrain to drive a tractor, being uneven ground, muddy, and often with trees, shrubs and other obstructions. This means cutting Reed Canary requires a small army of people armed with 2-stroke brush cutters, who must return when the shoots emerge and use backpack sprayers to finish the job. Often, this process must be repeated two or three years in a row to finally control an established infestation. The results are worth it though; higher stream flows and a healthy variety of plants that magically brings back the birds, bugs, and small fry.

For this week's adventure segment of this blog, we ventured to the watershed of the Elwah river, at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park (we are seated at the picnic table around noon with the orange daypack). Most of the snows had melted and it was spring time on the mountain sides, with wildflowers in full bloom. This national park is a very interesting place; the mountain range is old, and still growing, but it receives so much rainfall that it erodes almost at the same rate the mountains rise -- keeping the elevation constant over time. These mountains stopped the advance of the continental glaciers during the last ice age, protecting a peninsula from being buried under massive amounts of ice. However, the glaciers completely isolated the Olympics from the rest of the mainland populations further south. Therefore, the Olympics are home to many endemic and rare species, such as the Olympic Marmot and Olympic Chipmunk, both of which we were lucky enough to see.

We did a short hike to Hurricane Hill, which became shrouded in clouds rolling in from the Juan de Fuca straight. The following day, we hiked along the ridgeline all day long, basking in views of both mountains, ocean, and in the far distance, Vancouver Island. We added two more birds to our lifelist, the Blue Grouse, whose booming voice could be heard faintly in the cirques below the ridge, and the cheerful Hermit Warbler. The snowshoe hares and black-tailed deer have learned to find protection from predators by staying close to humans, who are not allowed to hunt in National Parks, so we were able to observe them closely.

I was very exciting to get views of the glaciers surrounding Mount Olympus. We are already planning a trip along the Hoh river valley to approach Olympus from the west. The range closest to us had the Mount Carrie glacier, which feeds into the Elwah river. Crevasses and bershrunds could be clearly seen in our binoculars, giving clear indication how dangerous climbing glaciers can be. Another interesting thing to learn was that the Elwah river is the site of one of the most aggressive watershed reconstruction projects in the USA, which begins this year! It might be tempting to return in 2014 to witness the deconstruction of the Port Angeles dam.

A new feature on this week's blog is "Safety First with Mangrove Tom": always keep in mind the 10 Hiking Essentials and be well informed of potentially major weather changes. By far, the biggest danger in nature is not wild animals or trolls or starvation or other dramatic 'as seen on TV' troubles -- it's exposure to heat or cold, with cold being the most dangerous -- and beware of snowboards!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bats, Bunkers, & Beaches

Sulfur Cinquefoil is a member of the wild rose family, but fortunately without the thorns. Since it's an insidious invasive, we spent a good portion of last week sweeping through tall grasses and treating any we found with Garlon. Spot treatments like this are time consuming, but effective to wipe out a mild infestation. There is a native version called Silver Cinquefoil that grows in many of the same habitat, so we have to keep a sharp eye to distinguish the good from the bad.

Last Wednesday evening, my coworker Brian and I met with Greg along the banks of Muck Creek to set up mist nets. We had to race the setting sun to get the nets up, which required being very careful not to snag the fragile nets into the blackberry bushes, fir trees, or other hazards. One net was 20' tall and designed much like a pair of sailboat masts, with halyards and sheets. The extra height of that net is designed to catch different species of bats, and it worked as intended, catching us a Big Brown Bat. Greg was hoping for a Hoary or Silver-furred bat, but we had no such luck. Handling the bats requires a very skilled hand to both untangle them from the nets and avoid hurting the delicate wings -- even while being bitten! Since being bitten is difficult to avoid, having rabies shots is also a prerequisite for bat handling, so Greg did this difficult work while Brian and I manned the "sails".

Our plan was to set up the one tall net and two short nets across the creek, with Greg hoping to catch about 15 bats in 3 hours. We had some troubles setting up the 2nd net, so daylight began fading fast. We had just started unpacking the 3rd net when we realized there were 3 bats already caught! As Greg worked to release the bats, more would get caught around us, so we had to close the net down after catching 15 bats in the first 30 minutes, so we could process these bats and get them flying as soon as possible, since these little bug-eating machines have fast metabolisms and need to eat each night to keep their energy level high.

Most of the bats we caught were Little Brown Yuma Bats, which are very feisty animals given their size -- an
average weight of just 7 grams! We did catch one other small species of bat in the short net, the California Myotis. Myotis is a common genus that are commonly known as the Mouse-eared bats. Processing the bats is a series of measurements and observations to report their weight, fore-arm length, gender, breeding status, color, and overall health. Bats are not usually banded since there is concern that it mat impact their fitness, but some Myotis bats with bands have been known to live over 15 years since banding. I found it very surprising such a small, intense little animal lives so long. One last observation Greg makes is a sound recording of the "Search Phase Calls", which are the ultrasonic chirps bats make to locate objects in the dark. The sounds we hear from bats are usually alarm calls, which are often a series of rapid-fire squeaks. The ultrasound is too high frequency to hear, but recording the sound and lowering it's frequency to the human range for playback was very interesting to hear. It is also a very important clue to identify the species, since many Myotis species are almost impossible to distinguish, even for an expert like Greg.

Our weekend adventure was going south to the Oregon coast to see the famous Haystack Rock. Lisa had read that the Tufted Puffins are only visiting the Rock for a few more weeks before heading further offshore for their late summer feeding grounds. We had never seen one, so it was one of our goals for the summer. Nearly all photos I'd seen of Haystack was standing alone against the rugged coastline, so we were really surprised to see it surrounded by the coastal village of Cannon Beach. The beach was very crowded on a nice, warm summer day, but the birds were protected on their rocky outpost, so it was a perfect place to view so much wildlife amidst a busy crowd of folks. We saw many birds flying and diving and nesting on the cliffs (our lifelist birds are in bold): Western, California, and Heerman Gulls, Brown Pelicans, Caspian Terns, Pelagic Cormorants, Harlequin Ducks, Tufted Puffins, Common Murres, and Pigeon Guillemots. We hiked trails up and around many of the rocky headlands, through old growth forests. Near one footbridge, we saw a pair of Rough Skinned Newts, my first salamanders to ever see in the wild. Nearby, we saw a large Gartersnake, one of the very few animals immune to their deadly poison.

One the return trip home, we stopped by infamous Cape Disappointment. It was classic Pacific Northwest coast, with craggy, rocky cliffs with a cold fog being blown over a dark forest. We visited the North Head lighthouse, haunted by the wife of the first lightkeeper who, unable to stand the howling wind, jumped off the cliff after 25 winters in the foggiest spot in America (165 foggy days per year), and the windiest lighthouse on the west coast. We huddled next to the heaters inside the lighthouse trying to remind ourselves it was mid-July, and we explored the small museum and stairs to see the fog above. Some of the trails approximate routes that were taken by the Lewis and Clark Discovery Corps, with the coast below called The Graveyard of the Pacific, and the ruins of Fort Canby make this area steeped in history as well as an interesting fog-fed rain forest. Lewis and Clark had found whales, grizzly bears, and even condors on this coast when they visited 200 years ago, but those species are no longer to be seen here - so we approximate their footsteps not just in geography, but also in biology. We found a dead Harbour seal pup on the beach, and another dead elk fawn in the forest above, so this is a harsh climate for animals as well as people. Some trails meandered through the dripping ferny forest to some massive bunkers built to protect the coast in WWII. It was a great end to a short weekend.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Free Fireworks

Just a quick update for this week, since time is running short:

We went to Explosive Ordinance Training last week, which was excellent timing since artillery began practicing over our heads as we hunted down mouse-eared hawkweed. I'd never heard the sounds of shells whizzing over head before, and it was a little nerve-wracking at first, especially when the *boom* of impacts begin echoing with the *booms* of firing - stereo pyrotechniques.

For the holiday weekend, we decided it would be a busy camping weekend, so we explored nearby parks as daytrips from Tumwater. We saw Rainbow Falls, Millersvanya, and Tolmie state parks. Lot's of folks were out enjoying the weekend, and we saw Winter Wrens, Western Tanagers, Bullock's Orioles, and other pretty birds. Lots of sanddollars were hiding in the mud awaiting the return of high tide at Tolmie, so that was interesting to see.

Tonight, I'm off to chase bats around on Fort Lewis!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Sometimes the Plants Fight Back

Twas another exciting week here in Thurston county, Washington. Our mission was to eradicate Diffuse Knapweed in an nice prairie also known by Fort Lewis personnel as Mortar Position 13. It may seem strange, but military bases often provide excellent wildlife habitat for two reasons: the land isn't converted to economic uses (such as farming) and it is also benefits from occasional fires from bomb training. Performing controlled burns on nature preserves is often difficult to implement for a whole variety of reasons, but the military needs to practice, and their practice often creates disturbances that can help restore ecosystems. In the South Puget Sound area, these burns help keep the forest trees from encroaching on the prairies, and some weeds such as Scotch Broom are not tolerant of fire.

Military disturbances in natural areas do have drawbacks, such as the lack of large grazing animals on most areas, probably because the sound of gunfire is a deterrent. Other drawbacks include tripping up yours truly with rusted razor-wire underneath the Reed-Canary grass, or falling into a hidden impact crater with a full backpack sprayer. Do you know what it's like to fall in the mud and get kicked... in the head... with an iron boot? Of course you don't, no one does. It never happens. It's a dumb question ... skip it.

My coworkers even fared worse, since the grasses were in full bloom and wading through a dense, six foot stand would leave clouds of pollen and seeds drifting all around. Sneezes, watery eyes, red skin, and even welts made for a tough afternoon for them. I spent the hot afternoon battling against Sulfur Cinquefoil. I was wishing I could call in reinforcements, when a Chinook helicopter came rushing around the oak trees and passed right over my head. Even though I felt like it was a tough day, I know the soldiers training around me, and especially those deployed, have much, much tougher days. Squaring my shoulders against the weight of the backpack, I resumed my silent war against the weeds.

The weekend was off to a rough start, with a flat tire in the Capitol Forest near home. The clear skies did provide excellent view of Mt. Rainier. We decided to beat the record-breaking heat (92 F) by running to the hills. At Snoqualimie Pass, we met some friends and hiked along an abandoned railroad track that led into the mountain for 2 miles. Then we hiked another 4 miles along a sometimes snowy canyon trail to Annette Lake, still covered in ice but with several waterfalls right at the shoreline. Lots of other folks were out enjoying the nice weather and escaping the city, which meant finding an open campground was not easy. We camped near a big lake and spent Sunday hiking a nice nature trail and then a short hike to spectacular Franklin Falls, one of the most scenic spots I'd ever hope to see alongside an interstate highway! Debris from last winter's avalanches were still evident all along the roaring riverside, but the snow was melting fast.

I returned back to civilization to hear a message of a friend back home recovering in the hospital, so best wishes for a fast recovery, Del Mar!

Have a happy 4th of July Weekend!