Thursday, November 20, 2008

Homeward Bound

It's been a great season working with the Washington chapter of The Nature Conservancy. My time here has run out and we're on our way back home for the holidays. This week went out with a buzz, fortunately not a bang!

It was the one week per year the TNC is allowed to work on the Artillery Impact Areas of Fort Lewis. We had been through Unexploded Ordinance Training, which can be summed up with; "don't touch anything metal". We did see lots of weird things out there, and fortunately had a trio of soldiers to sweep the area first and flag anything they thought looked dangerous. Lots of mortars, shells, armor piercing rounds, flares, RPGs, and other strange stuff were out there, including tanks, trucks, and dumpsters used for targets.

Unexpectedly, this tortured landscape is also very healthy fescue prairie, on account of very frequent (albeit unintentional) burns that wipe out any plants not adapted to such a frequent fire regime. Also unexpectedly, we spent our time chainsawing native fir trees -- whose crime was encroachment on the prairies. Most of the trees were "grandfathered" into the prairie before the impact area was established, and had grown beyond the reach of fast burning grass fires. It was certainly a juxtaposition of place, equipment, and activity that I normally wouldn't associate with ecological restoration!

Now, it's time to pack up the old truck for a long ride back home to Tejas!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Find the Fish

Righty ho, time indeed to play Find the Fish. But first, I'd like to impart a bit of wisdom to any future perspective field technicians planning to treat invasive weeds on a military base: don't spray bushes that move! Driving to a prairie on Fort Lewis last week, I happened to see some shrubbery out of the corner of my eye. I normally wouldn't have given shrubs a second glance, except they appeared to be walking across a parking lot. On closer inspection, I noticed these botanical beings were well armed, and had two eyes peering from a green and gray face. Either these were hasty bonzai-entlings, or well disguised snipers. Either way, I'd not want to make the mistake of rousing them about.

Did you know it can be rainy in the pacific northwest? It can.

I mowed Scotch Broom (in the rain), and was glad to have a canopy above my head on the tractor. The wind still soaked my legs, but as coach Pappy would tell me, "no pain, no gain boy!". We had a meeting with the acting Director of the Washington Nature Conservancy, who came down to explain the 2015 campaign, and also discuss how our finances look for the upcoming year. (it was raining outside). The red-card brigade also had an after-action review of our fire season, with some plans on how to be more effective next year. TNC's global goal is to burn 15 million acres, but annually we are only achieving about 100,000 acres. That's a current burn regime of 150 years, so clearly we need to crank it up a notch. I know my home state of Texas has recently begun an active burn program, so it'll be interesting to see what they're up to for 2009.

Once the rain started again, it was back outdoors. This time, it was to help reseed some of the test plots with seed mixes. These test plots are measuring the most effective methods to restore prairies. When the weather is at its worst, Lisa's been helping me design a fancy custom database for the TNC Knotweed crew.

On Sunday, when the rain backed down to more of a mist, we took the chance to visit McAllaster Creek. A big surprise was the small creek had a big Chum Salmon run taking place as we watched! It seemed very primal to watch these fish valiantly strive against the current to find their spot in a sandbar. Enjoy this video of another wonder of fall migration... underwater!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Hope & Feathers

My time here as a South Sounder is drawing to a close. Our departure date is a mere three weeks away and we're already paring things down in the apartment. At my job in the Olympia Nature Conservancy, things are drawing to a close as well. Brian, my coworker I've been working with all summer, has left for vacation back to Illinois and Iowa. We spent a few last sunny days spraying Aquamaster on some renegade patches of Reed Canary Grass, and then went after Yellow Flag Iris. Treating Iris is a slower process, since it involves a cut-n-dab method to ensure the huge tuber-roots soak up the herbicide.

I spent the last sunny day spraying Garlon on Hairy Cat's Ears on Johnson Prairie; which was in preparation for Cheryl to replant these plots with native forbs that are valuable to some rare & threatened butterflies, such as Taylor's Checkerspot and the Mardon Skipper. Fort Lewis has become these butterfly's last stand, so we're trying hard to determine ways to restore prairies that allows them to flourish again. Some restoration treatments, such as prescribed burning, ultimately benefit the butterflies, but if the timing is wrong, such as when caterpillars are foraging, the short term could result in wiping out an entire population. While spraying, I came across a clump of pretty feathers of a Ring-necked Pheasant in the grass, perhaps the scene where a hawk had cleaned a kill. It reminded me of a book I'm reading, "Hope is the Thing With Feathers", which is a mournful memoir for 6 extinct birds that once were significant components of North American wildlife. It's a book suited for this time of year; sad ghosts of the past reminding us of what has been lost, which is a form of bitter inspiration for conserving these remnant prairies.

My friends from Redmond came down last weekend for a visit, and we spent perhaps the last warm, sunny day hiking up to Snow Lake on the Tatoosh Range in Mount Rainier National Park. The shadowed portions of the trail still had snowfall from the past week, and footprints of elk could be seen alongside the meadows. Unicorn Peak and the Castle had a light dusting of snow, making the grey rocks look even colder. Bench Lake dutifully reflected the grandeur of Mount Rainier, but Snow Lake itself had a thin veneer of ice over it's surface, already in the clutches of winter, a frigid portent that yet another year is drawing to a close.

We will likely not visit Mount Rainier again this year, but we have drunk from the artesian spring in downtown Olympia, whose waters originate on Nisqually Glacier on the slopes of Mt. Rainier. Local Legend has it that this will always bring you back to Olympia.

Beginning on Halloween Eve, the weather has shifted into classic northwest winter: raining every day. Our work schedule must shift too, so we're readying the tractors to mow Scotch Broom. I hope my rain gear is up to the task!