Summer of 2018: Some Numbers from the Avian Conservation Program

Summer brings a pulse of activity to the prairie-oak habitats in South Puget Sound, from the rapid growth of vegetation and production of flowers, increased abundance of invertebrates, and the arrival of migrating bird species ready to breed. It also is a time when the CNLM Avian Conservation Program grows in size with the addition of numerous seasonal field technicians, as breeding season projects for imperiled birds get underway. The breeding season is an important time for us to study bird populations in prairie-oak habitats because reproduction is an important driver of population growth rates. Understanding factors that influence reproduction can lead us to conservation strategies that boost this rate and hence help in species recovery. Consequently, we spend a lot of time in the summer counting birds, finding nests and tracking their fate, banding birds, and resighting birds banded in previous years.

Mist netting larks at JBLM

In 2018, the Avian Conservation Program successfully collected reproduction data for several species, Including: the streaked horned lark, Oregon vesper sparrow, and western bluebird. In the coming months CNLM will synthesize and interpret these data and producing reports to project partners.

In the meantime, here are some of the numbers that encapsulated the field season for the Avian Conservation Program:

  • 369 – Bird surveys conducted on JBLM and other South Sound conservation sites;
  • 236 – Banded streaked horned larks (116), Oregon vesper sparrows (37), and western bluebirds (83);
  • 19 – Radio-tagged streaked horned lark nestlings;
  • 213 – Nests found and monitored of streaked horned larks (141), Oregon vesper sparrow (20), and western bluebird (52).

CNLM’s Avian Conservation Program crew


Scientists and Ranchers Collaborate for New Program 

As part of a collaborative project recently funded by the USDA’s Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (WSARE) program, the CNLM Conservation Science Team worked hard to document gopher and butterfly habitat and plant productivity at local prairie and agricultural sites. CNLM is working closely with Washington State University (WSU), Thurston County WSU-Extension, and three local ranchers to improve natural habitat conditions on working lands, while maintaining or even improving agricultural productivity. The ranchers will implement NRCS-recommended rotational grazing regimes and CNLM will seed specific native seed mixes into an experimental framework to enhance resources for gophers and butterflies. CNLM will track how these treatments affect habitat, relative to both standard continuous grazing treatments and enhanced upland prairie. This information, along with economic data on altered grazing regimes, and social survey data on conservation incentive programs, will guide strategies for documenting and enhancing the conservation value of working lands, while supporting the bottom line of working landowners.

CNLM Americorps members Stu Olshevski and Katherine Jesser monitor native plants at a native prairie 'control' site.

Cattle graze a mix of native and non-native plants at Fisher Ranch.


Growing CNLM’s Butterfly and Pollinator Conservation Program in new locations

Over the past couple of years, the Butterfly Program at CNLM has expanded to become the Butterfly and Pollinator Conservation Program, adding bees and pollinating flies to the list of species we care about. These insects are important in supporting our listed species directly and indirectly. For example, we found last year that federally threatened golden paintbrush produces virtually zero seed without visits from pollinators. Likewise, harsh paintbrush, a critical host plant for larvae of federally endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, requires pollination as well. And as we uncover important pollinator interconnections that must be maintained to support listed species, we reap additional benefits for restoration work.

A bumble bee on Lupinus lepidus (prairie lupine)

Recently, we’ve also expanded the geographic reach of this work. In spring and summer 2018, we monitored butterflies, bees, flies, beetles, and other flower-visiting insects at three prairies outside the South Sound: in Coupeville, WA (Whidbey Island), Portland, OR, and Corvallis, OR.  In each of those locales, we’ve sampled plant-pollinator communities at prairie sites undergoing restoration and in adjacent unrestored prairie. In other words, we’re tracking how and whether restoration is rebuilding communities that include healthy interactions among species and resilience to species losses. Pollinators are crucial in this context because without them, more than 90% of our native prairie forbs cannot reproduce. Pollinator communities and plant-pollinator interactions must be reestablished for native plant persistence.

Bee pollinating a Campanula rotundifolia (harebell) on the prairie (photo by B. Oxford).

Monitoring outside the South Sound also gives us a foothold to get some other important insights. As our Pacific Northwest summers become warmer and drier, it’s possible that some species inhabiting the western Oregon prairies will find that the climate they are adapted to no longer occurs where they live—that, in fact, it occurs farther north, in the South Sound. Likewise, species currently adapted to South Sound prairies may not find future South Sound conditions tolerable, but may be better suited to future conditions in the North Sound. Monitoring other prairies thus allows us to document and identify flower-visiting insects that may occupy our South Sound prairies in the future. In addition, beginning a monitoring program means we have a baseline to track changes through time at sites north and south of our South Sound preserves. Broadening our monitoring area and pollinating species are important steps to understanding prairie pollinators better in anticipation of current and future conservation need.                 


New Evergreen Students Take to the Farm

In September, over 40 new students at The Evergreen State College (TESC) spent the afternoon helping our farm crew at Violet Prairie Farm as part of TESC's second annual Day of Service. These new students took part in this project as part of their new student orientation week, working with CNLM as well as many other local non-profits in Thurston County. We were excited to have their help, which included salvaging thousands of plants.


TESC students hard at work on our farm fields.

Our group of student volunteers prepared the Lupinus albicaulis beds for winter, finishing the final fall weeding and cutting back dormant plant material. They weeded our Balsamorhiza deltoidea (Balsam Root) beds to be ready for winter mulching. Most impressively the students helped us salvage thousands of plants of Carex inops (Long Stolon Sedge) and Symphyotichum hallii (Hall's Aster) out of our production rows. Carex inops, a sedge species notoriously hard to start from seed, provides soil stabilization services in our prairies. As one might expect, the thousands of Carex inops plants salvaged on this volunteer day will add more of this important dry land sedge across Thurston County prairies. Students contributed to threatened species conservation on the farm as well, salvaging Symphotricum hallii for transplanting to aid in boosting the population of this uncommon aster. Later this season, these production rows are going to be turned under, to rotate the crops and change production strategies. The plants from these rows were root washed, bundled and packaged for easy out-planting by CNLM on Violet Prairie Preserve and our partners at Washington Department of Natural Resources and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s prairie lands.

Students washing and bundling salvaged plant material to send out to CNLM partners.

The work of our student volunteers benefited not just our farm program in fall preparations, their afternoon of work with us will benefit our local prairies and the species that depend on them for years to come. Harvesting plants both common and rare can provide future planting material to contribute to increasing local diversity and ensure a wild seed bank.


Seed Delivery to Prairies Evolves

This year several improvements have been made to the native seed distribution process. First, we are now releasing seed with state approved seed labels. Land managers now receive the viability and purity of the seed which is critical information when using prescriptive seeding rates. The identity and quantity of any weed seed present is also included on the label. This humbling information helps the farm improve practices and land managers decide on appropriate locations to sow their seed.

A bag of Potentilla gracilis (slender cinquefoil) displaying a fresh label including new information such as viability, purity and weed seed presence.

To put this additional information in the hands of our partners, the seed farm streamlined the harvest, cleaning, and testing workflow. All seed is now tested prior to allocation. We instituted hard delivery dates so that all early seed will be made available to partners on September 15 and all late seed on March 1. This gives the seed processors clear prioritization, it also allows better planning on the restoration side, as the land managers know what seed will be available when. These seed distribution improvements will bring greater product clarity and timing to continue providing native seeds to our partners.

A closer-shot of this improved seed label reveals near pure seed for growing on native lands.