Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Citizen Science, come rain, wind or shine: Christmas Bird Counts

Written January 22, 2014, published in late January 2014

In mid December, I took part in two bird counts on the South Coast of Washington. The Christmas Bird Count organizes thousands of people in the Americas to count birds in well-defined geographic areas, called 'count crcles'. These circles are fifteen miles across. Our local circles are centered, respectively, near the Columbia River and Willapa Bay entrances. There are thousands of count circles in North America, from above the Arctic Circle into Mexico, and in the past couple of decades, new ones have been defined in Central and South America, as well as just upriver in Skamokawa.

Robert Zimmerman, Mike Patterson and Kathleen Sayce look for birds on Willapa Bay at the Port of Peninsula, photo by Jackie Ferrier

Christmas Bird Counts began 114 years ago in New York City, as an alternative activity to the tradition of the day, which was to shoot as many birds as possible on one day. Not kidding. A local group decided to visit Central Park and see how many bird species they could see, rather than shoot, after Christmas 1899. It has metamorphosed into two continents-wide tracking of bird populations, and is now the longest running citizen science project on Earth. Sponsored by the National Audubon Society, you can read more about the history of Christmas Bird Counts at . Recent reports on counts are also posted on this site.

Mike Patterson at dawn with spotting scope, Nahcotta, Willapa Bay, photo by Kathleen Sayce 

As with plants and other biotic groups, bird species diversity (the number of species found in an area) is higher closer to the Equator and lower towards the poles. We are lucky here to see one hundred twenty species in each count circle, and have not quite reached one hundred fifty species in especially salubrious years. In subtropical south Texas, a typical count includes more than two hundred species, and there are circles in South America that average more than four hundred. Above the Arctic Circle, one count circle celebrated when they finally saw one bird, a raven, after years of watching and seeing no birds at all.

Black Turnstone on shell pile, Port of Peninsula on Willapa Bay, photo by Mike Patterson

Looking for birds is chancy in late fall and early winter in this area. Days are short, with fewer than eight hours of daylight, and air temperatures are rarely above 50 F. Usually it rains, often it also blows. Some years, it snows. In storms and strong winds, birds hide, and we are lucky to get forty species and two hundred birds in one section. As the pressure drops ahead of a storm, birds seek shelter, so even in fairly nice weather if the barometer is falling, the birds hide. About one year in ten the weather is dry and more or less sunny, though some sunny count days can be very windy. Birders layer up in warm clothing, wear rain gear, waterproof boots, warm hats, and often snack all day long. They carry binoculars, cameras, cell phones, and spotting scopes, with field guides and notes about where to see certain rare species.

And then the fun begins: Each circle is divided into several sections, because no one can traverse the area of a circle fifteen miles wide and see all the birds, even on flat land with roads everywhere. Eight to ten sections per circle are typical, each one covering several square miles. In more densely populated circles, sections may be as small as a few blocks. In the local circles, much of the area is over water, which must be surveyed by boat.

Mike Patterson and Kathleen Sayce birding with spotting scopes south of Oysterville on Willapa Bay,  near noon during the count day, photo by Jackie Ferrier

This year I worked the Chinook section of the Astoria Circle, which starts at the bottom of the north side slope over the shipping channel on the Astoria-Megler Bridge with two other people. Starting just after daylight, our task was to count as many individual birds as we could, and sort all of them into species. We can't stop on the bridge to do this, so we had a designated driver and a note taker, and everyone focused on how many birds of which species were seen on each side of the car crossing the bridge. Some years it's less than twenty gulls; some years it's more than five hundred, along with cormorants, eagles and ducks. And that's the first five minutes, just after sunrise. It can be quite a rush to bird this intensely all day.

The highest numbers of birds and species for any area are always seen in sunny calm weather. It helps to have local bird feeders to visit during the day. Even a few days of putting out bird seed will draw in birds in winter. Walking or bicycling rather than driving helps, though hybrid cars are so quiet when running on batteries with all the windows down that we can hear birds almost as well as when walking. Both local circles include a lot of open water, so in calm weather some birders go out in boats to count on the water. Owls are active before dawn, so a birder skilled in birding by ear often starts around four or five a.m., hunting for owls late at night. Having more birders looking helps too; the more eyes looking means more birds are seen.

Routines have changed over the years. In past decades, sketches and field notes on rare birds were submitted by mail, and then argued over weeks later. With cell phones, uncertain bird identifications can be discussed quickly, and spectacular sightings of rare birds or unusually high numbers of common birds are shared during the day. Digital photos help too; photos sent around during the count day can usually resolve identification problems quickly.

From year to year, the species with the highest number of individuals changes for each circle and each section. One year, there were more than fifteen thousand birds in Bakers Bay––gulls, ducks, cormorants, including seventeen Bald Eagles––all eating fish after an unusual fish kill occurred. Another year, all the loons and grebes were upriver of the Astoria-Megler Bridge instead of spread throughout the count circle. This year, in five miles along Willapa Bay, there were more than nine thousand Northern Pintail ducks. Some years Black Brant have not arrived on Willapa Bay by the day of the count, but there were several thousand brant on the bay this year, arriving just a few days earlier.

In the past decade, the Eurasian Collared Dove arrived in eastern North America, and a few years ago, made it to the West Coast. It crowded out Rock Dove populations everywhere, which was until then an ubiquitous urban bird. In urban areas, several species of parrots have escaped and established viable populations. An occasional winter visitor a decade ago, Anna's Hummingbird is now a common year round resident. Likewise, Western Scrub Jays have gone from occasional visitors, driven down out of the mountains in bad winters, to common at sea level. We saw all these species in both count circles this year. No parrots, however.

There are other Citizen Science projects to participate in: Around the 4th of July is an annual butterfly count ( ); backyard bumblebee tracking goes on spring through early fall ( ) ; bud break of common yard plants each spring goes on across North America ( ). I've participated in butterfly counts, and plan to track bumblebees in my yard during the next growing season.

The winter bird count is special, however, because weather is such a strong determiner of what it will be possible to see. If we are lucky, it's a quiet day of great natural beauty with active birds to see all day long. This year, the weather was mild on both days and no one got hypothermia. Next winter, when you see a slow moving car or group walking down the road around Christmas, bristling with binoculars and spotting scopes, wave and know the CBC is underway for its 115th year.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Save the Best, Restore the Rest

Originally written December 19, 2013, and published in early January, 2014

'Save and Restore' summarizes the practice of many land conservation organizations. Here in Pacific County, hundreds of fish-passage barriers, including undersized culverts, collapsed culverts, un-swimmable fish ladders, other structures, and streams devoid of shade and large woody debris, have been located and replaced or replanted over the past decade. Many structures were installed several decades ago, using best available ideas at the time, but the times have changed. We have learned a lot about what does not work, and what does work, with decades of applied science. The easy projects have now been completed, which is good news. Today the focus is on the remaining, larger, more expensive barriers, many of which are low in these river systems, and run along or under highways. Fixing these will open up more miles of access for salmon, and in some cases reduce flooding and restore historic stream capacity.

Headquarters Stream, Willapa NWR, where a tide gate was replaced with a fixed weir to allow salmon to move upstream from Willapa Bay more easily. Coho and Chum salmon now breed in this stream. Photo by Kathleen Sayce

Low Elevation Barriers

In early December I saw a proposed restoration site in the Willapa basin on Forks Creek, one of four county projects proposed by the Washington Coast Sustainable Salmon Partnership (, and supported by local stream habitat and fish groups. This low elevation fish-passage barrier is an old weir, located near the main stem of the Willapa River that keeps salmon out of 28 miles of streams. Above this weir, there were many other barrriers, but those are now gone. This is the last, and biggest, barrier left on this stream. The stream was home to five species of salmon, and those species are still in the main river and ready to return. In terms of breeding habitat alone, there is room for thousands of redds (gravelly nests where salmon lay eggs) in those 28 miles. Restoration will cost two million dollars, including the planning, permitting, and engineering. There are several streams like this in Pacific County, where one big, low elevation barrier remains, and continues to block access to miles of streams. These projects not only improve fish habitat, they provide weeks to months of work for restoration crews, who live in our county.

Weir on Forks Creek, off the Willapa River, photo by Kathleen Sayce

Orders of Magnitude More Fish

Low elevation barriers can keep a surprising number of fish out of their historic feeding and breeding areas. When the tiny culvert at the south end of Chinook on Highway 101 was replaced in 2011 with a 12 ft by 12 ft box culvert, the number of young salmon feeding in the south end of Chinook marsh leaped by two orders of magnitude. In just a few weeks, the numbers went from under one hundred to over one thousand fish in net surveys. Even better, those salmon came from all over the Columbia basin, including the upper Columbia in north central Washington, and the Snake River, not just from lower Columbia tributaries. The Chinook marsh is tiny, 96 acres; but because of its position near the Pacific Ocean, it's important feeding habitat for all the juvenile fish that come downriver from higher streams. The project cost $750,000, and was led by CREST with USFWS and LCREP as partners.

New channel downcutting at a private hydrology restoration site, photo by Kathleen Sayce

Flood Reduction and Fish Habitat

A large marsh restoration on Highway 101 west of South Bend on Potters Slough took place several years ago. A couple miles of the highway west of Potter Slough was raised and widened to become a levee, then the old dike along the Willapa River was removed, including tide gates and other water control structures. The purpose of this restoration was to open up several hundred acres to tidal activity, to improve flood holding capacity and salt marsh habitat along the Willapa River. Over the next several years, the marsh began to function again, like a giant sponge; it takes in and stores inches of new sediment every year. This site includes a couple hundred acres on the south side of the highway, totaling 580 acres.

The salt marsh is still partly bare, because plants grow from seeds each spring, and are buried by freshly deposited sediments each winter. Meanwhile, during major floods, the river level isn't as high as it used to be in South Bend and Raymond. Bird use, including ducks and shorebirds, is impressively high: More than fifty thousand shorebirds and thousands of ducks may feed at one time in this marsh in the spring. Young fish also use the marsh, as evidenced by attentive herons and gulls along the channels.

HIgh tide behind new box culvert, Chinook Marsh, on Hwy 101, photo by Kathleen Sayce

The Waits Are Worth The Time

The culvert flowed under a highway; the levee was built on the footprint of a highway. Replacing culverts, bridges, and raising sections of highways are expensive. The money comes from an agency's budget, often through a competitive evaluation program. Traffic has to be rerouted or flagged for months. Weather can hold up work for weeks, including windstorms, high storm tides, heavy rain, and cold fronts. Insects can grow out of control for the first few years while the new ecologies establish. Yes, it's annoying to sit at an automated light and wait for it to go green. Yet all these small changes in our landscape add up to more resilience for local communities, and over their lifetimes as landscape structures, improved survival for millions of fish.

When the Weather Changes Again

Remember the warmer, drier weather of past decades, starting in 1976 and ending in the late 1990s? There were El Nino-Southern Oscillation events every few years, adding to the warmth. It was glorious for beach visitors and gardeners, great for sitting out on warm summer nights, but terrible for salmon. Our local salmon species had lost hundreds of miles of breeding and rearing habitat by 1976, and when the weather dried and warmed, the number of fish returning to breed dropped off dramatically. Habitat restoration projects were implemented to improve fish access to streams, including in-stream wood, stream-side vegetation, barrier removal, side channel habitat, increasing culvert sizes, gravel beds for redds, and the replacement of fish ladders that did not work as planned. Hatchery management methods were overhauled, along with genetic evaluations of wild and hatchery populations. Salmon numbers slowly came up in the 1990s. Then the weather shifted to wetter and cooler, and populations really rebounded, with all the links from redds to ocean conditions working in unison. Returns of Chinook salmon to the mid Columbia River were higher this year than at any time in the past seventy years, due to this combination of habitat improvements and ocean conditions.

The problem is we don't know how long the present weather will last. There's a saying that the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second best time is now. The same is true for salmon streams. Now is a great time to open up the last remaining barriers in the streams and help all the salmon populations swing up. Right now, the weather is cool and wet, and ocean conditions are good, but the future is uncertain. With global climate change (for this area, ocean warming and acidification), and the normal PDO shift due in a few years, salmon will soon have two or more decades of poor conditions to cope with. The more habitat our salmon regain now, the better their chances will be to survive future warmer and drier weather, and make it to the next cool, wet shift, when they can thrive once more.

Many habitat improvements are simple: Put nature back in charge of streams. Where humans have to interface with streams, such as along and under roads, we have learned how to do this better, and it's our task now to use the best possible science with each restoration. Which means, I suspect, that a few decades from now, we'll be stopped again on the highway during the installation of newer and better fish-passage structures, bridges and culverts. But let's get it done, and keep doing it well, so that we have salmon in abundance in the future.