Ridgefield NWR

(First published on August 21, 2020 By Dan Nelson aka recreationalnaturalist)

Ridgefield NWR, Carty Unit

I chose the Ridgefield refuge as the subject of my first blog because that was where the seeds were first germinated that eventually produced this recreational naturalist. It was a little over 40 years ago that I went to work there as a member of the YACC (Young Adult Conservation Corps) and met my oldest and best friend Craig Sondergaard, who is the best general naturalist I know, with a library that would be the envy of many a community college biology department, and whom I hope to convince to write a monthly column on ecology for this site. Craig tried to teach me then, and I was a willing student, but due to partying a bit too heartily I lacked the focus, discipline, detail orientation, and mental acuity for the obsession to really bloom, although it did put down roots. 

Not surprisingly there have been changes in the last 40 years here at the Carty Unit of the Ridgefield NWR. For one thing they have built a sturdy new steel and concrete footbridge over the railroad tracks, replacing the one which vibrated and swayed when trains rumbled underneath it, which swaying, especially when exacerbated by their prankster father, was dismaying to my children. One of them has more or less forgiven me for that. 

On my left just after the bridge I pass by a grove of huge Oregon White Oaks (Quercus garryana), trees which were probably impressive already when Lewis and Clark met the Cathlapotle near here in 1805, and under whose indifferent limbs I wedded my second ex-wife. 

Quercus garryana (Oregon White Oak)

Speaking of the Cathlapotle, another big change on the Carty Unit is that they have built a reproduction of a Cathlapotle Plankhouse just north of those oak trees, which is open to the public and well stocked with appropriate informational signs.

From here the trail passes between a pond on your left which is ringed by the ubiquitous Phalaris arundinacea (Reed Canary Grass), and a woodland on your right. I saw the daisylike flowers of Anthemis cotula (Stinking Mayweed), and some stands of Solidago lepida (Western Goldenrod). But no ducks on the pond, nor much of any other birds. That wasn’t particularly surprising though, since it was the middle of the afternoon on an 84* day. 

The right hand side of the trail is a bank of Symphoricarpos albus (Snowberry), winter desperation food for birds and good cover for small mammals, although I didn’t see any. Kind of the essence of good cover, I suppose. It is also the primary larval host of the Snowberry Checkerspot Butterfly, but I didn’t see any of them either. Then the first blooming Anaphilas margaritacea (Pearly Everlasting) I’ve seen this year, a sure sign we are in the dog days of summer.

The biggest change from the point of view of a recreational naturalist is that, in an effort to restore habitat for the Oregon White Oaks, they have cut down many of the conifers, mostly Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas Firs), which surrounded the Oaks-to-Wetlands Trail. This process is known as an ‘oak release’, because the faster growing conifers have crowded and shaded the oaks, preventing their growth. No doubt this will pay great habitat dividends in years to come, but for now the area is just a clearcut dominated by stumps and non-native invasive species. 

These situations where a familiar habitat has been denuded or destroyed are always shocking. But I’ve found that (unless it is a lost cause because the powers that be have decreed that that land should grow apartments or strip malls rather than forests and wildflowers) the quicker I can move through the grief to acceptance (a process made much easier in this case by knowing that eventually this would be be restored to some semblance of a native habitat) the sooner I can happily explore what is there now. Because there is always something finding a way to exist there now. 

In this case there is Mycelis murals (Wall Lettuce)Lactuca serriola (Prickly Lettuce), Epilobium ciliatum (Fringed Willowherb)Jacobaea vulgaris (Tansy Ragwort)Cirsium vulgare (Bull Thistle)Cirsium arvense (Canada Thistle)Daucus carota (Queen Anne’s Lace)Lathyrus latifolius (Everlasting Pea)Rumex crispus (Curly Dock)Verbascum thapsus (Wooly Mullein), Rubus bifrons (Himalayan Blackberry), and Dipsacus fullonum (Fuller’s Teasel) amongst the vegetation, which is being visited by a Limenitis lorquini (Lorquin’s Admiral), several unidentified Pieris sp, Ochlodes sylvanoides (Woodland Skippers)Dissosteira carolina (Carolina Grasshoppers)Largus cinctus, and a female Libellula forensis (Eight-spotted Skimmer), plus various unidentified spiders, ants, wasps, bees and flies. Not to mention all of the little living creatures that I couldn’t see.

 For most of my life I’d have looked at this artificial clearing and seen a wasteland. But once I started looking closely at places like this, differentiating the plants, learning some names and a bit of natural history, seeing all of the birds and bugs feeding, breeding, and hunting there, it started to come alive for me, gaining validity as a habitat.

I cross a little footbridge over a tiny watercourse which is choked by the foliage and pretty blossoms of the highly invasive Impatiens capensis (Cape Jewelweed) and Solanum dulcamara (Bitter Nightshade).

Impatiens capensis (Cape Jewelweed)

Near a copse of young oaks I saw a few Robins, and then a slightly larger bird pecking at the ground, which proved to be a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) as it flashed its white rump escaping into the trees. Then a couple of Bombycilla cedar-rum (Cedar Waxwings) flew into a nearby tree, bouncing from limb to limb, their reddish brown crest silhouetted against the pale sky and backlit leaves, with occasional glimpses of their black mask and yellow tail feather tips. 

I love Cedar Waxwings! They are a very animated bird, which makes for difficult photo ops, but they appear to be having fun in a way that is unusual for birds. I’m probably committing the sin of anthropomorphizing here, but they seem to glory in flying pell mell into perches that won’t support their weight and riding them down, like the trees were just random jungle gyms. 

Typical of my attempts to photograph Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum)

As I was rejoining the main trail from which this loop had sprung, much shorter now during the restoration and encompassing far less diversity of habitat than in the ‘old days’ when I worked here or wandered it with my kids, I spoke with a couple who told me that they had spotted an adult and a juvenile Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) feeding on the carcass of a carp down by the bridge over Gee Creek. So I drifted that way. I missed the feeding and the adult, but with the help of a fellow photographer I finally spotted the mottled form of the juvenile amidst the mottled shadows in the crown of a huge old oak tree. I watched it for awhile, grateful for the recovery of this species, whose population had dwindled to the point that when I worked here in 1980 a Bald Eagle sighting was big news, snapped a few photos and, content, walked back to my van. 

Juvenile Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

The Life of a Dead Tree

One of my favorite trees is dead. It hasn’t sprouted a new leaf in over four years and yet, it’s the most active tree in the yard. From my dining room window I watch Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus), Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus), Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) and other smaller birds stop by for a perch or a peck.

This Alder (Alnus rubra) likely died by a fungal disease spread from the aphid infestation that plague it. There’s also an ant colony. While they don’t use little whips to herd the aphids about in their duties, I do suspect that symbiotic relationship of overseer and worker. (Herding Aphids: How ‘Farmer’ Ants Keep Control Of Their Food — ScienceDaily)

Alder trees are short lived in comparison to other trees with an average age of around 40 years. They are fast growers and prolific seed spreaders, much to the frustration of my neighbors with more manicured yard. The nature of a tree’s genome delegates whether it will be fast and widespread or slow and methodical. A mixed forest provides many benefits to the trees themselves and not just the habitats they create. Here in the Pacific Northwest, Alders help fix the nitrogen in the soil aiding the growth of Douglas firs. (The effects of red alder on growth of Douglas-fir (fs.fed.us))

As far as dangerous trees goes, alders are least likely to kill you. It’s common for alders to lose their heads in sections of 4-8ft over time. Easier to avoid than a 80-100ft Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera L. ssp.) coming down like a giant’s toothpick. When alders are allowed to lay where they fall they break down releasing nitrogen in the soil for other flora and nesting burrows for insects. These insects in turn become nummy snacks for other invertebrates, herps*, and mammals and occasionally homes for them as well. Ah, the simple life of a garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), to have your home warmed by the southern sun with your meals walking ripe for the taking.

If you’ve got a dead or dying tree on your property I would like to encourage you to consider alternatives to complete removal. If the tree is a low activity area away from harming people and building consider leaving it be. If it does pose a threat, have it taken down only so far as to reduce the threat it poses without removing it completely. You should be reward by the visit of birds. In my area, people are excessive land groomers. They dispatch tree companies post haste towards trees considered unattractive and then wonder why the woodpeckers pound on their houses. I’m not encouraging you to have an entire graveyard of trees, just one or two. Do it for the birds!

Book Recommendations:

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World By Peter Wohlleben

Bugs Rule! : An Introduction to the World of Insects by Richard Redak and Whitney Cranshaw

Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival by Bernd Heinrich

Feeding the Birds Naturally

Shortly after buying our first house we treated ourselves to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Heading back to our car afterwards we noticed a small store selling a variety of enticements for backyard birds. Fifty-four dollars later my spouse is hauling out a 19lb bag of birdseed and I’m balancing a hanging pole and a shopping bag. We eagerly set it up outside our living room window and waited like expectant parents for the first flock to arrive. A few days later we were rewarded by the visit of chickadees, juncos, and house finches. Then came Gus. Gus was an average Eastern Gray squirrel. I had no idea he was to quickly become my arch-nemesis. I thought he would get full and leave, but he parked there and ate his weight in birdseed several times over. A vision of gluttony if I ever saw one!

So, I became his personal trainer. Chasing him off every five minutes or so became a job when I wasn’t at my job. I started taking the feeder in for a day or two then putting it out again hoping to confuse Gus, but it only confused the birds. Wah! Then I decided to just leave it out again, not as phase of serene acceptance, but more with the thought that he could become something else’s delicious meal. A sacrifice to an owl or the neighbor’s cat.

One night I came home after dark to find an large Norway rat sitting in the feeder. From invasive squirrels to invasive rats. I was doing a terrible job at supporting my native habitat. A couple more weeks went by and I pulled the feeder in before nightfall to discourage the rat. I read endless reviews of things that were supposed to keep squirrels away, but after a lot of research, nothing is ever truly squirrel-proof when they’re motivated by food. Gus polished off the last of the birdseed and I ended my tenure as squirrel attendant. Would you like a moist towelettes with that sir?

Fast forward to today. A different house and a whole new game plan for being an ally with nature. I only maintain a birdbath. No one gets gluttonous on water, but we sure do have a lot of dirty birds! It’s nothing fancy, just a large deep pottery dish, 1-2 inches deep with water. I keep the windows dirty and the blinds down, but open to prevent the glass from reflecting a mirror image of the world outside. I figured this out after losing a varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) and a young robin (Turdus migratorius) to hard impacts. Unfortunately, it’s normal for people to spend over a thousand dollars having their windows professionally cleaned only to wonder why birds keep flying into them. Males will also attack their own reflection particularly during mating season. Every year social media posts pop up from aggravated homeowners wondering what’s up with a particular bird and their window.

One year I left a mole hill alone on a patch of dirt in the backyard. I had no immediate plans to work with that spot, so I left it alone. The mole had brought up fine silt and sand from below. It became a natural dustbath for the birds. They use dustbath to take care of mites and dry spots or itches. Since this particularly dustbath was on a slight hill, the birds turned it into their own amusement park slide. They lined up at the top and roll down by ones and twos. It was a joy to watch.

In the spring I hang baskets of begonias for the Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna), Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) and Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus). The hummingbird uses the plants as a food source, the juncos and chickadees use them for nesting sites. My oldest hummingbird friend is affectionately named “snowbutt.” Not a very attractive name I know, but one winter I thought he had a small blob of snow stuck to his butt, but it’s just that his little tush feathers happen to be bright white. Sometimes he hovers at eye level like he wants to have a word with me. He eagerly awaits my returns from the garden nursery. Dashing about like a tiny puppy with wings, all up in the plants I hold between my arms. In the winter when we get a snow for a week my plastic hummingbird feeder blooms just for him. One-part white sugar to four-parts water boiled for five minutes and cooled completely before pouring into the feeder. If the temperature is well below freezing, I use handwarmers held with tape and an old sock to keep the nectar from freezing. I bring it in at night to keep it from freezing and also from bears. Bears in the Pacific Northwest don’t experience true hibernation, they go through torpor instead. Basically, they dream walk through winter…more or less. This is about the only time I get a really good look at Missus Snowbutt, she’s much more elusive than her mate. Ironic, because her favorite plant in the yard is the hardy hibiscus ‘Aphrodite’ (Hibiscus syriacus ‘Aphrodite’). Another great hummingbird plant is Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ with its dark orange-red flowers in the summer.

To help other birds year-round I have rotting stumps and a dead tree for the larvae eaters in undisturbed areas of the yard. I leave the seed heads on perennial plants and sun-dried Oregon grapes left where they fell.

So, what did I learn? I learned that nature doesn’t like micromanagers and that doing less is how you do more for the habitat around you.

Resourceful links:

Common bird parasites and tips for feeder maintenance

Birds, Bees, and Wildlife (wnps.org)

Search, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Funny YouTube video:

Mark Rober demonstrates the athleticism of Squirrels.