Rabbits and Beavers and Mice, Oh My! A Peek into the Struggle to Get Trees Started

Matt Provencher, Stewardship Forester, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, matthew.provencher@dnr.wa.gov

So, you’ve spent a big chunk of your winter and early spring planting some trees. Maybe you conducted a timber harvest. Maybe you decided to afforest that old field out back. Either way, you’re pretty proud of yourself for all the work you’ve put in. Heck, you deserve a sense of satisfaction, even if you hired a contractor to plant those trees. Now you want to sit back on your porch with your cup of coffee and watch those little trees grow!

As you gaze out there sipping from your cup, you spot a brown tree. You think to yourself, “Well, they won’t all survive.” But then you spot another, and another. What gives?

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As the former DNR Stewardship Forester, Julie Sackett helped many forest owners through managing their forestlands. She now manages DNR’s Forest Health and Resiliency Division. (Photo: Ken Bevis)

You go and check and you see it – something has chewed on your tree. All that work just to make a snack for some critter.

It’s a frustrating thing for sure, but you’re not alone! I reached out to a small forest landowner who has been doing active restoration and afforestation on her property for years and has personally felt the pain and frustration of seeing her work eaten up by cute little woodland critters. Julie Sackett owns about 72 acres of farm, field, and forest in Oakville, Grays Harbor County. She is also the Division Manager of DNR’s Forest Health and Resiliency Division, and my immediate predecessor as a stewardship forester for Western Washington. I asked her some questions about her experiences with animal damage.

Can you tell us a little background of your planting project?

My husband and I have been working to reforest or afforest a number of areas on our property adjacent to streams as well as upland areas. We always time our planting for late fall and early spring, wanting to take advantage of as much moisture as possible before the late spring drying we typically deal with, as well as dry summer conditions.

The sites we’ve planted have, for the most part, been prepared for seedlings. I say for the most part because one of the areas we planted was hit hard by the 2012 ice storm and there was a lot of woody debris on the ground when we planted. But generally in all plantings we’ve done, we’ve ensured plant competition was minimal.

I think the most challenging sites we’ve planted have been along our streams because these areas are associated with pastures and have a long history of being occupied by grass and very minimal woody vegetation.

Over the years, we’ve planted Douglas-fir, western redcedar, western hemlock, grand fir, Sitka spruce and western white pine – depending upon the specific site, spacing was 8’x8’ to 10’x10’. It was a very conscious decision to plant at this higher density due to the site’s conditions: a history of grass presence and an awareness of significant wildlife use on the property.

When did you first notice animal damage?

Immediately! Well, as near as immediate as one can. Once we’ve completed planting an area, it then becomes part of our walk-about of the property, and we check on the new additions on a regular basis.

What did the damage look like? And how did you respond?

I should mention I made cages for the seedlings that we planted along our fish-bearing stream.  I used 12-gauge steel field fencing to make circular cages to surround each tree. I thought I was being pretty darn smart as I made them about 12” diameter to give the seedlings ‘plenty of room’ compared to the netted tubes often used.

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Beaver damage on Oregon ash that was protected by a metal fencing. (Photo: Julie Sackett)

Being adjacent to a stream, and a fair-sized one at that, we have both beaver and nutria on our property. They proved to be not only hungry, but smart about accessing our “protected” seedlings.  They used the squares in the fencing material to climb up, and then they leaned over the top of the cages to grab our little trees and cut them right off! The evidence was pretty obvious when you look at these cages and see the metal folded inward, and it’s easy to imagine their bellies resting on the top of the cage as they lean down to do their dirty deed!

In the upland areas, I tried relying on using heavy brush and downed woody material to help protect seedlings.  All I have to say about finding “micro-sites” is that if an animal is hungry enough, they will find it! So, if I wasn’t clear enough, trying to “camouflage” your seedlings is not a good survival strategy to rely on. Also remember that deer and elk have long legs, relatively speaking, not to mention long necks that can stretch impressively – many of my seedlings didn’t stand a chance.

Additionally, if you think a certain tree species are immune to browse, think again. I planted western white pine where we have a lot of deer and elk presence. As a forester, I’d never heard of this species being hit hard by browse. Lesson learned. If an animal is hungry, it’s going to take what it can get.

Imagine my joy when my pine hit four feet in height, thinking it was now free to grow. I was ecstatic, until that winter when I took a walk to find many of my pines had been browsed by elk! The diameter where they were bitten off was approximately 1/3 inch … I was devastated, to say the least. I would be remiss in not mentioning that rabbits, too, are not particular as to what foods they put on their spring table. Many of our pines lost their “spring flush” to rabbits filling their bellies.

The same goes for Sitka spruce. We all know how prickly its needles are and, of course, the thinking is that no animal is going to want to eat that tree! Well … think again.

I planted spruce along our creek earlier this spring and many of them have disappeared. A few needles were left here and there, but for the most part it’s as if they never existed. While I can’t say for certain if its due to beaver or nutria, as a landowner who is working hard at afforesting the area immediately adjacent to a salmon stream, I really don’t care!

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Single-line hotwire used to repel beaver and nutria. (Photo: Julie Sackett)

It’s not all bad endings though. For instance, to protect trees along a stream on our property from beaver and nutria, we placed a single line of hotwire around the edge of our tree planting area.  We were losing most the trees along this section of creek until we took this action. The wire was placed abut 6-8 inches above the ground and run close to the break in slope going down to the water.  It has worked brilliantly – the beaver and/or nutria climb out of the stream and then hit their noses on the hot wire and … voila! No more damage to our seedlings.

We had planted this area twice before this. The trees from the third planting are now more than 12’ tall and going strong!

Was damage similar across species you planted, or did you notice any species preference?

I’ll give you a forester’s favorite response – it depends!

It really comes down to what is available to that particular animal inside its “territory.” As far as animals that can adversely affect our tree planting effort, we’ve got bear, elk, deer, rabbit, field mice, voles, beaver, and nutria on the property. Each of these animals have affected our seedlings, young trees, and native brush to varying extent – and it changes each year on what is affected and to what degree.

As an example, we had western redcedar we were able to get above browse height, only to be damaged from antler rubbing. The bear we have on our property seem to favor black cottonwood for girdling and eating of cambium despite the prevalence of Douglas-fir in the right age and size range – one of very few examples where we are happy with the animal’s choices!

Any final thoughts or words of wisdom for landowners who might be struggling with animal damage?

What I’ve learned over the years is this: Every tree that is planted is important and deserving of protection from the environment – whether plant or animal. Plan before you plant!

The most important component of any planting plan, whether its seedlings or native shrubs, is know your landscape and the animals and plants that occupy the area. As for animals, anticipate that they are looking for something to eat. Think about what their other options are besides your new seedlings (if anything at all). In most all cases, based on our experience, provide protection for your seedlings with planting tubes, netting, etc.

This is not for the faint of heart, nor for anyone without the stamina and commitment towards establishing a new forest. For all the time, energy, and disappointments, it is truly worth the exceptional feeling when you see a tree you planted reach success.

After a long forestry career in private industry and public service, Julie is hanging up her corks and retiring on June 30.

Farming Mushrooms in the Forest: An Opportunity to Grow Something New

By Patrick Shults, Extension Forester, Washington State University, patrick.shults@wsu.edu

It should come as no surprise that mushrooms have been a part of the human diet for millennia. Our ancient ancestors foraged wild mushrooms for their high protein content through what I can only imagine was a high-stakes trial and error process.

However, you may be surprised to learn that humans have been cultivating mushrooms like shiitake for more than 1,000 years, with the earliest known cultivation dating back to 960 A.D. China. Wu San Kwung, the father of shiitake cultivation, discovered that slashing the bark off of logs in the forest and vigorously hitting them made the logs grow more mushrooms. This led to some of the first log-grown shiitake mushroom operations in history. To this day, nearly every mushroom-growing village in China has statue in his honor.

While most mushroom production today is done on sanitized sawdust in sterilized factories, for the vast majority of history, mushrooms were cultivated similar to how they grew in nature: on logs beneath a forest canopy. While the factory sawdust model is highly efficient, it does not by any means make log-grown operations irrelevant. In fact, this method presents a unique opportunity for farm and forest owners to produce a high-value commodity crop, or at the very least a fun hobby that puts something new on the dinner table.

How it Works

Fungi are agents of decay, meaning they live by inhabiting and growing in dead material like wood, feeding on the cellulose and lignin, spawning and multiplying via spores, and leaving behind something several steps closer to what we call humus, or a layer of decayed organic matter that ultimately contributes to forest soils. This is the process that we take advantage of when cultivating edible mushrooms, with the ultimate prize being the fruiting body of the fungi that forms after it has successfully inoculated a log. Doing so in a way that is efficient and potentially lucrative is the subject of significant amounts of research and work by producers around the world, particularly in China, Japan, and the United States, including some WSU Extension research trials we’ve started here in Washington.

The remainder of this article will briefly cover the basic steps, choices, and pitfalls to avoid when getting started growing mushrooms either as a hobby or for a commodity crop, with a focus on shiitake.

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A trailer-load of red alder (Alnus rubra) ready to be inoculated (Photo: Stephen Bramwell, WSU Extension)

Finding Substrate

“Substrate” refers to the growing medium for the fungus, which in the case of most mushrooms will need to be a log from a hardwood (deciduous) tree species. Conifers contain compounds like tannins in their wood that often prevent fungal growth and make inoculation difficult or impossible for certain mushroom species. Although Washington is the Evergreen State, most landowners have access to red alder (Alnus rubra) or bigleaf maple (Acer macrophylla), both of which can serve as good substrate for shiitake.  Other species like cherry and ash can also be used, but are typically less plentiful. Oak is prized for its uses in shiitake and other mushroom production in eastern states where it is plentiful, but our singular white oak species has significant ecological value in Washington and is also fairly rare, so I generally don’t recommend cutting much of it.

Logs, also called bolts, should be cut while trees are dormant in the winter to early spring. Be sure to do it before the buds start to swell. Logs have high sugar content during this period, which benefits fungal growth, and the bark is also tight on the tree. Bark slippage can be common on logs that have been harvested while the sap is running, and keeping bark on the log is vital to maintaining moisture.  The best bolt size for growing shiitake is between 4”-6” in diameter, primarily for ease of transport. Length of the log is less important but are typically cut into 2’-4’ sections.  Anything bigger can get difficult to handle, particularly when you have to start soaking the logs.

Inoculation

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Inoculating a bigleaf maple log using inoculated sawdust and a hand tool. (Photo: Stephen Bramwell, WSU Extension)

The next phase, inoculation, consists of three steps:  drilling holes in the log, filling those holes with shiitake spawn (an inoculated substrate), and sealing the hole.  Once felled, logs should be inoculated relatively quickly to avoid giving contaminant fungi a head start over the shiitake. Doing this within three to six weeks of felling is ideal.

Considering this short timeline, it’s important to have ordered your spawn ahead of time so it’s ready when you are. It can typically can be purchased in two forms: as “plugs” that you simply insert into holes drilled in the log, or as a bag of inoculated sawdust that you pack into the drilled holes with an inoculation tool. You tend to get more bang for your buck with sawdust bags, but plugs are often considered to be easier to deal with. Many places sell shiitake inoculant, including Fungi Perfecti in Olympia. Other stores like Field and Forest sell multiple different strains of shiitake, each with different flavor profiles, fruiting times, and appearances.

Holes should be drilled in a line 3-4 inches down the length of the log. Rows of holes should also be spaced 3-4 inches apart and ideally offset to create a diamond pattern. This usually results in one row per inch of diameter (i.e., a 4” log would have four rows). The aforementioned suppliers sell drill bits, plugs, and inoculation tools that match in size, which is very important. (If you’re doing a lot of logs, I highly recommend investing in the appropriate tools – it will make your life much easier.)

After you’ve drilled the holes and inserted your plugs or sawdust spawn, sealing the holes is critical to keeping that spawn from drying out. This is usually done by covering the hole with melted food-grade wax.

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Shiitake log stacks stored under a forest canopy during the spawn run. (Photo: Patrick Shults, WSU Extension)

A Waiting Game

Believe it or not, when you complete these steps, you’ve done the bulk of the work.  Keep in mind though – when you start doing a lot of logs, this process can take a really long time.  Once the logs are inoculated and sealed, it is a matter of waiting for the fungus to work its way through the entirety of the log. This is called a “spawn run” and often takes one to three years depending on the size and species of the log, strain of shiitake, and environmental conditions. During this time, logs should be stacked in a shady area with limited wind exposure to keep them from drying out.

It’s not uncommon to find that you have some contaminants growing on your logs during the spawn run. Naturally occurring fungus like Trichoderma often compete with species like shiitake for dominance in the log and can negatively affect production. Some of this is unavoidable. The biggest concern is letting your logs get too dry, as Trichoderma can more easily outcompete shiitake in dry conditions.  Covering the logs with humidity blankets (ex: Reemay fabric) during the dry periods of the summer and/or drenching them with water a few times a week may be able to reduce moisture loss in logs.  WSU Extension is currently conducting research trials to study various moisture management methods, among other things, in our climate and will be developing a guide for best management practices.

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Top: Inoculated logs completed their spawn run. Middle: Logs submerged in water during the forcing process. Bottom: Logs stacked in an A-frame post-soaking. (Photos: Patrick Shults, WSU Extension)

Starting the Harvest

Knowing the right time to start the harvesting process can be tricky. One way to check is to look at the cut ends of the log to see if there is obvious evidence of mycelial growth, although this is not always indicative of a thoroughly inoculated log. Generally speaking, most strains will be ready for harvest within a year or two of inoculation.

Harvesting starts by “forcing” or “shocking” the fungus to fruit by submerging logs in cold water for 24 hours. This should only be done once nighttime temperatures are above 50°F to encourage growth and reduce risk of frost damage. After 24 hours, logs should be stacked in an “A-frame” formation to make harvesting easier. Within three to five days, the logs will start to form small mushroom heads below the bark called “pins” and should form full mushrooms within seven to 14 days. The best time to harvest is while the mushroom cap is still slightly curled underneath. Once picked, shiitakes typically stay fresh for several weeks if refrigerated immediately in paper bags. They can also be frozen or dried and kept for up to a year.

Once the harvest is finished, logs need to rest for six to eight weeks before being forced again. Around here it’s easy to get two harvests (spring/fall) but more aggressive growers may be able to get three between May and October. How long a log will remain productive is uncertain, and that’s one of the questions that we are looking into with the Extension research trials.  From what I’ve seen of people doing this, red alder tends to last four to five years at two harvests per year, while something like bigleaf maple will last a little longer. However, it should be noted that bolts that are shocked more frequently will have shorter lifespans.

What do you do with your mushrooms once you’ve harvested them? Well, that’s up to you!

Personally, I believe that “forest-grown” shiitakes have a lot of potential as a specialty product that can be sold at farmers markets or directly to restaurants. Terms like “natural,” “organic,” and “sustainable” draw significant attention as people try to source food more sustainably. I can think of few things more sustainable than small forest owners growing mushrooms with small-diameter logs that would be thinned out of a forest anyway.

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A “ripe” shiitake ready to be picked. (Photo: Patrick Shults)

But if you don’t want to pursue a side-hustle in mushroom marketing, shiitakes make a great addition to the dinner table in soups, salads, casseroles, or completely on their own. I myself am a big fan of dried shiitake chips seasoned with salt and garlic.

There is a lot of information out there regarding shiitake log operations, although the vast majority of it has come out of eastern states. Many of the principles are the same, but it is important to keep in mind that in Washington we have a very different climate, as well as different tree species for substrate.

Our research trials at WSU Extension hope to provide answers to regionally specific questions and concerns regarding mushroom forest farming and ultimately result in a guide catered to our area. We’re currently in the spawn-run process and hope to start harvesting and collecting data this year. Stay tuned! 4For now, here is a link to a great guide out of Cornell and Vermont for those of you who want to get started.

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me at patrick.shults@wsu.edu.

Stewardship Stories: Ross & Marianne Frank, Red-Tail Canyon Farm

Andy Perleberg, Extension Forester, Washington State University, andyp@wsu.edu

At Red-Tail Canyon Farm, Ross and Marianne Frank wear many hats – as small farmers, horse ranchers, tree farmers, horse loggers, teamsters, teachers, and hosts. They believe in the culture of the rural lifestyle and the “Code of the West” — Live each day with courage; Take pride in your work; Always finish what you start; When you make a promise, keep it; and remember that some things aren’t for sale.

On May 28, smoke, fire, and two shifts of fire fighters behaved perfectly during a prescribed burn training on the Franks’ 120-acre certified family forest near Leavenworth. The Franks acquired their land in 1978, and have routinely used controlled burns to reduce fine fuels that rack up as trees and shrubs grow, and recently, to remove woody material left over from a commercial thinning that improved the forest’s health and decreased the wildfire risk. The combination of forest thinning and the prescribed fire has increased the safety of their land, decreased the threat of fire spreading to neighbors, and enhanced the wildfire resilience for the community of Leavenworth.

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Left to right: 1. Red-Tail Canyon Farm is a 120-acre certified Tree Farm and a Washington State Stewardship Forest. The predominant species of trees are ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir. 2. Tractor scarifies the ground creating a fire break for the controlled burn. 3. Firefighters receive instructions during the burn plan and pre-fire safety meeting. 4. Ross Frank, with his daughter-in-law and grandchildren, fully engages in everyday functions of the family forest. While the grandkids “stack sticks,” Ross comments, they’re “… making piles, making memories.” (All photos from the Ross family or Andy Perleberg)

perleberg 2Left: “Shall we trot?” Ross asks.  “Giddy-up, Hope! Tuck!” Ross directs the horses to pick-up the pace.

Red-Tail Canyon Farm is a year-round destination for experiencing the outdoors, blending seasonal sleigh and wagon rides while meandering through a managed forest. Ross uses the platform of a working forest to impart the natural history of north central Washington and the story of Red-Tail Canyon Farm. He has been known to turn the wagon around and take advantage of a corny wintertime, woodsman, or wildlife pun as he delivers jokes funnier than ever!  Marianne makes sure that disembarkation includes cold or hot beverages and something freshly baked or smoking on a barbecue. Weddings on tree farm are another frequent occasion.

Managing a tree farm in north central Washington is a challenge; the land is dry, and because water is so scarce, stress on a tree that challenges the genetic inclinations and environmental tendencies — like drought, bark beetles, root and foliar diseases, and the impending fires — can leave landowners with a sense that no matter what they do, it’s never enough. But persistent timber stand improvements like releasing natural seedlings from shade and water competition from brush, thinning overly dense advanced regeneration, and harvesting timber and non-timber forest products affirms a sense of “mission accomplished!”

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Left to right: 2017 Timber harvest, showing the slope to contend with, small log sorts, massive debris piles, and burning as the choice for disposal.

The Franks have conducted several timber harvests, and the wood products have been used to build their home, guest houses, shops, barns, and a beautiful wedding outdoor lodge. They have done much of the logging themselves, as Ross was a commercial horse logger for more than 30 years. They also own a portable sawmill and manufacture lumber and beams from the trees they grow. In 2017, the Franks conducted a commercial timber harvest that drew from the entire 120-acre ownership. Primarily Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) were removed to create a healthy, productive, and wildfire-resilient forest.

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Brick and Breida, a breed of horse called Brabant originating in the Netherlands, work with Ross to pull firewood logs from the woods. The arch used for skidding the logs suspends the front end and reduces drag and soil disturbance.
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Ross teaches Martin Perleberg about horse logging, as part of Martin’s senior project at Cashmere High School. Adam Farnham and Mieka (a Clydesdale) practice with their new implement.

Family forest owners constantly seek to “sharpen the saw,” and the Frank family is no different.

Ross studied forest management even before becoming a forest landowner. Since arriving in Washington state from Michigan via Alaska, he (and Marianne) have attended, hosted, and instructed courses in wildfire protection, forest roads and soils, wildlife habitat enhancement, measuring trees and marketing timber, special forest products, controlling noxious weeds, and succession and estate planning. They are graduates of the WSU-DNR Coached Forest Stewardship Planning Short Course, where they developed their own Forest Stewardship Plan.

Ross also volunteers with community and natural resource-based organizations that almost always advance into formal leadership roles, such as being a founding board member with the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition, Wenatchee River Watershed planning processes, Eastern Washington’s Forest Practices Board representative, and as a Chelan County Fire District No. 3 firefighter and board commissioner.

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Forest Fire Protection Field Day at the Red-Tail Canyon Farm. The field day emphasized common forest landowner fuel treatment choices and practices, including demonstrations of forest mastication (“Slashbuster” pictured above); pruning and thinning forest trees; Forest Landowner Assistance Programs, and forest chipping.
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An in-woods remote-controlled chipper works while hand crews cut out the sapling understory trees.
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Ross Frank stands with his border collie, Gus. at Stop 1 (below) of the educational display for the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship coalition, demonstrating a stand that has been thinned and burned periodically over the past 40 years. Ross is a proud member of the Washington Tree Farm Program, which he entered in 1980 and was overdue to receive his and the 25-year “Silver Tree Farm” sign at the entrance to the Red-Tail Canyon Farm. On this day, foresters Ron Simon, Ross Frank, Jerry Duffy, and Tom Brannon reviewed the forest thinning project (along with the author), discovering that it’s possible for five foresters to have SIX different opinions!

Marianne and Ross Frank have found ways to steward their land for both a lifestyle and a living. They enjoy watching their grown family and their grandkids develop their own ties to the land.  Ross said that sharing their successes with others, so that they too can achieve their forest management goals, makes his own hard work even more meaningful and fun.

For information about the Red-Tail Canyon Farm, call 800-678-4512, visit redtailcanyonfarm.com, or email info(at)redtailcanyonfarm.com.

‘E-Z Peezy’ Nest Boxes: A Quick Way to Build Habitat

Ken Bevis, Stewardship Wildlife Biologist, Washington Department of Natural Resources, ken.bevis@dnr.wa.gov

Everybody wants to help wildlife, right? But how do we do that?

Well, start with their three big needs; food, water and cover. If all are adequately provided in the local habitat, (with enough space for home ranges and territories, of course), voila! Wildlife populations.

But sometimes something is missing, or in scant supply. These become limiting factors, and populations may be reduced or even absent. Habitat enhancements can either provide the missing pieces, or add to what already exists, helping boost populations.

Enhancements take different forms and many of the simplest to implement provide critical cover. Cavities for roosting and nesting in dead tree stems can be rare or missing in forested environments, and many species benefit from man-made cavities, such as those provided by nest boxes.

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Natural hairy woodpecker cavity compared to a box (chicken for scale) (Photo: Ken Bevis)

Nest boxes are surrogates for abandoned woodpecker cavities.  These are different than your typical “bird houses,” which are mostly non-functional for birds. They generally won’t open and have variably-sized entrance holes poking here and there around multiple levels of Victorian or Old West architectural micro-mimicry, and function maybe once, if that, for English sparrows. Most woodpeckers create their own new cavities each year and leave last year’s work for other critters to fight over. In many ecosystems with trees (forest, suburban or rural/forest edge), cavities are at a premium due to many factors, especially human activity.

We cut snags for firewood, safety worries, or during development and timber harvests. It takes many years for a tree to progress from fresh dead to broken, decayed and available for excavation, so these losses have a significant cost to our wildlife. Retaining snags, especially large ones, wherever possible is the best strategy, but boxes can help if properly constructed, placed, and maintained.

Northern flickers and hairy woodpeckers are common species in our Pacific Northwest human-dominated settings. This article describes an easy recipe for a simple box that mimics a woodpecker cavity being sought by secondary cavity species. These are suitable for cavity nesting birds such as chickadees, wrens, bluebirds, tree or violet-green swallows. Squirrels and flickers will sometimes expand the entrance holes out to fit their tastes, but that’s OK – they need a cavity too! Woodpeckers generally won’t use boxes, as they just have to make their own.

There are many designs out there, but all basically mimic a woodpecker cavity in dimension and proportions, so all are good – but some are better. I like this basic design from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for simplicity and ease of construction. I recommend using such a design, so you can make them all the same and the parts are interchangeable. As your nest box network grows, it is easier to keep everything in good repair over time if they match.

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Nearly completed nest box with pine boards, hinged front, painted roof and holes in top of back board for ease in mounting. (Photo: Ken Bevis)

Start with some 1” x 6” lumber, and a little bit of 1” x 8” for the roof. It does not have to be cedar because boxes will break or fall apart long before they rot. Making the roof a little wider than the top can help slow box decay. Lay the boards out and mark the lines using this handy-dandy, public-domain plan.

Drill your holes before cutting the boards. It is safer and easier that way. Entrance diameter is 1.5 inches, which is big enough for a chickadee or swallow and too small for a starling, the notorious non-native nest box interloper. Drill a few ¼” holes in the bottom for drainage if it gets wet inside. Sometimes a few holes for ventilation at the top of the sides are good, especially if the box is going in a sunny hot space where nesting season could be too warm for baby birds.

Cut the pieces. Use something to roughen up the inside of the door. I scratch it all up with a knife or awl. Make the scratches deep enough for a little bird to grasp. This can help fledgling birds climb out of the box. Smooth boxes can actually be a death trap when they can’t climb out. Some people use a router and make nice, even stair-step grooves.

Make the cut edge of the roof 1” x 8” at a slight angle so that the sloping roof more closely fits with the back. You can put a bead of caulk on this joint later to help seal the box. Or you can shorten the back piece, attach the roof flush across the top, and have the back extend below the box body where the holes are drilled for attachment. I think they are more stable if attached at the top and the bottom, however.

Assemble with screws, not nails. Over time, the boxes will almost certainly crack and warp somewhere and with screws you can replace pieces. It’s a good idea to pre-drill the parts with a small bit where the screws are going, as the wood is thin and will often split. I don’t always do this, and I usually regret it when a piece splits too badly to use.

Begin assembly with sides to the back. Then the bottom, then the door. The door gets two screws parallel to the opening. (The door can be the side or the front). These act as a hinge when cleaning. The top edge of the sides are sloped and when attached, need to be lined up at the top so the roof is reasonably straight. Part of the beauty of nest boxes is that birds are very forgiving of lousy carpentry! In fact, I think birds like boxes better when they are rough or crooked. Use bent nails as closures for the door. You don’t want it plopping open, which they do sometimes.

The roof should hang a little over all of the edges, hence the 1” x 8”. The top should be somehow coated to help resist water. I have taken to painting the roof white. Don’t use metal or asphalt shingles, as they may make the box too hot in sunny spots. (In the shady woods, this would be fine.) Old cedar shingles cut to the right size make great roofs; they’re rot-resistant and rough, with no need to paint.

The box body can be any kind of wood. If you paint them, just paint the outside so the inside is natural wood. I have heard from one small forest landowner and nest box aficionado in Northeast Washington that he prefers using particle board for his boxes. He thinks the animals like it better because it is rougher. And they weather until they are the same color as the forest and seem to disappear.

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A saw-whet owl pokes its head out of one of Steve and Deb Foisie’s nest boxes near Issaquah. A big size box, about 16 feet up on tree. (Photo: Steve Foisie)

Larger versions of boxes can be built to attract squirrels, wood ducks, small owls, and barred or even great horned owls. Plans for these can be found at the WDFW Living with Wildlife website. These larger boxes should be mounted at least 8 feet up and have a much larger entrance. These can attract starlings if placed too close to habitation or farms, but this is not an issue out in the woods.

The classic wood duck box is roughly the dimensions of a pileated woodpecker cavity and are often used by squirrels and owls. In deep forest settings, I recommend mounting these larger boxes to enhance habitat for these forest cavity dwellers. The Foisie family in east King County had good success with tiny saw whet owls using their boxes (photo) which are mounted 15 to 18 feet up on the sides of Douglas-fir trees in a well-developed, mature forest stand.

Boxes can be attached to fence posts, sides of buildings (barns/sheds), deck and garden posts, installed posts, and trees. If you attach to trees, use long screws (deliberately not screwed all the way in) so they can be removed later, or aluminum nails. Don’t attach with anything big and steel, like 16 penny nails or spikes, as someday, someone might be cutting that tree with something, and you don’t want to put that rude surprise in the tree!

I think it is better to mount the boxes between 8 and 12 feet up, if you can get there, but it is a challenge to always have a ladder with you, especially if the boxes are well-dispersed through your forest. Mounting them at head height is usually fine, and many animals will gladly use them when mounted about 4 to 5 feet up. Then they are easy to clean out and you don’t have to carry, or fall off of, a ladder. Place small boxes at least 100 feet apart, and larger boxes at least 100 yards apart to allow for territoriality.

Speaking of cleaning: Many songbirds, such as tree swallows and bluebirds, bring lots of nesting material into the cavity. Grass, moss, feathers – you name it! But this material will get pretty poopy and full of bugs by the following spring. It is necessary to go out and clean out the small songbird boxes each fall, or early spring, and scrape this material out.

When you make your box rounds, this is an opportunity to make repairs (as needed) and even replace if one is in very bad shape. The larger boxes are usually mounted with a layer of dry wood chips in them. When cleaning these out, chips should be replaced every year or two, but there won’t be such a build-up of material. Large boxes still should be checked annually to look for needed repairs, and remove anything that might discourage use, including wasp nests.

Knock the wasp nests down unless you want to dedicate a box to wasps! Get this done before about April 1 so you don’t disrupt nesting.

bevis 4
Nest boxes can last a long time, if taken care of. (Photo: Ken Bevis)

Nest boxes are a wonderful enhancement tool for small forest landowners. I make a batch most years and end up giving them away or putting them up somewhere I can go back and keep up the maintenance. (We now have 35 on our property!)

They can last a long time. I’ve gone back to boxes I put up 25 years ago and found them weathered, but still functional, and full of material where birds had used them until they were packed. I emptied them, fixed the roof and put them back up! I have been keeping track of number of nests in my boxes at home, and last year something nested in every one of my boxes (except the one with the wasp nest).

I am convinced that box colonies become avian intergenerational habitat features, and the offspring of previous years return to breed in my boxes. That’s a reason to put up a few more each year. That makes me feel good.

I like nest boxes because it is something landowners can do. They work, and they are fun projects. Send pictures of your nest boxes and stories of what used them to ken.bevis@dnr.wa.gov!

Forest Insect and Disease Conditions Across Washington in 2019

By Glenn Kohler, Forest Entomologist, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, glenn.kohler@dnr.wa.gov

forest health highlights
The Forest Health Highlights in Washington are put out each year by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service.

Every spring, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and USDA Forest Service publish a Forest Health Highlights report that summarizes forest health conditions and trends across Washington from the previous year. The 2019 report and previous years’ reports are available on DNR’s Forest Health webpage.

Information for this report is gathered through annual monitoring projects and special surveys in response to recent forest damage events that are conducted by DNR and the Forest Service. Examples include an annual aerial survey, insect trapping, baiting streams for the pathogen that causes sudden oak death, and installing ground plots to monitor forest health issues, such as root disease.

The report also summarizes recent wildfire activity, weather events and drought conditions that may affect forest health, and summaries of forest health initiatives such as the 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan for Eastern Washington. Maps, charts, photos, and brief descriptions make much of the information in the report accessible at a glance. For those who want more detail, it includes links to other resources like maps and data and the contact information of forest health specialists.

Annual Insect and Disease Aerial Survey

An annual insect and disease aerial survey that covers the majority of Washington’s 22 million acres of forested lands provides much of the trend information in the report. Every year since 1947, aerial observers have reported the location and intensity of damage by forest insects, diseases, and other disturbances across all ownerships of forestland in Washington.

Without aerial surveys, it would be impossible to track disturbance conditions over such a large area using ground-based methods. Aerial survey is also an important tool used to detect and map new outbreaks of native and exotic insects and diseases. The total area mapped with some type of damage varies each year from a few hundred thousand to nearly 2 million acres.

Two trained observers in a fixed-wing aircraft visually scan a 3- to 4-mile-wide swath of forest as they fly along a grid pattern. Using digital mobile sketch mapping (DMSM) tablets, areas with damaged trees are recorded as polygons labeled with the most likely damage agents. Observers are trained to recognize various pest signatures and tree species.

When observers record a small area with tree mortality (less than 2 acres), they assign an estimated number of trees affected. For larger areas with tree mortality, observers choose a “percent-class” value that estimates the percent of treed area affected.

2019 aerial survey flight lines
This map shows the flight lines of the 2019 Washington Insect and Disease Aerial Survey. (Image courtesy U.S. Forest Service and Washington State Department of Natural Resources)

2019 Aerial Survey Highlights

Wildfire smoke was not a significant issue for the 2019 survey. However, aircraft maintenance needs and persistent clouds during August and September delayed progress. Two aircraft and crews were used simultaneously during a period of clear weather in late August to make up for these delays. The Oregon Department of Forestry and the Forest Service provided additional observers to assist with coverage in Washington.

The survey was not completed until early October, when early snowfall made higher elevation observations difficult for the last two days of survey.

In 2019, the aerial survey recorded some level of tree mortality, tree defoliation, or foliar diseases on 658,000 acres. This is an increase from the 469,000 acres with damage in 2018.

The area with mortality from bark beetles was 401,000 acres. Mortality due to bear damage or root disease was mapped on 46,300 acres. Relative to 2018, tree mortality increased for all major bark beetle species except mountain pine beetle. The area with defoliation damage was 80,000 acres, primarily caused by balsam woolly adelgid, aspen leafminer, and spruce aphid. Approximately 8,200 acres had some level of disease damage, primarily bigleaf maple decline, larch needle cast, and needle cast in lodgepole pine.

It should be noted that disease damage is significantly underrepresented in aerial survey because symptoms are often undetectable from the air.

At 166,300 acres with mortality, fir engraver in true firs (Abies species) made up the majority of bark beetle activity, the highest level since 2008. Recent drought conditions and effects of past defoliation by western spruce budworm are likely drivers of the increase. Pine bark beetle activity in 2019 was similar to 2018, with 119,400 acres affected. The most significant increase was in mortality of ponderosa pines due to western pine beetle, increasing to 29,400 acres in 2019, the highest level recorded since 2006.

A second year of Douglas-fir tussock moth damage in Kittitas and Chelan counties resulted in an increase of defoliated area from 1,900 acres in 2018 to 5,000 acres in 2019. A new outbreak in northern Okanogan County resulted in approximately 600 acres of defoliation.

A widespread outbreak of spruce aphid along the Washington coast resulted in Sitka spruce damage on approximately 10,600 acres in 2019, the highest level of damage due to this pest since 1998. An outbreak of western hemlock looper has caused defoliation on approximately 5,300 acres in south Whatcom and north Skagit counties, an increase from the 870 acres with defoliation in the same area in 2018.

Larch needle cast damage in western larch was observed on approximately 1,700 acres, primarily in the central and south Cascade Mountains. Crown discoloration and dieback in bigleaf maple was observed on approximately 1,300 acres, primarily in lowlands of southwest Washington and in the south Puget Sound area.

Maps and Other Aerial Survey Products available to the public

Whether you are a regular user of aerial survey maps and data or just learning about what’s out there, check out some of the Aerial Disease Survey products now available.

If you have any questions about these products or need information about forest insects and diseases, please contact the DNR Forest Health and Resiliency Division at 360-902-1300 or email forest_health@dnr.wa.gov.