Small Forest Landowners Needed to Help in Fisher Recovery

The Pacific fisher (Pekania pennanti) is one of the larger members of the weasel family and is only found in North America’s boreal and temperate forests. Through excessive trapping and habitat loss, fishers were eliminated from Washington state by the mid-1900s. The species is currently listed as endangered in the state of Washington and is under consideration for listing as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). This federal listing decision will be made in early April 2016.

Pacific fisher
Listed by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission as an endangered species, the Pacific fisher was reintroduced into the Olympic Peninsula in 2008. Photo: Pacific Southwest Region-USFS

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has been working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), National Park Service, US Geological Survey and the US Forest Service to help recover the fisher. Recovery areas have been identified for the Olympic and Cascade ranges. Successful reintroductions occurred in Olympic National Park from 2008 to 2010, and reintroductions are now occurring in the South Cascades (Mount Rainier National Park and Gifford Pinchot National Forest). In two or three years, reintroductions will follow in the North Cascades (North Cascades National Park and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest).

In addition to reintroducing the species, WDFW has also been preparing for the potential federal listing by developing a voluntary conservation approach for private landowners – a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA).

Simply stated, those who agree to take certain measures to protect fishers would not be subject to future land-use restrictions that might result if the species is listed under the ESA.

fishers_factsheet-final020216-002
Fisher recovery areas in Washington state. Source: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

How Can Forest Landowners Help?

Wildlife managers are seeking help from forest landowners to work as partners in the recovery of fishers in Washington State. Forest landowners can qualify for this type of conservation agreement by voluntarily signing on to the CCAA administered by WDFW. Proposed conservation measures applicable to all enrollees include:

  • Allowing WDFW access to your property to monitor fishers and their den sites.
  • Providing protection to denning females and their young by avoiding disturbance around known denning sites while occupied (generally between the months of March and September).

The draft CCAA is currently going through the federal review and approval process, which includes a 30-day comment period. Once approved, landowners can voluntarily sign on to the CCAA until such time as fishers become listed under the federal ESA. In order for landowners to take advantage of this opportunity, they must be signed on to the CCAA prior to listing (which could be early April of this year (2016)).

Species Information

The species is dark brown and has a long bushy tail, short rounded ears, short legs, and a low-to-the-ground appearance. Fishers mate from late March to early May, with females giving birth to a litter of one to four kits the following year. While birthing dens are always in cavities of live trees, females may move the kits to other den structures, including cavities in snags or downed logs, or to log piles or ground burrows. Fishers prey on small mammals such as deer mice, voles, and squirrels throughout their 25- to 50-mile home ranges.

They prefer low- and mid-elevation forests with moderate to dense canopy closure and an abundance of large woody structures such as cavity trees, snags, and downed logs.

For more information on the fisher, the CCAA and enrolling in the program, please contact Gary Bell by phone at 360-902-2412 or via email at Gary.Bell@dfw.wa.gov

Please respond before April to ensure you are included in the CCAA prior to possible listing.

Nest Boxes: A Functional Habitat Enhancement

The jaunty woodpeckers rock side to side as they chisel into dead trees carving homes and seeking bugs. We hear their hearty “Ha Di Da Ha Ha. Ha Di Da Ha Ha” and are amazed at their rhythmic drumming in the spring. They are keystone species in the forest, eating lots of insects and providing habitat for other species through their activities.

Many of our fantastic forest wildlife species require cavity habitats in dead wood for reproduction and roosting cover. Over the years, however, human activities have often removed this critical habitat component. The importance of this habitat feature is now common knowledge among foresters, biologists, managers and landowners, but, recruitment and development of dead wood structure with suitable softness (from fungal action) for cavity excavation by woodpeckers, can take many years. Thus, action is sometimes needed to provide cavity habitats now.

NB_swallow on box
Providing adequate numbers of snags, standing dead trees is, of course, the best strategy, but sometimes, they simply don’t exist. Substitute cavities can be provided through creative carpentry, utilizing man-made slices of trees (boards, that is) to manufacture artificial, quasi-cavities we call “nest boxes”. (The term “bird house” is incorrect, as it implies the box will provide all of life’s requirements for the species; nope, these boxes are for nesting and, sometimes, roosting.)

Cavity Excavating Birds Come in Many Sizes

Cavity excavating birds in the Pacific Northwest come in a variety of sizes, from the massive pileated (wingspan 29”, weight 290 g) to the diminutive red breasted nuthatch (wingspan 8”, weight 10 g). Each species creates cavities that roughly match the size of the bird, and precisely provide the depth and width to enable brood rearing. Some of these attributes help with thermal regulation for the helpless young, provide room for them to grow and stretch out, and depth to resist the inevitable predators that will try to consume the delicious eggs and young. For example, flickers are about 12 inches long, and make cavities with entrance holes about 3 inches in diameter and 13 to 16 inches deep. The entrance hole is proportional to the size of the bird, and the depth is enough to keep predators from easily reaching the brood. Pileateds make appropriately enormous cavities!

Constructing cavities is a regular part of nesting and courtship behavior among the woodpeckers and the other smaller cavity excavating birds (chickadees, nuthatches). These birds will make a new cavity in most nesting seasons, and abandon the old ones when nesting is done. These abandoned cavities are prime real estate and readily sought after by a host of other species, the secondary cavity nesters. These species include many of our favorites, and will readily use man made nest boxes.NB_squirrel

Building a Nest Box

In the north Cascades town of Twisp, Washington, Patrick Hannigan has a unique business creating species-appropriate, biologically correct nest boxes out of salvaged wood from construction sites or demolitions.

“I always loved building things”, said Hannigan when I interviewed him, “and I am fascinated by birds. Construction projects always leave huge piles of scraps, and this is my way of returning this waste back into habitat.”

Patrick, who has supplied hundreds of the boxes to clients across Washington, adds:

“The species I have had use them the most include kestrels, Western bluebirds, tree and violet green swallows, saw whet owls, both mountain and black-capped chickadees, red breasted and white breasted nuthatches and wrens.”

I asked what are key elements for functional nest boxes? He listed five:

  1. Proper dimensions: that is, entrance hole size, depth to floor, and floor dimensions
  2. Proper ventilation: ¼-inch slot or holes along the top
  3. Drainage in floor to allow water out and air in to dry nesting material
  4. Door that opens to facilitate easy clean out. It is best if no tools are required for this job.
  5. Roughened interior walls to help fledglings climb out. Sometimes boxes made of smooth, planed wood become an inadvertent death trap for baby birds.

Three sizes of nest boxes are all that most small forest landowners need to consider.

  • Small: A 1 1/8” entrance hole, with a 4 ¼” square floor is just right for chickadees and wrens.
  • Medium: Swallows and bluebirds need 1 ½” entrance holes and a 5” x 5” minimum floor.
  • Large: Kestrels, small owls and squirrels need 4” holes and 17” to the bottom of the box. (Many nest box plans are available online, so check these before designing one on your own).

These three sizes will cover most of the species you may encounter on your lands (Wood duck boxes that would be placed along ponds and wetlands are larger and a special case).

Materials: Dos and Don’ts

Nest box materials can be any type of wood, but roofs need to be sturdy (and perhaps waterproofed). Avoid particle board as it will crumble in a short time. Pine and fir work fine. Do not paint on the inside of the box but the birds don’t care if the outside is painted.

Hannigan also cautions against using metal roofs or sides. These can become “bird microwaves” and when the weather warms can have the unintended consequence of killing the same birds the structure was meant to help. And ornamental “bird houses” with random hole sizes or inadequate interiors, made to be cute and not functional (sorry to those clever crafty folks!); bad bad bad. “These are made for people, not birds and can even be harmful.”

Placing Nest Boxes

Hannigan recommends focusing on forest edges for the most nesting opportunities. As to placement, think vertical. Small birds will be lower in the canopy, larger species prefer to be higher. Smaller boxes can be placed at eye level, where they are easy to clean out. Place larger boxes for owls or kestrels at least 12 to 15 feet high, a comfortable height using a standard ladder. Make sure the entrance has a clear flight line not too encumbered by overhanging branches. NB_lostLake-OKcountyHannigan recommends placing your first boxes where they are near your home, in normal sight lines so you can see and appreciate what species are using them. Boxes can be placed close together for swallows, or spread around for other species. See if they are being used in a given season and move them if they are not.

Caution should be noted with bluebird style or kestrel boxes near human habitation. These can provide habitat for aggressive starlings or house sparrows. In normal forest settings, however, these species are rarely a problem.

Nest boxes are one of my favorite tools for enhancing habitat on forest lands. Why? Because they work, they are something we can DO, and we get to experience firsthand some of the wonderful wildlife in our forests. Nest boxes are an excellent tool to help small forest landowners provide habitat for the many wildlife species we value so much; but, as with any tool, they need to be applied properly, with careful construction and placement.

Please contact me with questions, comments, pictures or stories about your nest boxes.

By Ken Bevis, DNR Stewardship Wildlife Biologist, ken.bevis@dnr.wa.gov 

Tree Stems are Wood… and Habitat

Tree stems majestically hold up the forest canopy and lead our eyes into the sky. The leafy ceiling above gives us comfort supported by those massive woody cylinders.

What about those stems? Forest products are generally considered lumber, partitioned slices of tree stems that are cut to specification and put together into homes, furniture and a zillion other practical uses. Wood provides considerable human habitat. Wood in the forest ecosystem has significant value as wildlife habitat, too.

What is a Tree?

That marvelous living thing that we call a “tree” is mostly, actually dead. The marvelous collective functions of the tree, photosynthesis, conduction of water and nutrients, growth and simple physical support, all add up to “tree”. But is it all “alive”?

Life by definition means cell division and respiration. The only parts of a tree that are truly alive in the biological sense are the cambium layer, root tips and the living parts of the leaves. That’s it. Most of a tree, wood, was once alive, but now functions as tubes for the movement of water up and nutrients down, and support tissue for the photosynthetic surfaces reaching up to compete for sunlight.

Wood is dead tissue. Mostly cellulose, hard to digest for most organisms, but great structure for wildlife habitat; especially after the living defenses of the tree are gone. Once the tree dies, the habitat value of wood takes off.

Multiple pileated woodpecker cavities in a larch snag
Multiple pileated woodpecker cavities in a larch snag in northeast Washington. After more than 35 years as a snag, the tree fell in 2015. Photo: Ken Bevis/DNR.

Remember the three primary needs of wildlife; food, water, cover? Dead wood providers food in the form of insects living in the dead wood, and cover in the form of cavities, crevices or loose bark.

The inside of a tree stem is usually unavailable habitat until primary cavity excavators (woodpeckers) make their nest cavities in the dead stems. Shazam! Suddenly, the inside of a tree stem is cover. And a really great place to rest and raise young.

Approximately 40 percent of forest wildlife species use dead wood for some portion of their life cycle. The list is long. A few of the species that use standing dead trees, or snags, are:

  • Pileated woodpecker
  • Hairy woodpecker
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Red-naped sapsucker
  • Douglas squirrel
  • Marten
  • Long-tailed weasel
  • Chipmunks
  • Flying squirrel
  • Bats
Pleated woodpecker.
Pileated woodpecker. Photo: Glenn Thompson.

Woodpeckers will make new cavities every year, or improve old ones, as a regular part of courtship and nesting behavior. These cavities in dead tree stems are prime real estate. Fledging rates (babies to adulthood) for cavity nesting birds are much higher than rates for ground or cup nesters. Non migratory species (such as the pileated woodpecker) will use cavities for roosting in the non-breeding season. Small birds such as nuthatches will sometimes communally roost in cavities together. Flying squirrels are known to cuddle through cold winter days (they are nocturnal) piled into cavities. Cavities in dead tree stems are some of the best cover available in forest habitats, and are limiting factors for the presence or absence of many species.

When a tree falls and becomes a log, habitat value continues. The log acts in a similar way as a standing dead tree, providing food in the form of insects and fungi. Cover too, particularly in the interstitial spaces provided between layers of rotting wood. Wildlife use of logs is extensive, (and the subject of a future article). For example, many salamanders spend the dry seasons inside of logs, where conditions stay moist all year. Small mammals such as forest mice and voles live in and around rotting logs. Rotting wood feeds the soil with organic matter and nutrients.

Habitat log near Forks, Washington.
Habitat log, down for many decades, near Forks, Washington. Note the many cracks and soft, moist rotting wood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trees provide many habitat functions in the forest. Ironically, once they die, much of their habitat value to forest wildlife species increases. Snags and logs can last many, many years. Attentive landowners know of old dead trees on their property, and value them for the habitat they provide. These dead trees add character, beauty and habitat value to forest land.

Mature living trees present habitat on the surface of the stems. These barky surfaces are good foraging habitat for some species. Small birds, such as brown creepers, glean the tree surfaces for spiders and other insects hiding in the cracks. Dead branches can harbor insects too, and small birds such as chickadees can use these pieces of attached dead wood as important foraging areas.

Forestry activities tend to manage trees for maximum growth, thus producing many live, solid stems. Thinning activities enhances this growth and produce much live tree surface. Deliberate attention to maintenance, and even creation, of dead wood habitat structures can provide significant benefit to wildlife populations.

Wood. It is habitat.

By Ken Bevis, DNR Landowner Assistance Wildlife Biologist

For more information or to schedule a free site visit to your forest land, contact Ken at: Ken.Bevis@dnr.wa.gov

Preventing Browse Damage to Planted Tree Seedlings

Photo: Ken Bevis/DNR.
Photo: Ken Bevis/DNR.

It’s tough being a critter out there. Food, water, cover and adequate space are all that wildlife need. But sometimes, our trees become essential habitat elements, too. Wildlife’s quest to survive may, at times, place them at odds with our objectives of growing trees, such as when carefully planted seedlings are mutilated or simply eaten by feeding deer and elk. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to prevent or, at least, contain the damage.

First, determine if there really is a problem. Usually damage is noticed on some trees during forest walks, but this doesn’t give us a real sense of scale. It is important to objectively assess the situation to determine a proper course of action.

Note what kind of damage is occurring: Are the buds and/or foliage damaged or eaten? Are there chew marks and nipped buds? Are the stems torn or cleanly nipped? Is there girdling? Was the stem damaged by physical rubbing? How high is the damage? What kind of marks? Deer and elk will tear the top out of seedlings, or pull them out of the ground.

Second, note the extent of the damage? How many trees are damaged or dead? What tree species are affected? What proportion and spacing of the trees are affected? Informal tree counts or even plots can give a better assessment of what is going on. Several simple methods work to give some numbers: Count 100 random trees on narrow transect (say 6-10 feet per side) and keep a tally of the number damaged. Another method could involve some circular plots (1/20 acre or 37.2 feet radius is good) and again, count. Count the number of target seedlings or saplings, both intact and damaged, to get an estimate of damage. Otherwise, our eye is very biased and will overestimate damage levels by focusing on the damaged trees. This is an important step.

Seedlings and deer

a tell-tale sign of deer damage.
The ragged edge where this seedling’s top was nipped off is a tell-tale sign of deer damage. Photo: Ken Bevis/DNR.

One of the most common animal damage complaints in forestry is seedling destruction by ungulates. Deer, and elk, will browse many different kinds of vegetation as they saunter across their home ranges. They will sample any number of plants as they feed, stopping to focus on those they particularly like. They will often eat the tops out of planted tree stock, particularly cedars. Deer and elk have no incisor teeth on the top of their mouth, so they roughly tear the vegetation. (Hares will cleanly nip at an angle.) Nursery stock seem to be particularly yummy, and can be selected like ice cream in newly planted areas. Other species of trees can also have their tops nipped out, killing or causing odd bushy growth in those trees that survive. How can you prevent this damage from severely reducing the success of tree plantings? Read on…

Actions

There are five basic approaches to preventing or reducing wildlife damage:

  • Tolerance – in other words, putting up with it and planting extra trees
  • Armoring with Vexar(R), cages, tubes, bud caps
  • Repellents
  • Alternative food sources
  • Removal or harassment

Tolerance: In any damage situation, first determine if the level is acceptable. For example, if browse damage is expected, simply plant at a higher density and allow for some loss. This could mean additional thinning in the future, but protection is not necessary. Ask yourself, are the animals engaged in early thinning? The best wildlife habitats are structurally heterogeneous, with openings and shrubs mixed with mature trees anyway. Animal damage can actually create some of this diversity! Is the damage within acceptable levels? If so, there is no “problem”!

 flexible plastic mesh tubing, such as Vexar®, around seedling
Placing flexible plastic mesh tubing, such as Vexar®, around seedlings can be an effective way to prevent damage by deer and other wildlife

Armoring: If they can’t reach it, they can’t eat it. Placing a cage of some kind on each tree, is an effective option. The goal is to get the tree large enough that if a deer or elk decides to eat it, the tree will survive and the top will remain intact. Vexar® tubes (photo) or other plastic tubing, is commonly used and can be very effective. This method is labor intensive but small woodland owners can make good use of these tubes. These manufactured tubes can be secured with one stake, zip ties or wire, and moved upwards as the tree grows.

Thin bamboo stakes held together with zip ties work well. Home-made cages also work, using wire of various kinds. Two-inch rolled steel mesh, 4-feet high, secured with a T-post is standard on many restoration plantings in north central Washington.

Famed tree farmer, Ron Munro at the Crystal Lake Tree Farm near Monroe, Washington has had good results tending his Western red cedar seedlings by installing Vexar® tubes and lifting them as the trees grow.

Be sure the stakes are strong enough to withstand snow or other local environmental factors. Usually the deer will nose around and move on to the next plant if there is a barrier. Remember, the barrier has to be stout enough and tight enough to prevent deer noses from getting in. Elk are big and strong, and have been known to pull cages off when they really want to eat something. In wetter environments, some have planted a spruce immediately alongside cedar, and the deer will sometimes leave the cedar alone; maybe because they don’t like to bite the spiny spruce!

Bud caps are paper or plastic envelopes stapled over the terminal bud of seedlings. Sometimes this can be very effective at preventing key damage. The covers need to be checked and fixed annually however.

Repellents can be an effective alternative, but must be reapplied regularly for consistent results. This often means, twice, or more, per year. There are many products responding to this need, with at least 20 on the market. Two commercial products that have good track records are Seadust and Plantskydd, both manufactured with forestry in mind, with a foul taste that the browsers just don’t like. Look in hardware stores in areas where deer frequently eat ornamentals and the number of repellents on the shelf can be amazing! Experiment and ask around in your local area to find out what works.

Alternative forage: Another technique to reduce big game damage to seedlings is to provide a preferred alternate food source nearby. An Oregon experiment placed preferred forage near planted stock, and found this technique reduced damage to planted seedlings. This could be done in the form of planting wildlife forage mix in food plots, on skid trails and disturbed soils.

Removal of offending animals is a tactic of last resort. Usually, the wildlife populations will simply fill back in behind the best intended efforts. Legal hunting can be used to remove some animals, and will produce effective harassment, but only during periods of hunting. And hunting must be carefully tended to avoid conflicts with neighbors. Seldom will hunting remove enough animals to eliminate damage. Harassment (motion-operated sprinklers, dogs, noise) can teach animals to stay away from certain areas, but these techniques are labor intensive, require constant vigilance, and often must be used at night. In any case, most wildlife quickly learn to ignore your most obnoxious efforts. Consult with your local fish and wildlife departments before embarking on programs involving ANY removal method to be sure you are acting within legal limits.

Enjoying wildlife on our small woodlands is one of the great joys of forestry. When they damage our trees we must carefully consider all of our options for dealing with the situation.

If you have questions about wildlife on your small woodlands, please contact me:

by Ken Bevis, Landowner Assistance Wildlife Biologist, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Ken.Bevis@dnr.wa.gov, 360-489-4802

Native Pollinators:  Protection and Enhancement

Western bumblebee. Photo: John Stuart.
Western bumblebee. Photo: John Stuart.

This April I had the great luck to be part of a native pollinators program conducted by the Nez Perce people in Lapwai, Idaho. The goal of the program was to increase the awareness of the value of native pollinators to the success of the native plant communities of the Pacific Northwest. The program was the first annual Bees and Butterfly celebration.

Butterflies have been an important part of the Nez Perce people culture forever. The native word for butterfly is Lapwai. The Nez Perce main community is located on the Lapwai creek. They have many stories around butterflies and bees and their value in sustaining the plants and the products that the native people harvest.

At this celebration I was exposed to the many resources that are available to landowners in the Pacific Northwest to assist them in protecting and enhancing native pollinators.

The most important resource that a forest land owner family can develop is the awareness and knowledge of the native pollinators that use their property now, or could use it if the conditions were right for their survival.

We know of the honey bee and its value. But we often forget that it is not native and many of our native plants have flowers that cannot be pollinated by the honey bee.

Angel wing butterfly. Photo: Carol Mack.
Angel wing butterfly. Photo: Carol Mack.

The list of native pollinators is long and diverse, including groups such as butterflies, bumblebees and bees, moths, flies, wasps, ants, bats, hummingbirds and beetles. This Idaho State University website shows the diversity in our native bees alone.

Now think of all the other insects and animals that your native trees, flowers and shrubs rely on to produce seeds and fruit, and you can see that your woodlands, farm and prairie can be critical habitat for thousands of pollinators.

These areas do not need to be large. Planting native shrubs, vines, ground covers and herbaceous plants in an open area left by root rot or windfall will provide the needed flowers for nectar and pollen for the adults and the vegetative materials for the larval of insects that use your lands. Do not forget the native grasses. Their flowers are not very showy but they are very valuable to many native pollinators.

There are some simple cultural practices that can enhance the native pollinator population. Limit pesticide use and apply only when the plants are not flowering, or at least when the pollinators are not actively feeding. Time all mowing of roadside vegetation to when the plants are finished flowering.

This relationship between native pollinators and native plants is closely linked. The survival of both is vital to the health and sustainability of the total plant community that family forest land owners enjoy and value.

By Jim Freed, forest products specialist, WSU Extension,  freedj@wsu.edu

Web resources to help landowners learn more about native pollinators:

Native Bees. If you click on each of the photos on the left of the screen you will see list and information on each of these native pollinators.

Insect Images. A great site for general insect information.

USDA Plants.  this site has a list of native plants.  It can be used to identify plants you have or to develop a list of plants you want to have on your lands.

Pollinators  This is a list from Idaho State University of the research and writing on native insects.

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation — Pacific Northwest Pollinators. This is a great organization that is working to protect and enhance native populations of insects valuable to ecosystems.

Oregon State University. This is a OSU bulletin on native bumble bees.  It has some good links to it.

Native Bees poster. This poster developed by the Pollinator partnership is a great visual showing all of our native bees.

USDA — Native Pollinators.  A very good overview of native pollinators with many references of value at the end of the downloadable document.

Root Rot can Give You the Blues

Blue copper butterfly
The blue copper butterfly is one of the many pollinators that benefit from foliage growing in woodland open spaces. Photo: John Stuart.

So you have root rot on your property and the resulting pocket of dead and dying trees. Management guidelines to mitigate this forest health problem may include cutting all trees within the diseased center, as well as all uninfected trees within 50 feet. Then you might regenerate the site with ponderosa pine, western larch and/or lodgepole pine to replace the more-susceptible Douglas fir and true fir.

But instead of replanting, why not leave the pocket clear of trees?

Small openings in forests are known to attract deer, turkey, black bear and other wildlife. Another type of “wildlife” that you may attract to a forested opening are beneficial insects such as pollinators. Pollinators are important for plant reproduction and therefore, ecosystem health. Unfortunately, pollinators are threatened worldwide by habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as a myriad of other problems. Leaving your root rot pocket clear of trees will not only help eradicate root rot, but it may aid the conservation of pollinator species such as bumblebees, hummingbirds, moths and everyone’s favorite; butterflies.

Washington is home to many beautiful species of butterfly. Common butterfly species you may attract include the painted lady (Vanessa cardui) and the Western pine elfin (Callophyrs eryphon). Less common but also  beautiful are the blues (Family: Lycaenidae). Potential blues you may attract in the various regions of eastern Washington include the arrowhead blue (Glaucopsyche piasus), Boisduval’s blue (Plebejus icarioides), lupine blue (Plebejus lupini), melissa blue (Plebejus melissa), silvery blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus), Northern blue (Plebejus idas), greenish blue (Plebejus saepiolus) and the spring azures (Celastrina lucia and C. echo).

To attract a diversity of species, consider planting a variety of the flowers and shrubs needed for all the life stages of the butterfly (egg, larva, pupa, and adult) within your root rot pocket. Incorporating a mixture of species that provide continual blooms for nectar-feeding adults throughout the growing season would be most beneficial, including at least one species each for spring, summer, and fall. If you decide to include shrubs in your patch, they should be planted at the edge of the tree line to aid in tapering the vegetation.

There are many potential native plant species to consider. The Western pine elfin caterpillar feeds on the young needles of pines and the adults feed on flower nectar, while the painted lady prefers thistles. Generally, blues are attracted to lupine (Lupinus spp.), clovers (Trifolium spp.), and wild buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.) for both larval food and nectaring.

Butterflies puddling in wet sand.
Butterflies puddling in wet sand. Photo: Carol Mack.

In addition to providing food, you could go the extra mile and include additional features necessary for butterfly survival. A bird bath filled with sand and wetted with water would provide a nice puddling area. A small salt lick may also be placed in the bird bath to provide mineral requirements. Rocks are great for basking in the sun, while snags, logs and brush piles provide overwintering sites.

Plot maintenance may be needed periodically. Weeds can be controlled mechanically (by hand) or with herbicides. Mowing should be avoided, as this could destroy eggs, caterpillars, and pupae located on the vegetation.

If you have livestock, keep in mind that some plant species are poisonous. For example, silky lupine (L. sericeus), velvet lupine (L. leucophyllus), and silvery lupine (L. argenteus) are known to cause birth defects in cattle.

For more information on butterflies found in your area, visit the Butterflies and Moths of North America website.

By Melissa J. Fischer, Forest Health Specialist, Northeast Region, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, melissa.fischer@dnr.wa.gov

Look up! It’s a Forest Canopy Habitat

Mature forest canopy, Upper Skagit River
Mature forest canopy, Upper Skagit River drainage. Ken Bevis/DNR

When we walk in the forest, we are dazzled and soothed by the leaves and needles of the trees above and around us. These surfaces are the photosynthetic factory of the forest, gathering sunlight and pulling carbon from the air to build themselves, and all of the organisms dependent on trees. Animals that live in trees are known as “arboreal” species.

The surfaces of the branches and leaves, that is the canopy, can be considered a habitat niche with specialized functions for many species of wildlife. When trees reach into the sky to form a canopy layer in the forest, the interacting crowns create a remarkable maze of three-dimensional spaces between and on the branches. These branches will produce the cones and seeds intended for tree reproduction, but which are often taken by various wildlife as food. The surfaces of needles and branches are home for insects, and hunting grounds for their predators. This complex habitat contains varying opportunities for wildlife to make a living by hunting insects, eating lichens, gathering seeds, or other taking specialized actions.

Birds in the Canopy

Birds are the most obvious species to utilize this habitat niche, with rich varieties showing up at different times of the year. Some are resident, remaining in the same, or nearby, habitats year around, while others are migratory. Many of our migratory birds come back from the neo-tropics (that is, Central America and even South America) for breeding season, and return south in the fall.

Townsend's warbler
Townsend’s warbler, a neo-tropic migratory bird commonly seen in the conifer forest canopy. Photo: Glenn Thompson.

Different birds can use different portions of canopy at different times. Dense canopies, for example, can provide thermal cover for overwintering chickadees or Stellar’s jays where they roost on a cold winter night. These same fronds can provide abundant insects for flycatchers, such as the Western wood pee wee, and Western tanagers to feed upon when they return from Central America for the summer. Golden-crowned kinglets nervously flit about these same branches throughout the year hunting tiny insects.

Our glorious migratory songbirds arrive between March and May to take advantage of the explosion of insect life in our temperate summer growing season. Research suggests that migratory birds, such as the Townsend’s warbler, Western tanager or various flycatchers, may key on deciduous trees for the insects living there, because it is most similar to the broad-leafed forests where they spend the winter (Sharpe 1996). Conifers have more consistent habitat features; with their needles present year-around, confers provide habitat for year-round residents such as chickadees and nuthatches.

These tiny avian powerhouses will glean insects from the surfaces of leaves (conifer needles are leaves too) throughout the canopy, often travelling in mixed species flocks and moving from tree to tree communicating with small chips and calls. Try “Phishing” when you hear one of these flocks nearby and see what happens. (That is, go “PSHHH, PSHHH, PSHHH” over and over until your mouth is tired and dry. It imitates a distress call among small birds and you will be amazed how close some of them will come!). Many eyes make it easier to spot predators, such as Cooper’s hawks, which make these travelling mixed flocks advantageous.

Arboreal Mammals

Truly arboreal mammals are not as numerous as bird species, but are important members of the forest wildlife ecosystem. Our native conifer squirrels are the Douglas and red squirrels, also locally known as chickarees. These two species are actually very similar, but occupy different habitat regions. Douglas squirrels are associated with wetter, westside type forests dominated by Douglas fir and hemlock. Red squirrels live on the drier and colder east side, as well as in Rocky Mountain forest types we have in Northeast Washington (Carey 1996). Both are common and important mammal species directly tied to the forest canopy as conifer specialists, actively harvesting and caching cones each year. Who among us woods walkers hasn’t been scolded by one of these little dervishes? ( I once caught one in a live trap on a small mammal study and was amazed at the sheer strength the squirrel used to bodily throw itself against the wire mesh in an attempt to bash out of the trap; it was released bruised, but unharmed.)

These species in the genus Tamiasciurus also eat mycorrhizal fungi (mushrooms), which work to help trees grow by adding root absorptive surface to trees. The squirrels spread spores throughout the forest through their feces. Flying squirrels occupy a similar niche, but work the night shift, often foraging on the ground for mushrooms to cache. For this reason, flying, Douglas and red squirrels can be considered keystone species in forest ecosystems, e.g., species whose presence has far-reaching impacts. These squirrels need canopy to provide hiding places and food, but also need down logs for cache sites, and woody cavities in snags for denning (that’s another article!). Habitat for these squirrels also includes low branches for resting and eating cones dropped to the ground.

Forest canopy at Deception Pass
Forest canopy at Deception Pass. Photo: Ken Bevis/DNR.

Caring for the Canopy

In our forestry activities, we often thin and manipulate stands in order to grow trees as quickly as possible. This can provide much benefit for wildlife using canopy as the trees mature, but we often will harvest them just as the cone production and canopy reach good habitat status. Pruning can help reduce fire danger, but also remove habitat used by these animals. Retain some full crowned, seed bearing trees through this, and the next rotations. Keep some dense patches in your stand. Don’t prune every tree and keep some low branches for wildlife. Diversity is the key to good habitat.

We can maintain and create diverse canopy while managing our forest stands for diverse structure and multiple objectives through thoughtful management and structural retention.

Please feel free to contact me (and your WSU extension foresters) for a site visit or additional information on how to provide wildlife habitat while managing your small forest woodland.

Ken Bevis, DNR Stewardship Biologist
Ken.Bevis@dnr.wa.gov

Selected References:

Carey, A. 1996. NW Science. “Interactions of Forest Canopies and Arboreal mammals.”
Sharpe, F. 1996. NW Science. “The Biologically Significant Attributes of Forest Canopies to Small Birds.”
Thomas, J.W. 1979. USDA Handbook No. 553. “Wildlife Habitats on Managed Forests: The Blue Mountains of Oregon and Washington.”