[Tweeters] habitat changes

Gary Bletsch garybletsch at yahoo.com
Sun May 16 18:39:24 PDT 2021

Dear Tweeters,
Thanks and kudos to the experts who have commented on the topic of habitat management. This is a subject that makes my blood pressure rise. I have held back from writing to Tweeters about this for a few days, but here goes. I hope I don't step on any toes. Perhaps this is just "venting," but in my view, habitat projects rarely excite anything but skepticism. 
In my neck of the woods, Skagit County, there are many places that are dubbed "habitat restoration projects" or "habitat rehabilitation projects." These places figure in the itineraries of many birders. Many if not most of these projects turn good birding places into humdrum ones. Part of the problem is the mania for planting trees. 
Of course, I love the aphorism coined by Martin Luther, half a millennium ago: "And if I knew that the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant a little apple tree today." It's a charming and cheery thought. However, not every piece of land is "improved" by the planting of trees, or for that matter, shrubs--at least not from a birder's perspective, and certainly not from a shorebird's or a Horned Lark's.
An example of misguided tree-planting is the Marblemount Boat Launch. Birders have been finding vagrants there for decades. However, somebody has decided that it would be a good idea to plant trees and shrubs in the field there. I was told by a long-time local resident that that field had been burned by the Indians, to maintain it as a berry patch, for centuries. Much of the tree and shrub plantings are over a hundred meters from the Skagit River and the Cascade River. Perhaps I am speaking out of ichthyological ignorance here, but I can't see how planting trees that far from the water would benefit salmon. Meanwhile, the various open-country bird species that use that field will soon be out of a habitat. It will be just another woodland.
Just west of Lyman is a little gem called Nichols Bar. Skagit County has renamed the place, but I still call it what everyone called it before that. This place has benefitted from being protected. There is no doubt of that. Local yokels no longer ride dirt bikes and quads on the river bar here. The junked vehicles and trash-heaps have long since been removed. Still, I can't understand why it was deemed wise to plant trees in the little clearing here. It was only a half an acre or so, well removed from the river. It was probably an old homesite. Some birds of more open country used to be found there, but it becoming part of the forest now. Moreover, the various trails that once led into that forest were all planted with trees. Now those trails are gone. There is no longer a loop to walk, just an out-and-back. Only with a machete could one enter the forest here, so thick is the brush. I doubt I'm the only one who wonders why trees were planted in a forest! My cynical guess is that whoever planted the trees in the designated areas found themselves with a surplus, so they planted them deep in the woods.
The Green Road Pond, sometimes called Green Road Slough, is a wetland on the Butler Flats, north of Burlington. It used to be a good shorebirding spot. It was also good for other water birds. A Black Tern and a Tufted Duck were two of the surprises that turned up there. About ten years ago, for some reason, heavy equipment was used to move the earth around in that wetland. As far as I can tell, Green Road Pond is a far poorer spot for water birds now, compared to the time before that "improvement" was made. American Bitterns were once easy to see there. I have not detected one there since shortly after the habitat was "improved." Soras are harder to find now. Other than Killdeer, shorebirds almost never turn up. The site does not look all that different from what it used to look like, except that there is now a dense growth of cattails and other marsh plants, where there used to be larger areas of open water, interspersed with marsh vegetation.
The Washington State Department of Transportation owns a parcel on the western outskirts of Burlington, along McCorquedale Road. In 2007, when I first noticed the site, there was a big, seasonal wetland there. Over the following three years, I found 12 species of shorebirds in that one little spot. However, right about that time, someone decided to "improve" the site by planting shrubs. Within a couple of years, that shorebird spot ceased to exist. It is now a thicket. I am sure that they are all "good" native shrubs, but they are home to little more than White-crowned Sparrows, Bushtits, and the like. Those species have many options in our area. Pectoral Sandpipers and Red-necked Phalaropes, not so much.
About the best I have seen among the habitat changes in Skagit--I cannot bring myself to call them improvements or restorations--would be in sites where the result is a wash, no pun on wetlands intended. An example would be the Headquarters Unit of the Skagit Wildlife Management Area, variously known as the Game Range or Wylie Slough. This was our best place for wintering sparrows. It was also a good place for shorebirds, especially if one walked the wet fields in spring migration. Now it is a superb shorebird spot--to be fair, better for shorebirds than it was before--but we have lost our only spot where American Tree Sparrows were relatively easy to find. I doubt whether a Green-tailed Towhee will decide to winter there again, as one did in the 1990's. It is still an excellent place for birds, and for birding, but I would not say that it is better now. It is just different. It's nice to see a win for shorebirds for once, but I do miss those Tree Sparrows!
Today I took a walk at Barnaby Slough, one of the loveliest birding spots in Skagit County. Quite a few surprising birds have turned up here, including Least Flycatcher, Grey Flycatcher, Black-and-White Warbler, Lark Sparrow, and Grey Catbird. A huge habitat project is about to be undertaken at the "Barnaby Reach." Telltale pieces of flagging tape are dangling here and there. When that project is completed, the place will most likely be utterly different. I am not at all sure whether people will be able to get there without a boat. My walk today was a bittersweet one. Barnaby Slough is a wonderful, quiet, isolated place. Not many visitors came there when it was a fish hatchery, and fewer people visit there now. I have a hard time imagining that the "new and improved" version will match what we have there now. There is not much time left to enjoy the place in its current, beautiful form.
Habitat projects make people feel good. High-school and college students volunteer to plant native trees and shrubs. My own daughter did that. She was so proud of the planting! I bit my tongue and said nought. 
The leaders of conservation groups, scientists at various agencies, and of course politicians--they can all feel proud that they have done the right thing. "At least we're doing something!" I just wish that they would put more thought into these changes before attempting them--especially where shorebird habitat is concerned.
Yours truly,
Gary Bletsch

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