A Day in the Life of a Field Conservation Intern

By Martina Avendano, Field Conservation Intern

With the feeling of a good day completed at work, an episode of my favorite podcast on, and the comforts of air conditioning on a warm spring day in April, I was happy to start making my way home! Not long after merging onto the stop-and-go traffic of I-84, I felt a tickle on my ankle.

Earlier that day, I had spent some time in the woods recording forest measurements with Laura Taylor, Interim Forest Conservationist. We hiked and bushwhacked through the forest, hugging trees every couple of meters. And not just for fun! We were measuring and recording the diameter of trees along a transect to assess the forest’s health and maturity. This activity also gave a couple of ants the opportunity to crawl onto us, bravely defending their colony. By the end of the day, a few stragglers were still crawling on me.

I quickly realized that what I had brushed off my ankle wasn’t an ant. I took a quick peak and saw two little eyes staring back at me. I was carpooling with a Pacific tree frog (Pseudacris regilla)! Pacific tree frogs can be distinguished by the dark stripe across their eyes and their rounded toe pads. Just a normal day at work!

patch of tall green weeds on left, cleared patch on right

Garlic mustard removal, before (left) and after (right)

During the second week of May, I got to personally see the strong hold that garlic mustard can have on the landscape. At a site in the Green Hills neighborhood, working with Seasonal Conservation Technician Ari DeMarco, I was greatly surprised as I walked up to a solid stand of it. With my hori-hori in hand, I began pulling. Pretty soon I was in the depths of the garlic mustard, with twigs in my hair and a collection of catchweed (Galium aparine) across my sleeves. All in all, Ari and I collected three large bags of garlic mustard. It’s really great knowing that many more garlic mustard plants won’t set seed. Days like these make me really proud to be a part of this field!

Throughout these past months, I have had the opportunity to participate in various projects. From continuing the garlic mustard removal legacy of past interns, to visiting project sites and learning about restoration practices. Some of my favorite days have also involved crouching down in front of a new plant and looking for distinguishing characteristics to identify it. But best of all, I have really enjoyed getting the chance to work with everyone at West Multnomah SWCD. From Zoom meetings to getting out in the field and meeting in person.

Note to reader: My carpool mate was safely returned to the outdoors at a local park.

Homes for Portland’s native bees

The emergence of native nesting bees are a welcome sign of spring in the Northwest. There are upwards of 100 species of native bees just in the Portland area, yet many are largely unknown compared to the non-native honey bee. Most native bees are smaller, solitary – and therefore not aggressive and not a threat to people – and tend to get overlooked. But in fact, native bees are often more efficient pollinators for crops and flowers and critical for a healthy ecosystem.

Unfortunately, bees and other insects across the world are in decline due to pesticide use, climate change, disease, and habitat loss. Bees and other insects like butterflies, beetles, flies, and even wasps are important pollinators for many of our agricultural crops and other flowering plants. While there has been growing public awareness of the need to conserve pollinators, often the focus has been on the few species used in commercial agriculture and less emphasis has been placed on providing appropriate nesting sites and resources for our lesser-known native bees.

Residents are inspired to create bee nesting habitat to help slow this decline, and they want to know how best to do this. However, scientists and the conservation community lack basic necessary information on numerous species of bees. In many regions, scientists do not even know what species of bees are present. This makes it difficult to develop guidelines for bee conservation.

woman with tall wood post in front of fence


Last fall, we talked to Stefanie Steele about her research on nesting bees in Portland, Oregon. Steele investigated how and where native cavity nesting bees make their nests. The majority of bees nest in the ground, and about 30 percent nest in cavities. Steele’s research focused on the nesting height and diameter preferences of solitary cavity nesting bees that use wood or plant cavities above ground, versus those that nest underground by mining into the soil. Specifically she looked to answer these three questions: What cavity nesting species are present in the greater Portland, Oregon area? What cavity nesting widths do species use? And what nesting heights do species use?

“To effectively conserve bee communities, we first need to know what species are here and how and where they nest and what they need to survive,” Steele explains. “Most bees are collecting materials to bring into the nest, like mud, petals, pebbles, and plant materials, therefore we need to learn what to provide. Nesting research data will help residents of greater Portland know how best to provide habitat for cavity nesting bees.”

She recently completed her Master’s in Science at Portland State University and shared results of her research. The study placed nests at 0.5 meter, 1.5 meters, and 2.3 meters above the ground. Overall she found that cavity nesting bees used all three of these nest heights, but did not have a preference for height. Therefore, cavity nests should be made available at varying heights, similar to naturally occurring cavity nests in logs, stumps, snags, or stems. Of the cavity widths that were tested – 3, 5, 6, 8 & 10 millimeters – all sizes were used. The 3 mm and 5 mm wide cavities were used most by a variety of bee and wasp species. (Read the full thesis to find detailed methods, results, and many more incredible photos!)

two pinned bee specimen against pink background

Leafcutter bee (Megachile angelarum) (left: female, right: male) were the most abundant occupants in Steele’s nest blocks.

cross section of block of wood with channels holding bee nests

Megachile angelarum nests in 5 mm wide cavities. These cavity nesting bees primarily used plant resin to build the cells of their nests.

Here are a few tips for creating bee habitat where you live:

Blue orchard mason bees are one of Portland’s many mason bees or Osmia species. Blue orchard mason bees are only active in the spring and will use a range of a cavity sizes, including 5, 6, and 8 mm width holes (diameters), and they are opportunistic. Steele even found some nesting in her wind chimes! Despite what many people think, it’s not necessary to bring cocoons or nests inside for winter. However, with a new invasive cleptoparasitoid fly, the Houdini fly, found in the Pacific Northwest, mason bee nests should be checked for these flies. See the Washington State Department of Agriculture page for more information on how to recognize these flies and actions you can take.

Other cavity nesting bee species like many of the leaf-cutter, wool carder, resin, and cellophane bees often are smaller bodied than the blue orchard mason bee. They are primarily active during the summer months, so it is important to provide cavity nesting sites in a range of sizes and offer a variety of different kinds of flowers throughout the summer season for these bees.

Tip: Providing ample nesting opportunities in various places can allow cavity nesting bees to spread out and be less impacted by parasitoids and predators that might devastate a single nest site. If you are building a nest box, use thicker wood on the sides to prevent wood from warping from moisture. Trapped or increased moisture in wood, or in plastic tubes, can lead to mold and will be less attractive to bees.

Cavity nesting wasps should be welcome residents in your garden! These wasps hunt insects (aphids, caterpillars, crickets) and spiders to feed their young. Gardeners often consider these insects pests, so the biocontrol service provided by these wasps can be very beneficial. Solitary cavity nesting wasps used all five cavity sizes, but used 3 mm cavity widths the most.

Small carpenter bees will chew tunnels in pithy plant stems like asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), raspberry (Rubus spp.), and elderberry (Sambucus spp.), for example.  Cut stems at the end of winter to at least 6-8” tall and leave them standing through at least the following spring and summer. New plant growth will grow around the cut stems and eventually the cut stems will decompose on their Learn more about creating habitat for stem-nesting bees.

Mining bees and sweat bees are some of Portland’s most abundant ground nesting bees. Many require bare ground to nest, but some will also nest in grass or mix vegetation lawns. Bare soil is an important resource for these bees, as well as cavity nesting bees who use mud to build their nest cells.

Bumblebees will often use pre-existing holes in the ground, such as abandoned rodent burrows, and others will nest in pre-existing cavities above ground, such as in a tree or even an unoccupied bird house.

Want to drill holes in a snag or downed log? Use these size drill bits to replicate the diameters that Steele studied, and make a hole about 6 to 8 inches deep: 3mm = 1/8”; 5mm = 3/16”; 6mm = 1/4”; 8mm = 5/16”; 10mm = 3/8”

Embrace a “messy” natural garden year-round! Leave the leaves, sticks, and logs on the ground. Leave cut stems sticking up and allow new stems to grow in a “winterscaped” landscape. Clear a few small areas to expose bare ground. Consider replacing lawn with native plants. Perfectly manicured lawns are not good habitat. Natural areas and features allow for many more opportunities for bees to find just the right spot to make a nest.

Meet our 2021 Field Conservation Interns!

Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, Martina Avendano moved to the Portland metro area at the age of four and has greatly enjoyed growing up in Oregon. She graduated from Warner Pacific University where she studied biology and developed her love for field work. While at Warner Pacific, she worked as an undergraduate field assistant helping to track the nesting success of American kestrels at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. She also interned with the Johnson Creek Watershed Council and worked as a field technician at the Phillip W Schneider Wildlife Area in eastern Oregon. Martina enjoys going on bike rides, practicing her bird identification, and baking delicious goodies. She is excited to be working with WMSWCD this year to remove garlic mustard across the district, develop her skills in environmental stewardship and learn many new things along the way.

Isa Rojas is an energetic and creative person with a passion for the environment. Isa’s love of the natural world stems from her time spent as a child living in New England. After studying Natural Resource Management and GIS at the University of Vermont. Isa wanted to live in a space the echoed her core values of environmental activism and community development. After moving to Portland Isa became active in many nonprofits such as Bark, and Latino Network. Isa enjoys hikes in the high desert, foraging, and exploring Portland’s many coffee shops.

Be ready to evacuate during wildfire

By Michael Ahr, Forest Conservationist, West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District

Many of the woodland owners in the Tualatin Mountains have deep roots in Oregon. We’re sure many of you have close family and friends who have been greatly impacted by our recent wildfires. It’s warmed our hearts to hear stories of people on the hill taking in friends as well as livestock owned by loved ones – another example of the strong connections and community spirit in the Tualatin Mountains.

Reports are suggesting that this will be the deadliest wildfire season in Oregon’s history. The stories we’re reading are heartbreaking.  The West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District is known for recommending actions that reduce wildfire risk, but rather than stressing those actions at this time, we prefer to encourage all of our Skyline Neighbors and nearby woodland owners to focus on human safety and prioritize their evacuation planning before they worry about land management this fall and winter. Have emergency kits ready and your “go bags” packed. These will help in wildfire evacuation as well as earthquake preparedness. Make sure you know every possible way to leave your property for a safer place. The Skyline Ridge Neighborhood Emergency Team (SR NET) has been helping people prepare for disasters like this for years. Get information from this NET at https://www.srnpdx.org/be-prepared.html.

As we recover from these fires, we’ll hear stories of homes being saved by the actions people took to reduce fuels in their forest or trim trees around their house. However, we’ll also hear many stories where people took these protective actions and still lost everything, including human life. It’s natural to ask questions like, “Why were these fires so damaging?” or “Why did they overwhelm fuels reduction projects?” There are many reasons for this, many of which land managers and scientists will be learning more about as these fires are further examined. Below are just a few thoughts for now…

  • Much of the fire risk reduction that we do on forest land is related to mitigating risk from surface fires. These are the fires that burn sticks, shrubs, and other plant material lying on the ground. These fires might cause property damage, but can also help rejuvenate the ecosystem and offer benefits to many species of plants and wildlife. We thin forests to create wider tree spacing and pile slash in an effort to make sure that surface fires will burn with lower intensity and not significantly damage living trees.
  • When a fire climbs a tree and starts burning the upper branches in the canopy, it will spread quickly. As these fires spread, we call them crown fires. The fires in September were crown fires which can be very damaging and unpredictable.
  • One factor that leads to a surface fire becoming a crown fire is wind, and winds continue to cause problems after reaching the crown. As trees burn, strong winds can carry burning embers up to one mile away. This means that embers can literally fly over all the good forest management that you’ve done, land on your deck, and start a fire. Note that burning embers and strong winds were a major reason why the Beachie Creek, Riverside, and Holiday Farm fires grew in size so quickly. This is also why we hear frightening stories from those who evacuated of new fires starting all around them as they were driving to safety.
  • During intense fires, some of the actions you’ve taken at your house might be more important than the actions on your woodland. Cleaning gutters, sweeping your deck, and several other tasks are very important. See a great list of recommendations here.

To stay safe during wildfire, the actions you take on your woodland and around your home are important. If a backyard campfire or overheated car starts a fire near your home, these measures can help offer great protection. But keep in mind that catastrophic fires are known to occur in western Oregon, and have occurred for centuries, which means that you should be prepared to evacuate. Sometimes nothing you do in preparation or to combat an active fire are enough to keep you and your family safe. Please consult the resources provided in links above to craft an evacuation plan and pack emergency items. Stay safe!

A community approach to native bee research in Portland

If you were to guess how many species of native bees there are in Portland, how many would that be? And where do these bees prefer to nest? Local emerging entomologist, Stefanie Steele, a Master’s student at Portland State University (PSU) studying native bees in the Portland area, is working to answer those questions.

At the garden at Green Anchors in North Portland, one of her research sites, Steele slowly makes her way among the abundant flowering plants, inspecting them for tiny buzzing pollinators. A quick flick of her insect net captures a long horned bee (which turns out to be Melissodes sp., an Asteraceae plant specialist) that she carefully navigates into a clear plastic vial for safe transport back to the lab for identification.

magnified view of bee head and mandible

The 5-dentate (“tooth”) mandible is visible on this Megachilidae bee. The number of teeth and shape of the mandible is a key feature for identifying this species, as the number of teeth can vary depending on the genus and species.

“It’s very hard to identify them in the field,” says Steele. “You need a microscope to look at very small morphological features such as the venation on their wings – maybe they have two or three submarginal cells, or if specific veins are curved or arched. Or other very small details, like the size and density of the punctures on their integument (the “skin” on the abdomen) or counting the number of teeth on the mandible.”

It all started with honeybees

Steele’s interest in bees began at a young age when she was part of her school’s bee club which kept several honeybee hives on the school roof. “Have you ever been inside a honeybee hive?” asks Steele. “I recommend it to everyone. It’s a full immersive experience, seeing all the bees walking around, seeing how they’re communicating with each other, even the smell of it and the sound of them. It’s a really, really cool experience. And they work together cooperatively so well. Their whole social system is really amazing and intriguing to see. That’s what got me hooked.”

Steele moved to Portland to try out a different location after two years at the University of Cincinnati. Like many others, she was drawn to all the different natural environments in Oregon. She went back to school at PSU to finish her bachelors in biology and during that time was inspired to start the Bee Task Force (scroll down on page linked here to find the Bee Task Force) with help from other students and faculty. The Task Force was focused on maintaining honeybee hives and creating pollinator habitat for the honeybees and for native bees in that area. It was through this work that Steele met Susan Masta, PSU Associate Professor and head of the Masta Lab where Steele’s graduate work is now based, and where her research expanded to native bees.

Portland bee survey

Bee collection and identification are key components of a 3-year survey of bees in urban Portland that Steele developed as an undergraduate with Masta. Before this project, no one else in the Portland area had published a survey to determine what native bee species reside in our area, as bees on the west coast are far understudied. They are looking to discover what bees are found here, when they are active, and also what their floral and other plant associations are – which plants and flowers they use for nectar, pollen, nesting materials, or nesting sites.

Through the Portland bee survey, Steele, Masta and team have so far found over 100 species of bees in urban Portland. The survey team is still working to identify the species they collected, and as they learn more, they expect those numbers to increase. The next step will be to publish the results of the first three years of the survey. Future research may depend on available funding and staffing to collect and identify new specimens.

2 side-by-side photos of capturing a bee in a small plastic vial

Steele collects an Melissodes sp. for identification.

One challenge that Steele and colleagues face with identification is the lack of a comprehensive species list to reference for Oregon. “There is still so much to be learned about the bees of Oregon,” Steele explains. “We’re still working on identification in general within the U.S., but the east coast overall is well studied. The west coast is far less studied, so a lot of the morphological cues that we’re using to identify the bees comes from the east. There is some overlap within species, but they aren’t all entirely the same.”

Steele is helping to grow that state-wide knowledge. Some of the species she has collected will be housed within the invertebrate collection at the Portland State Museum of Natural History where they can be used for education, research, or historical state records.

Native bee nesting research

two people standing in a garden next to tall wooden post

Masta Lab volunteers Dan Mullen and Erica Rudolph setting up a post with nest blocks at the PSU Community Orchard.

Steele’s graduate work with Susan Masta grew out of the Portland bee survey. Steele is focused on investigating the nesting height and diameter preferences of solitary cavity nesting bees. Her research is sited at 14 locations around the city including Green Anchors, the PSU campus and community orchard, and friends’ and colleagues’ homes that have gardens designed to attract pollinators. She erected posts with 54 wood nesting boxes set at 3 different heights, each with trays that had 31 cavities of varying diameters ranging from 3 to 10 millimeters.

Volunteers helped monitor the boxes throughout the nesting season, recording which of the cavities contained nesting material, adult bees, or wasps that also nest in cavities. Once nesting activities were complete, Steele collected the boxes for incubation in the lab. Overall, her nests had good occupancy rates—about 28% and successful incubation reared fifteen species of bees. She did see some loss of specimens due to mold that may have developed because of weather at the end of the nesting season or was introduced by the female bee. “The adult bee may inadvertently collect pollen that has mold spores on it,” Steele explains. “As she moves throughout the cavity, building separate cells for each egg, she can distribute those mold spores throughout the entire nest.”

During incubation, Steele also saw some parasitism, which can be a sign of a healthy ecosystem. In some of her nest trays, tiny wasps (likely Melittobia) or the bee fly mimic (Anthrax) had infiltrated the nesting cells while still in the field and laid their eggs on top of the bee eggs. The larvae of these parasitoid insects feed on the larva of a host bee or wasp, eventually killing it. In one case, an undergraduate assistant counted 80 of the 1-millimeter wasps parasitizing one bee larva. Steele comments, “Just imagine all of these wasps completing their development and then moving on to the next developing bees. Crazy.”

2 side-by-side photos of tiny wasps. Larva on left adults on rightva

(Left) Parasitoid wasp larvae feeding on Megachile angelarum (bee) larva; (Right) Adult parasitoid wasps

Awaiting results

Aside from these losses, Steele’s research, timeline, and goals stayed on the course she had set initially. She is currently analyzing the massive amount of field data she and her volunteers collected. One early takeaway that the research confirmed is the importance of available cavity nesting habitat. Bees only get a short window as an adult to find suitable nesting sites to create the next generation of bees. “Most of a bee’s life is spent in diapause when they’re essentially inactive and at a more vulnerable state as a larva – about ten or eleven months out of the year,” Steele says. “And then for four to six to eight weeks, they’re active flying adults.”

Yard features that are sometimes considered unattractive, like dead leaves and logs on the ground, dead tree limbs, or even entire snags – standing dead trees – actually provide important bee habitat. “Beetle larvae will excavate tunnels in downed logs or standing dead trees, and when the beetles are gone a bee will find that unoccupied cavity, and that is prime habitat,” explains Steele. Deadheaded hollow or pithy stemmed plants are also great habitat. “Some bees, like small carpenter bees in the genus Ceratina, will chew out the pithy stemmed plants and then nest inside,” she says.

“About 70 percent of bee species nest in the ground,” says Steele, “but 30 percent nest in cavities, and with all that perpetual yard tidying, nesting habitat is severely limited. So, you could change your habits, but you could also provide artificial nesting structures.”

For gardeners looking to provide nesting structures, offering a variety of cavity hole sizes is important, especially smaller holes. In Steele’s study, the 3 and 5 millimeter diameter holes were used most. “The female bee wants to ensure a tight fit to reduce moisture and parasitism and still allow space she needs to lay eggs and fertilize some of them,” says Steele. She found that a greater number of smaller rather than larger bodied bees occupied the nests she put out. “Osmia lignaria is the mason bee that a lot of people are familiar with. They are a little bit smaller than a honeybee. I found them nesting in the five millimeter size, six millimeter size, and the eight millimeter size cavities. So if you provide a diversity of sizes, then greater numbers of bees would be able to utilize those spaces.”

Placement of cavities is also important to consider. Facing holes southeast is ideal to catch some heat from the morning sun, and prevent overheating as south-facing holes may experience. Boxes should be sheltered and angled slightly downward to prevent rain from getting inside. Steele also recommends providing a selection of plants and flowers that will bloom throughout the growing season. “There’s less floral nectar available at the end of summer season into fall, so providing more forage for them throughout the entire season is very important,” she says. (See our Pollinator Plants & Bloom Periods chart for guidance.)

Communities in science and nature

Steele’s own community plays an important role in her research. The Oregon Bee Atlas designed and donated 30 of the 54 nest boxes, and are also leading a state wide survey effort of the bees of Oregon. Steele also found help from woodworkers at Green Anchors with the proper tools to build the remaining boxes. Her volunteer monitors were also essential for helping collect data.

The greater scientific community however, has presented a challenge for Steele. She is often one of the only BIPOC at a workshop or conference in her field, and she finds it discouraging and uncomfortable at times. However, she feels fortunate for the colleagues, mentors, and advisors in her life that encourage and elevate her. She also finds joy in engaging young people in the fascinating world of bees, and showing them that she too is what an entomologist looks like, a woman of color. Steele looks forward to connecting with more BIPOC in her field and related fields.

Steele also hopes her research will help inform gardeners and others looking to support our local native bee populations with information on suitable habitat and how to make outdoor spaces more attractive to cavity nesting bees.

For more information and project updates contact Stefanie Steele, steelestk@gmail.com.

For information on pollinator research completed by West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, see our Pollinator Monitoring Community Science Program page

Monitoring Understory Seeding Project Plots

By Hannah Spencer, West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, Field Conservationist Intern

One of the first projects I worked on as a new intern with West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District (WMSWCD) was the Understory Seeding Project headed by staff conservationists Laura Taylor and Michael Ahr, and I was absolutely ecstatic at the opportunity to be involved. Officially part of the District’s Forest Understory Vegetation Enhancement Project, this project was funded through a federal Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grant, and was undertaken to figure out how to increase native groundcover using native seed mixes, especially on sites that had once been overrun by invasive species. Several properties had been selected as study sites in 2018, and this spring I went with Laura to check on their progress.

The first site we visited was a narrow forested patch between two homes. The understory was fairly clear and open, with some large shrubs and a thick layer of leaves on the ground. The site had recently been cleared of ivy and vinca, leaving a blank slate on the forest floor for the native seeding study. When we arrived, I saw that this site was already showing signs of success. In the first plot was a circle of bright, new green with a neon pink flag in the center to mark it as one of our study plots. In all, there were six plots at this site: two were seeded with a native seed mix; two were raked first, then seeded with natives; and two were raked but not seeded, as control plots. Not all of the plots at this site were covered in bright green baby plants, like the first one. For example, it looked to me like the plots that had been raked first, then seeded with natives, were more densely peppered with seedlings than plots that had not been raked first. However, we were here to do more than just visually evaluate the greenness of the various plots. This was science! We had data sheets that needed filling.

Before I could really be useful collecting data, I needed to learn to identify the plants we were observing. I was already comfortable identifying a lot of the native plants found in the Pacific Northwest, but I discovered that seedlings can look vastly different than adult plants; some of the seedlings were so tiny, they could have fit on the head of a nail! It’s difficult to tell them apart when they are that small. Luckily for me, Laura is an incredible botanist and a wonderful teacher, and I soon learned to pick up on details like the hairs on a tiny stem, or a notch in the tip of a leaf. As we started to count the plants in each plot and record them on our data sheets, I began to feel more confident. There is something so joyful to me about identifying plants, like the feeling of meeting a new person you can just tell you’re going to like.

Over the course of a few weeks, we monitored all eight sites. Some were mostly bare, with islands of seedlings, like the first site. Other plots were covered in grasses, and we had to hunt for our neon pink markers. In some cases, our markers had been eaten by elk, and we had to find the plots using photos from previous years!  Once we found the plots, we surveyed them for plant diversity and density, paying closest attention to species that were present in the seed mix we had used. We also noted if other plants, such as ivy or vinca, or natives not present in the seed mix, were present in the plots. Once we had collected data from all eight sites, we were able to look at trends across the whole project.

The data showed that my impression at the first site was correct: raked plots typically had more plants on them then plots that hadn’t been raked. This is probably because raking away debris before planting helps seeds get better access to soil, making it easier to establish than if they had to contend with dead leaves and branches. This means that if a landowner wanted to maximize coverage in their seeded areas, giving the ground a thorough rake before seeding might be worth their while.

The downside to this is that raking an entire forest would be extremely labor intensive, not to mention extremely disruptive to plants, animals, and soil. The best way to use raking is to choose small patches scattered throughout the understory, and rake and seed those. But what about those unraked parts of the forest (which will be the majority of the forest)? Can property owners do anything to improve the understory that has to be left unraked? Well, another trend we found was that plots which were not raked but were seeded still had a higher density of native plants than the control plots. As a bonus, they also had a lower density of exotic plants than either the control plots or the raked/seeded plots. This means that simply seeding their land without raking can be significantly beneficial to a landowner’s understory. This method won’t provide the same diversity or density that raking first would, but it will still help promote native plant populations. A landowner could even use a combination of raking small plots and seeding the rest of the understory to maximize native understory plant coverage

person holding an inside-out flower

Inside-out flower in seed (Vancouveria hexandra)

Another interesting result was the discovery of which species performed best in our plots. The seed mix used on the plots contained 17 different species, but some species didn’t perform well—or at all. For example, we did not see a single penstemon in any plot. (Such an underachiever.) Native understory seed mix is currently pretty hard to find, and expensive when you do come across it, so it’s important to know that your money is being spent on seeds that will perform well. According to our plots, the best investments seem to be: inside-out flower, small-flowered nemophila, miner’s lettuce, western fescue, pathfinder, sweet-cicely, Columbia brome, and blue wild-rye. Even though these species may be difficult to find as seed in stores, WMSWCD recommends that landowners who have these plants present on their properties can try collecting their seed and spreading it to bare areas of their properties. Just be very careful not to collect seeds from a plant you aren’t sure about—you don’t want to accidentally collect and spread an invasive species!

WMSWCD will be publishing a formal, detailed report on their findings later this year, so the entire community will have access to the information gleaned over the course of this study. And landowners can expect understory seeding to be included in more of the projects they undertake with WMSWCD. As WMSWCD shifts to exploring understory seeding in practice, other partners will continue exploring experimentally, such as Erin McElroy, a graduate student with Portland State University’s Department of Environmental Science and Management. Erin has been monitoring plots of her own using a similar protocol to the one WMSWCD used, but she has been including even more variables, such as the presence of worms, the soil profile, and aspect at her sites. Her research will help fine-tune the ways in which land managers can make their understories as successful as possible. She is also contacting local nurseries to talk with them about their interest in producing and selling native understory seeds, so she could have a direct hand in making seed more accessible in the Portland area. I feel so lucky to have been able to contribute to this project, and I’m excited to see how Erin, the WMSWCD staff, and the rest of the Understory Seeding Project partners continue to explore this topic.

You can create reptile habitat in your small forest

Photo by Pat Welle, Western painted turtle

Article by Michael Ahr, Forest Conservationist, West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District

Woodland owners are increasingly being encouraged to build brush piles for wildlife. At West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, we often discuss their importance for an array of wildlife. Mammals can live in the piles. Songbirds feed on insects and other organisms in brush piles. Amphibians will seek shelter under the brush and you’ll also find them being used by reptiles…the class of wildlife that we often don’t talk about nearly as often in our forested uplands.

Perhaps we have some bias. Frogs and salamanders (which are amphibians) have a certain charisma and even a level of cuteness. Reptiles like snakes and lizards don’t conjure that feeling for many of us, and might even startle us in the woods. Reptiles, however, are an important part of the woodland ecosystem. They eat many of the rodents that crawl through our woodlands and end up being prey to raptors and larger mammals.

In the Tualatin Mountains, our common snakes include various garter snake species, rubber boas, and ringneck snakes. We have alligator lizards and skinks, and if you have enough sun around a pond on your property, you may find western painted turtles.

To encourage these species on your property:

  • Build brush piles with the slash from the trees you cut. Start with larger piece on the bottom of the pile and work your way up to finer branches, and even conifer branches that still have needles, near the top to create a roof.
  • Maintain downed wood and snags. We often hear about snags relative to songbirds, but reptiles may use them too.
  • Minimize disturbance around any known hibernation sites.
  • If you have a pond, provide basking structures for turtles.
  • We don’t have much exposed rock in the Tualatin Mountains, but if you do have some, you can try to expose it so the sun warms it more for reptile basking in the summer.

For more information, view the newest publication “Reptiles in Managed Woodlands” by the Woodland Fish & Wildlife Group. To find many other wildlife publications for family woodland owners, visit woodlandfishandwildlife.com

Sturgeon Lake Restoration Project update, June 2020

By Scott Gall, Rural Conservationist

It has been over a year since the completion of construction on the Sturgeon Lake Restoration Project. After a decade of partnership building, planning, fundraising, and engineering, and just over four months of construction over the summer and fall of 2018, led by Columbia River Estuary Study Task Force (CREST), the Dairy Creek channel reopened to tidal flow between the Columbia River and Sturgeon Lake on Sauvie Island in fall of 2018.

What started with a few shovelfuls of sand, resulted in the replacement of two failing culverts with a 96-foot channel-spanning bridge, restoration of a half mile of channel by removing 22,000 cubic yards of sand and sediment, installation of a debris boom at the mouth of the creek to prevent logs and other large objects from floating into the creek, and planting of over 40,000 native plants and shrubs across 15 projects sites that encompass the restoration project.

As the second full winter winds down, the complete effects of the tidal flow from the Columbia River on Dairy Creek and Sturgeon Lake are just starting to become evident. With the reopening of Dairy Creek, after 30 years of being blocked from tidal flow, the tide has once again become an influence on the channel and the lake, changing the flow direction of the creek on a daily basis during low Columbia River levels. Both of these conditions have had an obvious impact on the elevation and shape of the Dairy Creek channel.

Data on channel elevation – the elevation of the channel bottom relative to sea level – collected in 2017, 2018, and 2019 have shown that while the excavated channel has changed from the design configuration, it is simply moving towards an equilibrium. For the most part the average elevations and widths of the bottom of the channel have stayed relatively consistent. Meanwhile, along the stretch of creek between the bridge and the lake, a section not touched during construction, sediment has moved out, lowering the creek bottom 6 to 12 inches in most spots. This new, lower elevation is roughly the same as the excavated channel which would be expected in a tidal system that flows both directions.

Observation of changes within Sturgeon Lake have been harder to come by. The 3000 acres lake has few roads that reach the shoreline. This is a great feature for wildlife and quiet recreation but it makes monitoring the lake much more difficult. West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District and CREST are employing aerial drones to cover larger areas than would be possible by foot. But each drone flight only covers about 50 acres, so even these are just snapshots. Initial data has been relatively inconclusive, showing neither an increase nor decrease in sediment in the areas monitored. Our hope is to see a flushing out of lake sediment over time. We intend to take drone photos every year to see the incremental change over time, and our next flights are scheduled for this fall.

Work on vegetation restoration began a year before channel construction, and in these past three years, we have successfully helped reestablish 40,000 native plants throughout the 15 project areas, including Alder, maple, willow, snowberry, red-flowering currant and many other native trees and shrubs. With this focus on restoring native plants, grasses, and forbs, we are now seeing native plants covering 80-90% of the ground in most places along Dairy Creek. As a result, there is more evidence than ever of wildlife utilizing the site. Prominent wildlife trails have popped up all along Dairy Creek with evidence of tracks from otter, beaver, deer, skunk, and raccoon. Additionally this spring, a platform installed at the mouth of Dairy Creek is now home to its first pair of nesting osprey.

Next steps include installation of a fish monitoring device known as a Passive Integrated Transponder, or “PIT” tag array at the site of the new bridge, though this has been slowed in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supplied $40,000 for equipment, and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife staff intend to install it this summer, hooking into a power supply we recently installed. Our goal is to have the array up and running by this winter.

At this time, all signs and data point to a very successful project. Staff at WMSWCD and CREST will continue to monitor Dairy Creek and Sturgeon Lake for years to come, and the lake appears to have a bright future.

view of a creek from a kayak

Facing the mouth of Dairy Creek and the Columbia River

Update on restoration of Lower McCarthy Creek wetland and oak habitat

By Kammy Kern-Korot, Senior Conservationist

McCarthy Creek flows from NW Skyline Boulevard to Multnomah Channel across from Sauvie Island. This creek is unique to the area in that it is considered essential salmonid habitat, especially for coho and Chinook salmon. At the bottom of the watershed is 121 acres of privately owned land – most of which is wetlands and within the 100-year floodplain – protected by a conservation easement. West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District (WMSWCD) manages the land on behalf of the landowner and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), the federal easement holder. We continue to actively restore native wetland and oak habitat on this site.

This project site is important because it hosts an array of wildlife species and because it is large and adjacent to an even more significant wetland complex, called Burlington Bottoms. A primary ecological goal for both properties shared by the owning and managing partners is to return more natural flooding to portions of the site(s) and, in so doing, create additional aquatic habitat and displace the incredibly dominant and invasive reed canary grass with native wetland vegetation. Species that benefit from this restoration include fish, salamanders, frogs, beavers, waterfowl, herons, bald eagles, turtles, songbirds and insects. WMSWCD’s objectives also include restoring native vegetation along the creek, as well as the upland areas that don’t flood, to a diversity of native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees, most notably Oregon white oak.

The District secured funding in 2015 from NRCS to improve approximately 5 acres of riparian (streamside) area and 3 acres of uplands. Since then, we’ve been treating invasive blackberry and reed canary grass, Canada thistle, and other weeds to restore riparian areas and create Oregon white oak savanna and native plant “hedgerows” for pollinators and other wildlife. We took 2 years (2017 – early 2019) to plant 12,000 woody and herbaceous wetland plants along the creek and followed with upland plantings. We did this with the help of paid crews and area native plant nurseries. The total NRCS project is valued at $123,000, which includes $100,000 of NRCS funds and contributed District staff time.

2 people in a field planting tree saplings

Photo by Pat Welle: Crews planting alder saplings and willow and dogwood cuttings.

We had the good fortune to find additional partners and funding that allowed us to embark on a new phase of restoration, which was begun in 2017 and completed in February 2020. In this project phase, we removed two culverts that were no longer needed, one of which impeded fish movement; added habitat features such as basking logs for turtles and structures to encourage and mimic beaver dams; and performed 4.8 acres of “marsh plain lowering” which greatly enhances wetland habitat. Invasive reed canary grass and more than 15,000 cubic yards of soil were scraped away to lower the surface elevation 2 to 3 feet in key wetland areas and to make the streambanks less steep. The areas lowered will now be inundated with more water and for longer periods than before, which provides better access and habitat for juvenile salmon and facilitates establishment of native wetland plants such as wapato, bulrush and bur-reed. The excavated soils were redistributed to cover invasive grass and replanted with native plants in both adjacent wetlands and the uplands.

wetland creek with vertical sticks in water to mimic a beaver dam

Photo by Pat Welle: A newly installed beaver dam analog, which is designed to saturate the site with more water and encourage beavers to create and maintain natural beaver dams, outcomes which better support native plant communities and make for healthier wetlands.

For this latest stage of restoration, we planted more than 8,000 new native trees, shrubs, and forbs (wildflowers), including over 30 species of forbs. We also seeded 100+ pounds of over 20 different species of native grasses and forbs in almost all areas of disturbed soil, both wetland and upland. Finally, we planted more sedges and rushes near the creek, to supplement earlier plantings there. More than $250,000 was invested in planting, maintenance, and wetland enhancement by Bonneville Power Administration via our partner Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce, which facilitated the engineering and construction work.

The restoration work described here expands upon and connects to other restoration projects upstream, which are part of our Healthy Streams Program that aims to improve water quality and restore habitat along more of McCarthy Creek. The restored riparian forest keeps the water cool for fish, provides a corridor and connectivity for wildlife to move uphill where air temperatures are cooler and where habitat is available, and it helps keep the climate cool for us humans, too!

After 10 years of District involvement, the landowner, our staff and board, and all of the project partners are thrilled with the progress we are seeing on the property. Native plant communities are getting established where we’ve done weed control, enhanced the water levels, and added new native plantings. While monitoring project progress on-site this spring, we observed beautiful blooms on the lupines and heal-all (prunella vulgaris), and strong presence of meadow barley and American sloughgrass, among the many species we seeded. We’re even seeing additional native plants, such as sneezeweed, beggar’s tick and native buttercups, already returning and expanding on their own. We look forward to more good things to come!

Visit our YouTube channel to see what the site looks like and to learn more about this project in a video featuring Senior Conservationist, Kammy Kern-Korot.

A few of the plants and flowers now growing on the restoration site:
4 photos in a grid: 2 purple flowers, 1 yellow flower, creek with green plants

My First Garlic Mustard Season (during quarantine)

By Cole Carr, GIS & Field Conservation Intern 

A global pandemic hits, putting the world in quarantine. The streets of Portland are at a standstill, minus the occasional bicyclist. What does that mean for a soon-to-be college graduate? Three months of doom, doing homework, staring longingly out the window?

There’s no time for that, not with all of the Garlic mustard that has spread around Multnomah County.

The internship I had just started with the West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District (WMSWCD) had saved me from the COVID-19 lockdown. After getting used to Zoom-based meetings and trainings, it was time for me to head out into the field for essential work of helping manage Garlic mustard, as part of WMSWCD’s Early Detection Rapid Response (EDRR) program.

Wait…outside? During quarantine? Sounds good to me! Now, what’s Garlic mustard?

Admittedly, as a geographic information system (GIS) intern, who knows way more about orthorectifying aerial imagery and geospatial analysis than plant identification, I was a little overwhelmed at first. But, after seeing the plant in person, and writing an essay for my biogeography class, I began to understand Garlic mustard quite well, and developed a keen eye for it.

Garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, is an invasive plant that is found all over North America, including Oregon. Like other invasive species, Garlic mustard negatively impacts the health of forests and water resources. It dominates shaded woodland areas, reducing the ability for native plants to thrive while also decreasing biodiversity and impacting available food supplies for native foraging animals.

I was able to learn about Garlic mustard and all of its phenological stages. My first day out in the field, I was taught how to spot Garlic mustard seedlings and rosettes.

Wait… that’s Garlic mustard? How would I be able to spot it when it looks so much like other small plants?

After even a few days in the field, I began to get the hang of it. The particular leaf pattern, heart/kidney shapes, the lack of leaflets, the purple tint by the roots, the special garlicky smell… Seedlings and rosettes quickly became more familiar and easier to find and remove.

Spotting Garlic mustard got even easier once the plants started flowering. Garlic mustard is biennial, meaning that the plants don’t seed until the second year. The second year, flowering plants are tall with easy to recognize white flowers with four petals. They would show up sometimes in large patches,  and this was the key time to remove the plants, before they set seed. The plant’s tiny pepper flake sized seeds can lie dormant in the soil for up to 10 years, leading to greater infestations.

I am so grateful for all of the time outside this spring, even during the spell of very warm weather. I’m grateful for the opportunity to foster friendships with my co-workers and also to be friendly with the district residents that we served this season. I feel like there is a world out there beyond my bedroom window, and I’m grateful to have had the chance to be out and part of it, of course, while also practicing safe distancing and other precautions during the time of COVID-19. I’ve gotten to hike, to exercise, to meditate, to laugh and joke with others, to drive through beautiful landscapes, and to make a difference by removing some of the most invasive plants in the region.

The EDRR program has done amazing work to remove Garlic mustard within the district. To date this season, we have removed 1820 pounds of Garlic mustard across 10 acres! To be able to participate in the program has been a wonderful privilege that I will never forget. It has given this stressful, difficult time in quarantine purpose and inspiration. A special thanks to West Multnomah SWCD for allowing me an opportunity to be their GIS intern, to the wonderful staff for being my friends and “partners in crime”, and to the residents that have made this work possible! Stay safe out there!