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Birds and the Burn: Effects of the Almeda fire

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Frank Lospalluto
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Mourning doves

No one in the Rogue Valley will forget September 8, 2020, when the Almeda Fire roared north from the edge of Ashland through Talent and Phoenix to the edge of Medford. Thousands of homes were destroyed in a matter of hours, and only the courageous efforts of our firefighters stopped the march of the wind-driven flames and prevented catastrophic loss of life.

The main corridor of the fire’s spread was along Bear Creek, and large areas of the riparian (river and creek-side) forest shading the creek and the Bear Creek Greenway burned. Dominated by large cottonwood and Oregon ash trees, this was the largest remnant of hardwood forest left in the valley south of the Rogue River. There was a dense undergrowth of non-native Himalayan blackberry along the creek, which provided fuel for the fast-moving fire. The intense flames consumed the undergrowth and killed many large trees, but left most of the trees standing as the wind pushed the fire north.

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Pepper Trail
The view from the Bear Creek bridge between Talent and Ashland in December 2020. Straw placed to prevent erosion covers the bank of the creek. Almost all undergrowth was lost in this severely burned area.

Riparian areas occupy a relatively small amount of land in Oregon, but harbor a disproportionally high number of plants and animals. They often are heavily impacted by human activity because they tend to be places where people build communities and farms. This makes what remains of our intact riparian habitat especially important to wildlife.

The Bear Creek forest provided many “natural services” for the wildlife and people of the Rogue Valley. The tall trees shaded and cooled the creek, improving conditions for the salmon and steelhead that spawn and rear there. The forest was the favored habitat for many bird species, including colorful Neotropical migrants that brighten our summers, like Bullock’s Orioles and Yellow Warblers.

How will bird populations along the Greenway respond to the fire and the restoration efforts?
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Frank Lospalluto
A Great Egret preens under smoky skies, Bear Creek Greenway, August 2021.

The dense undergrowth—yes, even the non-native blackberries—provided important nesting habitat for birds like Spotted Towhees, Wrentits, and Yellow-breasted Chats, and shelter for Golden-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and other winter birds. And the Greenway path was a beloved walking and bicycling route connecting the towns of Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Medford, and Central Point.

In the aftermath of the Almeda Fire, the valley responded with tremendous energy and determination. A year on, rebuilding is well under way, and “Talent Strong” and “Phoenix Rising” are proud mottos of those resilient towns. A huge amount of work has also been done to protect the fire-damaged Greenway and begin the long process of restoration. This has included deploying straw “wattles” and sowing fast-growing grasses for erosion control, clearing burned and unburned areas of non-native blackberries, and planting thousands of native trees and shrubs.
This work was done by a diverse array of organizations, including Jackson County Parks, Rogue Valley Council of Governments (RVCOG), Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Inter-Tribal Ecosystem Restoration Partnership, the Rogue River Watershed Council, Lomakatsi, and many others.

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CREDIT: Frank Lospalluto
A Song Sparrow peers from a willow thicket along Bear Creek.

More problematically, an aggressive campaign of snag removal was also carried out. While this was a necessary safety measure adjacent to the Greenway path and nearby roads, many snags were cut that posed no apparent threat, even including large “granary” trees used for acorn storage by Acorn Woodpeckers.
Burned snags may look unsightly to some, but they provide crucial nesting habitat for cavity-nesting birds and bats, as well as rich foraging sites for woodpeckers and other birds. Wherever possible, they should be left standing for their many wildlife benefits.

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Frank Lospalluto
The Almeda fire scorched several big ponderosa pines used as granary trees by groups of Acorn Woodpeckers. Unfortunately, this one in Ashland was needlessly cut down.

How will bird populations along the Greenway respond to the fire and the restoration efforts? To study this important question, a group of local scientists and birders came together in the fall of 2020 and developed the Bear Creek Community Bird Survey (BCCBS). This is a monitoring effort by community scientists coordinated through the Rogue Valley Audubon Society, in partnership with the Klamath Bird Observatory, Rogue River Watershed Council, and the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy.

Seven stretches of the Greenway were selected for the bird surveys, with a survey protocol designed by expert naturalists Frank Lospalluto, Nate Trimble, and Klamath Bird Observatory Biologists Sarah Rockwell and Jaime Stephens. Five of the sites had experienced significant impacts from the Almeda Fire: Ashland Greenway, Lynn Newbry, Suncrest, Blue Heron Park, and Mingus Pond. These were the “burned” sites.

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Frank Lospalluto
Lincoln Sparrow

While the burned areas are still supporting an abundance of wildlife, simply counting the number of birds or bird species observed does not give the full picture of the fire’s impact on the creek-side habitat of Bear Creek.

Two other areas had no fire impacts and were the “unburned” sites: North Mountain Park, and Dean Creek Road in Central Point. Each site consists of two approximately half-mile stretches of the Greenway path. Groups of volunteers, including at least one experienced birder, walk slowly along these “transects” and record all birds identified by sight or sound using the eBird mobile app. Run by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, eBird (https://ebird.org/home) is the cloud-based global repository for bird observation data, with over a billion (yes, BILLION) observations recorded.

Our surveys began in January 2021, and have been conducted twice a month at each site. I am proud to say that over 30,000 of eBird’s billion bird records have now been contributed by the Bear Creek Community Bird Survey! Dozens of faithful volunteers have devoted over 500 hours to the project so far.

So, what have we discovered? Our goal is to keep the BCCBS going for years, because the process of recovery from the fire will be a long one. Data from the first eight months are too preliminary to tell us about trends. But they do provide an essential baseline against which we will measure the responses of bird populations to the fire, and they give us an interesting snapshot of the status of birds in the Rogue Valley.

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It’s clear from the early results of this study that there are still a LOT of birds, both in number of species and number of individuals, using the Bear Creek Greenway, even in areas of severe burn. As of the end of August 2021, 134 species have been recorded, including 127 species in the sites burned by the 2020 fires. In addition to familiar year-round residents like Song Sparrows and Black-capped Chickadees, the Greenway remains important habitat for neotropical migrants that call Oregon home only during the nesting season like Yellow Warblers and Bullock’s Orioles, as well as for winter visitors from farther north, like Golden-crowned Sparrows and the fierce little falcons called Merlins.

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Frank Lospalluto
A male Yellow Warbler, newly returned from Mexico, enjoys a spring day beside Bear Creek.

While the burned areas are still supporting an abundance of wildlife, simply counting the number of birds or bird species observed does not give the full picture of the fire’s impact on the creek-side habitat of Bear Creek.

Large scale habitat changes often favor some species over others, and the fact that many birds are being observed doesn’t mean that the Greenway hasn’t experienced drastic changes in bird distribution and composition. Combining all seven sites along Bear Creek, the most commonly observed bird was …. what? If you guessed European Starling, I’m afraid you’re right. These non-native birds are highly adaptable and favor foraging on open ground and nesting in cavities of dead trees.

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Pepper Trail

The changes from the 2020 fires may have actually enhanced the habitat for birds like starlings but reduced habitat for our more sensitive native riparian species such as Yellow-breasted Chats. Birds such as Yellow-breasted Chats, Song Sparrows, and others depend on dense thickets of broadleaf shrubs next to freshwater to forage, hide from predators, and nest.

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Frank Lospalluto
Song sparrow

As this study progresses over time, the changes in detections of riparian species versus birds that prefer open habitat or are more generalists (able to thrive in many habitat types) will be of particular interest. These will help us determine what impacts the 2020 fires and subsequent management practices have had on the habitat of the Bear Creek Greenway.

Preliminary results do seem to show a substantial difference in some riparian bird species detections in unburned sites versus burned sites. Yellow-breasted Chats breed almost exclusively in riparian habitat in Oregon and so far have been detected more often in the unburned sites, with two of the burned sites showing no Yellow-breasted Chat detections at all this year.

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Frank Lospalluto
A Northern Flicker rests on a fire-scorched limb.

Spotted Towhees, which are less tied to riparian areas specifically but still require dense shrubs to forage and nest, showed a similar pattern to the Yellow-breasted Chats. Yellow Warblers nest in riparian canopy and sub-canopy and also have shown substantially more detections in the unburned sites than burned sites so far. In contrast to the bird species that depend on intact riparian habitat, European Starlings and American Robins have shown little to no pattern in detection in burned versus unburned sites. These are both generalists that tend to forage on open ground.

While it makes sense that birds that nest in dense blackberry or willow thickets, or use riparian trees to forage and nest will be less common on sites where much of the shrub and tree cover has burned away, we stress that these results are very preliminary.

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Pepper Trail
New sprouts reach out of the charred earth

It’s much too early to come to definite conclusions about the recovery of Bear Creek post fire and the effects of the fire on bird populations. In the future, it will be particularly interesting to see if the number of riparian bird detections in the burned sites begins to increase as the shrubs and trees they depend on come back.

It will likely take years of data, and careful analysis, to tell the full story of the effects of the Almeda Fire on the Bear Creek Greenway and its birds. The dedicated volunteers of the Bear Creek Community Bird Survey are determined to see this story through to the end!

Nate Trimble is a wildlife biologist and artist in Ashland, Oregon. He has worked as a field biologist, volunteer coordinator, and volunteer on several bird research projects in Oregon and Northern California.

Pepper Trail is an ornithologist and the conservation co-chair of the Rogue Valley Audubon Society.