Thursday, November 26, 2009

My first week at Jackson Bottom Wetlands

SunriseA silhouetted photographer sets up for a scenic sunrise photo at Fernill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 23 November 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Last Thursday, when I met for the tour of the Madsen property at Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve, I found out some great news. Since being unemployed, I had been volunteering for several weeks at the Preserve, which is part of the City of Hillsboro's Park and Recreation Department. Sarah Pinnock, Wetlands Education Specialist, came out to tell me that I had been approved for part time employment!

My position with the Preserve is titled "Instructor III," but my name tag says "Bird Guy." I am tasked with creating adult birding classes, field trips, and other bird education projects for the nature education center.

The Education Center has been around since 2003. Several buses full of school children come each week to learn about wetlands and the animals there. Sarah especially enjoys teaching K-4 children, dressing them up in beaver and bald eagle costumes, passing around bones and feathers and the like. However, there hasn't been anyone on the staff specifically concentrating on birds. That's where I will come in.

To start, I decided to initiate some free morning bird walks to introduce birders to the Preserve and my new job there. The first bird walk was on Monday. As several rare birds were reported Sunday during a wind storm from nearby Fernhill Wetlands, that's where we met (see photo above). We didn't find the rare birds, but we had a good time. These bird walks will continue for a while yet, though a schedule has not yet been set.

One of my first projects is updating the bird checklist. The present checklist was compiled by weekly surveys over several years conducted over 10 years ago by Al and Florence Snyder. I joined them several times on their counts. There have been some changes to the birds detected since then. A new checklist in PDF format will allow birders to download the list from the web, as well as make updating it and printing it easier.

My new desk (left) has quite a view, looking out at the wetlands. It is quite a different cubicle and atmosphere than my last technology engineering and manufacturing job! Can you imagine a place where binoculars are a standard desktop item, right next to the stapler, and a call of: "There's the eagle again!" interrupts everyone's work several times a day, as the staff run to the window with binoculars in hand?

On Tuesday Sarah gathered the staff around. She was holding an opaque plastic bag. She reached in and pulled out something green and handed it to me. "This is your job now," she said. In my hand was a dead bird! City workers in Cornelius had found this bird and brought it in for identification. Evidently, this is a common occurrence. Interestingly, it was a Monk Parakeet. There is a small colony of this exotic species near the Portland airport, but this is a first Washington County record.

Again, I heard one of the volunteers calling my name from the nature center gift shop. A couple had been out hiking on the Preserve and discovered a bird nest. It was small with lots of holes. What is it? OK, I'm thinking, there are squirrel nests made of leaves, but those are about the only nests visible now. Perhaps they found a Bushtit nest from last spring? Nope. Further questioning revealed the necessary clue that the "nest" was made of plywood. Oh, that's not a bird nest; that is a mason bee house! These native bees do not sting and pollinate the native plants.

"Do you know anything about birds?" Wednesday I helped a high school student identify some birds for a science project she was working on. I went in and got her a pair of binoculars and we went out for a 20 minute walk. The sun had just come out in the late afternoon, after a day of thick fog. Birds were quite active including Dark-eyed Juncos, Black-capped Chickadees, American Robins, Northern Flickers, and both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets that the student added to her list and wrote down behavioral and habitat observations. We also observed a Red-breasted Sapsucker, one of the very few birds expected in the wetlands that was not on the Preserve's checklist of observed birds.

bee hiveTuesday Sarah took me out to look at a bee hive (left) she had found earlier in the fall. It was built out in the open under some fallen branches.

On the way out we found a couple of Lincoln's Sparrows in a weedy hedgerow. And I called in a feeding flock of chickadees and nuthatches that included a Brown Creeper. "Sweet!" exclaimed Sarah. But she was more excited when we found a Great Blue Heron track clearly visible in the mud at the bottom of a shallow rain water puddle. Then she exclaimed 'sweet' in two syllables: "suh-weet!"

There was a spider hatch during the night. Strands of spider silk were in the air in every direction. Tiny little gnat-like spiders were floating in the breeze on little parachutes. At one point near the observation platform there were literally hundreds of spiders landing on us and covering us in web strands. Little spiders were rappelling down from the overhanging roof of the observation platform. It was like a scene from Arachnophobia. Sarah's response? "Suh-weet!"

You know, I think I'm going to like my new job.