Category Archives: Ecology

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in New England any more.

Part 1: A 40-hour week of volunteering for Mother Nature

Exactly one year ago, I made a 3000-mile road trip from New England to Oregon, teardrop camper JT in tow (aka James Trailer), wondering how on earth I would cultivate new roots as I retired and transplanted myself into this unfamiliar new territory. My daughter-in-law wisely suggested I take the online Oregon Master Naturalist (OMN) course offered by OSUOSU logo 14.19.12It seemed a good place to start building a sense of place and community and meet kindred outdoor spirits. The course is packed with Oregon lore—geological and ecological histories, mind-blowing stories of accreted exotic terranes and eons of volcanic roiling, eight vastly different eco-regions from rain-forested coastal range to arid mountainous desert, and a flood of information about species of concern beyond my brain’s absorption capacity. Cougars and beavers and birds, oh my!

sapsucker 13.30.21The online course was followed by 6 days of field learning last June. For my fieldwork, I chose the East Cascades Ecoregion, the dry side of the Cascades in central Oregon, often called (imprecisely, I learned) the “high desert.”  Caravanning our group around the region, the profs showed us the rimrock lava flows of a bygone caldera (quite likely the hot spot now located under Yellowstone NP); areas of riparian restorations where trout and salmon are just beginning to retrace their ancient migratory runs; a ranch where the owner and OSU are measuring effects of juniper removal on the water table; a recently burned ponderosa pine forest; and a cathedral-like wood of lodgepole pines and Douglas fir where I contemplated a sapsucker’s coming and going from its its brood of chicks in a cavity high in a snag.  (Photo credit)

The final step in completing the OMN requirements is to perform 40 hours of service for any of the hundreds of Oregon organizations with outdoor missions. This can include performing office tasks for conservation organizations, doing citizen science by counting animal sightings and tracks, transporting migrating fish around river barriers, removing migratory barrier fences or installing wildlife-friendly fences on rangeland, yanking out invasive weeds, or planting native trees and shrubs on a degraded section of a stream.

map with markupEager to complete the OMN journey, I decided to make my 40+ hours of service a “full time job” for nine days. I concocted a brew of four volunteer jobs, and trundled JT from Portland, across Mt. Hood to Bend, and then through and around the Ochoco Mountains, to begin a new friendship with the high desert. The next entries chronicle this nine-day volunteer expedition, dubbed by one weed-pulling volunteer I met along the way as “Choose your own adventure.”


Weed Warriors vs. Common Mullein

Part 3.  Camp Polk Meadow, Sisters, Oregon—invasive weed pulling with Deschutes Land Trust

Screenshot 2018-10-25 13.34.31The Deschutes Land Trust (DLT), also headquartered in Bend, sponsors regular Weed Warrior trips to conservation areas near Bend. Have you ever tried to keep 100 square feet of garden free of weeds in late summer? I usually give up around mid-July. But the undaunted DLT Weed Warriors make it their mission three Saturdays per month to pull invasive and noxious weeds from targeted sections of the land trust’s 9000+ acres of conservation lands. Yikes—that’s like 14 square miles. 

The DLT’s mission is “to work cooperatively with landowners to conserve land for wildlife, scenic views and local communities.” The Trust conserves and stewards land and riversides that meet these selection criteria.

Five of us carpooled about 30 minutes north of Bend to weed the Camp Polk Meadow section of meadow alongside the Wychus Creek, a river of special concern to the DLT.

While there are a number of noxious weeds there, we focused only on the seed stalks of the common mullein weed, Verbascum thapsus. You’ve seen this weed everywhere—it has a dozen or more common names, my favorites being old man’s flannel, velvet plant (both due to its fuzzy leaves) and Quaker rouge, allegedly because Quaker women used it to provoke a pink irritation-rash on their cheeks in lieu of using makeup. Mullein has a 2-year growth cycle, like parsley. The first year it makes a fuzzy rosette of leaves, and the second year it goes into reproduction gear. As instructed, I clipped off the torch-like seed stalks, carefully bagged them, and pulled first-year stalkless plants from the ground. 

Titian Sisyphus

Sisyphus, Titian. Museo del Prado

Sisyphus would have been  proud of us for persisting. Every stalk we bagged apparently prevented some 100-240,000 seeds from self-sowing. Still, it was disheartening to imagine next year’s crop. Any stalk that got past us could spread 100,000 or more seeds, which are said to be viable for 35 or more years. Rats. I think my rock just rolled down the hill again. And yet, the Weed Warrior teams persist!

A little googling about mullein taught me that this weed has some folksy uses, like cowboy toilet paper, shoe insulation, and friction fire starting—all useful in an armageddon scenario. Imagine how handy it would be having natural rouge growing all about us if Mary Kay doesn’t make it through nuclear winter. But fuzzy skin-irritating toilet paper? I’ll pass—I expect FEMA will toss us all a roll or two of paper towels.

Noxious weeds are generally described as invasive non-native plants, which establish and reproduce quickly when introduced, threatening or causing harm to environment (wildlife habitat), economy (crops, livestock), or human health. The Pacific Northwest Weed Guide doesn’t list mullein as “noxious,” but the DLT has good reason to remove it from this floodplain. The DLT began restoring this meadow in 2009, in order to “restore and enhance high quality riparian wetland habitat along the stream corridor.” They began by revegetating the creek corridor to stabilize the river banks and to mimic the native plant species and composition that may have historically occurred in Camp Polk Meadow. The richer and more diverse the plant community, the better chance of outcompeting invasive weeds. Diversity also enhances native wildlife habitat, and may contribute to lower stream temperature, which is critical to the survival of trout and salmon. The plantings list is quite similar to the ONDA riparian restoration plants (you can read about them in part 5), and includes trees, shrubs, and herbaceous wetland and riparian species including sedges, rushes, grasses, and forbs.

Mullein has “naturalized,” i.e. grows wild now, in the lower 48, Canada, Europe, Australia…from sea level to 8000 ft elevation. It colonizes disturbed areas quickly: roadsides, abandoned industrial sites, waste areas, river banks and corridors, forest cuts, scrublands, juniper and scrub oak savannas. Most importantly, because it is so prolific (remember the 200K-seed stalks?) it pushes out native grasses and shrubs, and creates the reason for our search and destroy mission in this painstakingly nativized meadow.

Screenshot 2018-10-25 14.58.17

Deschutes Land Trust photo

As Camus concluded in his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a [person’s] heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” The long-time Weed Warriors are every bit as persistent as Sisyphus, and by Zeus, they do look happy!  


Volunteer hours worked with DLT: 3

Another two thumbs up experience. 2 thumbs up 14.05.29

Yes we can, by dam!

Part 5. ONDA Riparian Restoration Work Camp Trip

hi des crooked2

South Crooked River valley in the Ochoco Mts.

My week-long volunteer circuit around the Ochoco Mountains included a two-day work camp sponsored by the Oregon Natural Desert Association, or ONDA. Circling the Ochocos clockwise, I stopped often to marvel at the incongruity of a “desert river” and found the gravel turnoff at a milepost somewhere between East-and-West-of-the-Hinterlands. The last 4.5 miles brought a 30-minute crawl overhi des denizens bovine hills, gullies, and rangeland between rocky buttes. Two range-roaming cows were unimpressed with my rig. Just when I was certain I was lost, I spotted the tents and cars of my fellow volunteers, and maneuvered JT into the encampment.


Seventeen of us met on a Thursday evening at this crackling dry, juniper-studded field along the South Fork Crooked River. After dinner, we had a fireless (due to a statewide burn ban) “fireside chat” about the next two days’ work, then hustled under a billion stars to warm sleeping bags as the temperature plummeted. Jefferson Jacobs, the ONDA staffer who led this trip, is well known among ONDA volunteers for fireside discussions, where he shares his considerable knowledge of the high desert region, its history, peoples, and ecosystems. His story-telling reputation is what  prompted me to sign up for this trip, and the stories were as delightful as predicted.

4frosty morn1By 6:00 a.m. the next morning, Jefferson had brewed us the most delicious coffee I ever tasted. I suspect he has learned that this is the best—if not the only—way to entice people out of warm sleeping bags on a 15˚F morning. I also suspect that the temperature had something to do with how good the coffee tasted.  At eight o’clock we gathered with shovels, work gloves, bag lunches and water bottles, and hiked through the frosty fields about a quarter mile to the day’s worksite in a grassy meadow by the river.




ONDA groups who preceded us earlier in the summer had  prepped the area in two ways:

  1. digging in exclosueOn one trip they had built several welded wire-mesh fenced enclosures (approximately 20 or 30’ square), or exclosures in volunteer-lingo, because excluding  deer and beaver is the only way to keep the young plants from being browsed to the ground in the critical first years while they get established. (as seen at right)9BDA2


2. On another trip they built two beaver-dam-analogs a half mile apart (or BDAs, as seen at left), These obstructions across the river made of logs with intertwined willow twigs slow water flow and raise the adjacent floodplain water table, in this case, by two feet. The BDA will give this patchwork of creekside plantings a fighting chance of surviving the hot  Oregon desert summers.

On this assignment, work meant work! Jefferson had lined up some 2,300 native saplings and shrubs for this crew to get in the ground: cottonwood, aspen, willow, alder, red-twig dogwood, elderberry, spirea, currant, and meadow wildflowers. We planted half at each of the two BDA locations. The second day a group of 20 or 30-something young recruits turbo-boosted the effort by lowering the average age of our group significantly. We called them the Riders of Rohan, from the epic scene in the Two Towers movie (Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy)—a team-building mythology instigated by Jefferson. 19happydiggers

In one of our fireless chats, we learned why we were working in this particular place. This 3-mile stretch of the South Fork Crooked River is on a 1200-acre parcel owned by Otto Keller, who is keen on land conservation and restoration. He collaborates with ONDA and other partners to restore the South Fork Crooked River to some of its former ecological diversity. Together they have successfully removed several acres of juniper and repaired fences to prevent cattle trespass (a significant issue, especially when one tries to find ungrazed land to study the effects of grazing on ecosystems). The partnership is now knee-deep in riparian restoration—with hopes of bringing back a habitat that can support native denizens such as trout and beaver. Oregon once teemed with beaver, but trappers nearly eliminated them from their natural range throughout central Oregon. In 20 years, when these plantings have grown, it is hoped that they will provide the elements beavers need to build dams and trout need for shelter and spawning.

8BDAJefferson was confident that this ragtag band of conservationists, ranging in age from 25 to 80 could get 2300 plants tucked into the ground in two 8-hour days. This was hard work, yet many of these folks keep coming back year after year to plant more sections of this meandering creek’s banks, and to check up on last year’s babies. Camaraderie buoyed this crew of shovel-wielding hole-diggers (2300 holes is a lot of digging) and trowel-bearing plant setters, and by dam—we did it! 

Two very muddy thumbs up!  muddy thumbs up muddy thumbs up


Volunteer hours worked: 16

riparian saplings   riparian empties


What’s cool about the desert?

Desert Biome description, plant and animal adaptations

by Eleanor Burke, originally posted July 2011

Desert biome covers about one-fifth of the Earth’s land surface. Deserts range from very hot and dry to very cold and dry (Antarctica can be considered a desert) with dryness being the defining characteristic. Most sources define the average annual rainfall at 15-20cm or less; if more, the rain occurs seasonally or unpredictably. The largest of the world’s hot/dry deserts occur fairly symmetrically above and below the equator, at or near the subtropical latitudes, approximately 30-35˚ N or S of the equator. Both are high-pressure zones of dry descending air masses. Seasonality varies with local geography, such as the leeward “rain shadow” of a mountain range, or its specific continental placement. Continue reading →

How to Make 300 Phytopathologists Laugh

By Eleanor Burke

In a short video, the person behind the camera posed this question to a series of random people: “What is a phytopathologist?” Stupefied stares accompanied answers ranging from, “No clue!” to “Is it about dogs?” (Think Fido-pathologist.) The audience laughed uproariously—probably because it was a gathering of the American Phytopathological Society–some 1,500 of whose members attended their annual meeting last summer in the Rhode IslaIMG_1883nd Convention Center.

Phytopathologists are specialists in plant diseases–doctors for plants, which, like people, can get sick and need medical attention. Why care about sick plants? Imagine one week in your life without them. No veggies, potatoes, or pasta; no meat or fish, since the drumstick on your plate owes its existence to plants, as well. Forget clothing, since fibers (even synthetics) originated as plants. In a plantless world, you would pretty much be living on water, wearing your birthday suit, and sleeping under the stars.

The sessions at the convention summoned visions of Greek mythological characters: Phytoplasma, Fastidious Prokaryote, Rhizosphere Ecology—yikes. But the keynote session, completely accessible to mere mortals, delivered a profoundly important message for scientists everywhere. The engaging speakers, Valerie Lantz-Gefroh and Evonne Kaplan Liss of the Center for Communicating Science (CCS) at Stony Brook University, urged the auditorium of scientists to re-think how they communicate their knowledge to the rest of us, because what they have to say is too important to get lost in the fog of research publications that most non-scientists—politicians, funders, policy makers, and commoners like us—can’t follow. Continue reading →

On the first day of Lyme Season…


On the first day of Lyme season…

By Eleanor Burke

My backyard gave to me: five nymphal ticks, four white-footed mice, three chipmunks, two shrub-eating deer, and the acorns from an oak tree. Each of these factors, not just the deer and the ticks, plays an important role in current epidemic levels of Lyme disease in the northeastern U.S. Many towns in the region are culling, or considering culling the deer population in an effort to lower the incidence of Lyme. Studies indicate they may be shooting at the wrong critters. Continue reading →

El pájaro reloj

The Turquoise-Browed Motmot, Toh, or Pájaro Reloj

by Eleanor Burke   July 2011

  On the path into the ruins of Chichén Itzá, a number of beautiful green, blue, and russet birds with turquoise “brows” perched on branches of the scrubby peninsular trees. A local resident said it was just a common pájaro reloj, named for the shape and motion of its tail, like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. But smitten by its beauty, I felt there was nothing ‘common’ about it.[1]  The Eumomota superciliosa, or Turquoise-Browed Motmot, an order relative of the Kingfisher, inhabits a small portion of the Caribbean coast from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico southward to Costa Rica. And, despite my reluctance to believe it, the bird is indeed “common,” or quite abundant in the region.

Turquoise-browed Motmot image from Wikipedia © Leonardo C. Fleck ( 2007-04-16 (original upload date)

Continue reading →