First Meadow Survey of 2018

John enjoying the view (and a moment of sunshine) at our first new meadow site of the year.

On Monday, January 29, John Koenig and I attended a meeting of the Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative at the Forest Service office in Westfir. The purpose of the meeting was to propose surveying projects in the Rigdon area of the Middle Fork District of the Willamette National Forest (south of Oakridge and Hills Creek Reservoir). Earlier in the month, Molly Juillerat, the district botanist, and I met to talk about meadows we want to survey, especially those that might have purple milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia). I spent some time looking at Google Earth searching for potential meadow sites I hadn’t been to yet and put together a list of 16 low-elevation open areas I think are worth checking out.

An aerial view of the Rigdon area and the many small openings I still plan to check. The locations marked with a star are those with purple milkweed, the red starred ones are where we have seen monarch caterpillars.

After finding monarchs breeding in the area last summer (see last year’s reports), it’s going to be a high priority this spring and summer to search for new milkweed sites and track monarch usage in the area. Kris Elsbree of Walama Restoration and I have discussed this project a number of times while he and the Walama crew work to remove non-native blackberries and ivy on my property. He and their volunteer coordinator, Maya, also attended the meeting. Walama is hoping to get a grant for monarch habitat restoration that could cover work in the Rigdon area as well as in the Valley. Our hope is to check all these meadows for milkweed and for habitat restoration potential. Then we’d like to get volunteers to help track the monarchs this summer by counting eggs, caterpillars, and adults in the best milkweed sites. Eventually, we would like to improve the monarch survival by removing encroaching conifers and weeds to enhance the milkweed sites, growing and planting more purple milkweed, and perhaps hand-rearing some caterpillars. It would also be great to tag some butterflies to see where they are coming from and establish their migration route. So many ideas! But for this year, we need to study where we are right now.

The gray shrubs are buckbrush (Ceanothus cuneatus), an uncommon plant in the area but abundant farther south.

Since the meeting wasn’t until the afternoon, the weather was dry, and Westfir is halfway there, John and I headed down to the Rigdon area in the morning to start the first of the surveys. We went to find what I called “Meadow #1” on the aerial above. It is on the north end and close to the beginning of Youngs Creek Road 2129, so we figured we would at least have time to see if it was worth a return visit when the flowers were out. We walked a half mile down spur Road 360 to the top of the meadow, but in hindsight, it would have been even quicker to climb a few hundred feet up through the woods from 2129 to the bottom of the meadow. Finding the best access is one of the important things to figure out on the first trip to a new location.

The oak woodland above the meadow is leafless now, allowing for a filtered view of the nearby ridges topped with a little snow.

We were very pleasantly surprised at how beautiful this sloping meadow was, even in January. I didn’t have very high hopes for it, based on the aerial view showing a logged area nearby. Google Earth aerials (and others on the web) are getting better all the time, but it can still be hard to tell sometimes whether an opening is natural or man-made. This area has numerous oak trees—something else we will be looking for during our surveys. It is also rather rocky with some large outcrops—always a big plus on my list. The third wonderful attribute was how much moist habitat there was, including several pretty creeks running down the slope and some spring-fed seeps. Habitat variety should increase the diversity of plants. We could already tell it was going to be quite beautiful in the spring, as there were vast drifts of rosy plectritis (Plectritis congesta) seedlings in the damp areas.

Tiny-flowered meadow nemophila is a very early bloomer in seepy spots.

We didn’t have much time, but I made a preliminary plant list as we walked across the upper slope. We didn’t spot any milkweed, but it is hard to find the dead remains and we missed quite a bit of potential habitat. We were thrilled to see the first few gold stars (Crocidium multicaule) blooming along Hills Creek Reservoir, so we knew that the mild, relatively dry winter was waking the plants up extra early this year (so far anyway!). We found more gold stars in bud on top of some rocks in the meadow as well as a few blooming snow queen (Synthyris reniformis) under the oaks. In a seepy spot, the meadow nemophila (Nemophila pedunculata) had already started alongside some even smaller-flowered water chickweed (Montia fontana). Four species in bloom in January! My first taste of spring fever is already revving me up for the coming flower season. I’m very excited about this project and will undoubtedly be posting many more reports on our surveying as the season progresses.

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