Riparian (streamside) vegetation provides habitat for breeding, migrating, and overwintering birds and is also critical to the quality of the in-stream habitat on which salmon fisheries and other aquatic species depend. In the western United States, riparian zones make up less than 0.5% of the total land area. Yet, they support the most diverse bird communities of any habitat type in arid and semi-arid regions. Riparian habitats are also highly imperiled due to human impacts and now cover only a fraction of their former range. Their relative rarity on the landscape, yet high biodiversity, makes riparian zones one of the most critical habitats for conserving birds and other wildlife in the West.
The North Fork Salmon River, near Sawyer’s Bar in northern California, splashes its way through rocky canyons and meanders around wide gravel bars, occasionally forming deep, green pools for swimming and fishing. It also has a long history of human impacts, particularly due to mining: mine tailings piled on the riverbanks create hot, dry areas with little soil where plants struggle to grow. The Salmon River Restoration Council (SRRC) is implementing riparian (or streamside) restoration to reverse some of these effects. They plan to re-create lost habitat complexity by adding side channels, alcoves, and ponds, rewatering the floodplain where possible, removing non-native plants, and planting native willows. This project offers the opportunity to meet critical ecological goals: to improve riparian areas for wildlife habitat as well as for watershed health and salmon populations.
Klamath Bird Observatory (KBO) is partnering with SRRC to study the abundance, and reproductive success of birds before and after restoration actions take place. Birds are widely recognized as excellent indicators of healthy habitats because they respond quickly to changes in vegetation at various spatial scales, and they are relatively easy and cost-effective to monitor. Successful restoration would lead to more abundant and successfully reproducing bird populations—if not, KBO can advise on how to adjust the revegetation plantings to create better habitats for birds and other wildlife. Understanding what bird species are using these restoration sites, when and how they are using them, and at what timeframe within a project’s life cycle can help managers improve project design. A second objective is to start a long-term monitoring program at a larger spatial scale: an 11-km reach along the North Fork Salmon River. KBO is establishing a baseline with which we can start to measure long-term trends in bird populations in this area. In 2018, KBO completed a first season of pre-restoration spring and fall bird monitoring and vegetation surveys along the North Fork, and we will complete another in 2019. Future reports will relate bird abundance, diversity, and breeding success to specific vegetation features and habitat components.
This same concept of birds as ecological indicators is being used to measure the outcomes of riparian restoration at the Willow Wind Community Learning Center along Bear Creek in Ashland, OR. Riparian areas are important to biodiversity in urban landscapes, and some of our most at-risk bird species require riparian habitats for breeding. Many birds also need healthy riparian habitats during fall and winter, when they complete important activities like refueling during migration, replacing worn feathers (molting), or building reserves for the next breeding season.
Where riparian habitat has been lost or degraded due to human impacts, restoration helps return these areas to more functioning natural conditions. For nearly two decades, Klamath Bird Observatory, Lomakatsi Restoration Project, and Ashland School District have partnered on a riparian restoration project at Willow Wind. Lomakatsi works to improve riparian habitat conditions in our region by planting native trees and shrubs and removing invasive plants. This work has helped improve water quality by cooling stream temperatures and filtering runoff while also providing important bird habitat. As part of this project, KBO is studying birds as indicators to monitor the effectiveness of this streamside habitat restoration. Partnerships such as this one, which combines landowners, restoration practitioners, and scientists, are key to meaningful conservation.
The Willow Wind project has included an analysis of 18 years of bird monitoring data in addition to current field research. We found that the abundance of several bird species that use riparian habitats during the winter has increased over time in areas where Lomakatsi implemented restoration efforts. The abundance of these same species changed less in areas where no restoration occurred. Restoration actions are improving riparian habitat quality in areas where it had previously been degraded.
Interested in birdwatching in some of Ashland’s riparian habitats? Try Lithia Park, Ashland Ponds, Emigrant Lake, or North Mountain Park – or click here for a birdwatching guide to Ashland.
Scott River Valley Beaver Dam Analogues (BDAs)
In the fall of 2015, KBO started a partnership with the Scott River Watershed Council (SRWC) near Etna, CA, to monitor ecological changes resulting from implementing beaver dam analogues (BDAs) in the Scott River Valley. BDAs are woody structures built by people to mimic the beneficial effects of beaver dam impoundments, such as improving water retention and groundwater recharge, increasing base flows, and lengthening the summertime when above-ground flows are present. Beaver dams can also expand the size and complexity of wetland and riparian areas, providing critical habitat for birds and other wildlife, including endangered Coho salmon. Researchers at KBO record the abundance and diversity of both the summer breeding and fall migrating bird communities to assess the effects of these restoration efforts. Past studies of beavers in New York and Arizona showed that active beaver sites—and all of their associated habitat complexity—supported more species of birds than sites without beavers. Our preliminary surveys have found over 80 bird species using habitats near BDAs in the Scott River Valley. We will continue monitoring bird communities’ changes using the BDA sites over time as they develop into more complex riparian and wetland habitats.
Trinity River Restoration Project
Since 2002, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Trinity River Restoration Program (TRRP) has been working to restore salmonid populations impacted by dams on the Trinity River in northern California. Restoration involves removing steep river banks where the river channel has become incised, lowering the floodplain, and reconnecting the riparian habitat to the river for the benefit of both fish and terrestrial wildlife. Scientists at KBO have used a suite of focal bird species as ecological indicators, evaluating the health of streamside habitats as they were replanted with native vegetation following rehabilitation projects. KBO’s research is built upon bird monitoring work initiated by the US Forest Service Redwood Sciences Laboratory, using twelve years of riparian and riverine bird surveys to track changes in the abundance and diversity of bird populations in the section of the river affected by restoration activities. We also expanded the bird monitoring project in 2012-2016 by implementing new methods that provide more intensive measures of restoration response, such as whether birds are choosing territories in the recently restored riparian habitat and, if so, whether or not they are successfully fledging young. Our findings have shown that Song Sparrows, birds with the flexibility to colonize young riparian vegetation, nest in the recently restored areas as successfully as they are in areas of mature habitat. Other focal species may need more time for complex vegetation structures to develop before they occupy the regenerating floodplains in high numbers, but data indicate a trajectory toward success. Results will be used within the adaptive management framework to assess and improve the TRRP’s success in creating ecologically viable riparian habitats with high value for wildlife. Click here to view “report card” style summary of the progress of riparian restoration along the Trinity River.
Gold Ray Dam
KBO applied our model of using birds as ecological indicators to assess the effects of the removal of Gold Ray Dam on the Rogue River near Gold Hill, OR. Despite the number of planned dam removal projects in the U.S., affects of large-scale dam removal on in-stream and riparian habitats are not well-studied. The Gold Ray Dam project provided an opportunity to collect data to better understand ecological changes following dam removal and inform future planning efforts. The abundance of one bird species, Wrentit (Chamaea fasciata), declined in the wetland area previously maintained by the backwater from the dam. In this area, shrub and ground cover decreased following dam removal, possibly due to the eradication of non-native species. Overall, bird community composition did not differ between controls and treatments either before or after dam removal, suggesting shrub and tree components of riparian habitat did not change in quantity or quality in the two years following dam removal. However, this is a very short-term time frame, and the longer-term effects are still unknown. As the ecosystem continues to recover, vegetation cover, bird abundance, and community composition will likely continue to respond over the next decade or more.
Fourmile Creek and Harriman Springs Restoration Project
The Fourmile Creek and Harriman Springs Restoration Project are enhancing habitat on the west side of Upper Klamath Lake to benefit fish and birds. Lost River and shortnose suckers, redband trout, and migratory birds—such as Lincoln’s Sparrow, Song Sparrow, and Common Yellowthroat—are expected to respond positively to the restoration of a 400-acre wet meadow, three miles of forested riparian areas, and spawning habitat in Harriman Springs and at the mouth of Fourmile Creek.
Partnering with US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, US Geological Survey, and others, KBO’s role in this project is to monitor birds as indicators of restoration success. In 2012 KBO completed our second year of post-restoration surveys during the breeding and fall migration seasons.