Where the Elwha meets the strait

In August I got to attend a National Park Service event for volunteers who had worked on the Elwha restoration. After hiking around former Lake Mills, we visited the Elwha delta, where the river lets out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, between Washington and Vancouver Island. Before the dam removals, the delta beach was fairly limited. Removing the dams allowed enormous quantities of trapped sediment to move downstream, building up the beach into expanses of space for native coastal plants, birds, and other wildlife. A lagoon area has formed where thousands of seagulls were hanging out as we walked along. And I’ve been told it’s even improved the surfing options!

Someday after Whiskey Bend road is rebuilt I’d like to do a hike into the park following the Elwha upstream. How cool would it be to see the Elwha from source to sea!

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Elwha Reservoir 2018

Nowhere have I been so overwhelmed by the transformative, vibrant power of nature as on the Elwha river. The transformation that occurs every season since the removal of the two dams on this is mind-blowing (also road- bridge- and campground-blowing, with the river restored to unfettered flood patterns).

In this place, too, shines the strength of restoration management, as the plants brought in to supplement the natural regeneration of this area take hold and promote others to grow. The riverbank lupine shown below has improved soil quality for a variety of species that follow it–much as other nitrogen-fixing species have done on Mount St Helens. Planted woody shrubs and conifers also claim space, even the ones that die in turn enriching the soil. It’s also fantastic to see the effects of microclimates–such as the small hollows near decades-old logs where seedlings are sheltered from the wind and sun–and straight, thin rows of cottonwoods where three years ago the water pooled for just long enough for the seeds to germinate and put down their roots.

I stand in awe here.

Reservoir Time

One of my favorite things about living in Washington is getting to watch the progression of the Elwha reservoirs as the vegetation and wildlife re-establish more each year. Pictured above is the former Lake Mills in the summers of 2013 (top left), 2015 (bottom left) and 2018 (on the right).

The dams on the Elwha were removed between 2011 and 2013, and I spent the summers of 2013 and 2015 studying the plant communities that colonized the drained reservoirs. Although recent floods have closed the road to public vehicles, you can still bike or hike in to see Lake Mills. I’ve actually been there three time this summer–once hiking in from the Madison Falls parking lot, once on a Park Service organized volunteers’ event, and once hiking down 5000 feet from Hurricane Ridge. I also made additional trips out to Aldwell reservoir and the Elwha delta, both of which are more easily accessible. I’ll post more pictures from those trips as soon as I stop hiking long enough to go through all of them!

Prescribed Burns

Fire–and what happens to plant communities after fire–is the core topic of my dissertation research. I’ve set up experiments in Sierra mixed-conifer forest and nutrient-poor but diversity-rich serpentine chaparral communities, and when my advisor discussed a project with prescribed fire in his study system in Kenya rangeland, I jumped at the opportunity.

For over twenty years, this project has been studying how the presence or absence of wild herbivores or cattle can affect this plant community–the acacia trees and understory grasses that grow on black cotton soil–and through them, the rodents, birds, and insects that also use this environment.

In 2013, the research team burned a section of each plot to test how past herbivory affected fire behavior, and how fire changed all of these interactions between wildlife, cattle, trees, grass, and insects. This year, we reburned all those sections to look at the effects of repeated fire, and burned a second set of sections in each plot to look at differences between fire in different years.

There were 36 burns total, each 30 x 30 meters. The whole process took our team of almost thirty people five days. Most of the crew was there not to light fire, but to keep anything outside of these sections from catching fire. In addition to the two main organizers and fire-lighters, there were people running two water tanks with hoses, people driving the trucks that pulled the water tanks, people running an even larger refill water tank–which was pulled by a tractor. Another crew wore backpacks full of water, to be able to spray any spot embers, and a final crew stayed behind after each burn, to rake apart coals or smoldering dung, and make sure all the hot spots were extinguished. Plus of course all the researchers recording temperature, wind speed, flame heights, bird movements, and tree survival.

For me, this project was a wave of experiences. This was my first time visiting anywhere in Africa and my first time working on a prescribed fire team. My original plan had been to arrive a week or so before the burning started, to have time to settle in and establish my own mini-experiment within the burn areas. However, due to concerns over the rains coming early, the entire project was moved forward, so we starting burning my second day after arriving. This meant that my first week I was trying to learn the system, help with the burns, keep ahead of the burning plan to set my experiments in the late afternoons or early mornings in the areas that would be burned the following day, and see and photograph as much nature and wildlife as I could. I didn’t have time to be jetlagged or tired from the 24 hour flight until over a week later!

From field assistants to coworkers, the team here has been absolutely amazing. Watching an unwieldy group of people with all these moving parts come together to accomplish all of these burns smoothly and safety was incredible. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve had a lot of fun along the way!

 

Life on the Black Cotton

Mpala Ranch has two main soil types–black cotton and red soil–which host vastly different plant communities. Our research takes place on the black cotton soil, where the plant community is dominated by one tree species, the whistling thorn tree (Acacia drepanolobum). Acacias in general are known for having thorny stems and hosting mutualistic ant colonies. The whistling thorn trees have many long, straight spines on the branches, some of which have a swollen, hollow base, which ants can live inside. They also secrete nectar from the base of their leaves that ants can eat. In exchange, the ants may defend the tree against herbivores ranging from other insects to elephants.

The whistling thorn gets its name from the sound the wind makes when it blows through the holes in the hollow thorns. Other trees grown on the black cotton soil, including other acacia species, but the whistling thorn trees dominate. Underneath them grows a variety of grasses.

Many different animals use the black cotton, including wildlife (elephants, giraffe, antelope, buffalo, cheetah, lions), domestic herbivores (cattle, goats, sheep, camel), reptiles, birds, rodents, and insects. Each species affects the plant community in different ways. Grazers eat the grasses, often singling out their preferred species. Browsers pull leaves from the trees. Wood-boring beetles carve tunnels through the tree stems. Elephants will even rip up or knock over full-sized trees, possibly just because just because they find it fun.

These photos were all taken during the dry season, when the grass is brown and the trees drop most of their leaves. In a month or two it will all be vibrantly green again.

McLaughlin Natural Reserve

The last two years I have been working on a project at McLaughlin Natural Reserve studying the response of flowering plants and grasses to fire in shrub chaparral. The fire opens up the canopy, allowing for a large bloom of wildflowers. The reserve includes many areas with serpentine soils, soil from ultramafic rock with high magnesium, low calcium, low nutrient levels and often high levels of heavy metals, so only certain adapted species can grow on it. These serpentine regions tend to have many native California plants which have adapted over time to the harsh soils, often in very strange ways.

This year, the particularly wet conditions led to a bloom of many stunningly strange flowers in these burned patches. It’s been incredible to wander through these fields of bright colors, and to look up close at some of these strange flower forms.

McKerricher State Park and Coastal Dunes

Every spring, I teach a class on plant communities of California, that travels on four field trips to different parts of the state to see some of the incredible range of terrestrial ecosystems in our neighborhood. Last weekend we took three days to go towards the coast, in the Mendocino area. The trip takes students from coastal dunes to coastal prairie to riparian system to pygmy forests to mixed evergreen forests and ends with old-growth redwood. Along the way they learn to identify the different plant species, understand the different drivers that cause the plant communities to be what they are, and hear stories of the history and social factors that shape how we think about these communities today.

These are a few of my students from McKerricher state park, where the students conducted a sampling exercise to look at how the assembly of plants changed as they moved from the high tide line towards the inland dunes. The plants we saw include beach evening primrose, purple owl’s clover, Indian paintbrush, beach bur, coastal sagewort, knotweed, American dune grass, and sand verbena. These plants all have amazing adaptations to the shifting sands, harsh winds, bright light, salty air, and low water supply they have to deal with in this environment. One of these adaptations is a spreading below-ground root structures that anchor the plants in the dunes, store water and nutrients for drought, and allow the plant to resprout if it is buried. Check out the photo of the sand verba roots–you’d never know from their cute little leaves that such a monster lay underneath! We also enjoyed a stunning display from Menzies’ wallflower, an endangered species with a limited range along the California coast.

Wild River

I spent two summers working in Olympic National Park, monitoring how plant communities returned along the Elwha river after the removal of two large dams and draining of the reservoirs. Summers in Washington are bright green, full of big leaves and new growth. This spring I had the opportunity to re-visit those areas, many of which have been drastically changed by winter storms.

As the river settles into new channels, it regularly shifts and floods, and the buildup of silt from the dams continues to move downstream, often in intense and even destructive ways. My visit to the Elwha revealed the destruction a wild river can create, with torn up logs and wrecked campgrounds. One of the reservoirs is not currently accessible, as the river has taken out portions of the road to it, and the other has been carved up significantly, with large chunks of fertile, silty soil washed downstream and the rocky bed underneath exposed.

At the same time, the river continues to be full of life, with new plants growing every day. Older willows and cottonwoods that germinated when the dams were first broken down have matured enough to start reproducing, contributing to the next generation of trees. Animals are making use of the space, with flocks of swallows moving through the open evening, eagles nesting in the tops of trees, and all sorts of amphibians moving in and out of the water.

The last two summers, the story of the reservoirs has been one of abundant growth and forward progress. This spring revealed a more complex path taken by nature, as destruction becomes part of the very process of restoration. We can only imagine what the river will do in the decades to come.

NSF GRFP

That string of consonants in the title stands for National Science Foundation, Graduate Research Fellowship Program. It’s an award given to starting graduate students in the sciences, to fund their studies and research for a total of three years. This year was my third and final chance to apply for it, and I am thrilled and honored to have been selected.

Receiving the award itself is a huge honor, and a compliment to the work I’ve done so far. The financial support that comes with it enables me to spend more time focused on research and be more adventurous in the research I undertake. My main project is understanding the effects of climate on post-fire regeneration in the Sierras, through manipulative experiments and large-scale modeling. I will also be working on a post-fire regeneration project in chaparral, looking at the interactions between shrubs and wildflowers after a three-year drought. Finally, I am planning a trip to Kenya to run a short research project (yes, also potentially involving fire).

Applying for this award each year has been an incredibly emotional process, with a lot of insecurities and frustrations. I am very grateful that my reviewers appreciated not only my proposed project, but also my emphasis on teaching, photography, and mentoring as core aspects of my approach to science. I am also overwhelmingly thankful for my family, friends, and labmates who edited my drafts and supported me. This is a very helpful stepping stone, and I’m so excited for the years of work to come.