May is a vibrant month at the UWBG’s Washington Park Arboretum. The show that the Olmstead Bros. firm had in mind when they designed Azalea Way back in the 1920’s reaches maximum glory as fading cherry blossoms hand over the reins to innumerable phonograph-shaped blooms that wall the 1/2 mile promenade. It’s easy to be swept up in the colors and scents of spring, so gaudy and distracting, but there is vibrancy beyond the blooms as well. The soil has reached a consistent warmth, the night time air has lost its bite and everywhere is teaming with insects. They’ve timed their reappearance perfectly with the lime-green growth in the park, as have the bats, birds and frogs to eat them. What better time to hold a bioblitz.
May 10th/11th marked our third full-on blitz, and our second spring-time one. (We’re on an 18-month spring/fall cycle). The inaugural UWBG Bioblitz took place around this same time of year in 2010 and focused on the north end, Foster Island. Our focus this time was on the middle third of our 230 acres – the heart of our “native matrix”.
Declaring a focal area is pretty arbitrary speaking to birders and mammal trackers – they cover as much territory as their quarry. For the entomologists I tagged along with during the first taxa team shift on Friday afternoon, however, we’d hardly left the greenhouse before the Siren’s song crashed us on a grove of cedars to pick and dig and shake and catch. They indulged and in the process trained their few citizen-scientist tagalongs, and then I pried them away to plunk them in the “green zone”, a 200,000 sq. ft. square in the middle third. We made it through about 1.5 of the 100′ x 100′ grid squares on our map.
The plant team was moving at a similar pace because this year we decided to do something a little different. The WPA has within it’s collection around 10,400 specimens. We have information on all of them, information like where they came from, when they were planted, by whom, etc. Also within the WPA, however, are acres of more or less natural areas, our “native matrix” comprised of big old native trees that regrew from seed after the site was last harvested in 1896. About these trees, we have very little information.
So for bioblitz, we teamed up with Lisa Ceicko from Forterra to begin an inventory of our native trees using i-Tree protocols. I-Tree is a program that when you enter in some basic data like tree type, diameter, height, etc., it spits out numbers representing various ecosystem services that a given tree is providing. King County (also with Lisa’s help) is in the midst of completing their Integrated Urban Forest Assessment aimed to determine how much carbon is being sequestered, air/water being purified, habitat provided, etc. by Seattle’s trees using the same program. We aim to do the same with our big old natives. During Bioblitz, we made it through almost three grid squares…only 592 more to go.
After that first shift it was time for dinner and a lecture with this year’s guest speaker, Paul Bannick. If you haven’t seen Paul speak, you should, but regardless, you’ve ever opened up a bird book, you’ve probably seen his photographs as his work is featured in all the good ones. His book, The Owl & the Woodpecker, inspired a traveling exhibit created by the Burke Museum and he’s won a couple really big awards over the past few years, one from Audubon Magazine the other from Canon. His talk and slideshow focused on owls, and gave those in attendance a glimpse into his next book. It was both fascinating and beautiful.
After the talk, half of the next taxa team shift focused on owls as well, the other half, bats. There lives within the WPA a pair of resident Barred Owls. They’ve been seen here consistently for the past several years and they’ve reared several successful broods. It’s nesting season right now, and we know where they’re nesting. Despite all this, however, the owl team got skunked. Not even a “who cooks for you”. The bat team, on the other hand, led by members from Bats Northwest, fared much better. With their sonar equipment, they recorded hundreds if not thousands of these misunderstood echo-locators, mostly Silver-haired Bats. I learned that there are 15 bat species in Washington State, 13 of whom live west of the Cascades. We fear bats for their blood-sucking reputation, yet only 3 species worldwide actually suck blood, and two of those target birds. Ironically, without bats, we’d lose countless more blood to mosquitoes. Bats eat 40% of their body weight in insects per night, and as an added bonus they help pollinate night blooming flowers (such as agave for making tequila).
Saturday started with some early morning bird teams (one by land and one by kayaks provided by Agua Verde Paddle Club), a plant team and a mammal tracking team. The kayakers were happy to see a Spotted Sandpiper as well as a Pied Billed Grebe nest floating on some lily pads. The land-lubbers were happy to see the owls. The tracker, Linda Bittle from the Wilderness Awareness School, was just happy to be out of the office. The day continued with more of the same plus a couple spider team outings with Rod Crawford and one lonely mushroom team. Sunny springs can be tough on mushrooms and there were several great events competing for mushroom folk attention – a lecture from local legend Paul Stamets Friday night, and Mushroom Mania at the Burke. We look forward to another fungus-blitz this fall to give this taxa its deserved attention. And we look forward to continuing our bioblitz tradition for many years to come. We hope to see you at the next one, and in the meantime, we’ll be doing what we can from a management perspective to sustain and increase the biodiversity in this gem of the Emerald City.