They met weekly through the summer at 4:30 a.m., just as the dark woods along the Little Spokane River were coming alive with the peeps, warbles and trills of songbirds.
This particular morning was much like the others.
Howard Ferguson gave a brief game plan to the six eager volunteers before splitting them into two teams. Bullfrogs were croaking as the groups began wallowing through six-foot-tall stands of dewy canary grass. Each team assembled five mist nets at designated plots within the Little Spokane River Natural Area. These nets, made of fine black string with a one-inch mesh, create an invisible barrier eight feet high and 36 feet long.
“They don’t hold up to a deer or moose, but they capture any bird that flies into them,” said Ferguson, urban wildlife biologist for the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department.
For the next several hours, the volunteers walked a circuit of nets, bringing the captured birds to Ferguson’s central command post.
Each bird was soon carried back to the point of capture and released. But not until Ferguson had recorded the species, weight and length of wings. He examined their body fat, determined gender and noted myriad tidbits of information.
Even these seasoned birders flipped through text books and split fine hairs of taxonomy to determine whether one young bird was a willow flycatcher or some sort of pewee.
Soon a gray catbird came in. Then a yellow warbler, a cedar waxwing, a song sparrow.
Studying the fecundity of the Little Spokane River is full of surprises.
One day a net was unwittingly put up near a nest of just-fledged robins.
“I caught the whole brood,” said Anna Schmidt, Ferguson’s student assistant from Washington State University. “Then I got dive-bombed by the mother while I was trying to get them out of the net.”
A few weeks later, Schmidt was charged by a territorial ruffed grouse.
Dedication and fine motor skills are required to calmly untangle the fragile birds while mosquitoes explore every orifice on your head.
Bird researchers can’t use insect repellents with the chemical DEET, which is an effective but toxic pesticide. Ferguson occasionally sprayed the necks of his volunteers with a sweet-smelling, non-toxic citronella-based repellent.
“The mosquitoes think this stuff is candy,” said bird-catcher Bruce Smith as he swatted his forehead and headed back into the canary grass.
Such tedious, labor-intensive work is just beginning to document what many biologists intuitively knew about the Little Spokane River.
“This is a remarkably productive area for wildlife,” Ferguson said.
The Little Spokane River and Mount Spokane are among 419 sites in the United States where researchers are conducting coordinated bird surveys.
The Little Spokane River is a national standout. Only one other station in the country shows more diversity in bird species, Ferguson said.
Data collected in nine capture days this summer reinforce the high wildlife value biologists put on riparian areas:
At the Little Spokane River, the nets captured 27 species, with 371 birds banded.
At Mount Spokane, 17 species were captured and 71 banded.
In a nutshell, this indicates the stream corridor is more than twice as productive as a good-quality mountain environment.
“Mount Spokane has lots of wildlife, but this just shows the richness and value of the Little Spokane riparian system,” Ferguson said.
And with development targeting stream corridors at an unprecedented rate, the study helps show the price of neglect.
The project and methods were devised by the California-based Institute for Bird Populations. The national program was launched in 1992.
“We’re trying to get a bead on populations, productivity and survivorship on a regional basis,” Ferguson said.
Notes from birders in the Audubon Society, which have documented more than 180 bird species visiting the Little Spokane River over the years, contribute most of the information about the area’s avian life, he added.
The Little Spokane River and Mount Spokane were chosen as this area’s survey sites because they are state park land, which is less susceptible - but not immune - to development that would interfere with long-term research.
Mount Spokane is an aspen-fir forest. The Little Spokane is a lowland stream corridor - called a riparian area.
The visits of many bird species to the Little Spokane go virtually unnoticed, even by experts.
“Typical surveys are done by birders who can identify birds by sight or by their call,” Ferguson said. “The flycatchers, for example, will make noise so we can record their presence without capturing them. But there are many silent birds, such as the Swainson’s thrush, the veery, Lincoln’s sparrow.
“We have to use nets in order to record birds that are rarely seen or heard.”
Ferguson’s detailed notes on every captured bird are compiled and eventually funneled with information from across the country to the National Biological Survey in Washington, D.C.
This is tedious work. Gary Blevins, a science professor at Spokane Falls Community College, helped Ferguson determine whether one particular flycatcher was a bird of the year. He blew on the bird’s head to part the feathers and see if the scull had turned to bone. “It’s like looking for the soft spot a baby has on its head,” he said.
Adult females can be identified in summer by blowing on the breast to reveal the bare skin known as a brood patch - an unfeathered area that enables the bird to transfer more heat to the incubating eggs.
However, young birds also have a bare patch because all the feathers have yet to grow in. The difference is that the adult female’s skin is wrinkled.
“This research is our first stab at getting baseline information we can use to monitor changes in bird populations,” Ferguson said.
“We eventually want enough data to tell whether birds are increasing or decreasing and how possibly our suburban or urban growth impacts them.”
The Little Spokane River stretches 45 miles from its headwaters near Newport to the confluence with the Spokane River. But only seven miles of river are protected in the natural area.
“With increasing populations around these parks, and growing demand for recreation use inside them, wildlife are going to feel the impacts,” Ferguson said. “People are closing in.”
Although the Little Spokane has been spared from dams and major industry, livestock is allowed to trample the banks. More housing development is being planned within putting distance of the shoreline. Snorting machines have ripped out trees and brush to pave way for roads, gardens and golf courses, obliterating irreplaceable shoreline habitats with little concern for the wildlife that’s being displaced.
Meanwhile, the number of people canoeing the Little Spokane through the natural area and the number of hikers on the trails is increasing.
“We should be honored that these birds chose our area to raise their young,” Ferguson said.
The MacGillivray’s warbler may have come all the way from South America to nest on this river. The willow flycatcher and catbird may have winged up from Mexico.
The yellow warbler likely came from Central America.
“There’s a lot of focus on threatened and endangered species,” Ferguson said. “But our goal is to keep our common birds common.
“We need to look out for song sparrows, robins and chickadees. If we find these birds are declining, we need to look at what we can do before it’s a crisis.
“Everyone knows the Little Spokane is a spectacular place to see birds. But when it comes to making a case in the face of development, you have to be able to prove it.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Color Photos
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