Birds and Fire: Point Blue’s Ryan Burnett and team featured in Audubon Magazine

 

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Hairy Woodpecker. Photo: Ken Etzel/Point Blue

Climate: Can We Learn to Handle the Heat of Forest Fires?

With climate change turning up the temperature and the state in a four-year drought, wildfires are scorching California like never before.

But some science suggests a new approach—let it burn.  

By Jane Braxton Little September-October 2015 Audubon magazine

At 3 p.m. on August 17, 2013, a hunter’s illegal campfire crept out of control near Yosemite National Park. The fire spread through dry underbrush along Jawbone Ridge, licking up the trunks of ponderosa pines, searing and scorching until entire treetops burst into flames, flinging sparks and glowing needles skyward. On August 21 the fire, now known as Rim, went on a rampage, exploding over rocks and leaping the Tuolumne River, torching stands of centuries-old pines and plantations of young trees in a red-hot rage that blackened more than 125 square miles in just two days. By the time it was finally extinguished on October 25, the Rim fire had consumed 402 square miles of forest, an area 11 times the size of Manhattan.

Eight months later Ryan Burnett surveyed the scene from a crest overlooking the Tuolumne watershed. Ridgetop after ridgetop was covered with dead trees, some with needles scorched rust from the heat, others singed bare. Not a single green tree stood in the vast and bleak vista. And yet, a green patch of miner’s lettuce crept up a hillside; scarlet paintbrush poked out of the ashy gray dirt; a Lazuli Bunting zipped among the dead mountain mahogany; an American Kestrel hovered over burnt and brittle treetops—all astonishing, spectacular proof that fire creates even as it destroys.

Scientists have long known that fire is a primary force in shaping ecosystems. But because of its destructive power—incinerating homes, habitat, and valuable timber—frightened lawmakers and land managers have driven a campaign designed to control fire at all costs. Thus, for more than a century, fires were suppressed in California’s Sierra Nevada and throughout the West. And while this reduced historic levels of smoke and burned acreage, it left forest ecosystems critically out of balance. Without the cleansing fires that reduce ground fuels and kill some vegetation, many forests grew thick with trees and overcrowded with brush, a tinderbox that only made the landscape more vulnerable.

In those conditions, fire, naturally, has reasserted itself, and the number of wildfires in the West has grown by an average of about seven per year since the mid-1980s. At the same time, forests are burning both earlier and later in the season and with much greater severity than 100 years ago, a U.S. Forest Service study found. And a changing climate is predicted to bring further increases in the incidence of wildfire, say California experts. Temperatures in the Sierra are expected to rise an estimated 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century and the snowpack to melt almost a month earlier. That is, if there is snowpack. Last winter the Sierra was virtually snowless, dramatically compounding the effects of the state’s fourth year of drought. Researchers predict a combination of higher temperatures, increased evaporation, and reduced precipitation that could, in 70 years, more than double burned areas in California.

Haunted by this steady escalation of western wildfires, scientists and land managers say the need to better understand how fire affects the landscape is becoming increasingly dire. Burnett, Sierra Nevada director of Point Blue Conservation Science, a nonprofit organization based in Petaluma, California, is trying to answer some of the questions. He is leading a research team into the post-fire “nuke zone,” looking at birds and species diversity for clues that can help inform better forest management. “More and more, the past is becoming irrelevant as we advance to the no-analog future climate,” he says. What his team and others are finding calls for a radically different approach to managing forests, before and after they burn.

Using this auditory repertoire of several hundred calls, Ryan Burnett monitors birds in five-minute point counts to assess the long-term health of habitat. The Black-backed Woodpecker’s call is a sharp, distinct check. Photo: Ken Etzel

A week prior to visiting the site of the Rim fire, Burnett, 41, was slogging through grimy soot 300 miles to the north. Lean and lanky, with an athleticism that made him a high school baseball standout, he loped up a hillside near Humbug Summit at the northern end of the Sierra just south of Lassen Volcanic National Park. The 2012 Chips fire, named for a tributary to the Feather River where it started, burned across 119 square miles of pine and fir forest in the Lassen and Plumas national forests. Now, 18 months later, the soil was soft and pliant under a light cover of pine needles….

….Burnett halted at the sharp metallic chek of a Black-backed. Scanning the trees with binoculars, he found the bird a mere 10 feet away, clinging to the side of a charred fir and all but camouflaged by its soot-colored back. The giveaway was a luminous yellow cap—the male Black-backed’sonly pawn in courtship. After sounding one more alarm, the bird returned to its drilling.

In silent concentration, Burnett monitored the stand for other birds. For all its look of devastation, this stand of trees was bustling with activity. Within an hour Burnett had documented eight woodpecker nests of four different species: White-headed Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and Black-backed. “This is like nest central in here,” he said, picking up his pace in a mild woodpecker euphoria. “It’s basically a big party. Anyone who can probe is here.” As were non-probers, too: Olive-sided Flycatchers, Chipping Sparrows, and Mountain Bluebirds. By the end of his two-hour count, Burnett had documented more than 30 different bird species, pronouncing it “the best transect I’ve ever had!”….

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