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24-hour BioBlitz catalogs critters alive in Forest Park

• Team of naturalists document 248 types of animal species


by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT/PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - John Deshler of Portland Parks & Recreation is spearheading the first-ever project to chronicle all the wildlife species that call Forest Park home.  
In the fictional wonderland set in Forest Park, “Wildwood” author Colin Meloy describes the park as an “impassable wilderness.”

“No one’s ever gone in — or at least returned to tell of it,” Meloy writes.

John Deshler, the city of Portland’s Forest Park wildlife expert, would characterize it differently but agrees the park has its mystique.

Especially when you think that the 5,100-acre urban paradise is home to a whopping 248 species of animals, more than half of them of the creepy, crawly nature. There are 99 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish, plus 149 species of bugs such as snails, slugs, insects, spiders, and millipedes.

That’s the official word since May 24, when dozens of volunteers fanned out across Forest Park for the city’s first-ever “BioBlitz,” conducted by Portland Parks & Recreation.

A BioBlitz is a 24-hour event in which teams of experts survey a designated area to find and document the diversity of wildlife. Blitzes have occurred at national parks, recreation areas and city parks across the country.

Portland has been slow to catch onto the trend, but the parks bureau set aside funds last year to hire a wildlife expert for a year’s time to study Forest Park’s wildlife. That would be Deshler, a former “software guy” who began studying pygmy owls in Forest Park as part of a master’s degree in biology six years ago.

Starting out his assignment, Deshler waded through past studies of Forest Park: the 1960 “History of Forest Park” by retired parks leader Thornton Munger, the city’s Forest Park Natural Resources Management Plan of 1976 and a 1995 update. He’s also read and begun synthesizing data from local university researchers, citizen science projects, the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count and other sources.

Still, there are gaps in the data, he says.

“We have a very good handle on diversity among birds, amphibians, reptiles, and even with mammals,” he says. But more data is needed about small mammals, like voles and wood rats. “While people may not think those important, they’re often quite important as food for the larger mammals up the food chain.”

Filling out more details about the park’s small mammals can help tell a story about the ecosystem. “We don’t understand which bats are breeding in the park, as opposed to just using it to forage,” Deshler says.

Hence the BioBlitz.

Filling the gaps

In the months leading up to the event, Deshler recruited 31 wildlife experts, all eager to take on the challenge. Many of Portland’s leading scientists and the region’s top taxonomists took part, including Jim LaBonte of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Mark Hitchcox of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Eric LaGasa and Chris Looney of the Washington Department of Agriculture.

Team leaders led an army of 114 volunteers to find and document the different mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish, mollusks and birds. Plants, fungi and lichens were excluded because the park’s vegetation was already well surveyed.

On May 24, teams set up stations at the park with backpacks full of binoculars, field guides, communication radios, first-aid kits, snacks and emergency routes to the nearest hospital (which they didn’t have to use).

The two bat teams recorded sound with ultrasonic detectors, then analyzed the recordings with special software called SONOBAT. Nocturnal, terrestrial mammal teams used motion-detection cameras. Bird teams used binoculars and in one case a “hoot-flute” to call owls. Amphibian teams used nets, pans, waders and special gloves for handling live specimens. Bug teams used sweep nets, bug lights, white sheets, microscopes and pitfall traps — one of which accidentally caught a vagrant shrew, later released unharmed.

They worked from noon to noon the next day, in order to include nocturnal species.

They found a lot of the expected, but a few surprises too.

Birds of all stripes

Sixty-six different bird species were found (1,133 birds in all) during the BioBlitz, including a northern saw-whet owl nest, spotted when the observers caught a glimpse of the owlet peering out from its nest cavity. Birders also found several localized and often elusive species: Cassin’s vireo, Hutton’s vireo, Bullock’s oriole, olive-sided flycatcher, white-breasted nuthatch and yellow warbler.

The most often-detected songbirds were American robin, Wilson’s warbler and Pacific wren.

Birders were surprised not to have found a yellow-rumped warbler, hermit warbler or a great-horned owl, although four other species of owl were found.

Wildlife lovers might be intrigued to know that three pair of bald eagles are breeding in the park now, using old-growth trees for their nests.

On a misty morning in mid-June, a few weeks after the BioBlitz, Deshler stopped along Forest Park’s Leif Erickson Trail to pick out a birdcall nearby.

“It’s a Swainson’s thrush,” he says. “It kind of sounds like a tape rewinding. We know when they arrive, almost always the 10th of May. It’s a nice bird to have. People like it because of the song it makes.”

Salamanders aplenty

As for mammals, the total species count came to 18 (64 animals), everything from mice and bats to shrew, deer, elk and coyote and a northern flying squirrel. They found six bat species, including three previously undocumented in the park: the long-eared myotis, long-legged myotis and Yuma myotis.

The most common species was the noisy Douglas squirrel, followed by coast mole, which was often found dead near trails.

The fact that no voles, rabbits, rats, skunks, mountain beavers, opossum or weasels were detected is representative of their nocturnal and elusive habits, Deshler says, not their absence.

Five species of amphibians were found (90 in all), all of them salamanders. The most common was the Pacific giant salamander — 35 of them spotted at the park that day.

Observers didn’t find any frogs or newts, but that’s nothing to be alarmed about, Deshler says. Two weeks of dry weather prior to the event likely drove Pacific chorus frogs and northern red-legged frogs into hiding, he says.

Reptiles sent just one representative to the party: a common garter snake. Reptile diversity and abundance in Forest Park is typically low, so Deshler didn’t think that was unusual.

‘Too much to look at

A full 60 percent of the living creatures observed were bugs — 149 species of arthropods (bugs with an exoskeleton).

Susan Masta, an associate professor of biology at Portland State University, led one of the teams, employing the talents of her advanced invertebrae zoology students.

“Most of the biodiversity is really small, and you don’t see it because it’s in the leaf litter,” she says, using the term for the organic material that lies under foot.

She and her students grabbed handfuls of leaf litter, putting it in four-gallon Ziploc bags and bringing it back to the lab to examine under microscopes.

“There was so much biodiversity — so as not to overwhelm them I had them focus on counting the number of springtails and different species of springtails and species of mites,” Masta says. “There were many other things — centipedes, millipedes, spiders and ants, but it was too much to look at.”

Because the diversity among each species is so great — there were 17 species of spider, 52 species of beetle, 14 species of moths and butterflies — Masta and her team enlisted the help of experts online.

There were bug experts standing by, awaiting Portland BioBlitz photos to be posted so they could help identify them.

“There’s no taxonomic expert alive that can possibly identify all of the invertebrates out there,” Masta says. “We’re still gaining that knowledge.” The photos are still available to view at bugguide.net.

Deshler has been compiling data gleaned from the BioBlitz into a report he hopes to have ready for city leaders this fall.

He doesn’t know if there will be another BioBlitz or how park leaders will use it.

He’s just glad to have solid, grounded data.

“We now have an inventory we didn’t have,” Deshler says. “The point is to make sure park managers know what’s going on in the park so they can best balance the management of the park for all users.”