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Saving the sparrows and skippers

Citizen scientists are being invited to work in 323-acre wetland meadow near Howard Prairie Lake to monitor imperiled species native to the Pacific Northwest.

The Vesper Meadow Education Program primarily focuses on the migratory Oregon vesper sparrow, and watches out for other endangered species such as the mardon skipper butterfly.

According to Jeanine Moy, director of the Vesper Meadow Education Program, both species have been proposed for the federal endangered species list due to their rapidly declining populations, but because of the lengthy process they are not receiving any kind of protection through the ESA.

Moy’s group, in partnership with the Klamath Bird Observatory, takes volunteers into the private preserve off Hyatt-Prairie Road to track the birds in the meadow and to check for things like where they nest and whether they have a colored band around their leg. Some of the birds were banded last year to better understand their migratory patterns and the cause of their declining population.

Jaime Stephens, science director at KBO, said the sparrows’ population has dropped 5% per year since KBO began studying them in 2013.

“With migratory species, the first step is to determine at which part of their annual life cycle they are facing challenges,” Stephens said. “For example, are birds surviving the winter? Are they producing offspring in the meadows of the Cascade-Siskiyou, where they migrate to nest in the summer?”

KBO is in the middle of an in-depth, three-year study that will contribute to a larger research effort led by the American Bird Conservancy on the entire range of subspecies.

Moy said organizations in Washington and Northern California are also contributing research on the vesper sparrow.

KBO research biologist Sarah Rockwell is collecting data on Oregon vesper sparrow survival, reproduction and movements between meadows at Lily Glen and throughout the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

“It’s been interesting to study Oregon vesper sparrows for a second year. We are finding very little dispersal to other adjacent meadows,” Rockwell said. “Last year, we found survival of vesper sparrow chicks to be quite high. After this year’s breeding season is over, we’ll be interested to see if data show nest success to be as high this year with the wetter, colder spring we had.”

Moy said KBO is working to secure funding to continue its research into next year. The data collection happens once a week for 10 weeks this summer.

To participate, email Moy at jeanine@vespermeadow.org or see www.vespermeadow.org and click the “get involved” tab.

Moy calls volunteers community scientists.

“The community science goes both ways,” Moy said. “Involving the community for the sake of collecting data is important, because you have more people out on the ground and you can get more information, and there is a lot of educational benefit and community building for the people in these programs whether it’s young students or retirees.”

The Vesper Meadow Education Program is structured through the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy and is a year-round program dedicated to more than just tracking imperiled species. Volunteers at the preserve can also monitor water health, wildfire and botany.

Moy also works to reconnect native people with the land.

“What I think is some of the most important work, other than collecting data about rare species, is reconnecting indigenous people with the land,” Moy said. “This past week we hosted a group from Signal Fire who brought 10 people, an all-indigenous group, and did a tour of the meadow and learned about the history of the property and the native people who lived there for thousands of years.”

In July, members of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon will visit the land and collect seeds from camas lilies. Moy said the Siletz tribe is a combination of multiple tribes who were forced to unify in Northern Oregon. It includes tribal members who utilized Vesper Meadow.

The camas lily was the second-most important food source after dried salmon for indigenous people in the region, Moy said.

“We’ll learn about the hydrology, native history of the land and collect seed just as they have for thousands of years,” Moy said. “I’m really excited to get to connect these people with the land. In many ways, it’s another thing that needs to be restored. We can restore the creek, the native plants and species, but it’s critical to restore the human connection with the land.”

Moy said she likes to celebrate art along with conservation and science because it reaches a wider audience.

“Art is a great way to spread what is happening through various mediums, and people learn in all different ways,” Moy said. “Sometimes art can reach a deeper audience.”

An art mentorship is available to nominated students at certain times throughout the year. Students are paired with local artists, from writers to painters, for a one-on-one mentorship day outside. The next art mentorship will take place this fall.

Moy said the owner of the property is working to obtain a conservation easement so that if something were to happen to her, the property would remain a nature preserve with a mission of conservation.

The vesper program was launched this spring after the property was purchased about a year ago.

The vesper sparrows are very tied to the meadow, Moy said. They nest on the ground, use the grasses to build their nests and find insects in the grass. Human development and cattle grazing threaten their habitat, and this research may unearth more information on what is causing their decline.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

An Oregon Vesper Sparrow in the meadow. The sparrow is proposed to be placed on the federal endangered species list because of its rapidly declining population. Photo by{ } Mel Clements.{ }