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The notions of suppressing and containing fire on the landscape are comparatively recent additions to the human experience. Prior to the invention of various machinery and retardant chemicals that gave us the ability to 'fight' fire, we were, like other creatures, at the mercy of it. Historically, fire was and continues to be more of a tool that was used by various cultures to transform the landscape.
Despite technological advances, periodic wildfire is still a major player in shaping the montane landscapes of western North America. For those of us who watch birds in this region, it is helpful to understand the effects of fire on the plants and animals that inhabit these environs. On 6 July 2013, Shawneen Finnegan, Ann Nightingale, Jim Danzenbaker and I spent most of the day exploring a recently burned area on the south flank of Mt. Adams in south-central Washington.
The expansive Cascade Creek Fire, which was started by lightning on 8 September 2012, blackened more than 20,000 acres before it was fully controlled more than a month later. The charred area extends from timberline in the Mt. Adams Wilderness area downslope into one of the few patches of mature ponderosa pine in Skamania County, Washington.
The county straddles the Cascade Range divide, with Mt. St. Helens on its western edge, Mt. Adams acting as the northeast corner stake and the Columbia River serving as its southern boundary. Aside from the narrow Wind River drainage, there are essentially no lowlands within its borders. Its upland forests are mostly comprised of wet slope trees. Firs, cedars, hemlocks, Douglas fir, bigleaf maple and red alder dominate most of the woodlands, with some lower elevation white oak along the Columbia River and in the southeast corner. Ponderosa pine, a dry slope specialist that hosts a variety of species not normally found west of the Cascade crest, is only found in a limited belt along the eastern edge of the county.
Following some excellent directions provided by Eric Bjorkman, we accessed the Cascade Creek burn by going north out of Trout Lake, Washington on Mt. Adams Rd. (Mt. Adams Recreation Hwy on some maps). After about a mile F.S. 23 Rd. (to Randle) peels off to the left. Stay to right on Mt. Adams Rd., and continue less than a mile before turning left onto F.S. 80 Road. After a few miles on F.S. 80 you'll come to another split, where staying right puts you onto F.S. 8040 Rd and going left puts you onto F.S. 8031 Road. We stayed on F.S. 8040, which continues on for several miles before terminating just below timberline at the trailhead for the South Climb Trail #183. This route ascends through several forest types and into the burn.
The first couple of miles of F.S. 8040 are flat, with a mix of mature ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. In the unburned stretches the understory is mostly brush with some wetter patches featuring dense vine maple and alders. In the lowest reaches of the fire zone, the blaze was mostly a ground fire that rarely 'crowned.' The absence of significant understory and the charred lower trunks of massive ponderosa pines and Douglas firs (still living) offer the only signs of the event. We birded this stretch both coming and going and it provided much of the species diversity that we encountered, including Williamson's Sapsucker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, and lots of other pine forest birds like Dusky Flycatcher, Chipping Sparrow, Cassin's Finch, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin. Both Cassin's and Warbling Vireos, along with MacGillivray's Warbler and to a lesser extent Nashville Warbler are pretty common here and we also had several Yell0w-rumped Warblers. A couple of Hermit Warblers were in the unburned area just as we started to climb out of the ponderosa pine.
About three miles in, the road (F.S. 8040) climbs rapidly into the heart of the burn area. The ponderosa pine thins out and a typical mid-slope (3000-5000' elev.) assortment of trees takes over. This part of the forest is/was mostly Douglas firs, true firs, hemlocks and we found a few small stands of aspens in wet draws. Large parcels are utterly devoid of living trees. This was a 'stand replacement' fire in the truest sense. Where the fire burned hottest there is still no ground cover. It's a dusty moonscape populated with blackened tree trunks and very few living things of any kind, including birds. In these areas even the bear grass–often about the only emerging vegetation during the first post-fire growing season–has yet to regenerate. The occasional birds that we pished up in such spots were generally limited to three species, Chipping Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, and Pine Siskin.
At the crest of the first lengthy uphill climb, you'll round a sharp curve and there is a steep drop-off on the east side of F.S. 8040. This marks the edge of the fully burned area. We had our first Black-backed Woodpecker of the day here and brief looks at a Red-naped Sapsucker. A family group of Gray Jays were in the live trees on the west side of the road.
Woodpeckers are the primary attraction when it comes to post-fire birding. As was the case with this visit, the first spring/summer season after a burn can be underwhelming, as it seems to take a year or two before the infestation of wood-boring insects takes hold. Without this vital food source, woodpeckers are sure to be scarce.
After visiting this fire site, I am anxious to go back in the next couple years. I suspect that the coming two or three breeding seasons will yield a woodpecker bonanza in this burn. We did find a few woodpeckers, including three Black-backeds, which along with American Three-toed are the two species Pacific Northwest birders most associate with burned areas.
Despite modest success with woodpeckers, we were not hearing "tappers" every time we got out of the car. When the expected onslaught is fully under way, the soft rapping of feeding Piciformes is likely to be a constant part of the soundscape throughout this burn. As we walked and drove through the blackened forest we were not seeing any woodpecker workings or freshly-excavated holes, nor did we find any active woodpecker nests. In fact, the only active cavity nest that we found upslope was that of a pair of Mountain Bluebirds. They were in one of the most severely burned areas on a plateau where there are broad pullouts on both sides of the road (where Mt. Adams first comes into clear view).
Continuing upslope towards timberline and the South Climb trailhead, the mix of trees transitions to hemlock, spruce, noble fir, and lodgepole pine dominant, with few trees that are more than 30-40 feet in height. Aside from bear grass, low matted sub-alpine shrubs, and various wildflowers, there isn't much in the way of understory.
Few bird species occupy this vegetation zone to begin with and our arrival coincided with the mid-afternoon nadir in avian activity. Besides a single Common Raven, plus a handful of Yellow-rumped Warblers, juncos, Chippings Sparrows, and Pine Siskins, we didn't see much.
Among these species, the only juveniles I saw were Yellow-rumped Warblers. It's hard to say if the Dark-eyed Juncos and Chipping Sparrows are even breeding in this fire-compromised habitat. Perhaps there isn't enough shrubby/grassy vegetation or food supply to support ground nesters. I saw what appeared to be adult pairs of juncos and little groups of adult Chipping Sparrows, none of which were carrying food or exhibiting agitated behavior that would suggest we were near a nest site.
For our group, most notably Jim and Shawneen, the scarcity of birds wasn't problematic, as there was an abundance of butterflies to occupy our attentions. Although my need for identifying butterfly species will likely never match my enthusiasm for birding, I am now able to recognize several species on sight and I've gradually learned to sort them by types, mostly by the osmosis that occurs when one is in the presence of those who know far more than I do. Butterflies make beautiful photo subjects and provide a welcomed diversion when a hot midsummer afternoon or a burnt landscape yield little bird activity.
While a burn is not the sort of place where one can expect to rack up a triple-digit daylist of bird species, exploring a fire-charred landscape will provide a look at how forests quickly regenerate after a major wildfire. Some might consider this forest to be dead, but wildfire is integral part of a forest's life-cycle and a closer look in the aftermath of a fire event offers insight into the resiliency of its inhabitants and just how quickly plants, insects, birds, and mammals return and thrive. Over the next couple of summers the Cascade Creek Burn should prove to be haven for woodpeckers and other cavity nesting, insectivorous birds. Butterflies are likely to abound as well. I know that I will we go back, hopefully many times. For those who might have the opportunity to do the same, the Google Map at the link below might be of use. It includes pin drops marking and describing some areas of potential interest.