by Denny Olson

Denny Olson

Normally, the Conservation Educator’s role is a bit more laid-back in the summer. The FAS Board suspends its meetings, schools are closed, educational trunks are unavailable during the month of July, and scheduled events wind down after Birdathon, International Migratory Bird Day, Tally Campout and the Montana Audubon Bird Festival. I had great fun MC-ing and judging the bird-calling contest in Great Falls at the state festival. I did a couple of assembly programs as alter-egos Professor Avian Guano and Doc Wild at Hedges School.

And then, this year, the gears were shifted and the direction changed. Our FAS-managed, 442-acre Owen Sowerwine Natural Area (OSNA) has been used for occasional education programs, but largely exists as a quiet place for the public to explore, go birding and contemplate. Our OSNA committee has done a wonderful job of creating and maintaining trails, bridges, entry points and kiosks, but they have also noticed problems with the naturalness of the Natural Area. Invasive plants like hound’s tongue, Canada thistle and an exotic highbush cranberry are increasing in abundance despite our volunteer efforts. The largest piece of OSNA, the Big Island, has been inaccessible during spring and early summer (which may or may not be a good thing).

And on first impression, in most of OSNA, it seems that our black cottonwoods are not reproducing well. There is an abundance of very old, very large, cottonwoods, and very little recruitment of new trees as replacements. This is concerning mostly because diverse age classes of black cottonwoods are strongly correlated to bird diversity in Western riparian areas.

So, the FAS OSNA Committee, Education Committee and Grants Committee saw the opportunity for some ongoing research into our diversity problem, a new education effort mixed in, and getting the tools for many other follow-up projects down the road.

I presented our objectives to the Flathead Conservation District in early June, and they generously voted (on the spot!) to fund our need for $2065-worth of forestry and tree-aging tools. The present point-count cottonwood age-class study is being conducted by International Baccalaureate Students from Flathead High School, as part of their Community Action Service requirement. They are testing the declining cottonwoods hypothesis, and will be presenting a program on the results for our November FAS general meeting. The students are really working hard out there mapping, coring trees and processing data, and I have had great fun training and working with them and am excited about seeing the results of their study.

The project will also be an educational “two-fer”. Besides the educational value of conducting good science, five of the high school students will be showing what they do to Hedges 4th-5th-grade students On September 8th, as part of what is becoming our traditional older-to-younger mentoring day in OSNA. I’m looking for a few Audubon volunteers to help with other activities that day, and no particular experience is necessary!

Then, on Saturday, September 16, we will be back into the saddle again at the eleventh annual Birds of Prey Festival at Lone Pine State Park – bigger and better than ever! (See the details about the Birds of Prey Festival here.)

Lastly, I get the feeling that I’m wearing out our old standby Audubon volunteers, and I’m looking for more folks to help with some of our education programs. If you know of anyone who might be interested who is NOT on the overworked Board of Directors, please let me know, and I’ll get on with the business of charming, cajoling, and recruiting them to help us in our wonderful and important work.