Fern Ridge Dam repair--What about the birds?

by Kat Beal, Wildlife Biologist

US Army Corps of Engineers
As many Quail readers know, Fern Ridge supports an amazing variety of breeding and wintering birds. Designated as an Important Bird Area in 2002, Fern Ridge provides important habitat for migrating and wintering shorebirds and breeding habitat for species not commonly found west of the Cascades, including Black Tern, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and more recently Black-necked Stilt and Wilson's Phalarope. In the last 20 years the Corps and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have created over 900 acres of wetland impoundments--essentially large wetlands where water levels can be managed independently from the lake's elevation. These impoundments have provided more stable habitats, and allowed managers to improve wetland composition by converting canary grass to higher quality native plants.
In order to repair the failing drainage system in the dam, the Corps will not refill the reservoir this year. The lake's elevation will remain at 353' mean sea level, or the normal winter pool of about 1000 acres. With evaporation and the provision of downstream flows, the lake's level is expected to drop even lower by the end of the summer.
Although hundreds of acres of marshlands will be left high and dry, 900 acres of impoundments will be flooded and for the most part accessible to bird watchers during the breeding season. Because aquatic habitat will be limited, it will be very important to minimize the impact of our presence. A good rule of thumb is that if you are flushing birds, you are too close.
Birding areas normally open that will be closed this year include all of Kirk Pond, the dam, and Orchard Point and Perkins Peninsula Parks. Open areas include:
Royal Ave.
The Corps has constructed a new parking area at the Royal avenue access. Access to much of the dry lakebed and to most of the impoundments to the south will be available from this point. The western-most of the new impoundments will be closed to provide refuge for breeding birds.
Cantrell Rd. and K.R. Nielson Rd.
Access the West and East Coyote Units and the Coyote Creek trail from Cantrell Rd. The East Coyote impoundments will be flooded and will remain open to public access but may be closed if excessive disturbance to breeding birds is observed. In late spring and summer, Vesper Sparrows and Lazuli Buntings breed in uplands.
Coyote Creek and Long Tom Trail
These two trails were developed and are managed by ODFW. Both provide pleasant walks through riparian habitat and are very birdy in spring. Be sure to bring mosquito protection!
The lake itself will no doubt attract fish-eating birds as lake levels drop and further concentrate fish. Good access to the lakebed will be available at the end of Shore Lane and either end of Royal Avenue.