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Cormorant colonies take toll on forests.

Byline: LARRY BACON The Register-Guard

REEDSPORT - It's not a pretty sight, unless you're a cormorant.

Dead and dying trees mar a huge hunk of wooded hillside on the Umpqua River estuary that's visible downstream to northbound traffic from the Highway 101 bridge. What used to be a scenic piece of forest in the little-used Tideways State Park began changing in the late '80s when cormorants started building nests in the trees.

Locals say the number of long-necked, gangly black birds has increased in recent years, with cormorant-caused devastation becoming much more noticeable. During cormorant nesting season, which runs from March through August, the hillside becomes thick with the birds, whose droppings turn trees, plants and the ground white. The onslaught is so great that many of the trees and plants die.

The hillside is part of the shoreland of Bolon Island between the Umpqua and Smith rivers. About 500 feet of shoreline on the 150-foot hillside has been decimated by the birds.

Roy Lowe, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department biologist at Newport, estimates the hillside supports 200 to 300 nests in the summer, and said the colony's population may peak at more than 800 birds.

Lee Allen, a state parks ranger who does trail maintenance work in the park, said the trees are "black with birds" during nesting season - and that the noise they make sounds like a stadium full of people talking excitedly and all at once.

Cormorant excrement is pretty potent stuff, according to Lowe. The guano, which has been harvested as fertilizer in some parts of the world, is super-rich in nitrogen.

"It's so hot it burns the vegetation," Lowe said.

The trees and plants die, he said, because the foliage gets showered by the caustic droppings, and the soil in which they grow becomes saturated with nitrogen.

It's upsetting to longtime residents such as Eric Boe, a tugboat operator who liked the hillside much better when it was lush and green with second growth Douglas Fir and spruce.

"It's a nice piece of public real estate and it's being ruined by an excessive number of cormorants," he said.

Like seals, the cormorants have never been popular with fishermen because they feed on juvenile salmon and other fish. Boe remembers the days when locals liked to use them for crab bait. But since the mid-1970s the birds have been protected under federal law enacted for the benefit of migratory birds.

Former Reedsport Mayor Tom Tymchuk calls the cormorant damage "visible pollution" and said it concerns a lot of people in the Reedsport-Gardiner area.

Gary Ferguson, manager of the idle International Paper Co. paper mill property at Gardiner and a member of the Lower Umpqua Economic Development Forum, said that group has talked about trying to get something done about the bird blight.

It's sad to see, he said, at a time when just to the north of the bird colony the American Bridge Co. is building a new steel fabrication plant that has become a source of community pride for the lower Umpqua River area.

No one has proposed hurting the birds or trying to scare them. Lowe said anything that would harm the eggs or young birds would be illegal.

But both Boe and Ferguson have talked to state parks officials about how to deal with the problem. Maybe cutting out the dead snags would improve the looks of the hillside and eventually persuade the birds to move, Ferguson said.

But Lowe doesn't see what the fuss is all about. Eventually, the colony will probably move, he said.

"Yeah, they've killed some trees," he said. "But in the grand scheme of things, that's not a lot of trees."

A better approach, he said, might be to set up an interpretive area and some spotting scopes across the river so the public can appreciate what's happening and get a good look at the nesting activity.

He said the birds in question are double-crested cormorants, one of three species along the Oregon Coast and the only ones that nest in both saltwater and fresh water areas. Found all across the United States, they nest in rocks, cliffs and bulrushes as well as trees. The two other cormorant varieties stay close to the sea and mainly nest in offshore rocks and cliffs.

Along the coast, Lowe knows of only four cormorant tree-nesting colonies. Two are on the Umpqua River, one on the Siuslaw and another near Cape Arago in Coos County.

You won't find a sign identifying the 11-acre Tideways park. There's a pullout and a historical marker telling about a nearby Indian massacre of most of a party of 17 trappers headed by explorer Jedediah Smith in 1828. Behind the sign, a half-mile trail heads out through timber to a fork with one branch going to a scenic point and the other into woods with the cormorant colony.

Near the trailhead stands a small stone marker commemorating the donation of "Tide Ways Island Memorial Park" to the state in 1934 by William and Jennie Chamberlain in memory of their five children.

The park and the trail, which provide some sweeping views of the Umpqua River estuary, have always been a favorite with locals, said Dennis

Davidson, an assistant area state parks manager at Florence, who oversees management of the Bolon Island property.

But few others even know about the park, he said, because the department hasn't had the resources to put up a sign or provide such minimal development as benches or picnic tables.

Even now, the trail is blocked by fallen trees remaining from a windstorm last February. Davidson said the trail will be cleared this winter, and there has been talk about asking American Bridge to help with benches, tables or an interpretive sign about the cormorants.

Davidson said he doesn't see much that can be done, short of cutting down some dead trees.

"But if we fell the dead ones, the birds will just move into the live ones and kill more, which they probably are going to do anyway," Davidson said. "It's a challenge, and I don't know the right answer."

CAPTION(S):

Cormorant droppings, such as the ones on an elderberry branch (above), have killed trees and understory vegetation along the Umpqua River on Bolan Island. LARRY BACON / The Register-Guard Tugboat operator Eric Boe looks from the Umpqua River bridge at the damage to the forest caused by the droppings of nesting cormorants.
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Title Annotation:Birds' droppings kill trees, other plants during long nesting season; Environment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 15, 2002
Words:1071
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