Three Weeks in the Field

by Tiffany Thio & Sarah Kidd

In August, our monitoring team spent over 100 hours in the wetlands of the Columbia River estuary, collecting important ecology data for salmonid habitat restoration and conservation.

Every year, we gather data to help us understand the habitats and ecology of the Columbia River estuary. We track a variety of sites and information to understand how habitat is changing in response to conditions like climate change, and how restoration project sites are recovering.

The estuary field work schedule is determined by the rise and fall of the tides. Many of our wetland sites are only accessible during low tide, so attempting to leave when the tide is high can be hazardous. As a result, much of our work began at the early hours between 4-6 AM. Between plant identification, collecting biomass samples, and taking soil measurements, GPS points, and sediment accretion data, every person in our group had their hands full.

Despite the time constraints and the difficulties of traveling through wetlands, we had our fair share of fun as well! April Silva of CREST brought homemade vegan rice krispy treats every morning for a week, making the early starts much more bearable.

The day we surveyed at Cunningham Lake, it was also research scientist Sneha’s birthday! We celebrated by wearing shiny rainbow party hats in the field, eating chocolate chip cookies, and a post-work swim in the river.

Working in the wetland allowed us to encounter some fascinating animals rarely seen on your average Pacific Northwest hike. Bryozoans—aquatic invertebrates that clump together to form large, gelatinous colonies—showed up as squishy blobs in the warm, cloudy water at LaCenter. It was fascinating and a little gross. There were also leeches at some of sites, which some of the team had never seen before. Other sightings include a black bear, four river otters, bald eagles, and too many crayfish to count.

Ecology by the Numbers

During the month of August, the monitoring team:

  • 9 scientists and field technicians spent over 100 hours in the field each
  • surveyed 12 wetland sites with 820 sample plots
  • IDed over 225 wetland plant species
  • took over 200 biomass samples
  • made over 3,000 soil measurements

More about what we monitor: We track wetland plant community changes both at long-term reference sites, which represent ideal conditions, and restoration sites, which have been recently restored back to tidal wetland conditions. Plant community data allow us to see how the estuary’s wetlands are changing over time, and how well our restoration sites are recovering native plant communities. Additionally, we collect above ground plant biomass—literally just how much plant matter is growing in an area—and soil chemistry data. Biomass samples give us insight into wetland plant community productivity and contributions to the salmonid food web. Soil data helps us understand how the chemistry of the mud is influencing biomass production a nd plant development. We also monitored water levels, topography, sediment accretion, and erosion across all our sites. Together these data help us understand how the estuary’s wetlands are shifting in response to climate conditions and restoration efforts.