February 23, 2021

Comment to stop mining on Liberty Hill

The most unique ecosystem in Columbia County is slated to be destroyed for gravel mining. Liberty Hill supports an ecosystem (Willamette Valley camas meadow) that has been reduced to just 1% of its historic coverage. Here in NW Oregon all other large camas meadows have been destroyed - other than tiny plots here and there, Liberty Hill is the only camas meadow of significant size within at least 50km, and is one of the most pristine such meadows in northern Oregon with an incredible vernal wetlands system and unique plant, insect, and reptile life.

I wrote about the uniqueness of the ecosystem, and what can be done to try to preserve it, here:


Here are a few pictures of the site:

We would appreciate anyone who was willing to submit a public comment to the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Environmental Quality explaining why it is foolhardy to destroy the last remaining habitat of this type in the entire county.

More information about the hill is in this post, and instructions on how to submit a comment to USACE/DEQ are in the comments section:


Thank you for caring and for helping!

Posted on February 23, 2021 05:19 by jonhakim jonhakim | 0 comments | Leave a comment

December 02, 2020

Columbia County Hiking and Wildlife Guide

Wild Columbia! https://wildcolumbia.org/

In conjunction with our reptile and amphibian project, we've launched a website to help people find hiking and wildlife viewing opportunities in Columbia County. The website includes a field guide to all animals in the county from birds to mammals to snails, as well as a map of hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing localities in the county, summaries and maps to every location, and a blog of our experiences.

Please take a look and give us your feedback!

The website is https://wildcolumbia.org/

Posted on December 02, 2020 15:48 by jonhakim jonhakim | 2 comments | Leave a comment

April 06, 2020

Finding reptiles and amphibians at home

In these days of stay-at-home orders you can still make a big contribution to helping us get data in Columbia County. Many species of reptiles and amphibians are found right around the home if you know where to look. Here are a few little tricks for searching them out.

Objects around the home

The first place to look is underneath things. Not just anything - the best objects tend to be those that have been lying around undisturbed. Carefully lift up the object by the corner (so you don't crush whatever might be living there) and see what's underneath!

Amphibians need moisture, they tend to be found under logs, woodpiles, rocks, and other large objects that keep a nice seal so the soil below them has remained moist. I found this Oregon Ensatina under an old mat that sat in the shade next to a decorative log.

Julia and Kevin found several Long-toed Salamanders by flipping objects around the garden next to the house.

Reptiles on the other hand like warmth, so they tend to be found under boards, tins, and tarps that are exposed to a little bit of sunlight. This young Northern Alligator Lizard was under the tarp protecting some young seedlings.

And this fencing on the side of a horse field had lots of Northwestern Garter Snakes underneath.

Water sources

The next place to look is wherever there is water. The water source doesn't have to be big. This Northern Red-legged Frog was sitting next to a decorative pond.

Sometimes it's easiest to find frogs by tracking them down while they call at night. These Northern Pacific Treefrogs were calling from a flooded part of the yard after a rain.

The larger the water source, the more variety is possible. A canal next to my sister's field has American Bullfrogs and Western Painted Turtles. You often have to sneak up very slowly in order to spot the animals before they disappear under the water.

That same canal also produces Rough-skinned Newts, as little Kevin found out.

The woods

Those who are lucky enough to have wooded areas on their property have a variety more creatures to find. One of the best places to look is under logs. However, you must be very careful not to break off any bark or break apart any logs, as that destroys their habitat. Only those logs or pieces that can be moved carefully without damage and then placed right back in the same place should be touched.

This Oregon Ensatina was hiding in the loose wood of an old stump in the woods next to my sister's house.

And water bodies in the woods are great spots to look. The rocks under this tiny little stream often hold Dunn's Salamanders.

I hope that gives you a good idea of the possibilities right around your own home. Home data is vital to us as it helps us get a picture of the spread of herps across the whole country, not just on the hiking trails. Upload a picture of a frog or snake around your home and help us learn more about Columbia County's native animals.

Thanks for taking a look!

Posted on April 06, 2020 06:02 by jonhakim jonhakim | 0 comments | Leave a comment

March 05, 2020

How to find our reptiles and amphibians

There isn’t too much complexity to finding reptiles and amphibians in Columbia County. Two rules will tell you most of what you need to know.

#1. Search habitat edges

#2. Look under stuff

Let's start with searching habitat edges. Reptiles and amphibians tend to spend their time at the edges between two habitats, so you’re unlikely to find them in the middle of the forest or the middle of a field. Instead, you have to look at the boundary. For example:

  • In a field, snakes and lizards will often be at the edge of the road or in the short grass between the road and the denser vegetation. Here are some examples of edge habitats where Red-spotted Garter Snakes were found. When possible I try to photograph the snakes as they sit without picking them up, but you can be assured that all Columbia County species of snake are non-venomous.
  • In a lake, pond, or stream, you will find frogs, newts, and turtles at the edge of the water, either sitting just barely on land or floating just barely in the water. Here are some examples of edge habitats where Northern Red-legged Frogs were found. Amphibians are sensitive to touch so it’s best to just photograph frogs as they sit without disturbing them or their habitat.
Walk slowly and carefully at these habitat edges and pay as much attention as possible to the ground in front of you. Some more alert animals may try to hide as you approach, so you’ll want to scan ahead frequently so you can see them before they disappear. Walk in the grass just to the edge of the road, or alongside the long grass in a meadow, or along the edges of a pond, and see what you find! The other primary way to find reptiles and amphibians is by looking under stuff. The reptiles and amphibians which you can’t see are often hiding under something. Reptiles usually hide under objects that help them to stay warm (though moisture is also important), whereas amphibians are more concerned with staying moist. Some examples of places to look:
  • Snakes and lizards will usually be found under flat objects near habitat edges. A board, tin, or tarp lying on the edge of a field is the perfect place to find them. You want something that warms in the sun but not too warm. Here are some examples of objects that I’ve found Northern Rubber Boas underneath. After you've looked under an object, it's very important to replace it exactly how you found it so the snake’s habitat remains intact!
  • Terrestrial salamanders and frogs will often be found under logs or rocks in the forest or artificial objects near homes. They are looking for places that are moist but not soaked. Here are a few logs where I’ve found Western Long-toed Salamanders hiding. Important – never destroy or break apart a log when looking for salamanders – you’ll destroy their habitat! Only lift up any loose part without breaking anything and then return them carefully exactly the way you found them.
  • Semi-aquatic salamanders can be found under logs or rocks at the edge of the pond or stream. Some species will even be found under rocks that are right there in the stream. Here I'll show you where I’ve found Dunn’s Salamanders underneath the rocks. Remember to always pick up rocks carefully so you don’t crush the salamanders underneath, and then replace them exactly how you found them!

As I keep emphasizing, the most important thing to remember while looking for reptiles and amphibians is that we must not damage their habitat. If you pick up an object, do it very carefully so you don’t harm anything underneath. Any living animals should be removed before you set it back, so you don’t crush them. Set the rock or log back very carefully exactly how you found it, so that the habitat remains undisturbed and stays nice and moist. Then if you removed an animal from under it, you can take a picture to document your find, and then release it right on the edge of the log or rock so it can find its way back underneath easily.

Reptiles and amphibians can become disturbed and stressed easily, so we only handle them as long as it takes to get an accurate photo. If you can get a photo without touching the animal, it’s that much better. Amphibians in particular can dry out from handling and are bothered by the oils on our skin, so let them get along on their way ASAP.

That’s all you need to know to start looking for reptiles and amphibians in Columbia County. Walk the habitat edges, look under boards and other objects in places with a little sun, look under logs and rocks in places with a little moisture, and always put everything back just like you found it. Good luck getting some data!

Posted on March 05, 2020 05:35 by jonhakim jonhakim | 2 comments | Leave a comment

February 27, 2020

Why your data matters

How are reptiles and amphibians doing in Columbia County? Can you help us find out? Your data will make a difference!

Different animals require different habitats to survive. A beautiful meadow for one snake might be too cool or too dry for another. Here in the Pacific Northwest each reptile and amphibian has its own preferences: some need older forests with downed wood, a few prefer clearings on the forest edge, several require fast and well-shaded streams. Certain species are generalists, and other species are very specialized.

Painted Turtles, for instance, are only found in slow-moving water bodies with access to the sun and safe places to lay their eggs.

We'd love to know all we can about what lives here. But Columbia County hasn't received much attention from wildlife biologists and there's little knowledge of how our wildlife is faring. Matt and I decided to rectify that issue and produce an all-encompassing study of Columbia County's "herps". These are the questions we're trying to answer:

  • For each of our 25-30 reptile and amphibian species, do they occur all across the county or only in more limited areas?
  • For those species that are not widespread, where in the county do they occur?

If we find that certain species are limited to specific habitats, we're hoping that our survey helps to determine how widespread their habitat is in Columbia County. Some habitats are limited naturally (Columbia County doesn't have mountains) and others have been limited by people (old growth forest has been cut down). Have these limits made it difficult for some species to survive? After a couple years of getting the best data we possibly can, we should to be able to describe which reptiles and amphibians are most vulnerable in the county and use our information to inform questions of what habitat matters most.

One of Columbia County's relatively rare waterfall habitats:

We're also looking to verify the existence of particular species for the first time. So far we have already documented the first records of Western Skinks and Columbia Torrent Salamanders in the county, both of which we published in Herpetological Review. We know of 25 species found here, 22 of which we have officially recorded and 3 which we only know from word-of-mouth. There are 4-5 other species that "may" be found in Columbia County but have not been seen yet. We'd love to to find them soon!

A hopeful side effect of this project is that we can build more people's passion for wildlife and natural spaces. The more that people are interested in local wildlife, the more they'll work to conserve it. To this end, we have not only initiated this iNaturalist project but are also assisting 4H leaders and high school teachers to educate their students about local wildlife and how they can survey for reptiles and amphibians.

For instance, students can learn that Western Red-backed Salamanders are very common and quite pretty, but you'll never know they're there unless you know where to look. This one was hiding under a rock at the side of a stream, others are found under logs in moist, shaded forest.

So that's basically the project. We're trying to:

  1. map the entire county so we can show which reptiles and amphibians are widespread and which are more habitat-limited
  2. prove basic occurrence records for those species which have not been officially recorded
  3. identify which habitats are most in danger and/or supporting the most rarely seen reptiles and amphibians
  4. get people more interested in wildlife and conservation

What's your role? Data! Data! Data!

Matt and I can't cover the entire county by ourselves. Every bit of information matters, whether it is the most common garter snake or the rarest giant salamander. In letting us know exactly where these species can be found, you'll be adding to the body of knowledge about how widespread our wildlife is.

Are you willing to look around for some frogs, salamanders, turtles, lizards, and snakes, and record whatever you find?

Thanks for taking a look!

Posted on February 27, 2020 12:58 by jonhakim jonhakim | 2 comments | Leave a comment

October 02, 2019

The Fight to Save Liberty Hill

Liberty Hill Camas Bluff holds the most precious habitat in Columbia County. By far the largest stretch of camas meadow we have, it supports a unique range of flowers and is the best habitat for several reptile species that can hardly be found anywhere else in the county. The area has held a special place in my heart for several years.

You can view many gorgeous pictures of Liberty Hill at the Friends of Liberty Hill website: https://www.oregoncamas.com/

Unfortunately, Liberty Hill's continued existence is in danger. A basalt mining company has leased the land and plans to turn it into a open pit mine. There is little hope that the plants and animals who call Liberty Hill home would survive that process.

Friends of Liberty Hill was founded along the principle that there are other places to mine basalt, but there are no other camas flower meadows of this extent left in our county. They are hoping to spread the word about what is happening and work to find a solution so that Liberty Hill Camas Bluff can survive.

Two weeks ago Matt (the other half of our team) was able to give a presentation to Friends of Liberty Hill on the reptile and amphibian species that are known from the meadow and its surrounding forest and wetlands. The group's next meeting will be on November 20th, most likely in Scappoose, and all members of the Columbia County Reptiles and Amphibians group are welcome to attend (and please tell your friends).

For more information, you can visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/friendsoflibertyhillcamasbluff/ or their main website shared above.

I believe that habitat protection is our #1 most important priority if we want to conserve our native wildlife, and Liberty Hill Camas Bluff is the most important small block of habitat in all of Columbia County. I'll be doing everything I can to make a difference so that this beautiful remnant of our heritage can survive.

Posted on October 02, 2019 19:21 by jonhakim jonhakim | 2 comments | Leave a comment

April 24, 2019

Great news!

The first really neat fruit of the project has come! The three Columbia Torrent Salamanders (Rhyacotriton kezeri) that Matt found in January have proven to be the first confirmed records of Columbia Torrent Salamander from Columbia County, and the furthest east that the species has been recorded in Oregon.

After checking the museum records, checking the field guides, checking the published papers, and talking to about a dozen herpetologists in the region, Matt and I were able to submit the find to Herpetological Review, an international journal. They have confirmed that Matt's county record and new range extension will be published in the June edition of the journal.

Something else we confirmed through the whole process is that there are very few published reptile and amphibian records for Columbia County. The lack of investigation of the county was noted to us over and over. So keep looking and see what else you might find!

Posted on April 24, 2019 09:10 by jonhakim jonhakim | 2 comments | Leave a comment

January 26, 2019

Coming back home

"We" are Jon and Matt, who met at St. Frederick's and grew up close friends, Jon going to St. Helens High and Matt going to Scappoose High. Inspired by Jon's dad's work at the Oregon Zoo, as kids we had various adventures in the little tracks of forest in Warren and beyond, finding garter snakes and newts and whatever else would show up.

Both of us eventually left the region for college, Jon becoming a science teacher and Matt becoming a wildlife surveyor. But over the last year Matt moved back to the county and Jon has spent increasingly more time there. We've realized that Columbia County has a fascinatingly diverse set of reptiles and amphibians, and also a very poorly documented one, with little herpetological work ever having been done in the county.

("Herpetological" means "pertaining to the study of reptiles and amphibians", just in case anyone didn't know.)

That has inspired us to do a study of the reptiles and amphibians of the area. We'll be combining hundreds of our observations with surveys of other people we know as well as museum records. But we thought that in order to get a complete report, it would be best to crowd-source information too!

That's where you come in. Every bit of additional information we get regarding where in the county salamanders, frogs, turtles, snakes, and lizards can be found will be helpful to the project.

For the final product, we hope to publish a description of the reptile and amphibian species that occur in the county. We currently estimate there are between 27 and 30 of them! Each species report will describe how relatively easy the species is to find in the county, what habitats it is found in, and what regions of the county it is found it. We will not be publishing exact locations, but have divided the county up into 100 regions so it helps us to have accurate information so we can show generally where each species occurs.

Thank you for your participation!

Jon and Matt

Posted on January 26, 2019 03:55 by jonhakim jonhakim | 0 comments | Leave a comment