Saturday, April 16, 2011

Birdwatching on Kamm Creek

Kamm Creek is a waterway east of Lynden, Washington. It is also known as Kamm Ditch, Kamm Canal, and Stickney Slough on some maps. Before farming, it was a side channel of the Nooksack River. It's headwaters are springs, which combine with the many ditches in the heavy agricultural areas east of Lynden. Because the first half of the creek is too small to navigate with my canoe, I started my journey at the approximate midpoint of the stream, at a bridge crossing.

There weren't many birds in this area. The lack of a riparian buffer was striking. Along most of this stretch, corn or berry rows ended within 10 feet from the water.

Here is a closeup of what the vegetation looks like from the water. The picture above shows a corn field, with a dairy in the distance. A few shoots of reed canarygrass (a non-native, invasive weed) and tiny seedlings of western touch-me-not, a native herbaceous annual species. Behind these plants is a band of manure, less than 15 feet from the water.

My most recent bed time reading was a great little publication by the Washington State University Cooperative Extension called Manure Management Guidelines for Western Washington. It states that vegetated buffer strips (where manure is not applied) effectively reduce the pollution risk to both surface and ground water, and it states that recommended buffers are 10-30 feet in between manure applications and streams. Seems like a good idea to me, after all, because if it's properly applied, manure is a resource. But if it's applied too close to water, or when plants can't absorb it, it can't be utilized, and can become a pollution problem. There's nothing growing in this field, and it's been raining a lot, so I have little doubt that if the manure was applied recently, it's just getting washed into the creek.

The picture above shows a "v-ditch." V-ditches are frequently dug by farmers to help drain water out of fields so that soil can be worked in the spring. Because it's wet around Lynden, there are lots of these v-ditches. This v-ditch joins Kamm Creek at it's approximate mid-point. A lot of sediment is flowing into Kamm Creek as a result of these v-ditches. Hopefully a manure application wasn't just made to the field that this ditch is draining. I forgot to mention that Kamm Creek is a salmon stream. Sediment is really bad for salmon eggs and fry - it smothers fish eggs, and clogs the fish gills, making it difficult or impossible for fish to breathe. But you can't blame the farmers for wanting to dry out their fields.

Kamm Creek has been listed on the Washington State's list of polluted waters (the 303d polluted waters list) for ten years. It's been listed because tested levels of fecal coliform, dissolved oxygen, and pH exceed the state's water quality criteria.

Despite the lack of buffers, the manure, and the sediment plume, we had an interesting time canoeing down Kamm Creek. Near it's confluence with the Nooksack River, there are some nice wetlands along the creek, and some short stretches with native buffers, and newly installed narrow buffer strip plantings, and some exciting rapids just before the confluence. In these areas, we saw quite a few birds, including red tailed hawk, harrier, marsh wren, canada geese, double-crested cormorant, bufflehead, American widgeon, common snipe, American robin, American widgeon, common snipe, rufus-sided towee, harlequin duck, and we found two duck decoys.

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