From The Knight Times - By Brian Haggerty
Warner Pacific has a new class this year: BIO 216 Urban Ecology and Ecosystem Services with Lab. If you are looking for an easy A, keep looking, If you are looking to explore how Portland uses its land in urban areas, while you are also learning to develop ways to improve your own community’s urban living, you may have found your class.
There are no prerequisites for this course, except for sophomore standing. The class syllabus describes Urban Ecology as a survey course for the non-science major to enhance ones understanding of the ecological principles and processes as they relate to urban living. Ecosystem Services is a phrase used to identify the services provided by ecological systems, specifically to human society. In the course, students will learn new ways to become involved with the community through an ecological perspective.
The text book Environmental Science by G. Tyler Miller, Jr. and Scott E. Spoolman describes the environment as everything around us, or as the famous physicist Albert Einstein put it, “The environment is everything that isn’t me.” It includes the living and the nonliving things (air, water, and energy) with which we interact in a complex web of relationships that connect us to one another and to the world we live in. The three goals of environmental science are to learn how nature works, to understand how we interact with the environment, and to find ways to deal with environmental problems and live more sustainably. Sustainability is the ability of the earth’s various natural systems and human systems and economies to continually survive and adapt to changing environmental conditions.
Dr. Brad Tripp, who earned his PhD from University of Northern Colorado, is the instructor and proposed bringing the Urban Ecology class to Warner Pacific. During the first class he explained that we will be talking about how people living in the city, “carve out these concrete structures, and as they do, they start planting things and they start greenifying it and they try to bring nature everywhere they go, and that creates spaces and places and contacts for wildlife and for ecological systems.” He went on to explain that we will discover that cities are not sustainable by themselves and are supported by ecosystem services outside of the cities.
The class has a lab, which means that every other Friday we have a field trip. On our first field trip, in about four hours, we explored six very different parks around the east side of Portland. We went to these six parks to look at land use, to identify significant differences between parks, and to gain a broader definition of what a park is.
Mt. Tabor Park, our neighbor to the north, is an urban/multiple use park with a lot of green space and recreational areas such as basketball courts, hiking trails, a dog park and tennis courts for the community to use. Named after Mt. Tabor in Israel, our Mt. Tabor is sitting on top of a dormant volcanic cinder cone. With its beautiful views and convenient location, it’s definitely a Portland favorite.
West Powellhurst City Park is an urban park/sports park without a lot of green space, although there is a soccer field and a baseball field. If not for this field trip, I may have never known that it existed. By the way, if you ever do need a field, the park is located just below SE Division off of SE 115th.
Ed Benedict Park, located close to SE Powell and SE 100th, is an urban park with a lot of amenities including a basketball court, restrooms, paths, picnic tables, a playground, a memorial garden, a public garden, a wedding site, a skate park and a soccer field. The skate plaza has 18,000 sq ft of street skating with ledges, edges, stairs, rails, and banks. By using recycled and/or sustainable materials in its construction, and with its native landscaping and on-site storm water treatment, this site is considered to be the first environmentally sensitive skate plaza ever constructed.
Beggars-Tick Wildlife Refuge is a 20-acre wildlife refuge in Southeast Portland, near Southeast 111th Avenue between Foster Road and Harold Street. The wetlands were restored here in 1993, providing habitat to many species of animals and playing a role in the path of migrating birds that would have a difficult migration without resting points, protected areas and food sources. By the way, a “Beggars-tick” is a type of plant. The name “Beggars-Tick” is related to the double-barbed seed which easily sticks to the pants of beggars. It’s considered an invasive weed in many parts of the world, but here it’s a native plant.
Gilbert Heights Park is an urban park/sports park near SE 130th and Boise St. At this park are nicely maintained paths, picnic tables, a soccer field, and a softball field. What is most memorable about Gilbert Heights is that there is a community garden. If you are interested in staking a plot in one of the 35 community gardens located throughout Portland, you should put your name on the list as soon as possible. Sign up by visiting www.portlandparks.org, selecting the nature tab at the top of the page, and clicking on community gardens.
Powell Butte Nature Park is located at 16160 SE Powell Blvd and sits on an extinct cinder cone volcano just like Mt Tabor Park. The park is comprised of 608 acres of meadowland and forest. Recreational uses of the park include biking, hiking and riding horses. Abundant wildlife populates the park, including rabbits, ring-necked pheasants, ground squirrels, raccoons, gray foxes, skunks, bats, chipmunks, coyotes, and black-tailed mule deer.
The trip concluded that afternoon with a visit to North West Portland to observe Vaux’s Swifts at Chapman Elementary School. Dr. Tripp describes the event at the school as “a great show,” and also a “huge wildlife spectacle that happens right here in Portland.” Hundreds of people come to the lawn at Chapman Elementary to watch these birds.
The Vaux’s Swifts are small birds that use an old, giant, industrial looking chimney at Chapman to roost in before the birds migrate south. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Vauxs_Swift/id, the Vaux’s Swift is very similar to the Chimney Swift, a common species of the eastern United States, in appearance and habits. Vaux’s Swifts are native western North American birds.
The swifts are gregarious (that means friendly to others of their species) and they roost (sleep) together. Roosting as a community may help them in several ways: finding each other before the long journey as well as finding safe nightly roost spots along the way, providing role models for young birds, avoiding predators and keeping warm. They used to roost in the hollows of huge dead old growth trees, but there are far fewer of those trees than there used to be. They arrive in Oregon in late April, court their mates in May and June, and have their 4 – 6 eggs laid and hatched by July. They nest in pairs, often in much smaller house chimneys – one pair per chimney. Throughout the month of September, you can find the swifts at Chapman Elementary School.
We arrived at Chapman about 30 minutes before actual sunset time. The normally quiet North West neighborhood was bustling with families and couples that came to watch the thousands of migrating Vaux’s Swifts. It was a summer holiday atmosphere and kids were running and playing on the soccer field. Everyone gathered on the south lawn where there is a hill for an excellent view of the school’s smokestack. The kids had flattened some cardboard boxes and were using them to slide down the hill. I would guess that there were at least 400 people there. Right away, as we were weaving our way through everyone’s picnic blankets to find a spot to sit, I could see hundreds of swifts circling above. As we watched, the number of birds grew until thousands of swifts were swarming above us, creating a black cloud of swirling birds. They circled around and around, with a few swifts dipping suddenly toward the chimney top then returning to the flock. A couple of times, the crowd gasped as a hawk swooped in right above the chimney, where the swifts numbered the most. The first time the hawk made an appearance, the crowd cheered as the swifts swerved elegantly, dodging the hawk’s attack. Then the crowd booed and hissed when the hawk sliced his way into the flock a second time and snatched a tiny bird away. Eventually, after twilight and right before dusk, one or two of the Vaux’s Swifts darted into the chimney. Then, as if the chimney was a bathtub drain just released, the whole flock formed a mini tornado and spiraled down into the smokestack’s mouth. Twenty minutes after the official sunset time, the spectacle was completely over, and the air was calm and quiet.