British Columbia Mine Reclamation Symposium

Utilization of reclamation habitats by birds within the Highland Valley copper operating area, Logan… Howie, Richard 2006

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UTILIZATION OF RECLAMATION HABITATS BY BIRDS WITHIN THE HIGHLAND VALLEY COPPER OPERATING AREA, LOGAN LAKE, BRITISH COLUMBIA  Richard Howie  R.P. Bio  Aspen Park Consulting 4898 Spurraway Road Kamloops, British Columbia V2H 1M6  ABSTRACT  Highland Valley Copper operates a copper and molybdenum mining complex southwest of Kamloops, British Columbia in the southern interior of the province. This paper reports on a reconnaissance level survey to document the response by the bird community to the mining and reclamation initiatives.  A total of 2758 observations were made of birds using habitats within the operating area.  These observations comprised 13,547 individual birds representing 160 species.  To date, 44% of the regularly-occurring species in British Columbia have been found within the study area. 115 species were observed using habitats resulting from mining disturbance and reclamation while 45 species were found only in native habitats remaining undisturbed by mining. Utilization of 24 wetland complexes including tailings and seepage ponds as well as 4 pit lakes is discussed. Species use of reclamation grasslands established on rock dumps and tailings is documented.  INTRODUCTION  Highland Valley Copper commissioned a 3 year study between 2005 and 2007 to document avifaunal use of all lands within its operating area. This paper summarizes some results from 2005 (year 1) and focuses primarily on selected uses of reclamation habitats.  STUDY AREA  The study area is an irregularly shaped 15,831 ha. polygon defined by the “No Shooting” boundary surrounding the Highland Valley Copper operating area (hereafter HVCOA).  The area is located within the Interior Plateau and is bounded by the Thompson River, Nicola River and Guichon Creek watersheds. The entire operating area lies within two biogeoclimatic ecosystem classification (BEC) subzones  - the interior Douglas fir dry, cool subzone (IDFdk1) and the montane spruce very dry, cool subzone (MSxk). Elevations within the study area range from a low at the westerly end of circa 1100 metres a.s.l. to a maximum at the easterly end of circa 1600 metres.  Reclamation of waste rock dumps was initiated in 1983 and tailings reclamation began in 1987. To date, more than 2100 ha of disturbed land have been re- vegetated for more than one year in progress towards meeting end land use goals.  Reclamation of wetlands has also occurred in order to establish primary production and treat water in order to achieve standards acceptable to permit release in the future. HABITAT TYPES  Major habitats created as a result of mining activities include tailing ponds, seepage/reclaim ponds, impoundments, abandoned pits, and grass/forb grasslands on tailings or waste rock.  Impoundments differ from other ponds in that they were created by blocking natural drainages during road building or other activities. These areas filled with runoff water and have never received tailings water.  Vegetation on reclaimed areas consists entirely of mixtures of agronomic grasses (pubescent and crested wheatgrass, timothy, creeping red fescue, hard fescue, tall fescue, annual ryegrass, fall rye, smooth bromegrass, red top) and legumes (alsike and white clover, alfalfa, sain foin, birdsfoot trefoil) with islands of native shrubs planted to meet end land use objectives of the reclamation plan.  Native plants such as yarrow (Achillea millefolium) have invaded some lightly-vegetated areas of tailings where the agronomic seeding has not dominated.  Capping of the rock dumps with mixtures of soil and biosolids was undertaken in some areas prior to planting with vegetation.    photo 1.  Highmont tailings pond and grasslands         photo 2.  Lower Trojan seepage pond  Vegetation around the larger tailing ponds is dominated by agronomic plantings but recent initiatives to establish native willows (Salix sp.), black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera), trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) sedges (Carex sp), bulrush (Scirpus sp.), cattail (Typha latifolia) and a variety of native aquatics have met with success and the older plantings are establishing communities of sufficient size to be of value to birds.  Younger shrub and tree plantings have yet to reach a size to support bird communities but are heavily-browsed by native ungulates.  Many seepage ponds have been in place long enough that native shrubs and forbs have established along the margins due to natural succession.  METHODOLOGY  Data was collected during 43 observer days throughout the year. Techniques ranged from random observations, point counts within variable radius circular plots, linear driving transects with point counts at 0.8 km intervals, nest searches and repeated surveys of specific wetlands and pit lakes.  Detailed nesting data was obtained for mountain bluebirds and tree swallows that nested in boxes monitored by Highland Valley Copper staff. RESULTS  Avian Diversity  A total of 2758 observations of 13,547 individuals were made in the HVCOA in 2005.  Of the 160 species recorded, 115 species (72%) were observed using habitats resulting from mining activity while 45 species (28%) were restricted to forested habitats remaining undisturbed by mining.  Six species considered to be of conservation concern were recorded.  The federal Species at Risk Act has designated the peregrine falcon (anatum subspecies) as threatened, and the short-eared owl as a species of concern.  The prairie falcon is designated as threatened (red) by provincial agencies and the great blue heron, sandhill crane and red-necked phalarope have been provincially-designated as special concern (blue) species.  Although breeding by these species of concern was not documented within the HVCOA, 4 of the 6 species occurred as migrants while the blue heron and short-eared owl were summer visitors that may nest in the vicinity.  Variable Radius Circular Plot Surveys  There were 21 circular plots established on reclamation grassland sites consisting of both tailings and waste rock substrates.  The plots were surveyed on 24 occasions from 24 May – 14 June.  The mean number of species observed per circular plot ranged from 1 – 3.3 and the mean number of individuals ranged from 1.6 – 6.0.  A total of 14 species and 103 individuals were observed within the plots. Savannah sparrow was the most abundant species, being encountered on 23 of 24 surveys (96%) and comprised 61% of the individuals recorded.  Vesper sparrow was the next most abundant species that both nested and foraged within this habitat type. This species was recorded on 7 of 24 surveys (29%) and comprised 7% of the individuals.  Most of the remaining species were observed foraging over the grasslands or simply flying over but were unlikely to have nested there.  The exceptions were mountain bluebirds and tree swallows that used nest boxes erected within the grassland habitats.  Wetland Surveys  Surveys of 24 wetlands and 4 pit lakes resulted in 102 species being found in direct or close association with these ecosystems.  The species comprised 4 broad groups based upon their ecology in relation to the wetlands during the seasons when the birds are present.  Affiliation # of Species  aquatic obligates that make no use of upland environments 29 mostly aquatic but nest in upland areas 25 mostly aquatic but may forage in upland areas 4 mostly upland dwellers but may forage over or within wetlands 44    Breeding Bird Surveys  Of the 115 species which could potentially breed within the HVCOA, 100 (87%) were seen during the 2005 breeding season and confirmation of breeding was obtained for 38 (38%) of the species seen. Detailed nesting data was obtained for mountain bluebirds and tree swallows and is summarized in Tables 1 and 2.   Table 1 Mountain Bluebird Fledging Rates Highland Valley Copper Operating Area 2005   # eggs # hatched fledged    % eggs laid % hatched  first broods     139 117 68 80 second broods 12 9 66 88  The mean number of eggs laid per active nest for mountain bluebirds was 4.6 ( n obs. = 30). The mean number of eggs that hatched per active nest was 3.9 ( n obs. = 30). The mean number of birds that fledged per active nest was 3.1 ( n obs. = 30). 84% of the first brood eggs hatched and 80% of those produced fledglings.  Second Broods  The mean number of eggs laid per active nest was 4.0 ( n obs. = 3). The mean number of eggs that hatched per active nest was 3.0 ( n obs. = 3). The mean number of birds that fledged per active nest was 2.6 ( n obs. = 3). 75% of second brood eggs hatched and 66% of those produced fledglings    Table 2 Tree Swallow Fledging Rates Highland Valley Copper Operating Area 2005   # eggs # hatched fledged    % of eggs laid % of hatched  first broods  251 189 63 83 The mean number of eggs laid per active nest for tree swallows was 4.7 ( n obs. = 53). The mean number of eggs that hatched per active nest was 3.5 ( n obs. = 53). The mean number of birds that fledged per active nest was 2.9 ( n obs. = 53). Of the 53 nests that had eggs and were followed to a known fate, 36 (68%) fledged at least 1 young.  DISCUSSION  Avian Diversity  Of the 491 species of birds that have been recorded for British Columbia, 360 may reasonably be expected to occur annually in the province (Campbell et al, 1997.)  During 2005, 44% of these latter species were recorded within the HVCOA.  The number of species present varies by season, with the preceding numbers representing the cumulative annual totals.  No information is available regarding avian diversity within the study area prior to mining-related disturbances. The author’s personal knowledge of the surrounding area suggests that at least 110 species would have occurred.  Changes to the numbers and composition of the current avifauna are related to the removal of former habitats and the replacement with habitats related to reclamation and tailings disposal activities.  None of the species using the reclamation habitats or wetlands created as a result of tailing placements are considered to be year round residents of those habitats, although some of the habitats are used throughout the year.  Birds of these habitats are either spring or fall migrants, summer residents, or winter visitants. Those species considered to be permanent residents within the HVCOA occupy the residual native forest habitats, although it is likely that some resident raptors such as great horned or great gray owls will hunt the reclamation grasslands.  This is typical at these elevations where all wetlands are subject to seasonal freezing and treeless areas are few and subject to snow accumulations that limit use by birds.    photo 3.  Red-tailed Hawk – summer resident            photo 4.  Rough-legged Hawk – winter visitant  The original habitats removed by mining consisted of mixed assemblages of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menzeisii), lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and hybrid spruce (Picea glauca x engelmannii) forests. Trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) existed as a seral stage species.  All of these forest types still exist within the HVCOA but are much reduced in area.  They continue to support birds typical of those habitats.   The replacement habitats consist of wetlands and grasslands located on dry tailings or rock dumps.  Originally several lakes and associated alder/willow/sedge wetlands and drainages occurred in the lower elevations of Highland Valley.  These ecosystems have been replaced by a diversity of wetlands at elevations higher than the original complexes.  Eliminated wetlands were situated from 1100 – 1200 metres elevation a.s.l.  Replacement wetlands are now located from 1100 – 1480 metres with the majority between 1300 – 1480 metres elevation.  The conversion of forest to agronomic grasslands has resulted in a suite of species exploiting the habitats that were not likely to have been present originally or were in much reduced numbers.  These are species typical of grasslands or early seral stage openings in the forests caused by natural disturbance regimes or human alterations.  Examples include northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, horned larks, water pipits, snow buntings, savannah and vesper sparrows.  Some species such as long-billed curlew and western meadowlark typical of native grasslands at lower elevations may be limited by the higher elevation conditions and have not colonized the new habitats.  The creation of shallow, productive tailings and seepage ponds adjacent to both forests and grasslands has resulted in a diverse assemblage of birds that would not have been present in the original coniferous forests and is likely different in composition to assemblages adapted to the original wetland complexes.  Breeding Birds  Within the Southern Interior Ecoprovince, 213 species of birds have been recorded as breeding (Campbell et al, 1990-2001.)  There is the potential for at least 115 species (54%) of these to breed within the HVCOA.  Of the 38 species confirmed as breeding, 22 (57.9%) were strongly associated with wetland habitats occurring as a direct result of mining or reclamation activities, 13 (34.2 %) were associated with residual native habitats and 3 (7.9 %) were solely associated with reclamation grasslands.  Of those species associated with wetlands, at least 11 (50%) benefited from the reclamation grasslands as either nesting or foraging habitat.  Six species directly benefited from constructed habitats associated with mining or reclamation initiatives. Canada goose, osprey, tree swallow and mountain bluebird nested on structures/boxes built specifically to attract these species. Bald eagles have used a constructed platform in the past.  All barn swallows and cliff swallows nested on buildings constructed for mining and on decommissioned ore trucks parked for extended periods at one location.  The 357 cliff swallow nests attached to the mine operations building constitute one of the larger recorded colonies in the province.  Foraging cliff swallows occur over natural lakes, tailings ponds and grasslands up to 5 kilometres away from the 8 colonies located within the HVCOA.  In general, there is a lack of suitable nesting sites in the native forests such that during the life of the mine, operations buildings provide critical habitat.  Preliminary evidence suggests that for those species tracked, reproductive success was within expected parameters for this area and elevation in the province.  The mean clutch size for tree swallows in the interior of the province is 5 eggs (Campbell et al, 1997) so the HVCOA mean of 4.7 eggs is consistent. Cooler weather can result in reduced clutch sizes so the mean for the study area may always be slightly below the provincial average due to the 1435 – 1550+ metre elevations where most nest boxes were located.  The nest success rate of 68% producing at least 1 young is very close to the interior average of 71% (Campbell et al, 1997.)  The mean clutch size for mountain bluebirds nesting in the HVCOA was 4.6 eggs.  Normally, with later egg laying, clutch size is reduced.  Regular nest box monitoring did not start until 9 June in 2005. Campbell et al (1997) indicates that for nests initiated after 4 June in British Columbia, the mean clutch size was 4.9 eggs. Thus, the mean clutch size of 4.6 eggs for the HVCOA is consistent with this observation.  There were 11 nests found in the HVCOA from 10-25 May.  The mean clutch size for nests started during this period was 5.4 eggs ( n obs. = 7).  This compares favourably with a mean of 5.2 eggs for nests started prior to 28 May throughout British Columbia.  Barrow’s goldeneye broods were recorded as high as 1400 metres elevation on ponds within the HVCOA. This is higher than expected for nesting on natural lakes in the vicinity where aquatic productivity and lack of nesting cavities are thought to be limiting for this species at higher elevations (B. Harrison, pers. com.)  Nests were not found, leading to speculation that interstitial spaces within the exposed waste rock areas may provide alternatives to natural tree cavities.  Avian Use of Reclamation Grasslands  The 24 variable circular plot surveys recorded 14 species during the early part of the nesting season, but only 4 of those species are likely to use the grasslands for nesting.  Savannah sparrow, vesper sparrow and killdeer were confirmed nesting and northern harrier was suspected but not confirmed.  Savannah and vesper sparrows were the most abundant nesters with a skewed ratio of 9:1 in favor of savannah sparrows. Tree swallows and mountain bluebirds were seen foraging or flying over the grasslands and nest within these habitats because of boxes placed on fence posts.  The relatively low nesting diversity noted for the grasslands is likely augmented by nesting ducks even though nests were not recorded in the circular plots or random searches of the reclamation sites.  Duck broods seen on wetlands suggested that nesting occurred nearby in the adjacent grasslands.   photo 5.  Waste rock grasslands           photo 6.  Savannah Sparrow  Including all seasons, 38 species were recorded using these reclamation habitats and at least an additional 5-7 aquatic species likely nested there but were not observed.  Non-nesting use of the reclamation habitats is made by species that forage there but nest elsewhere in native habitats.  Red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, golden eagle and common raven are a few species in this category.  Spring and fall migrants as well as some wintering birds utilize the grasslands during those seasons but are not present during the breeding season.  Peak diversity is from late July through September when the summering populations are joined by fall migrants.  Higher elevations with the attendant cooler weather, lingering snow patches and inactive insect populations are the likely reasons that spring grassland migrants are somewhat less abundant.  Avian Use of Wetlands  Birds using the wetlands were grouped according to usage patterns.   Of the 102 species recorded using the wetland complexes, 56% are considered to be aquatic species and 44% are essentially upland species. Of the aquatic species, 50% make little or no use of the uplands while the remaining 50% may forage or nest within the adjacent upland habitats.  All of the recorded upland species made use of aquatic habitats, riparian areas or insects produced in the wetted areas.  It is clear that for 71% of all species found in association with the wetlands, there was a strong interplay between the upland and the aquatic habitats.  In descending order by size, wetlands within the HVCOA consist of tailings ponds, pit lakes, temporary storage lakes and impoundments, seepage ponds and natural wetlands.   photo 7.  Trojan pond             photo 8.  Pectoral Sandpiper  Three of the 4 tailings ponds no longer receive tailings water and are declining annually in depth and area due to seepage and evaporation.  They range in size from 3.5 – 24 ha and, as with the surrounding grasslands, are in various stages of reclamation.  Reclamation treatments along with natural succession have resulted in all of these ponds sustaining aquatic macrophytes and invertebrates which in turn support a diverse avifauna.  Trojan is the deepest pond under reclamation averaging 7-8 metres, and supports introduced rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) which attract birds not found on the shallower ponds.  A range of 28 - 44 species were found in association with the 3 ponds undergoing reclamation with the shallowest and largest of them supporting the largest number and diversity of birds.  Highland Pond is 1500 ha in size and actively receives tailings.  About 500 ha consist of open water with the remaining area being damp tailings mud.  No reclamation treatments have taken place and primary flora and fauna production has not been measured.  A total of 25 species of birds was observed using the wetted portion of this large water body.  The different tailings ponds were surveyed between 6 and 15 times each from 07 March to 10 November. Table 3 shows the range in the number of individual birds of all wetland species seen per visit and the range of bird densities.  The lowest densities were very early in the spring before ice-off and the highest densities were noted from late summer through early October.   Table 3 Densities of Birds on Tailings Ponds  Pond Size – ha Range in # of Birds Birds/ha  Beth 11 2.5 2 - 60 0.8 - 24 Trojan 15.6 3 - 62 .19 - 3.97 Highmont 24 11 - 455 .46 – 18.9 Highland 500 8 - 56 .016 - .11  Avian use of the tailings ponds varied depending upon the ecological conditions presented.  Trojan Pond tended to attract more piscivorous and diving ducks than herbivores and dabbling ducks.  Emergent vegetation is limited such that potential breeders were all upland nesting types.  Many species seemed to stay for relatively short periods, although some nested and remained throughout the summer.  Highmont is a shallow pond and attracted larger numbers of dabbling herbivorous species and shallow water invertebrate feeders.  Being warmer as well as sheltered and productive resulted in this pond being heavily used by molting ducks and fall migrants.  Of note was the use by 17 species of plovers and sandpipers that forage on invertebrates in the shallow margins during the fall migration period.  Normally, most of these species would be unable to land in this area due to a lack of habitat.  Presently, they stage for several consecutive days as they replenish fat reserves during their long journey.  The result is one of the larger aggregations of these species known to occur within the south-central portion of the province. Highland Pond is the most oligotrophic and tended to be used more for short-term loafing and resting by migrant species such as ducks, geese and gulls.  There was some foraging by sandpipers but there was no evidence of breeding by any wetland bird species.  Pit lakes are characterized as “steep and deep” with limited shoal areas conducive to primary production. Reclamation initiatives have resulted in the growth of aquatic invertebrate populations and some pits support rainbow trout.  Avian use was very low and limited to the piscivorous common loon and the occasional spotted sandpiper and barrow’s goldeneye seeking invertebrates.  During 11 visits to 4 pit lakes, 3 species and 6 individual birds were observed.              photo 9.  Barrow’s Goldeneye   photo 10.   Seepage pond near LL dam  The 11 seepage ponds range in size from 0.1 – 1.0 ha with most located within 50 metres of native coniferous forests.  Riparian areas of native shrubs have developed around many of the ponds and most are shallow, productive ecosystems.  Avian use varies from typical aquatic species such as ducks and geese through a range of upland dwelling passerines that forage in the riparian fringe or on insects over the ponds.  These small water bodies are perhaps the most integrated with the surrounding native habitats. They are less like the larger ponds which are located immediately adjacent to reclamation habitats.  The number of species observed at each pond ranged from 3-24 depending upon variables such as the area of the pond, depth of water, and the extent of the emergent vegetation and riparian areas.  For aquatic species only, the density of individuals varied from 1 – 80 birds/ha but such densities are easily achieved when only 8 birds land on a 0.1 ha pond.  With the mosaic of wetlands existing within short distances of each other, none appear to exist in isolation from one another.  Highly mobile species that range over larger areas such as ducks were frequently observed moving between tailings ponds, seepage ponds and impoundments which were all located within 1 km of each other.  No studies were undertaken to document patterns associated with these movements.  Some impoundment ponds were very productive and valuable habitats for birds but were not discussed here as they are not subject to reclamation initiatives at this time.  CONCLUSIONS  Mining activities and the subsequent reclamation initiatives have created a mosaic of grassland and wetland ecosystems that are well-utilized by birds.  Because the distinction between aquatic and upland ecosystems is clinal in nature, avian use of these habitats is complex.  It is clear that birds have responded very positively to the presence of the aquatic ecosystems and the reclamation activities which have successfully established a nucleus of primary invertebrate and aquatic macrophyte production.  Fewer species breed in the reclamation grasslands.  Use of these upland communities is expanded during the migration and winter periods when a greater number of species are available to exploit habitats that do not normally occur at the higher elevations at these latitudes.  Multi-level trophic interactions are apparent throughout suggesting that reclamation initiatives at Highland Valley Copper have made significant strides in establishing a self-sustaining ecosystem across the landscape.  Enhancing both the grassland and aquatic environments in a manner that benefits the maximum number of wildlife species is supporting the biodiversity objectives set out in the reclamation plan.  ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS  The author thanks Bob Hamaguchi and the other staff in the Reclamation Department at Highland Valley Copper for their support and encouragement.  Their genuine interest in seeing wildlife utilization of the property is evident.  Jamie Dickson of Highland Valley Copper diligently collected all of the nesting data for the mountain bluebirds and tree swallows nesting in boxes.  Chris Charlesworth provided skills and energy as a technician during the long days of field work.  LITERATURE CITED  Campbell, R.W., N.K. Dawe, I. McTaggert.-Cowan, J.M. Cooper, G.W. Kaiser, and M.C.E. McNall and G.E. John Smith. 1997. The birds of British Columbia. Vol. 3. Passerines: flycatchers through vireos. Environment Canada, Can. Wildl. Serv., and British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks.  UBC Press 693pp.  PERSONAL COMMUNICATIONS  Bruce Harrison, biologist.  Ducks Unlimited Canada, Kamloops, British Columbia.


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