Help us conserve valuable trees for nesting birds along the Pacific Migration Flyway in Southern California
The majestic trees in Covington Park are assets in many ways, from the shade they provide to park visitors, to the habitat they provide to countless birds—both year-round residents and birds that travel to this specific park over thousands of miles from the Arctic in fall and the tropics in spring. Following these birds are throngs of birdwatchers from all over the world; the visitor log for adjacent Big Morongo Canyon Preserve (always visited in conjunction with Covington Park by birdwatchers) includes countries from around the globe, every state across America, and cities scattered throughout the southwest. This area has been determined to be one of the United States’ Important Bird Areas by the American Bird Conservancy, the American Birding Association, and the national Watchable Wildlife Program.
Mature trees in Morongo Valley’s Covington Park — and the birds that live and nest in them —need our help!
Several months ago, when residents and visiting birdwatchers to Morongo Valley, California, noticed orange paint sprayed on the bases of many trees in Covington Park, they asked the stewards of the park, the Morongo Valley Community Services District (MVCSD) what their plans were for the trees. A volunteer had offered to mark and cut any trees, in exchange for the wood, that either looked unhealthy or might pose a public safety hazard. This free offer was enticing to the managing agency with dwindling tax revenues, but the markings and proposed tree removal created such controversy, the MVCSD requested a second opinion from a tree trimmer, and then a third opinion from a certified arborist. The SummerTree Institute’s Executive Director, who is a professional botanist, was asked to accompany the arborist during his survey of each tree, and SummerTree and the arborist agreed on the assessment and recommendation for each of the eighty+ trees, and concurred that many of the trees marked for removal could be saved with strategic pruning.
Even though the arborist, a dedicated resident of Morongo Valley, has offered to do the required work at his company’s cost, making no profit on this project, the fee for the work is still substantial. The cost for this expert treatment to remedy deferred maintenance issues of the park’s trees exceeds the MVCSD’s entire annual budget for park maintenance and programs. It is obvious that the MVCSD is currently unable to afford a skilled tree management program for the park.
In light of this budget shortfall and the value of the trees in jeopardy, The SummerTree Institute has offered to assist the MVCSD in securing grants for this work from groups that are extremely concerned about the health of the trees. Involved stakeholders include Audubon Society chapters from across the southland, which flock to Covington Park and adjacent Big Morongo Canyon Preserve year-round.
The SummerTree Institute has also offered to work with the arborist to identify trees with heart rot that could be sculpted into “wildlife snags”, being pruned for public safety, but retained to provide nest sites for years to come. As part of this partnership, SummerTree has offered to install educational signage on these trees to inform visitors about the merits of transforming the oldest trees that are dying into “wildlife snags” instead of removing the trees entirely.
Timing of this project is crucial to the success of the breeding bird populations that use the trees in the park, and SummerTree’s support is tied to proper project timing. The MVCSD has agreed to work with us within these considerations.
This tree conservation program will not only reduce risk of public hazards from tree limb breakage on mature trees, it will lengthen tree life with strategic pruning, and retain valuable nest sites for hawks and other birds, while at the same time creating an educational opportunity for all park users into the future, taking advantage of a true teachable moment at a site often considered only for recreation.
Audubon groups have already pledged funding to assist MVCSD and The SummerTree Institute in strategic tree pruning during the appropriate season (to reduce impacts to nesting birds), and to create and install educational signs on wildlife snags retained within Covington Park to explain their value.
Our combined efforts have already made a difference—to the trees, and to the birds. With pledges of support from birding groups and individuals across the southland backing us, our meetings with the Morongo Valley Community Services District have resulted in a revised plan of tree management throughout the park, including an agreement for a continuing wildlife conservation and education program.
The MVCSD has agreed to postpone until fall all tree trimming except that absolutely critical for immediate public safety. Six of the nearly 80 trees were determined by the arborist to need some degree of pruning to prevent imminent limb breakage, and these received minimal trimming very early in the 2013 nesting season after our discussions, before most birds had selected nest sites. The arborist is very sensitive to minimizing any impact to breeding birds from trimming. Pruning was limited to end-weight reduction of limbs to prevent premature loss of heavy branches, and removal of dead or dying limbs that posed a high risk of breaking and falling on park visitors.
No further pruning will be initiated until late fall, after any possibility of impacts to fledgling birds is past. At that time, the oldest trees with heartwood rot and dying branches will be pruned into wildlife snags, preserving the main trunk and the bases of limbs for generations of cavity-nesting birds, as well as for bats, lizards, small mammals and insects. Also at that time, trees will be pruned that need specific trimming to restore overall balance, lengthening the life of the branches, and potentially lengthening the entire tree’s life. End-weight reduction of very heavy limbs and “lacing” of extremely dense branching to reduce wind damage in wind storms will also be accomplished.
We encourage you to visit Covington Park on your next bird-watching outing to adjacent Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, and look for the numerous nesting birds in the park, including:
- Vermillion Flycatcher
- Cassin’s Kingbird
- Lawrence’s Goldfinch
- Lesser Goldfinch
- Red-tailed Hawk
- Western Bluebird
- Bullock’s Oriole
- Hooded Oriole
- American Kestrel
- Brown-crested Flycatcher
- California Towhee
- California Thrasher
Some of these birds are nesting in trees that initially had been marked for total removal due to old age and heartwood rot. Now, due to the support of Audubon groups, concerned birdwatchers, and local residents, along with SummerTree’s advocacy for retention of wildlife snags, those trees will be pruned for public safety, sculpted into wildlife snags, and retained to provide nest sites for years to come. Every tree in the park and adjacent ball field (which also has great birding) has been tagged with a permanent identification number by the arborist, and the results of his evaluation and recommendations for all trees are being documented in a case file. Each tree’s case file will be updated as work is accomplished, and as new assessments of each tree are completed. When pruning is completed this fall, SummerTree will install the educational signs on the wildlife snags that explain to park visitors the value of retaining dead and dying trees in both natural and landscaped settings, and why these specific trees were retained to provide richness to the park’s resources, diversity, and enjoyment. The SummerTree Institute will remain active as the participating conservation partner with the MVCSD. Our goal is to establish an ongoing relationship with the MVCSD that results in a long-term maintenance program of Covington Park’s trees that addresses wildlife values as well as public safety.