No matter how you look at it, finding wild and rare Oregon spotted frogs alongside native nesting Virginia rails in the Old Mill District is something extraordinary. Ask Tom Crabtree, Central Oregon's premier birder: "In all my 32 years of birding in Oregon, this is the only time I ever had the opportunity to watch rails feeding and foraging right before my eyes."
By the same token, Jay Bowerman, who has been studying Oregon spotted frog projects and their betterment for years, was thrilled to have a frog habitat so close to his home in Bend, and to be able to help high school students conduct studies.
The pond in question is a left over lowland after the old Brooks-Scanlon saw mill land was morphed into the Old Mill District of today. A low spot was needed for run-off from various buildings and roads in the area and with that, the Casting Pond/Frog Pond/Yoga Pond/You-name-it-pond, came into being.
Probably, the first wild residents of the pond were the local ducks that we see all over Bend any time of day or year. As soon as vegetation started to grow, local arthropods, crustaceans and amphibians moved in, including our lovely little songsters of spring, the Pacific tree frog—the smallest and most commonly seen and LOUDEST frog in Oregon.
Then, perhaps, came the Oregon spotted frog. In 1993—because of the frogs dwindling populations—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the Oregon spotted frog became a candidate for Endangered Species listing in the future.
The Oregon spotted frog is an amphibian of the water—unlike its tiny cousin, the tree frog, who leaves the water as soon as it goes from tadpole to frog—and lives in water year-round. Consequently, through the loss of adequate wetlands, it has vanished from at least 78 percent of its former range. Finding it in on both sides of the Deschutes river in the Old Mill District was the best news Bowerman could ask for.
Then came the cattails that thrived on the fluctuating water table affected by the storm water off. The mud was there, the water was available, and the heat of summer made the habitat ideal for cattails and other pond life.
With the cattails came the secretive little Virginia rail; because they are so stealthy, their presence was completely unknown for a long time. They just kept coming and going year after year—no one the wiser—until recently, when during a bird-watching walk, members of the local East Cascades Audubon Society caught sight of one. Bingo! The word was out.
This year, much to the pleasure and surprise of birders, the little rails produced two clutches of young. The first brought forth six healthy little, long-legged black fluff-balls, and the second nesting totaled four babies.
Birders by the score silently snuck up on the little pond for a look at the rails and their babies. More than one watched as momma rail quietly sneaked out of the cattails, dashed over the a shallow pond nearby, snatched up a tree frog tadpole, then dashed back into the cattail cover where her nest was located, and drop the tadpole into her baby's gaping mouth.
Then, one day, without anyone suspecting it, the age-old battle over "Water-in-the-West" broke out. Bowerman noticed the water was getting too low in the pond for the welfare of the frogs and started adding water to the pond. Meanwhile, birder Courtney Jett, at the yoga studio next to pond, looked out and saw that someone had started adding water into the pond. "Oh, no," she thought, "the baby rails are going to drown!"
Crabtree received the frantic call, dropped eveything and headed for the pond. Sure enough, there was a 3-inch pipe gushing water into the little pond. He looked for the source, found the valve, and shut it off. If all the water wars could end as easily and friendly as that one did, Boot Hill wouldn't have so many bodies in it.
Crabtree discovered Bowerman was helping frogs, without knowing he might have been drowning rails. The two got together, settled on a level of between 12 to 15 inches of water and that was that. Well, not really. From the meeting came a new friendship and two minds running in the same direction: cattails were taking over the pond, and some "management" needed to happen.
With communication and encouragement from Crabtree, about a dozen members of the local birding community descended upon the casting pond for a cattail pull one evening. Bowerman put it this way, "With a total of 14 of us pulling for just over 90 minutes, we cleaned out a substantial portion of the seedling cattails, although there are still several dense areas and a number of edge sites still needing to be pulled."
Bowerman's field crew put in about four hours of pulling previously, putting the total effort so far at approximately 25 hours of pulling time, somewhere between 50 and 70% of the seedlings pulled. With that many people pulling about 20 to 30 cattails per minute for a total of four hours, well, you do the math and you'll see how many plants were pulled. Bowerman thinks they have to spend another 20 hours pulling to reach the optimum habitat conditions for both frogs and rails.
While all this was going on, the fly-fisherman were quietly using the pond for what they liked to do before the frogs and rails captured all the attention: conducting fly-casting contests, with awards set in concrete.
How has all this wildlife affected the Bend community? Well, for one, anyone can go to the Ticket Mill (between Anthony's and the Oregon Locker Room at the Mill District) and obtain a pair of loaner binoculars, with an excellent, illustrated bird list, and go birding at the Casting Pond.